I like large, long-term projects. The biggest one I'm working on is a series of six short books about the views of various philosophers on happiness and human flourishing. I jokingly call it the RENTAL project, after the names of the thinkers in question:
Not long ago, I was chatting with my friend Joshua Zader about this project and I came to a realization: what I'm doing here is exporing six thinkers who have tried, in various ways, to estabish a secular approach to the good life.
Really it all started when I had a crisis of faith at the age of nine and decided that I didn't believe in god. And yet I always wanted to be a good person and to live a life of joy and meaning. Thus I was ripe for my early infatuation with the ideas of Ayn Rand, but also for my later encounters with other secular philosophers (starting with Aristotle in my college years). It frustrates me deeply when I hear some people claim that you can't be a good person if you're not religious - I know in my heart that it's wrong to believe such a thing, and in a way I'm out to prove it both through these books and in my own life.
As if it's not difficult enough to write six short books (distilling a large set of ideas into 60 pages takes many years of absorption and synthesis), I've furthermore decided to write each book in a different philosophical genre: an almost oracular statement in The Tao of Roark, a dialogue in Letters on Happiness, a cycle of poems in Songs of Zarathustra, a biographical or autobiographical journal in Walking with Thoreau, perhaps a condensed treatise or commentary for the book about Aristotle, and maybe a series of aphorisms for the book about Lao Tzu and Taoism.
Although I've finished the first two movements of this six-part "suite", and I'm well along in research on the third, it will take me many more years to complete them all. But that's one of the great things about a big project: it's almost like a constant companion in the arc of my life, coloring everything I think and do, giving shape and form to my inner and outer life.
One of the reasons I'm so excited about joining &yet is that Adam Brault is a fellow admirer of Dee Hock. Although Mr. Hock is best known as the founder of VISA, it's his fertile ideas about business that I find most compelling. Here is a brief summary of my understanding, but I encourage you to closely read his book One From Many if you're intrigued by what follows.
Mr. Hock coined the word "chaord" - a mixture of chaos and order. VISA itself has a chaordic structure at the macro level, since it is not one organization but a loose network of banks, merchants, cardholders, and other entities that freely interact in well-defined ways (not dissimilar from the Internet). Even more interesting to me is chaordic structure at the micro level, within the firm. Here, I think, is the true key to Mr. Hock's deep insights into human interaction.
The work of an enterprise consists of many projects that can be broken down into multiple tasks. The question is: who will complete those tasks, and how? According to Mr. Hock, if everyone in the enterprise (or, keeping Dunbar numbers in mind, a smaller group within the enterprise) has a clear view of the tasks to be completed, various individuals can join together in ad-hoc ways to complete those tasks. Thus work becomes the spontaneous order of relatively equal, independent individuals who have shared purposes and principles, not the planned march of subordinates by a hierarchy of superiors according to rigid rules and regulations. In contrast to the "organization man" of the 1950s, Mr. Hock sees the emergence of the "self-organization man" (and woman, of course!).
Within a healthy, non-hierarchical enterprise, management comes to mean something utterly different from supervising subordinates. For Mr. Hock, the priorities of management are best listed in the following order:
(The standard objection is that this leaves very little time for supervising subordinates. That's a feature, not a bug!)
What's missing in these relationships is control, oversight, steering, handling, manipulation, and other forms of moving people around by force of hand. When we remove those things, what seeps back in are communication, coordination, creativity, ingenuity, shared problem solving, common sense, mutual benefit, spontaneity, responsibility, trust, and respect. In other words, humanity.
In preparation for my new gig, I've been actively tuning out extraneous information sources: email discussion lists, Twitter users, blogs, news websites, financial commentators, political pundits -- you name it, I've started to ignore it. Most of it is distracting chatter. More to the point, very little of it helps me improve as a technologist, as a teammate, as a person. Better, I think, to spend my time diving more deeply into real code and APIs; to absorb big ideas through books, specs, and papers; to interact directly with people who are important to me and to the goals we're achieving together; to devote longer blocks of time to actual work.
At the least, these are habits I'm working to learn. Self-management is a never-ending pursuit...
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