The one ingredient almost all self-improvement courses miss: an unconditional basic income

Image from UBI Movement

I can’t imagine describing myself as being “in the self-improvement business.” On the other hand the central practical thing I actually do is help people to explore and articulate their voices, their dreams, and their talents. And I do that within a framework that is basically about wanting to make the future better.

It was only while watching yet another TED talk while reading Anders Ericsson & Robert Pool’s book “Peak” that it hit me, not unlike the famous Mitchell and Webb “are we the baddies?” sketch, that actually, to anyone looking from the outside, I do self-improvement.

And once I’d had a thorough wash I sat down and tried to think why I reacted so violently against that label. Coincidentally I was also doing a lot of thinking about what I was going to write for Basic Income Day.

And then it hit me. These two things — self-improvement and basic income — were inextricably connected. Not only that, the connection was one I had already made when I was thinking about the meaning of inclusion. I just hadn’t realised it. The connection is a simple one:

The one thing every self-improvement book, talk, tool or technique has in common — but which next to none of them acknowledges — is that its success is utterly reliant on people having time to devote to it. And not just hours, minutes, and second but quality time, the few fresh hours of the day when the brain is capable of deep learning. And yet that time is the one thing so many of us lack. But by placing so much emphasis on the fact that we hold our own future in our own hands, and so little emphasis on the fact that so few of us have the time to make that happen, the self-improvement industry, far from relieving our life of its stresses, fuels our lives with anxiety and guilt.

And this is where the connection to a universal basic income comes in. Because what UBI can do is buy people those precious hours.

So I am left with this. Anyone who is seriously in the business of self-improvement where the business they’re in is improving other people’s selves rather than swelling their own balances of money and time, must begin by being serious about giving people time. Not “giving them ways to find time” because “cart and horses” but actually giving them time. And the simplest way to do that is to provide a universal basic income.

Anyone who claims to be in the business of self-improvement who is not also advocating UBI, I really want to ask why — because either they have a very limited set of selves they want to improve (specifically the ones who already have life pretty good), or they really don’t understand the first thing about self-improvement, or possibly most heinous of all — for all their optimistic bluster they themselves don’t actually believe they can make it happen so they have committed the ultimate act of hypocrisy and lowered their sights.

Two of the books I gave been reading this week pose very simple questionsI read Peter Thiel’s Zero to One largely because I wanted to test my belief that you can learn even from people with whom you profoundly disagree. And I did. Thiel starts by asking “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” It’s something I have never really thought about in quite that way, and doing so has been incredibly useful.

The first half of this post is my answer — the foundation that underpins everything else in enabling people to make their lives better is giving them time. And in so many cases the best way to do that is to give them sufficient money to take care of their basic needs. Where my path radically diverges from Thiel’s is that he would say that my “secret” is something I should monetise, the thing I should use to build Rogue Interrobang to the position of a monopoly in the self-help world. My instinct, being rooted in a very different kind of Silicon Valley culture, that of open access and creative commons, of Tim Berners-Lee, Lawrence Lessig, and Aaron Swartz, is to say that if you have the huge slice of luck to stumble upon something with any level of profundity that few people know it is a moral imperative to share it.

The second question brings me back to my own involvement in what you might call “self-improvement”. In Start With Why, the book that grew from his TED talk How Great Leaders Inspire Action, Sinek asks us to define the “why” of what we do, and only then move on to “how” we do it and ultimately “what we do.”

It’s a helpful question, and it has helped me get some much needed clarity. My why, the why of Rogue Interrobang and of my own personal campaigning and activism, is very simple.

“We need to build a better future.”

And all five key words there are carefully chosen.

We need to build a better future because in this century we face challenges that we cannot run from.

· The AI singularity

· Climate change

· Food scarcity

· Transhumanism

These things will happen. We can do nothing. Or we can start to do something. And quite possibly only one of those options will get us to the 22nd century alive.

We need to build a better future, because if we do nothing, we aren’t getting out of here.

We need to build a better future, because if we keep raking over the arguments of the past, we are never going to even start a conversation not only about what could hit us down the line but about the beautiful possibilities that could await us if we navigate ourselves through those challenges.

We need to build a better future, because it won’t build itself. The ostrich approach is not an option. We can go remarkable places, and we can do remarkable things, but we need to find out what they are, and what they need us to do, and then we need to train ourselves to do them and then we need to put all of that together and do it.

But all of that comes back to “We”. And it is where we come back to an unconditional basic income.

The future is coming whatever we do, and it is bringing monumental challenges. And humanity will respond to those challenges or not, and what happens will depend upon that response. But we need to ask who is forming that response. Because it affects all of us, but right now next to none of us gets to have a say. Next to none of us even gets to think about a future that is 10, 50, 100 years away. Because we have far more pressing needs. Anyone who needs to think about where the next meal is coming from or whether the axe is going to fall on the job that keeps a roof over their head or whether their kid can afford to go to college or who will pay for care when they are old does not have the spare time let alone the spare mental capacity to think about how we ensure that artificial intelligence works with us and not against us 30 years from now.

And yet we need everyone to think about exactly that. Because frankly the answers we are coming up with — or not coming up with — right now are thin on the ground, off the cuff, floundering, and moving in unison in the direction of benefitting the 1 percent. For a few decades until they are hoist by their own hubris.

We need everyone to be involved in asking: what are the questions we have to tackle? And we need everyone to be involved in implementing the answers.

And the way we can do that is through an unconditional basic income. “What would you do if income was taken care of?” asks one of the movement’s most famous slogans. The answer is that actually most of us would shake our muscles loose, enjoying the lightness of the lifted load, and start to face the future.

My “how” and the “what”s that come from it are equally straightforward. I communicate that simple message, and I give people ways to respond — by training people to unlock their creativity, by thinking about what it is we need to be thinking about and helping others to do the same, by giving people the communication skills (be that how to structure an argument, how to deliver a speech, or how to present polished prose) so that once they are thinking they can contribute their thoughts.

But everything comes from the why:

We need to build a better future.

And to do that we need to give people time. And for that we need to give people an unconditional basic income.

Contribute to Basic Income Day using the #basicincome hashtag, and through the Thunderclap.

Dan Holloway is a journalist, writer, mind sports athlete, and speaker who is the reigning Creative Thinking World Champion. He runs Rogue Interrobang, a creative project committed to helping individuals and organizations to unlock their creativity, and to giving people the skills and the freedom to face the 21st century’s greatest challenges.