These are the behind the scenes stories of Be More Pirate Or How To Take On The World and Win (out on Penguin last week) The Why? The real reason for doing it and the other side of the excitement of being a ‘best seller at launch’ and all the coverage from Branson to the Bookseller. As Tom Goodwin (astute in his observations as ever pointed out) “this book should contain a warning… Be More Pirate is the beginning of a movement” and these are the stories of what might just be those beginnings.
As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a pirate. It’s been the underlying ethos of the last twenty years of my working life, founding and running first Don’t Panic and then Livity. And if you think there’s something a little bit frivolous about wanting to be a pirate, a little bit self-indulgent or even downright nasty, I’m here to say to you: we should all be pirates. And you, yes you in particular, most definitely should.
Because there was nothing silly about the original pirates. They weren’t just a bunch of homicidal anarchists, either. They were, in fact, a responsive and agile network of effective social revolutionaries and rebels with a cause, where the cause was fair pay, a fair say, equality and justice for all. And of course, stealing some of that fine Spanish gold. And Rum. Obviously.
Sceptical? Good, but let me introduce you to the history they weren’t allowed to teach you about pirates. Let’s start with the fact that the Millennials of eighteenth-century they were facing many of the same problems we are. They were living in a society run badly by a self-serving Establishment. Mass redundancy and ideological conflict meant disruption was the constant backdrop to their lives. For most people life was unfair and unfulfilling. And the worst of it was, their so-called leaders were utterly uninterested in sorting things out. Uninterested or incapable or both.
So they took things into their own hands. They decided to break the rules and then remake them. Instead of languishing in the official Navy, being paid badly or not at all, being exploited or abused by tyrannical captains, they turned pirate, a sort of self-employed perspective on the same plundering they’d done under a royal flag, but only for themselves.
And because they were, like sisters, doing it for themselves, they paid themselves fairly and equally. They adopted universal suffrage on board, and so that the captain would be kept on his accountable toes, they made sure he could be voted out if necessary. There were even votes for the women and the people of colour — yup, there were some women pirates, and in the later stages of the Golden Age of Pirates a tendency to release and welcome slaves.
They introduced workplace compensation for injury (the birthplace of health and safety) non-hierarchical organisational structures (300 years before Holacracy), and even a form of proto-same-sex partnership (with an inheritance clause).
Basically, they ended up creating enough disruption at the edges of society to leave a legacy that fed into the subsequent fight for universal human rights and shaped the better bits of the world we inherited. Rather than rogues, we should consider the role models. They were working-class heroes, who’s impact should be viewed by history more on a spectrum from the Levellers to the Suffragettes, even if neither of those two makes as good fancy dress themes for a 5-year-old birthday party.
Have I convinced you that true and troublesome history of pirates deserves a closer look? There’s a lot more, but that’s for the book (if you do want it you can get it here) I want to get behind the reasons why I wrote it now. You see, given the sorry state of our world and the pitiful lack of energy our so-called leaders are devoting to resolving its crises, I’m serious when I say we should all be pirates. There’s a whole lot of mess and injustice out there, and many of us are getting sick of feeling powerless and anxious about it. Take your pick from a range of threats: rising living costs and falling incomes; an ageing population that stubbornly refuses to let go of power; ever-worsening inequality of wealth and opportunity; the coming of the robots; climate change, potential food wars and mass migrations…
Let’s be really real for a minute, The sooner we get our heads around the fact that nobody is coming to save us the better. And instead, and we could and should save ourselves. We don’t have to settle for anything less than what we want: fairness, justice, clean energy, an end to rampant capitalism, or suicidal consumerism, a reduction in the gross inequality of wealth and opportunity. We’re often told that the Uber-isation of everything is the only change possible but it’s time to admit that for all the unicorns galloping out of Silicon Valley, there’s a whole lot of horse shit behind the scenes.
When I decided to write my book about how the pirates might offer a different source of inspiration and strategy for aspiring change-makers I was still running Livity. That job took me from the centre of Athens to the streets of Baltimore to the townships of Cape Town and allowed me to test my ideas and massively improve them thanks to the feedback of hundreds of young people from all over the world.
To my surprise and my delight, my excitement about the idea of Being More Pirate seemed to translate pretty much everywhere I went, but it was still more metaphor than anything. Now, two years down the line and this week my book has been published, it’s not just a metaphor anymore. It’s a manifesto. The reaction I’m getting has shown me that people are hungry for the opportunity to get more involved, do things differently, step up. Many of them are already doing it. Whether it’s calling time on discrimination in their office, building the playground their community needs themselves, starting a business or staging a protest, people are out there making the change they want to see. And everywhere I go, pirate inspiration is firing up dreams and pirate strategy is helping people embed progressive change.
The core of the book is a programme for channelling your inner pirate and creating change based on their strategies. The first and decisive step is to rebel against the status quo. Your rebellion doesn’t have to be a huge life-changing gesture (though if it is, fantastic). It can be as simple as identifying a rule that you know in your heart is pointless, unfair or unnecessary and then breaking it, ignoring it or laughing at it. But rebellion, big or small, is intoxicating and joyous. I know, because people keep telling me so.
I’ve lost count of the number of messages I’ve had from people telling me they’ve resigned from the job that made them miserable, paid them badly or required them to work with unethical clients. I’ve had other messages from people who said they’d decided not to leave but to fight to change things where they were. One woman told me she’d been passed over for promotion repeatedly but she’d now decided to be more pirate and fight for what she felt she deserved. She pitched for the role she wanted to senior management and got it. One man contacted me to say that having read the book he’d decided to take his child out of mainstream education. Her complex needs didn’t fit a recognised condition and. he was tired of fighting for his child’s happiness to be taken seriously only to be knocked back repeatedly and had decided to take back the power and instead of fight the school, fight for their right to home educate her in a happy and supportive environment. They will have a huge fight on their hands but they’re no longer stuck feeling powerless to do anything about their daughter’s situation. Like all the other examples the rebellion was within, waiting to happen, we so often know deep down what must be done, and if as it seems to Be More Pirate is helping light that fire, then I’m humbled and happy (and totally dumbfounded) that it’s doing what I set out to do.
The final pirate principle, after you’ve first broken then rewritten the rules, reorganised yourselves and redistributed the power, is to retell your story so powerfully that your act of rebellion transforms into massive far-reaching change. My pirate heart is full to bursting at the news I got from a young woman I met who’d read the preview and based part of her campaign to release her friend from illegal detention on pirate principles. The Home Office has twice tried to deport Opelo to a country she doesn’t know. Natalie is using pirate principles to form a crew that will help get the story out to people in a position to do something. Their campaign has got dozens of MPs on board and has twice forced the Home Office to back off from its decision to put Opelo on a plane. Natalie said, ‘It’s a big fight and it’s scary but I’m starting to believe that we could win this one. I’m more of a pirate than I ever thought, it turns out!’
‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has.’ For seventy years small groups of thoughtful citizens and more lately various inspo Instagram accounts have been quoting Margaret Mead’s words at one another in the hopes they will come true. You and I know it’s hard to hold on to the reality of these powerful words when so much of what we see around us seems designed to crush their sentiment. But the reason we keep quoting that line is that deep down we know it’s true.
This book has touched a nerve because I think we all know the biggest mistake we could make is assuming that the way things have always been is the way they still have to be. Every day I hear from people who reject that idea. They are tired of feeling powerless and anxious about the glaring injustice, ludicrous inertia or craven stupidity they see around them. They’re taking power into their own hands and turning pirate. They’re building a more progressive alternative to the world we’ve got stuck with.
I’m not suggesting that being more pirate will lead seamlessly to writing the global policy that saves the world. All I’m saying is that we could and should work out what ‘good trouble’ we can cause at the edges as small groups of pirates; what ideas we can share that will create waves to cause an effect on the middle. The original pirates coincided with the first stirrings of revolutionary fervour in the Americas. Their Pirate Republic didn’t last long but it was noticed by everyone from slaves in Haiti to the founding fathers of the United States. Their tall tales, many of them featuring the adventures of the ‘lady’ pirates, were popularised just as the first wave of feminists were making claims for the rights of women. Many years later the ideas contained in the pirate code influenced the founding of the co-operative movement. The pirates didn’t start any of these movements in any simplistic sense but pirate principles demonstrate compound imagination in action. Just one small well-judged act, one timely idea or gesture can ripple in influence and expand in magnitude.
The greatest lie we can fall for is the lie that what we do doesn’t make a difference. Enormous world-changing progress doesn’t happen in one perfect leap but in thousands of tiny stages. It’s the communal product of many people’s efforts. So don’t get hung up if you feel your own contribution is tiny compared to the need. It only matters that you make it, do it or say it. Only then will you get to see how far your change can ripple outwards. When we commit to being more pirate we embark on a journey to a destination unknown. It’s time to join the rebellion.
The fabulous Harry one of my core crew of pirates is building a page for the Be More Pirate site where we can capture the Rebellion Rate, or the Return on Rebellion of Be More Pirate, somewhere to share all the ideas for mutiny, professional rule breaking and Good Trouble that are coming in to try and inspire even more…