Why Twitter’s Dying (And What You Can Learn From It)

It’s early summer, and I’m in Dupont Circle. Something’s off. People, I notice, seem to be suddenly tweeting much less lately. But I’ve got a book to finish, so I file the observation away to carefully inspect later.

It’s late summer, and I’m standing in Madison Square, frowning. Something’s wrong. Twitter feels like a deserted bar…people seem to be leaving early, too hastily, unsatisfied, rolling their eyes. Maybe, I say to myself, everyone’s just on vacation.

It’s early fall, and I’m at my favorite cafe in London. What the? Twitter’s a cemetery. Populated by ghosts. I call them the “ists”. Journalists retweeting journalists…activists retweeting activists…economists retweeting economists…once in a while a great war breaks out between this group of “ists” and that…but the thing is: no one’s listening…because everyone else seems to have left in a hurry.

What happened to Twitter? It’s a mystery, right?

Wrong.

To understand what really happened, let’s examine what didn’t. Competition. From the new startup du jour. They are marginal contributors at best to Twitter’s sudden decline for the simple reason that people do not use them enough to attribute said decline solely to them — and the larger reason that they are not substitutes for, but complements to, micro-messages.

Twitter’s troubles are due to something deeper yet simpler, so commonplace it has become invisible. It is, in a very real sense, a victim of its own blindness.

Here’s my tiny theory, in a word. Abuse. And further, I’m going to suggest in this short essay that abuse — not making money — is the great problem tech and media have. The problem of abuse is the greatest challenge the web faces today. It is greater than censorship, regulation, or (ugh) monetization. It is a problem of staggering magnitude and epic scale, and worse still, it is expensive: it is a problem that can’t be fixed with the cheap, simple fixes beloved by tech: patching up code, pushing out updates.

To explain, let me be clear what I mean by abuse. I don’t just mean the obvious: violent threats. I also mean the endless bickering, the predictable snark, the general atmosphere of little violences that permeate the social web…and the fact that the average person can’t do anything about it.

We once glorified Twitter as a great global town square, a shining agora where everyone could come together to converse. But I’ve never been to a town square where people can shove, push, taunt, bully, shout, harass, threaten, stalk, creep, and mob you…for eavesdropping on a conversation that they weren’t a part of…to alleviate their own existential rage…at their shattered dreams…and you can’t even call a cop. What does that particular social phenomenon sound like to you? Twitter could have been a town square. But now it’s more like a drunken, heaving mosh pit. And while there are people who love to dive into mosh pits, they’re probably not the audience you want to try to build a billion dollar publicly listed company that changes the world upon.

The social web became a nasty, brutish place. And that’s because the companies that make it up simply do not not just take abuse seriously…they don’t really consider it at all. Can you remember the last time you heard the CEO of a major tech company talking about…abuse…not ads? Why not? Here’s the harsh truth: they see it as peripheral to their “business models”, a minor nuisance, certainly nothing worth investing in, for theirs is the great endeavor of…selling more ads.

They’re wrong. Nothing could be further from the truth. Abuse is killing the social web, and hence it isn’t peripheral to internet business models — it’s central. It has significant chilling effects: given a tipping point, people will simply stop using a network, and walk away…and that appears to be what’s happening with Twitter. Abuse is just as central to tech that connects people as selling beef that isn’t contaminated with salmonella is to an industry that feeds people. For the simple fact is that no one wants to spend their life being shouted at by people they’ll never meet who are angry not at them but at the world for things they barely even said to people they barely even know. I think it’s so vital, I’ll say it again, more simply: build a platform rife with abuse, and then turn a blind eye to it, treat it as a non-issue, and you’re already on tomorrow’s list of has-beens…you just don’t know it yet.

What really happens on Twitter these days? People have self-sorted into cliques, little in-groups, tribes. The purpose of tribes is to defend their beliefs, their ways, their customs, their culture — their ways of seeing the world. The digital world is separated into “ists” — it doesn’t matter what, really, economists, mens-rightists, leftists, rightists — and those “ists” place their “ism” before and above all, because it is their organizing belief, the very faith that has brought them together in the first place. Hence, to them, it’s the totem to which everyone, including you, must pay homage, and if you dare not to bow down before it…or worse still to challenge it…well, then the faithful will do what they must to defend their gods. They will declare a crusade against you.

So, step one: you say something, usually idly, that some kind of “ists” don’t like, because it challenges their organizing beliefs. Step two: they notice. Step three: it’s on. Full on guerilla info-war. Rage-mobbing, shaming, if you’re a woman, probably violent threats and more. But note. In all these endless squabbles, this perpetual outrage, this non-stop-cabaret of electronic violence…we are not fighting over anything that means anything much in the first place. Is it any wonder, then, that people are checking out of this childish game?

The engineers and MBAs and engineer-MBAs that are technoculture’s cardinals and archbishops won’t like — or probably even consider — my explanation. They will fight it tooth and nail, for the simple reason that it challenges their fundamental beliefs about the world. After all, they have organized their companies the way that they have been taught to organize their worlds. “Product” departments, “engineering” divisions, heads of “monetization”, etc.

Exactly. Nowhere in this picture do we see the issue of what their products and services truly are in the first place. Organizations such as the above are devoted to the industrial age goals of ever increasing productivity and efficiency, selling at the highest price and manufacturing at the lowest cost. But just as a meatpacking company that sold tainted beef, over and over again, that made people ill, would eventually see a decline in sales, so too a social web which is infected with the abuse will inevitably see a decline in usage. I can put that in economist-ese if you like: network effects power social technologies, but abuse is a kind of anti-network effect, not a positive one, but a negative one: I don’t benefit from you being on the network, I suffer.

Here’s the real organizational tell, the giveaway, the reveal: Q&A in technology is considered an issue of code — not conduct. Technology as a culture is so out of touch with reality doesn’t even understand what business it’s really in: not the code business (what is this, the 1980s?), but the enterprise of social interaction. That is not merely a matter of bits and bytes — but of norms and values. Hence, technology no longer understands the notion of quality in any meaningful way at all. “Quality” isn’t merely error-free code — but abuse-free interaction.

You can create the most perfect code in technological existence — but if all it’s used for is to relentlessly demean, bully, assault, torment, pick on, trample, bicker with, shout at people, well, it’s a pretty good sign that people aren’t using it for much of value. And that is a central point. When a technology is used to shrink people’s possibilities, more than to expand them, it cannot create value for them. And so people will simply tune it out, ignore it, walk away from it if they can. For the simple fact is that technologies which devalue us do not create value for us. When the social interactions that it creates are little violences, then we can say that quality has fallen below the level that people will find much benefit in it. Such interactions become toxic.

But the issue of abuse is more subtle — more invisible — and more than all the above.

Abuse does not arise in a vacuum. A healthy mind does not (need to) abuse. Abuse is created of trauma, and it is the traumatized mind which abuses. Whether to externalize, bury, escape its anger and frustration — the abused mind must purge it’s hurt in some manner, or risk being broken, split apart by it entirely.

But the troubling fact is this.

We have created an abusive society. We have normalized, regularized, and routinized abuse. We are abused at work, by the very rules, norms, and expectations of our jobs, at which we are merely “human resources”, to be utilized, allocated, depleted. We are abused at play, by industries that seek to prey on our innocence and literally “target” our human weaknessses. And now we are abused at arm’s length, through the lightwaves, by people we will never meet, for things we have barely even said. We live in a society where school shootings are the rule, not the exception, where more people will have taken antidepressants than not…and now one where nearly everyone will have been abused on the web…for a random, off-hand, throwaway comment, an idle thought, something trivial, unremarkable, meaningless.

This is an age of stagnation. Of broken dreams and thwarted expectations. What is stagnating is not just “the economy” — but us. Our possibilities and potential, the lives that we should be living. That is what is creating a great cycle of violence. Stagnation is abuse. And we are its victims. We have been cheated not just of our savings, retirements, jobs, social contracts — but of what all those free us to be: ourselves. But we are also, in our anger and despair, its enforcers. Endlessly, at least on the social web, picking on, bullying, squabbling with, decrying, outraged at, one another…for nothing that means anything at all. The abused become the abusers.

That is the great megatrend which the social web is part of: the abusive society, a great stagnation cresting into a wave of anger. Do you think I overstate my case? Then step back for a moment and consider the rise of right-wing extremist parties across the globe. It is fuelled by the resentment and frustration of stagnation. And that anger and frustration, whether it is perpetual outrage, or the passive aggression of bitter irony, is perhaps today’s defining culture feature. We abuse one another, having been abused ourselves.

And it is a very great problem indeed. Yet, it points to a necessary role that social technologies must play if they are to regain their relevance. The most successful social platforms will be those that reverse the cycle of abuse that is a product of stagnation. And help heal people’s emotional wounds in this age of broken dreams. Those wounds are deep. It was not a fall from grace that caused them. Nor was it a knife. It was a scalpel, sharper than sin, with a razor’s edge. And so the wounds will continue to bleed until they are healed. Not with bandages, nor with salves. But with grace, mercy, love, and meaning.

So here is my epitaph for Twitter. No, it isn’t really “dead”, yet. But I suppose in a way that a part of it is. Perhaps its promise. Let me put my story to you like this.

We dreamed that we created a revolution. But we did not heed the great lesson of revolution. Today’s revolutionary is tomorrow’s little tyrant. The French Revolution started as a glorious paean to people power. And it climaxed in a tidal wave of terror and bloodshed. So, too, goes every revolution too arrogant to history — including the digital revolution. Cross the line, and the inquisitors will come your way. Better then, to stay silent, than to dare the fury of the revolution itself.

We dreamed, then, like all eager revolutionaries, that we would create a new order — one where people would be freer, truer, better. We dared to upend the grey order of the power-hungry telling the powerless what to think. But we just created a new order of power-hungry fighting to command people what not to. Like all eager revolutionaries, we didn’t fully understand what revolution is. An unleashing of animal energies that unravels the very freedom it seeks to create, should it not place possibility above power.

Can we create a better web? Sure. But I think we have to start with humility, gratitude, reality — not arrogance, privilege, blindness. Abuse isn’t a nuisance, a triviality, a minor annoyance that “those people” have to put up with for the great privilege of having our world-changing stuff in their grubby hands. It will chill, stop, and kill networks from growing, communities from blossoming, and lives from flourishing. If your purpose is social interaction, abuse is as central to it as bacterial infection is to selling meat. Get it wrong, and you might just end up like Twitter in 2015. Not a beautiful town square, but a raging mosh pit. Good luck selling tickets to that.

Umair
London
October 2015

Next Story — The Hug Machine
Currently Reading - The Hug Machine

The Hug Machine

Or, How the Attention Economy is Turning Into a Relatibility Economy

Want to make something successful on the net today? Here’s the secret ingredient: make it relatable.

Go ahead and take a look at the top stuff here at Medium (or anywhere else). It’s usually mostly “How I Learned to X”, “What I Did When Y”, “How I Survived Z”, and so on. Me me me, mirrored in you you you. Long, heartfelt personal essays, secret intimate reflections, little memoirs, and so on. The hottest stuff on the net today is relatable.

We used to have an attention economy. Now we have a relatability economy. The stuff the most people can relate to, see themselves in, invariably rockets up the charts, earning the plaudits of fans and critics alike.

Relatability simply means stuff people can relate to. That reflects peoples’ own experiences and feelings and beliefs back at them like a mirror. And thus it answers needs for affirmation, approval, and belonging. It says: you’re one of us, because I’m just like you.

But. I don’t think its good for us. As people, as a society, or as an economy. I think we’ve begun using the net in a strange and empty way. As a substitute for genuine relationships, which offer us the possibility for growth, through true intimacy. Here’s why.

Hugonomics 101

Relatable stuff has three components. It’s personal, about an “I”. And so it’s subjective. It’s narrated in the first person. And so it’s usually narrow. And it’s sentimental. In a relatability story, which is always about personal emotions, the hero always wins, and the emotions they feel are always good ones, ultimately.

Hence, it feels like a hug.

Imagine a bunch of people standing in a square, offering free hugs. Who’s really benefiting? Maybe the people that own the square. That put ads around the square. That serve drinks in the square. But the huggers aren’t: they’re just getting illusory, meaningless short term emotional gratification, empty of actual caring. Neither are the huggees: they’re also getting hollow validation and approval from perfect strangers. But both should probably be seeking better in genuine relationships instead.

If you go home happy because you got a free hug, but three hours laters, feeling even emptier, you’re desperately swiping right for a hookup, are you better off…or worse? If you’re giving free hugs instead of nurturing and loving people in truer ways, what’s the point? Who’s winning this game? No one. Some people are getting a little bit richer, but only at everyone else’s expense.

Congratulations, you just understood the Hugconomy.

From an economic point of view, the problem with the relatability economy’s simple: It takes a lot of effort to create relatable “content”. Relatable content usually comes in the form of long, heartfelt personal essays. But the media industry can’t sell valuable enough ads, because digital ads are effectively worthless. So how is it going to compensate people who spend their lives writing said long, heartfelt essays? It isn’t.

Hence, no one’s really better off. The problem of media turning into a volunteer industry is fuelled, not mitigated, by relatability. There are winners at this game. But unlike yesterday’s, they make thousands, not millions. And the losers, not just in financial terms, but psychological and social ones, are you and me.

Relatability is the Enemy of Possibility

Relatability’s like a hug. It’s warm and comforting. It alleviates our anxieties and relieves our tensions. We can all use more hugs these days, right? The world’s a scary, cruel place, riven by the needless suffering caused by failing economies and fracturing societies and poor leaders. But the price is that exactly by comforting us, numbing us, relatability doesn’t elevate us into possibility, but traps us forever seeking approval, validation, conformity

We can only relate to stuff that speaks to who we are, not who we can become, right? So to choose stuff you can relate to is also not to choose stuff you have to struggle with, grasp for, learn, wrestle uncomfortably with. But then we don’t develop into us.

Relatability is like a rom com of the human spirit. That’s fine. We all binge on rom coms and pizza once in a while, even (especially) me. But contrast watching a rom com with standing in front of a Francis Bacon or Picasso. What makes it great? That you can’t relate to it. Not simply or immediately anyways. You have to think, feel, learn, wonder, imagine. It takes reflection, dedication, time, effort. You are challenged, confronted, provoked, maybe even repelled. But that’s exactly why they make you grow.

To say that you can “relate” to something is to say that you can see your own experiences in it. But that’s precisely why what’s relatable doesn’t challenge us. It costs us struggle, rebellion, and defiance. And if we’re not challenged, how can we grow?

Some Things Should be Commodities. Approval Isn’t One.

What does the relatability industry really create? Approval. Everyone wants it. Especially in a world that tells us we’re never good enough, rich enough, perfect enough. Relatability says: see? You’re just like me. I approve of you. Youre OK with me, I approve of you as a human being.

We all need approval. But what’s different about digital culture is that we can now seek it whenever, wherever we want. All the time, endlessly, instantaneously. It doesn’t have to be earned, given, and treated with gentle respect. It’s just a tap away. Available in infinite amounts. So now it’s something more like a drug and less like a social reward. And we can, and do, overdose on it.

Why do you think the Internet makes us unhappy, generally evil, and pretty awful? It’s not the rage. It’s the approval. When were told by the relatability industry that every foolish choice we make is ok, great, wonderful, I’ve made it too, we’re going to keep making foolish choices.

The flipside of overvalidation is ego inflation. Too much approval too fast makes us little narcissists. People with swollen expectations — yet without the courage to truly pursue them. When those swollen expectations are pierced by reality, the result is rage. I didn’t get the perfect girlfriend, boyfriend, job, and so on, that relatability told me I should. Now I’m enraged. Approve me!

There are things that should and shouldn’t be commodities. Approval probably shouldn’t. It should stay truly social. Precisely because we should have to earn it, by being better human beings. If it’s endlessly available to us for free, our incentives to stay decent humans shrink.

Fulfillment Isn’t Just Knowing Your Weaknesses. It’s Conquering Them.

When we overdose on the drug of overapproval, then a toxic thing happens. We never grow. Instead of discovering, confronting, and struggling to mitigate our weaknesses, flaws, and mistakes, we make the fatal mistake of being comforted and consoled for them. That’s what overapproval tells us, right? It’s ok to be a terrible person — I am too!! It is ok in the narrowest sense: it’s human. But it’s not ok in a truer sense: the point of life isn’t just relating your flaws, but conquering them.

There is too much of a good thing, and the relatability industry provides it. Too much unearned approval creates ego inflation, which makes us less capable of being functioning humans, and limits us, instead, to being easily broken, ever frustrated narcissists who think weakness is strength and flaws are accomplishment.

They’re not. No one cares how relatable you are in the classroom, board room, or playing field. Sorry, that’s the hard truth. Yet when life doesn’t reward for our flaws and weaknesses the way that insta-approval does, then we grow frustrated, baffled, and finally outraged. How dare they not approve of me!! Don’t they see what a wonderful person I am?! I’ll turn back to the relatability industry. And so the vicious cycle goes on: relatability, ego inflation, dashed expectations, dissociation from reality, stunted growth.

Relatability Costs Us Relationships

The truth is that relatability costs us relationships, for all the reasons above. Free hugs from strangers are a perfect drug. We can seek them endlessly, but every instant we do is ine that will cost us true love, great passion, burning desire. We are better off earning approval because relationships reward us with gifts only real intimacy can give. Unless you think you’re in a passionate relationship with the relatability machine, in which case you’re probably either deranged or a stalker or both.

We’ve begun using the net in a strange and dangerous way. As a substitute for genuine relationships, which offer us authentic emotions, via real intimacy. Instead, using free hugs from strangers as an emotional crutch, we end up with the worst of both worlds. Fewer, lower quality relationships, and less possibility in ourselves.

We grow when are provoked, taught, contradicted, challenged. When we are taught to rebels, renegades, heretics. Relatability makes us little affirmation seeking conformists instead. Honorable, good people. But the good people are usually what stands in the way of better. To grow, we must do more than relate. Endlessly relating is a trap of the human spirit. We must learn to step outside our narrow, approval seeking selves, and begin challenging ourselves to understand what we can’t relate to. That is what great relationships do, right? When you say that your lover makes you a better person, you mean that they challenge you, not just coddle you.

So your challenge isn’t becoming a cog — or a gear — in the validation machine. It’s using it, maybe, once in a while, just like you binge on rom coms. But not letting it turn you into an addict of free approval. Because even free has a price. Instead, your challenge is challenging yourself. To grow past approval, beyond validation, so your highest and truest self can emerge at last.

So what am I saying? That culture should be a sterile exercise in data journalism? Nope. Remember the rom com versus the Picasso? You’re probably going to have to get your priorities right. A single truly great book, artwork, film, is worth infinite mediocre ones. To you. It will spark growth you, and they will simply stifle it.

And that’s really what we all need, desire, and hunger for. Not just free hugs, that console us when we are hurt. But understanding our suffering, giving it meaning, not just being granted relief, so that we discover, in our very scars, the beginnings of ourselves.

Umair
London
April 2016

Next Story — How to Get What You Want
Currently Reading - How to Get What You Want

How to Get What You Want

A Crash Course in the Art of Human Possibility

Let’s cut through the noise. Whether we call it leadership, power, influence, we’re die-hard pragmatists. It’s us against the world. What we really want to know is how to get what we want.

OK. I’ll tell you. I have to warn you, though. It’ll be a little profane. You won’t like it. And not even for the reasons you think.

Let’s begin.

Don’t be an asshole. You know what assholes are. No, not those. The human form. Aggressive, domineering, cold, unemotional. They’re concerned with dominance, conquest, the words “alpha male”. They’re like remorseless human calculators, ready to toss anyone aside for the payoff. Assholes might get what they want, for a brief moment. But only for that brief moment. The very next one, the fear and anxiety and self-punishment rise again. Which are what make assholes in the first place. Always worried about the next asshole who might take it all away from them, that they didn’t get enough of it in the first place, they’re little wounded puppies, and that’s why they’re always barking. But getting what you want for a nanosecond and then hating yourself for it isn’t really getting what you want, unless you call an instant of relief followed by an eternity of pain “happiness”.

Don’t be a douchebag. Douchebags aren’t assholes. They’re not aggressive, they’re passive-aggressive. They’re not unemotional, they’re emotionally manipulative. They use their emotions as narcissistic weapons, to bludgeon people into grudging surrender. Me me me. My needs, wants, desires are the most important, here’s how I’ll guilt and shame and anxiety you into satisfying them. But douchebags don’t get what they want. They usually pretend to, so they can manipulate people that way, by projecting success, conquest, victory. If you fall for it, then you’re the fool in the douchebag’s mind game. Pretending to get what you want usually only stops you from getting what you really want (think about it), and hence douchebags usually degenerate into outright losers, instead of blossoming into success.

Don’t be a prick. You know what a prick is. The kind of person that’s always putting other people down. Whether it’s sardonically, ironically, or bluntly, pricks are driven by the belief that if they bring everyone else down low enough, they’ll get what they want. But that’s not how it works. You can drag everyone else down into the sewers, but all that’s really going to do is block them up. It’s not going to get you closer to what you want. That’s still up there glittering among the stars somewhere, and you’re still in the muck and mire.

I know. This doesn’t gibe with your Grand Theory of Reality. In that theory, assholes, douchebags, pricks, do get what they want. That’s what you’ve been trained, educated, indoctrinated, brainwashed to believe, after all. By endless marketing campaigns for the personal brands of assholes, gigantic institutions run by douchebags, a world — let’s just call it capitalism as an extreme sport — where the point of human existence is reduced to bringing other people down.

So. How’s that theory working out for you? If it’s an accurate, valid theory, then why isn’t it working for you? If indeed the most successful people in the world are giant assholes and douchebags, then why doesn’t it help you to become one?

Because the causality’s the wrong way around. Success turns people into assholes and douchebags and pricks. It’s like a scythe, which cuts away their empathy, gratitude, rebellion, and compassion. Your mental model of success is built on a false inference, in which you’ve got cause and effect backwards. That’s why you think seeing them, gloriously successful, noticing those most salient qualities, that the latter must cause the former. Wrong. They’re toxic byproducts that have usually emerged after the fact. In fact, those toxic byproducts are usually why they end up miserable, anxious, and empty. Just like many of us…who make the mistake of trying to be like them…after they’ve stolen the very point of it all from themselves.

It’s almost comedic, right?

Living up to your potential is a far greater question than getting what you want. But to live up to it, you probably have to make the mistake of getting what you want.

So that you learn.

Your Grand Theory of Reality’s backwards. You’ve mistaken the effect for the cause. The cause you’re really looking for is exactly what those people lost. Getting what you want is the result of a paradoxical set of qualities, and that’s why it eludes us so. Gentle strength. Fierce compassion. Quiet rebellion. Silent courage. Beautiful struggle. Defiant acceptance. Foolhardy wisdom. It’s a kind of impossible alchemy of the spirit that we’re seeking, denying, rejecting, and hungering for, all at once.

No. I’m not equating virtue with material success, and concluding only the virtuous prosper. But I am suggesting that to give yourself a chance, nothing more, just a glimmering chance, at getting what you want, you’re going to have master the paradoxes in you. They’re where your weaknesses turn into strengths, your strengths turn into powers, and power turns into love.

That’s the beginning of the story of you. After getting what you want comes wanting the right things, doing the right things, and becoming the right things. We’ll save those for next time. The truth is that it’s hard enough, and maybe just enough, for many us to get this far.

Umair
London
April 2016

Next Story — The How is Not the What
Currently Reading - The How is Not the What

The How is Not the What

When all you do is perfect your how, you can never change your what

Here’s a tiny rule for accomplishing, creating, dreaming, living. When all you can do is perfect your “how”, the price is that you can never change your what or why.

Yet. We’re relentless “how”ists. Ruthless and single-minded pragmatists. Eyes on the prize. Endlessly seeking answers, solutions, efficiency. What do we do at work, play, life? Find, practice, perfect “hows”. How to make, get, win, control…money, stuff, power, fame.

Here’s the problem.

In times of decline, pragmatism only makes things worse. What got you into a mess probably can’t get you out. Only deeper in. That rule applies to societies and nations as much as it does to companies and lives.

Bernie was recently lambasted for “bungling” an interview. Leave aside the issue — very real — that any reasonable person should be far less concerned with whether a leader interviews smoothly than whether a leader governs well. We’re choosing a President, not a Kardashian. Or at least that’s what I think in my better moments.

Here’s the real issue. Piling onto the frenzy, tons of people (especially on Twitter) said: see! Bernie just doesn’t know how to get things done.

So what?

Here’s the truth. It doesn’t matter. Not at all. The rest of the rich world has what Bernie’s proposing, right? Public healthcare, college, less inequality, and so on. Every other advanced country. So the how is almost totally irrelevant. For healthcare, the US might choose a UK style NHS, or a French style semi-private system, or a Japanese style nonprofit system. Whatever. There are tons of hows! Not only that, but there are literally entire armies of civil servants in every advanced nation’s government whose sole job it is to figure out, implement, and manage the how. Saying Bernie’s (or any leader’s) main concern is “how” is like saying that Bill Gates’s main job was to write microcode for the Pentium , or Steve Jobs’ main concern was to figure out which printer driver to use — not come up with the point, purpose, raison d’etre for Microsoft or Apple. It’s a belief so staggeringly dumb even my pet hamster shouldn’t hold it.

The how is a tertiary question.

But like many people, you probably think how is the only question. The big question. The question of policy. Wrong.

A policy is not a how. What is a policy? Policy is the what. Let’s imagine that we’re debating if everyone should have free healthcare. That’s a policy debate. Let’s imagine we’re debating whether a society should have free education all the way through grad school. If. Whether. Should. What.

Policy debates are about the rules that govern our organizations, whether they are societies, corporations, or families. Those rules aren’t “hows”. They’re “whats”. What are we here to do, accomplish, live? The “hows” are just the mechanisms by which we hope to get there. And we can choose a different one next week if this week’s doesn’t work.

And yet, most of the public appears to believe that policy debates are “how” debates, not “what” debates. How did we get here? Brainwashed, dulled, confused…believing the opposite of what we should?

Let’s consider Hillary for a moment. She can endlessly discuss the minutiae of how to finance healthcare. Should the states pay, should the fed, should people? That’s not a policy debate. It’s a mechanism debate. It’s about how to finance stuff — not what stuff should be. The policy debate is: should, can, could people have free healthcare, truly public care, at all? Yet by conflating policy for mechanism, we’re all left convinced, persuaded, or maybe just resigned: the “how” is the “what”.

It isn’t.

When Hillary, Trump, whomever, debate “hows”, they’re mostly debating a very specific how. How to pay for stuff. Especially public goods. Healthcare, retirement, college, and so on. In other words, what they’re really debating is financial engineering — the very opposite of policy.

But you know what?

It doesn’t matter.

Interest rates are negative. Markets are literally throwing free money at societies. Why? Because there’s nowhere good left to put it! That’s how broken capitalism is. We could build not just one, but all of the healthcare systems of every other advanced nation, for free, right now, if we wanted to — and then decide on the best one later. The how doesn’t matter at all.

When markets are throwing free money at you, “how” you’re going to finance stuff doesn’t matter. It makes about as much sense as worrying about how you’re going to build a house when it’s raining bricks. Just start piling them up, dummy.

The how is not the what. The what supercedes the how. When how is free, then not only is how a secondary concern — it’s not a concern at all.

The American public conversation leaves me chuckling in amused desperation at the best of times. It’s hollow, performative, ratings-driven. But this latest round is more than all that. It’s absurd in its utter foolishness. The how doesn’t matter at all — and yet, an entire society in steep decline is pretending as if it’s the only thing that does.

What does that say about us? Like I said at the beginning, we’re die hard pragmatists. We believe that the how is the Alpha and the Omega of technocratic salvation. Crunch the numbers, solve the equations, find the solution. But sometimes that’s not enough. Because when all you can do is “how”, you can never change your what or why.

Hence, we settle for debates about financial engineering masquerading as policy — instead of having actual debates about policy — when financial engineering instead of creating things of real value is exactly what caused American decline. Gee, Bill, how should we finance healthcare, education, jobs, the young not eating themselves for sustenance? Dammit, Bob, I don’t know! I just can’t figure it — hold on, there are giant bricks of money falling on my head!! Let me throw them away, instead of using them to solve the very problem we’re debating.

**Audience applauds**

So maybe the problem isn’t them — but us.

Idealism must come before pragmatism in times of decline. Why? Because the great challenge is creating the uncreated, imagining the unimagined, innovation, not renovation. And we can only do that if we’re foolish enough to let go of yesterday’s “hows” so that we can create tomorrow’s great “whats”.

That’s the story of human progress.

I wonder if we’ll be part of its next chapter.

Umair
London
April 2016

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Why Everything You Know About Leadership is Wrong

Most of what we think is leadership isn’t. Here’s why.


Here’s a tiny question. What is leadership? And why, though we seem to train and indoctrinate people in it, and when that doesn’t work, beat people over the head with it, don’t we seem to be able produce many leaders worth following? Here’s my tiny theory: because much, maybe most, of what we suppose, assume, and believe is leadership isn’t.

A morally conflicted world is in desperate need of moral leadership. A way of life that offers us convenience — but is costing us the planet. Technology that delights us — but takes our jobs. Economies that reward us — but frustrate us with stagnation. Tribes we compete to belong to — which cost us ourselves. Social contracts which are broken — but no one quite knows how to rewrite. Such are the fraught moral dilemmas of the age. And in such a world, lower levels, less powerful, sophisticated forms, of leadership, simply don’t cut it. They’re not enough to inspire, arouse, or awaken people, let alone anchor organizations, movements, or revolutions. But here’s the catch — it’s those largely lower forms of leadership which we’re taught, rewarded for, and familiar with.

To explain, I’m going to discuss what real leadership is, using the example of VW, who’s recently horrified the world, and the Pope, who’s electrified it.

Wait! You cry, a good internet leftist, atheist, some-kind-of-ist. The Pope?! Not that guy. He’s the head of an institution I totally can’t deal with. He’s a priest, dude!! Here’s my response. Grow up, dumbo. If you can’t learn from people you disagree with, you’re not just dumb — you’re going to stay dumb. In other words, you’re foolish. So grow up and get over the current cultural fixation with rage-mobbing and thought policing people, instead of expanding your mind and exploring human possibility. You will always be a follower, and never a leader, if you limit your self to your beliefs — instead of your potential.

And all that brings me to the idea of what leadership actually is. To explain it, let’s start with the current state of leadership.

The world is crying out for (real) leadership. Whether it’s Trump, Sanders, or Corbyn a curious phenomenon is sweeping the globe. People are rejecting the heads of traditional institutions, like Hillary, Jeb, or David Cameron, in favor of populist leaders. Populist is used by pundits as an insult — but they sling it at their own peril. For the truth is that people don’t connect with orthodox institutions anymore because they shouldn’t. They haven’t trusted them for quite a while — and now, it appears, they don’t really want them.

And that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. While your average billionaire will relentlessly argue that The! World!! Is!! Getting!! Better!!, the obvious and undeniable state of reality, to anyone with an internet connection and a human soul, is brain-meltingly different. The world is beset with truly great problems: climate change, inequality, debt, fracturing nations, and stagnation, to name just a few. And these problems are so different from yesterday’s that we haven’t really updated leadership itself to be able to even fully grapple with them. At their best, they are vastly more complex , unpredictable, insoluble with yesterday’s linear, mechanistic approaches—we can’t just throw armies, bombs, aid, or speeches at them. And at their worst, they are orders of magnitude more problematic than yesterday’s problems: they are existential threats to humanity itself. And the inconvenient truth is that orthodox institutions, and their leaders, are doing something like fiddling and eating grapes while wildfires surround the shining city on a hill.

It’s so obvious — but so overlooked, let me say it again. The world is crying out for real leadership. Why? Because at precisely the moment it is confronted with problems of a scale humanity’s never seen before, our leaders have rarely been more incremental, timid, cautious, safe, predictable…or, perhaps, corrupt, duplicitous, and dishonest. Read that sentence again — because it’s the world in a nutshell today. And in such a world, power is likely to continue to flow to those who can offer not merely uneasy compromises with a burdensome past — but a promise. Not even, so dire is the state of a leadership, of a better tomorrow. But at least that there will be one.

The highest leadership is about “why”, not just “how” or “what”. So what is real leadership? Is it merely making new products, services…launching a startup…rising through the ranks…attaining a title? Nope. Let’s differentiate between levels of leadership. At the lowest is what you might call technical leadership. Setting standards, innovating, that kind of thing. Think of it as the “how”. Then there’s organizational leadership. Managing people to make things, setting objectives, defining payoffs. Think of it was the “what”. And then there is moral leadership. Moral leadership answers “why”. It is concerned with the truly Big Questions. Why are we here? What’s the point? And so it provides the Big Answers: purpose, meaning, a sense of significance. And it is only in those Big Answers that we find a way home: to ourselves. The people who we were meant to be.

But wait!! You cry. What about…Trump? After all, he’s got morals, too. Perhaps he does. But that’s not moral leadership. The leadership part isn’t just about having any of set of dubious personal morals — but defining a moral compass that everyone can follow; by which people can attain and exceed to their truest potential. That is the test of moral leadership. And it is precisely that test that most of our so-called leaders fail.

But it is precisely the test that the Pope passes, when he connects voracious capitalism to climate change, that the earth is our natural home, to which we are all entitled, and that freedom — not just to buy stuff, but to live life fully— is every person’s birthright. See the difference? Moral leadership isn’t just about “having morals”. It’s about offering people a moral compass by which they can find the true north of a life well lived, in the dark night of every being’s struggle to flourish. Everyone “has” morals, even serial killers. But real leadership is the art of giving a moral direction to people, who, lost, alone, afraid in the dark, must still find their way home to the light — or ever feel incomplete.

The truest leaders help people find a way home. Let me explain just how different the idea of moral leadership is from how leadership is usually conceived of.

We’re conditioned and brainwashed, from the very day we’re born, to believe that leadership is optimizing. That is, counting beans. Plus, minus. Yes, no. Does it add up? The most accurate cost/benefit analysis reveals the “right” decision. The “leader” is the person who can undertake this analysis the most accurately of all. Right? Wrong. Cost/benefit analyses have a great failure: they apply to the average, the quantifiable, and the observable. And so they are poor guides to the subjective, lived experience of human potential. You probably don’t want to choose your partner, lover, friends, dreams — or even your career, goals, or ambitions — solely based on a cost/benefit analysis. Unless, that is, you want to spend most of your life miserable, angry, and lonely. And so leadership — real leadership — is more than frowning and counting beans the more accurately than the next guy. It’s questioning why we’re counting the beans, what the beans mean, where they came from, and where they’re taking us, in the first place. Of this much, be sure: wherever you see an optimizer, you don’t see a real leader. The true test of a moral leader is to guide people to what is right — and what is right is greater, truer, and more enduring than what is merely profitable, valuable, or alluring. It is what is worthy, beneficial, transformative — what leads them home to the shores of life, not merely crashes them on the rocks of futility.

If you don’t believe that, consider VW. It’s internal cost/benefit analysis probably said something like: we can save billions by cheating emissions tests…and the probability of ever being found out is infinimtesimally low. Therefore, the expected benefit outweighs the cost. History, of course, reveals a very different truth. VW was a technical leader — and even an organizational leader, one of the largest and most innovative corporations in the world. But it is in a state of ruin now precisely because it failed the test of moral leadership. Instead of being a moral leader, it turned out to be a moral reprobate. The lesson is this: in a world that is crying out for moral leadership, those who fail at it will be punished more and more severely.

It’s true. Those who are most adept at counting beans rise through the ranks and are elevated to leadership positons. But are they leaders — in the true sense of the word? Leadership’s simplicity is it’s great challenge. Elevating people to their full potential, though it may sound simple, is one the most demanding tasks in life. Not merely because it asks us to sacrifice, or forego. But because it demands that we rebel, defy, imagine, create, suffer, love. It challenges us to stand against fate, destiny, and kings, so life may come to its fruition. And it is in that fruition that we find the answer that we have been, all along, searching for. A sense that our lives have meant something greater than us.

Remember when I said moral leadership provides the Big Answers? That is why it is today’s great challenge; why the world is crying out for it. If you’re merely working harder to get poorer by buying stuff you don’t need with money you don’t have to impress people you don’t like to live a life you don’t really want…the truth is that too often life seems like it doesn’t have a point. When we fail as moral leaders, we are leading people not to their true selves, which resound with possibility and grace. But to futility, despair, emptiness, pointlessness. But the converse is also true. Should we rise to the challenge of moral leadership, in a world parched for it, then we are what we have been searching for all along. Ourselves. And that is the truest miracle of all.

It is we ourselves who find our way home when we rise to the obligation of leadership. For the truth is that each and every one of us was put here to be a leader, in our own lives, in ways tiny and small. So all who walk beside us may, too, blaze their own trails. Being leaders, not merely following leaders, is our truest challenge. Not merely because the world, today, at this very moment, is in turmoil. But because the human heart is ever lost and suffering, born in confusion, parched with craving. And so it mustn’t merely wither in despair and meaninglessness, but come to ache with gratitude and peace, for the mighty privilege of life, if it is to brim over, at last, with the boundless waters of meaning.

Umair
London
September 2015

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