And what, pray tell, do stepping stones look like?

This is Part 3 of a 3-part series. Part 1 on ways of life business. Part 2 on why starting a business makes sense. Part 3 on picking out stepping stones.

A stepping stone is anything that, within reason and hopefully guided by a decent moral compass,  gets you closer to your goal. Such as:

Dialing Back. Slowly but surely, you take on less responsibilities and duties at work. You come into the office at an appropriate time, leave at an appropriate time, and donate your BlackBerry to a worthy cause.

Cloisters. Each day you carve out some space for peace and quiet. Leisure becomes a good friend. Maybe you also explore ways of spending time in a cabin in the woods or at an artists’ colony. In this space of leisure, you start taking stock of your life and your work.

Austerity, Epicurean Style. Epicurus’s question was, “How can I do more with less?” Today he would have asked, “Can I cut my expenses to the absolute minimum? That is, are the things I desire really that important or would I be better off without?” To ask these questions is to open up breathing room. With less pressure and less anxiety weighing you down, you can really get busy with thinking about where your life is headed and how to get there.

Moonlighting. Get more work; do more gig projects on the side. The extra money will be a buffer for you as you, Prefontaine-like, make your move.

Halfway House. So to speak: A better job than your current one but not the ideal job in the end. Between everything and nothing: that is, something. The idea being that you’d have some room to think more clearly about the next step.

Leap of faith or stepping stones?

This is Part 2 of a 3-part series. Part 1 on ways of life business. Part 2 on why starting a business makes sense. Part 3 on picking out stepping stones.

Stepping stones, definitely!

Yesterday I invited you to think seriously about starting a Way of Life business. Today I want to backtrack, returning to the source of the problem, before returning to the question, “Leap of faith or stepping stones?”

First Principles

  1. Work as Necessity. Of necessity, work takes up most of our lives.
  2. Meaningful Work as Final End. We long for work that is meaningful full stop.

Our Historical Bind 

  1. Corporate Speedup. Since the recession, job growth in the private sphere has been sluggish. Furthermore, if the reporters at Mother Jones are right, then we are witnessing a period in the corporate world which could be termed the “great speedup.” Rather than hire and train more skilled workers, corporations have come to expect workers currently employed to increase their productivity 2-3 times. (Anecdotal evidence: I speak with people all the time about their sense of exhaustion. They tell me they “feel overwhelmed.”) The “great speedup” would explain the finding that corporate profits are up 22% since 2009  while employee salaries remain stagnant.
  2. Corporate Death. If Venkat is right, then in the coming years the corporation will no longer be at the heart of private enterprise. So, what will?
  3. University Suffocation. By even the most conservative of statistics, 2/3 of faculty members at any university are NOT tenured or tenure-track. Many are adjuncts making anywhere from $1500-5000/course. (And that $5000 upper bound is rare. The mean is probably more like $2500-3000.) Adjunct life is impoverished in all senses, demeaning in most.

My Conclusions

  1. Institutional Failure. Our current institutions are failing insofar as they are not satisfying the spiritual needs without which we seem lost, empty, and exhausted.
  2. Job Retraining. Early on in his presidency, Obama has advocated education retraining programs and has called for improving students’ competency in math, reading, and writing. I’m skeptical about job retraining in light of globalization and the rapid pace of obsolescence. My doubts run deeper still: does being a lab technician satisfy our need for meaningful work?
  3. Jeffersonianism. In 1785, Jefferson made a plea for building a nation of independent workers. “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens,” he wrote. “They are the most vigorous, the most independant, the most virtuous, & they are tied to their country & wedded to it’s liberty & interests by the most lasting bonds. As long therefore as they can find employment in this line, I would not convert them into mariners, artisans or anything else.” Given the principles we must grant and the bind we’re in, it follows that we’re all Jeffersonians by necessity. 

My Solutions

  1. Start a Way of Life Business. Might this be an escape hatch?
  2. Build New Institutions. Escape hatch#2?

Leap of Faith or Stepping Stones? 

Leading a meaningful life is of fundamental importance, therefore, yet there are too many risks associated with leaping blindly into a new way of life. My thinking about my life and future is informed by a “stepping stone model.” For the past 2 years, I’ve been slowly “decoupling” myself from “toxic” persons, projects, and institutions that had supported me in order to try out new business practices, new approaches to life, and new institutions that promise to satisfy my higher ends. It seems to be working.

Why not follow me? Isn’t it time?

Rules of thumb for starting a way of life business

This is Part 1 of a 3-part series. Part 1 on ways of life business. Part 2 on why starting a business makes sense. Part 3 on picking out stepping stones.

My prediction is that the Ways of Life business is the next frontier. This is where we’re heading in the 21st C. We’re not talking about product services; we’re not talking about desire manipulation; we’re talking about shaping and designing a suitable, meaningful way of life. The good news is that the spoils of Way of Life services could very well go to the good, intelligent, responsible guides out there, not to the charlatans and the cold-hearted bottom-liners. Perhaps you’re one of them?

Here are some rules of thumb for getting things under way:

  1. Identify spiritual needs not being met by our current institutions or social arrangements. I mean genuine life needs. (E.g., The desire for love not being met by the random hookup.)
  2. Come up with a new idea that could satisfy that spiritual need (or those spiritual needs). “But what’s a new idea look like?”
  3. Build infrastructure–forms of communication, modes of address–that allows your idea to travel but that doesn’t require any overhead. Aim for zero overhead.
  4. Make sure the idea can’t be outsourced or replicated because it requires your human presence. You are the Face of the idea. Let’s call this the “charisma requirement.”
  5. Forget about marketing and PR. That’s just fishing and attention-grabbing. Expensive and low percentage. Instead, make the idea look so desirable and make yourself look so attractive that people want to come to you. Let’s call this the “invitation requirement.”

Some examples off the top of my head:

(ex. 1) How about being a consultant who helps organizations in transition become more resilient or more robust? Resilience and robustness are buzz words today. A curator of collapsonomics!

(ex. 2) Suppose you’re an architect and an amateur sociologist to boot. Have you noticed that co-habitation is changing dramatically? The German philosopher Jurgen Habermas wrote that the modern house was designed during the 18th C. when the idea of private space began to take hold. Look at all the private rooms. Strange, huh? Well, we’re living through a “post-nuclear family” period, and I’d like to see homes, apartments, and condos re-designed to reflect all the strange forms of co-habitation going on today. An architect just needs to think imaginatively about how we could better inhabit intimate spaces. Start sketching.

(ex. 3) How about doing a whole survivor’s guide thing for “emerging adults?” These post-college individuals are totally lost in life, and they’d love to get some help–forums? guides? platforms? conversations? above all, stepping stones?–on sorting things out (and quickly)! How about rules of thumb for digging out of the muck? (Note: Starting a band would not be on the list.)

(ex. 4) Too much hedonism and such a profound, untapped yearning for spirit! Ever thought of doing some kind of ascetic retreats over Skype? Asceticism should return as a remedy to the soullessness, vacuity, and nihilism of modern life. Why not get paid to help people with this?

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “The Puzzle of Material Prosperity and Spiritual Cultivation”

On the illusions of psychiatry

In this 2nd piece of a 2-part series on the history and practice of psychiatry, Marcia Angell critically examines the players and forces behind psychiatry’s cozy relationship with big pharma. She argues:

  1. After 1950 and especially during the 1980s, psychiatrists made a conscious effort to adopt a biological model.
  2. In so doing, psychiatry was able to claim legitimacy as a truly scientific discipline.
  3. 1. and 2. led, in turn, to psychiatry’s willingness to work with, and benefit from, big pharma.

In essence, we can chart the shift from talk therapy to drug therapy over the past 30 years. The pivot point, according to Angell, is the introduction of DSM-III in 1980. (DSM-V is set to appear some time in 2013.). The piece ends–this is the penultimate paragraph–on this cautionary note:

At the very least, we need to stop thinking of psychoactive drugs as the best, and often the only, treatment for mental illness or emotional distress. Both psychotherapy and exercise have been shown to be as effective as drugs for depression, and their effects are longer-lasting, but unfortunately, there is no industry to push these alternatives and Americans have come to believe that pills must be more potent. More research is needed to study alternatives to psychoactive drugs, and the results should be included in medical education.

Addendum (6/22/11 – afternoon)

A few readers have voiced objections (one is included in the comments section below) to the effect that drug therapy can be and has been effective in the treatment of certain types of mental illness. I wouldn’t disagree. The evidence on this score is clear enough. I take Angell’s point to be one about “hubris”: psychiatry moving away from an art–seeing this person in these terms in this case with these needs–and has fancied itself a science–diagnosing according to pat criteria (DSM), overprescribing medicine, not taking responsibility when appropriate, too often profiting from its close working relationship with the pharmaceutical industry. The case I’d make is that moderation, measure, and reflection are well past due.

In short, let’s not throw drug treatment out the window; let’s simply put it next to other treatments that may also be as effective, if not more effective.

‘And what makes you qualified?’

Forget all this nonsense about flashing resumes and writing letters and sending these, as a package, off to the four corners of the universe. Stop fishing: stop seeing what’s out there, casting a wide net, buckling your soul, waiting for daybreak.

Instead, turn the question around. Never done this before? Good. Barely heard of it but totally intrigued? Lovely. Forget pedantry and make the case, here and now. Show yourself. Be charismatic. Exhibit your virtues: eloquence, personability, charm, modesty, grace, judgment, cunning. After you’ve secured the project, the job, the fee, then relish the painful/pleasant experience of thinking in context, of thinking on your toes, of being alive.