Kyra Maya Phillips: Hello every­body. I’m real­ly hap­py to be here but my stom­ach I don’t think is very excit­ed about it. But, I left my son back in Australia with his father. So I’m excit­ed about it but I’m also very ner­vous about being away from my fam­i­ly. But he always wants to come with me to every­thing. You know chil­dren kind of feel left out all the time. 

When I tell him that I need to go to the chemist he’s like, Fine, go.” I told him I was going to a chemist in Brighton, England and he did­n’t believe me. So he said he real­ly want­ed to come to Meaning. He could­n’t come. So I was won­der­ing if I could just film a short video of you say­ing, Hello Leo,” on three so that he does­n’t feel left out and I can come back as a star par­ent. Thank you. One, two, three. [audi­ence says, Hello Leo,” in uni­son]

That’s great. Thank you. Thank you so much. 

So, I am actu­al­ly very touched by the top­ic of this con­fer­ence, which is a rather spe­cial word, a very impor­tant word, mean­ing.” And I think par­tic­u­lar­ly dur­ing this time when I feel like every­body wakes up and comes face to face with mean­ing­less­ness itself. And it feels good to be part of a group of peo­ple who are try­ing to bring back that… I don’t want to say hope, but…I guess real­is­tic and…non-cynical, because I think that it’s cyn­i­cism that real­ly is break­ing every­thing down at the moment. So I’m very excit­ed about that topic.

And in think­ing about this talk today it real­ly struck me that every­body has dif­fer­ent val­ues. You know, what we see as impor­tant, as mean­ing­ful, dif­fers from per­son to per­son. But you know despite these dif­fer­ences, the quest for mean­ing is always there. Throughout a human life it nev­er dis­ap­pears. Running through like a thread through through the sto­ry of every human expe­ri­ence is that very famil­iar ques­tion you know, what does this all mean?” 

And it’s a fun­da­men­tal aspect I think of what makes us human and what makes it so hard but also so inter­est­ing to be human, kind of this instinct to ques­tion the mean­ing of our own exis­tence seems to be the cat­a­lyst for so many things that make life worth liv­ing in the first place. So you know, music, art, lit­er­a­ture and so on. So the results of our sort of quest for mean­ing are all around us. But I think that mean­ing itself is actu­al­ly extra­or­di­nar­i­ly elu­sive. Throughout our lives, I think it seems to do, at least in my expe­ri­ence, a lit­tle dance, you know. It comes and it goes. It’s a very frus­trat­ing per­for­mance. And even when mean­ing is present in our lives—so when we sit down and we think and we feel its pres­ence, it likes to keep an ele­ment of mys­tery, you know. It’s hard to see even when it’s around, and it seems to pre­fer the dark.

So I’ve spent about four years explor­ing the dark side of inno­va­tion, try­ing to con­vince peo­ple that there’s actu­al­ly a lot that we can learn from those who work in the unseen cor­ners of the world. You know, so-called mis­fits. Pirates, hack­ers, gang­sters, con artists, pranksters, ex-prisoners. 

And from this explo­ration into the world of out­laws and unde­sir­ables I’ve found over and over again that they too look for mean­ing. So when a Somali pirate is hijack­ing a ship off the coast of Somalia, he is often ask­ing him­self why he’s doing that. When a young drug deal­er is try­ing to find a way to secure a few cor­ners, he’s build­ing a nar­ra­tive that attach­es some sort of mean­ing to those actions. When a copy­cat is repli­cat­ing a phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal, there is a sto­ry there about why she believes that her mis­sion is a wor­thy one.

So we are not the only peo­ple who seek to draw out mean­ing from expe­ri­ence. You know, every­body does that. We’re cer­tain­ly not the only ones. So I want to give you just a brief exam­ple of that. I men­tioned Somali pirates, and actu­al­ly a few years ago I inter­viewed a group of Somali pirates. And pira­cy in Somalia start­ed as very unso­phis­ti­cat­ed busi­ness in the ear­ly 90s. And it came about as a response to for­eign trawlers who were steal­ing the fish­ing stock that peo­ple on the coast depend­ed on for income. 

So a group of fish­er­man got togeth­er and they would see the ships that crossed their shores and, sort of an oppor­tunis­tic sort of affair, and they would hijack them and then they would split the spoils accord­ing to how much each fish­er­men had invest­ed in the oper­a­tion or either split the spoils equal­ly as well. And the gov­ern­ment of Somalia col­lapsed in 1991 after a very bru­tal civ­il war, so the Navy and coastal police was­n’t able to repel the ille­gal fish­ing and also was­n’t able to repel the response to it as well.

So then some­thing hap­pened. A civ­il ser­vant noticed that this was going on, and he thought that it would be a good idea to scale this small, lo-fi cot­tage indus­try. And he approached investors, and I quote with a very good busi­ness idea,” and he found­ed an orga­ni­za­tion called the Somali Marines. And he recruit­ed employ­ees, many of them the orig­i­nal pirates on the coast, pro­vid­ed them with military-style train­ing, and estab­lished what is today known as mod­ern Somali pira­cy, which is the cap­ture for ran­som of large com­mer­cial ves­sels with the use of moth­er­ships as bases across the ocean.

And the pirates began to com­mand ran­som pay­ments, you might’ve seen this in the news over the years, that were in the mil­lions. The aver­age haul was $2.7 mil­lion US dol­lars, and since the first known hijack­ing in 2005 over 149 hijacked ships for about an esti­mat­ed $385 mil­lion, and with links all across the world as well. So it turned from a very small cot­tage indus­try into quite a large, inter­na­tion­al, well-organized orga­ni­za­tion. Pirates even employed lawyers, and nego­tia­tors, and bank note check­ers, and even sort of small local economies would spring up on the coast while nego­ti­a­tion for ran­som pay­ments were on going, pro­vid­ing the hostages and the pirates with water, khat (which is a nar­cot­ic leaf), and food and mobile phone services. 

But here’s the thing about Somali pirates that I was more inter­est­ed in beyond the eco­nom­ics of how the move­ment scaled. The ini­tial pirates, the orig­i­nal pirates, who were fish­er­men, were being very gen­uine when they said that they became pirates because of the attacks on their fish­ing stock, and that they were only safe­guard­ing what was orig­i­nal­ly theirs to begin with.

But the truth of the sto­ry was lost rel­a­tive­ly quick­ly. Most of Somalia’s pirates lack a his­to­ry in fish­ing. It’s a mar­gin­al activ­i­ty in Somalia, it’s not part of Somali diet, it’s actu­al­ly looked down upon as a way of mak­ing a liv­ing. But every sin­gle pirate I spoke to said the same thing, you know. They said, We are the pro­tec­tors of our coast. We do this because of the attacks on our stock.” They were all on message. 

And what this shows me is an incred­i­ble PR machine that is ensur­ing that the mean­ing of what they are doing isn’t lost, even if it’s untrue. So the pirate entre­pre­neurs like many of the entre­pre­neurs that we come across in the world that we oper­ate with­in every day think about how to build cul­ture, how to recruit and retain the best employ­ees, and how to give them a sense of mis­sion that goes beyond mon­e­tary gain, even though that’s the ulti­mate goal. You know in our world we talk about how to find pur­pose. Why do we sell iPhones and and iPads and Macbooks? Because we believe in beau­ti­ful prod­ucts and we want to change the world with them. Well then, when you’re pirat­ing you also need that why.” So mis­fits, what I found, pro­vide an answer—that why as well.

There is a sto­ry that real­ly stuck out for me when I was think­ing about the talk today. This this is Duane Jackson, and a he’s a guy that I met a few years ago. He lives near here in Hove, and we met many times and we had very long con­ver­sa­tions about his life. Duane grew up in chil­dren’s homes all over East London. He was kicked out of his house when he was 11 years old, kicked out of school when he was 15. And he was actu­al­ly on the verge of being insti­tu­tion­al­ized when a child psy­chol­o­gist assessed him and in his report con­clud­ed that he would either be a mas­ter crim­i­nal or an extreme­ly suc­cess­ful businessman.

And this con­clu­sion became sort of a fore­shad­ow­ing of a future that he was yet to shape but not imme­di­ate­ly. So in his ear­ly twen­ties, Duane fell in with a drug traf­fick­ing ring. And he was strug­gling to pay his rent and his bills and most sig­nif­i­cant­ly for him, a £400 debt to his own moth­er. So he agreed to traf­fic drugs from England to United States and he was arrest­ed in Atlanta in pos­ses­sion of six and a half thou­sand tablets of ecstasy. 

But let’s back up a lit­tle bit to Duane at age 15, before the drug traf­fick­ing and before the stint in prison. He spent two and a half years in prison in England. And while he was sit­ting in the din­ing room of a chil­dren’s home that he’d been liv­ing in, he noticed an old ZX Spectrum com­put­er. He taught him­self to code with it. He found the man­u­al. And he became obsessed with it because it pro­vid­ed him— It was a chal­lenge but it also pro­vid­ed him with a cer­tain lev­el of con­sis­ten­cy and cer­tain­ty that had been miss­ing from every aspect of his life.

And he actu­al­ly con­tin­ued cod­ing while he was in prison. He used to code with pen and paper and then call a pro­gram­mer on the out­side, and then they would debug the code togeth­er. And so instead of prison being this place that kind of stunt­ed and lim­it­ed his devel­op­ment, it actu­al­ly became a place where he would gain real­ly huge­ly impor­tant skills and per­spec­tive. He said for exam­ple that in prison you notice every­thing around you because you have so much time to sit still. Ninety per­cent of your time in prison is bloody bor­ing, so every­thing takes on an addi­tion­al mean­ing and every lit­tle detail begins to matter.

So for exam­ple, he said you can make hot baked beans on toast by cut­ting a plas­tic bot­tle in half, putting water in it and heat­ing it with wires from a stereo, and there­fore heat­ing the beans. And then using the same heat to toast the bread on the met­al wires that you find under prison mat­tress­es. So these mate­ri­als aren’t use­less. They’re ways to cook a meal.

Now, the forced still­ness of prison pro­vid­ed Duane with kind of the sort of per­cep­tion that he need­ed to find mean­ing in the things that seemed most mean­ing­less, real­ly. So per­haps it isn’t as elu­sive as we believe it is—as I said I believe it is when I start­ed talk­ing. Perhaps it’s every­where but we are mov­ing at a speed that isn’t real­ly allow­ing us to take it in.

So when Duane made it out of prison— (I have to speak very quick­ly because I have about a minute and a half left.) When he made it out of prison he used this keen sense of obser­va­tion that he had sort of honed through imposed still­ness. When he was released, he start­ed up a com­pa­ny called KashFlow. Has any­one heard of it? It’s great. And it’s an account­ing plat­form. Before that he began work­ing as a free­lance web devel­op­er, and he stum­bled onto a prob­lem. He did­n’t have a way to orga­nize his invoic­es in a straight way. This was the ear­ly 2000s and the soft­ware that was around was coun­ter­in­tu­itive and con­fus­ing. I’m sure peo­ple here remem­ber the time when you had to buy soft­ware on CDs and every­thing was annoy­ing and impos­si­ble to deal with.

So he kind of thought, and he said, What’s going on around here? Can I cre­ate some­thing bet­ter?” So at the time the busi­ness mod­el in the indus­try was for soft­ware to be built for the desk­top. And the per­ceived wis­dom would’ve been to fol­low this path. But Duane was a web devel­op­er. And he did­n’t have mon­ey to hire desk­top devel­op­ers, and he did­n’t have the skill to do it.

So using kind of the atten­tion to detail he thought, I have web host­ing space. And I also have this abil­i­ty to pro­gram online. So what can I do with it?” So instead of build­ing a com­pet­ing desk­top pro­gram, he cre­at­ed his own account­ing soft­ware. And this was on the cloud. And this was 2005, and the cloud was not the thing that it is today.

So by pay­ing atten­tion, by sim­ply notic­ing what was avail­able to him like you make hot baked beans on toast, he avoid­ed falling falling into the trap of fol­low­ing the herd. You know, his busi­ness was a suc­cess and he sold it in 2013 for quite a huge amount of mon­ey but that’s not the impor­tant bit. To me, the beau­ty of this whole thing is that Duane arrived at this way of access­ing soft­ware and became a pio­neer of this way in which we do every­thing today are virtue of his life expe­ri­ence. Life expe­ri­ence that taught him the tremen­dous ben­e­fits of just stop­ping for one second.

In clos­ing our conversation—and I’m almost done—Duane told me some­thing that remains etched in my brain. He said, At no oth­er point in your life do you get to press pause for two years and think about where you are and how you got there. And I was lucky,” he said, that I had that oppor­tu­ni­ty. I was lucky.”

And he’s right, you know. When do we cre­ate the space for reflec­tion? And for still­ness. You know, we’re ana­log beings, but we run at a relent­less dig­i­tal pace and I think it’s impor­tant to ask our­selves what the costs of that is. 

Just to close, there is a won­der­ful book called The Art of Stillness by Pico Iyer, and he describes still­ness in such a beau­ti­ful way. He said, To me the point of sit­ting still is that it helps you to see through the very idea of push­ing for­ward. Indeed, it lead you into a place where you are defined by some­thing larg­er. And if it does have ben­e­fits, then they lie with­in some invis­i­ble bank account with a very high inter­est rate but very long-term yields to be drawn upon at that moment, sure­ly inevitable, when the doc­tor walks into your room shak­ing his head. Or anoth­er car veers in front of yours. And all that you will have to draw upon is what you have col­lect­ed in your deep­er moments.”

That real­ly struck me. All that you will have to draw upon is what you have col­lect­ed in your deep­er moments. Everything else is just noise, real­ly. We don’t have to be thrown into prison or dragged into des­per­ate cir­cum­stances to choose how we derive mean­ing from expe­ri­ence. If we learn how to stop and reflect, it’s possible—hard and we might not always want to—but pos­si­ble, to find pur­pose and mean­ing in every­thing that at first glance might seem like noth­ing. So I hope this was help­ful. Thank you, and I apol­o­gize for going over time. Thank you so much.

Further Reference

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Featured image by Clive Andrews, via Flickr, licensed CC BY-NC-SA