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

Session page

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


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