Look on the dark side.
I’m not actually sure why I’m posting this. Something - elusive and tantalizing - has been nagging me for the last month. I’ve sat here, helplessly staring at a blank screen, at least 10 times. I start, then abruptly stop, satisfied with a sense of accomplishment, fulfilled by the victory of having escaped that nag. But of course, like a tropical storm, it returns, demanding to be acted upon.
Lately I’ve been thinking loads about creativity, and writing, in particular. My thoughts have been mostly negative, I must admit. About how difficult it is to emotionally distance yourself from the reaction, or non-reaction, to your work. About how you can sit and try to write, but the pressure of how it will be received by the rest of the world, simply doesn’t allow you to. I’m sure this is true of most creative pursuits, actually: you’re so inextricably linked to your work that this itself destroys any chance you had of actually engaging in it.
So whenever I sit down to write, most of the time, it’s a battle against these imaginary scenarios of what people will think, say, or do after they’ve read it (if they ever do). But sometimes, something almost mythical happens. The words just escape out of me. I don’t know what I’ve actually written until I return to it, sometimes immediately afterwards, but more often, months later. It happened most recently about 8 months ago. I was walking to the train in East London, to make my way home. But I didn’t have a notebook (an embarassing rookie mistake), and my smartphone had predictably run out of battery. So I ran into the nearest cafe and blurted out my need for a pen and anything to write on. In less than 10 minutes, a short piece about darkness had emerged. It took me months to finally share it.
But the point of this long-winded story is that this little piece started a sort of internal revolution. In it, I vaguely referred to an internal darkness that I had previously fought and then accepted. But I felt like this piece was a bit of a copt out. What was my darkness, really? It barely revealed anything. But what it did do was push me to write something more specific, and incredibly more uncomfortable.
I wrote an extended version for a talk I gave in March at the London School of Economics. And the nag that I opened this blog with demanded that I share it. People who’ve read it keep asking, particularly after I read it to a room of over 400 people, whether I’m not afraid of the judgements that will inevitably show up at my door step. Whether I’m afraid of going into a meeting with someone whose seen, or read this blog, and already have -a cemented idea of who I am.Yes, I am afraid of all those things. Very much so. But I’ve realised (perhaps more conveniently rather than rightly) that there are two types of fear. There’s the fear I have in spades: What will people think now? But then there’s the constant and incessant fear of hiding darker parts of yourself, of constantly editing yourself so that you’re perceived as a perfect finished work. I guess I see the first kind as honest fear, and the second, more like fear grounded in a desperate desire to hide. The only difference between the two is that the latter drains more energy, and, I’ve found, is infinitely more destructive.
So, if you’re inclined, below is that nagging piece about how pirates and hackers helped me to embrace my dark side.
Look on the dark side.
Darkness is powerful.
It is powerful in destruction. It has the ability to make us feel wretched and alone, tear down our confidence, sabotage our progress through life.
But darkness is also powerful in creation. It has the ability to transform itself from a destructive force into something that can unleash the most essential, most indispensable element of your person.
My name is Kyra, and I’m an explorer of the dark side. For the last year or so, my partner in crime Alexa and I have been immersed in the world of dark, illegal, deviant innovation, looking to glean lessons in entrepreneurship from the lives of people we call misfits, people who don’t tend to fit into our society’s idea of how we should be and how we should act.
Misfits are the gangsters on the corners of rough New York City neighbourhoods, Mumbai slums, and Cape Town townships. Misfits are the invisible con artists among us. Misfits are the angry protesters on the streets of our cities, and the provocative street artists who always make us look up.
Now I’m not exactly the type of person that would seem a natural fit for this subject matter. I grew up in a dangerous country – Venezuela – and I’m generally neurotic in a Woody Allen-like way about a lot of things in life, particularly safety. I’m the type to who an innocent tourist asking for directions is part of some elaborate plot to kidnap me.
So go back a year or so, and these misfits were, to me, evil. They were always wrong, always morally bankrupt. As far as I was concerned, I had zero to learn from people that I cast as “the other,” from people whose world never has, and should never have, anything to do with my own. And the thought of looking to them for advice, for inspiration made me feel deeply uncomfortable.
But despite my discomfort – and that persistent Woody Allen part of my personality shouting at me to stop - I took the plunge into their world, and while it has been at times uncomfortable, it has also transformed my life. So what I want to do together is explore two misfits that I’ve met, show you how they helped me, and convince you that they might be able to have an impact on you, too, even if just a small one.
The 18th century pirate.
We all love pirates. They partied, they cursed, they made their living by plundering the riches of merchants and navies, by “sticking it to the man.” And we have this image of them as these sexy Johnny Depp-like figures, parrot on the shoulder, eye-patch over the eye, and the ever-present skull & crossbones.
But that’s not really the story. There is another story here, lurking behind the eye-patch.
This is a story about the dark side of innovation, about how from darkness can come creation.
Pirates were extremely successful entrepreneurs. Their start-ups were thriving. Bartholomew Roberts and his crews, for example, captured over 400 ships in just three years. Edward Teach – or Blackbeard - only a little fewer.
And this might surprise some of you, it certainly surprised me, but pirate ships were not always bastions of danger. It turns out that pirate ships were actually ingenious experiments in democracy.
Each pirate had a say in how the ship was to be run.
Pirate captains were freely elected into their positions, and if they crossed the line, they could be immediately deposed.
To maintain democracy, powers were separated amongst senior officers.
Wages were high and the booty from plunder was pretty equally distributed.
They had social insurance schemes that promised payment to those injured at work.
And all of these rules were codified in written constitutions, agreed to by every person on the ship.
When I first read this, I thought to myself: where did these ideas come from? What inspired them to do something so out of character at the time? This was the 18th century and democracy wasn’t exactly in style.
So I looked into a pirate’s past, into life before the skull & crossbones.
And what the history told me was that most of those who turned pirate were, in their previous lives, merchant sailors.
They were part of a world in which a sailor was subjected to cruel and frequent physical torture by an autocratic captain whose power was unquestionable.
A world in which wages were low and very unequal.
A world in which they had no voice, no vote, no ownership. No debate, no constitution.
They were just a cog in a rather unpleasant wheel.
The history books tell us that there were many factors that contributed to the evolution of pirates, but my take away was that the darkness of the society that had inflicted atrocities upon them was the inspiration for the ingenious democratic experiments that they built for themselves. They built from the darkness from which they came. So the irony of pirates is that they were not pariahs of evil, but they were misfits, who had the courage to create an alternative culture as a reaction to the dehumanizing conditions of their past.
I went into this history with the aim of gleaning lessons in business, seeking ways in which pirates could inspire a change in a company’s organisational structure, or human resources initiatives, or management techniques.
And sure, I did find those lessons. But I also found something else. I found something that could change much more than just an out-dated business model. I found something that had the potential to deeply change the way that I related not only to others, but also to myself.
And that something was: “Pirates took the darkness of their past and created with it.”
Notice how they didn’t let it destroy them.
Notice how they became friends with their dark side.
They grabbed it by the tail and re-shaped it – like play-do - into their own world, into a world in which they could thrive both as individuals and as a motley crew.
And this is the core of what pirates taught me – that creation never starts from scratch, you need to befriend what came before , even if it makes you feel all sorts of painful things.
Every transformative innovation that we see in the world – the printing press, the personal computer, smartphones – was built on what came before it.
And our internal selves, our internal innovation, is no different: we need to build on our past, even if it has a darkish hue that we’d rather leave languishing in the shadows.
So yes, from darkness often comes destruction. But it doesn’t have to. From darkness can also come creation.
And that is the idea that pirates planted in my head. But it would take another misfit to get me to actually act on it.
To me, these are the computer wielding revolutionaries, the geeky programmers, the makers, who thrive on getting machines and systems to do all sorts of amazing things.
Hackers are people who can’t fight the itch to fix and improve something when they see that it can work better than it does. And they will go to great lengths, often crossing legal boundaries, to make sure that right – the right to fix and improve – remains untouched.
But to fix, to improve, hackers first need to understand. Hackers first need to become one with the system, or structure, that they see a fundamental problem with. For a politically minded hacker that problem may be a governmental policy aimed at restricting citizen access to the Internet, for a programmer that problem may be a corporation’s control of software that should be free and open for anyone to improve on.
So a young hacker told me:
“In order to reach that point where you become one with the system, you need to completely take it apart. And you need to study, intensely – like a scientist engrossed over a microscope – each and every element in front of you.”
So to fix, you need to understand, to understand, you need to deconstruct.
I found this idea transformational on a deeply personal level.
Because this nugget of insight into how hackers hack, fused with that other nugget of insight that was provided to me by pirates months before: that from darkness, can also come creation. And I’ll tell you about that fusion in just a moment.
I am not exaggerating when I confess to you that the union between these two insights, helped to save my life.
I’ve referred to darkness 14 times. But I haven’t told you what my dark side actually is. And everybody has one.
In the audience, there are people I call friends, there’s some close family, there are people I work with, have worked with, might work with. So this is a bit hard to say, because most of them don’t know that for many years, I was one of the more than 350 million people worldwide that live with depression.
And trust me, I know I’m only one of sadly too many, and I’m not for a second suggesting that having this particular dark side makes me special or unique. But I felt compelled to open up on this stage because it would be hypocritical of me to talk about the importance of embracing your dark side, without revealing my own.
So that’s my dark side.
And for a really long time, it was my destruction. But meeting these two misfits slowly changed that. From my study of pirates, I finally began to understand that my darkness didn’t have to be my destruction. Instead of fighting against my most painful thoughts and feelings – as I had done in the past without success – I realised that I had to accept and embrace the darker aspects of my being, and just allow them, give them permission to, inspire me. As soon as I stopped fighting, my darkness turned into an extra set of hands, always there, helping me to forge a path into creation.
But how could I find meaning in the pirate’s message – that from darkness also comes creation – without listening to the hacker? How could I even find my dark side – even identify it - if I didn’t know that in order to understand my whole self, I needed to – piece by piece - take myself apart? It’s only after I could stand in front of a table, with all parts of myself in front of me, that I could even start to pay attention to the darker ones of the pack.
I needed these two misfits. This was a marriage. The pirate needed the hacker, the hacker needed the pirate.
But today isn’t only about the specific insights of the pirate and the hacker. There’s something more fundamental here. The power of misfits is actually less in these individual lessons themselves, but rather in the profound realisation that it is those who we least expect to be our teachers that end up teaching us the most. And that goes for ourselves internally, too: it is those dark corners of our being, those unlit crevices, that can reveal the most phenomenal things about ourselves.
I think that, in the end, this all comes down to a simple but elusive thing: empathy. What would a world that runs on deep seated empathy look like? I’m not sure of its exact shape, but I suspect that it looks better than the one we have today. Because one of the greatest obstacles to progress, and innovation, is our refusal to listen and learn from those misfits who shake us to our core, but more importantly, also our refusal to listen and learn from the misfit within ourselves.
We do ourselves a disservice when we refuse to look on the dark side of life. Stories of creativity, innovation, progress are often happy ones. You know, the proverbial light bulb that turns on the second you have an idea that could change the world.
It is tremendously important that we start having another conversation. We need a conversation about the time before the light bulb actually turned on. Because before it was on, it was off. And we were all in moments of darkness. We need to pay close attention to those moments, because casting them aside prevents us from recognising that there’s true ingenuity in there, even if you can’t see it.
I want to leave you with one thing: Never underestimate the power of your dark side. Like a pirate, like a hacker, like a misfit, ask yourself: “What am I made of, and where is my dark bit?” And when you find it, or when it finds you, explore it. Marvel at it. And believe, believe that from your darkness can come your best creation.