Getting ready for the big (tiny) arrival!
Hi, I'm Kyra (pronounced "kee-rah"). I like exploring the dark side of innovation, talking about The Wire, and being a culture junkie. My first book is called The Misfit Economy and it will be published by Simon & Schuster soon. It explores what gangsters, pirates and hackers can teach us about innovation.
I write about a little bit of everything.
All views are my own, except wrong ones.
As a writer, I never really thought I’d ever have to dip into the mysterious - and bloody frightening - world of technology.
I loved science as a kid, I was fascinated particularly with how scientific discoveries happened. It’s had a huge impact on my work today: I still like to tell stories of innovation through anecdotes of scientific progress, trying to communicate the message that most progress occurs through openness and collaboration. But as a kid, it was when I read and wrote that I really came into my own. And so I focused on reading and writing for the rest of my education (and beyond), never really honing hard skills in the realm of computer science, or any other science, for that matter. Recently though, and particularly after spending time with hackers, delving deeply into their worlds, I’ve become obsessed with the idea of learning how to code and program.
I know many seasoned programmers who get really annoyed when they hear the now oft-heard phrase “learn how to code in a day,” or “become a web developer in xx weeks.” I get why. It would irk me intensely, too, to hear that a craft that I’ve spent my whole life refining can be taught in less than six months.
In fact, I have a very similar attitude as a writer and researcher. Before I write anything, for example, I become obsessive over my research. I write my initial thoughts and insights, but then I dive into a pit of reading and interviews that lasts for at least 1 month, if not longer on many occasions. Some may think it’s a wretched and time wasting exercise, but I feel pretty strongly about this process. Writers, and I think this applies particularly to non-fiction writers, need to gain the right to write about a topic - nobody is simply entitled to it. Show the reader that you put in the work, that it is not simply a lazy and superficial attempt to understand something complex. Articles, or books, that exhibit that kind of attitude are, to me, like to an experienced hacker, the version of spending one day coding and calling yourself a programmer. Perhaps crafts that cleverly and imperceptibly radiate a sense of humility are more effective in communicating their message.
This isn’t to say we shouldn’t just go for it. In fact, more and more people should act on tingling curiosities. In the end, that’s the mother of innovation: follow a hunch and you never know where it might lead you. For me though, it’s about how you act on that curiosity: with a healthy dose of deference being key.
So I guess I was a little apprehensive at first when I decided to learn how to code. Thoughts started circling around in my head: “Who do you think you are?,” “There are so many people who are already amazing at this,” “You can barely work Microsoft Word.” But I guess I argued against these thoughts. Telling someone not to bother to learn how to code is like discouraging someone from learning a new language, say French, just because everybody who grew up in France can already speak it better than you. I’m not looking to become a developer for Facebook or Google, or even attempt to base my income on hard coding. But still, there is virtue, always, in adopting a new lens through which to look at the world.
I first became intrigued by the world of hackers when I opened Steven Levy’s delightful book, Hackers. It was published in 1984, but I found it to be as relevant today as I bet it was over two decades ago. In it, Levy describes how obsessive programming with machines, and the resulting relationship hackers built with systems themselves, gave rise to what he dubbed “The Hacker Ethic,” an informal, organically developed and agreed to manifesto that, in several iterations, continues to animate the movement today:
· Access to computers—and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works—should be unlimited and total.
· All information should be free.
· Mistrust authority—promote decentralization.
· Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race or position.
· You can create art and beauty on a computer.
· Computers can change your life for the better.
Each of these tenets reveals certain characteristics that were – at least during the advent of the movement – unique to hackers. All were naturally different people, but Levy proclaims, quite beautifully, that one commonality ran across them all:
“As I talked to these digital explorers…I found a common element, common philosophy that seemed tied to the elegantly flowing logic of the computer itself. It was a philosophy of sharing, openness, decentralization, and getting your hands on machines at any cost to improve the machines and to improve the world. This Hacker Ethic is their gift to us: something with value even to those of us with no interest at all in computers.”
Through my research into their world, I found hackers very much inextricably linked to these concepts of open information, dencentralization, and hands-on philosophy that Levy refers to. But what I adored about them the most - and what I think there’s immense potential to learn from - is their intemperate devotion to the perpetual, almost maniacally obsessive, improvement of systems. This is the beauty of their curiosity. If you observe how some of them operate, they seem to believe that systems only realize their meaning if you can reveal how they work, and, as an extension of this belief, there’s the unshakeable hacker conviction that knowing how a particular system works can teach us something valuable about the world we inhabit.
This attitude is why I think hackers believe in taking things apart as a way of understanding them. In this way, they can clearly see not only the parts a system is composed of, but also the connection between those parts that make the system work. This is a crucial and helpful outlook, as seeing the connections between elements can reveal a vital aspect of innovation: that it’s “combinatorial” in nature, the result of putting things together into new configurations rather than inventing one sole, new product, service or idea. Hackers sit in an enviable position; they understand that grasping the connections that make up the big element allows them to not only recombine existing aspects of a system, but to create new connections between the old and the new. There’s immeasurable integrity in this, and we should take heed.
So my motivation for wanting to learn how to code and program is based on wanting to better understand this mind-set, to see whether I could gain more from getting my hands dirty, from experiencing the process that animates so much of today’s method of working first hand.
I find that already, with only a brief sojourn into this world, that my approach to writing itself has changed. Just a few lessons on Codeacademy will drill it into you that a simple and seemingly meaningless comma can ruin an exercise, much like it can destroy a sentence. The hard work and attention to detail that it trains you in can be transferred to any craft.
Any words of encouragement (or discouragement, if you must!) will be appreciated muchly.
Illustration by Tom Jennings.
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.
Researching for a chapter on “The Art of Hustle” for The Misfit Economy, I stumbled upon this staggeringly stunning passage. It was written by an ex-offender who is trying to start a business after spending time in prison for running a drug business.
“I looked back over my shoulders at the jagged rocks below 40 feet down the steep slope if a cliff and felt and unexpected beat in my chest. For an hour I climb a steep incline up to the cliff in tennis shoes. Clinging tenaciously to the rocks, holding myself up with exhausted strenght and fear, and jumped across gaps in the path with courage. But as I stood on top of the cliff, now missing a shoe, I forgot my strenous climb and remembered that every step was taken for one reason - to get to the top and enjoy the view - to enjoy the accomplishment.
I have been climbing uphill in tennis shoes all my life.”
Everybody has their own pair of tennis shoes, and certainly their own cliff (or cliffs). What this passage said to me is that exploring those shoes, and those cliffs, is elemental to living wholly and authentically.
They say that the ability to create emerges when you put yourself in other people’s shoes. And I agree with that, of course, it’s an element of it - in the end, we’re trying to convince people that putting themselves in the shoes of a gangster, or a hacker, or a con artist can unleash ingenuity. But it doesn’t stop there. If it’s about putting yourself in other people’s shoes, then surely it must also be about putting yourself in shoes that don’t even exist yet. Somebody has to build the shoes in the first place.
Pirates, for example, dared to imagine an alternative reality, a truly unique world - that other pair of shoes - that was radically different from their own. Rational thought gets it done, but it all starts with daring imagination.
But how can you imagine an alternative reality if you’re not listening to parts of yourself that might be shouting, desperate to be heard, perhaps giving you tips of what that world might look like? You have to see the tennis shoes, and the cliffs, as your dear friends. They have things to say.
There’s a quote by Jim Morrison that I love:
“The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are. You trade in your reality for a role. You trade in your sense for an act. You give up your ability to feel, and in exchange, put on a mask. There can’t be any large-scale revolution until there’s a personal revolution, on an individual level. It’s got to happen inside first.”
The revolution starts at home. Embrace your whole self, so that you can imagine with your whole self. Almost every single piece of writing I’ve read written by someone who spent a significant amount of time in prison referred to the importance of exploring one self, without bias toward any part that might be particularly darker than others. While The Misfit Economy, as a project, has taught me many individual lessons taught by a hacker, or a pirate, what today’s research has hit home is one fundamental idea: it is those that we least expect to be our teachers that end up teaching us the most. That goes for our internal selves, too. It is those darker corners of our being, those unlit crevices, that end up revealing the most phenomenal things about who we are, and what we are capable of.
Do you know your tennis shoes?
There’s an awful temptation to just keep on researching. There comes a point where you just have to stop, and start writing. When I began, I thought that the way one should work was to do all the research and then write the book. In time I began to understand that it’s when you start writing that you really find out what you don’t know and need to know.
I received this poem after a talk I gave on pirates, hackers & depression. I love it.
and to your partner in crime,
I wish prosperous winds on the bit oceans
to fill your digital sails,
To all the misfits you help,
I wish many fulfilling adventures,
on the infinite chaos of /dev/random.
A friend recently shared this beautiful poem, and I had to pass it on:
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.”
― Mary Oliver