Values cards project – independence

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: Let’s start with this: freedom – or autonomy – is not so much about the absence of rules, but power, more specifically the power to make decisions. So, there’s a difference between freedom and independence.

B: Another angle would be to look at financial independence. What it is is, it’s the power to be autonomous, that is, I choose who to depend on. And so, if we look at independence, it’s always relative, never absolute. Absolute independence, it’s not realistic. It’s always about who you choose to depend on.

A: So, that’s more about chosen dependence, or interdependence. When we think of things that way, we just recognize the fact that absolute independence is only possible in theory.

B: It’s also about not obeying orders, the capacity to say no, the capacity to maintain your principles. If I see a competent person, and they haven’t developed an independent position for themselves, I start to doubt their integrity. It even seems dangerous to me.

A: Well, when a newspaper claims that they’re independent, the word seems interchangeable with integrity. We’re independent, therefore we tell the truth. But that’s never told explicitly. For a paper, integrity is implicit, while independence is explicit.

B: Then, from another perspective, if you’re independent but you don’t have integrity, you’re making a moral mistake. The optimal situation, so that you don’t have to make compromises, it’s independence. And if you don’t strive towards that, it’s the beginning of a moral flaw.

A: I also associate independence, then, with a type of craft or technical excellence. When I was hanging out in the startup space, I saw those two profiles – I had two friends actually like that. One who cofounded a crowdfunding platform, but could also code and do UX work, and he had this kind of strong independence. While another friend was a business developer, she set up an international incubator, and she was really sharp, but all she could do was build relationships – nothing really specific or marketable, with clear measures of success. And I always had the impression that she was less independent, she needed to care about other people more. There was this frustration, and this kind of anxiety about her, I think for that reason.

B: Well, that’s how I sometimes think of myself. I’m a good salesperson, but do I have excellent craft? I’m not sure.

A: Maybe that’s what trading is about: it’s keeping the belief that both parties need you. And so, it’s not an independent role. Is it that the merchant, then, is structurally less independent than the craftsperson?

B: Well, I like that new concept of ‘bullshit jobs’, and my theory is, if you can describe you job in one sentence, it’s not a bullshit job. Otherwise it is. I wonder what this means for a coach?

A: Maybe one way to look at it is this. A physio puts your body back in place. And a coach does that with your brain. Except coaching had a lot from people who came in as consultants, or wanted to be consultants, and started to hype everything up, they were making claims about what we could achieve. And often, those claims weren’t true. It’s actually difficult to reach that point of stability and say ‘that’s what I can do for you. It’s not a lot, but it’s something, and that something is already not bad.’

B: So maybe, this has to do with independence. You’re more valuable when you don’t promise people the moon, but you give them an unmbrella, and when it’s raining, that’s what you need. It comes with a form of integrity. You’re not dependent on people’s delusions.

A: Are we saying then that there’s a link between independence and truth or realism?

B: There’s that, but also that financial element we started with. You’re independent when you’ve got money set aside. And if you’ve got an expensive lifestyle, that reduces your independent.

A: So, we must limit our needs to increase our independence. And the token of freedom is not more income, but fewer expenses. The possibility to keep your needs down.

B: I like that. Independence as the capacity to say no to anything. Or better, the decision to say yes to certain things, so you can continue to say no to anything.

On soft and hard skills

At the age of sixteen, when I decided to go for an arts, languages and literature stream in high school, I knew what I got myself into. I was a confident child, and told fellow students opting for safer business, maths and science options: ‘You can have a great career in arts and literature, as long as you’re excellent.’

This perceived need for excellence aligned with my understanding of job opportunities: writing, publishing, academia or the media were desirable; high school teaching was an OK fallback. Nothing else.

Last week, a friend from France  posted a list of the ’25 skills that can get you hired in 2016′. He had none of them, he joked, and so should stay independent – he runs a small publishing house. The list included coding, algorithm design and IT systems management. Virtual marketing, business intelligence and corporate governance appeared in between.

Today, another friend circulated a list of ‘the 10 skills you need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution’. The picture was very different. Complex problem solving, creativity, critical thinking, people management, emotional intelligence: these are the very skills I learnt through long hours of history, classics and philosophy. What a strange cognitive dissonance though. You need soft skills to thrive in the current Industrial Revolution, but they won’t give you a job. Hard skills drive employability.

Luckily, like my publisher friend, I’m not actively looking for ‘a position’ right now. Still, I wonder. Do recruiters really believe that an algorithm designer is by default emotionally intelligence, or can pick it up along with people management over a few PD sessions, but an emotionally intelligent critical thinker couldn’t possibly put an algorithm together once they become part of a team, even with a bit of training? Or should I simply understand that the best way to thrive is not to get a job.