Despite the success of opensource, despite everything we have learnt about the way human networks operate, despite everything we have learnt about man’s make-up, drivers and emotional intelligence, I keep meeting people who just cannot accept the concept of altruism.
As far as they are concerned, man was born to be selfish. Period.
There are many such people about. Which makes life interesting for anyone trying to derive value from social software in enterprises; when you talk to them about it, their eyes glaze over, they get the Does Not Compute signal flashing over their foreheads, and they quickly disengage. I’m sure you’ve seen that look a zillion times.
And that is partly why I looked harder at group selection and at emotional intelligence and at the Nohria/Lawrence Four Driver model in Driven.
Today I saw a spark of light, a modicum of understanding, while reading an unlikely source. George Orwell.
I had chanced upon Orwell’s Why I Write monograph while vacationing in the US, but I hadn’t got around to reading it as yet. Until today.
How can you possibly not read a book subtitled “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind” ?
Orwell thinks that there are four great motives for writing that “exist in different degrees for every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living“.
He lists the motives as:
- Sheer egoism
- Aesthetic enthusiasm
- Historical impulse
- Political purpose
It’s not a very long essay, so I shall let you savour it for yourself, save for an expansion of the first motive. He defines sheer egoism as:
- Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc. etc. It is humbug to pretend that this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they abandon individual ambition — in many cases, indeed, they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, wilful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centred than journalists, though less interested in money.
I have a lot of time for Orwell and his writing, though I don’t always agree with his point of view. Much of the time I do agree with him. But that’s a separate discussion.
Orwell wrote Why I Write towards the end of his life, sandwiched neatly between his two primary successes, Animal Farm and 1984. In 1946, when he wrote the tract, he was only just becoming financially secure for the first time in his life. I am no Orwell expert, but that’s the way it looks to me.
What I find fascinating is the conditioning and worldview expressed by him in that short statement I quoted above, on writing for “sheer egoism”. Here’s my rewrite, obviously biased to help me try and make my point:
- “the whole top crust of humanity” are a bunch of insecure, fame-hungry, selfish, back-stabbingly ambitious people who are “a minority of gifted, wilful people”; “the great mass of human beings”, on the other hand, are fundamentally unselfish, live for each other, setting aside selfish ambition by the time they are thirty and getting on with life.
Winners; and losers.
Orwell obviously saw things that way, in order to have expressed himself the way he did. I don’t think I’ve placed much bias in my interpretation.
This is not about him being right or wrong. Just that even then, there were apparently many people who were comfortable in “dying to self”, who were relaxed about not kicking, biting and scratching their way up the organisation that is life, who were happy to help each other and live for each other. And they were looked down on. For being altruistic and not particularly ambitious.
But that was then. Now, with globalisation and disintermediation and the possibility of universal connectivity and enfranchisement, maybe things have changed.
Maybe the old Winners Losers model based around selfishness and lofty ambition was a Hits model, and maybe we are really moving to a new Long Tail world. Which is not a Hits model, not a Winners Losers model.
And maybe it’s OK to be unselfish and collaborative and not-loftily-ambitious and even altruistic in this Long Tail world.
Just musing. Until I saw Orwell’s words, I never quite realised how bad a press altruism had, how poor a public image being unselfish had.
This puts the altruism-questioners into perspective for me.
My bad. I guess.