The Pursuit of Happiness

Here in the US of A, we celebrate Independence Day on July 4th. This is a holiday I usually associate with recreational activities: picnics, barbecues, outdoor recreation, fireworks, parades and lots of 50%-off sales. It’s a pretty mellow day.

The morning after, I was watching the news program CBS Sunday Morning, which ran a segment they called The Pursuit of Happiness. I realized then that there have been several threads of personal inquiry converging with respect to that pursuit: Happiness, Independence, and Community. Perhaps I’ve found my direction.

Happiness and Independence

Am I happy? I think I am, though there are certain frustrations I have. One of the big ones is the constant desire to be more productive, because I believe that producing more original content is my way to independence.

I used to think that the key to unlocking my productivity monster would be finding the right company. The right company would provide me with the right sense of mission, and so I’ve been open to finding the right opportunity. In fact, I was in the early stages of forming an business partnership with someone I know, until that person pointed out on one occasion that I didn’t sound entirely committed. Oh, how I argued, until I realized that he was right: deep down, I hated the idea of giving up my identity. It was a highly clarifying but disappointing moment. We didn’t pursue the relationship.

Since that moment of clarity, I’ve been more committed to independence as an actual path; I would say that my sense of mission is buoyed by the following statement of belief:

  • Happiness will come from creating yummy original content…
  • Which will create opportunities for me to be self-sufficient…
  • And therefore free me to continue to do the things that I enjoy…
  • Which apparently is being the author of said original content…

The lead-off story on CBS Sunday Morning connected the themes of Independence Day with Positive Psychology, a growing movement to scientifically understand the basis of well-being. Most Americans are familiar with the phrase Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness; it’s written right into our Declaration of Independence, and was signed by the original 13 colonies on July 4th, 1776. While “the pursuit of happiness” is one of our most basic rights, it’s entitlement without guarantee. Bummer!

I haven’t read the Declaration of Independence since grade school—and even then I probably wasn’t paying attention—so I was surprised by its relative brevity; rather than reproduce it in its entirety, I’ll paraphrase it:

  1. Ok, guys…there comes a time when a group of people must, due to difference of opinion and respect, dissolve their “political union” because it just isn’t working anymore.

  2. Here’s our opinion of what we think life is all about: we think all men are created equal, have certain unalienable rights such as Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. Governments should exist solely to secure these rights, deriving their power to do so from the People, in a just manner.

  3. When–AHEM–some governments fail to do that, the People have the right to tear it down and build another one. Sure, this isn’t something one does lightly, but when the government refuses to deal with the issues responsibly, action by the People is necessary.

  4. Let’s name names: the present King of England has been a real jerk, and his form of “governance” is one-sided and disrespectful. Here’s a long list of things he’s done to aggravate us…see what we’re talking about? And yes, we’ve bent over backwards to work things out in a civilized manner, but he remains a capricious, greedy, and dangerous prick. We don’t think he’s going to change. And you know what? We’ve had it.

  5. So today, we’re announcing the world that we consider ourselves free and independent states. We will be friends again once this is resolved, but in the meantime: COME AND GET US!

Thomas Jefferson expressed the sentiment more eloquently, of course; you can find the text reproduced over on JWynia’s site in his 4th of July post. As I reviewed the text, it occured to me that the genuine pursuit of happiness takes guts and resolve. This quote from Frederick Douglass also came to mind:

“Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them.”
I described the Pursuit of Happiness as being one of our basic entitlements, but without guarantee that we will receive it. It is, however, our responsibility to go out and get it, and the Declaration of Independence makes it clear that this is a right worth fighting for. When we make excuses about “timing”, or “convenience”, we are resigning ourselves to suffer an imposition of injustice, by the tyranny of our own inaction.

Independence and Community

As I said, I’ve been talking to people about various partnership / company scenarios. I spent many hours talking to people about what this meant to them, and the main arguments for starting a company looked something like this:
  • As individuals, we can achieve only so much. As a company, we will have skills that complement each other, which will as a group allow us to offer a more complete suite of services. We will also have the credibility of being a group, which combined with our talent can attract more interesting (and lucrative) projects.
  • It would be cool to work together with really talented people. People we can count on. People we actually like working with.
  • It would be cool to build a company that emphasized creative facilities: a great space to work in, a place to teach, etc.
These are all fine reasons to start a company, and because I’ve been interested in community recently it seemed to be a great “two-for-one” deal. Except…it didn’t feel right. As I talked with potential partners, I found I needed an awful lot of convincing. And if there’s anything that sucks the wind out of a partnership-in-the-making, it’s a lack of conviction from the person you’re trying to partner with. Everyone I talked to was super enthusiastic about their company-building dreams, but I tended to ask questions like:
  • What would be the company mission?
  • How will we know we’re fulfilling that mission?
  • Who is the majority owner? In the case of an equal partnership, how would we resolve inevitable conflict of interest?
  • How do you see me fitting into the operation? How do you see us working together? What do you see your role as?
And the doozy:
  • What is the advantage of being in a company versus doing what I am already doing now?
The latter really was the sticking point for me because I feel like I’m finally on a path that I’m enjoying: the path of authorship. I like being personally responsible for what I say and do. The questions I asked were good ones, but they really were indicators of doubt wrapped in the cloak of due diligence. And doubt of that nature is NOT something you can tolerate from a business partner, because that indicates a lack of commitment to the whole, which bleeds energy, which is STARTUP DEATH. But I digress…just by asking that last question, I elevated myself to the level of the proposed company, and this tends to have a dampening effect on people who are excited by the very notion of creating something larger than themselves. It’s probably not a bad question to ask, because when you’re starting up you need to be pretty damn sure of the reason and rationale behind the decision if you’re going to really sell it, but it’s a real party pooper. I like the idea of building companies, but I tend to frame the activity in terms of what’s important to me, and not so much “what can we make”. Here’s a list of six directives that I think apply to me:
  1. I want to work on my own stuff to create original properties. This is far and away more important to me than creating a company structure for the sake of having one.

  2. I want to establish a reputation as a designer / developer / writer whatever. And I want to earn it with my own hands, and be personally accountable for what I put out there. That’s how I think of authorship.

  3. I want to create and contribute to a community of independent producers. I could join up with a community, but I have specific ideas about what I’d like to see from that.

  4. I like creating sparks. For me, that means creating an empowering environment and positive energy, such that the “spark” occurs naturally. In other words, learning and teaching is important to me from the perspective of shared experience, not just for knowledge transfer.

  5. If I did create a company or organization, it would exist primarily to provide the scaffolding for personal achievement and development of the individuals, in support of 4.

  6. If I did create a company, it would have to be my company in that I would be the one to make the decisions. I am finally starting to accept this, and I’m also getting over the feeling that I have to apologize wanting things to be this way.

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p>In a sense, this is my own Declaration of Independence.

Directive 6 is a completely new insight for me, and it’s really the first time I’ve seriously thought that I may want to create a company. I have been pursuing the first 5 directives for years and never really considered the option, thinking that I was not up to the task, or that it was just too much of a hassle. These days, though, I’m more comfortable with the idea, and I must admit that with a group I could get more done. It feels a tad egotistical to think this way, because we’re conditioned to think in terms of “team” and “democracy”, but look at it this way: would you want a group of people voting on how you personally choose and pursue your interests? Do you want your own interests and dreams to be interpreted by some “team” with its own agenda and politics? No sir, I don’t like it. The Pursuit of Happiness is, in my opinion, not about group consensus; it’s about recognizing that we’re all free to make our own decisions. The trick is figuring out that this is indeed within our reach, and then learning how to grasp.

So where does community fit into this? Isn’t the mindset I described above counter to the spirit of community?

I think I’ve just figured it out: my values as I’ve listed them here are completely oriented toward empowering individuals, not organizations. I like to cheer people on! Persevere! Face demons! I support and applaud your efforts 100%! I think myself as a traveller on the same road.

While I don’t know where this belief comes from, following through with it is incredibly important to me. It’s funny I couldn’t see this until I got called on my lack of commitment to the company idea. And now, I can see that this has been something of a recurring pattern when I have worked at other companies. With few exceptions, a company’s underlying value was your heart and the company are one. My energies, however, are directed toward empowering the individual so they can shake free of whatever preconceptions limit their potential; company structure and management often are the limit.

I recognize, of course, that insight doesn’t pay the bills. At least when one commits to a company, the company reciprocates with salary and benefits. This allows the individual to survive. This is not an automatic if one pursuits the path of freedom; think “Live Free or Die!” The Declaration of Independence, remember, was a declaration of war. If it had been a single colony declaring their independence, that would have been tantamount to declaring suicide. But when a community of like-minded individuals works together, the odds are significantly changed in their favor. So perhaps that’s what I’m looking for in a community: shared values, a willingness to take action, and a belief that it will be good for everyone in the end.

Community and Happiness

In studies on happiness, everyone who was very happy could point to a strong social network of friends and family. And for all the shaking of fists and declarations of independence, all I really want is to be happy. The two are related.

If I am going to pursue the formation of a company or be part of a community of like-minded thinkers, what are my expectations? On my freelancer / idea forum, this is the pertinent rule I post:

  • Don’t be lame. Contribute constructively. Be respectful of each other.

And then there are my basic life beliefs:

  • You can do anything, maybe badly, but that shouldn’t stop you. You will be surprised by what you can do, and where it will take you.
  • Keep yourself open to opportunity.
  • Treasure the good people around you. Avoid the toxic ones.

Those would be the operating principles of any community I am a part of.

The Pursuit of Happiness is Happiness?

CBS Sunday Morning’s segment ended with this observation:

Maybe Happiness is a journey, not a destination.

If that’s the case, then my mission must be learning how to make maps.