The most exciting philosophy-religion in the first and second centuries AD was Gnosticism. In Greek gnosis means knowledge. The Gnostics had secret knowledge that enabled them, they thought, to understand the world as it was. Basically they believed that the world was all screwed up, and it wasn't man's fault. The material world was a disaster. But there was another world, the world of the spirit, that men and women belonged to. We were strangers in a strange world, but we belonged in the light of heaven. If we gained the right esoteric knowledge, our spirits could live for ever.
Jesus may have been a Gnostic, and Saint Paul was definitely at least half a Gnostic. Many distinguished non-Christians philosophers were Gnostics too. I could write about Gnosticism for weeks on end, pausing only for food, sleep, exercise, and something more intimate. My next-but-one book will be about it (Gnosticism, not the intimate thing, you'll be relieved to know). But this is not a blog about that philosophy. Last week I outlined six concepts that can make us happy and useful. This week we'll look at another five.
The first of these is Knowledge
More precisely, how it can make you happy and useful. And the thing is, it is not so much gaining knowledge that does the trick, but more spreading and creating it.
We tend to think of knowledge as something rather technical and compartmentalized. Knowledge is what universities and professors do. Oh, and companies as well if they have scientists beavering away in their basements. Knowledge is worthy. Knowledge is boring. Knowledge is someone else's concern.
Nothing could be further from the truth, and nothing is more calculated to stop us from enjoying life to the full. Knowledge is not what they do. Knowledge is what you do. Knowledge defines what it means to be human. Knowledge is what makes us beautiful like diamonds in the sky (not to coin a phrase).
What does knowledge mean? It means making sense of the universe for ourselves. It means advancing what it means to live. It means being unique, and passing on more than we were handed from everyone who went before us. We don't have to hand it on in books or videos or by being famous. We hand it on by living. Nobody is like me (thankfully), and nobody is like you. You have knowledge you pass on whether you want to or not. That knowledge is unique, because even if it comes from somebody else or from something you have heard or read, it is refracted through your experience and it carries the stamp of your authenticity. The knowledge may be good or bad, true or false. But it is not morally neutral. We are knowledge refractors and generators. The multiplier effect is enormous, through all the contacts we have in our live and the impact - unmeasured, unmeasurable, but massive - that we have.
The quality of the knowledge defines your impact and its moral effect. There are few things more depressing than passing on dud knowledge, or persuading someone of something you know isn't true. It may give a quick thrill, it may make you money, but it is corrosive, acidic, poison. Those who trade in poison get poisoned. But there are few things more satisfying than discovering something true and useful, and passing it on.
Generating and multiplying useful knowledge, knowledge that makes us happier and more useful, is the best thing anybody can do.
Finding Meaning in Life
Not everyone is lucky enough to make generating knowledge their profession. But everyone who is happy finds meaning in what they do (whether paid or unpaid).
The psychotherapist Victor Frankl found meaning in a series of Nazi concentration camps. For him, meaning was surviving the horror so that he could do something useful afterwards. His view was that work was pointless unless it gave meaning to one's life. When in the camps, he envisaged his life afterwards, he saw himself writing books and giving lectures - about meaning. His wife and all his other extended family members did not survive the Third Reich. Frankl did, living proof of his hypothesis.
A sense of purpose not only makes us happy and useful. It also makes it possible for us to survive and thrive.
The Strength of Weak Links
This is one of the most wonderful concepts around. I've written about it before, so I'll just provide a brief aide-memoire.
It was the brainchild of sociologist Mark Granovetter. His research contrasted the effectiveness of 'strong ties' (I prefer the word 'links') - those with close friends and family - with 'weak ties' - more casual, sporadic, unplanned and casual contacts. Which do you think helped the subjects of his research more? Surprise - it was the weak ties, those with acquaintances rather than close friends. And he argued that those weak links were actually more important in holding society together.
Why? Well, our intimate circle tend to be similar to us, and to move in much the same circles. They have access to the same information as us, and not much more. But people whom we don't see day to day or month to month are likely to move in different circles. They have access to information and insight that neither we nor our close contacts have.
So what? If you just concentrate your social life and your access to information on your close friends and family, and if you have few contacts with people in other worlds, the quality of your information and attitudes will become very narrow and restricted. If everyone just moved in their own comfortable circles, it would be very hard for information to circulate between those groups. Society would consist of disparate and isolated groups, ignorant of each other, and probably quite hostile to each other too.
The way that information and insights do circulate, however, comes through the bridges between the groups, from those few people who do cultivate links with the distant parts of the social system - with people unlike themselves. In our book Superconnnect, Greg Lockwood and I described these people as - well guess - "superconnectors". They are the people who get information first and understand it best.
Personal Competitive Advantage
Perhaps the most pervasive and influential concept that business strategists have advanced in the past 60 years is that of "competitive advantage". Like many great ideas, it is essentially tautological. To succeed in business, a firm must be different or better than all its rivals. It must have competitive advantage. Trying to define how to gain and keep that advantage - that is the work of decades, if the company lasts that long. It is a simple, elastic, and incredibly deep concept.
Michael Porter had the bright idea of extending that idea to nations. Each country should have its own competitive advantage. It should specialize. David Ricardo meets Bruce Henderson. Brilliant stuff, that still governments have not taken on board, and should.
But what about personal competitive advantage? Maybe I should write a book about it and try to make the phrase my own. Except I'm not sure there is much to say about it. But then I thought that about the 80/20 principle.
So what is personal competitive advantage? It's pretty obvious. It is what you can do better than anybody else, or what only you can do.
Artists have it. Successful writers have it. So too successful politicians (not many of those), actors have it, architects have it, sports stars have it, and so on. It is not just technical excellence. It is skill plus personality plus attitude. John McEnroe understood that. He really was serious.
Do you have it?
The 80/20 Principle
If you follow me, I don't have to say anything much about this. In any sphere, very little matters much. But that little matters the earth. Find out what that small portion of reality is, and use it to the extreme.
Seriously, though, put a big sign on your desk or your dashboard or the entrance to your home. "Not much matters much, but that little matters enormously. Find it. Nurture it. Spread it."
Think about the Principle every day.
1. Revere knowledge. Define the type of knowledge you will originate and spread. Do it.
2. If your work does not provide meaning, resign. Find a job that does.
3. Have a meeting every week - breakfast, lunch, a cup of coffee, or drinks - with somebody you like but don't see very often, who moves in a different world from you. Shoot the breeze. No agenda. Say what you are doing. Ask them the same. Most of the time it will just be a pleasant meeting. One time in fifty, a hundred, it will change your life.
4. Define your personal competitive advantage. Hone it.
5. In any sphere that matters to you, find the small thing that is the key to everything.