Sunday, July 05, 2015

Westboro and Dogmatics

Here's a really fascinating interview with a former member of the Westboro Baptists. (I should point out that the interviewer, Sam Harris is an atheist, but I don't think anything he says in here should bother most Christians.) They touch on the subject I've been exploring for many years now, and have not found a good way to articulate to most people of faith. That is: the interpretive layer that takes place between your sacred text and what you consider it to mean. (Your doctrine.) Most people of faith don't realize or won't acknowledge that it exists. Fortunately, most faith doctrines don't lead to Westboro (or ISIS) behavior, but the problem I have is that without recognizing the fallible state a human is in, even if the scripture is divine, you can't know you're interpreting everything correctly. In theory, that SHOULD cause you to be a lot more graceful to those who disagree and a less dogmatic in pointing fingers at others.

24:20 of the podcast in particular is interesting in this regard.

Speaking about the attitude at Westboro, she says about the idea that anything but a flat, literal reading:

"You are substituting your judgement for God's judgement. Clearly, the book says this..."

Of course the irony is that (as the thousands of Christian denominations attest) every person who reads the same set of texts somehow ends up with variant opinions about "what the book says". Some small variations, some huge. And so the only move a doctrinal purist has is to say that all those variations are "of the devil" or caused by confusion, sin, or some other problem with the person who disagrees with your conclusions. (Or they sweep the differences under the carpet and say they aren't important.) It seems to me that all of this goes back to a stubborn refusal to admit that it is simply, literally impossible to extract a flat, literal reading of any text, let alone a massive compilation of works spanning centuries and translated through several languages from vastly different cultures.

So why is it so hard to convince my fellow Christians that their doctrine comes not directly from the Bible, but is the end result of a very complex and rich process of history, scholarship, board meetings, politics, etc? Well most will admit to parts of that, but then go back to saying there is really only one RIGHT interpretation from that process, and it just so happens to be the one that they and their church adhere to. But the complex and rich process is all full of humans using their reasoning, biases, etc. to make judgement calls about the "real" meaning of the Bible.

But there's a lot of fear about admitting this, and I think she puts it well at 41:10, where she talks about her first questioning of her church's doctrine. She had to go with how she feels, or lose everything. The fact is that once you pull one string, you absolutely can find it easier and easier to keep pulling until the whole thing is unraveled. I think the churches that are still around have evolved a coping mechanism to avoid this slippery slope. She talks about that as well. It's basically the Job answer: WHO ARE YOU TO QUESTION GOD?!. (53:20) If the premise is accepted that there's a creator God, then yeah, we humans are clearly less-than, and it's silly to rebel against Him. The PROBLEM is that, as I've been trying to point out, and what Megan points out, it's not GOD ALMIGHTY you are questioning if a doctrine seems out of line to you. Because there are so many possible interpretations of any given subject, the doctrine you've inherited, or that your church proclaims, that does not mean that's what the "true" meaning of the text is.

So why do I care about all this? Because I would love my fellow Christians to be less dogmatic about all their opinions about Truth, because I think that would 1. Allow us to be more loving, and 2. allow us to have more unity, and 3. make us less like "the world" by which I mean the human tendency to be absolutely sure of oneself to the point where dissenters are demonized.

Sadly, it seems that for many people of faith, any diminution of the certainty of their interpretations means an equal diminution of their faith in God. So pushing for this idea seems like it's pushing for people to reject their faith. But again, it's not about faith in God, it's about faith in their doctrines because those are clearly man-made artifacts, and that kind of "faith" to me, is another way of describing pride or arrogance.

Thing about it this way. What if you were raised in the Westboro church like Megan? Would it be "questioning God" to decide that picketing funerals was not what God wants from you? While your church does not do those terrible things, that does not mean that it's the lucky one that got every single doctrine correct. Clearly, it's possible to have full, rich, happy, spiritually fulfilling lives in a church that got some or all of its doctrines wrong. Otherwise there would be only one church in the world with happy thriving people and every other one would be a hell hole.

So all I want to do, is to encourage anyone who thinks that they have to look down on anyone, or pursue political power to stop some group, or anything else that feels less loving than you could be... maybe question that doctrine. Look into alternatives. Pray about it. Maybe God wants you to help change your church to be more like His hands and feet, and less like his sword.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Strategic Intent

Strategic Intent entails envisioning a future that seems nearly impossible, then striving to acquire the capabilities and resources to make that future possible.

Next up on the education docket for me is Strategy!

This course is mostly focused on business strategy though I was hoping for a broader range of applications.  But I think the idea is that strategy from one realm can be applied in any other with a few tweaks.  Starting with the history of military strategy, Prof Ridgely shows how various doctrines can be translated to business.  
While I was hoping this course might make me better at chess and Civilization, I’ll roll with it and see what I can apply to the company I hope to build. My Big Dream does revolve around creating a successful business, so I was able to shift gears to try to apply as much as I could from this course to Breath of Life Art Studio and all the aspirations I have for it.  

One thing I was really excited by was his talk about a mission statement.  I’ve written about what I want to do with BoL (Specifically the Tales from Talifar world) and why I want to do it.  But a long windy blog is not the sort of thing that drives passion in a company culture.  Granted, right now the “company” consists of me and my mom with some editing contributions from my dad.  So it’s comparatively easy to be on the same page and have similar motivations. (Although I’ve already discovered some challenges in that area!)  But the goal is to one day have a fairly large media company, and I want to make sure that as contributors and coworkers come on board, THEY can understand the vision and feel the same way that I do.  And that’s where a statement like this can be useful.  

I’m not completely happy with the wording on this, but my first draft is

“Make the world more loving with stories.”  

Originally I had Make the world better..., but that’s too abstract.  Hitler, Stalin and Mao wanted to make the world better.  Since I’ve actually done a lot of the footwork (navel gazing) on sorting out my values, I’ve come to the same conclusion as the apostle Paul when he said in 1 Corinthians 13:13”And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” and 1”If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,b but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

So my real, actual goal -what I hope my legacy is- is a world that has more love in it than it had before.  There are a number of ways to achieve this goal.  Demonstrating love through actions like feeding the poor, Doctors Without Borders, the sacrifice most parents make for their children; these are all ways of doing that.  But I feel like my particular suite of gifts leads me to storytelling as a way to soften hearts, increase empathy, and valorize true deep love. (as opposed to puppy love, selfish love, obsession and all those other offshoots that don’t actually help people be better people.)  

Besides stating a REASON for my media company to exist, my statement gives the WAY that it must operate on a day-to-day basis. It would be incoherent for me to run a company with the goal of increasing love, while working employees to the bone, defaulting on debts, making tricky or slimy contractual deals, etc.  I want all of my dealings to be done with an eye on how I can bless those I deal with.  This is probably going to be the hardest thing for me to pull off simply because I am not a businessman with business sensibilities or knowledge, so I’m going to have to find someone to do that side for me.  That person is going to have to be a really, really amazing person who shares my vision and passion for doing things in a counter-intuitive manner.  An approach that can (and probably will) jeapordize the business.  If I understand anything about the business world, it’s that since everyone else is cutthroat, any business that wants to succeed must also be cutthroat.  My very limited experience dealing with making contracts for those I hope will collaborate with me on my first foray into indie games has taught me that simply being DEFENSIVE (as in, ensure that I don’t get screwed somewhere down the road) LOOKS like an offensive, aggressive or sleazy tactic.  It’s a nightmare that I’m going to need a very perceptive and talented business person to help me navigate.  

There was a lot in this course about competition.  Not being a competitive person, I didn’t find anything particularly motivating about this material.  But It’s worth reminding myself that it’s a thing, and as a business owner I need to be aware of it.  But I think my plan is so off-the-wall that it’s mostly creating its own market to a certain extent.  (“Blue Ocean” which I’ll talk about more below.)  I mean, if I’m creating content, it will have to compete with other content out there.  But I don’t know how that can meaningfully inform any decisions I make concerning the creation of that content.

Related to this is the concept of differentiation vs cost leadership.  Wal Mart is the king of cost leadership, and Apple is a great example of differentiation.  Being that I want to create content, I think it’s obvious that differentiation is the way to go.  In fact, doing something different is really one of my most powerful motivations for starting this thing.

A very applicable concept he talked about was Blue Ocean, which is uncontested market space, or a niche.  And that’s really what I’m after.  I’m making a fantasy/sci-fi world for interconnected stories.  This is obviously not something that everyone and their dog cares about.  And my main ‘hook’ as it were, is the fact that all the stories will be canon, so that there won’t be inconsistencies between them.  I have NO idea how important this could be to people.  It might be a revolution that creates a huge rabid fan base.  Or it could be something that only a handful of people would appreciate.  But I’m banking on this thing being the thing that sets my Tales From Talifar apart from the millions of other fictional universes.  But beyond that somewhat mechanical distinction, I want to have a more subtle thematic differentiation.  I want the TfT stories to valorize real love as opposed to what most modern pop storytelling valorizes, which is cheap, selfish, and immature things that a lot of people call love.  Again, I don’t know if that’s something that would draw an audience, but it’s important to me.  So these two elements, Internal Consistency, and Inspiration for Real Love, are what I’m shooting for, and hopefully that takes my company into a Blue Ocean.

Another concept I hadn’t really thought about at all was the idea of the personal brand.  I guess I always assumed that who I am as a founder of this company would be that brand.  But he brought up a lot of good points about reputation.  Primarily that you will be defined by others if you don’t proactively define yourself.  I hate this.  I hate that I feel like I’ll need to create an image of myself and curate that.  It seems slimy and political and everything I’m against.  But Prof Ridgely made me reconsider this as a defensive necessity, rather than a self-aggrandizing exercise.  I think what it comes down to is that there’s a spectrum of how actively and aggressively one can pursue crafting a personal brand.  I don’t have to be a PR spokesman to be myself and reinforce who I am if I see that being distorted.  And there’s a correlated issue that I hadn’t thought of, which is the way that some people work to create a personal brand that is actually NOT who they are at all.  And THAT’S the thing that rubs me the wrong way. Besides being kinda gross, it seems like an exhausting thing to attempt, and doomed to failure.  Maybe that’s just because I’m not oriented that way.  I don’t feel a need to appeal to any particular group, so I’m not trying to be something I’m not.  Honestly, I’m just guessing at the motivation for this sort of thing, so I could be totally wrong about that.  Suffice it to say I  have no interest in creating a personal brand that is anything other than who and what I am, complete with all my flaws.  

Then there’s some nitty gritty stuff that I found interesting.  Ridgely talked about Execution Pathologies: lack of responsibility, overreach, communication and coordination breakdown, poor intelligence, and inertia.  These are all things that make a company ineffective at achieving their goals.  They are pretty self-explanatory, so I’m not going to talk about them here, except to say that as my company grows I’m going to want to keep a close eye on these things.  I’ve certainly experienced them all to some extent everywhere I’ve worked, so I don’t think they are ever totally avoidable, but the trick is to try to adapt and evolve to minimize as many of them as possible.

Other common business mistakes he brought up were the attempt to be all things to all people, trying to grab markets that outside one’s specialty, (Starbucks briefly tried selling deli meat in some markets) and having too many goals.  I feel like the mission statement I came up with helps with all these things.

I think my primary method for guarding against these mistakes is going to be to try to surround myself with a very diverse group of people, and then actively listen to them.  A trap that I think is far too easy to fall into is to get caught in a bubble of groupthink, and a good way to break that bubble is to make sure there is a regularly occurring mechanism that drives feedback from all sectors.  Top directors, mid-level, and all the way down the chain.  What seems to usually happen in big companies (And there are plenty of good, reasonable reasons for this) is you get a top layer of senior staff that creates their own little culture, and all the feedback from the other places such as regular employees and customers gets filtered through that.  I’d like to implement a strategy that will moderate that tendency.  

Anyway, those are my thoughts on the latest course I’ve taken.  I’m glad it helped me to start sorting through the less-fun aspects of planning for my future endeavors.