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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Monday March 20 2006

In my first posting about Voluntary World (as I now think I should have called it from the start), I explained the reason why describing how Voluntary World works might be useful.  Now I will start to describe how it works.

I’ll start with someone who decides to start doing something that nobody is now doing.

By choosing to start something, it is possible that you may set in motion an activity or institution so impressive and so good at generating psychic or even actual income for others who do it later that you may eventually be able to stop doing it, and let them get on with it.  But you should never assume that.  Assume rather that you are and will remain Muggins, the guy who does it, pretty much all of it.  Assume further that nobody else will be that interested or impressed, at first or even at all, and that you will have to carry on doing it, and that you will be on your own.

Do you fancy that?  If not, don’t do it.  Save yourself a world of grief.  Choose something else, which you consider so important and so valuable that you are willing to spend the next decade of your life failing at it.  Because that is what might well happen.  Choose something that you can do, and will enjoy doing, on your own.

A commonly encountered citizen of Voluntary World is the Why-Don’t-You?-er.  The Why-Don’t-You?-ers are full of ideas about what other people should be doing, about world hunger, liberty, encouraging the local kids to take more exercise, whatever, but if you say: good idea, why don’t YOU do it?, they back off.

A more sophisticated version of a Why-Don’t-You?-er is someone who starts something, with a burst of genuine activity and genuine contribution, but who then expects others to take over from him, at which point he can then tell them what they should be doing, without doing even his fair share of the work, let alone most of it.

This does not work.  Most potential helpers will have only limited time and effort to commit.  They aren’t going to hurl themselves into helping you, if they have any reason to fear that you will leave them with the entire job and disappear.  Volunteers demand a limited and well organised task.

I am straying into the world of organising others, when the point of this posting is that you are on your own, which I realise is muddling, but the paradox here is that only if you are willing to do the entire job yourself will others be willing to help you.  Only if people know that they are contributing to something worthwhile, something with a future, will they want to help.  Which means that they will only want to help if, paradoxically, you can do without their help.

A fine example I have recently observed of this principle in action is the way that Alex Singleton has recently hit the ground running with the Globalisation Institute, and I think I may even have offered him some advice along exactly the lines of this posting.  Which he had asked for, I hasten to add.  To have offered unsolicited advice would just have been Why-Don’t-You?-ing.  Anyway, be that as it may, Alex began the Globalisation Institute with the clear understanding in his head that if need be, he would do all the most important work for it himself, indefinitely.  As a result, others have in fact been willing to take on various bits of the work, and now there is a promising little buzz of people around him, of whom I am a lesser one (contributing occasional postings to the Globalisation Institute Blog).  Had Alex even hinted that he ever wanted to stop running the Globalisation Institute - “I want at some point to hand it on to someone else” – I for one would have immediately assumed that his heart wasn’t really in it, and he just wanted the kudos of having started it without the graft of making it successful, and I would not have bothered myself with it.  As it is, Alex gave off the opposite vibe, that he was doing it and that the rest of us could help if we liked, or not, it was fine by him either way.  He did not pressurise or beg.  He simply said how it worked, and invited help, in a genuine spirit of take it or leave it.  Refusal would not have offended.  The sub-text of that was: this is going to work anyway, whether you help or not.  You will not be depended upon.  I won’t ever try to dump it all on you at some future date.  So, I helped.  So, others helped.  So, now the Globalisation Institute is succeeding, and Alex is, paradoxically, now starting to share the important jobs with other significant people who are now stepping forward to assist.

An even better example of this principle in action is Chris Tame.  If ever a man gave off a vibe of self-sufficiency and a general willingness to do everything that needed doing, if necessary on his own, it was Chris Tame in his days as the Manager of the Alternative Bookshop and boss of the Libertarian Alliance.  Above all, Chris was totally committed.  The Bookshop ended up losing too much money and it had to be shut, despite Chris’s best efforts, although its memory lives on it a quite extraordinary way.  (People still occasionally ring me up and ask where it now is, even though it actually closed in 1986.) But the Libertarian Alliance has continued on ever since, and the basic reason for that has been Chris, and his utter refusal to consider it ever not continuing.  Others, seeing Chris’s industry and commitment, have been willing to help.  A lot of what I know about the workings of Voluntary World, I learned while working for and alongside Chris, in the Bookshop, and for the LA.

I repeat: only if you are willing, and are seen to be willing, to do the entire job yourself will others be willing to help you with it.  (I dare say that there is a lesson here that can be applied to life in general, but I leave that to others.)

Here endeth the first lesson.