The Intriguing Catholic Promise in the New Connection Economy
As it is the nature of my business to peddle my wares almost exclusively on online markets, I have become accustomed to reading the books and blogs of certain digital marketing “gurus.” I’m thinking especially of Seth Godin, who writes what I believe is the most popular marketing blog in this quadrant of the galaxy, and Chris Brogan, whose book with his colleague Julien Smith,Trust Agents, was a New York Times bestseller. Since I first encountered these writers I noticed a theme running through their work that is at once both symptomatic of the current desperate state of American business culture and, for the Catholic, full of intriguing promise.
That theme is bravery.
We live, Seth Godin argues, in a post-industrial “connection” economy. Old-school enterprises (publishing, higher education, print journalism, Hollywood) are having to adapt to vast sea-changes that emphasize on-demand digital options and the rejection of traditional gatekeepers. All of which makes business today less Mad Men and more Mumford and Sons. The most successful are those “artists” who create an ethos around a product or service that attracts a rabid fan base.
Godin’s chief mantra these days is “pick yourself.” No longer, he says, should we wait to get “picked” by the princes and princesses of the now fading industrial economy. Want to publish a book? Forget about New York gatekeepers and publish yourself on Amazon. Want to get into journalism? Forget about The Gray Lady and journalism school. Bootstrap your own effort online like The Huffington Post or Aleteia. Want to go to college? Don’t wait for Harvard or any other brick-and-mortar institution to pick you when you can choose between any number of online educational options or simply eschew college altogether and start your own business right away. Hey, it worked for Mark Zuckerberg.
Pick yourself. All you need is a little bravery.
Bravery is also the dominant theme of Chris Brogan’s company, The Human Business Way. In large letters at the top of Brogan’s site is the motto: “Work Hard, Be Brave, and Tell Bigger Stories.” He also likes to tell visitors to his site that “You are the superhero you’ve been looking for.” He even has an ebook entitled, It’s Not About the Tights: An Owner’s Manual for Bravery.
Brogan’s colleague, Julien Smith, gives away for free his own ebook entitled, Flinch, which is about overcoming with bravery our instinctive reaction to flinch when faced with difficulty.
I could multiply examples.
So what is happening here? Why are these marketers so focused on bravery?
One reason is because they believe, and want to convince others, of the deep value of authenticity. Authenticity’s demand is that we cannot be who we are – that is, who we are truly meant to be – if we are giving away the best of ourselves in the attempt to please “The Man” or some other professional expectation. Not that everyone has to become a solopreneur. But whatever our professional position we have to bravely find a way to be who we are, to exercise our own creativity and insight and responsibility. Steve Jobs helped make this call to authenticity definitive in recent popular culture in his iconic 2005 Stanford University commencement address in which he urged the graduates:
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
This insistent tom-tom beat about bravery is telling not only of our desire for authenticity, which for Americans is wrapped up in the mythologies of Manifest Destiny, the Protestant work ethic, rugged individualism, and the American Dream. It is also telling of the de-humanizing aspects of contemporary Dilbert-style business as lived by most cubicle dwellers. The call to have the “courage to follow your heart and intuition” comes to such workers like spring air through a newly opened window. It spells hope that they might escape their prison house and finally become fully human.
Yet it also spells danger that authenticity will amount to no more than the grossest form of “I create my own reality” self-determination.
Still, this is where things get especially interesting from a Catholic point of view. What Godin, Brogan, and others are groping for is an understanding of human work in significant ways close to that which has been developed by Catholic social teaching in the last 130 or so years. In particular, they have hit upon a theme from that teaching most astutely developed by G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc in that theory of economics and the human person they called “distributism.” The keynote of distributism is the wide distribution (not necessarily re-distribution) of private ownership of the means of livelihood. Human beings and their families flourish best when they have control over their destiny by being self-sufficient in all aspects of their work.
Chesterton and Belloc thought that distributism required a return to the small family farm. The digital age, however, allows us to adapt the truth of distributism to an unexpected context. But this work of adaptation will be futile if we cannot keep the ideal of authenticity from becoming rank self-determination; that is, if we cannot link it to the more vital Catholic notions of the person, work, and the family.
All it will take is a little real bravery.
Daniel McInerny is a novelist, journalist, and the CEO of The Comic Muse, a consultancy in the area of brand storytelling. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.