Passover 5781

Here’s something a little different from my usual subject matter: an attempt at some Jewish philosophy. Posted here by request.

This is our second year of video seders. While we’re enjoying religious freedom but our ability to move around and meet each other is curtailed, it seems fit to talk about freedom as one of the big themes of Pesach.

The first chapter of Exodus is a masterpiece of compact narration: a despot uses a spurious pretext to divide his nation and enslave a group of people in just six verses. Two more verses describe the unchanging scenery of oppression: cruel guards, demeaning labour, and the casual repression of what we would now call liberties.

This happens in a historical context when slavery is a part of life: it’s how a country would exploit its power. There is no mention of a struggle, because a conquest of people may be achieved by attrition instead of war. To modern readers, this too looks familiar.

The Hebrew word for ‘free’, chofshi, is used to express the dream of nationhood in the Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem. But it doesn’t get its first Biblical mention until Deuteronomy 15, concerning the liberation of slaves in the seventh year. Incidentally, the other expression we use in the seder, ‘free men’ (b’nei chorin) doesn’t appear in the Bible at all.

We are bound by laws concerning slavery that allowed us to participate — albeit in a way that our contemporaries, who maintained permanent slave castes, would not have recognised. Incidentally, the commandments relating to the seventh year serve as an ancient precaution against unchecked accumulation of wealth and debt, and of the abuse that follows. As the Israelites both acknowledged this eternal problem and presented an early mitigation strategy, we should not be surprised that Jews ended up taking the blame for both Capitalism and Communism.

Moses was not asking for absolute freedom for his people, but for permission for them to take a holiday to acknowledge a better master. In fact, the concept of absolute freedom has no meaning in our philosophy. Pharaoh, we are told, was given the strength to make his decision freely but, in the very next verse [Exodus 7:4], his answer is predicted before he utters it himself. A question clearly arises from this: if somebody is given an apparently free choice but their answer is assumed to be inevitable, is it actually a free choice? Modern philosophy will tell you that chaos is a cost of freedom: if you are truly free to choose, your decision, and humanity en masse, will be unpredictable. But the Plagues are seen to our commentators as an inevitable demonstration of supremacy, intended to be seen by every participant in the Exodus story. We express pity; our rabbis debate adding plagues in the Haggadah; but our text does not contemplate that some might have been subtracted.

The word avodim: avodim chayyinu — ‘we were slaves’, is always translated as slaves in this context, but simply means labourers. The work carried out in the Temple by priests is called avodah: the same word repurposed as a verb. Freedom in our religion was, and still is, the chance to bypass as much human bureaucracy, corruption, and tyranny as possible, and work directly for our boss’s boss. The inexorable power struggles play out over the next three books of the Bible: the Golden Calf, Yithro, Korach, Moses and the rock … Israelites are called a stiff-necked people with good reason. A redeemed slave has many reasons to distrust Moses and Aaron’s mediation even while witnessing God’s intercession on their behalf.

At the root of Judaism, then, is a philosophy of choosing your master, and living with the consequences. You might, for reasons of your own, elect to become a slave. Jewish law will let you, but only for a time. You may enslave yourself to your passions or to wealth, but we are warned of the many ways in which this will go badly. And when we live within any nation, however it values liberty, we are urged to pray for its peace and welfare, and to adopt their laws as closely as we keep our own: we must wear two yokes of servitude.

Stuck at home, preparing for a Zoom seder, one can become hyper-aware of the weight of these and other yokes: those of maintaining our own wellbeing; those of our employers; those that our country demands, and those we have borrowed from less fortunate people around us whose shoulders are not so broad. We carry more than usual, and risk the danger of fewer people around when we start to stumble.

Tonight, as in every seder, we acknowledge at both ends of the night that we cannot know where our next seder will be. In good times, our hope is a product of freedom and, in bad times, of servitude. It is as true this year as it has ever been, and it is never a consolation that Jews have proclaimed the same words in far darker times.

What I hope is a consolation, then, is to focus on the message of Jewish redemption. Life must be lived in servitude either to God or to Pharaoh; an authentic God or a despot; a merciful and understanding master or a manipulative tyrant.

This coming year, with so many voices calling for our attention, may we all be given the strength and wisdom to contemplate and choose whose yokes we will wear.

My Other ADC 2019 Talk : Immerse Yourself and Be Saved!

While I work out how to respond to the wonderful feedback I received about the ‘narcissistic boss’ piece, here’s my talk on immersive audio from ADC 2019. In this, I tried to pour a one-hour talk into a half-hour slot. Which is a little hard on the speaker and audience, but much better than a too-superficial treatment.

I’m not selling anything in the talk, although I’ll soon make a foray into this market. (Did you know I’m making a head tracker? I’m making a head tracker!)

Feeling particularly pleased about the Generation-X-era joke at 22:05, and the gentle dig at Dolby’s foray into consumer goods at 29 minutes. (Less proud of saying ‘fourth-order’ when I meant ‘fifth-order’ at 11:43. But nobody will notice if I don’t point it out.)

ADC 2019 Lightning Talk : Narcissistic Bosses in the Technology Sector, and How To Survive Them

ADC Lightning Talk 2019

There’s more going on in the recording, but this is the script I actually read from.

Hello London.

Tonight’s talk is pretty condensed. Which is this year’s excuse for needing a script.

I’m expanding a subject I handled in 2017: narcissistic bosses in the technology sector, and how to survive them. Having seen more of the world since then, I want to underline the fact that this talk is not about an individual. It’s about an epidemic.

As I said back then, a little self-regard is healthy. You should care about how you come across. I am talking about a personality disorder. This is characterised by particular attitudes and traits that render a person incapable of forming healthy relationships.

Human beings make social transactions. Most of us understand the greater game. If you perform a good deed, the people you help benefit directly. Indirectly, the whole community may do a little better, and your own standing will probably improve. The system is based on trust.

Narcissists don’t play this game. No matter how much you invest in them, their sense of entitlement prevents much love from spreading. And the day you have to call back a favour, they will casually deny your value.

As we need to be somewhat careful, I’ll describe four signs that you’re truly working for one. And I’ll finish with five things you can do about it.

Sign 1 : Work is life.

You are expected to make your workplace your home and also your hobby. Days are arbitrarily lengthened into evenings and weekends. You are reprimanded for turning off your phone on holiday.

Although many companies have ‘crunch time’, when people endure this for a few weeks a year, a symptom of a narcissistic boss is that this is business as usual.

Sign 2 : Bathos.

The world is awash with magazines, awards, and exclusive clubs and events for tech founders. This glamour attracts people who routinely enjoy a good time on someone else’s tab, whilst polishing their fantasy about their special genius and singular destiny.

Back in the office, the carefully-constructed Messianic coachwork slides effortlessly back to reveal the clown car underneath. Driven with an inconsistent sense of direction, its driver will neither consult the map, nor acknowledge any obstacles in the road until after they’ve been hit. In short, they will not distinguish between control and leadership.

Sign 3 : No institutional memory.

Healthy places have enquiry and debate. But there is no healthy argument with a narcissist. They’d rather gamble than learn, and this affects your company’s capacity to grow and adapt.

Every project thus becomes a copy of the last, but with more at stake and less time to complete it.

Sign 4 : It’s all a pantomime.

Regardless of whatever they achieved elsewhere, the principal function of your company’s middle management is decorative. They’ll arrive, listen, and take initiative. But following a few weeks of destabilisation, they will be rendered terrified to fart without a sign-off.

With few exceptions, their right to play depends on accepting a role in a darker pantomime: as hostages, enforcers, patsies, or fellow narcissists.

Those were some signs. Before I move on to the remedies, I must state Rule Zero, which is a fundamental don’t.

You cannot. Change. A narcissist.

But here are five things that you can do. And unlike some of the answers in Monday’s quiz, these are supported by literature.

Remedy 1 : Create resilience.

Your team is in for a long and rough ride. Form a united front that can weather the storm.

Carefully work out who in the company can or can’t be trusted. Hold meetings off-site and keep parts of them off-record so people can speak freely. Foster a social life that involves non-employees.

Remedy 2 : Negotiate.

Narcissists like short-term deals. Approach them on that level, and give them nothing extra for free. If they put pressure on your boundaries, demand something of value in return. They will probably concede, but still feel like they’ve won.

Remedy 3 : Agree and add.

… which is a term borrowed from improvised comedy. ‘Agreeing’ means supporting, in conversation, the world your partner is trying to build. ‘Adding’ means that you fill in details whenever you can.

It’s the gentlest way to work with someone new. It’s also the safest way to engage a narcissist. ‘Agree’: support their view of the world; don’t undermine it. ‘Add’: contribute your expertise whilst allowing them room to backtrack.

Never challenge. You are there to provide status and muscle, not questions. If you start wielding reason like a weapon, you’ll find you’ve brought a voltmeter to a gunfight.

Remedy 4 : Be a grey rock.

It takes energy to maintain a fantasy. If you are seen as a reliable source of nourishment, every lever you have will be pulled to get it out of you.

To be a grey rock is to deny the supply. Respond to every question positively, blandly, and in a monotone. Your answers must serve to impart no joy [not even joy in the making], and invite no conflict.

It may go against every instinct to make yourself boring, but it works a treat if you prefer being ignored to being molested.

Remedy 5 : Outgrow them.

Narcissists are kryptonite to creative people. They will surround you with lies. They will abuse your passion and trust. And, if you let them, they will bleed you dry.

Know that you will be faced with a choice between your career and your integrity, and choose wisely. Develop your skills in every way you can, and value the lessons you learn from other people’s mistakes. In the hours you command, surround yourself with sanity and civilisation.

And on that subject, enjoy the pub!