Sam Conniff rewrites rules and challenges assumptions. His first book, Be More Pirate riffs on the Golden Age of Pirates, showing us how to use their strategies to make a mark. His second, How to Be More Pirate, captures stories and experiences from those who’ve chosen the modern pirate life. He talks to Fiona Shaw.
Congratulations on the new book. Does it feel different this time?
The first one wasn’t a complete fluke! Well, it was much easier because I co-wrote it with Alex and she’s a very analytical, intelligent woman. But there’s an aspect of self-doubt, ego and uncertainty in this – it’s what brought the second book about. The first book was a frustration – I’d spent 15 years running this social enterprise [Livity], setting out to change the world, but I became really doubtful. The work that we did with young people was no question impactful in their lives. But the state of the world seemed slightly worse than it had at the beginning. It was 2016. Brexit in the UK, Trump arriving in the US – the lack of nuance, debate and the polarisation; the lack of trust or truth.
The book became a love letter to the generation that I could no longer claim to be part of, that the rules don’t make sense.
The first two parts of the [first] book, the argument is really coherent and it’s funny and then the last third gets a bit lost, because I had to say how you should apply being a pirate. And I didn’t know, because I was making it up.
Then, when it came out all these people responded to it. I started getting lots of DMs and emails from people saying they’d resigned or they’d started a social campaign or they’d launched this community and “yeah, fuck it, we’re going to be pirates too”. I was overwhelmed. I felt an emotional responsibility that I couldn’t live up to. I was going through a lot… through a divorce and a lot of personal turbulence – I’d left the social enterprise that I’d created.
This huge vacuum of identity and questioning of ego and ‘oh my God, I made this thing up’ – and the feelings of failure that come with the personal stuff. Alex joined me and started to look into the messages and set up interviews. And so the book is a verification of the impact of the first and it really replaces the last third – the ‘how do you do this?’ – with an astute and intelligent woman’s observations of how other people have done it, through rigorous interviews. And it’s naive to create a rulebook for rule breaking, but a framework emerges nonetheless.
The first book was an experiment and adventure. And the second book helps me feel sane and that I actually could make a difference and provides a platform for jumping off from.
How do you move people from having ideas to taking action?
You know, I was a bit surprised. Because I was disenchanted. The methodology of Livity had demonstrated that action is possible. But in that classic case, the closer you get to the levers of power, you the more you realise they’re not connected to anything.
Change was possible in the work we did directly with young people in a room. You could see that together, working collaboratively, we could really change their world. But when you ended up working with prime ministers and heads of governments and big business – the promise of change was there, people said they wanted change and you ran all these sessions. And then three months later, nothing had changed. It’s in that aspect that I wanted not to be inspirational, but to be actionable.
And I say very clearly a formula that I’d learnt: talk minus action equals shit.
I wrote as much in that direction as I could. And was still surprised anyway.
Where does it come from in you?
If you’d asked me when I was in Livity, as people did: ’what’s this crusade that you’re on? Where does that come from?’ I found it really hard to understand and answer that. I had this royal sense of injustice, but I’d had that throughout my life because my dad had died when I was young.
He was a lawyer; the first of his family to go to university. Then done really well, so him and my mum were the first people on the street to have a washing machine. They’d entered middle class-ness and we were brought up in that environment – she was a teacher. Then he dies when I’m very, very young and she has to downsize. Her mum gets very ill. We moved to single parent, single mum carer – and this really extraordinarily shit school.
So you had one mindset and another mindset, going on equally. I think I could really see the injustice. Not that I necessarily had more than my mates, but I had a mindset of more. I could see the faults in the school and why there wasn’t really much point me engaging and my level of respect for the authority and the structures diminished over time.
So I think I could see the cracks of life really early on. There’s lots of studies around this – early loss of parents and entrepreneurial tendency.
And then in growing up in my businesses, it was incredibly clear. There were all the smart people who were really intelligent, but working in agencies, selling you chewing gum and Chicken Tonight and the shit the world doesn’t need.
And I was also working in youth centres and doing voluntary stuff where you had brilliant people – who couldn’t change anything. Why are the good people over there, and the shit ones in charge?
Latterly, when my kids were born, I tried to find out more about my dad – knowing from studies I’d read that we mirror parents, even if we didn’t know them very well. There were loads of remarkable similarities. So in one sense, there are my own observations about injustice and inequality and the personal desire to put them right and then there is this cosmic spooky-from-beyond-the-grave spirit of my father following me. And both have a chance of being equally true.
“ I think it’s worth thinking in a really fun way about your own mortality as much as you can.”
Do you think being a pirate gives people permission to do things differently?
What was so good to hear was that people took the language of the book: “we’ve been more pirate”, “why don’t you be a bit more pirate about it?” It’s a proxy for permission. A bit like when you go to a really good fancy dress party and it’s the best party ever because you’re wearing a Batman costume and you just get away with a bit more. You go a bit wilder – you feel more confident, less inhibited. And that permission is from donning the avatar of ‘fuck it, we’re going to be pirate today’.
Alex’s observation was that – whether you’re 16 and coming of age or 60 years old and frustrated by what you may or may not have achieved – the biggest and the first rebellion to achieve is the one against your own self-imposed limitations.
And that’s why permission is essential. No one is going to say, ‘I give you permission to get over yourself’, ‘I give you permission to no longer be inhibited by the traps of your own father’ or whatever. That can only be granted to yourself. I feel incredibly proud and grateful to Alex for the chance of working together, because I might not have made those connections myself.
Pirates are brilliantly open to interpretation and that’s the delight of it. Yes, it’s ripping up the rulebook and going and doing your own thing. But actually in the other sense, it’s about fairness and equality. That initial playful power begins to be matched with a purposeful power.
Convention says that pirates are quite masculine, yet many of the stories you share in the second book are from women?
It’s been much discussed.
From the first draft of the first book, the people working on it would say ‘this is a really high ratio of female stories’. The first classic pirates we talk about are Anne Bonny and Mary Read. And then the first modern pirate we talk about is Malala. And so it continues.
It’s dedicated to my daughters and the final thank you is to my mum. My reaction was, ‘oh, that’s great’. That makes me really proud. That’s a good balance and it’s unintentional, probably because my socialisation was fundamentally in a world full of women – my sister, my grandma, my mother. And then throughout my working life. All of Livity was in partnership with an incredibly strong and brilliant woman in Michelle Clothier.
There’s an inherent thing there. But I’m also very aware of the inequality of society, particularly against women, on all manner of issues that I’ve worked on, from pay equality to domestic violence. So it appeals to me to have a story that addresses equality in a way that is natural to the story because it will become more powerful. The majority of the people in the Be More Pirate community, the majority of the stories we’ve recorded are brilliant female leaders of multiple generations, dimensions, backgrounds, sectors and industries. And that’s something we’re proud of and has never felt forced. But at the same time, long may it continue.
You talk about what a crisis point 2016 was, but at the same time it feels even more relevant now. What change do you think 2020 will bring long term?
I think we’re at a crossroads. I think 2016 looks pretty good by comparison these days, and I remember thinking that 2016 felt pretty hideous. Rolling on another four years, by 2024, 2020 might look pretty calm by comparison.
Humans desperately want the appearance of normality and stability. Even our smartest, most strategic forward-thinkers crave it desperately. I’ve heard the phrase ‘a decade of disruption’ and I think that’s likely. Climate change is going to continue at the rate it’s at before it improves or becomes less of a risk. And the polarisation of politics. Populism. There isn’t a coherent narrative that can get mass consensus behind it. The tried and tested footsteps of tyranny are at play. That’s not a play of right or left politics, I think there’s interesting things on both sides. I think it’s deeply depressing that the face of change is Joe Biden and Keir Starmer.
2020 has shown us how quickly we can get to empty shelves and to leaders absolutely flailing and to spending that will lead to huge recessions; migration that will lead to war.
The other thing 2020 showed us is the things that matter to human beings: our sense of connection – to self and to others and to nature – and sense of community. When shit does go down, what we need is the people around us. There’s a sense that the 20th century dynamic of command and control leadership really is kaput. So we’re on the tipping point, hopefully, of meaningfully taking back control – to looking after ourselves and look after our communities and look away from singular Westminster-style politics towards devolved, community-based representation. I see great hope in everything from flatpack democracy to citizen’s assemblies. So I see another another chance for civilisation and human beings in a really brilliant and bright dawn, but there’s no question that you get to either one of them without… let’s call it ‘extreme turbulence’.
And that’s what I think the next couple of years is about. And that’s what I think is useful in the book – there are coping mechanisms in there for turbulence.
Do you think the impact of 2020 means people will ask more of the businesses that they buy from and work with?
I think so. But I have to say that cautiously from my own bubble. And is there a chance that middle class families with so much power – people with roles of such influence and a chance to change the companies they’re in meaningfully – they’re time poor and stretched. Is there a chance that by buying ethically from some new platform and getting an electric hybrid vehicle, they feel that they’ve done their bit and they’re not going to get out on the streets when we need to?
We need to ask ourselves: with the energy and ability and clout I’ve got, where am I going to fight? Is it the right fight and the best fight I can find?’ We need to have those conversations because we’re drawn to those with the closest proximity. And the chance is, the fight that’s most needed is the one we’re most scared of.
What about social movements from Black Lives Matter to Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for future?
I’ve taken part in all of the above and I have respect and reservations for all of them, too. But the proof will be, does it create lasting change? Few and far between are the revolutions or movements that the leaders would be proud of ten years after, from Mandela to Che Guevara, everything corrupts. (Apart from pirates.)
Human beings haven’t been very good at making 20 year strategies for a long time. That’s a big part of our problem. We have a lot of short term thinking in a long term world, and we need to move that around.
Long term thinking in a short term world will be hard because no-one wants to listen to that. But that’s the next stage of evolution. And perhaps we won’t let people kill each other in the street on camera because we know what the response will be and people will feel able to mobilise.
In Be More Pirate, I tried to update Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which is an arrogance in itself, but it kinda made me laugh. And then reading more about Maslow – because it was pointed out to me hundreds of times that I’d misunderstood Maslow (but there you go). He drew inspiration for the Hierarchy of Needs from meeting the Blackfoot tribe, a tribe of indigenous Americans. They have this philosophy that, for any significant decision, you need to think seven generations ahead. So if you’re gonna cut a forest down to make a plantation, how’s that going to affect your children’s children’s children? And wow, that’s a really difficult way to make a decision. But goddamn, you’re not going to be going fracking on the back of that, are you? Or any of the other stupid things we’ve come up with.
How do you decide what you’re going to work on next?
I try to apply long term thinking, I really do. There’s a study of thousands of interviews that take place at the moment of death. And the regrets that humans have are incredibly similar. It really boils down to not having a very good work life balance, not spending enough time with people you love, not travelling and having enough experiences.
I think it’s worth thinking in a really fun way about your own mortality as much as you can. And that probably draws me to to work on climate, and I’ve done quite a few things this year trying to educate myself a lot more. The conversation with my children who ask me ‘what the fuck were you thinking?’ when they can’t go outside in the summer. Or the winter.
Also I’ve got a polarity in my life, which is a kind of pirate parent paradox. Like, I believe all this stuff… This informs who I am, but… I’ve got two little girls and it’s bath time… Trying to be present in both of those constructs… I find that hard. And that’s replaced the balance that used to be mission and margin.
In both of these things – this kind of gets to the question of navigation in the endless metaphor of pirates – navigating off the side of the map is only possible if you have a compass, or if you can tell the difference between east and west and north or south without a compass.
Has that balance changed as you’ve moved from running a big organisation to writing books?
Am I happier sat in my kitchen, in my pants, than I was running this crazy runaway movement that was going round the world or with 120 staff of this award-winning social enterprise? Yeah, I am. I’m much happier. I found out that I’m a good starter of things. I’m a good ‘founder’. I’m good, in my term, as ‘pirate’. I was not a very good CEO, beyond ten or 20 people.
I can draw lots of belief and I can see opportunity where others might not be able to. And I can get lots of people to buy into an idea, even if it doesn’t make any sense. But when it’s time to see if there’s any substance behind it and put processes in place, I was awful and would start trouble. And I’m sorry to all the people who worked with me in that period of time because it was a nightmare. I didn’t know that at the time. I had very low self awareness and a huge saviour complex that was like ‘come on. The world must need us – if it doesn’t let’s cause some shit so it does need us!’
Both Alexes (Alex Goat, at Livity and Alex Barker, co-pirate) will run those organisations better than I would. And I’m better placed daydreaming something useful into creation, based on where I think the future might need help.
Is there anything that you will do differently as a result of 2020?
For me, I needed a journey inwards. I didn’t realise how frayed were the edges of who I was, with the amount of travel and constantly out in front of people.
I’ve really appreciated the period of reflection and introspection and I know a lot of people have. However, a lot of people are having absolute cabin fever. And, you know, I can really appreciate both. Lockdown down seems very binary.
It does seem to be very much a dividing thing. That’s ‘cause I think we were totally inadequately prepared for it as human beings. That should be the lesson of it.
In 2017, the UK government published a risk report and the number one risk was identified as a pandemic that would take place within one to five years. Every single outcome is what’s happened. So when Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove and Boris Johnson – and Keir Starmer – use the word ‘unprecedented’ to excuse poor leadership and decision making and a lack of a long term strategy, it should not be tolerated.
It continues to exacerbate this relay between fear and a desire for full certainty, that’s the real problem. ‘New normal’, build back better – they’re all terms that are desperately seeking into our past for stability that’s never going to be there again. What’s required is a grown up step into a future which is full of fear and uncertainty.
I want to be good at uncertainty. I want to learn how to live and enjoy life in periods of certain uncertainty. There is joy in adventure and uncertainty and the belief in our instincts and community and our ability to get through things. This isn’t just the time to hunker down and bring back new normals – it’s the time to imagine what’s inconceivable and unimaginable and beautiful and then try and make something that feels so intangible, practical.
It’s time to very, very strongly push back – in creative and extraordinary ways. When the game is rigged and you finally realise it, if you carry on playing by the rules then you play to lose. A time for not just a new social contract but a re-evaluation of the way things work, and that will require bravery and creativity and require all aspects of society and community.
I was offered an MBE for Services to Young People last year. I accept the flaws of publicly rejecting it, but I can’t wear a badge of the system that causes so much harm to the young people I’ve spent my career in service to. And I can’t acquiesce to the institutions we need to overhaul if the same young people are to inherit the future they deserve. We’ve yet to deal properly with our history of colony and empire. We’ve yet to comprehend the damage of the more recent history of a government-led evisceration of youth services under the banner of austerity.
We’re reliant on an unfair and imbalanced system and improving aspects of it around the edges from the centre. The same people are still going to win and the same people are still going to lose. Is that really it? Should we have a conversation about what it could be, even though we can’t conceive that it might feel scary and lots of things will have to change and suffer and go through turbulence to get there? Or should we just put up with what we’ve got, because it’s less scary? The counter to fear has got to be consideration of regret. Are you going to regret this period when change was an option and look back and go ‘fuck it. That was our chance to do something differently’?
And the old men came out and reinvented the world in the making of that which they knew, which is what they will do.
I was excited and now I’m terrified.
And that’s right, they live together. It’s just getting them in the right order. Excitement comes at the front and we put the fear in our back pocket so that it drives us forward. We don’t want the fear in front of us because it will still us. But without a degree of fear, we’re not going to be able to do as much with that excitement as we can.