Excellent Advice for Living; A Conversation with Kevin Kelly

Excellent Advice for Living; A Conversation with Kevin Kelly

Kevin Kelly has time and time again proven himself to be a visionary, an intellectual explorer forging paths into uncharted territories. His profound insights have not only navigated the intricate intricacies of technology and its impact on our lives, but also the essential quest for human fulfilment. Kelly, one of the founding editors of Wired magazine and renowned author of influential books like “Out of Control” and “The Inevitable,” has consistently transcended boundaries, delivering thoughtful perspectives that have shaped our understanding of the digital age.

In his latest book, “Excellent Advice for Living,” Kelly does not shy away from distilling the wisdom he’s amassed over decades of pioneering work into practical, everyday lessons. With an insightful blend of the futuristic and the eternal, he prompts us to reconsider the interplay between technology, personal growth, and overall well-being. This book not only enlightens us with its vivid exploration of the relationship between humanity and progress but also inspires us to carve a fulfilling path in a world that is incessantly evolving. Kelly’s profound wisdom and unique perspective, once again, highlight his place as an indispensable guide in our rapidly changing times.

In this interview, I speak to Kevin Kelly, visionary and intellectual explorer, about the nature of wisdom, and his advice for life.

Q:  What is wisdom? 

[Kevin Kelly]: I believe wisdom can be seen as a beacon, guiding us towards the noble, beautiful, and authentic aspects of life. It’s the mark of a wise individual to have a clear understanding of their path, a path that not only promotes positivity but also steers others towards it. So, there is this element of guidance inherent in wisdom.

Moreover, wisdom bears an element of compression, of brevity. In my perspective, wisdom signifies conciseness — a distillation of knowledge, if you will. It’s as if wisdom captures the core, the very essence of understanding. So, it’s a direction, or rather, the quintessence of guidance.

Q: Why are aphorisms so powerful?

[Kevin Kelly]: Indeed, someone once likened these wisdom nuggets to .ZIP files, waiting to be decompressed and explored. When I first started crafting the concept for this book, I referred to it as ‘Seeds of Contemplation’. Each seed represented a compressed insight, ready to germinate and flourish in the reader’s mind. There is a similar sense of distillation and compaction in a .ZIP file, waiting for the user to unzip, unfold, or let bloom.

You’re absolutely right in saying that storytelling is a potent medium for conveying information. Libraries are brimming with shelves of advice concealed in stories, because that’s an effective way of transmission. We are made up not of atoms, but of stories. However, I confess, storytelling isn’t my forte. I find joy in creating these compact, telegraphic parcels of wisdom, that’s where my skills lie.

I may not excel at being the best storyteller, but I strive to be unique in my approach. I cherish this practice, and it’s in this direction that I navigate – crafting wisdom that doesn’t rely on stories, but stands as an archive of .ZIP files ready to be unlocked

In essence, these pieces of wisdom serve more as reminders than anything else. Often, they echo wisdom we have encountered before, although perhaps not in the same guise. My endeavour has been to express these insights in my own unique language, to stimulate recollection.

The reasoning behind crafting these thoughts in a tweet-like format was to provide a mnemonic anchor, a compact handle that can be easily grasped and recalled. The brevity isn’t merely for simplicity’s sake, but to make them easily repeatable, even to myself. And I indeed repeat them to myself, reminding myself to adjust my habits.

Presenting wisdom in this form enhances their memorability. It’s often said that one tends not to remember entire books but rather distinct sentences within them. My work here is akin to a compendium of such memorable sentences.

I believe these distilled pieces of wisdom are more readily recollected, serving as triggers for our memory. Thus, their primary function is to serve as reminders. To the young readers, I hope that they could have encountered these insights earlier in life. And I anticipate that these nuggets of wisdom could be beneficial to young minds experiencing them now.

While some of the wisdom may not resonate and might simply bounce off – and that’s perfectly alright, since one may not be ready for certain insights – I believe some will stick. And that alone makes this endeavour worthwhile

Q: What is the purpose of our lives?

[Kevin Kelly]:  Well, it’s uncertain if there’s just one! I don’t believe we are designed so narrowly that a single dimension or goal can encapsulate our entire essence. The beauty of life is that we’re multidimensional beings. Most people I know are developing different facets of their selves, making life an intriguing tapestry of multiple vectors and colonies to optimize. It’s this complexity that makes life intriguing.

The journey we’re on doesn’t necessarily have a fixed destination; rather, it’s about moving in the right direction. We don’t truly reach a definitive endpoint, and for most of us, the majority of our lives are spent striving to become more authentic versions of ourselves.

Having been in the company of individuals who’ve achieved fame, wealth, or success, I’ve observed that reaching such external milestones doesn’t provide an ultimate answer to the question of self-identity and self-direction. Those who’ve accumulated wealth or fame are often still grappling with the same fundamental questions of existence, and sometimes, their success can even obstruct their self-exploration.

So, it’s safe to say we’re all embarked on this existential voyage. The journey itself embodies the purpose – the purpose of life is to decipher your own purpose in life. This isn’t a contradictory statement; rather, it’s a necessary paradox. We exist in order to uncover the reasons for our existence. Thus, life becomes a perpetual journey in a certain direction, and progress in that direction is what truly matters.

Q: How is digital culture changing our purpose 

[Kevin Kelly]: One piece of advice I offer in the book advises against basing one’s identity on their opinions. This can be a perilous path because it makes it challenging to change one’s mind. Instead, it’s preferable to root one’s identity in their values and character.

In a world that’s rapidly evolving, it’s essential to anchor ourselves to elements that are stable, or at least not subject to frequent changes. These elements are our values and character, the principles we uphold. These principles dwell in the same realm as wisdom.

Indeed, as we navigate an ever-changing landscape, a way to maintain equilibrium is to adhere to a set of unchanging principles. Elements like honesty, integrity, and kindness serve as these steadfast principles. You pledge to remain kind, regardless of the circumstances. You vow to uphold absolute honesty, come what may. This commitment to unwavering principles is, in essence, the wisdom we need.

Q: Which groups have had the most influence on you, through your life?

[Kevin Kelly]:  Reflecting on my personal journey, there are four influential communities that have significantly shaped my experiences.

Firstly, my formative years as a hippie in the 60s and 70s imparted crucial life lessons. Embracing the ‘do your own thing’ spirit and striving not just to be the best, but the only one, was integral to this counterculture ethos. The objective was to engage with endeavors so unique that they defied categorization, the pioneering ideas born on the fringes, among the mavericks. This rebellious, anti-establishment mindset profoundly influenced me. I was inspired by many role models whose own paths led them towards such a stance. Analyzing the trajectories of these successful or prominent figures revealed patterns of unconventional, unpredictable, often perilous twists and turns. These observations imparted significant lessons drawn from the hippie lifestyle.

The second influential group were the Amish and church communities. Interactions with these communities highlighted the importance of unchanging values and the crucial role of community. A principle I’ve recently emphasized is the journey towards authenticity, towards becoming the best, most genuine version of oneself. However, there’s an intriguing paradox here: you cannot fully realize your own self in isolation. It’s a collective effort; your uniqueness is essentially shaped by everyone else in the world. It’s not a solitary, self-reliant endeavor, accomplished on your own. Everyone else plays a role in sculpting your distinct identity. This understanding was a crucial takeaway from the Amish and church communities. They emphasized that individuality is essentially a community project.

The third pillar of influence was my extensive time in Asia, spanning over five decades. Being married to an Asian and raising bilingual children have further strengthened this bond. The Asian perspective taught me the power of long-term thinking and optimism. When you set your sights far into the horizon, you unlock potential that is not accessible with a shortsighted view. Granting yourself a decade to achieve a goal can work miracles compared to a six-month timeframe.

Finally, residing in Silicon Valley for the last few years has offered invaluable insights. Being in the proximity of young individuals who quickly amassed substantial wealth and achieved unprecedented success has been enlightening. Observing the impacts, both positive and negative, of such success on their lives has been informative. In addition, my involvement with Wired and other start-ups has led me to form certain opinions and conclusions about wealth and the concept of success. So, that’s the tapestry of influences that forms my background.

Q: What are your views on pain and suffering in our lives?

[Kevin Kelly]:  Indeed, as I’ve expressed elsewhere, while pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. Painful events are a given in life, but the transformation of this pain into enduring suffering lies within our control. Setbacks, even brushes with death, are a certainty, and they can undoubtedly serve as catalysts for personal growth.

When it comes to experiences of trauma, it’s evident that their distribution isn’t equal – some individuals bear a heavier burden than others. However, the critical aspect isn’t the adversity one faces, but how one responds to such adversity. This reaction, rather than the events themselves, forms the narrative of our lives.

The events that befall us are typically beyond our control, hence they are not the primary drivers of our life story. Instead, our true story is crafted through our responses to these uncontrollable circumstances

Q: What are your fires on taking accountability for our own lives?

[Kevin Kelly]: I wish to offer another piece of wisdom. Even if it’s not your mistake, it could still be your responsibility. That’s one element of maturity – owning up to things even when they weren’t caused by your actions. Life throws curveballs. Your body might fail you, and while it’s not something you caused, it’s still something you must handle. This is one of the important lessons. I prefer to see it as the creation of your own life story. A thought I’ve been expressing more often is how entrepreneurs tend to measure success in monetary terms. This can be quite limiting. What you should truly be striving for is creating new standards of success. That’s your mission as an entrepreneur, to not only succeed but to redefine what success means. And this redefinition should likely involve factors beyond monetary wealth.

Q: What are the most important messages from your life that you hope people apply to theirs?

[Kevin Kelly]:  Yes, one that condenses well into a tweetable thought is, don’t strive to be the best, aspire to be the only. Instead of trying to outdo everyone, endeavor to stand unique. Remember, only one person can occupy the top spot, and aiming for it may not necessarily guarantee your success. Moreover, such a goal often reflects someone else’s idea of triumph, whether that’s being the world’s best poker player or something else. It’s a rigid definition of success, and not necessarily yours. What you should seek is something you excel at and that others find challenging, something so unique that others cannot even imagine doing it. If there’s no name for what you do and it’s impossible to capture it on a resume, then you’ve found a place without competition. This journey is not easy, the bar is high, and it’s particularly challenging for young individuals who are just starting their quest for identity and purpose. There are exceptions, of course, a few extraordinary young talents know their strengths by the age of 20. But for most, it’s a lengthy, twisting journey filled with detours and setbacks. This doesn’t apply solely to individuals; businesses should also strive to be the only one in their field. Wired, for instance, was exceptional because for its first ten years, it had no competition; it was just Wired. While this scenario seems improbable and we were incredibly fortunate, it presented a challenge in selling ads and establishing a niche. There was no pre-existing category for Wired, making it difficult to position on newsstands. This was a significant hurdle, but once we crossed it, being in a category of one was rewarding. This is the same approach you should take when starting a business. Avoid competing head-to-head where you’re pitted against others’ resources, and where the path is scripted. Instead, be a trailblazer, inventing solutions as you go. If a solution can be bought, those with more funds will outbid you. So, this path will be arduous with a high risk of failure, but that’s exactly where you should aim to be.

…it all begins from the fringes. That’s fundamentally why one seeks to travel, to encounter diverse approaches, to grapple with these variations. I might be getting ahead of myself, but I believe this is one of the significant breakthroughs attributed to AI. There’s an aspect of AI that often goes unnoticed—it perceives differently from humans. In a world where we’re continuously connected with everyone else, attempting to think distinctively can be quite challenging. Hence, AI can assist us in fostering divergent thinking, to nurture that unique streak, to strive towards being distinct, by aiding us in stepping away from the communal consciousness that comes with our perpetual connectivity.

Q: Are you hopeful for the future?

[Kevin Kelly]:  I am filled with more hope now than I have ever been, and it’s likely a conscious decision. I view optimism as a craft, something one can improve with practice. Yes, there’s an inherent disposition, but the brand of optimism we’re discussing here is a cultivated one, a learned optimism. Child psychologists emphasize this concept of learned optimism, where we guide children to become more hopeful. We all begin with varying degrees of innate optimism, yet we all have the potential to enhance it. The essence of learned optimism is that researchers have observed that children who are optimistic tend to flourish more. A key characteristic of learned optimism was whether a child realized that setbacks were merely temporary, those children who felt they were just unlucky, or that everything they tried failed, or they accepted when others claimed they were unintelligent. So these setbacks became a part of their identity, something they felt powerless over. If you adopt a more extended perspective, you’ll recognize that most setbacks are temporary. And this is a skill we can acquire – we can train ourselves to be more optimistic by adopting a longer view of past events too. And it’s crucial to understand that this doesn’t mean ignoring problems, nor does it suggest blindly accepting them. I am hopeful, not because I underestimate our issues, but because I believe our ability to address these problems is far greater than we realize.

Q: What do you hope your impact will be?

[Kevin Kelly]:  Absolutely. I believe our influences are quite intimately connected to a group of individuals who might perpetuate our essence indirectly after we’re gone, but our direct influence is rather restricted. Virtually everyone who is born will vanish from collective memory after four generations. Think about your great, great, great grandparents. They’ve been lost in the mist of time, and that’s likely the destiny for most of us. Yet, we can cause subtle indirect ripples by nurturing, mentoring, or educating someone who could then continue to transfer that wisdom through many generations. We leave behind indirect legacies, but the immediate legacy is typically much more palpable. I’ve discussed in my book about attending funerals and the sentiments people express there. They don’t speak about the departed’s accomplishments, the number of books they wrote, or Oscars they won. Instead, they talk about the kind of person they were, how they treated others, the impact they had on people’s feelings—these essential aspects that we’ve just touched upon. That’s what truly matters. Thus, my desired legacy falls within this domain, which ties back to a nugget of wisdom I’ve shared in my book for those with school-age children. It’s a common practice to ask, “What did you learn at school today?” However, a more potent question could be, “Who did you help at school today?” That’s the kind of legacy I wish to leave behind.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.