It’s rare for me to be reading a book by someone I know – I’ve known Sam from working in social enterprise for many years, first getting to know him well as one of a selected number of ‘ambassadors‘ for the social enterprise movement a good few years back. Having stepped away from the youth creative agency he co-founded, Livity, Sam has spent his time writing about, well, pirates.
The central premise of Be More Pirate is that far from being the eyepatch-wearing, parrot-on-a-shoulder, plank-walking, scary arseholes that we all think they are, pirates were also rebellious pioneers: running their ships democratically, being more accepting of diversity, sharing wealth equitably and even creating the principles which have influenced co-operatives and democracies since. The added kicker is that we are at a time now crying out for rebellion against established practice in business and politics, when the elites are hoarding wealth, when inequality is growing, when hope is in minimal supply – in short, Sam argues, we all need to ‘be more pirate!’
It’s written with a tone of immediacy and directness that I found bracing and compelling, and kept the pace up well. You get a real sense of the author’s personality coming through, and of a voice challenging you to step up, to pay attention and to do things differently. This is bolstered by small, practical exercises at the end of various chapters which challenge you to differently – these worked for me, as a gentle nudge along to thinking a bit radically.
I also found a lot of the historical pirate stuff (of which there’s quite a bit) surprisingly interesting – from the different individual examples (like Anne Bonny) to the myth-puncturing realities of different pirates (Blackbeard, for example) and on to the different versions of the pirate code at the end of the book, which are listed as a way of providing a base for us to think about our own ‘pirate code’ or our principles for how we operate in the world, or how our organisation might. A sort of version of values and operating principles, infused with a couple of shots of rum-soaked boldness.
Where I struggled a bit more was with some of the examples of ‘modern’ pirates. I can go with some of the social entrepreneurs I know who are included here, or with Malala, say, whose small acts of rebellion have created something extraordinary. But Elon Musk? I think he’s a preposterous bell-end, who seems to be sending cars into space powered primarily by his own self-promotional narcissism. [in delightful timing news, he’s just managed to somehow try to make the Thai football team diving rescue about himself, and criticised the man who got them all out safely…strong work; although this article is slightly more balanced about him than I am…]
Putting aside my subjective dislike for Elon Musk, it flags up a slight lack of intellectual consistency. For example, I’m all in on the fair distribution / equality side of pirates, but Musk is an example of the concentration of wealth and the inequality it creates: if he was the captain of a pirate ship, he would have got an investment of gold into a massive ship up front, on the premise that much more gold would be coming once the ship set sailed; then he wouldn’t share any of that wealth amongst his crew, before getting rid of whole batches of them when he failed to get any treasure in some early battles. He may have the spirit of rebellion, but he falls down on large tracts of the pirate code and its spirit.
I think he, and some of the other examples, maybe also show up a bit of a dividing line between the individual and collective too. What’s striking about the historical pirate activity is a surprising fairness and equality (even if in the service of some ropey activities), whereas some of the thrust of Be More Pirate is to rebel and focus on yourself. I think that’s fine, and found it personally useful and interesting, but how to translate that personal change into collective networks and movements is perhaps a little underestimated, albeit one that is addressed head on (there is some good stuff here from Margaret Wheeler and the ubiquitous Margaret Mead, for example).
All in all, I’d really recommend it – the depth of research about the subject meant I learned a huge amount, and the central premise has the crucial ring of truth: it does feel like a time when all of us have to do things differently and boldly if we are to expect things to change; and a time when the establishment and established ways of doing things need a piratical kick in the balls. Be More Pirate inspires you to deliver that kick, get more power behind it, and work out when and where to land it in your life and work, and that’s no small achievement.