In many ways, success can be harder to handle than failure, because it sets expectations most people have never felt. These are some of the most important experiences on how to not make a wild success crash on its maiden flight into a painful failure.
1. Understanding The Swarm
2. Launching Your Swarm
3. Getting Your Swarm Organized: Herding Cats
4. Control The Vision, But Never The Message
5. Keep Everybody’s Eyes On Target, And Paint It Red Daily
6. Screw Democracy, We’re On A Mission From God
7. Surviving Growth Unlike Anything The MBAs Have Seen
8. Using Social Dynamics To Their Potential
9. Managing Oldmedia
10. Beyond Success (this chapter)
As your swarm starts to rise to prominence and success, you personally will invariably do so, too. This was probably never a goal of the swarm as such, but it is the way oldmedia’s logic works — they need a face to associate with every movement or organization, and if the movement is successful, so is that particular face.
The danger lies in not realizing that people will regard everything you say as having much more weight than you place on it yourself at the time you say it. If your swarm is political, anything you do — or don’t do — will be interpreted as a political statement, everything from your choice of groceries to your pick of vacation resort. Anything you say will be interpreted as a suggestion for legislation. This translates into any other type of swarm, too — the effect doesn’t limit itself to political swarms.
To take an example, you could easily see somebody mildly drunk in a sports bar, a half-empty glass of beer in hand, shouting angrily at the football game on screen, and muttering, “What this game needs is a bullet to the referee’s head” under his breath to himself. Nobody takes such a statement literally, because of the situation it was uttered in and the person it was uttered by.
Now, imagine the exact same sentence uttered by the prime minister or president in the same bar and situation, but with reporters nearby — or for that matter, anybody with a blog nearby. It would take literally minutes before an oppositional blogger had an article out about how the prime minister wants to reinstate a barbaric death penalty for unsuitable sports professionals, and “has been overheard planning to introduce a bill about it in the near future.” Cue the inevitable shitstorm.
This is the situation you’ll find yourself in quite rapidly as your swarm starts to gain attention and success, and it will place great demands on you to start saying only what you really mean. While we tend to think we already do this, we say many things in closed company that are understood in the context of that company to not be meant literally. Those get-out-free cards are gone once you’ve been on the news a couple of times. Reporters and other people will start asking, “Did you really mean that?” and you will respond with a confused “But wait, I didn’t mean it that way” and immediately risk coming across as a backpedaling second-rate politician on the evening news. You want to avoid this.
The simplest way to avoid it is to be nice to all people, even to your adversaries. Doing so will not just benefit the culture of the swarm, where you lead by example and show people that being excellent to each other is the way to behave, but it will also catch your adversaries completely off guard. This is a good thing: “If you can’t convince them, confuse them.” You don’t have to agree with them — you just have to disagree nicely and politely.
THE DAY AFTER SUCCESS
In the entertainment business, they say that no time is as tough as the year after that year when you were the hottest thing of the town. This applies to every swarm as well. When we’ve been on a slowly upward trajectory for a couple of years, we tend to believe that any dings — any level-ups — are permanent ascensions to a new base level of popularity, acceptance, and visibility.
That is an illusion. Moreover, it is an illusion everybody in the swarm gets afflicted by, from the founder down to the individual activist.
Everybody in society is constantly fighting for visibility. Getting visibility is hard. Keeping it is even harder, for other people will seek to take it for their own causes.
The problems arrive when everybody in the swarm takes for granted that the current popularity, visibility, sales, or whatever your measure of success is will keep on for the next year or two. When that happens, they will stop working extrovertedly, and start fighting between themselves for all the riches and resources and fame that they see coming the swarm’s way on the expected continued success: everything from lavish jobs to expensive toys to personal visibility. As an inevitable result, the swarm’s success will collapse in months — and it won’t be a temporary glitch, it will be a deep structural problem based on faulty expectations of individual reward that takes time and effort to repair.
As the founder, it is your job to explain that when things appear to be at their peak, all those lavish jobs and expensive toys are farther away than ever. At that point in time, the swarm has two of its toughest challenges ever to overcome — to remain steadfast on the extroverted track, despite the distracting glimmering riches on the horizon, and the fact that the visibility and success will fade even if the swarm continues exactly on its current course of action, and this can be a very tough thing to face emotionally.
The Swedish and German Pirate Parties both fell for this predictable but treacherous mechanism. When the Swedish Pirate Party gained two seats in the European Parliament in 2009, with 7 percent of the votes, everybody felt that the parliamentary elections of the next year were practically a done deal. In reality, the race for those elections had only just started, and when people started forming factions for resources to mark their stake in how all the riches would be divided, the race was already lost. The German Pirate Party was the shooting star of 2011, winning a sensational 9 percent in the Berlin elections, and quickly climbing to 13 percent in the national polls, enough for a full eighty seats in Parliament (out of 622). At this point, unless actively countered, people will start seeing inevitable money and resources everywhere, and will start fighting for the five-hundred-or-so jobs that would be the outcome of such an election result. As of today’s writing one year later, the German Piratenpartei is polling at 3 percent, below the 5 percent parliamentary threshold for entry, with about nine months to go until the election.
This type of downfall is reversible and repairable, but it takes time and a lot of organizational and personal anguish to do so. Basically, once this downward spiral has set in, the swarm needs to bottom out at a failing level before people realize there aren’t any riches, at which point the repairs can start. This is painful for everybody involved. So keep the swarm on track, and do remind them of that saying in the entertainment business: no time is as tough as the year after the year you’re hot — and that year will come around, as certainly as the calendar tells you it will.
If your swarm’s goals are of an international nature, you will very quickly see copycat movements in other countries, as activists there realize that your recipe for changing the world would work in their country, too. The Pirate Party has spread organically to seventy countries as of this writing, founded by me as an individual person on January 1, 2006.
There are basically three ways to handle an internationalization. The first is to ignore the people you inspire altogether, leaving them to their own devices, which is a bad idea from all conceivable angles. The second, better way is to lend as much energy and resources as you can to the international copycat movements without sacrificing the operational capability of your own swarm: provide the software you have already developed, experiences you’ve drawn, logotypes and press materials, and so on. Before long, experiences and promotional materials will start flowing in both directions as the swarms in other countries mature.
The third way is to aspire to lead all countries’ movements, just as you led the first country. It is likely that people in the new countries will agree to this, but it presents considerable cultural challenges.
Just because you understand a language, that doesn’t mean you understand what people are trying to say.
To give two examples, when I was working for a company based in the United States, I casually said “good luck” to an American manager who was heading off to negotiations. To somebody in Sweden, this is a friendly, casual expression on par with “godspeed” or “best of winds.” To somebody coming from a proper United States context, however, it has a distinct undertone of “because you’re going to need it” that I was completely unaware of when saying it. The careful translation of words isn’t enough to understand what you’re actually saying — or rather, what the person you’re talking to is hearing.
The second example is when I was in Brazil, and after a day of meetings, the crowd agreed to meet at 9:00 p.m. at a certain bar. Coming from northern Europe, to me, that statement means that you step through the door of that bar at 8:58 or 8:59 p.m., take thirty to forty-five seconds to locate your colleagues in the bar, and join them with some fifteen to thirty seconds to spare before the second hand on the watch passes the full hour of 9:00 p.m.
I had a feeling it didn’t mean the same thing in Brazil, and I’ve learned it’s better to ask once too often, so I asked, “So…9:00. Does that mean, like, 10:00?” Everybody laughed at my question, except for one person in the group who had grown up in the United States and moved to Brazil at an adult age. With his background, he understood that my question was actually serious. “Yes, Rick,” he said as laughter subsided, “about 10:00. Or maybe 11:00.” To the Brazilians, saying “9:00” was just an arbitrary number for meeting some time in the evening — my counterquestion of “10:00” made absolutely no sense to them, as 10:00 was as arbitrary and meaningless a number as “9:00” had been.
These are just examples of everyday misunderstandings that will happen when you try to lead across cultures. Those nuances don’t come with learning a language, but you need to understand them in order to lead effectively. I would argue that it’s superhuman to understand more than two or three cultures to the depth necessary for leading a swarm in that culture, as a swarm is very informal by its nature.
If you do insist on leading all countries formally, I would argue that you need one or two people in every country to act as your local deputies, and that you spend a lot of time understanding the cultural differences in resolving any actions and paths ahead. Your preconceptions will be a mismatch for other cultures, and you won’t even be aware of the differences unless you take active steps to identify them.
At some point, an international support group will form by itself with the self-appointed task of coordinating the international versions of your swarm between countries, languages and cultures. At that point, it will be up to you whether you decide to step up and try to lead the international efforts, or keep leading your national swarm. I would recommend that you stay and lead your national swarm for at least as long as it takes to have its first major success.
I led the Swedish Pirate Party for its first five years, putting two people in the European Parliament on June 7, 2009, which sent political shockwaves around the entire world. After that success, the proof of concept was there, and there was a success blueprint in place. That was the major success necessary. After that, there was no further doubt in the world that this could actually be pulled off.
DON’T SHOOT FOR THE MOON
In closing, it is possible for one person to set out to change the world and succeed. Other people hold no genetic advantage over you — there is nothing inherent to say that their position is superior to yours and that you can’t succeed. Quite to the contrary, it is much a matter of attitude.
No matter whether you believe that you can or cannot change the world, you are probably correct.
There is nothing taking place within the laws of physics that you cannot accomplish. Don’t shoot for the moon in changing the world — that has already been done by somebody else. Shoot for Mars! Build a Mars colony. That’s perfectly doable by somebody determined who builds a swarm to support the initiative.
Just like with any idea to change the world, if you approach it like a project, you can execute it like a project. “Let’s see. We need two dozen volunteer rocket scientists, maybe a dozen metallurgists, a couple of people crazy enough to mix rocket fuel in their back yard….” When you know what it takes to get from A to B, the rest is just execution and inspiration. Therefore, the first step is to tell the world that you’re going to go from A to B, and say what you think it takes to do so, as we saw in chapter 2. A hurdle is never impossible once you know exactly what it looks like — only when you fear its height because you’ve never taken the effort to find out how difficult it actually is to climb.
Of course, your initial estimates of what it takes may be off the mark. They may not even be in the correct ballpark. But in order to discover that, you must put a stake in the ground and start executing the project, and work by trial and error. As we’ve seen, iteration speed is key. Try, improve, adapt, try again. Iterate, iterate, iterate. You will likely be surprised yourself at how quickly plans materialize and self-adjust once you get expertise from various fields involved in the project.
The Swedish Pirate Party set out to go from nothing to getting elected in eight months. We discovered many hurdles along the way, and assessed and passed them just as quickly, working as a swarm where anybody could contribute expertise freely. While we were disappointed with our first election result of 0.6 percent, everybody else was very impressed and had never expected that. The following election brought us into the European Parliament, so “getting elected” became a project executed at one-half of the time of the previous major political movement and at less than 1 percent of the cost of the competition.
The laws of physics are your only limit. (Unless you’re a theoretical physicist, in which case not even those laws may be a hard barrier.)
You want to teach two billion people how to read and write, ending illiteracy in the world? Completely doable.
You want to provide artificial light and heating to a billion people in developing countries? Or clean water? A swarm can make it happen.
How about teaching five billion people rational thinking and scientific approach, in an attempt to end religious conflicts? Totally within grasp.
Don’t shoot for the moon. Shoot for Mars!
In my worldwide presentations, I describe how everybody can change the world if he or she is passionate about a specific change, and that change is tangible, credible, inclusive, and epic enough to attract a swarm.
Whether your dream is to end illiteracy and teach two billion people to read, or you want to take humanity to Mars, the principles are the same.
Change doesn’t just happen, I say.
Somebody always makes it happen.
The final words of this book will therefore be the same words that close my presentations and workshops about cost efficiency in management and volunteer activism:
Do you want to be that person?
(This article is part of the final edit of the book manuscript. It is Creative Commons, CC-BY-NC.)
EXCERPT FROM PUBLISHED BOOK
This is a part of the book Swarmwise, available for purchase from Amazon (US, UK) or for download as PDF. It is an instruction manual for recruiting and leading tens of thousands of activists on a mission to change the world for the better, without having access to money, resources, or fame. The book is based on Falkvinge’s experiences in leading the Swedish Pirate Party into the European Parliament, starting from nothing, and covers all aspects of leading a swarm of activists into mainstream success.