Featured Friday: Interview with James Bach


Twice monthly I will run a “Featured Friday” interview with individuals who embody characteristics of The Liberation Artist.   This week I am pleased to feature my good friend, the extraordinary James Bach.  Please find a bio and the interview below.  Enjoy!

Bio: James Marcus Bach started out as a sort of “nerd juvenile delinquent.” The son of Richard Bach (author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull), he stopped doing homework at 12, lived alone starting when he was 14, dropped out of school at 16, and at 20 (in 1987) became the youngest manager in the R&D division of Apple Computer. Today he is an international software testing consultant and author. He is also the author of Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar, which is both a mini-manual about his proven self-education method and the story of how he gained success in a university-oriented world without the benefits, biases and burdens of university training. James lives on Orcas Island, Washington with his wife and 19 year-old unschooled son, Oliver, who is nearly finished with his first science-fiction novel.

Our readers are exploring the idea of living as a Liberation Artist, breaking free of the status quo so they can more fully self-actualize, to find greater success and happiness, according to their own personal standard.   How do you feel self-education helps one break free of the expectations of society, so they can focus on who discovering who they are?

Well, first let’s be clear that all education is ultimately self-education. Nobody does surgery on you to teach you things, and two different people may learn very different lessons from the same experiences. Along the way, of course, we may sit in rooms and let our attention be directed more-or-less to the ideas and activities suggested by a teacher. And those teachers may put pressure on us to suppress our natural learning styles and rhythms— most especially to avoid “making mistakes” that they deem unproductive. This is true of all teachers, even me when I am teaching my students the art of software testing. But sometimes making mistakes is crucial to deep learning.

To be purposefully self-educated is to take positive, self-conscious control over the direction and form of your learning. That does not necessarily mean that you are breaking free of any expectations of society. It may be that your fondest wish is to live in harmony with your society, and you may direct yourself to do just that. I have known many people, young and old, who have the power and option and intelligence to develop in some unique and interesting ways and yet choose to pursue a very conventional path, as if to do otherwise would be to wander in the darkness amongst howling wolves. 

It’s not wrong to want harmony. Let’s be clear about that, too. What’s wrong is to make decisions solely on the basis of fear and ignorance.

Society does its best to make you afraid of those wolves out there, whether they are real or imagined. It makes sense that they would—because wolves are dangerous— and it makes sense that they would imagine fake wolves, because if they follow their own advice they don’t actually have any direct experience out there in the unknown. Several of my teachers predicted that I would not be “successful” but of course, none of them were doing what I would go on to do: living as a creative thinker and innovator. So, a young person will hear very different advice from me than from a teacher who works for the state and fears to lose his job.

Seeking harmony with the conventions of your society is fine. I’m not knocking it. However, if you have an inclination to explore and rethink the underpinnings of society; if you crave to know what is behind the curtain that lies between social conventions and the projection systems that sustain them, then the last thing you should want to do is ask an institution to tell you what is true or false. And yes, studying by your own lights, not respecting any authority over your mind, you will certainly waste time in terms of conventional thinking. You will certainly annoy your friends and relatives, at times. Even so, you will be giving yourself the opportunity to make amazing discoveries, see life in a unique way, and whatever happens you will feel that you own that. You will feel that the education you achieve is the real you. 

When you self-educate, or live outside the status quo in general, how do you measure how you are doing?  You are pretty much living outside the bar society has established, so how do you know if you are doing ok?

Humans are story-making machines. Therefore here is the short answer: we evaluate ourselves constantly by creating and telling stories. This is how everyone measures where they are. Even people who have numbers (“I got a 1600 on the SAT” or “my IQ is 140”) must also have stories in which those numbers are embedded, otherwise the numbers will make no sense. 

Now, not just any story will do. When these stories are not informed by a strong and balanced sense of morality, ethics, and empathy, the result can be sociopaths who proudly justify committing atrocities. Almost everyone, fortunately, has a sense of decency— a conscience— that guides them away from cruelty. So, if you have a functioning conscience, and you review to yourself the story of what you are, and you feel good about that, then in an important sense you are automatically okay

But I’m ignoring community, so let’s look at that. In day-to-day living, we are surrounded by communities, and communities have values and standards. Your community measures you. What many people have trouble realizing is how free they are, at least in the West, to choose their communities or change them. But doing so can have a huge personal cost. We need our communities. Fear of what’s “out there” often keeps miserable people in line. Therefore, a big part of proactive living is to overcome that fear of disconnecting and embrace the belief in your own judgment about your own welfare.

Here’s some advice: seek a community that will measure you sympathetically according to your true aspirations. 

You dropped out in high school.  Were you ever afraid you would be seen as a failure, or actually fail?

I was actually never concerned about that. Not even for a second. First, I was raised with the belief that good things are always around the corner. Second, I quit high school at the request of my father, and it’s always easier to plunge into the darkness when your dad is cheering you on. Look at all the people who quit high school and become criminals. How many of them do you think would tell you that their parents loved and respected them at the time? Thirdly, I was protected by my arrogance. I just didn’t believe that the adults in my environment, other than my father, had any real idea what success was.

You know, failure isn’t real. It’s an invented concept that belongs to games. Change the game, and you can eliminate failure. I’m not saying you can or should change every game that you are part of, but you need to realize that the ugly (failed) duckling may in fact be a beautiful (successful) swan.

When you live outside the status quo, how do you let others know they can trust your experience, or rely on you? You don’t have the ‘papers’ that distinguish you, after all.

The answer to that is community-based signaling, reputation, friends, performance, and portfolio

First, signaling: If you were to meet me you would see that I wear clothing and that my clothing, while not expensive, is not ratty. My hair is orderly. I bathe regularly. I wear thick glasses, which is a sign we culturally associate with intelligence. I speak clearly and grammatically and I use a large and somewhat obscure vocabulary. I am a middle-aged man (thus, not too young to be wise). I’m not too short (not a problem for women, but it would be for men). I have a beard. These factors are treated as signals by people I meet. They operate unconsciously, giving people a sense that I am part of the community of trustable thinkers. The signals are often not particularly fair or rational, and they don’t work on everyone the same way. But they are real. In my field, a suit and tie would lower my credibility, but if I were a lawyer I would wear a suit every day so as not to send a bad signal.

When you see teenagers with crazy hair and clothing, they are experimenting with identify construction and their signaling may be discordant. Adults tend to align their signaling with community norms so that they can be taken seriously by the powers that be.

Second, reputation: Over time, in my community, you must build a reputation that gives you credibility. Reputation is essentially what people say about you. It’s your image within your community. This is why we need to be careful what we Tweet and what we put on Facebook.

Third, friends: The perceived quality of your friends either enhances or degrades the perception of you. In other words, if you aren’t part of a community that endorses you, create a community that endorses you.

Fourth, performance: I can demonstrate my skill, live, on demand. I go to conferences and do testing in public. I demonstrate in front of my students. You can, too. These days anyone can show what they can do on video and post it on YouTube. As Steve Martin said, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

Fifth, portfolio: When you have a body of work to show people, they glance at it and tend to assume you know what you are doing. Develop and post examples of your work.

At The Liberation Artist we focus a lot on experimentation as an important tool for creating the life you dream of.  You work in the field of software testing, do you feel testing translates into personal life as well?  (If yes) Can you give us an example of how testing or experimentation can help you find answers in life?

Testing is all about living, yes. This is partly why I am attracted to testing. To test is to learn through experimentation. Testing is science; the topic of science is reality.

As a tester, I know that my mental model of a situation can completely change the way I value it. I need to be able to see a product and imagine how that same product can be considered bad or good. This is a skill I need in my life, too. I might make a mistake— let’s say that my computer is stolen in a train station by a group of thieves (this actually happened)— and it’s partly my training as a tester that allowed me to spend no more than about ten seconds being angry before my brain began to search for potentially good outcomes and opportunities. Later that week, I worked the story of my computer theft into a talk I gave at a conference.

Nothing is good or bad except thinking makes it so. I’m pretty sure that’s Shakespeare. Shakespeare must have been a tester.

In your book, Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar: Self-Education and the Pursuit of Passion, you talk about procrastination.   We learn that procrastination, along with quitting things, are bad.  Can you talk a little bit about the gift  (or value) of procrastination, or even quitting something?  

Isn’t procrastination just a failure of your will to command your mind to produce a specific result at a specific time? Think about it this way: you command your legs to run one mile in only two minutes. You will fail. Is that really a bad thing, or was the bad thing that you asked your legs to fulfill an unreasonable goal? Imagine that you have a car with a radar system that detects if you are going to back into an obstacle. You try to back out of your driveway and it refuses to move. Is that a problem, or are you glad that you didn’t run over the child who was playing behind your rear wheel?

Our unconscious minds can’t speak to us in words. They can’t tell us “please don’t promise to do that” or “I’ve decided this is so interesting I want to take ONE YEAR to work on it instead of one day.” It communicates to us via subtle feelings and by forcing actual behavior. Procrastination is partly communication to you via your unconscious. Let’s celebrate that. Let’s take that seriously instead of dismissing it as a sickness. My book took 26 years to write. Yes, that was frustrating. But I am completely happy with how it turned out. I wrote exactly the book I hoped to write, and I believe I could not have written it much earlier than I did.

And what is quitting? Quitting is allowing yourself to start something new. I am amazed that so many people have been bamboozled into thinking that it’s more important to continue to pursue a bad project than to start a better one. Yes, sometimes determination and persistence is important. But we should think that quitting and not quitting are of roughly equal value, generally speaking, and not that quitting is inherently inferior. And quitting is not necessarily forever. I quit my book many times before I finished it.

If you are committing a crime, you should quit— I think most reasonable people would agree with that. Now, what if taking trumpet lessons is a crime against your future self who desires to be a mathematician? Think about that.

Definitely check out James Marcus Bach’s wonderful book on self-education, Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar: Self-Education and the Pursuit of Passion. You can find James at www.Satisfice.com and www.buccaneerscholar.com and at @JamesMarcusBach on Twitter.