In spring of 2012 I wrote a mission statement for a new project to be called Funding My Existence (FME), which would combine awareness and activism for both the ”Creative Class” and “atypical” personality (or “neuro-atypical”) types. The Facebook page contains a nice nutshell description: ”Funding My Existence is an online community intended to help people ’make a living’ if they’re willing to share the fruits of a creative life. We hope this will help bridge our entire civilization into the future we’ve always envisioned.”
Despite a lot of enthusiasm expressed online, it didn’t develop into an operational website. What went wrong? Or what’s holding it back? I think exploring these questions will offer lessons for those of us wanting to build or contribute to innovative social movements.
First of all, I think that this idea was actually at least three separate ideas mashed into one, making it difficult to communicate exactly what I was imagining.
The first component would create a new kind of fundraising website that had fewer restrictions on what you can do with the money. Whereas Kickstarter wants funds to go specifically to production costs, I thought we needed a system that helps creative workers cover basic costs of living (especially those working in digital mediums with few production costs). However, this idea might not be as relevant now that we have Indiegogo, GoFundMe, and other sites that offer flexible fundraising (i.e., not having to meet a certain monetary goal) and other options. Recently I was surprised to hear about Upstart, whose mission mirrors some language from my first FME essay. According to their website, “Upstart lets you raise money in exchange for a small share of your income for 10 years. It’s an investment in you, not your idea or your business.” Still, Upstart is effectively a type of loan – and the most experimental thinkers would be taking on extraordinary risk with such an option.
The core inspiration for FME came from design scientist R. Buckminster Fuller, who had an idea to release people from having to make a living so they could optimize their creative thinking independently. These ”mind fellowships,” he believed, would inevitably result in a payoff to society beyond our wildest imaginations, easily covering the cost of the fellowships themselves. This idea – one that has clearly been repressed by mainstream Western society – earned a lot of attention in my first essay, so I focused more heavily on it in a follow-up article in October 2012. By the end of the year I thought of switching to the term “existential fellowships,” to differentiate from Fuller’s work – and to be more specific in my goals (i.e., it’s not just about thinking, but also about doing and creating… about changing the world).
I did some research on grant funding and spoke to Cassandra Clayton, who has extensive experience in that area. She was thrilled about FME, and told me that I could even create and run a grant-funded non-profit organization. At least that would fund my own existence! And ideally it would lead to funding many others as well.
Following up on this proved more difficult. For one thing, how would we choose the ”fellows”? I was receiving ecstatic feedback from artists, dreamers, and others who didn’t feel like their deepest needs were being met by society – but I wasn’t simply intending to build a site for artists. Creativity would be more of a secondary ”byproduct” of this vision, I thought. If the existential fellowships were simply for artists, we’d get about 10 million applications! I did mention in my first essay that fellows would have to show their existing contributions to society, but that’s rather problematic (for reasons we’ll soon see). Also, apparently a part of me felt that the FME idea was too eccentric, weird, or unrealistic to become a functioning entity. I wondered if I was trying to rationalize an avoidance of adult responsibilities, as many in mainstream society would argue. Now I don’t think it’s that simple.
The second component of the FME idea focused on ”atypical” personality traits, ranging from the mild (introversion) to the more severe (autism). It seemed to me that people who were labeled or self-identified with these categories were being systematically left out of our socioeconomic system. The message, from public schools to the job market, is: ”Act normal, or get out.” I wanted to create a support hub for such people, to enable them to live however feels right to them – and I thought that our whole society would benefit in the process.
I don’t believe that current mainstream treatment methods are adequately designed to serve the patient’s best interest. Cognitive behavioral therapy doesn’t look at potential underlying factors behind these conditions and traits, and medication is often used regardless of whether the patient feels it’s necessary or right for them. Not only that, but the patient is usually just the “identified patient” in a whole system that needs attention and healing – whether a family or a culture.  However, I overlooked the efforts coming from the mainstream to help the public better understand and include ”atypical” people. I also admit that my whole view on psychiatric medication was oversimplified, and I now see that it can help people in some circumstances.
A core problem here is that the basic premise of FME was infected by an undetected strain of elitism. Some part of me secretly believed that these marginalized personality types were actually superior to the “typical” personalities who currently reign supreme in society, because of the undeniable fact that “atypicals” have contributed a great deal to humanity’s most cherished art, technology, and other innovation throughout history. If you don’t believe me, just view this list of historical figures who had (or still have) a major depressive disorder. Notable names include Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin, and Vincent Van Gogh. Though more speculative, many prominent historical figures are thought to have been on the autism spectrum, such as Lewis Carroll, Stanley Kubrick, Albert Einstein, and the less historical – Bill Gates.
Even though I said I wanted equality, the elitism still crept in between the lines of my communication. I couldn’t see this elitism because it fell in my perceptual blind spot – because I had not yet fully identified or accepted my own ”atypical” traits. In short, I am an introverted, shy, highly sensitive person (or HSP; by the way, they’re all slightly different traits), and I have exhibited some ”mood disorder” tendencies since age 22. These appear to be associated with a case of Asperger’s syndrome that I’m just learning about at age 30, if you can believe it. All of this has undoubtedly interfered with my career development, even though I made it through school successfully (including college and grad school). My lack of self-understanding led me to judge the people and world around me to the same extent that they appeared to judge me (some of which was surely projection of my own self-judgment). So it was really a self-defense mechanism – my passing judgment on people, mostly ”typical” personality types, who hold positions of achievement and power in society.
I also created an introductory video in late 2012 with the help of Matt Bovard that I hoped would be a way to spread the word. I elected to portray some of my own cherished weirdness in the video, but a few harsh comments really knocked me off balance. Clearly I was not prepared (or maybe, well-suited) to proceed as both FME’s spokesperson and first ”fellow.” This became more obvious to me after hearing about the suicides of Aaron Swartz (founder of Reddit and RSS) and Ilya Zhitomirskiy (founder of Diaspora, an open-source social network that would have competed with Facebook), both at age 26, in an early 2013 article about the difficulties of starting your own socio-cultural movement. I imagined the potential backlash from society for promoting and building such a controversial system as FME. Really I’d need a slew of people to stand up for this idea. An FME Advisory Team group on Facebook has been a priceless source of support and feedback throughout this endeavor – and I must acknowledge Mike Harinen’s rampant enthusiasm in particular.
Some feedback on my early FME article from Matt Renner suggested that I would also have to appeal to the side of the ”donors” – or, more broadly, to the ones who do feel served by the current socioeconomic system to the extent that they could help fund existential fellowships. I couldn’t avoid identifying with the struggling ones in society, so it has been very hard for me to dream into a donor’s mindset. Upstart, for instance, is built more from the angle of the ”investors” and “mentors.” But I wanted to build a system that provided funding with a gift mentality that didn’t expect anything specific in return (a desire strengthened by Charles Eisenstein’s ideas on ”sacred economics.”
One part of the original FME article might have added to the confusion. I wrote, ”Recipients will have to demonstrate what value they have contributed to society in the form of ideas, projects, art, innovation, social movements, etc.” What if the potential is there, but the payoff will be more for the greater good than to any of the already-successful donors? Upstart’s intro video says it “lets you invest in people you just know will do something amazing.” I think they also mean “something predictably profitable.” We need a system that doesn’t come with the standard ”or else!” clause.
The third component of the FME idea was my desire to serve people as they undergo transformational crises. This was the least-developed aspect of FME – the hardest for me to illustrate. That’s probably because I was also in denial about an illness I’ve been battling since 2011. In May of that year, I caught Epstein Barr Virus (EBV), and suddenly I found myself an unwilling sufferer of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) – characterized by muscle aches and pains, exhaustion, and mental cloudiness. After the initial illness of 7 months largely spent in bed, I’ve had periodic relapses every few months. But it wasn’t until May 2013 that I finally surrendered to it all, admitted that I needed more help, and sought a variety of mind-body attention and treatment.
Especially at first, the subjective experience of my illness only made sense when reading literature about kundalini awakenings, shamanic initiations, and other ”spiritual emergencies” – a term coined by Christina Grof and Stanislav Grof. Their books Spiritual Emergency and The Stormy Search for the Self contain many descriptions of such experiences, and pose a captivating argument: ”In a supportive environment, and with proper understanding, these difficult states of mind can be extremely beneficial, often leading to physical and emotional healing, profound insights, creative activity, and permanent personality changes for the better.”  I had to believe that this was true of my own transformational crisis, but I was still too wrapped up in it to be able to create a social network that served me. So I kept reading. My nonfiction diet included the books of Arnold Mindell, founder of Process Work – a post-Jungian paradigm that offers an intriguing way to work with and learn from body symptoms and illness. Now other books are helping me support my unique traits, like The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D., and Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.
In discussing transformational crisis, it’s tempting to discredit lifelong challenges and avoid treatment in hopes that the whole storm will magically clear away forever at some point. Neither of those choices served me, and I don’t intend to glorify this kind of crisis. But I would argue that it is a meaningful experience to acknowledge and defend – even though, so far, it has been yet another thing standing between me and my professional development. The most important feature is that a person’s understanding of reality (i.e., patterns of perception, belief system, worldview, etc) changes at an alarming rate, to the extent that it can produce signs of psychosis. Again, I believe this can ultimately help society – since more often than not, the person’s perceptual abilities are improving.
Whether we’re talking about experimental artists, atypical personalities, or people in transformational crisis (it could be anywhere from one to all three), these people are not properly respected or protected in modern capitalistic society. More often, they’re ridiculed or institutionalized. It’s not that I think everyone who self-identifies as some kind of artist must get a paid fellowship – but the decreasing ability of determined artists to survive without appealing to mainstream interests and pressures says something about the poor overall health of our culture. It’s not that I think introverts, HSPs, ”auties” and “aspies” should rule the world at the exclusion of everyone else – but I do think finding ways to involve them in and empower them to influence all areas of society (especially in the realms of politics and business) could be vital to our collective well-being. It’s not that I think we should be paying people to engage in metaphysical battles with the universe – but if someone is launched into such a battle, I think we should keep their quality of living higher than poverty on the brink of homelessness. I even believe this is the next step in the Civil Rights Movement, which is ultimately about enabling and including people whom the mainstream sector systematically marginalizes and disenfranchises, for the inevitable betterment of all.
To summarize, the original FME idea really contained potentially separate aspects of:
1) Funding creative workers who are striving to make a living independent of corporate support and control, to maximize innovation.
2) Empowering “atypical” personalities by creating space for them to be themselves in politics, business, and other sectors of society – instead of unwillingly converting them into a ”typical” (or “normal” or “ordinary”) way of being and working, without respect for their deeper process.
3) Guiding people through transformational crises and promoting the validity of these experiences – sudden and rapid periods of change in body/mind/spirit that can potentially make a person even more valuable to society.
Being more specific in this way – by starting with people who fit two or three of these aspects – would probably reduce applications for existential fellowships from the millions to the hundreds. And now I see a fourth aspect for FME as well. When someone asked me if I thought the concept of “guaranteed minimum income” had application to FME, I said I certainly believed it did. At the very least, FME could promote the importance of such an idea. In early October, Reuters reported that Switzerland is considering providing a basic income of $2,800 per month to all adult citizens. The measure is specifically designed to address the issue of socioeconomic inequality in the country. Basic income is slightly different than guaranteed minimum income, because the only requirement in the first case is citizenship.
It’s surprising to discover that the most far-fetched of these ideas is not actually that far from reality. This story is a powerful reminder to keep dreaming, and – more importantly – to keep working to manifest these dreams. Even in America, they could be closer than we realize. At the present time, it looks like the most useful applications for FME will be to raise awareness about the above issues, and to connect and support those who are struggling because of their “atypical” status.
Especially if you’re among the lucky ones who feel that the current system has provided more than everything you need, I invite you to consider supporting this project. We, the struggling ones, desperately need your help. Your whole society could improve because of it – and chances are you’ll receive back personally (if non-monetarily) as well.
To help build these visions into a reality, even just by contributing your thoughts, please join us on the FME Facebook page. And to get involved at a deeper level, feel free to join the FME Advisory Team group.
1) This point was inspired by the ideas of Gregory Bateson, as described by Stanislav Grof in the paper ”Mind, Nature, and Consciousness: Gregory Bateson and the New Paradigm.” Phoenix: Journal of Transpersonal Psychology. 5/2/31:72, 1981. Accessed on 10/10/13. http://www.stanislavgrof.com/pdf/Gregory_Bateson.pdf
Image courtesy of Victor1558, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.