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The Misfit Economy

Lessons in Creativity from Pirates, Hackers, Gangsters and Other Informal Entrepreneurs

About The Book

“A fresh perspective on business practices or working lives…and a snappy introduction to a new way of thinking” (Financial Times), The Misfit Economy shows how lessons in innovation, salesmanship, and entrepreneurship can come from surprising places: pirates, bootleggers, counterfeiters, hustlers, and others living on the fringe of society.

Who are the greatest innovators in the world? You’re probably thinking Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford. The usual suspects. Well, The Misfit Economy isn’t about them. It’s about people you’ve never heard of. It’s about people who are just as innovative, entrepreneurial, and visionary as the Jobses, Edisons, and Fords of the world, except they’re not operating out of Silicon Valley. They’re in the street markets of Sao Paulo and Guangzhou, the rubbish dumps of Lagos, the flooded coastal towns of Thailand. They are pirates, slum dwellers, computer hackers, dissidents, and inner city gang members.

Across the globe, diverse innovators are working in the black, grey, and informal economies to develop solutions to myriad challenges. Far from being “deviant entrepreneurs” that pose threats to our social and economic stability, these innovators display remarkable ingenuity, pioneering original methods and best practices that we can learn from and apply to formal markets in urgent need of change.

In their “well-paced read about a unique perspective on supply and demand and those who create it” (Library Journal), Alexa Clay and Kyra Maya Phillips investigate the stories of underground innovation that make up the Misfit Economy. They examine the teeming genius of the underground and ask: Who are these unknown visionaries? How do they work? How do they organize themselves? How do they catalyze and execute upon innovation? And ultimately, how can you take these lessons into your own world? The Misfit Economy tells you how.


The Misfit Economy Chapter 1

URBAN EXPERIMENT (THE UX), A clandestine hacker group we met in France, has a mission to undertake positive collective experiments. Some of its members, among other activities, spend a lot of their time using the unauthorized sections of the underground tunnel system in Paris to break into buildings and restore national artifacts that have, in their opinion, been neglected by the traditional institutions of the French state. Known as the Untergunther, this subgroup of the UX is infamous for breaking into the Panthéon in Paris repeatedly over a year to restore a neglected nineteenth-century clock, much to the chagrin of French authorities. Author and journalist Jon Lackman asked them: “Why do you do it?” Lazar Kunstmann, the group’s spokesperson, responded with a simple question: “Do you have plants in your home? Do you water them every day?” For the UX, fixing is second nature. They see themselves as fulfilling a higher duty to “take care of the forgotten artifacts of French civilization.”1

Why break in? you may wonder. Why not forge a legitimate business providing these services? When we spoke to Kunstmann, it became clear to us that the UX works faster, leaner, and in a more focused way than any of the bureaucratic institutions charged with the care and preservation of these artifacts of French history and culture. The UX feels a responsibility for preserving them. So they make it happen, on their own terms.

THE UX IS A BAND of misfits. They shake things up—they question authority, provoke, and experiment.

Who are the other misfits around us?

They are the rogues who threaten the stability of business as usual. The renegades who work against the grain of their organization or community. The nonconformists who are more excited by ambiguity, uncertainty, and possibility than reality. The rebels who break the rules and challenge the perspectives of others. The eccentrics who wrestle with their deepest motivations, embracing their own oddities. The mavericks who aren’t afraid to build on others’ ideas and freely share their own, no matter how utopian or far-fetched.

BORN IN 1887, BRITISH DOCTOR Helena Wright broke barriers as a woman entering the medical profession and was an early advocate for sex education and family planning services, as well as a key matchmaker in helping to broker adoptions.2 While adoption today is a mainstream practice (and a $13 billion industry in the United States), Wright was a pioneer of the service. Through her clinics, she matched women seeking abortions or unable to care for their offspring with women in want of children. Wright was a radical figure at the time, challenging societal modesty by offering contraception and sex education for the purposes of family planning.

Wright went on to help form the National Birth Control Association and the International Committee on Planned Parenthood. In her book Sex and Society (1968), she argued that individuals should develop their sexual expression beyond parenthood. She was a pioneer of the “sex positive” attitude, arguing that sex shouldn’t be regarded with guilt or as a “dirty” act.

In her personal life, Wright was also a bit of a misfit, participating in an open marriage, carrying out séances from her home, and holding interests in astrology and life after death. She believed that today’s cranks were tomorrow’s prophets and faced opposition throughout her career from the medical establishment, social workers, and a legal system that struggled to keep up with her innovations.

Misfits such as Helena Wright display remarkable ingenuity in solving problems many are afraid to touch, let alone acknowledge. Misfits fundamentally challenge the established practices of incumbent institutions, pushing boundaries and exploring opportunities that others might be too risk-averse or traditional to pursue. They provoke new mind-sets and attitudes, catalyzing big societal conversations about issues like sexuality, violence, human rights, equality, and education. True misfits don’t just seek to provide a substitution for an existing service; they question whether the service is necessary in the first place.

Take the education industry, where misfit disrupters have, rather than proposing alternatives to four-year college or university, questioned the basis for formal schooling altogether (through the unschooling movement) and sought to radically transform the practice of learning itself.

In her book Don’t Go Back to School, independent learning advocate Kio Stark profiles a number of misfits who have found alternatives to formal education. In Stark’s words, “My goal was the opposite of reform . . . not about fixing school [but] about transforming learning—and making traditional school one among many options rather than the only option.” Stark dropped out of her Ph.D. program because she found it too constricting. She writes, “People who forgo school build their own infrastructures. They borrow and reinvent the best that formal schooling has to offer.”

Another misfit education innovator, Dale Stephens, founded UnCollege, which aims to offer curricula for self-directed learning. Stephens dropped out of school when he was twelve. He decided that rather than be taught by teachers in classrooms, he would seek out mentors who could teach him what he wanted to learn. Today, thanks in part to misfits such as Stark and Stephens, alternative education is fast becoming a growing marketplace, with online platforms like Skillshare and Coursera providing alternatives to traditional degrees. Mattan Griffel, a former instructor on Skillshare and now a founder of his own start-up, One Month, taught himself code and wanted to make the learning process easier and more intuitive for others.

These instincts are also at work in health care. We spoke to Stephen Friend, who has developed a novel way of working with disease-related research, fighting the current traditionally reward-based, closed academic approach.3 Through his non-profit Sage Bionetworks, he built a community of genomic and biomedical scientists committed to sharing ways to find treatments and cures. The pharmaceutical company Merck was one of the first to contribute clinical and genomic data that cost them $100 million to develop. Friend is working to convince more pharmaceutical companies to donate pre-competitive data. He has raised mixed funding from government, industry, and foundations. Top laboratories from academic institutions including Columbia; Stanford; the University of California, San Francisco; and the University of California, San Diego, are also participating.

Rather than working to protect their data and ideas, Friend is convincing researchers to collaborate and build upon one another’s advances in the field. Launched in 2009, Sage Bionetworks lives online as an open repository of data and models, which Friend hopes will become a sort of Wikipedia for life sciences. Friend isn’t just offering a new service. He is transforming research and development.
The pursuit of reputation and esteem is one of the primary motivators underscoring all economic life. It is what Adam Smith termed the “impartial spectator,” which drives us to act in order to accrue the esteem of others. And it is a force that is just as powerful in the black markets as in the formal economy.

Those in the mainstream feel good about themselves when others approve of or acknowledge their work, often with bonuses, raises, and promotions. Misfits aren’t entirely dissimilar; many do care about their reputations. Graffiti artists try to impress one another by tagging risky locations. Hackers are constantly showing off their skills and commitment, posting their victories online for others to see. An Occupy Wall Street protestor may be just as interested in branding himself as an agitator and seeking out recognition from the community of protestors as he is in societal transformation. In fact, even within the Occupy movement, there was a certain status hierarchy at play. Those who had been with the movement since the beginning were known as “Day 1 occupiers.” Protestors earned kudos from their peers based on how long they had been associated with the movement, whether they had slept in the park, and whether they had been arrested. While it may not be an MBA from Harvard Business School, misfit innovation runs on the social currency that one can receive only from peers.

The prospect of financial gain is another of the great motivating forces in the formal economy. So it is, too, in the Misfit Economy, where such gain frequently comes with recognition and respect. One innovator we met made over two thousand dollars a day selling drugs. He said he pursued that life because it brought him street cred and financial security: “I was respected among my peers and even among the grown men in my neighborhood. At the age of nineteen, I had a nice car, a beautiful apartment, and no financial worries.”

Some of the other misfits profiled in this book aren’t so driven by the pursuit of money. Many of the characters we encountered are motivated by creative expression, the need to fix a problem, the steady mastery of a craft or skill, the urge to protect and defend their communities, or the thrill of getting away with something. Many a misfit would agree with artist and writer Kahlil Gibran, who said, “They deem me mad because I will not sell my days for gold; and I deem them mad because they think my days have a price.”

These words offer insight into a kind of double consciousness—to borrow a phrase from W. E. B. DuBois—experienced by most misfits. Most have an acute sense of “us” and “them.” They are able to understand, parrot, and tap into the values of the formal system when needed, but also maintain a separate awareness.

While it may be counterintuitive, there are often altruistic motivations and justifications at work in the Misfit Economy. Speaking to author and activist Andrew Feinstein, we learned that even arms dealers sometimes believe they are supporting the underdog or empowering the oppressed by delivering a social benefit. Feinstein told us that it wouldn’t be out of character for an arms dealer to think, “I’m arming the powerless to bring peace.” The con artist also possesses a twisted morality. One identity fraudster we spoke with made it clear that he would never go after someone he thought “couldn’t take the hit.”

In other cases, the motivations of misfit innovators are much more straightforward: They center on survival, as well as the need to protect and defend family, friends, community, or one’s livelihood.

ONE OF THE FORMER SOMALI pirates we spoke with, Abdi Hasan, is a thirty-three-year-old man from Galkayo, a city in north central Somalia. Today he resides in Hargeisa Prison, an institution situated in Somaliland (an enclave that became independent of Somalia in 1991) that houses pirates convicted of hijacking ships off the Horn of Africa.

Hasan decided to become a pirate one night after returning home from his job at a hotel in Galkayo. He was then twenty-eight. “I was an orphan boy,” he told us in broken but intelligible English. His parents perished during the Somali civil war, and as the oldest, he was left to support his six younger siblings. Day in and day out in his work at the hotel, he told us, he had observed pirates enjoying higher incomes, allowing them to buy houses for their families, purchase cars, and sustain their khat-chewing habit. Hungry and desperate to provide a better life for his family, he decided to join a pirate gang.

Hasan was a foot soldier throughout his piracy career, boarding and guarding the ships that were targeted and then attacked for ransom. His life as a pirate spanned five years, during which he participated in eight missions, two of which resulted in the successful receipt of ransom money. He was captured—after unsuccessfully attempting escape—by a European Union Naval Force Somalia fleet, also known as Operation Atalanta.

We asked Hasan what it was like to be a pirate. “It was terrible,” he responded. He elaborated, telling us that it was traumatic to see people on the hijacked ships crying, wondering whether they would live or die. “Do you feel guilty?” we asked. He said, “Absolutely. But I was hungry.” He continued to explain, via our Somali interpreter, that the hunger surpassed the guilt.

While Abdi Hasan spoke of the need to provide for his family, other former pirates indicated that the lines can blur between financial gain on the one hand and the desire to defend and support their community on the other.

In these conversations, two factors were cited repeatedly for the origin of piracy in Somalia: the lack of sustainable employment and a history of foreign encroachment on Somali fishing stock.

The Somali government’s collapse in 1991 had turned the country into a fragile state unable to ensure the security, health, and prosperity of the majority of its inhabitants. Simultaneously, its navy and coastal policing bodies crumbled, meaning that fishermen working along the Somali coast lost protection from foreign ships illegally fishing in Somalia’s waters. Unable to find alternative employment, some fishermen turned to attacking foreign fishing vessels along the Gulf of Aden, which forms part of the Suez Canal waterway, linking the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean.

This narrative—the poor, unemployed, distressed fisherman who is merely taking back what was illegally taken from him—is a strong one. While the lure of money was and continues to be the primary reason Somalis turn to piracy, this story breathes life into the movement and provides an appealing rationalization for engaging in illegal and often violent behavior.

We spoke to Jay Bahadur, an author (The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World) and journalist who has spent a significant amount of time in Somalia. He told us that Somali piracy in the mid-1990s was indeed primarily a business of ex-fishermen and others attacking foreign trawlers that stayed close to Somali shores. The movement’s early leaders, Bahadur said, were being genuine about the fact that they felt their fishing waters were being encroached. To them, this was a redemption movement whereby they were applying fines to illegal activity. These initial gangs then started teaching the methods to other people, and the movement spread throughout Somalia.

However, since those early days, most of Somalia’s pirates have lacked a history in fishing. Fishing is a marginal activity in Somalia; it isn’t traditionally Somali, and according to Bahadur, it is looked down upon by many Somalis as a way of making a living. This story, then, is presented to journalists and authors by many pirates as a way to justify their behavior. “Beyond a few aggrieved fishermen in the early days,” Bahadur told us, “it doesn’t really hold true.”

Piracy in Somalia really took off in early 2008, when the government of Puntland experienced a collapse of sorts. Unable to pay its soldiers, the country experienced a surplus of young, armed, and unemployed men. They joined pirate gangs as a way to earn income. The Puntland coast guard even trained some of the early pirates in how to conduct boarding operations and navigate. It was this combination—a semi-collapsed government, coupled with a high monetary incentive, low risk, and the geographical location of Puntland (straddling the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean)—that can be considered the catalyst for the explosion of the piracy movement in Somalia.

One pirate we spoke with, Mohamed Omar—who practiced in Eyl, a city in the autonomous state of Puntland—told of his motivations for becoming a pirate. “We didn’t intend to kill anyone,” he said, sitting in a Somali prison cell. “We were just poor fishermen who were attacked. We had to defend ourselves.” Though when we asked him what he liked about being a pirate, he answered immediately: “The money.” He added that if he fails to find employment once he is released from prison, he will return to piracy.

Abdu Said, a pirate from Hobyo, a port city in north central Somalia, struck a similar tone: “I became a pirate so that I could save the Somali coast.” After a brief pause, he added, “And to make money,” trying hard to make the latter sound more like an afterthought and not a primary motivation.
While misfits and entrepreneurs share some traits—they are natural risk takers who pursue freedom and autonomy through their own passion and hustle—they shouldn’t be conflated. Misfits are countercultural, self-questioning, and vulnerable. They push boundaries. They challenge systems. Sure, sometimes the misfit personality finds herself in the body of an entrepreneur, and when these identities merge, the results can be explosive.

Two businessmen in possession of this hybrid DNA are Steve Jobs and Richard Branson. Self-confident, achievement-oriented, and invested in winning over others, Jobs was a quintessential entrepreneur. He succeeded in creating one of the planet’s most successful companies, bringing iconic products to the masses. And while at times Jobs seemed invincible, he wasn’t afraid to show his vulnerability (a key example being his famous Stanford commencement address, in which he spoke about feeling like a failure after he was fired from his own company).

The alternative, renegade spirit he encouraged at Apple from the get-go, when the computer industry was ruled by the big buttoned-down organizations, was showcased in an infamous ad celebrating none other than the misfit:

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.

Similarly, Richard Branson’s maverick blend of entrepreneur and misfit influenced him to pursue opportunities and take risks where others were too afraid. A struggling student, perhaps due to his dyslexia, Branson founded his first entrepreneurial venture at sixteen with a magazine called Student, a national magazine run by and aimed at high school students. He then founded a record store, Virgin, in the crypt of a church. By the seventies, he had enough money to launch his own label and started Virgin Records. He went on to sign experimental bands such as Faust and Culture Club, whom many in the music industry were reluctant to take on.

Since the runaway success of the Virgin brand as a whole, Branson has pioneered other markets, such as space tourism, against the wisdom of many well-established friends and competitors. Branson’s powerful blend of renegade entrepreneurship has made him the eighth richest citizen of the United Kingdom at the time of writing,4 as well as an honorable member of the Misfit Economy.

Many creatives and artists we spoke with are also developing a more entrepreneurial mind-set. American filmmaker and storyteller Lance Weiler, like Branson, is dyslexic. He suffered from a speech impediment as a kid and was constantly threatened with being held back in school. He didn’t go to college but instead became a film runner, running film from a movie set to the lab while sleeping in his car. He worked his way up through the industry and in 1996 got an unlikely break with his film The Last Broadcast, the first feature movie that you could watch on a laptop. Weiler made the movie with a friend for $900, and it ended up grossing close to $5 million.

“At the time,” Weiler told us, “people thought we were bastardizing the filmmaking process because we were using digital. We weren’t considered to be filmmakers.” He suggested that a certain naïveté, rebelliousness, and experimentalism were key to the movie’s success. “We were rebelling against a system that was permission-based.” Weiler believed he was helping to define a new type of moviemaking. “We were like that little fat girl from Ohio that Francis Coppola talked about in Hearts of Darkness,” Weiler told us. “You know, this idea that the next Mozart or beautiful film would come from some small town by a kid using their father’s camera recorder. That was what we were doing.”

Part of Weiler’s success was due to his ability to work the system. He wrote letters to major production companies telling them he wanted to make the first digital motion picture. After he didn’t hear back, he took a page from a con man’s handbook and wrote the same letters but intentionally misaddressed them so they were sent to the wrong companies. Sony, for example, would get a letter intended for Barco. Within three days, he had received countless calls from these companies and offers of a free projector that he could use for the next few years. Weiler then brought digital projection to Cannes and Sundance.

When it came to releasing the movie into multiple theaters, Weiler thought about using satellite technology to beam the movie in. But he didn’t know anything about satellite. He was on the phone with one satellite provider when they repeatedly asked him what competitor he was talking to. Weiler wasn’t speaking to anyone else, but every time they asked, he avoided the question. Finally, he told them that if they asked one more time, he would have to end the conversation. The conversation continued, and five minutes later, they asked again. Weiler hung up the phone. His producer called him in a panic. “She thought I was crazy,” he told us. The company ended up giving Weiler $2.5 million of R&D technology, far more than he’d anticipated. “I had nothing to lose. It was just this renegade spirit.”

Weiler believes that an entrepreneurial mind-set is essential for any artist. “There is this myth out there that artists are a special, almost holy type of human—that because they are creative, they can’t be worried or bothered by the things that take them away from that creative pursuit. There’s a certain purity there.” For Weiler, his big epiphany was when he realized he could be creative across all of it. Not just in the art product but in the financing, distribution, and business aspects of artistic production.

“As an artist, you have to think about the sustainability of what you’re doing from an entrepreneurial standpoint—you can’t ride on your sheer creative skills or ‘genius.’ Those days are gone, if they ever really existed,” Weiler told us.

Jobs, Branson, and Weiler may be outliers. Many of the misfits we spoke with found even the path of traditional entrepreneurship too conformist. Countless misfit communities we spoke to—from hacker collectives to do-it-yourself maker networks to festival cultures—run on a more radical spirit of informality and self-governance.
After the flooding in Thailand in early 2013 ravaged the lives of millions, Thai misfits took matters into their own hands in an example of extraordinary inventiveness.5 The Tumblr blog Thai Flood Hacks cataloged do-it-yourself (DIY) mobility solutions for navigating flooded areas. On the blog, you could find everything from life rafts made buoyant with recycled water bottles, to abnormally stretched elevated bicycles, to homemade motorized Jet Skis. No one sought permission. It was simply done and then shared on a blog so that others could benefit from it as well.

This is a perfect example of misfit innovation. If such individuals can come up with an impromptu life-or-death solution, what could you do with fewer rules and a little more creative license?

Informality is a key driver of misfit innovation. Removing what strikes most of us as arbitrary, informality is ultimately about supporting people to rise above a job title and giving them permission to unleash their real talents. Informality is about enabling spontaneity, freeing people to depend on intrinsic motivation (their values) and instincts rather than deferring to the rules, codes, and incentives (raises and promotions) imposed by external authorities.

Informality has been a key animating force in the social movements of the past, unlocking citizen power in uprisings such as Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring. Moreover, this disruptive spirit is trickling into business. The increasing need for disorganization within our institutions is a trend the Economist highlighted in a piece entitled “In Praise of Misfits,”6 which argues that companies are gradually coming to replace “the organization man with disorganization man. . . . Well-balanced executives that were the staple of many companies of the past are now being passed over for more disruptive entrepreneurs, geeks, and creatives.” These types of individuals bring to the workplace decivilizing tendencies that are essential to cultivating innovation and improving the day-to-day quality of work life.

People with attention deficit disorder (ADD), the piece relays, aren’t able to focus, jump from project to project, and sometimes don’t finish what they start. Because of this, though, they’re often fountains of new ideas. Bored easily, they conjure up new possibilities and scenarios. In contrast, employees with Asperger’s syndrome have intense obsessions with repetitive tasks, patterns, numbers, and detail—all qualities that serve a computer programmer quite well. In March 2014, the Wall Street Journal reported7 on the efforts of a German software company (SAP) to hire people with autism disorders, placing these employees in technical roles such as computer programming, debugging, and IT due to their ability to focus on the details.

In concert with informality, the twin thread running throughout the principles that follow is self-governance—having the right to control one’s self versus being controlled by a top-down organization. A 2012 report on corporate behavior found that only 3 percent of more than 35,000 employees surveyed reported high levels of self-governing behavior (independence, autonomy) in their organizations.8

Old-school pirates developed democratic codes to govern their ships. Protestors depend on consensus building and cooperative structures of organization. Open-source communities create their own internal rules of conduct and participation. What these groups know all too well is that autonomy enables trust, commitment, and the emergence of a collective mission and purpose. The loyalty, engagement, and sense of community you find on pirate ships, among hacker communities, and running through protest movements and inner-city slums are impressive, and that is precisely because of the self-governing nature of these informal organizations. Hackers, for example, have rules, norms, and etiquette governing behavior that they enforce on a peer-to-peer level. Linux, today’s most prominent example of open-source software, is driven by a peer-to-peer exchange of skills, ideas, and norms. The software—today used by more than eighteen million people—was initiated by its leader, Linus Torvalds, but was shaped by thousands of responses from all around the globe. At the time of writing, it continues to be improved on by an estimated eight thousand programmers. When improvements are submitted by regular programmers, they are received as if Torvalds had suggested them, the working motto being “Let the code decide.”9

Misfits often embrace self-governance because they are distrustful of authority and not easily coerced into someone else’s logic or command. Misfit innovators may be their own bosses or operate in networks or communities where they feel they have the ability to help shape the rules they live by. Some open-source and hacker communities have become experts at creating their own operating principles. For example, the original hackers, the group of misfits at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, organically developed what is known as the Hacker Ethic, a code according to which they would operate: the importance of free access to computers, freedom of information, decentralization, and judgment based solely on merit. Every hacker we spoke to gave a nod to these principles, stating that they still animate many of the hacker movements today.
Many of the principles we see operating in the Misfit Economy have emerged in direct opposition to the legacy of formalization born of the Industrial Revolution some two hundred and fifty years ago.

The Industrial Revolution brought with it an economic logic built around efficiency, standardization, and specialization. Systems from agriculture to textile manufacturing became increasingly formalized. In turn, a demand for a labor force capable of plugging into these systems was born. Conformity (among workers) and productivity were prized; the “civilizing virtues” of industry, discipline, moderation, and obedience to authority were the gold standard. Those who didn’t fit this pattern were accused of sloth, indolence, idleness, uncontrolled appetites, and excessive passions.

As economic historians have argued, industrial work allowed workers to be more effective and efficient at a given task, and to increase output and productivity. People developed mastery; on factory assembly lines, the woman who installed the nut on a specific bolt did so with confidence, ease, and precision. She also did it quicker than anyone else.

But times have changed. Most of us in the developed world aren’t working on assembly lines, and the same standardization that promised mastery and efficiency doesn’t apply anymore.

Steve Mariotti, founder of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), told us, “I grew up in the outskirts of Detroit. In class, they used to have a General Motors org chart on the wall. If you were bad, the teacher used to point and tell you you’d be at the bottom of the org chart—on the assembly line. Good and bad—we all knew where we were going. The education system was built for our absorption into the automobile industry.”

Today there is no such linear trajectory. We are in a time of escalating change and of mass economic transition. The mortality rate of large corporations is increasing. The average life span of leading American companies has declined by over fifty years in the last hundred years: from sixty-seven years in the 1920s to only fifteen in 2012.10 Apart from the auto sector, many other blue-chip industries are in decline. The pharmaceutical industry had its heyday in the eighties and nineties, with blockbuster drugs like Lipitor, Plavix, and Zoloft. Some in the industry have faced competition from generics and been forced to slash internal R&D.

If we listened to Joseph Schumpeter, the economist and political scientist, we’d allow the forces of “creative destruction”—the process of destroying an old economic order and the emergence of a new one—to have their way.

DAVID BERDISH IS A DEVOUT Catholic and a third-generation autoworker at Ford Motor Company. He worked at the company for thirty-one years before recently retiring. His grandfather, a prominent labor organizer and founding member of UAW Local 600, a union that represented the largest Ford plants, was at the infamous Battle of the Overpass, where United Auto Worker union organizers were beaten by Ford henchmen. Like his grandfather, David Berdish is a misfit. “I get in trouble a lot [at Ford]. I push the boundaries of what I’m allowed to do,” he told us.

Berdish was originally hired to work at Ford Aerospace but couldn’t get security clearance because of his grandfather’s labor history. So he went on to work at Ford, first in manufacturing, then as a financial analyst, a purchasing manager, a buyer, and a supply chain manager, before moving over to manage Ford’s sustainability practice in 2000. “It was during my manufacturing rotations that I started understanding people and the health and safety issues.” He brought his breadth of experience within the company to start building out Ford’s leadership on human rights—health and safety—around the world. He made sure that basic worker conditions were compliant and began addressing the company’s corporate responsibility commitments.

Berdish also focused on issues of access to transport. In 2007 he started working within the company on mobility solutions and urban transport options beyond cars. “The idea that we are going to create a middle class in BRIC economies doesn’t make sense. Not everyone wants or should have 2.2 cars.” In the future, Berdish imagines a world where cars are more of a shared resource and more functional. “Cars will have to be more stripped down. In a sharing economy or mega-city, you don’t need satellite radio and fancy navigation systems; you just need cars to serve a function.”

Berdish helped develop mobility solutions at Ford, which meant showing the company the value of business models built around car sharing and mass urban transport options like rail, metro, buses, and bicycles. He encountered a lot of frustration, as the focus of the company was still on cars and trucks, but his vice president at the time offered support. “She really turned me loose,” he told us. “She let me be a misfit and carve out some exciting opportunities for us.” Part of Berdish’s success owed to some protection he found in William Clay “Bill” Ford, Jr., Henry Ford’s great-grandson and the executive chairman of the company. “Bill was my biggest champion. Without him, I wouldn’t have taken some of the risks I took inside the company.” But Bill Ford warned Berdish that there was no way he would get promoted or recognized by the system. Because Ford answers primarily to shareholders and “the company is getting analyzed day by day by Wall Street analysts,” his work, which focused more on a long-term value proposition, didn’t get a lot of acknowledgment or recognition internally. “That’s why I was so dependent on others who could help champion my work and offer protection,” Berdish explained.

While some within the company still find Berdish’s message of looking beyond car manufacturing threatening, others are waking up to its reality. Across the United States, automobile consumption has peaked; it has also begun to plateau across many developed countries. Berdish’s own twenty-year-old son doesn’t have his driver’s license. “He is more concerned with what he is downloading on his iPod,” Berdish told us.

Though Berdish was a misfit, provoking his colleagues with the question of whether Ford’s future should be about automobile manufacturing, he has tremendous loyalty to the company. “At Ford, I could get things done at scale and have more influence than if I worked on my own. Let’s face it, Ford has more leverage and visibility than David Berdish does.”

Like his grandfather, Berdish walked the line of being radical and agitating while also remaining loyal and committed. “My grandfather criticized Ford, but he didn’t like anyone else to. He was really loyal and worked hard. He was just trying to get better health and safety practices into place.” Similarly, Berdish gets upset with people who “blame the system” or show a lack of dedication. “If you choose to work for a company, do a high-quality job and give an honest day’s work. If you are creative and passionate, you can find a way to add value and meaning to what you do.”

Berdish understands the alienation and disenchantment felt by a lot of the workforce. “People get upset that they are just a number, that they are a cog in the machine. It makes sense. Some of the most incompetent people in any company are in HR. The standards and rules for promotion are pretty arbitrary. It’s a lot of politics.” Berdish also feels that the gap between the pay of the CEO and the lowest-paid worker is frustrating and unjust. Even though he has some criticism, he never “bitched.” He had a more practical attitude. “If you want to do something different, then do it.”

Reflecting on his time at Ford, Berdish told us that he is proud of what he accomplished. He believes he took a harder path within the company, the road less traveled, but didn’t shy away from the challenge; like a true misfit, he is proud of the people he pissed off. When we asked him whether he thought Ford’s future would depend on misfits like him, he answered, “Absolutely. I think companies have to be better at absorbing misfits now. There are a lot more misfits in the younger generation. Everyone is more of an individual now. People are freer to be their unique selves.” Whether or not traditional companies can accommodate a growing misfit population remains to be seen.

Today Berdish is retired, but his misfit streak holds strong. “When I was a little boy, the first thing I wanted to be when I grew up was a pirate. Now I live by the James River and am working on sustainable shipping projects on the Great Lakes, the northeast U.S. coast, and Virginia.” Berdish credits his work ethic and his ability to be both optimistic and passionate about change as key drivers throughout his career.

AT A TIME WHEN THE financial system is in need of radical reform, housing markets are facing ongoing disruption, and the energy sector is facing severe long-term challenges; when local communities are facing crises ranging from unemployment to water scarcity, spiraling mental health issues to reported decreases in human happiness and well-being, we must all ask ourselves: How can we best harness the instinct to innovate? How can we help companies develop businesses that are socially and environmentally responsible, that can recruit and retain the next generation of talent and serve the needs of society?

Now is the time to look elsewhere for novel ways of rebuilding and reshaping what commitment to old thought has destroyed.

Now is the time to look to misfits.
Following our journey through the world of misfits, we have distilled five key principles for unleashing your inner misfit: Hustle, Copy, Hack, Provoke, and Pivot. Each of these principles is covered in depth in its own chapter in Part Two.

Our ambition is to show what we can learn from the fringe and how to adapt that learning for our own purposes. The reality is that most of us will never join the criminal underground in Mexico or live in the urban slums of India, and that is a good thing. But we all have an “inner misfit”—parts of ourselves that do not conform to conventional norms or that hold viewpoints that do not align with the majority.

Our goal is to empower you to apply the insights you gather about yourself and from the cases in this book to your own industry, company, career, or community. We hope you will be inspired by the frugality, determination, and scrappiness of the underground, as well as motivated to channel your own energies into hacking our private- and public-sector systems so that they live up to our ideals.

About The Authors

Alexa Clay is a storyteller and leading expert on subculture. She is the cofounder of the League of Intrapreneurs, a movement to create change from within big business and the founder of Wisdom Hackers, an incubator for philosophical inquiry. Alexa initiates projects through the collective The Human Agency, which aims to create communities of purpose around the world. Formerly she was a director at Ashoka, a global nonprofit that invests in social entrepreneurs. A graduate of Brown University and Oxford University, she is the author (with Kyra Maya Phillips) of The Misfit Economy.  

Kyra Maya Phillips is a writer and innovation strategist. She is a director of The Point People, a network based consultancy focused on innovation and systemic change. Previously, Kyra worked as a journalist for The Guardian, where she focused on environmental reporting, and at as a consultant at SustainAbility, a London based think-tank and consultancy. She grew up in Caracas, Venezuela, but is now based in London, where she lives with her husband and son. A graduate of The London School of Economics, she is the author (with Alexa Clay) of The Misfit Economy.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (October 25, 2016)
  • Length: 256 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451688832

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Raves and Reviews

“This imaginative, provocative book reveals that if we want to overcome barriers, we can find surprisingly valuable lessons underground. I never expected to learn so much about entrepreneurship and innovation from pirates and gangsters.”

– Adam Grant, Wharton professor and author of GIVE AND TAKE

"What do Somali pirates, Amish camel-milkers, and gang leaders have in common? They're all innovative—and successful—misfits in today's global economy. Think you can't learn anything from outlaws and provocateurs? This book will make you think again with engaging stories and insightful analysis of how people operating on the fringes create unique business models, and in the process transform the culture around them."

– Daniel H. Pink, author of TO SELL IS HUMAN and DRIVE

"The Misfit Economy helps us to understand the lives of those men and women who have had to depend on illegal enterprise just to get by. In this book you'll learn how the misfit economies can bring meaning to those who are hopeless, jobless, and hungry for more than a handout. You'll meet people who are just like everyone else in searching for freedom and opportunity, but aren't afraid to bend the rules of the system."

– King Tone, Former Leader of the Latin Kings, a hispanic street gang

"If you want to learn what Somali pirates have in common with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, read this book. It's a colourful guide on how to shine a light on the ingenuity that often lies in the dark depths of all types organisations."

– Rachel Botsman, co-author of What's Mine is Yours: How Collaborative Consumption is Changing the Way We Live

“For those wanting a fresh perspective on business practices or working lives, this is a snappy introduction to a new way of thinking.”

– Financial Times

A well-paced read about a unique perspective on supply and demand and those who create it. For anyone interested in business or economics—especially those who hustle.

– Library Journal

 "Lively and insightful."—The Economist 

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