Conversations in Management: Bertrand Russell

No one gossips about other people’s secret virtues.

Bertrand Russell

Bertrand RussellMuch like home schooling parents of today, Bertrand Russell and his wife Dora were motivated by a desire to provide their two children with the best possible education. Both confidently believed they were in the best position to provide such an education. To that end, in 1927, they opened the Beacon Hill School. United in the belief that formal education was the surest path to positive social change, they launched the school with 12 students and a small cadre of assisting teachers. The program ran on three principles. The first was that no knowledge would ever be withheld from a student. Secondly, the unique interests and personality of each student must always be respected. Finally, both morality and reasoning would emerge from a democratic process of examining an idea from all perspectives and never by imposition of adult authority. As a practical matter, things didn’t always work out this way. Years later, the Russell’s daughter Katherine recalled, “making up our own minds’ usually meant agreeing with my father, because he knew so much more and could argue so much better; also because we heard ‘the other side’ only from people who disagreed with it.” To be sure, both Bertrand and Dora could be formidable intellectual adversaries. By the time Beacon Hill opened, Bertrand had secured his reputation as the preeminent philosopher of his age and was considered the finest logician since Aristotle. Having been jailed for his opposition to British involvement in World War I, it was clear that his social activism was more than a matter of words. Dora was every bit the activist as well. An ardent feminist, she spoke out loudly for woman’s rights, birth control and sexual reform.  The Russells clearly knew how to move conviction into practice.

At the same time Bertrand was turning his hand to the education of children, there was another conviction that he wanted folks to put into practice. His conviction was that we each have the power to make ourselves happy. Russell makes his case in, The Conquest of Happiness, a wry reflection on the causes of unhappiness and the causes of happiness. He starts with the autobiographical acknowledgement that while he was not born happy, he now enjoys life and enjoys it more with each passing year. He determined the source of his unhappiness was narcissism—“the habit of admiring oneself and wishing to be admired.” The cure was, “due to a diminishing preoccupation with myself.” He went on to explain that, “gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies.” He notes that if your goal is to be admired by the world, you’ll likely be disappointed.

Narcissism is nourished by gossip. The narcissist thrives on pointing out and celebrating the real or perceived failings of others. Such failings make the narcissist look good in comparison. But what if we start gossiping about the secret virtues of others? This doesn’t mean we have to start finding nice things to say about the office jerk—save that for the retirement ceremony. It does mean that we might actually foster happiness in ourselves and others by talking up the good things we see in those around us. When we start whispering about kindness, fair play and integrity we’re actually encouraging those behaviors. And we feel good about it! Don’t take it from me—take it from the guy favorably compared with Aristotle. This really works!    —Ebert

Leave a Reply