Carl Barney on Objectivism and Success

Craig Biddle: I’m sitting with Carl Barney at his lovely home in Southern California. We’re surrounded by beautiful Bryan Larsen paintings—including Triumph of Daedalus Over Fate and Futility and How Far We’ve Come 2. Enormous curved-glass sliding doors open automatically to a pristine, garden-wrapped terrace with a black-bottom swimming pool. Suspended in midair above the water is a large bronze sculpture of a chiseled man executing a perfect swan dive. His reflection off the pool is as vivid as the sculpture itself. Beyond the terrace, pool, and garden is the Pacific Ocean as far as the eye can see.

That’s just an indication of the material values in view from where I sit. But I’m here to speak with Mr. Barney about spiritual values, specifically his philosophic ideas and moral principles, the values he credits for his success.

Mr. Barney is a businessman-philosopher—that is, a businessman who understands the importance of philosophy, studies it with an eye toward its practical application, and puts it to work in his life and ventures. For details on this, I’ll let him do the talking.

Thank you, Carl, for taking time to speak with me and for inviting me to your beautiful home. This is a feast for the eyes.

Carl Barney: It’s my pleasure.

Biddle: As I understand it, you came to America in the 1960s with about $100 dollars and went on to achieve the American dream—and then some. How and when did you become interested in philosophy, and what role has philosophy played in your life?

Barney: Well, I want to return to your introduction if I may. Yes, [gesturing to the surroundings] this is the good life—or, more accurately, part of it. And it was inspired by the novels and philosophy of Ayn Rand.

Ayn Rand dramatizes powerful ideas in her fiction and elaborates them in her nonfiction, showing how and why philosophy is a practical, life-serving necessity. Among other ideas, she emphasizes that your ambitions and dreams and values are really important. She inspires us to seek the highest and best for ourselves in life. There’s a wonderful quote from the heroine of her novel We the Living: “It’s a rare gift, you know, to feel reverence for your own life and to want the best, the greatest, the highest possible, here, now, for your very own. To imagine a heaven and then not to dream of it, but to demand it.”

I love that quote, and I live by it.

I’m creating a heaven on earth in my life. This beautiful home is part of my heaven. And Rand’s works inspired me to live this way, to live fully. Even my love of these beautiful paintings and sculptures [gesturing] is inspired by her ideas. I mean, I knew virtually nothing about art and cared little for it before reading The Romantic Manifesto, which is one of my all-time favorite books. That book is the reason I fell in love with great art.

Biddle: When did you first read it?

Barney: The first time I read it was on a ski trip thirty years ago. I kept the paperback in a back pocket of my ski pants and would pull it out on the lift, read for ten minutes, put it back in my pocket, ski down the mountain, get on the lift, and take it out again. It was riveting. It made so much sense. Rand explained the nature and value of art in fundamental philosophic terms, yet in plain English. I devoured the book. It fuels my passion for art—and, in turn, the art I bring into my life fuels my soul.

Biddle: How has Rand’s philosophy affected your life in other areas?

Barney: It affects my life in all areas. Her works completely changed my conception of values in general. I used to think values were the province of religion. You know, confined to things such as faith, hope, humanity, and charity. Because I was under that impression, values weren’t real or serious or tangible to me. But when I came to understand Ayn Rand’s view of values—the idea that your values are the objectives or goals you pursue to sustain and enhance your life—I not only saw values as tangible; I saw them as personally vital. I realized that values are not something you might or might not opt to embrace—but rather, values are what life is all about. Pursuing values is what living is. What is the meaning of life? Your values!

This was a game changer for me. I did a lot of work on my values. I made long lists of my values and potential values, both material and spiritual. These included hundreds, perhaps thousands, of things that I wanted to do or have or enjoy. And I worked to boil them down to essentials and to integrate them into a unified vision of the kind of work I wanted to do and the life I wanted to create. This enabled me to design and organize my life around what was truly most important to me. These things were not obvious. The process took a lot of time and thought. But it was worth it. And it’s an ongoing process. I think regularly and explicitly about my values. I reassess my aims and means, make adjustments, and constantly strive to live the best, most fulfilling life I can. This is what Rand’s philosophy helps us to do if we study it, understand it, and put it to work.

Biddle: Had you studied other philosophers prior to Rand? Or was she your introduction to the field?

Barney: Ayn Rand was really my introduction to rational philosophy. I knew a little about philosophy but nothing of substance. I had this vague idea, which I think most people have, that philosophy is supposed to be important. It’s supposed to be about big ideas that have important consequences. But unless I could see practical significance in philosophy, I wasn’t inclined to spend time on it. Rand demonstrates the practical value and significance of philosophy and keeps it front and center. Her philosophy identifies and integrates principles that are true—true because they’re derived from reality through observation and logic. When you put such principles into practice, they work. They serve your life. This is the kind of philosophy I value. That’s why I love Rand’s philosophy.

Biddle: Which principles of Objectivism have you found most useful? Which ones do you employ explicitly on a regular basis in business and life?

Barney: The most general principle that I constantly refer to is the idea that you should strive for the best, the greatest, the highest possible in life. The principle that this is a moral matter. You live once—and, according to Objectivism, the moral purpose of your life is to achieve the greatest happiness possible.

Doing this is not easy. It’s difficult. This is why the cardinal values and fundamental virtues of Objectivism are so important. Rand shows that reason, purpose, and self-esteem are the basic values we need in life—they’re basic because they are the things that make possible our achievement of everything else we need to live and flourish.

Reason is our only means of knowledge, of understanding the world, and of figuring out what we need to do in order to live and thrive. If you don’t use reason, you can’t understand reality or how to succeed. Purpose is essential to all successful action—because our purposes are our aims, the things we seek to achieve or accomplish. If you don’t know what you want or what you’re trying to do, you’re not going to achieve it. Self-esteem is your conviction that you are able to live and worthy of happiness. If you don’t achieve and maintain this conviction, you won’t be psychologically fit for success. We can see that these principles are true.

Rand identified and unified these principles into a system for living the good life. She also identified corresponding principles of action—the Objectivist virtues. Virtues are actions that lead to values. Uphold reason as an absolute—use it to guide all your actions and to choose all your values—that’s the virtue of rationality. Choose purposes that support and advance your life—be productive, create the values you need in order to thrive—that’s the virtue of productiveness. Judge people rationally and treat them fairly—that’s the virtue of justice. Rand elaborated on seven such virtues, and each one consists in applying reason to an important aspect of life. Her philosophy is all about principles—principles that work in practice.

I’ll give you an example of how I applied the principle of justice in a particular business context. About a decade ago, I was considering selling one of my companies. I discussed the sale with some key executives and proposed a trade: “If you’ll help to increase the value of the company, when it sells you’ll receive big bonuses.” They agreed and worked hard to increase its value. But then, in 2007, the financial crisis hit, and the sale fell through. So, no bonuses. No one complained. They understood. But it didn’t seem right to me. It wasn’t their fault that the sale fell through; they had done their part, so I felt that I had to do mine: pay for what was earned and deserved. That’s justice!

I called them in for a meeting, thanked them for their good work, and announced that, since they had done their part of the trade, the big bonuses would be paid. It was quite emotional. Lots of cheers and some tears. Justice is powerful.

Notably, although the company paid out millions in bonuses, in the long term they didn’t cost us a penny. On the contrary, they resulted in a positive return. Those executives are still with the company, loyal, motivated, and still creating wealth. Justice doesn’t cost; it pays. This is what Ayn Rand teaches, and it’s true: Virtue pays. Virtues lead to values. Adherence to reality pays.

Biddle: That’s a powerful story. The self-interested nature of virtue doesn’t get more vivid that that.

Barney: And it’s just one among countless demonstrations of this fact. Rational virtues—the Objectivist virtues—are good for everyone who embraces them.

So, if I had to condense Rand’s ethics to just few principles that guide me most fundamentally, they would be: (1) Think! Think rationally, think often, think long, think about what matters to you and why. Apply reason to every aspect of your life. (2) Be purposeful and productive. Be goal oriented. Set rational, life-serving, achievable goals; review and reevaluate them regularly; adjust them as needed; focus constantly on your aims; and act purposefully toward your established goals. (3) Seek the highest and the best for yourself and those you love or care about, and don’t ever compromise on moral matters. Hold firm to moral principles. It’s not always easy, but it pays off in the long run.

Biddle: You not only embrace Objectivism in your personal life and business ventures; you also work to advance these ideas in the culture—to help other people learn about them and to use them in their own lives. Tell me about your roles and efforts in this regard.

Barney: Well, when you find something great, whether a book or a movie, or something like that, you want to share it with your friends, right? Well, I’ve come across something enormously important that has been extremely valuable in my life, and I want to share it with my friends—and, more broadly, with good people everywhere. I’m certainly not an altruist. I don’t do this out of a sense of duty. Rather, I do it because I love to see other people succeed and thrive. And I love to engage with people when they are at their best, living the best lives they can live. So I want to advance these ideas to people who are willing to think. Consequently, I became involved with the Ayn Rand Institute back in the eighties and have been a board member there for more than twenty years.

Further, a few years ago, I observed that an increasing number of Objectivists around the world were interested in promoting Rand’s ideas—and that some of these people had good ideas for possible ventures. I thought about how I might leverage the enthusiasm and talent. What could make a difference here? What could convert this potential into energy? I realized that providing seed money to these innovators and their ideas could be very helpful. Money is energy. It enables potential efforts to become actual efforts, potential successes to become actual successes, ideas to become reality. Money can be the difference between an individual or organization initiating its ideas and succeeding or not. It can also enable a good venture underway to succeed when otherwise it would not. So I created the Objectivist Venture Fund (OVF), which is dedicated to providing seed money and funds for sustaining embryonic ideas or ventures. That’s been going for three years now.

Biddle: Well, I can vouch personally for its vital importance. Your OVF has supplied The Objective Standard with funds that have enabled us to redesign and overhaul our website, to expand our marketing efforts, to hire and train a talented assistant editor, and to lay the groundwork for a major increase in output, which is currently underway.

Other ventures supported by the OVF include STRIVE (Objectivist-based student clubs); The Undercurrent (an Objectivist-run student newspaper); Alex Epstein’s bestselling book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels; Mystery Science; The Rubin Report; Ayn Rand Center Israel; the Adam Smith Institute—and many more.

That’s a lot of energy—released by your well-placed money. I think I speak for everyone who wants to advance Objectivism and rational ideas in general when I say: Thank you!

Barney: You are most welcome. I think TOS in particular is a really valuable publication, and I’d like to see it grow and expand. I am very pleased with how it’s gone so far, and I’m excited about its future.

Biddle: As am I!

One thing you didn’t mention in regard to your efforts to advance Objectivism is the Ayn Rand Campus, which I understand you conceived and funded. Would you say a few words about that? What’s the Campus all about?

Barney: Apart from Ayn Rand’s own works, the most helpful materials for me toward understanding Objectivism have been Leonard Peikoff’s courses. I’ve taken all of them and taken lots of notes. I’ve taken them very seriously. These courses have had an enormous impact on my life and my ventures. And, again, when I find something great, I want others to benefit from it as well.

Courses are crucial. I am completely convinced that to advance Objectivism sufficiently for it to change the culture substantially, we must help people to understand the philosophy deeply. Not just to become aware of it or discuss it—but to grasp its fundamentals, to see why they are true, and to be able to apply its principles properly in the various areas of life, business, and politics. In my view, the only way people come to understand Objectivism deeply is through courses—not lectures, but lengthy, well-presented, well-integrated courses. So, I proposed to the Ayn Rand Institute the idea of starting an Ayn Rand Campus dedicated to making available Dr. Peikoff’s and other Objectivists’ courses. I also funded it and worked with ARI to bring it to fruition. The Campus has been up and running for about four years now, and it enables anyone from anywhere on the planet to take powerfully enlightening courses on Objectivism free of charge from their computer or mobile device.

Biddle: That is an amazing resource. And I agree wholeheartedly about the immense value of Leonard Peikoff’s courses. In the online and electronic versions of this interview, we’ll link to the Ayn Rand Campus, the Objectivist Venture Fund, and the great books you’ve mentioned.

Do you have any parting thoughts or suggestions for our readers?

Barney: Most of us have heard, “Ayn Rand changed my life,” and that’s true for me. Her inspiring novels and her philosophy of Objectivism have enabled me to successfully pursue the work I love and to create a great life. I’m continuing to create my heaven in this world, grounded in reality. It is a great way to live. I highly recommend it.

Biddle: Yes, it is—and so do I.

Thank you for your time today, Carl. Thank you for all that you’ve done and are doing to advance Objectivism in the culture. And thank you for being a living, breathing example of the passionate, innovative, and value-driven men that Rand wrote about in her novels. You’re an inspiration.

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