Objectivism, Career Transitions, and Standing Orders: An Interview with Craig Biddle


In addition to editing The Objective Standard, Craig Biddle co-founded TOS, built the business from the ground up, and has written hundreds of articles for the journal and TOS Blog. He’s the author of Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts That Support It and has two books in progress: one on morality for teenagers, another on thinking in principles. He’s spoken at colleges and conferences across the country. And this past summer, he and his team at TOS put on their first multi-day conference, TOS-Con 2018: Philosophy for Freedom and Flourishing.

Like most readers of TOS, I was already familiar with those things. I was surprised, however, to learn that Craig has no formal education in philosophy and that “professional intellectual” was not his first career. As an engineer who likewise has no background in philosophy but wants to transition into a career as a professional intellectual, I was curious about how Craig made the change and how he’s achieved all that he has. So I called him to chat about his journey and how he gets things done. —Jonathan Townley

Jonathan Townley: Good morning, Craig. And thank you for making time to talk with me today.

Craig Biddle: It’s my pleasure. I’m always happy to talk about ideas.

Townley: You mentioned in a TOS Writers chat that before discovering Ayn Rand’s works, you were a furniture maker. How did you transition from that to being a professional intellectual?

Biddle: It’s a rather unusual story. In college I majored in fine art with a concentration in furniture design, and when I graduated I set up shop and began designing and building furniture for a living. One day, I was delivering a bookcase to a customer, and while we were removing books from her old bookcase I saw a copy of The Fountainhead. I had heard great things about the book from my brother, who was studying architecture at the time. So I started reading the back cover. The customer saw me looking at the book and asked, “Have you not read The Fountainhead?” I said, “no,” and she insisted that I take the book home and read it.

Now, I’m dyslexic. And reading had always been slow, frustrating, even painful. Up to that point, I had read only what was necessary to get through school. And I was not about to read a seven-hundred-page novel. But this was a customer making a kind, heartfelt offer. So I humored her and borrowed the book.

A few days later, curiosity got the best of me and I cracked it open. From “Howard Roark laughed,” I was hooked. It took me months to get through it. But I did. Then I moved on to The Virtue of Selfishness, Atlas Shrugged, and eventually the whole corpus. I had discovered a world of heroism and logic, and I couldn’t get enough.

I was enamored not only of Rand’s powerful stories and life-enhancing ideas, but also of the clarity and soundness of her arguments. She challenged practically everything I had been taught, especially in regard to morality, and she did so in a way that just made sense. After a few years of studying her ideas, and philosophy more broadly, I decided that I wanted to change careers. I wanted to study and promote Objectivism for a living. I wanted to write.

Townley: That’s a big jump, from making furniture to writing for a living. How did you begin moving toward this new career?

Biddle: I began with a measure of audacity, I suppose. Although by that time I had been reading voraciously and studying philosophy for a few years, I had never written anything except what was required for school. Dyslexia makes reading and writing so frustrating and fatiguing that I had avoided both activities at every turn. That’s a large part of the reason I majored in fine art and took up furniture design. Yet now I found myself wanting to do nothing but read and write.

I knew that what I needed most was time—time to learn how to write, to study the art, and to write, write, write. To buy that time, I needed more money than I was making in my furniture business. So, to make a long story reasonably short, after trying my hand at a few sales jobs, which I did not enjoy, I wrote a business plan for a rock-climbing gym. Climbing was my main hobby at the time, and climbing gyms were cropping up all over the country and making pretty good money. No one had opened one in Richmond [Virginia], where I was living, so I figured I’d open a gym, make a lucrative business of my hobby, and ultimately buy time to write. Then things got interesting.

Among the potential investors to whom I sent the business plan was a highly successful real estate developer named Sidney Gunst. Shortly after I sent him the plan, he called and said he wanted to meet for lunch to discuss it. “This is great!” I thought, “The project is all but funded!” When we met, though, he said he wasn’t interested in funding the climbing gym. Instead, he wanted me to come to work for him and write business plans for his real estate ventures. I said I wasn’t interested in real estate or writing business plans and that I had written this plan only because I wanted to open the climbing gym. As we discussed the matter further, he said, “Look, climbing is your hobby. If you open the gym, it’ll no longer be your hobby—it’ll be your business. Then it won’t be fun anymore. Why do that? What’s your long-term goal? You want to make money, right?” When I told him that what I ultimately wanted to do is write about philosophy, he replied, in effect, “Philosophy? Who needs it?!”

Townley: Ha!

Biddle: As you can imagine, that started quite a conversation. I proceeded to tell him about Ayn Rand and Objectivism. He grilled me about why this philosophy or any philosophy could possibly matter in the real world. I answered his questions, one by one, making the case for the vital importance of philosophy in general and Objectivism in particular. And he became increasingly curious about the ideas.

Our initial meeting was followed by many more, and although Sid never funded the climbing gym, he did something much better. After reading Atlas Shrugged and coming to see the vital power of Rand’s philosophy, he offered to fund my writing of a book introducing people to the ideas. I made clear that I still needed to learn how to write. But by this time, Sid and I had had many lengthy discussions about Objectivism, and he liked my way of concretizing and clarifying things, so he was confident that I could write a good book on the subject. We hashed out details, shook hands, and suddenly I was being paid to write. I sold the business plan for the climbing gym to some friends, who proceeded to open a far more impressive one than I had planned. I then helped Sid write a couple of business plans, which was part of our deal, and I hunkered down to write a book.

Townley: Was this Loving Life?

Biddle: Sort of. It was my first effort at what ultimately became Loving Life. After a few years of studying and writing, I completed a manuscript. But it was not good, and I knew it. I had attempted to cram too much into a single, introductory book. In particular, I had gone into too much detail on epistemology . . .

Townley: You tried to rewrite OPAR!1

Biddle: In effect, yes. And the result was chaos. The material was super-dense, insufficiently concretized, and a huge overload on the reader’s mind. When I presented the draft to Sid and told him what was wrong with it, he asked, “Do you know how to fix it?” I said, “yes,” and, remarkably, he replied, “Get to it!” So I spent the next couple of years rethinking and rewriting the whole thing, and this new draft became Loving Life.

Townley: That was a massive undertaking. It must have been quite an education.

Biddle: It was. I learned a great deal writing that book—both about how to write and about how not to write.

Townley: What did you do after finishing Loving Life?

Biddle: Well, in addition to marketing the book, I started speaking on college campuses, to community groups, and at Objectivist conferences. Also, by this time, Sid and I had started a business called Life Logic, which was funding the development of various philosophically-oriented educational products. We had hired people to produce an introduction to the history of philosophy, a parenting guide, a freedom-fighters’ handbook, and a few other things. So I was overseeing these projects to some extent. And my own next project was a book about good thinking. For that, I took some of the salvageable material from my earlier, failed draft, and I set out to write a clear, highly concretized primer on thinking in principles. I worked on that, on and off, for a few years before we launched The Objective Standard in 2006—and I’m still working on it. Over the years, I’ve had drafts that I thought were nearly ready for publication. But each time I came to see that there were major problems. And recently I discovered the fundamental problem: Once again, I was trying to do too much in a single book. You may be sensing a pattern here . . .

Townley: [laughter]

Biddle: I now have a handle on how to delimit the subject and rewrite the material. That’s my big goal for 2019.

Townley: I’m looking forward to reading that!

So how did The Objective Standard come into the picture? I know you launched it in 2006, but how and when did the idea come up?

Biddle: I first began thinking about creating a periodical with a couple of friends in 2005. Our initial idea was an online-only, monthly magazine from an Objectivist perspective. But we later decided that a print and online journal would be better. We wanted to get it into college libraries and, at the time, colleges were more likely to subscribe to a quarterly print journal. We also figured that if we could get a print edition onto the shelves at Barnes & Noble and other newsstands, that would increase visibility, sales, and readership. When I approached Sid with the idea, he loved it, put up seed money for the venture, and became a cofounder. We put the gears in motion in September 2005 and published the first issue in March 2006.

Townley: What was your vision for the journal at the start? And has it remained the same over the years? Or has it changed?

Biddle: Our vision has always been essentially the same: a journal that elucidates the principles of Objectivism and applies them to important aspects of life. Our mission from the start was to meet people at their values and show them how the principles of this philosophy can help them to better understand the world, more effectively pursue their values, and protect their rights on solid ground. But our understanding of how to do all of this has improved markedly over the years. It’s been a constant process of learning—learning more about philosophy, about thinking, about communication, and about marketing. This is why I love my job!

Another significant change in TOS over the years is that we’ve become less focused on politics and more focused on culture, education, the arts, and history. Politics is a consequence of deeper ideas and values, people’s knowledge or beliefs, and cultural trends. There’s little if anything that we can do directly to affect what happens at the political level. That’s basically on autopilot. If we want to make positive political change, we have to help people to understand or better articulate the philosophic roots of such change. We have to clarify and uphold the supremacy of reason, the fact of free will, the morality of egoism, the source and nature of rights.

We also have to help people to better understand and properly evaluate important historical figures and events. Thanks to our rotten educational system, many people today lack knowledge of history, or have a skewed view of it, rendering them ill-equipped to think clearly about politics. This is one reason why TOS regularly publishes journalistic portraits of great heroes, such as Norman Borlaug, Frederick Douglass, Thomas Jefferson, and Henry Hazlitt, as well as articles about key historic events, from the creation of the Magna Carta, to the genocides caused by communism and socialism, to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Analyzing and evaluating history from an Objectivist perspective has a powerful effect. It highlights the essentials, subordinates or discards the nonessentials, and exposes crucial facts about human nature, right and wrong, and how the world actually works. These essays are food for the mind, fuel for the soul, and powerful tools for clarifying political matters.

Townley: I’ve been an engineer since I graduated from college, but I’ve done all I want to do with engineering. I would regret it if I went my whole life without pursuing another passion of mine: advocating reason and liberty. I suspect other readers of TOS are in similar situations, where they’d like to make a career change or pursue some new line of work in which they have little or no experience. Since you’ve transitioned from one career to something totally unrelated, how would you recommend others go about making such a change?

Biddle: It depends on an enormous amount of context. Everyone’s situation, abilities, resources, and opportunities are different. So I can say only a few general words about this.

You’re familiar with Ayn Rand’s summation of her ethics with the Spanish proverb, “God said, ‘Take what you want, and pay for it.’” Well, I think that’s one of the most important sentences ever uttered. It’s certainly been one of the most instructive and pivotal for me. We live once. Every moment that passes is gone forever. How would you most like to spend your days and years? Take the time to answer that question—and then go for it. Make it so. Do the thinking. Do the work. Make the effort. “Pay for it.”

How you pay for it depends on many factors. But I think the fundamental is to identify the steps that will take you toward your ideal life, cut out of your life everything that is not essential to that aim, and focus your time and energy exclusively on what you really want and how to get it. If you’re involved in projects or relationships that do not in some way support that aim, end them. Get out. Put your time and effort only toward projects, activities, relationships, and opportunities that support your ideal life. Importantly, these include recreation and relaxation. But they don’t include staying in a job that isn’t fulfilling, or vacationing with people you don’t really care about, or bickering with tribalists on Facebook.

If you eliminate nonessentials from your life and focus exclusively on essentials, you not only move toward your goals, you also create opportunities along the way. This is a consequence of the fact that we live in a causal world and that other people’s interests often integrate beautifully with ours. Our actions have consequences beyond what we can anticipate, and some of those consequences are doorways that would never have existed if we hadn’t taken the actions that led to them. The opportunities that sprang from my effort to open the climbing gym are a case in point. But so are the countless opportunities that arise in people’s lives generally. Thoughtful, goal-directed action creates new opportunities.

Think. Act. Reassess your situation along the way. Look for opportunities. Pursue the best of them. Keep thinking, keep acting, and in time (barring catastrophes), your efforts will carve a beautiful future—including a new career, if that’s what you want.

I’ve worked with you, Jonathan. You have great potential as an intellectual and a writer. You probably have great potential as a speaker, too. Dive in. Study. Write. Produce values. Learn as you go. Your efforts will add up and pay off.

Townley: Wow. Thanks. I definitely will!

You’ve written and spoken in the past about using standing orders to bridge the gap between thought and action. What is a standing order? And how does it bridge this gap?

Biddle: I think the phrase originated in banking, where you can place a standing order for your bank to make regular payments or deposits to a given account. Ayn Rand used the phrase to refer to important personal reminders, and I picked it up from her works. So I didn’t coin the term. But I use standing orders a lot. And, as I use the term, a standing order is an idea you embrace to remind yourself to act in a way that your considered judgment has already determined is best for you. For instance, whenever I find myself focusing on something that doesn’t really matter, or procrastinating, or the like, I use the standing order, “Go about your business.” This reminder carries a lot of meaning for me because I think of my life as a business venture for which I have a business plan. And the plan is geared to help me make choices and take actions that will deliver a return on my investment. My investment is not only money, but also my time, my various projects, and my efforts in general. And the return I want is a lifetime of happiness.

The goals and action items in my plan are based on my best, considered judgment. So if I find myself doing something that strays from the plan—say, wasting time on Facebook or rationalizing about why I don’t have time to take my daily, meditative walk—all I have to do is say, “Go about your business.” That reminds me that I’ve already done the careful thinking on this matter, I’ve already determined what’s best for me here. If I think I should reassess the plan, I can take time to do that. That’s always authorized by the plan. But I don’t want to let mere feelings of the moment dictate how I spend my time. I strive always to go by my best judgment. “Go about your business” helps me to stay focused, productive, happy.

Another standing order I find extremely valuable is what I call the 100 Percent Rule: “One hundred percent of the shots you don’t take won’t go in.” This comes from hockey player Wayne Gretzky’s famous line, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” I rephrase it as “One hundred percent of the shots you don’t take won’t go in” because this makes it essentially the law of excluded middle applied to human action: Either you make the effort and thus possibly achieve the goal—or you don’t make the effort, and you definitely won’t achieve the goal. What’s it going to be?

I first started using this idea when I was single: One hundred percent of the girls you don’t ask out won’t go out with you. But soon I was applying it to every area of life: One hundred percent of the business plans you don’t produce won’t get funded. One hundred percent of the paragraphs you don’t start won’t get written. And so on. By casting vital decisions as binary, either-or choices, this simple formula helps me to see the pro-value, pro-flourishing alternatives in my life quickly and clearly.

Townley: How does one come up with an effective standing order? Is it as simple as telling yourself to remember something, or is there more to it?

Biddle: In a sense it’s as simple as that. But for a standing order to be effective, it has to be meaningful to you and genuinely life-enhancing. The two I mentioned are quite general. But a standing order can be more specific. For instance, if you’re trying to establish the habit of exercising every morning, you might set the standing order, “Every morning at 6:15, I will put on my workout clothes and leave for the gym.” If you upheld that standing order, you’d find yourself working out every morning. But to uphold it, you have to really want the benefit in question. You don’t have to love working out, but you do have to see and want the life-serving value involved. Otherwise, the standing order will fall flat.

This recalls another standing order I use: “Focus on the benefits.” In regard to things I might not love doing—such as working out or waking up really early or the like—if I focus not on the workout or the waking up, but on the long-term benefit of the thing in question—my fitness or a completed project—I find the action much easier to take. This, too, is analogous to something in business: Marketers often say, “Sell the benefits, not the features.” Why? Because the benefits are what we’re after. That’s what’s sexy. That’s what’s motivating.

So, in short, I’d say that to set effective standing orders, you first have to decide on your goal, what you want—and you really have to want it. Then identify or create a statement or phrase that will trigger the actions you know you need to take in order to achieve the goal. Then do whatever works to seat that in your soul. Use Post-it notes, alarms, your calendar, whatever works for you. And tweak things over time. You’ll develop something that works.

Townley: That makes sense. I’ll try it out.

What are your major projects at the moment?

Biddle: I have two books in progress—the one I mentioned earlier on thinking in principles, and a short book on the morality of self-interest for teenagers, which needs only a final round of editing. I also have a podcast in the works. I haven’t settled on a name for it yet, but the purpose of the show is to explore and integrate the principles of rational philosophy and the best ideas and practices in the fields of self-improvement and personal development. That’s slated to launch in December. Of course, we have lots of great stuff coming in The Objective Standard. And we’re currently sorting through a short list of possible locations for TOS-Con 2019. We’ll make a decision about that and announce the location and other details in the next few weeks.

Townley: I’m really looking forward to that conference. TOS-Con 2018 was the first philosophy conference I’ve been to—they’re not cheap! But the cost was totally worth it. I can’t wait for the next one.

Biddle: Well, I’m glad you came to our first conference and that we got to know each other there. The value I gain from such events is amazing. It’s one thing to sit alone and read books and think about ideas, or even talk about them with friends. It’s another thing to get together with hundreds of people who are so interested in rational, practical philosophy that they’re eager to spend a few days discussing it in depth and from multiple angles. And to hear super-smart people who’ve honed their thinking on some key issue—whether Alex Epstein discussing the principles of communication, or Richard Salsman integrating the ideas of Ayn Rand and J.B. Say, or Derek Magill discussing how to build a career around things you love—that just sharpens my mind and ups my game by orders of magnitude.

Townley: That describes what it did for me in a nutshell. Most of my friends are engineers with a mixed bag of ideas, who don’t care about philosophy at all. They don’t realize that it’s fundamental to everything in their lives. But it is. Interacting with people who understand this and are passionate about using philosophy to improve their lives provides much-needed spiritual fuel. For me, it was like I had been slowly and unknowingly dying of thirst in a desert—until I found an oasis and realized for the first time what it means to be fully hydrated. It makes me wish Galt’s Gulch was a real place and we were all living there. I’ve set a standing order to register for TOS-Con 2019 as soon as tickets go on sale.

Biddle: That’s a perfect example of how a standing order can transform your life!

Townley: Well, thank you, Craig, for making the time to talk to me. This was an enlightening chat.

Biddle: I enjoyed it greatly.

Endnotes

1. OPAR is the acronym for Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, by Leonard Peikoff (New York: Dutton, 1991), which is a systematic presentation of Rand’s philosophy.

Comments are closed.