Tal Tsfany on the State and Future of the Ayn Rand Institute


Tal Tsfany is president and CEO of the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI), cofounder of the Ayn Rand Center Israel, and author of Sophie (a children’s book about which I interviewed him in the Summer 2018 issue of TOS). I recently spoke with Tal about his work at ARI to date and his plans for the future of the organization. —CB

Craig Biddle: Thanks for joining me today, Tal. I know TOS readers are interested in your work at the Ayn Rand Institute.

Tal Tsfany: Happy to be talking to you and to share with TOS readers what is happening at ARI.

Biddle: Having been CEO there since last June, what about the organization has surprised you positively? And what has surprised you negatively?

Tsfany: I have learned a lot in the past eight months or so. I am bringing a business, goal-oriented mind-set that I think enhances our ability to focus, define priorities, and then execute on the chosen projects. I’ve learned how complicated it is to promote a philosophical mission, as opposed to a product. It’s a whole different ball game. When you define things in business terms, things are concrete and actionable. But when your mission is educating a culture or changing people’s minds in a very deep way, over time, maybe even on a very long timescale, then the challenge requires a different approach.

I’ve learned to appreciate the complexity of the mission and how to break it down to manageable, achievable milestones. And I’m happy about how ARI’s team is able to continuously clarify and concretize it into specific projects—both on content creation and distribution and also on long-term, foundational, technological projects. We’ve also built robust reporting mechanisms allowing us to closely monitor our progress on defined metrics.

The best thing I’ve learned about ARI is that it’s filled with smart, passionate people. This really is what they want to do day in and day out. It’s the kind of passion you find with entrepreneurs in business—a true passion and commitment to the organization’s vision and mission. Another great thing I’ve learned is that ARI is surrounded by thousands of intelligent, dedicated, benevolent, and positive people who really want to advance this mission—in all kinds of ways, from donating, to giving advice, to participating in workshops, to volunteering or offering their areas of expertise to help the Institute. It is a joy to meet so many fellow partners in the journey of spreading Objectivism.

I wouldn’t say anything surprised me negatively about ARI. But I do encounter some viewpoints in the community that are focusing on very specific aspects of the mission, trying to promote it as the one single dimension we should focus on. I think it would be better if they took a wider view of all of the things that need to come together for us to help a large number of individuals learn about Objectivism and embrace reason, individualism, and capitalism.

Biddle: What has been your main focus since you began working there? And in what ways, if any, has that changed?

Tsfany: Initially, my main focus was to increase the amount of engagement with ARI’s content. At the end of the day, people learn and advance their understanding of Objectivism by engaging with meaningful content. One proxy metric that helps us measure the impact we’re making is the hours of content consumption on our different channels, such as ARI Campus, YouTube, New Ideal, podcasts, and event participation.

Now we are adding another layer of measurement, which is the conversion of users from introductory to intermediate to advanced content. We want to learn how to best motivate and direct students to continue and consume the content that has the power to advance their understanding of philosophy and Objectivism. This requires a qualitative understanding of the experiences users go through and the implementation of a marketing automation system that can help direct them toward the next best action.

Since June, we’ve managed to quintuple our content engagement in terms of the time spent watching and listening to our courses. Also, the number of people attending our conferences and the number enrolled in the Objectivist Academic Center is growing significantly. Just to give you an example, we thought we would see 100 to 150 students in Prague, and we have more than 430 registrants at this point. We’re launching another conference in Buenos Aires, and we have others in the works as well. We’ve opened the Objectivist Academic Center (OAC) to include not only promising graded students, but also anyone who’s interested in participating as an auditor. As a result, OAC, in its current structure, has more students than ever. I highly recommend it to anyone who can afford to invest three hours a week to deepen their understanding of Objectivism.

The next step is to deepen our understanding of the type of personas that get or can get attracted to Objectivism and which path is best for them. Then, we can figure out what ARI can do to pave the way so that it’s easier to go the route of understanding Objectivism and maybe widening that path so that more people can follow it. This starts with reverse engineering the paths that people we consider thought leaders in our community, our intellectuals, have taken to be able to make the kind of impact they are making as writers, speakers, and teachers. We want to identify the individuals who have the potential to make a big impact and understand who they are, what they care about, and what attracts them to Objectivism. We also want to understand what ignites them. That’s a word I like very much, because I think that is what we are about—igniting minds. The fuel—their potential and intellectual capacity—has to be there to be able to ignite.

Another aspect of this is implementing smart tools to identify what people are doing and what signals they are sending us. We need to collect the digital breadcrumbs they leave behind and try to reconstruct the narrative of what those individuals are doing and why.

The other focus area is intellectual development. We are in dire need of more high-quality intellectuals who can clearly and accurately communicate and explain Objectivism. We are getting better at what we call “flame spotting,” identifying high-potential individuals with the capacity to become Objectivist thought leaders, intellectuals who can carry the flame forward.

Biddle: How is what you’re doing now different from what ARI has done in the past?

Tsfany: I think that in a way there’s a different perspective because of the nature of who I am—a CEO coming from the tech industry with business experience and a technological background. This adds another layer of capability to the robust foundation that was built by ARI’s former leaders, Michael Berliner, Yaron Brook, and Jim Brown. I think I’m adding to ARI’s ability to broaden its reach and, hopefully, its philosophical impact.

Biddle: ARI and TOS have resumed cooperation, following an eight-year moratorium. TOS has helped advertise ARI’s conferences, OCON and AynRandCon; we invited Jim Brown and Robert Begley to speak at TOS-Con 2018; and we’ve invited you to speak at TOS-Con 2019. I also interviewed Jim Brown for TOS in 2017, and, of course, you now. In what ways do you see ARI taking advantage of this new cooperation moving forward?

Tsfany: Taking into consideration the shared vision of the two organizations, I see a constructive path of working together to promote the ideas of Objectivism. I welcome the opportunity to leverage the assets and resources that TOS has, and hopefully you can do the same with ARI. We both aim to serve the same target audience, and I am sure there is fertile ground for future cooperation. I am looking forward to speaking at TOS-Con in August and to have you promote TOS in June in our OCON conference in Cleveland. One of the metrics that I consider as a success criterion for our movement is more TOS subscribers.
“One of the metrics that I consider as a success criterion for our movement is more @TheObjStd subscribers.” —Tal Tsfany Click To Tweet
Biddle: Coming from the business and tech world, you have connections with lots of young tech entrepreneurs. These are some of the smartest, most productive people on the planet, and introducing them to Ayn Rand’s ideas could have a massive impact. What ideas and strategies do you have toward this end?

Tsfany: My experience shows exactly what you suggest—that Ayn Rand’s ideas can have a huge effect on tech entrepreneurs. While growing a company in Silicon Valley, I was exposed to hundreds and hundreds of bright young minds who are 100 percent committed to living their own life. They are rational, reality- and goal-oriented. They apply all the right virtues when it comes to their careers and businesses. But because they were raised with the altruist morality, they are putting some of their talent toward advancing bad ideas and sacrificing themselves. Many of them are activists for socialist or environmentalist causes, and many are giving away a lot of money to such causes. I will share in my talk at TOS-Con several examples of what my team and I had to deal with on this count. But for a brief indication, we had employees challenging us morally about why the company is not “giving back” and so on. All the tech companies are dealing with this kind of attitude, and many of their founders, owners, and managers agree with it.

So, going back to my point about better understanding the people we want to reach, I think this is one of the personas we should focus on. And it requires a specific approach. They’re smart, but they won’t listen if you just tell them, “Hey, you’re wrong. Here’s what’s right.” I think a better strategy is that we figure out what they are interested in, what they’d like to figure out, and then in the right time, with the right content presented in the right format, we offer a rational alternative that could ignite their rational mind.

I am actually in constant discussion with Objectivist entrepreneurs who live and work in Silicon Valley, and we’re even planning a deep-dive workshop to figure those things out. I believe that the best minds are those that are self-motivated, self-gravitating toward reason, toward being an entrepreneur, because if you think about what an entrepreneur is, they’re serious about life, they’re passionate, they have the ability to integrate a lot of knowledge across different fields, which is what you do in philosophy.

I can’t say that we have the exact answer about how to effectively do that yet, but we’re in the process of building the understanding, the methodology, and technology.

Biddle: The potential there is huge, and I’m glad you’re working to tap into it.

You mentioned your TOS-Con talk on this subject, and I’d love to hear more about that. Your talk is titled “When Technology Meets Philosophy,” and you hinted at some of what you’ll discuss there. Can you say a bit more? What’s your best teaser for the talk?

Tsfany: It’s going to be about my experiences when I saw the best in technology meet with the best in philosophy, and the sparks that fly when bright minds come together. I’ve managed to attract many people who were in close contact with me over the years, not only in Silicon Valley, but also in a community of engineers back in Krakow, Poland, where we had our R&D. And I’m going to share my experiences of how I was very noneffective in the beginning, and how I slowly realized the type of investment it takes, and how you need to think about it as slow, gradual movement of someone toward your ideas.
“In #SiliconValley, I was exposed to hundreds and hundreds of bright young minds, but because they were raised with the altruist morality, they are putting some of their talent toward advancing bad ideas and sacrificing themselves.” Click To Tweet
So, I’m going to share my insights on how to present Objectivism to people who are not interested in reading OPAR yet, or even reading Atlas Shrugged yet, but who may feel anxious about something or are stuck in their career or wrestling with some kind of contradiction about morality or politics. I’ll discuss how to work with them and sell them on the value of philosophy in general and Objectivism specifically.

On top of that, I’m going to talk about what I call the “ought-is” gap (not to be confused with the “is-ought” gap). What I mean by that is that many people understand the ethics of Objectivism but do not know how to implement it in a way that gives them happiness. In my process of defining and implementing my central purpose, I came across great tools and routines that have helped me tremendously. I will share those with the audience at TOS-Con.

Biddle: I like the characterization of the problem as an “ought-is” gap. Tech entrepreneurs are purpose-oriented and use-oriented, and if they don’t see a use for the ideas, they’re not interested in them. And they shouldn’t be! If ideas aren’t useful, then they’re not useful. If you don’t need them, you don’t need them. So, this is a good way to approach people with these ideas: Here’s why this principle matters to your life and your business . . . Here’s how these ideas will improve your company’s culture and your bottom line . . . And so on.

It reminds me of Ayn Rand’s distinction between philosophy for Ragnar and philosophy for Rearden. For Ragnar, philosophy is his profession, so he needs to understand philosophy in all its depth and complexity, including myriad technical issues in the field. For Rearden, philosophy is a tool that he needs to understand sufficiently for the purpose of checking the validity of the ideas he accepts and using its principles to guide his thought and action in his life and business. That’s what the people in Silicon Valley need: philosophy for Rearden.

Tsfany: Exactly. That’s the goal—to convey it in a contextual, meaningful way to those businessmen and entrepreneurs.

Biddle: Well, now I look forward to hearing your TOS-Con talk all the more! Is there anything we didn’t cover today that you’d like to mention or discuss?

Tsfany: Just that I’m very excited about what’s happening at the Institute. We’re getting better and better in terms of expertise, process, and technology. For instance, we’re coming out with a mobile app that will allow you to dive into Objectivism as you jog, work out, fly in an airplane, or take a drive. I’m very excited about this because it’s going to make Objectivism very accessible to everyone. Plus, it is all free of charge, under our approach of “help us keep it free” versus charging students for content through an e-store. Smartphones and cellular data are available almost everywhere, and with this app, people will not have the excuse of not being able to learn about the ideas. By the time this interview is published, the app will be available on iOS and Android—just search for “Ayn Rand,” and you’ll see the Ayn Rand University black-and-white app. Now guess why we chose this color scheme . . .

Biddle: I think I know why, but I’ll leave that guess to our readers. Whatever your reason, that sounds like a fabulous app. I look forward to checking it out.

Tsfany: Another thing we’re excited about is our upcoming OCON, which will be in Cleveland. We are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Ayn Rand’s book The Romantic Manifesto, and it’ll be a beautiful, artistic OCON. We’re really looking forward to it.

Biddle: That’s a great theme for a conference. Best success with the event and with all of your efforts to advance Objectivism.

I’m glad you’ve joined the fray, Tal. And I appreciate your time today.

Tsfany: My pleasure. Thanks for the opportunity!

To learn more about the philosophy of rational self-interest, download the #AynRandUniversity app here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/ayn-rand-university/id1452535178?mt=8 Click To Tweet
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