Tuesday, March 16, 2010

My New Hobby

This past weekend I accomplished something I've been trying to do for many months:  I started an Objectivist discussion group!

I started thinking about this project when I realized that the most important thing I get from my friends is intellectual stimulation.  I noticed that when Adam and I have friends over - friends who share our philosophical views and take ideas seriously - the conversations we have make me feel great for days.  Sometimes I learn something new from the content of the discussion, but more often than not, the important thing is that the exercise of my mind refuels me and puts me into a more active-minded mode than I would normally be in.  After these visits, I feel charged up, energetic, and on my game.  Everything I do is more intense, and I enjoy my routine much more.

I like lots of different people for lots of different reasons - this is not the only value of friendship for me.  However, this particular value is something that I need in a deep and serious way, since my day-job, although challenging in many ways, is not really an intellectual endeavor.  I mean, I use my mind as a parent.  My god, I use my mind in ways that I never knew that I could!  But the truth is, parenting is full of a lot of mind-numbingly boring tasks (cooking, running errands, wiping bottoms, telling Little Bear stories, etc.).  Happily, I actually enjoy most of these things.  But the sheer volume of minutia involved in full-time parenting makes me long to fly up high and see the forest instead of the trees.  It's funny, because I noted long ago that Adam, whose career is intellectual, feels a strong need for hobbies that are physical and/or give instant gratification.  When we had a nice yard in Michigan, he took up yard work, and got a great deal of satisfaction from something as ordinary as pulling weeds or mowing the lawn.  I think most people would like to have both kinds of activities in their lives.

So anyway, I decided I wanted to start an Objectivist club, but it took me a long time to nail down exactly what kind of club it would be.  I'm pretty sure most of my readers know what Objectivism is, but if not, you can check out The Ayn Rand Institute's web site.  People have been forming Objectivist clubs for decades, and most clubs fall into one of three main categories:

  • Study clubs.  The most common type of Objectivist club, these groups devote serious effort to understanding Ayn Rand's ideas.  Most college campus clubs fall into this category.  These clubs can have anywhere from just a few members, to dozens.  Usually, there are some formal requirements for membership and, if the club is large enough, there are elected positions such as secretary, treasurer, etc.  Many of these clubs also organize speaker events which are open to the public.  I founded a study club at Michigan State University while I was there, although I did a terrible job with it and it appears to be dead now.  I wish I had OCN back then to help me!

  • Social clubs.  These are a way to network with local Objectivists and hopefully make some friends amongst like-minded people.  Many clubs organize activities that have nothing to do with Objectivism - the idea is just to get everyone together and have fun.

  • Activist clubs.  I've never had any experience with an Objectivist club dedicated to activism, but they do exist.

Well, I spent many months being very confused about what I wanted to do.  I knew I wanted a study club, but my experience at MSU made me realize that I didn't want a typical one.  Most of these clubs seem to have a second, implicit purpose of promoting Objectivism to the local community, which is not something I want to do.  Most are more formal than what I was looking for, and involve more time than I'm willing to put in.  Finally, I was tied up in knots about who to invite to join my club.  With campus clubs, the idea is always to get as many members as possible.  I know a lot of Objectivists in the DC area whom I like and would like to spend more time with.  But the kind of conversations that I want and need have always happened with a small group of people.

In the end, I decided to start a very small group, and to keep the structure of it to a minimum.  There are 6 of us, and we meet monthly.  We don't have a statement of purpose or anything formal like that, but I made it clear that I want to focus on what I call "applied Objectivism."  I'm not interested in philosophy as such, but how to live my life better, which, of course, is the purpose of philosophy.

I determined the subject of our first discussion just to get us started.  I suggested some reading and a few questions to consider.  At our first meeting on Sunday, we started with that, but just let the conversation flow in whatever direction it would.  (I'm not going to report on the content of our discussions here.)  We stayed mostly on-point, but it was done naturally, without the need for moderation.  During our discussion, we all became interested in another subject, and agreed that we would make that our topic for next month.  Another member will take the lead for that discussion, and we'll probably trade off that "lead" role going forward.  This loose structure seemed to work very well, but we might change it if necessary.

I am really happy with this group, and I feel very proud that I met the challenge of doing it selfishly.


  1. I started one too for the exact same reason and with pretty much the same mission. It's sort of petered out because I've got a million more productive projects in mind.

    One idea I had and wanted to do was Show and Tell. Basically, each person brings a value and talks about it to the group. It's a good window into other people's values and a way to find new potential values. Plus it reinforces deliberate valuing. You're welcome to the idea, of course.

  2. Another approach for Objectivist discussion groups is to have a structured period and an unstructured period (probably best in that order). The latter can include any problems of application individuals are having, any problems understanding an aspect of the philosophy, personal issues as philosophy might apply to them, and personal success stories.

  3. Yes--our group is very small and very casual. While I loved the more philosophical discussions 10 years ago (when I was still doing a lot of reading), I find I am much more interested in exploring application.

  4. Amy (and others), I hope you'll find these helpful: http://www.oclubs.org/meeting-plans/

    These are the result of much trial and error about length, format, etc. These meeting plans save a lot of time for the moderator when preparing for a discussion. We've received a lot of great feedback from campus clubs & community clubs.

    You should also skim this list and see if any of the past advice pieces apply to your situation:

  5. Keith, I couldn't find anything at your OCN web site that really applied to me and what I wanted to do. All of your excellent information is more relevant to more formal and structured clubs. Mine is more like a monthly dinner party with a theme. From the comments, it sounds like there are other clubs like mine out there. Maybe you'll expand to cover these more casual groups at some point?

  6. > Maybe you’ll expand to cover these more casual groups at some point?

    Sure, we'd definitely think about that, but is there something besides meeting plans you think would be valuable?

    You're correct that the OCN resources are geared more towards a "study group", not so much a more casual get together. Although study group doesn't have to mean rigid, for us in Chicago it means: people are expected to read 5-10 pages in advance (we always keep the reading short) and for the ~1.5 - 2 hrs we keep the discussion focused roughly on the essay. The discussions always leads to all sorts of interesting topics, and we let it.

    Not sure if this is too structured for your purposes, but we've found it valuable to: first read the condensed outline aloud (takes 2-3 min), that refreshes everyone's memory about the essay. Then go around the circle and each person shares a very quick reaction to the essay (60 seconds, really short. could be something that was confusing, something they really liked, etc). We try to not let people respond to the reactions we make sure to go around the room first and hear's everyone's. Then after we've gone around the circle we dive in, there is typically plenty to talk about! But the moderator usually jots down some of the more interesting Qs that came up and refers back to those Qs if the discussion lulls.

    Also, the discussion questions on the meeting plan are a good backup in case the discussion lulls. Plus, before we wrap up the moderator usually skims through the questions to quickly to see if there were any good questions/points that weren't touched on.

    Again, this may not fit your goal, but sharing it anyway in case it sparks an idea for you.

  7. Keith, is that outline of a meeting on your web site? I never saw anything like that so maybe I didn't dig deeply enough. We just had our first meeting, so we'll see how it develops, but so far, we're still less structured than even that. Also, I never even considered keeping the group small on purpose. Every group I've ever heard of tries to be big. It took me a long time to realize that there might be value in small.

  8. There are some suggested meeting procedures on the website, not sure where. Probably not exactly as I described, I kind of gave you the latest incarnation.

    Also, group size is key. We try to keep our groups 5-6 max, when 10-20 people show up we break people into smaller groups for separate discussions. Once get get over 6 people it's really hard to have "one" conversation and it quickly breaks down.

  9. Amy,
    I believe you're in the DC area. If so, are you aware of the DCOS club? As part of this, Lin Zinser and I are coordinating a series of discussions on Ayn Rand's essays, and the group does other things too. The group's meetings are coordinated through meetup.com:
    If you aren't listed as a member of DCOS, please join, so that you get our meeting updates.
    Fred Seiler

  10. Fred,

    I'm only vaguely aware of DCOS. Nobody has invited me to it. I'll join the meetup.com group to see what you're up to. Thanks.

  11. [...] Mossoff presents My New Hobby posted at The Little Things, saying, “I really had to work hard to be selfish when starting [...]

  12. That sounds like such a fun idea! Good luck, and I'll probably ask you for advice when we get to that stage with our group in Atlanta (our group has a different goal/scope than yours, obviously, but I anticipate a time in which we'll break up into smaller discussion groups).