Philip McKibbin: “You need a thick skin”

‘You need a thick skin.’ Actually, many people told me this — ‘If you want to be a writer, you’ll need to develop a thick skin!’ — and it turned out to be true. Resilience is really important, because you will receive a lot of rejection and criticism. You need to be able to look at it objectively, learn […]

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‘You need a thick skin.’ Actually, many people told me this — ‘If you want to be a writer, you’ll need to develop a thick skin!’ — and it turned out to be true. Resilience is really important, because you will receive a lot of rejection and criticism. You need to be able to look at it objectively, learn any lessons you can from it, and keep going.


As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Philip McKibbin. Philip is a writer from Aotearoa New Zealand. He holds a Master of Arts in Philosophy from The University of Auckland, and diplomas in te reo Māori (the Māori language) from Te Wānanga o Aotearoa. His book, Love Notes: for a Politics of Love, is published in New York by Lantern Books. http://www.philip-mckibbin.com/


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you please tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

When I was young, I was fascinated by books. I was in awe of the potential writing has to communicate ideas and change the world. As a boy, I really enjoyed stories by Dr Seuss. I think especially of books like The Sneetches, I Had Trouble In Getting to Solla Sollew, and Yertle the Turtle. These stories are not only delightful; they also carry important messages. As soon as I was able to, I started writing. I would write short stories, and create picture books for my brothers and sisters. When I was 15, I started writing short novels. I used to stay with my grandmother in Cambridge (a little town in the North Island) during the school holidays. I remember sitting at her dining table on those long, sunny days, writing chapter after chapter. It was a way of exploring the world and sharing what I found — and I’m still doing that today!

Can you please share with us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

In 2015, my good friend Max Harris and I decided to write a short article arguing that politics could be loving. At the time, I was living in a shared apartment in the old Railway Station building in Auckland — I didn’t have any money, and it wasn’t the nicest place! We wrote the article, and we were pleased with it, but we couldn’t find anywhere that would publish it. So, eventually we just published it on Max’s blog. I was reflecting on this three-and-a-half years later, when I was standing in the Old Library at All Souls College, at the University of Oxford. Max was there on a scholarship, and we were able to get funding to hold a conference on the Politics of Love. We brought together activists, academics, and politicians to discuss these ideas. Oxford is a beautiful town, and All Souls was an astounding place to visit. The Politics of Love had the humblest beginning, but it has taken me to some fascinating places!

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

One thing that is very important to me is ‘philosophical honesty’. I believe thinkers have responsibilities, and one of these is to pursue the conclusions of our ideas. There are a lot of nice, fluffy ideas out there that we would all like to believe are true — ‘everything happens for a reason’ is a good example — but being honest means thinking critically, and accepting that the truth isn’t always beautiful. It would be nice if everything did happen for a reason, wouldn’t it? That’s why it’s so compelling: we want to believe it’s true. Of course, there are lots of things that can’t be explained this way — for example, the death of children, which happens every day. When we go deeper, we realize that this way of thinking dishonors those who suffer and die unnecessarily. It is consoling, but it diminishes their importance. Rather than distracting us, our thinking should support action which creates a better world for everyone.

Also, I think persistence and courage are very important. If you’re going to write, you have to be persistent, because writers receive a lot of rejection and criticism. As someone who deals with serious ideas, I think courage is even more important. If you have a vision that people find challenging, some of them will attack it, and they may even attack you. To stand up for what you believe in is to intentionally make yourself vulnerable. I think about this in relation to my writing on love. I know that when I say, ‘we should all work at loving’, I make myself vulnerable to the charge that I am a hypocrite — because, of course, I am flawed. Still, I believe the world needs more love, and that even though none of us is perfectly loving, more of us need to advocate for love, and some of us must do so publicly.

Ok thank you for that. Let’s now move to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

As I mentioned, in 2015 I started sketching the Politics of Love. The Politics of Love is a new vision of politics, which you can read about in my book, Love Notes: for a Politics of Love. It re-imagines our entire politics in loving terms, and it works through values such as compassion, humility, and trust.

I understand love as an orientation, or ‘way of being in the world’. It involves feeling, thinking, and acting. Love is a way of relating: to ourselves, to each other, to non-human animals, and to the natural environment. The Politics of Love asks us to extend our concern; it encourages us to look beyond ourselves, our families and friends — even our nations — and act responsibly.

How does the Politics of Love work? I think of the Politics of Love as a round space. All of us come into this space, with our diverse knowledges and histories, to discuss, deliberate, and decide. It is from this ‘space’ that we act. Our decisions can be more or less loving, and we’re doing better if more of our actions are more loving. Of course, none of us is perfect, but we can all work at love.

The Politics of Love is a values-based politics. Loving values can guide us as individual action. As an example, values such as listening and respect encourage us to take others’ legitimate concerns seriously. Similarly, they can inform collective action — including policy. An example of a loving policy might be universal health care, which relates to values such as care, responsibility, and sharing.

Almost everything is political, from what you ate for breakfast this morning, to how you will vote in the next election. I believe love can guide all of our decisions. That’s the Politics of Love.

How do you think this will change the world?

I would like to see the notion that politics can be loving become common sense, or ‘taken-for-granted’. Something I’ve recently started doing in my talks is asking people what they think politics is about. ‘What is politics?’ I ask them. There are many answers to this question — you probably already have some ideas about how we might describe politics. Well, imagine if, when we asked people, ‘What is politics?’, the response we heard was, ‘Politics is how we express our love.’ Politics is how we express our love.

Now, imagine how differently we would do politics if we thought about it this way. We would listen to each other, rather than talking over each other; and when we spoke it would be with understanding, respect, and patience. When it came to deliberating, instead of asking ‘What do I want?’, we would ask, ‘What is the most loving thing to do?’ As well as considering our own needs, we would consider the needs of all the people who are affected by our decisions, as well as what is best for other animals and the natural environment. We would arrive at decisions collectively, and then act on them together.

If love was guiding each of our decisions, just imagine how we would vote!

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

It’s easy to think that love is simply about ‘being nice’ to each other — and this is dangerous. If we understood the Politics of Love as just about being nice, a lot of injustice would go unaddressed. To appreciate this point, consider the suggestion that ‘we should all just be nice to each other’. What would this mean for people who are dealing with oppression in their daily lives? I’m talking about things like discrimination based on ethnic origin, sex, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and so on. If by ‘be nice’ we mean ‘never complain, never challenge, never resist,’ then what we’re telling each other is, essentially, ‘accept oppression’. We will not realize justice, or even begin to address injustice, simply by being ‘nice’.

The love which is at the centre of the Politics of Love is thoroughly committed to justice. It is anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-classist, and opposed to all forms of domination. I follow African-American theorist bell hooks who argues that love is incompatible with oppression — and so, the Politics of Love works to dismantle it. What the Politics of Love says is, ‘Yes, we must resist, but we must do so in ways that affirm each other’s importance.’ All of our actions must be underwritten by love for one another. What this means is that when we resist actions, belief systems, structures, and institutions that are oppressive — which we must do — we do not condemn other people, we don’t ‘cancel’ them. We love them.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

After I finished my Master of Arts, I worked as a Research Assistant at Te Kupenga Hauora Māori, the Department of Māori Health at the University of Auckland. While I was there I was engaging with a lot of literature on Kaupapa Māori, or Māori-centred theory and research. Kaupapa Māori is fascinating, because it draws on mātauranga Māori, or traditional Māori knowledge, as well as contemporary Indigenous thinking, Critical Theory, and anti-racist literature. While I was there, my supervisor instructed me to read a book by bell hooks called Black Looks: Race and Representation. I found it interesting, but it didn’t captivate me. Then, one day, one of the women who worked in the office, Bronwyn Bay, passed my desk. We got on really well, and she often stopped to chat. She showed me a book she was reading — All About Love: New Visions, another book by bell hooks. She said that it had been passed around by a few of the women in the department. ‘I think you’d really like it.’ I took her advice, read it, and immediately fell in love with it. This was just before Max and I wrote our article. Many of the ideas that have become central to the Politics of Love appear in that book. Without it, the Politics of Love would not exist.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

I will continue doing what I can do to share the Politics of Love — and although I am often asked if one day I will ‘get into politics’, for me this will mostly involve writing. Obviously, I can’t do this alone. If we succeed in realizing the Politics of Love, it will be because people other than me are willing to get behind it. One thing I think about a lot in relation to this is collaboration. Working together is central to this vision of politics. I am proud of the fact that the Politics of Love began as an article written by two friends. Since that first article, I’ve written other pieces collaboratively — for example, last year I wrote an article called ‘We Are All Animal Lovers’ with renowned animal activist Kim Stallwood, and most recently I wrote an article arguing that tax is a form of love with Niki Harré, a Professor of Psychology. I am always looking for ways to extend the Politics of Love. Collaborating with other people, who have perspectives that differ from my own, helps to develop the ideas and ensures that they reach an even wider audience.

Of course, there are other ways in which people can support the Politics of Love. If you like an article or interview you read, you can share it with the people in your life. Also, I am usually able and willing to talk to groups. For example, I was recently in Wellington, the capital city here in New Zealand, where I presented a talk on the Politics of Love and activism to a group of animal advocates.

One thing I would like to encourage everyone to do is to explore the Politics of Love, and refer to it when talking about politics. If your politics is guided by love, say so! I often explain my decisions by referring to loving values. For example, I am in favour of decarceration, or reducing rates of incarceration, because I value equality, mutuality, and trust — all of which are compromised by mass imprisonment.

However, I would urge anyone using the language of love, and referring to the Politics of Love, to make sure they are engaging with these ideas sincerely. Increasingly, politicians are misusing the word ‘love’. In the lead-up to the 2016 US presidential election, Donald Trump claimed to ‘love’ Mexico — while demonizing Mexican immigrants. And last year, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro declared that he had ‘profound love and respect’ for the Amazon Rainforest, even as he championed the very policies that were causing it to burn.

It isn’t enough to declare that your politics is loving. You must practice love, too.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why.

  1. ‘You need a thick skin.’ Actually, many people told me this — ‘If you want to be a writer, you’ll need to develop a thick skin!’ — and it turned out to be true. Resilience is really important, because you will receive a lot of rejection and criticism. You need to be able to look at it objectively, learn any lessons you can from it, and keep going.
  2. ‘You’ve got to back yourself.’ If you have a vision, it’s going to take you a while to convince other people to get behind it. This is because it will take time to work out how to communicate it, so that everyone sees its potential. You will only be able to do that if you believe in yourself enough to stick with it.
  3. ‘Saying ‘no’ can be powerful.’ We’re often encouraged to make the most of opportunities, and generally this is good advice — but sometimes it’s better to say ‘no’. I recently pulled out of a conference I was due to speak at as I was dissatisfied with how my ideas were going to be treated. I was worried that I would regret this decision, because I knew it would cost me (for example, in missed opportunities to meet people and share my ideas). As it turns out, saying ‘no’ was empowering. This project is important, and I will do my best to take care of it.
  4. ‘Sometimes, you’ll have good luck.’ When I started out as a writer, people always told me how difficult it would be, but no one said, ‘Every now and then, something wonderful will happen.’ Well, every now and then, good things do happen. It’s important to remember this. That way, you’ll be prepared to make the most of those opportunities when they come along.
  5. ‘Ask for help.’ If you believe in your project, others will, too. In the past, I have been shy about asking for help, but whenever I have people have responded. For example, three years ago I did some fundraising to attend a conference in Mexico City. It’s pretty expensive getting from New Zealand to Mexico, so I set up a crowdfunding page, gave a public talk, and crossed my fingers. The support was incredible! My favourite café, Mezze, donated food; a vegan company, Angel Food, donated some cheese; Max donated a couple of copies of his books. And the contributions came in! When I got to Mexico, I was able to share the Politics of Love, I formed some amazing relationships, and I even met my future editor, Martin Rowe at Lantern! If I hadn’t been willing to ask for help, the Politics of Love would not be getting the attention it is right now.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

First, do the work. Writers — like other artists — can be inclined to sit back and wait for inspiration. I don’t believe in that approach. I think it’s an excuse, and it wastes a lot of time. If you want to write, sit down and write; that’s how things get written. Your project will only succeed if you work on it.

Second, setbacks only count as failures if they force you to stop what you’re doing. If you can learn from a setback, then treat it as an opportunity to learn — but whatever you do, be sure to keep going. Before I had published widely, I used to hesitate when it came to calling myself a writer. I was afraid of the question, ‘What have you written?’ Of course, I’d written lots of things! But only a few of them had been published, and I knew that was what people really wanted to know when they asked that question. (Anyway, I’d collected enough rejection letters to wallpaper my whole room!) Now, I call myself a writer confidently — and it isn’t just because my writing is now regularly published. It’s because I kept going, and I developed my skills. I am a writer. If I had stopped, I wouldn’t be. It really is as simple as that.

Third, don’t accept defeat. I have only felt defeated once in my life, and it almost led me to stop writing. If I could tell the me who I was back then about the successes I have had since — well, he wouldn’t believe me. It was foolish, almost, to keep writing, but I did it anyway, and it worked!

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

To be honest, I don’t think there’s much money to be made from the Politics of Love. (I certainly wouldn’t advise anyone in it for the money to write a book on the subject!) This vision of politics encourages each of us to look at how we can contribute, how we can share our love. We have a saying in Māori, which is ‘Aroha mai, aroha atu.’ It means many things, but one way of translating it is, ‘Love received is love returned.’ I know there are many people out there who are looking for ways to help create a better world. If anyone reading this is keen to explore ways you can support me in sharing these ideas, financially or otherwise, or if I can support you in sharing your ideas for love, I would love to hear from you. The best way to reach me is by email. You can find my address here: http://www.philip-mckibbin.com/

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow me on Facebook — https://www.facebook.com/philipmckibbinanz I’m also on Twitter — https://twitter.com/philip_mckibbin If you would like to read my writing, check out my website — http://www.philip-mckibbin.com/

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

Thank you!

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