Redefining the Indefinable: Jeff Williams & the American Gadfly


*This article was originally published in August 2014 after Jeff Williams released his first website, The American Gadfly. Although the name has changed (now, Jeff's passion hasn't.

I don’t intend to be controversial for the sake of being controversial. Hopefully not too frequently going on an anger-fueled rant on some injustice. I want to be a little more educational. A little more showing both sides. But, at the end of the day, really showing nothing. That’s what I do.” 

– Jeff Williams

On July 4th, 2014, Jeff Williams launched the American Gadfly Commons. It’s a “new media” website, as he calls it, a platform featuring podcasts and written content all meant to amplify innovative ideas, challenge the status quo, and catalyze conscious, creative conversations. He’s part of a new wave of self-proclaimed social entrepreneurs who wishes to create the space for sidelined ideas to have a voice; to be contenders in the public discussion. He’s not out to tell-all, to thrust a certain agenda onto his listeners. Indeed, he often insists that his work is really “showing nothing,” simply “poking some holes in some arguments,” no different from the podcasts that have come before his. “[I] realize there are many others starting to do this type of work,” he writes, “and [I] hope to be another player in this budding and stimulating movement.” He’s not inventing the wheel, but re-inventing it.

So what makes Jeff Williams different? What is it about the American Gadfly that will make it stand out among a sea of other similarly-aimed ventures? Or, not even stand out, but hold its own, find its own space to stand. With the barriers to entry into podcasting at an easy-to-access low, Jeff Williams himself is the only thing that can save his podcast from the humdrum of ubiquity and the ever-growing list of amateur podcasters trying to make it big. It’s time for him to unleash himself, because it’s his personality alone—his aura, only—that will allow him to leave his trace in the skyline even as others rise around him.

met Jeff Williams in Mrs. Ambrosini’s first grade class at Accompsett Elementary School. It was 1996. I was a quiet kid and don’t remember much about him then, except for his short, blond hair. He, too, was quiet, studious, and well-behaved. Our moms were both class parents throughout the years, and our families would run into each other at honor society ceremonies, math tournaments, and school concerts (besides being an intellectual gadfly, Jeff is a talented artist and musician). By high school, our friends groups seemed to cross tangentially, but we never really fell into the same group. Jeff Williams continued to excel in high school, academically thriving across the board as a writer, musician, and thinker and we continued sharing classes until college took him off to UNC Chapel Hill in 2008, where we parted ways.

Jeff and I didn’t hear from each other, except for an occasional run-in in our hometown during college breaks, until July of this year when I received a message from him. Jeff was contacting me to explain his new venture and ask if I’d like to be a guest on his podcast. I was obliged.

According to Mr. Williams, a gadfly is an individual who dissents from common opinion not for dissension’s sake, but for the betterment of society. A gadfly insists on speaking up, not necessarily to make his own opinion heard, but to poke holes in the illusions of others, all in the service of truth; he acts in the service of something higher, something bigger than himself. Indeed, the notion behind the rabble-rousing gadfly spans all the way back to Socrates, who was on trial in Athens for, as it was alleged, corrupting the youth. While defending himself, Socrates dropped into his testimony his own pearls of wisdom and an admonishment, saying, “dissent, like the gadfly, [is] easy to swat, but the cost to society of silencing individuals who [are] irritating could be very high.” In other words, Socrates suggests that the greatest danger to society is often self-imposed; when society chooses to silence the voices of the minority—the gadflies—it threatens its own ability to stand and endure. “If you kill a man like me,” Socrates insisted, “you will injure yourselves more than you will injure me.”

In our elementary school days together, I always knew Jeff as an obedient, smart boy—more quiet than gadfly-like. But, when he sat down to talk to me recently, 18 years after our first meeting, he explained that that wasn’t always the case: “My dark side involves anger and big outbursts,” he said, “and, when you’re younger, those are more dramatic and loud and crazy. I’m someone who butted heads fiercely with my parents as a child, especially not getting the things in the exact ways I wanted. I developed a lot of angst when my mom would say something like, ‘No because I said so.’ I just didn’t get it.” He goes on, “I’ve clearly seen myself rebel for the sake of rebelling.”

The thing about Jeff Williams, though, is that maturity has set in him a broad understanding and awareness. Unlike other gadflies who throw themselves into the fire without concern for risk, Jeff makes a point of seeing potential risk down the line: “At the same time that I want to be a non-conformist, and to whatever extent that means be your true self, I want to do that and have a good element of not caring what people think”—he paused for a moment to think, before continuing— “But, in doing that, in not caring what people think, then you’re free to communicate with them and see them as human beings. I have a weird pride in wanting to do what I do and have people think it’s decent or quality, but I don’t want to impose it on any of them.” Indeed, the cool thing about Jeff Williams is that he seems to be playing a new game: not extreme non-conformist without any ties to society to keep him grounded, but not a silent, obedient citizen, either. He believes that one of the biggest tasks he’ll face is balancing the line between being critical of mainstream ideas while also being taken lightly enough to not back himself into any extreme trouble.

“Do you think, what you do—or plan to do—will be something dangerous for you, down the line?” I asked.

“That’s a really good question,” he said. “I like it. I think that’s the game.”

(And, as for his childhood fights with his mom and dad—when I asked him about his relationship with his parents today, he answered, “The honest answer—my relationship with my parents is better than ever. Now, more than ever, I’m trying to live genuine gratitude to my parents.” He went on, “I take pride in making whatever angst or rebelliousness I had noble.”

His mother must be proud.)

However, the real secret to Jeff Williams, the innovator, not the son, may be his refusal to bucket himself—or let anyone else do that task for him.

In an April interview with CBS’s Anthony Mason, artist, singer, and producer Pharrell Williams describes living outside the bucket—or the box: “I just never even seen the box,” he says. “It’s like, what do you mean? What wall? What ceiling? What are you talking about . . . you know? Limitless.”

That unfenced, I-don’t-see-the-box attitude is one of Jeff’s strengths, a strength which sets him apart while confounding the rest of the world that seeks to place him in easy-to-define categories.

“What fires me up,” Jeff told me, “is playing ball with the establishment—people that talk down to you. Because you’re doing this, they think you must not know shit. I want the courage to call bullshit. To be like bullshit, bullshit, bullshit—to be the guy that does that.”

He went on, “Indefinability. I love that. I want to make it challenging for people to bucket me. So what am I? Entrepreneur, writer, podcast host, social entrepreneur. I feel like this is already sounding pretentious. Dare I say ‘artist’?” (Me, in the background: “Yes!”). “I’m just doing me, and that’s it,” he added, as a final declaration. (“Mmm, yes. Perfect,” I said. “There’s nothing else.”)

In fact, when deciding to start a business, there are two paths you can take. You can think, as he put it, “This is what everyone wants, let me make something to fill that need—or, I am my only customer. This is what I want. If I do this genuinely enough, other people will value it.”

Indeed, Jeff has created a business that is not a separate entity, a day job, but is an extension of himself. “I’m interested in how ideas can spread; I’m audio-oriented,” he said. “It’s almost like a telepathic thing for me. So that’s why I chose the podcast medium.” In other words, Jeff isn’t out there trying to mimic what someone else is doing for the sake of creating what some focus group or market research has deemed the masses want, but is producing content based on his own interests; he’s following his bliss. He explained his approach to creating his business, saying: “I think, what are the things that make me the happiest in life? When can I get into a flow state? . . . I’m using that as an indicator of the thing that might be most pleasing to me.” Rather than live a life in which he wants to escape his job, Jeff is making his work part of him, with his happiness determining the direction he takes: “It evolves alongside me,” he added, of his business. “It’s an outpouring of me.”

The thing about “doing you,” though, is it’s a massively difficult pursuit, as many people who have found themselves alone on the way to the top can attest. For example, when I asked Jeff to describe, in his own words, what he does for a living, he responded, with a little bout of passion behind his voice, “I cringe at the question. It’s a source of perpetual stress in my life. I don’t like any of it. Because that is the dominant question when you meet someone . . . you can see the judgment in people’s eyes who are old school and don’t understand what you’re doing.”

But, just as he was saying this, it’s as if he heard himself slipping—backsliding into the realm of the powerless, the self-proclaimed victim—and knew he couldn’t go down that road. He paused for a moment, pulled together his thoughts, and reclaimed his light and strength. “It’s this concept of sacrifice,” he said to me, his voice directing my attention to his re-found strength and assurance. “Some people self-impose some burden. That’s not necessary. That’s not what we’re meant to do. Slay the vampires in your life. Get them out of there. You can do all of that. Unite with the other people who are on the same level.”

Ah, yes, I thought.

He went on, “What you focus on grows. You co-create the power that something or someone else has over you by letting it have power. Unfortunately, it can invade your life and you’re forced to deal with it and it has to be painful. But, more, it’s what we’re doing to ourselves in our heads after [some skirmish with someone who talks down to us or tries to bucket us]. It was a transitory experience, yet we’re still focusing on it after. You can’t let that have power over you. And, if you do, you just have to remind yourself, ‘I’m not going to let that have power over me, again.’”

One of the best things about Jeff Williams is not only his resilience, his resurgence of life just as negativity tries to creep in—but his gratitude, his ability to recognize someone else’s gift and how it shapes his own. Throughout the interview, he kept thanking me for simply talking to him, saying things like, “This is too fun. This is such a treat,” and, “This is like a gift because I’m given someone who’s listening to me talking about these ideas. That’s crazy. I’m very aware of it.”

Jeff Williams is ambitious, he’s intelligent, he’s analytical, he’s creative—but, more than anything, he’s attuned to the people he speaks to and cares about. The love I’ve seen him show for his mother is incredible; at every high school event where I’d spurn my mom and only pass a glancing grin at her from 20 feet away, he’d go up to his mom and give her a hug, never afraid that it “wasn’t cool” to do so. In fact, that’s what cool is. Jeff is a real man who doesn’t shy away from standing in his power, but will never overbear, never dominate, never be too insecure to give a compliment before accepting one.

He’s in tune with his own spirit and mind and is humble enough to admit when he’s more talk than action. “I’m sure that, in five years, ten years, looking back at myself now, I’ll hate myself. I’ll be like, what an asshole. He’s talking about being epistemologically and intellectually humble, and he’s not,” he said to me, laughing.

The truth is, he’s honest. Aren’t we all a little more verbose than we need to be at times? Don’t we all let our high and mighty opinions get the best of us from moment to moment? The secret is not banning these moments from our lives, but being aware of them. Noticing what triggers us. Admitting when we briefly steer off course. That’s the only true source of change.

At the end of the interview, I asked Jeff about fate—do you believe in it? “You’re co-creating it,” he responded. “It’s all a matter of probabilistic events and paths.” Essentially, all our potentialities exist at the same time, parallel to each other; “it’s when you’re harnessing your intentions,” he said, that you calibrate to a particular trend, a particular fate or potentiality. “It’s a complex fucking thing,” he added. “History might just be these people who were able to awaken to this unity,” this co-creation, “and they might just have been ahead of their time. But these are the people we think about. These are the people we worship.”

Jeff Williams doesn’t seek to be worshipped, but what will make him stand out—and withstand—is his humble ability to tune in, turn on, and find the map to his own passion. He’s unleashing what’s uniquely him in his work—and, for an artist, entrepreneur and creator, there may be no higher task.

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