Map #39: The Atlas Project

Chris Kutarna
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This will be my last letter of 2018, and I want to begin it by thanking you for being a kind, patient and generous reader during the year.

These letters are important to me. Imagining that you are waiting for them compels me to make time to write to you, even when life tries to steal that time away from us. Imagining that you are engaging with or tearing apart my ideas compels me to try to bash them into some coherent, digestible shape—even though they are pre-publication, first draft, “essays written on the run.”

Thank you, too, for the hundreds of real replies I’ve received through 2018, all of which (well, okay, most of which) have helped me to improve, reflect and rethink. (New for me in 2018: getting hassle for my letters from the odd Russian troll. By the way, if you’re at all interested in the latest cyber-warfare research and activity, particularly re: Russia, check out some of the excellent publications from NATO’s Stratcom Centre of Excellence.)

By reading this, you make me a better writer, and you encourage me to write more. And I appreciate that.

Much, much more to come in 2019.

Brave voyages, and

Happy Holidays!



Please enjoy “The Atlas Project” podcast!

Late this year, I also began publishing The Atlas Project podcast with American podcasting pro and my good friend, Scott Kent Jones. In each episode, I bring to our confab a big, urgent issue that I’m struggling to wrap my head around—often, the same issue I’ve written about in my most recent “map.” Scott brings the whole history of Western social and political thought. (Scott has an encyclopedic memory of everything he reads and hears—which must have come in handy when he did his theology PhD. He does a passable Trump impersonation, too.)

Okay, okay, Scott—more than passable. Serviceable, even. Yeesh. 🙂

For me, I take away two things from each of our conversations: several meaty insights into a giant contemporary issue; plus a page full of rich context from Scott’s mental encyclopedia—articles, interviews and quotes by Kant and Hegel and Simone de Beauvoir—to take away and read over my Sunday morning coffee.

Hopefully, for those of you who enjoy the spoken word, our podcast episodes will be a nice complement to these letters. I invite you to check it out!


Many-Sided Reality

I also want to share with you a simple sketch that impacted many of my ideas and actions through 2018. It’s a sketch that says a lot about the question, ‘Why do we need to work together?’

If you subscribe to the left-hand view, then the obvious way to understand the world better is to expand your own circle of knowledge to cover as much of the total as possible.

But if you subscribe to the right-hand view, then that can’t work. The only way to understand the world better is to collaborate with other people. Reality (in the middle) is a many-sided object that none of us can touch directly, and which each of us can only see from our side.


Navigating New Waters, Together

This picture became my “why” for convening some new collaborations in 2018: on a small scale, a podcast with a mind as unusual as Scott’s :-); on a bigger scale, a series of global gatherings (or “basecamps”) for people to come together and rethink society.

The first of those basecamps took place in Toronto in November; it brought together 115 pathfinding people from across North America (and a few pathfinders from much farther afield). The next will take place in London in June.

Throughout 2019, I’ll be mining these gatherings for golden nuggets worth sharing with you. For now, having just convened the first, let me just briefly reflect back to you some of what I’ve already learned about learning-and-leading-through-convening:

First, leadership today is often about navigating paradoxes. Leaders today often find themselves stuck: between incompatible demands; or between what’s good in the short term and what’s good in the long-term; or maybe between profits and sustainability; or between treating people as means and treating people as ends; or between their personal and professional lives. So often, there’s at least two important objectives, and it’s hard to see how to move closer to one without moving further away from the other.

Second, being stuck is unsettling. Some of us are unsettled by a sense of spreading hopelessness over problems that refuse to be solved: war, poverty, environmental destruction and climate change, inequality. Some of us are unsettled by a sense of deepening divisiveness in politics and society—divisions so deep, we now live in separate realities. Some of us are unsettled by not knowing—by the scale and pace of change and the endless admonitions to adapt.

Third, convening—the coming together of the many parts of these problems—is in itself an important act of leadership, because it creates new chances at getting ourselves unstuck. Having the grace and courage to hang together in a room, with some of the big, brow-furrowing paradoxes, not knowing how to solve them, can in itself help groups to move from an awareness that “we’re stuck” to an awareness that “we’re navigating” these thorny problems-without-clear-answers.


Getting better at getting unstuck

Convening well is an art. (I now have a fresh respect for how difficult an art it is!) I’m hopeful that the more of it I do, the better I’ll get at it—and the more hard­ earned wisdom I’ll be able to pass along to other conveners. I do deeply believe  that it is, if not “the answer,” then certainly “a way.”

So: In Twenty-Nineteen, what will you convene?

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