Wow, what a year it’s been, eh?
From the thousands of people around the world I spoke with in 2019, two clear themes emerged: exhaustion in the present and anxiety about the future. The most frequent question I met this year was “What is going to happen with ____?”
Each time I met that question, my mind went back to my first book (Age of Discovery), and to its message of hope and determination. “Hope, because we can seize this moment. We can realize a new flourishing that in magnitude, geographic scope and positive consequences for human welfare will far surpass any other flourishing in history. Determination, because a new golden age will never simply arrive. We have to achieve it, in open defiance of the forces tearing it apart.” (p.10)
In the spirit of hope and determination, I’d like to close 2019 by offering you three ideas: a big problem, a big response and a big vision. They are the most valuable learnings that I took away from this year. I hope they serve you in your efforts to achieve the 2020s that you think should arrive.
(If you’d like to bring these ideas to life in your community or country or organization, let me know. I’ll help, if I can.)
See you in 2020,
A big problem: Our social addiction to Simplicity
As a society, we are addicted to simplicity. In the 2020s, we need to get more comfortable with complexity.
One of my personal highlights from 2019 was giving a TED Talk in Mumbai. I used that big stage to bring attention to our addiction to simple truths. We are all grappling with the spreading of lies throughout our public discourse. Meanwhile, we are missing a much more important problem: how weak and simplistic our truths have become. So weak, that lies look just as legitimate.
It was fun to deliver. It was fun to break so many “rules of TED”. I offered more questions than answers. I spoke as a citizen unsettled by a problem, not as an expert selling the solution. I demanded the audience’s concentration, instead of conforming to the limits of our shrinking attention spans.
Our social addiction to simplicity is plain inside our organizations. Just ask yourself, “Who are the leaders of my organization?” Does the answer look like an org chart (i.e., a hierarchy)? Or does it look like a field of wildflowers? The former reflects mechanistic, command-and-control thinking leftover from the Industrial Age.
And it may have been a useful mental model back then. But today it’s dangerous. It excludes from view too much that matters in a more complex world. Small wonder that the average lifespan of a company’s listing on the S&P 500 index has fallen from 90 years in the 1940s to just 11 years today.
Our social addiction to simplicity is also plain in our politics. In this anxious moment, how do you win political power? By offering people clarity. Answers. By showing a sure path to a familiar place. Instead of asking people to put faith in democracy to get them there, put faith in Me — the strong leader. Instead of joining together in the complex search for a collective prosperity we’ve never seen, follow me down a simple path to the divided world we know how to find.
To achieve the 2020s we all want, we’re going to have to break this addiction — in ourselves, and for one another.
The enemy of simplicity is a question. Getting comfortable with complexity means giving voice to the unsettling questions you already carry inside you. We need to grasp those questions and then journey with them — into uncomfortable conversations, onto unusual understandings. If we make that journey, we may arrive at unexpected insights.
It takes courage to make this journey, from the seductive simplicity we hold in our hands, to the beautiful simplicity we might fail to reach on the other side. That’s one reason why we’re better off making it together…
A big response: The power of convening
I ended my final letter of 2018 with the question, “In 2019, what will you convene?”
A major focus for me this past year was to understand better the power and practice of convening, and to share my learnings. A couple weeks ago, I summarized those learnings for you in my conversation canvas. It’s a simple yet challenging tool for convening “The mix that is missing” — the people who should join you on your journey away from seductive simplicity.
One aspect of convening I’m still working to understand is the tension between affirming conversations (with like-minded people) and uncomfortable conversations (with people who look at the world differently). Affirming conversations by a small group who meet regularly to digest knowledge and change is a powerful — and I think, essential — practice. But doesn’t it also reinforce our own echo chambers and make the uncomfortable conversations harder?
Two days ago, I was invited to take part in a small-group salon that I had helped inspire, back in my hometown. As a like-minded group, they were keenly aware of this tension. The obvious solution is to do both. But that’s easier said than done. How, one of them confronted me, do you actually bring into conversation people who are so strong in their own views that they are flatly unwilling to listen to yours? How do you go on a journey with people who have no intention of moving?
I’ve been grappling with this question all year, and I slept on it again after that salon. Yesterday I woke up realizing: I’m asking the wrong question. It assumes that the most powerful convening is the coming together of opposites. It assumes that the task of the bridge-builder is to seek out and unite the extremes.
But if you think about a bridge, it’s the middle that most needs support. The people standing on either bank are just fine. They are secure in their group. It’s the people in the middle who stand exposed. It’s the people in the middle who are being driven to seek the safety of one extreme or the other. It’s the people in the middle who are dwindling.
A big vision: A global Society of explorers
Two futures await us at the end of this new decade. One, a world more divided by systemic crises into winners and losers. The other, a world brought together by systemic crises into shared prosperity.
We know how to reach the one, but not the other.
We can be driven by fear and group loyalty to follow strong Leaders along simple paths to divisive destinations. That’s the world we know.
Or we can lean on each other to explore new and complex paths to a collective destination.
That’s the world we’ve never been.
What I’ve discovered again in 2019 is that this fear-filled moment is also full of courageous people who want to explore ways that have never been tried, to reach that world we’ve never been. These people are willing to contribute upfront, then trust that the journey will be worth it in the end. These people come from all walks of life. Some are rich. Some are poor. They are all affluent with social capital. They are all rich in the capacity to be, think and act social.
My experience is that if you embark on bold expeditions for the public good — expeditions that absolutely will fail unless these people help — they show up. You’ll still endure failures, but you won’t endure them alone. Instead, you will quickly find yourself a member of this Society of explorers.
I now find myself a member. I’ve begun to think of it as the New Geographical Society. In a prior age, the Royal Geographical Society was the community for bold adventure into the unknown. The members of the New Geographical Society share a similar mission: To map the way to a different and more beautiful world.
It is not an exclusive Society. It’s an inclusive one: open to everyone who sincerely participates in its mission.
If you are not a Member yet, I urge you to join up. The Society needs to grow. The world is going to look very different in a decade’s time: either much more divided, or much more joined up. To shape that difference in a positive direction, to arrive to the world we’ve never been, we cannot be map-takers.
We must become map-makers.
Questing together into the new year,