Last week I wrote a blog post about Crafting a Career in Conservation. Sometimes it feels more like I’m crafting a Career in Conversation, because for sure there is a lot of talking involved in my work – meetings, Skype calls (or these days, Zoom – much better), conferences, and speeches.
And talking matters. As Margaret Mead wrote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” And how does that small group of citizens communicate with each other? They talk.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed this in your life, but I definitely feel that a new idea has very little substance while it exists purely in my head. One day, on a whim, I can decide that I am going to do something about plastic pollution in the oceans, say. The first time I think the thought, it is a fragile, tentative little resolution. But the more times I think about it, the stronger that idea starts to get wired into my brain. But it’s all still internal. There are no sensory experiences to reinforce the idea – it’s just a notion.
So I decide to ponder my new idea during a session with my journal. I write about my new resolution. Now I’m starting to add other sensory layers to the idea. I can see it written on the page. I have felt my hand, holding the pen, shaping the letters of the words of the idea. It is gaining more substance.
But it still lies purely within me. It’s still my little secret. If I’m serious about it, the time has come to share. And so I start to talk about it. I share it with my partner, with my friends, my mother. I might write about it on this blog. I start going to conferences, where I listen to speakers talking about plastic pollution, I have conversations with other people, who bring new perspectives to my idea, and I hear myself saying out loud that I have decided to do something about this problem.
Now we’re talking – literally. Those interactions add layer upon layer to the neural connection in my brain that started out as that feeble little first notion. A whole web of connections builds up around it, representing the additional pieces of information I am gathering, the memories of the conversations that have contributed to the development of my idea, and the further thoughts I have had on the subject.
(Of course, a neuroscientist wouldn’t be able to point to my head and say, “there’s the plastic pollution part of her brain”, because it’s not physically localised like that, but nonetheless that web of connections is a very real thing.)
And so gradually I become something of an expert. I have immersed myself in this new area, until at some point, either gradually or maybe in a blinding flash, I know what I am going to do. I figure out how I can be a part of the solution. The multitude of conversations has led me to a new point of knowledge and insight – and potential action.
The problem arises when the potential action doesn’t become actual action. The temptation can be to have more conversations, to embellish the idea for the potential action, adding more and more bells and whistles until it is a thing of beauty to behold.
Maybe I decide to commission a beautiful report, complete with gorgeous graphic design, charts, tables, photos, and attractive fonts. Don’t get me wrong – reports have an important place, and I am extremely grateful for the many well-put-together reports available for free online, which are repositories of incredibly useful information. (If you’re interested in the future of the world, here are a couple that I particularly recommend: A Finer Future is Possible, by the Club of Rome, and the Living Planet Report 2016, by WWF and ZSL.)
The danger comes when the publication of the report – or never-ending conversations – is seen as a substitute for action, rather than as the starting point for doing something.
Maybe you’re not an action kind of a person. You’re good at research and strategy. That’s all good – ally yourself with people who are good at action, so you can hand off your well-researched strategy to them to bring into reality.
But sometimes there is something more sinister at work – fear. As the military saying goes, no battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy. So maybe you’re afraid that your beautiful theory won’t survive its first encounter with reality, afraid it will fail. Get over it. No battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy.
I sometimes serve as a mentor with the Unreasonable Group. Tom Chi, quite possibly one of the brightest people alive, is another mentor, and in the Unreasonable vernacular there is now a new verb: to Tom Chi an idea. What that means: come up with a mini pilot of your idea that costs less than $1,000 and will take less than a week. Give it a go. Make sure that the first contact isn’t going to cost you too much time or money. If $1,000 is more than you can afford, make it $100 or $10, but however you define it, you need to get your idea off the drawing board and into the real world, where it can either work or fail. If it works, take the next step. In the more likely event that it fails, examine the point of failure, refine the plan, and try again. Repeat until you succeed.
So by all means nurture your ideas through conversation. This envisioning process does indeed add value. And then, bearing in mind that you will probably never feel ready, just do it.
As Winston Churchill said, “success is the ability to go from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm”, and to be honest the enthusiasm is optional. Most of success is simply not giving up.
I’ve been getting requests to include more stuff about what I’m up to. So here we go.
January was meant to be a quiet month for thinking and strategising. That has sort of worked, although it certainly hasn’t felt all that quiet. Most days include between 3 and 6 one-hour calls and/or meetings with various people around the world. I’ve particularly been doing a lot of research into how we meet the energy needs of the future, while preserving the beauty and integrity of our ecosystems.
I’ve also been a guest on three podcasts – I’ll share details of those once they go online.
And some fun stuff too. The highlight of my year so far has been having lunch with Monty Python actor, author, and former president of the Royal Geographical Society Michael Palin. He is writing a book about the HMS Erebus, one of the two ships that Sir John Franklin took to the Northwest Passage in 1839, never to return, and wanted to ask me about waves. I wasn’t sure I could be any help, as the waves I’ve encountered have been warmer than those in the Arctic, and I experienced them from the deck of a 23-foot rowboat rather than a 100-foot sailing ship, but far be it from me to turn down the chance of lunch with MP, who was completely charming, and I was able to thank him for being a great inspiration to me when he was writing books like Full Circle about his BBC TV travel series.
On Tuesday I was at St James’s Palace, doing a presentation for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme. Always a pleasure to meet the wonderful young people – and the Earl of Wessex – but the palace itself was absolutely freezing. I think the Queen needs to get some better insulation.
Next Monday I’m off to LA and then Mexico City for speaking engagements for Kaiser Permanente and the Young Presidents Organisation respectively. Also lining up some meetings in both places. While in LA I’m looking at getting a feature film made, loosely based on my life story, about the choices we make about how to live our lives. I’ll be staying with my good friends, Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins of the 5 Gyres Institute. While in Mexico City I’m hoping to meet at least part of the Noomap team, who are temporarily based in nearby Tepoztlan.
On my bookshelf at the moment, in various stages of being read, are:
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari
Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis, by George Monbiot
Conscious Evolution: Awakening the Power of our Social Potential, by Barbara Marx Hubbard
And for some light relief, From Frazzled to Fabulous: How to Juggle a Successful Career, Fatherhood, ‘Me-Time’, and Looking Good, a hilarious mickey-take of patronising magazine articles telling women how they can have it all.