Happy New Year to you! (Although if you’re in the US, it may not be so happy thus far – and you have my condolences, commiserations, and sympathy.)
I took a blissful two weeks (mostly) offline over my birthday (it’s not too late to wish me a happy one!), Christmas and New Year. Towards the middle of December I noticed I was feeling really tired, and realised I hadn’t had a holiday since sometime in 2019, and I’m not even sure I had one then. This is the mixed blessing of doing work I love – even though my work inspires and energises me, I still need a break occasionally. So I cleared my diary for two weeks, to do precisely whatever I felt like doing, and have come back feel refreshed.
Part of what I felt like doing was a review of 2020, including a review of what I’ve learned and what topics have fascinated me.
High-level Summary of 2020’s Shiny New Ideas (with links to associated blog posts):
- Reality, especially recognising that reality is not a bunch of static objects, but rather a web of interlocking complex systems, giving rise to emergent properties (and emergent solutions) at the edge of chaos
- Taoism, Buddhism and the cycles of life
- Race, race, and race
- Economics as a powerful lever of societal change (expect to hear a lot more about this in 2021)
- Biomimicry (and the more I learn about nature, the more intelligent I realise it is – but indigenous culture has recognised this for aeons)
- Apocalypse (2020 was a good year for this one), and yet there are reasons to be cheerful
- Everyday magic
And now onto a quick recap of some of my most formative/favourite books of the year.
If you’re a regular reader, you will know that this book had a big impact on me, and I have mentioned it often. Cognitive psychologist Don Hoffman asked himself: if we have so far failed to explain how matter gives rise to consciousness, then maybe we’re coming at this from the wrong end… what if consciousness gives rise to matter? And he goes on to present a compelling case, based in evolutionary biology, that we (and probably all other species) have evolved to perceive reality in a way that is useful, rather than accurate. So if we think that what we see around us is reality as it actually is, we are sorely mistaken.
“The problem is not that our perceptions are wrong about this or that detail. It’s that the very language of objects in space and time is simply the wrong language to describe objective reality.”
To me, this is the joker in the pack, the get-out-of-jail-free card to our environmental/existential crisis. If space-time is no more than a construct of our minds, can we transcend it? Can apparent miracles happen?
More about The Case Against Reality in my blog posts:
Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilisations Fail, by William Ophuls
A reading list for 2020 wouldn’t be complete without a good dose of apocalypse. For a short but powerful account of six reasons why we’re screwed (in conventional space-time reality, anyway), I highly recommend Immoderate Greatness. It’s hard to argue with the logic of a statement such as:
“A developing civilization grows steadily more complex and increasingly less manageable over time, preparing the way for its eventual demise. Only a race of supremely intelligent, rational, and wise beings could so order their affairs and so limit their behaviour as to avoid this outcome. Human beings are not such a race.”
And yet… could we become such a race? I still hold out hope that our current challenges will inspire us to raise our game and genuinely put the sapiens into homo.
Blog post (with possibly my favourite blog title of the year): The Ecological Elephant in the Room Goes up the Creek Without a Paddle
Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, by General Stanley McChrystal
When Stan McChrystal arrived in Afghanistan in 2003 to head up the Joint Task Force, he found a lumbering, monolithic task force being run ragged by low-tech but nimble cells of insurgents. To beat them, the US military had to become more like them. Decision-making was decentralised, information flows massively improved, and iterations accelerated to create a “shared consciousness” across the organisation. It went from being an old-school hierarchy of command-and-control to more of a self-organising, biomimetic, organic system – with a huge increase in its effectiveness.
“The temptation to lead as a chess master, controlling each move of the organization, must give way to an approach as a gardener, enabling rather than directing. A gardening approach to leadership is anything but passive. The leader acts as an “Eyes-On, Hands-Off” enabler who creates and maintains an ecosystem in which the organization operates.”
Whether or not you agree with the objectives of the task force, or militarism generally, there is a lot to be learned about how organisations need to rethink and remodel themselves to operate in our complex and interconnected 21st century society, where results are increasingly unpredictable and long-term plans are increasingly irrelevant.
Blog post: Team of Teams
Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time, by Margaret Wheatley
As a less combative complement to Team of Teams, I highly recommend Finding Our Way. With her vast experience of working with organisations to help them become more effective, while also respecting the autonomy and dignity of the individual, Meg Wheatley has lots of very practical advice, again emphasising decentralisation, relevant metrics, and informative feedback flows. This calls for a different kind of leadership.
“Leaders who live in the new story help us understand ourselves differently by the way they lead. They trust our humanness; they welcome the surprises we bring to them; they are curious about our differences; they delight in our inventiveness; they nurture us; they connect us. They trust that we can create wisely and well, that we seek the best interests of our organisation and our community, that we want to bring more good into the world.”
She is a powerful advocate for the messiness of self-organising systems – what they lose in efficiency, they gain in adaptability, flexibility, self-regeneration, resilience, learning capacity, and intelligence.
Blog post: Finding our Way
The Sheer, Jaw-Dropping, Mind-Blowing Amazingness of Nature
This isn’t the title of a book (although maybe it should be), but rather my heading for a group of books about (non-human) nature that repeatedly blew my mind. The more we learn about the natural world, the more intelligence we find, absolutely everywhere we look, until reality really does start to look and feel like Hoffman’s “network of conscious agents”. Consciousness and intelligence seem to be everywhere once we realise that not all consciousness looks like human consciousness, and not all intelligence requires a brain.
I read these books fairly close together in time, and appreciate how they harmonise together and reinforce each other’s messages.
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer
“Philosophers call this state of isolation and disconnection “species loneliness”—a deep, unnamed sadness stemming from estrangement from the rest of Creation, from the loss of relationship. As our human dominance of the world has grown, we have become more isolated, more lonely when we can no longer call out to our neighbours.”
How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics, by Michael Pollan
Blog post: Beyond the Doors of Perception
“When Huxley speaks of the mind’s “reducing valve”—the faculty that eliminates as much of the world from our conscious awareness as it lets in—he is talking about the ego. That stingy, vigilant security guard admits only the narrowest bandwidth of reality, “a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive.”
Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures, by Merlin Sheldrake
No blog post yet
“A mycelial network is a map of a fungus’s recent history and is a helpful reminder that all life-forms are in fact processes not things. The “you” of five years ago was made from different stuff than the “you” of today. Nature is an event that never stops. As William Bateson, who coined the word genetics, observed, “We commonly think of animals and plants as matter, but they are really systems through which matter is continually passing.”
Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm: Beyond the Doors of Perception into the Dreaming of Earth, by Stephen Harrod Buhner
No blog post yet – I’m only half way through, but I had to list this one. I’ve probably highlighted about 25% of the text. One OMG after another.
“All life-forms are a kind of living information, transforms, as Bate-son put it, of messages. Not, by any means, actors against a static background. But rather, information added to an already extant and very complex information system. There is, in consequence, a pattern that connects each part to each other and to the whole. A pattern that runs through everything that Gaia has done.”
And finally, terrible as I am at marketing, I thought I should mention my own book, published in April in response to the Covid lockdown, to help both extroverts and introverts through these challenging times, drawing heavily on my own struggles and triumphs with solitude on the ocean.
“It’s tempting to extrapolate into the future and decide we can’t face it. It’s the brain’s job to keep us safe, so it loves to gallop off into the unknown and project our deepest fears into it. I had to learn to say, “Thank you, brain, for doing such a great job of flagging up all the things that could go wrong. I will do what I can to prepare for them. But I’m also going to remember that these are imaginings, not reality. In the past things have hardly every turned out how I expected them to, and they probably won’t this time either. So let’s stay in the present and simply wait and see what happens.”
I published various excerpts from The Gifts as blog posts, so you can even try before you buy.
TEDxStroudWomen has now rebranded as TEDxStroud, as our Covid-rescheduled date of 21st March no longer coincides with the global TEDWomen event. But we still have our original lineup of amazing speakers, and are ramping up our preparations for our virtual livestream on the equinox. Tickets will be available soon, so stay tuned! Meanwhile, you can follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.
Print your favourite blog as an annual: As a rather self-indulgent present to myself, I got my blog posts printed up into hardcopy books, with one volume per year for 2018, 2019, and 2020. I ordered them through Pixxibook, which was pricey, but the quality is really lovely. If you have a favourite blog (maybe even this one?!) that you would like to have printed and bound, I’d happily recommend Pixxibook. (And no, I’m not on commission!)