We are a species in peril

We are a species in peril

2020 is shaping up to be a year full of what we coaches refer to as disorienting dilemmas.

We’re discovering what we are like in lockdown, isolated from our loved ones and support system, sometimes even in quarantine. We are finding out what it is like when we are required to be ‘socially’ distant – a huge misnomer – and who we become when we are asked to give up a significant proportion of our personal freedoms for the good of the collective.

We have seen positive and negative role models; there have been examples of strong leadership and divisive leadership and many shades in between. There has been politically charged rhetoric and there has been clear, factual communication. We’ve discovered that we sometimes struggle to tell the difference between the two.

It is a fascinating time, and a frightening one too. We humans like predictability; we want a system of rules that helps us to order things in a way that we recognise. We also want to belong to a collective – a religion, a profession, a national identity, a social ‘tribe’ etc. – and its accompanying set of ideas. It’s how we interpret what things mean and helps us to navigate the world.

We can’t seem to agree on that system of rules anymore, because different collectives have started to see each other as mutually exclusive. This disagreement highlights the differences that exist between us all. For many of us that’s uncomfortable.

But not for all of us. Because what if… the divisions that are showing up now are the very thing that will bring us together? What new possibilities emerge if we can let go of what we think we know?

The mystery of why we live longer

Years ago I attended a lecture by the American psychologist Robert Kegan, whose work I had been studying for some time (and still am). He presented what his friends had started calling ‘Bob’s Big Idea’, which is that our species is living longer than we did even a century ago because we have a job to do:

Our species is collectively trying to figure something out

Robert Kegan, 2013

Kegan highlights that in the last 100-150 years we have gained a whole generation: when we used to live into our fifties, today we easily and often comfortably live into our seventies and beyond. He argues that we have made progress that allows us to live longer and in better health because we are a species in peril and we know it.

That ‘something’ we are busy trying to figure out is how to avoid going extinct.

Attitude is not the real issue

Great minds including Gandhi and Einstein famously pointed out generations ago (sorry, I couldn’t help it!) that to solve our pressing problems we cannot work from the same mindset that created them. Easier said than done when you are deeply embedded in your points of view on the big questions of today.

Kegan’s theory of adult development points out that we’re not talking about attitude or intent here. In this context, we are talking about our ability and capability to drive our attitude, and therefore our decisions consciously instead of being driven by it.

Otherwise put: if we are unable to take an encompassing perspective on what or who shapes our attitudes on topics like race, religion, the climate crisis, civil rights, free speech and other freedoms, we are unlikely to find the answers to the problems we have created by being embedded in a narrow perspective. That’s much less to do with attitude and everything with how well we are equipped psychologically to step back from what we think we know and look again.

A developmental idea for our species

Kegan’s theory of adult development (and by the way, his is not the only theory that does this) describes stages during which our capability and capacity for taking in a more complex view of the world evolves. As we age, we usually have opportunities to develop psychologically.

Attitude does come into it somewhat. An adult who consciously declines the opportunity to grow their perspective on the world makes an active choice. They may have compelling reasons for that, such as losing their membership of their tribe. It means they are starting to see there is more beyond the perspective they are merged with, but choose to remain where they are.

The longer we live, the more chances we have to evolve to a higher level of psychological meaning-making. And the more of us live and develop to such a level, the greater our capacity for collective problem solving. We may develop a new understanding of the world that helps us to solve the problems we have created for ourselves.

In a sentence then: now more than ever, the human species needs psychological spaciousness to survive, let alone thrive. 

When thousands die at the hands of injustice and inequality as they do today, we just can’t ignore the reality of this need any longer.

Watch Kegan’s talk below, it skips to 10:26 for those of you who are in a hurry to get to the Big Idea.

How culture and creativity are boosting our resilience in lockdown

How culture and creativity are boosting our resilience in lockdown

Give me a pound for each time someone has told me they have had to cancel their long-planned trip to the museums of Rome, their week at Glastonbury or their photography course in the hills of Oxfordshire in recent weeks and I can buy you all a drink.

If you gave me another pound for all the creative cultural compensation that has emerged – from virtual visits to the flowers at the Keukenhof to cooking with kids to film screenings in courtyards, we’re talking a three course meal. But most strikingly, in my lockdown coaching sessions with clients I have come across so many examples of new or renewed everyday creativity that we will be heading to a Michelin-starred restaurant for that slap-up meal.

The Workaround Effect

I’m not just referring to how many of us have dusted off our sewing machine (though thank you, Great British Sewing Bee) or taught ourselves a dance with the help of YouTube. It’s the way we’ve been finding workarounds for things we cannot have right now and previously took for granted. Window Easter Egg hunts on the daily walk with the kids, the client who cheers up her mum with placards with family news and messages outside her care home. We’ve invented ‘Zoom dressing’: work-friendly from the waist up, comfy below the desk. We might as well…

For many of us there has been more time to try out and stick with something new. We knew lockdown would be a lengthy affair and therefore can ‘afford’ to be persistent… But how and why we got so creative doesn’t even matter: the fact is we are here now, doing this, and we’re finding out that ‘making do’ is a lot more interesting than just solving a problem.

We’re finding out about the strong link between creativity and resilience.

Resilience at work

Resilience can be described as the capacity to stay mentally and physically well during difficult times. The time we have to ourselves by having so much stripped away from our daily routine – whether we enjoy that or not – allows us to dig deeper into our own wells of creativity and find ones that we didn’t know we had. Seeing the creative solutions others are finding to compensate for things that are out of reach for now sparks our own creativity.

I cannot emphasise the role of creativity in the context of resilience enough. Each of us has a preference for one of our two brain halves: if you tend towards logic and analysis you ‘favour’ your left side and if you are more of a big picture thinker who is good at making associations between seemingly unrelated things, you’re more of a right side person. You can see where this is going: in an unknown situation we’re going to need both and use them well. Hook up your logical side to your creativity at every turn: it doesn’t matter what it is. Drawing street cobbles? Designing a Viking ship? Explaining the Fourier Transform through dance? Ikebana? Writing a novel using emojis? Whatever rocks your world, you will be getting both sides of your brain collaborating, and a brain that fires on all cylinders is a resilient brain.

So – put a rocket under your resilience by thinking of the craziest, cheeriest creative project you can dream up and go to town. Come and tell me about it – I’ll put down the gigantic blanket I am handknitting and put the kettle on to hear your story. Brownie points for photos, that goes without saying…