Notes from Meaning Conference 2017
Facing reality, claiming leadership, restoring sanity
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Our host, Mark Stevenson, read these lines out to us from the poem ‘The Second Coming’ by W. B. Yeats, thus setting the tone for a somewhat darker, more urgent conference this year. All around us, things are falling apart and it’s easy to feel despair as Trump sits in The White House like one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. But Mark disagreed with Yeats. “The best,” he said, “do not lack all conviction. That’s why we’re all here in this room.” And this is one of my favourite things about Meaning — the community of people who flock to Brighton every November to be inspired and to do meaningful work in the world. Here were some of my highlights…
The alarming number of red sections in this slide show how much we are overextending the ecological ceiling of our planet, and the devastating degree to which we are failing to meet the basic needs of people (social foundation). Our challenge for the 21st century is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. Kate’s solution is that we create an economy that is both distributive and regenerative by design, and we can do this at any level. Imagine, she said, if a team of executives sat around a table with their doughnut model to inform their strategic decisions.
There are five typical business responses to our economic challenge:
5. Do nothing — “not now” or “not interested”
4. Do what pays — “we’ll make changes if we can save/make money”
3. Do your fair share — “we’ll do what’s fair compared to what others are doing”
2. Do mission zero — e.g. “we’ll be carbon neutral”
1. Be generative — “rather than just doing less bad, we’ll do good”
To be generative means to move away from thinking “How much financial value can we extract from this?” towards “How many benefits can we generate in the way we design this?” And the organisation’s purpose, governance, networks, ownership and finance must all be aligned.
An example of ‘be generative’ is the remarkable company Tony’s Chocoloney which produces 100% slave-free chocolate. Ynzo van Zanten shared the bold steps they have taken to make the cacao supply-chain, working in Ghana and the Ivory Coast where the issue of slavery is most prevalent. Their intention is to be an example to other chocolate companies, even going so far as to invite a competitor to their HQ and teach them their business model. His message for us was to be active citizens, reminding us: “every purchase you make is a vote for the kind of world you want to live in.”
Kate Beecroft told us about the New Zealand-born Enspiral, a network of social enterprise ventures and social entrepreneurs, which has strengthened its sense of community through collaborative finance using a tool called Cobudget. (For inspiration on how to run a self-managed collective or organisation, I highly recommend checking out the Enspiral Handbook.) She also reminded us that workplaces are a great place for us to develop as human beings — the problems we’re seeing in the world aren’t “out there”, but “in here”, with us, and we can work on them together.
Speaking of community, we also heard about Humanitas, a care home for the elderly where young people like Jurrien Mentik can live rent-free in exchange for their time, care and companionship. He shared touching stories about mutual learning and appreciation, and about truly understanding the elderly — what they want to contribute, how they can still be responsible for and have ownership of their lives.
But the speaker I was most excited to listen to was Margaret Wheatley. She shared with us her provocative but empowering thoughts about facing reality, claiming leadership, and restoring sanity. In response to Mark’s opening words about the dire state we are in, with systems failing all around us, Margaret said: “We’ve been here before. Human history always plays out a cycle.” And in those moments, “a few step forward with a declaration that this will not stand. It’s just our turn.” But being a revolutionary, she said, is hard. We face fear, aggression, failure, criticism, exhaustion and even betrayal and despair. And so she offered some advice that seemed surprising at first: don’t try to change the world. That’s not what prompted other revolutionaries.
Instead, we must face the world as it is and do our work from a deeper place of faith.
If we’re waiting for the world to change because of powerful ideas, proven models, scientific evidence, new discoveries: it won’t. So what’s the answer then? Margaret shared some words by Thomas Merton, a theologian and activist who said when you take on meaningful work, you may have to face the fact that “your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all.” Inspiring, right?! But he continues:
“You start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself… gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”
And this is Margaret’s message: stop thinking you can change the world and instead, concentrate on doing “the right work” for the people you can, the people around you. You may have to abandon the question “How do we scale this?” or “How can we spread this?” and instead think about how we can do the most meaningful work right now, right here with the people we have.
The task for leaders, Margaret explained, is to be Warriors for the Human Spirit:
“Warriors have an unshakeable confidence that people can be kinder, gentler, and wiser than our current society tells us we are…
We commit to not adding to fear and aggression by carefully choosing our responses and actions.
We create a good human community wherever we are, with whatever we have, with the people who are here with us.
We rely on joy arising, knowing that joy comes from working together as good human beings, independent of external circumstances.
A good sense of humour is a survival skill.”
I left Meaning, as I always do, feeling conviction and passionate intensity. The community of people who attend Meaning each year is one of my favourite islands of sanity. Together, we are training and practicing and honing our disciplines so that we can offer something more meaningful to the people we work with. Our only weapons, as Margaret said, are insight and compassion. Transformation must be met with transformation…