“I woke up this morning,” writes Bill Gate “and, like most days, I read the news. It’s grim. Hurricanes in the Americas have killed dozens of people and displaced far more. Mexico is recovering from its most powerful earthquake in a century. North Korea is threatening its neighbors. The civil war in Syria seems to have no end. These days, a lot of people look at the headlines and think: The world is falling apart.
I have a different view. I think the world is far from falling apart. In fact, it has never been better—more peaceful, prosperous, safe, or just. And I’m on a mission to prove it.’
“Believing the world is getting better is not some Pollyanna view. It doesn’t mean you get complacent or ignore the world’s problems. It means you do what former President Bill Clinton calls “looking beyond the headlines for the trend lines.” Armed with an understanding of how many challenges humanity has overcome so far, you’re inspired to do whatever you can to help solve today’s problems and prevent tomorrow’s.
To view the virtual reality film below, click here to open in YouTube.
Bill Gates is echoing what I wrote in the white paper Achieve Remarkable Things Here is an excerpt:
“Perspective is what enables each of us to transform the sum of our days into an epic journey. And it’s what improves our chances of together making the twenty-first century humanity’s best.” says Ian Goldin, professor of global development at Oxford, and what he says we “lack, and so urgently need, is perspective.”
Lesley Stahl was born on 16th December 1941, at a time when Europe shuddered under the might of the Nazi jackboot. She became a celebrated journalist whose prominence grew after covering the Watergate affair. While recently interviewing Donald Trump and Mike Pence on 60-minutes, a newsmagazine television programme, Stahl said: “I don’t remember the last time we’ve seen a world in this much chaos.” Naturally the interviewees nodded and concurred, her view reinforcing theirs. But put this into perspective: Stahl has lived through a world war, a cold war, the collapse of communism, 9/11, the Great Recession and let us not forget that crazy media moment of the OJ Simpson car chase.
The world is crazy. But is now really the most chaotic time?
Management consultants, politicians and the ilk will have us believing it is, for this is how they wield and manipulate power. We live in a VUCA world they wax lyrically, but the world has always been Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. VUCA is not new, nor should it be news. As Ta-Nehisi Coates, a journalist for The Atlantic, puts it: “The violence is not new; it’s the cameras that are.”
Social media amplifies in real time, and live on our screens, every heinous act – and populism rises and strengthens on the back of doom-and-gloom. We all feel anxious about our world. What is going on, we ask? Something must have gone wrong, who is to blame? The Asians, the Mexicans, the Elites, the Immigrants, the Obamas, the EU; it has to be Globalisation.
It was Leonardo da Vinci who said: “Perspective is the guide and the gateway, and without it nothing can be done well.” If our perception is wrong and things are not that crazy, then according to da Vinci we are going to get lots of things wrong at a time when getting it right would elevate humankind to new remarkable levels. Twenty years from now things could be so much better, but equally they could be a lot worse. So let us challenge our prevailing perception. Sure, a lot of horrible stuff is going on, but Mrs Stahl and all the negative VUCAists maybe, just maybe things are not really that bad.
WE HAD IT TOUGH
May Webster was a petite 5ft3 pocket rocket of energy who, in her nineties, had brilliantly silver, wavy hair. It was her vigour and vibrancy that propelled her to within two years of a centenary, which was pretty remarkable, being that she was born in 1890, at a time when average life expectancy was around forty years. May was a survivor: of migration, siege warfare, poverty, famine and plagues. She was a remarkable woman who lived during one of the most remarkable periods in human history – the incredible period between 1870 and 1970 known as the Golden Age of Innovation.
When May was born things were terribly difficult. There’s always the penchant for older generations to say they lived during the hardest times and that the youth of today have it too easy, and of course each generation’s stories grow. But May’s story was a big story to begin with, she knew first-hand what it meant to live in a VUCA world.
At the age of three she lost her mother during a childbirth that went horribly wrong. Look back just a hundred years. Out of 100,000 child births about 1,000 ended with the death of the mother. This meant that for every one-hundred births a mother lost her life, an astonishingly high number. And, since women gave birth much more often then than they do today – May’s mother bore twelve children over a period of twenty-years – sadly the death of a mother was a common tragedy. Today, globally, this figure is miraculously as low as seven per 100,000, except there has been no miracle – just human ingenuity doing remarkable things.
Perhaps even more staggering, by today’s standards, only three of her twelve siblings reached adulthood and, of those, only two made it into their thirties. In comparison, because of the exponential advances in medical science, healthcare and hygiene we now live in a world where more people die from old age than infectious diseases.
By the age of ten, May was dodging exploding artillery shells during the Siege of Kimberly, as Boer Commandos – the Afrikaans-Dutch rebel army – battled, at the turn of the twentieth century, against the might of the British Empire, for the future of South Africa’s gold and diamonds. May’s parents were British immigrants who had settled in the Cape Colony diamond mining town of Kimberley. During an initial skirmish, her farm was raided by the Boer rebels. All the cattle were stolen and everything that couldn’t be carted away was broken or burned. May’s family were left with only the clothes they stood in and no option but to seek sanctuary in the town. Warned to remove themselves from the war zone, but too poor to travel, they were caught and trapped. May wrote how, during the siege: “With shells exploding across Kimberley, the terrified girls at the school were forced to take shelter in the ash pits where waste was dumped. Because of the creepy crawlies, including lice, the girls all had their hair cut short for obvious reasons.” Her stoicism is endearing, in the face of death – the biggest issues were lice and short hair!
Following the end of the Anglo-Boer War and the liberation of Kimberley by the British Army, May’s family went back to work restocking their farm with cattle. Things were going well until all the cattle had to be slaughtered and their carcasses burned as they had contracted Rinderpest, a dreadful bovine disease. Following this came awful annual visits from plagues of locust which settled on everyone and everything, devouring every last green and living plant. Then May’s family hit rock-bottom when her big brother, Sydney died in the Spanish flu epidemic. It was 1918, just a century ago.
Then, like now, the new century was in its infancy and the world seemed to be going crazy. “History does not neatly repeat itself but, oh, there are so often echoes and rhymes,” says Margaret MacMillan, a historian.
There were positives too. May witnessed technological advances that were nothing less than stratospheric, which propelled humankind forward like never before. We think we live in a fast technological age but consider this: By her thirteenth birthday, flight – an impossibility until 1903 – became possible as the Wright Brothers soared for twelve seconds, twenty feet above a wind-swept beach in North Carolina, covering a distance of one-hundred-and-twenty feet. May would witness flight sky-rocketing from propeller, to jet, to supersonic luxury passenger travel, to humans visiting the moon and all in under seventy years.
Household electricity, an array of electrical appliances from handheld power-tools to washing machines, indoor plumbing, penicillin, the pill, the production line; all would revolutionise lives. Cars for the “great multitude” and the innovation of Motorways opened up new markets and connected communities, suddenly goods could be transported easily and quickly across vast distances. May’s generation experienced change and meaningful innovation that took society to higher and higher levels, the likes of which humanity had never experienced before or since. And, all this happened, metaphorically speaking, in a blink of an evolutionary eye.
Such were the remarkable advances during the years known as the golden age of innovation that, were May a ten-year old girl today, she’d delight to discover that her risk of experiencing war is lower now than for any generation in human history. This is a massive shift. Throughout civilisation humans have taken war for granted, in ancient societies war caused about 15% of deaths. In 2015, 28,328 people died from terrorist-related activities, mainly in developing nations. To put this into perspective, last year 500,000 people died as a result of violent crime alone, and 1.5 million died from diabetes – sugar is now more perilous than gunpowder. For the average person, Coca-Cola and Pepsi pose a far greater threat than ISIS – 3 million died as a result of obesity and 1.25 million died in automobile accidents.
Yet, migrants and ISIS formed the mainstay of Brexit and Trump-populist campaigns. Statistics clearly indicate that we are fighting the wrong battles, and taking precious resources away from where the most remarkable work could be done. If we stopped global military spending for just one week, we could provide all the world’s youth with high quality education for 20 years, for free.
Let’s return to May’s story. Today, she’d also be thrilled to know that she’d be guaranteed a place at school and, most likely, live in a democracy where women and LGBT people have individual rights and protection from rape, abuse and slavery. She’d be happy to discover that, even if she cohabited the poorest country in the world, the probability of her experiencing poverty would have reduced from ninety per cent to ten per cent. She’d also discover that she’d have better access to nutrition than a girl living in the richest country a hundred years ago. The risk of her siblings dying from flu, tuberculosis, cholera, measles or smallpox or during childbirth would be close to zero – Smallpox, recorded in the human history for over 3,000 years is unique in that it has been completely eradicated. The last natural case of smallpox occurred in Somalia in 1977. And, rinderpest, the disease that ravaged May’s family farm and drove them into poverty, was announced eradicated by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization on 28 June 2011.
This is the story of my great nan, May, and we’re sure if you went digging around the annals of your family history you too would find stories of remarkable relatives who demonstrated great resilience and endurance during times that were far tougher than anything our generation have ever experienced. Humankind has achieved so much, there is still a lot to do but we are now building off such a strong base that the odds are certainly stacked in our favour.
As May’s story demonstrates because of technological advances and within the short space of a 100-years, for the most part when measured against nearly any indicator you care to, we live lives better than anyone, anywhere at any time in history.
Why then are we not feeling inspired to continue building on the great innovations and accomplishments of the past? We need to “Make America Great Again” Donald Trump yells and tweets to the world. But America, even the world, has never been greater.
Perhaps we take for granted most of these great innovations, and lack the perspective and memory of how bad things can really be. Perhaps it is because the benefits of globalisation are so poorly and unevenly distributed across the world. Even within countries, there are huge discrepancies, and the growing inequality between the top 1% and the rest is a worrying concern: Today the eighty-five richest people own the same wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest people. These levels of inequality were last witnessed during the French Revolution.
Most likely though, it’s because we recognise the advances society has made, but fear that the grip we have over the future is fragile. This stirs a collective and deeply primal societal anxiety that things could go, oh, so very, very wrong. This fear is not unfounded, but neither are we helpless victims.
Our world feels on the edge, not because it is VUCA, but because so much is at stake. We have so much to gain and equally so much to lose. This fear grips us and, like a deer in headlights, we freeze when we should act. Where we should extend ourselves with more generosity, we turn inwards and retreat towards protectionism, becoming more nativist and afraid. When we should be inspired by hope and possibility, we allow concern to tether us. In an age when society desperately needs people to courageously venture into the unknown, we prevaricate.
By looking backwards at May’s and others’ stories, though, we can recognise how fortunate we are to live today. We can gain the perspective and humility needed to understand the complexities of our future challenges, and navigate them with the hope and conviction required to endure the epic journeys that the 21st century will require.
The most important perspective we can gain is to identify that turning inwards, seeking protection, alienating others who are different from us will do the exact opposite of what is required to make this a remarkable century. We need to boldly embrace the uncomfortableness of this age, because this is where the creativity and intuition will be stirred, awakening humankind’s spirited desire to innovate and make better what is wrong.
Our ability to dream big dreams is by far humankind’s most powerful attribute. Each organisation, each leader, each one of us needs to nurture, support and set it free.
If you would like to read more you can download the white paper here.
So the world is better but that does not guarantee us a better future. We live in a remarkable world but a remarkable future will not just happen, we have to create it.
You can start by clicking here and joining a vibrant community that believes in the power of business to achieve remarkable things. Because here is the thing. The greatest risk of the 21st Century is that we fall short, failing to think big enough to make this century great for everyone.
Bill Gates is right. This is not a VUCA world. The world has always been VUCA, that is not new or news. What is news is we live in a world that is better for everyone, but there is still a lot to do. We are not living happy, sustainable and fulfilled lives.
Let’s dare to strike out and find new ground. Let’s dare to make this century the most remarkable ever.