19 July 2018
Sourced at the 2018 Aspen Ideas Festival
There are many reasons to be concerned about our democratic experiments. Polling shows that we are increasingly fragmented. Social Media is driving us further into silos. Political discussions ruin long-held relationships. Differing perspectives, the life-blood of innovation, are feared and even discouraged as unpatriotic. Diversity is portrayed as a weakness instead of the core economic and creative driver which it is and always has been. Where do we find a reason for optimism?
One impressive example is the deep exchange of conflicting ideas held every year since 2005 at Aspen, in the U.S. state of Colorado. The Aspen Ideas Festival is a week-long event which combines diverse and even radically conflicting thinkers in an environment designed to generate positive outcomes. There are no winners and losers. Just challenges to entrenched belief with new forms of leadership, data, music and analysis, all in the context of a remarkably beautiful natural setting. It’s like the place itself, like so many places we call “beautiful”, invites us to the possibility of finding new meaning in growth. It’s what we need.
A few examples will help to illustrate what I mean.
First, consider the challenge made to a few of the largest and most powerful corporations of the world. Tristan Harris, former Google executive led the charge. He talked to a standing-room only crowd of several hundred about the potentially destructive tendencies of the largest business models in the world. Google, Facebook, Apple and others “have the largest supercomputers of the world pointed at the heads of two billion users.” Tristan issued a David like challenge to the tech Goliaths to evolve for their own sakes and ours. You can see his talk here.
Second, consider the story of Eileen Fisher’s compelling journey about how she built a fashion empire based on “meaningful work”. In her interview, she unpacks radical sounding corporate management concepts like 20% profit sharing across her company, deeply collaborative decision-making, starting meetings with “check-ins” with all participants to make sure everybody is ready to engage, and if not, what might be going on. These are concepts that, in the face of the ever-increasing pace of business decision-making, sound at the very least trite, and perhaps woefully inefficient. The result is a business, started in 1984 with 300 dollars, that now has $350+ million in annual revenues. You can see her talks here and here.
Finally, consider an evening interview called “Very Fine People: Or, How to Stop Worrying and Talk About Race, White Nationalism, and Trump in America.” The interviewee was Jelani Cobb and the interviewer was Wajahat Ali. Jelani is an African American “foxhole atheist” as he calls himself on Twitter. Wajahat is of Pakistani origin, and is Muslim. The discussion ranged over many socially uncomfortable topics, including the long history of racism in America, policies of separating families at the border, the feeling of what it’s like to be in a nation which views color and religion as an indicator of threat. It was personal. It was funny. It was also offensive to some, who chose to leave the session early, and even announced their displeasure while departing. But mostly, it was a brave, honest, respectful and healthy discussion. It leaned forward into what a nation could be. Our next step as a society. It was real, with all of us in the room. It is what we need more of as we continue our experiment in democracy. The discussion can be seen here.
Scott Fitzgerald wrote in 1936 that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” It’s also the test of a first-rate country. And I still see much to admire. I see a deep resiliency in our diverse and open human nature, despite the headlines about our increasing disunity, in the United States and abroad.