Top of my list of recommended reads from 2020 is Rutger Bregman’s Humankind, his essentially positive and timely take on our species. A chunky science-heavy tome that has the classic page-turning qualities of a great novel, Humankind questions and debunks the Hobbesian damning of people as brutish folk only prevented from descending into violence and mayhem by a wafer-thin veneer of imposed civilisation. Rutger’s view of us is more akin to Rousseau’s noble savage. But he neither romanticises nor idealises our state. As he says upfront, “To be clear: this book is not a sermon on the fundamental goodness of people. Obviously, we are not angels. We’re complex creatures, with a good side and a not-so-good side. The question is which side to turn to…
Floating around the Internet is a parable of unknown origin. It contains what I believe is a simple but profound truth:
An old man says to his grandson: ‘There’s a fight going on inside me. It’s a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil – angry, greedy, jealous, arrogant, and cowardly. The other is good – peaceful, loving, modest, generous, honest, and trustworthy. These two wolves are also fighting within you, and inside every other person too.’
After a moment, the boy asks, ‘Which wolf will win?’
The old man smiles.
‘The one you feed.'”
As the old man says, we should feed the good wolf. But what do we feed it? Rutger gives us the answer further on in Humankind: “As media scientist George Gerbner summed up: ‘[whoever] tells the stories of a culture really governs human behaviour.'” Stories it is, then. But not any old stories. They must be good ones, in every sense of that word.
So as we head into a new year following a year like no other, let’s all look to feed our good wolves with a rich diet of positively good stories.
From Rags to Riches to Man in a Hole, Cinderella to Oedipus – you can draw the emotional journey of archetypal stories in a single simple line:
As Kurt Vonnegut says, “the simple shapes of stories… are beautiful.” So simple, as Kurt brilliantly shows, that you can map them out in minutes with chalk on board. And so beautiful that we keep coming back to them time after time. Kurt again, on the Man in a Hole story: “Somebody gets into trouble, gets outs of it again. People love that story. They never get sick of it.” So much so that it’s apparently the most popular storyline when it comes to Hollywood blockbusters.
So if you’re looking to write the next big movie hit, or indeed to craft a corporate story with mass appeal, you could do a lot worse than follow that down-then-up Man in a Hole trajectory. But of course, stories come in many different shapes and sizes. We’re not always looking to smash the box office.
Whatever your story, keep it simple, make it beautiful – follow your line.
For me, every day is a good day to celebrate poetry. But if we had to pick just one it would be today, so let’s sing poetry’s praises to each other across buildings, over Zoom calls – whenever, wherever and however we can.
Can computers enhance, or even outdo, human creativity?
According to the FT’s John Thornhill, OpenAI’s GPT-3 program has been used “to write poems, articles, comic sketches and computer code, compose guitar riffs, offer medical advice, and reimagine video games, sometimes with stunning effect.” Indeed, tech entrepreneur Arram Sabeti, who used the software to write a Raymond Chandler-style screenplay about Harry Potter, called it “shockingly good”. Technology this powerful inevitably raises ethical issues. A group of philosophers tasked with assessing GPT-3 concluded it was “unnervingly coherent and laughably mindless”. But such facility without the moral compass to match is far from funny.
As with creatives, so with computers – it’s not enough to be good at what you do, you also need to do good with what you do.
Every time we communicate we use a tone of voice, and that tone creates a sense of character. Whether we’re talking personally or as a multibillion dollar corporate body – none of us likes to be taken the wrong way. So the task with tone is to get our true character across.
I spend a fair bit of my time with clients helping them define and use a tone that fits their character. So they can give customers, investors and other stakeholders a clear sense of who they are and why they’re different. Alongside core purpose and culture, tone is critical. A galvanising core purpose, so you know exactly where you are going and why you want to get there; a strong values-based culture, so you journey together as one through thick and thin; and the right tone, so you communicate your true self clearly and characterfully – these are the three essentials at the heart of all great businesses.
As close to music as I can get is how I like to write.
As Oliver Reichenstein points out, “Being fully immersed in writing is like composing and playing music while we drum up our perceptions into letters, words, sentences, and paragraphs.” In his post on Music in Writing, he shares Martin Amis’s take: “What you’re trying to do is: Be faithful to your perceptions, and transmit them as faithfully as you can… You know I just say these sentences again and again in my head, until they sound right. And there is no objective reason why they sound right. They just sound right to me. So it’s euphony, sometimes it’s harshness you want. But it’s… it’s just matching up the perception with the words… in a kind of semi-musical way.”
Beyond the sheer pleasure of listening to the melody, beat and tone of your words as you write, why write this way? Grace Nichols nails it: “The rhythm and musicality of poetry is more direct in its appeal to the human heart and spirit.” In short, musical writing is more effective.
So, write with your ears, and let your sentences sing.
Rough hawkbit, cat’s ear, sow thistles, tagwort, viper’s bugloss, mallows, self-heal, love-in-a-mist, wild mignonette, rosebay willowherb, creeping buttercup – AKA ‘weeds’. According to Alex Morss, research shows that these colourfully named but often overlooked plants are heavy hitters when it comes to nectar and pollen. In other words, they’re bees’ best mates, and a growing number of street botanists are bringing them to our attention through the simple act of chalking the names of our autotrophic friends wherever they find them.
As one London chalker says, “I’ll keep labelling as I go on my daily walks. I think it’s really tapped into where people are right now. Botanical chalking gives a quick blast of nature connection, as the words encourage you to look up and notice the tree above you, the leaves, the bark, the insects, the sky. And that’s all good for mental health. None of us can manage that much – living through a global pandemic is quite enough to be getting on with. But it’s brought me a great amount of joy.”
An instantly lovable offshoot of the wider growth in plant awareness and advocacy, this green-fingered graffiti is a great example of using the right words in the right way to make a difference. So long live weeds, and long live words. And a big thank you to everyone who brings the two together for our understanding and enjoyment.
In these uncertain times, simple words put together well carry much weight. Whether it is Captain Tom’s “Remember, tomorrow is a good day, tomorrow you will maybe find everything will be much better than today…”, Duke Ellington’s irrepressibly upbeat “What I do tomorrow will be the best thing I’ve ever done…”, or this gem from C.S. Lewis: “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”
The great thing about all these thoughts is that they never lose their relevance or power to inspire. They remain as universal and heart-warming as sunshine.
So here’s to Tom, Duke and Clive (yes, Clive). Let’s all take heart from their warmth and wisdom.
The pretty much unstoppable rise of artificial intelligence (AI) tends to provoke various manifestations of dystopian doom and gloom. Take jobs. AI is going to steal them from us all, automating our livelihoods away with unrelenting ruthless efficiency. For the pessimistic among us, the glass is not so much half empty as bone dry.
It’s undeniable – plenty of jobs are indeed being taken over by AI. (And a fair few are being created, too. Hello, all you data scientists out there.) But what of the job of writing? Can AI replace Shakespeare? Will An Algorithm be the next Patti Smith? Shall computers pen lyrics as poetic and popular as the Beatles? The latest evidence suggests this is still a long way off. So long in fact as to be quite possibly never reachable. Advances are nevertheless being made in this direction. Researchers are currently developing AI that can turn brain activity into written text, which is pretty amazing. But as yet it is producing translations that are more surreal than accurate: “Those musicians harmonise marvellously” was decoded as “The spinach was a famous singer.” As a random generator of the wordy weird and wonderful, AI gets a big thumbs up. But it is no replacement for the brains, blood and guts of great writers crafting brilliant stories of all shades and forms. So my glass remains resolutely, happily more than half full.
“Literature has changed – it has become much more direct, more visual. There is less space and patience from the readers – for baroque literature, for long sentences, for very long family sagas. That was what people were reading in the 80s, but not any more. So the world has changed, literature has changed, and me too, because I live in English. In Spanish, to the say the same thing, it takes us, like, five paragraphs. Because, because we go around, beat around the bush, we are polite, we think that being too direct is rude. In English, it’s the other way around. You cannot test the person’s patience. You just go to the point immediately.”
There are certainly times when getting to the point is the priority, but I’d say that in English there is still not only room but also a fair degree of appetite to take people along with a long story. Living in English, for me, is essentially about being open to all kinds of storytelling. Long and short. Direct and less direct. Like the look and the feel of a story, the length should be led by the tale that needs to be told.
With start-ups, the FT’s Andrew Hill notes, “the temptation to storm forward and tweak your principles later is strong.” Move fast, break things, grow grow grow – leave thinking about all that core stuff till sometime later, maybe never. Yet as Mr Hill points out, it’s “better to establish strong values early”. That way, you limit the possibility of chaotic rudderless acts having disastrous consequences. You also up your chances of recruiting and retaining talented people with strong principles of their own – good responsible start-ups attract good responsible folk. Hence venture capital fund Atomico is now running “conscious scaling” workshops for founders of the companies it backs and for its investment partners.
So establishing strong values early is vital. Not only establishing them but articulating them in a clear, compelling, characterful way that everyone involved can rally around and build on.
And the great thing is, this doesn’t have to mean pressing pause on your forward motion. With the right help, you can distil and articulate your core story in synch with your early stage expansion. So your stellar growth gets you where you really want to go. Sooner, too.
This time last year in Barbados, I came across a mighty fine motto accompanying a court for the island’s homegrown game of road tennis:
CHAMPIONS KEEP PLAYING – both a definition and an encouragement, it’s one of those immediately getable and galvanizing phrases that stick in your head in a good way. Like all great calls to action, it not only sounds right but rings true. There’s no avoiding it – to win at anything truly worthwhile, you’ve got to put the effort in. Take for example the work rate of Liverpool Football Club’s players, who are heading for clear victory in this year’s Premier League. Last season, the Reds clocked up 4,737 sprints – more than 150 ahead of the next closest team. As Jürgen Klopp said when asked the secret of the club’s success: “No secrets, hard work.”
So Happy New Year to champions everywhere – keep playing.