The world is on fire
The Amazon is burning. The seas are rising. Our communities are bombarded by hurricanes, floods, droughts, and wildfires. Racism, misogyny, and homophobia run rampant across the globe. Hundreds of millions are in the grips of addiction and depression. A handful of people own half the world’s wealth while millions die of hunger and preventable disease. Children are murdered in their classrooms while politicians do nothing. We let our neighbors suffer in squalor and poverty as we watch back-to-back nights of The Bachelor.
The world is on fire. And it’s humanity’s fault.
We should feel ashamed of what we’ve done and who we are. We are an abomination. It’s only a matter of time before we destroy ourselves and the Earth as we know it. And we deserve it.
Our story of outrage and despair
Many of us carry some version of this story of outrage and despair.
Those on the left are outraged at the right’s climate denial, inability to acknowledge social injustices, and willingness to let greedy corporations take advantage of us. Those on the right are outraged at the left’s lack of personal responsibility, coddling and victimizing, and willingness to let corrupt governments take advantage of us.
Some despair that the climate crisis will irrevocably tarnish life on Earth, that we are destroying the very air we breathe and water we drink. Some despair the loss of key values and traditions that have been the foundations of our societies for centuries. Some despair that today’s technology and overwhelming complexity bring us out of connection and make us less present, less human.
We can’t agree on much. But most of us seem to agree that our species is in decline and sorely lacking the wisdom, insight, and integrity needed to survive much longer.
In a 2015 YouGov poll of over 18,000 people across 17 countries, 58% of respondents reported that they believe the world is getting worse, while only 11% said it was getting better. In a 2017 US News and World Report survey of over 21,000 people across 36 countries, 60% of respondents reported they believe the world is worse off now than a year ago. In a 2017 Ipsos survey of over 26,000 people across 38 countries, only 35% said they believe conditions for people around the world will get better in the next 15 years.
The outrage and despair today are palpable. But it’s not just outrage and despair, it’s self-loathing We are disgusted by ourselves and our species. Whether it’s our wasteful lifestyles, bigotry and oppression, science denial, addiction to modern technology, skyrocketing population, or just good old-fashioned inherent sinfulness, we all seem to have a story about why we should be ashamed of ourselves.
I know because I felt this way for much of my life. I was angry and frightened at the state of the world. My story was that humanity had all the means and ability to tackle these problems, but was too selfish and uncaring to do anything about it. Like many others, I saw humanity as a disease infecting the Earth.
How can a species intelligent enough to travel to the Moon be so stupid, short-sighted, and wicked as to allow all this mayhem? How can a species that carries on so recklessly and thoughtlessly be anything other than utterly contemptible?
I felt it was completely reasonable, even inevitable, to feel this way. But more than that, I felt it was my duty as someone who wanted to build a better world. Outrage, despair, and disgust were my way of showing the world that I cared, that I saw the pain all around us, that I was awake. “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention,” I told myself. Letting people see my outrage showed my solidarity with those who were suffering most. It helped foster the awareness and urgency needed to build a better world.
Outrage, despair, and disgust were my fuel to drive change.
A new story
I no longer carry this story. In fact, now I believe quite the opposite.
I am still angry at much of what I see around me, of course. The Amazon is on fire. There are grave injustices all around us. There are millions suffering needlessly. Righting these wrongs is a matter of great importance and urgency.
But this story of outrage and despair so many of us carry is not the one I hold closest to my heart, It’s not the one I choose to inform how I perceive the world and show up in it. What I believe now more than anything is that humanity is incredible and eminently capable of deep, meaningful change. I am proud to be human. I am in awe of us and all of our accomplishments and capacities. And I am excited about what lies ahead.
Humanity is beautiful.
I believe this wholeheartedly. More importantly, I believe embracing this story is perhaps the single most important thing we can do to build the more just, sustainable, peaceful, prosperous, and free global society we want and need. It is the missing ingredient to transformational social change.
How and why would we try to change if we believe that we are fundamentally ugly, defective, and unworthy? Why would we try to save ourselves if we believe we are a disease?
Just like individuals, humanity as a whole will only overcome its greatest challenges when it believes it is capable and worthy of doing so.
But are we truly capable of change?
Genius: The defining characteristic of humanity
For many, “genius” means someone with incredible intelligence or talent. Albert Einstein was a genius. Alan Turing was a genius. Beyoncé is a genius.
I think of it differently. The word “genius” comes from the Latin verb genui for “to bring into being.” For me, “genius” is not about superlative talent or ability, but rather our capacity to create, to cause something to exist that did not exist before. Genius is building new ideas. It is putting things together into higher levels of organization and complexity. It is the act of revealing and realizing possibility. It is our capacity to evolve.
Einstein was a genius not because he was exceptionally smart, but because his incredible intelligence allowed him to bring forth new ideas about physics and the universe that never before existed. His ideas changed us forever. They enable humanity to advance to greater levels of understanding, complexity, and possibility.
We often use “genius” to talk about what differentiates singular individuals from the rest of us. I prefer to think of it as a capacity that unites us all, what differentiates humanity from all other beings on Earth. I believe this “genius” is a defining characteristic of humanity.
Of course we are capable of change. Humanity has demonstrated this capacity for creativity and evolution consistently throughout its history. When we were struggling to survive as hunter-gatherers, we invented myth and ritual to create common stories to bind us together in community and tribe. When our tribes warred with one another, we invented religion and nations to bring order amongst and unite them. When our religions and empires became tyrannical, we invented science and reason to allow us to think for ourselves. Each of these leaps have been a stunning revolution in how we think and what we are capable of. No other species on Earth has ever even remotely neared this level of creativity and reinvention.
There was a time when language didn’t exist. And then we invented it. There was a time when democracy didn’t exist. And then we invented it. There was a time when the concept of human rights didn’t exist. And then we invented it. Today, still, there are countless values, philosophies, technologies, pieces of art, and capacities that humanity will bring forth into existence that no one today has even conceived of.
This is our genius. This is humanity’s greatest gift. We are constantly changing. We are constantly imagining new worlds and then moving ourselves toward them. To me, it is incredible, awe-inspiring, and beautiful.
The modern condition
But is also bittersweet. The inevitable reality of this gift of ours is that our ability to envision a better world will always outpace our ability to realize that world. Our idea of what is most good and just will always be on the horizon, just beyond our grasp. As we progress toward our dreams, more possibilities reveal themselves. Because of this, none of us will ever live in the world we believe should be. There will always be a gap between what is and what could and should be.
I believe much of today’s outrage and despair are driven by this bittersweet reality. There is an inevitable sadness and frustration to our genius. As individuals, most of us never quite live up to our ambitions for ourselves. Many of us spend our lives frustrated by what could and should have been. Just the same, our society never quite lives up to our idea of what we believe it could and should be.
This is how it has always been. But modern technology has exacerbated this dynamic to unprecedented, unstable levels. We are now constantly bombarded with stories of things going wrong in every corner of the globe. We are inundated with opinions on why our current society is deficient.
With such vast global communication networks, we don’t just hear the cautionary tales from neighboring towns as we did for centuries. We hear all the worst stories from thousands of miles away. They warp our minds into thinking that the world is nothing but wickedness and chaos. For example, in the United States over the last 20 years an increasing proportion of people believe violent crime is on the rise. We believe society has become more dangerous. In reality violent crime is plummeting. We are safer than ever, yet feel more threatened.
With so many terrible stories vying for our attention, we miss some incredibly important ones. Extreme poverty worldwide is at an all-time historic low, having dropped from 36% to about 10% of the world population since 1990. Global life expectancy is higher than ever, having more than doubled since 1800. Global child mortality is at an all-time low, having been more than cut in half in the last 30 years. Over half of the world’s population lives under democracy, up from around 10% at the beginning of the 20th Century and up from less than 1% in 1815. The literacy rate has gone from under 15% to over 80% in the last two centuries. Homicide rates are at all an all-time low. The Social Progress Index has shown increased global prosperity each year it has been measured. Global carbon emissions have now plateaued. Slavery and torture have been nearly eradicated. Women have more rights than ever. The LGBTQ community is more able to live their lives freely and openly. We can access near infinite information, music, and art with the click of a button.
We are not only eminently capable of change, it is happening before our very eyes. Never before in human history has positive social change happened so quickly and dramatically. Never before in human history have we been so prosperous and so free.
Shame: The other defining characteristic of humanity
And yet, for many this rosier view of the world just feels wrong. It’s too neat, too convenient, too self-congratulatory. We don’t think we deserve it. We don’t think it’s constructive. Why?
Dr. Brené Brown says shame is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Guilt is the belief that we did something wrong. Shame is the belief that we are wrong, rotten to the core.
I believe shame is the other quality that defines humanity. Nearly all of us experience it and only humans among all life on Earth have it.
Humanity’s unique powers emanate from our ability to imagine what could be. When we are operating from our genius, we use the gap between what is and what could be to inspire and motivate us toward unfulfilled potential. But when we are operating from shame, that gap curdles into proof that we are defective and unworthy. We are never able to reach our idea of what we should be, so we judge ourselves to be fundamentally lacking.
Guilt is among the most helpful and necessary tools our genius affords us. It forces us to reconsider our behavior and change in ways that strengthen our relationships and communities. It keeps us accountable and propels us toward our greatest selves.
Shame is always toxic and self-defeating. As Brown says in her 2007 book I Thought It Was Just Me: “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” It convinces us that if we just accept our worthlessness, we will somehow atone for our depravity. But all shame ever does is make us believe we aren’t capable of anything. Shame makes us less able to right our wrongs.
Thanks to the work of Brown and others, many of us can now better see, understand, and work through our shame. But there is a hidden, yet pervasive path through which shame infects many of us unknowingly, blocking change and growth on a global scale.
This is what I felt for much of my life. This is the story many of us carry with us every day.
In the same way we carry shame about ourselves as individuals, I believe we collectively carry shame about our species. We tell ourselves that our very nature is disgusting and wicked; that we are dirty sinners; that we are not capable or worthy of a better world; that we are a disease. And we convince ourselves that believing so will somehow be the inspiration and motivation we need to change.
We are wrong. For individuals and for societies alike, shame only ever corrodes and obscures change. It is the kryptonite to our genius.
Some say resentment is drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. Shame is drinking poison and waiting for it to heal us.
Our new fuel to drive change
Today, humanity is experiencing unprecedented prosperity. We have much to be grateful for and proud of. But we also face unprecedented challenges. We are perhaps at greater risk of extinction that we have been for millennia. The climate crisis is poised to reshape life on Earth. Economic inequality is breeding resentment and instability across the globe. We have created and proliferated weapons that can annihilate millions in the blink of an eye.
Overcoming these challenges will require an evolution in our thought and capacity among the greatest in our history – from the Cognitive Revolution to the Agricultural Revolution to the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment. This change will require much of us. We will need our greatest scientists and engineers to develop new technologies. We will need our institutions to adopt new principles and missions. And more than anything, we will need our culture to develop new ideas of what it is to be successful, compassionate, prosperous, and just.
But I believe the first and most important ingredient for any positive change is simply the belief that we are worthy, beautiful, and capable of change. Building a better world is ultimately not a battle between good and evil, left and right, or science and religion. It is a battle inside of each of us, between our two defining capacities: genius and shame.
Too many of us choose shame. We want change, but believe nothing ever changes. We want to motivate others to action, but no action is ever good, sincere, or pure enough. We want to heal, but tell each other that we are the disease.
We must choose our genius. This is something you can do, right now. You can learn to discern constructive guilt from shame, righteous anger from outrage, and reasonable concern from despair. You can treat humanity as a whole with the compassion you’d treat your most dear loved ones. And you can remember that we are not bound by our past deeds; we are all eminently capable of radically changing ourselves and growing into something new and more beautiful. In fact, humanity has spent millennia demonstrating this ability.
In her 2006 book Mindset: New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck outlines the many benefits of individuals adopting a “growth mindset” (i.e., the belief that we are constantly learning and growing) rather than a “fixed mindset” (i.e., the belief that our competencies are static). When individuals take the growth mindset, they embrace challenges, interpret failure as learning, and see effort – not innate qualities – as the key to success. Dweck’s decades of research as well as a poll of 143 researchers in the field point to one core conclusion: Believing you can change and taking delight in that process is a fundamental factor in human success. If you’re open to growth, you usually do grow.
Choosing our genius means adopting the growth mindset not only as individuals, but for humanity as a whole. It means letting our idea of what we are capable as a species grow freely and wildly beyond what feels reasonable.
Our challenge today
Imagine yourself as one of our first ancestors struggling to survive on the savannas of Africa, hundreds of thousands of years ago. You’d be deeply uncertain of your ability to survive. Your idea of what could and should be would simply be making it to the end of the day with adequate food and shelter. You’d have no modern ideas of liberty or justice. Morally and technologically, you’d be barely distinguishable from the chimpanzees you evolved from.
What if you could take a journey through time, viewing humanity’s growth and evolution all the way from that time up to today. What if you could with fresh eyes watch us create myth; agriculture; the first cities; the first codes of law; the practices of yoga and meditation; ships that can traverse the high seas; the pyramids at Giza; Homer’s epics and Plato’s dialogues; the palaces of Angkor Wat; Macchu Pichu; the statues of Easter Island; the Sistine Chapel; the plays of Shakespeare; the idea of nations; the movements of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.; the works of Pablo Nerudo and Maya Angelou; the Beach Boys; endless amounts of art, literature, and music; all the incredible food dishes from every culture around the world; supercomputers; an international space station; vast global networks of communication and cooperation; the idea of a global village; the Sustainable Development Goals; and on and on and on and on and on. All of this from just a fledgling little species struggling to survive, just a child in evolutionary time.
From your perch on the savanna, from that place of innocence and ignorance, would you not be utterly stunned and in awe of your descendants? Would you not see this incredible explosion of creativity and invention as remarkable? Would you not be more proud of what they accomplished and created out of thin air than ashamed that they were not perfectly wise and just from the beginning? Would not think that we are beautiful?
My truth is that you and all of humanity are beautiful and capable beyond your wildest imagination. In fact, I believe we are so beautiful and capable that it overwhelms us. It scares us. We hide, repress, and deny our gifts because we don’t think we are worthy of them. That is our shame.
Our challenge today is not overcoming our shortcomings or atoning for our sinfulness, as many would have us believe. Our challenge is finally fully acknowledging and embracing our incredible gifts and beauty. It is to boldly step toward our vast unfulfilled potential, knowing we will never quite reach it, but trusting that what we can do is enough and believing that we are worthy of it.