2016 / 1 September

Idealism, vulnerability and healthy skepticism

Two weeks ago I had the privilege of representing Melbourne at the Global Shapers Annual Curators Meeting, in Geneva. Over the four days I was able to meet and get to know a number of other Shapers from almost every country on the planet. I visited the World Trade Organization, the World Economic Forum and the United Nations. I was exposed to a variety of customs, backgrounds, viewpoints, struggles, successes and more laughs than I’ve had in a long time. It was definitely memorable and as Shapers usually only get one term as Curator, a legitimate “once in a lifetime” style event. But what are the core things that bring us all together? What is the benefit of having a representative from nearly every country in the world in the same room?

While it would be nice to just take it for what it was — a bit of an ideological junket, I decided that I wanted to scratch below the surface and analyse more about what I saw, who I met and what I heard. After pondering the experience for some time, I have drawn the following conclusions.

  1. No one really cares that much about Australia and New Zealand.

It would be easy to misconstrue this statement as a negative one, but I don’t believe it to be. The reality is, maybe due to a smaller population and its impact, or geographical isolation, no one really pays much attention to what we do. There is still somewhat of a romantic and novel view of our country. For most people it sits in the “would love to visit someday” category. But I quickly learned that no one really has an understanding of our history, and really, why should they? When I started to describe our treatment of Indigenous people, our human rights violations and handling of asylum seekers, our comparably poor digital infrastructure and of individual privacy, it was clear that none of these issues were known on a global level.

It was also clear that attendees from the Southern regions of Asia want to collaborate more effectively, and improve their standing with China. It was apparent that (despite the Brexit fiasco), most European nations believe in greater and tighter collaborations. South America and Africa also seem to be on the same page. The US is still a bit of a basket case, but the attendees all expressed a desire to work together and strengthen the country from within. I admire all of these ambitions and I definitely left feeling positive about the regional improvements that can be made.

Australia is an interesting case, as it is both progressive and regressive simultaneously. We have many cases of brilliance, and just as many of sheer idiocy. Our smaller population means that our chances to shine are lowered, simply by weight of numbers. However, I believe the novelty factor that still surrounds the country should be leveraged to promote the exceptional work we are doing on a global scale. I do not view our geographical isolation as a challenge, but as an opportunity.

  1. Idealism needs to be tempered with skepticism.

The constant theme of the event was one of idealism. That the world will be better if we all work together towards a common goal. I cannot fault that and I believe that idealism is important to push things forward. But idealism is an aspiration, not a reality. It needs to be tempered with objectivity and the term I borrowed was “healthy skepticism”. The notion is not to say no, but rather to set realistic parameters around what is possible and what is achievable.

Idealism fails without parameters because its goals are rarely achieved. If people don’t feel a sense of achievement, quite quickly they run out of energy and interest. And what is often missing from these types of events is the means by which to set achievable goals and logical steps. If the conversation only exists in the clouds, it will never set foot on the ground.

My curiosity leads me to ask how much action will be seen from the event in one, three or six months time. And beyond that, how many of the same conversations will occur the same time next year because the idealistic energy was not able to find its footing with meaningful implementation.

  1. Global parity will not exist in my life time.

The reason I view idealism through a more skeptical lens is because I am not able to believe that global parity will exist in my life time. I have to acknowledge that I exist in the top 1% of locations around the world. Melbourne, as the alleged “world’s most livable city” is so far removed from the daily struggles faced in other areas of the world.

Another delegate raised the point on the Saturday night, saying essentially “I have no idea how to relate to a lot of these issues. People speak about having to build toilets to reduce illnesses. I live in America and we take all of these things for granted, so what can I do?” And in principle, the view holds merit. What can be done? Money can be sent, but none of us earn enough at this stage, so it is a short term solution. Or we could volunteer time, fly to a remote region and get our hands dirty, but even that is fraught with problems.

The piece that is missing from any of these events is how to align the ends of the spectrum, and to spend time understanding how the first world can positively impact the second and third world, and conversely, how these incredible approaches to local problems can be implemented more broadly.

The second observation is that viewpoints of our generation are still at odds. Throughout the event, we often spent time in groups of six, where we got to know and work with people from all around the world. It was fascinating and I really, really enjoyed my time with the group I had.

One statistic from a survey at the end of the event highlighted that 18% of respondents “strongly disagree” with gay marriage. Therefore, statistically speaking, one person in my group had a diametrically oppositional view to what I believe is a basic human right. I can’t say whether my view is right or wrong, but it is what I believe and the fact that I am sitting in a room with other global leaders and we do not share common views needs to be addressed if we ever hope to make a change. These are only two examples, and the issue is still prevalent in gender inequality, education and many other basic human rights. But it’s quite difficult to know where to begin.

  1. Vulnerability is a strength.

One of the biggest barriers I face at these sorts of events is being able to open up and discuss things frankly and openly. Because that means not having all the answers, highlighting personal flaws and expressing things that are important to you in an environment where they could be challenged.

What I learned is that this is a consistent trait and that over the last year or so, I have become much more comfortable in this realm. I was able to help others open up more and express their feelings and allow themselves to be vulnerable. That change was important, because the ability becomes empowering.

As the repetitive elements of jobs are replaced by technology, I believe there will be a greater focus on the development of emotional traits. The balance of IQ vs EQ will move towards the latter because technology does not yet display emotion. Therefore, the ability to accept vulnerability (and other emotions) as strengths and something to improve, I hope, will lead to greater outcomes.

  1. I have earned my seat at the table.

I have spent a lot of time writing about my struggles with identity and understanding my place in the world. The four days in Geneva finally revealed that while I may not have all the answers, I have more than earned my place in the community and that I do have something to offer.

Being able to talk about my profession and its importance to a group of 100+ peers and feel comfortable doing it was an experience like no other. Meeting a great number of people that I instantly connected with and we were able to talk, laugh and learn about one another in a relative sense of comfort was something I am truly happy about and was not expecting to find. Twelve months ago, I would not have been able to do that so easily.

Now that I have crash landed back in the real world, it is a good opportunity to pause and reflect. Ultimately the ACM is not going to be the one thing that changes the world and that is ok. The Global Shapers do not have the profile (yet) to create global change and that is also ok. What it does have is a unique group of people who all share many common goals to improve their community. That is a powerful driver. I absolutely commend their objectives and feel honoured to play my part. It may be enough to just take the little internal and personal changes and use them to impact what and who you can, and hope that it somehow continues to grow from there.

My goal is to leave the community in better shape than when I entered it. That may come in any number of ways. There are certainly many challenges that need to be addressed but overall I am extremely positive about what’s to come and very thankful that I was able to experience the event.

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