Uncategorized

Holiday readings: how to change the world by re-imagining it

One year ago, I decided that I was not happy with my job, my life and my contribution to the world. I thought about doing a PhD, to get back into studying and research so that maybe I could make a different contribution to my life and the planet in a different way. Luckily, I was not admitted to any of the two schools I applied to. After a couple of months of dwelling and a bit of “What the hell I am going to do with my life?” I decided that what I really needed was to change the entire way I was looking at the world around me and therefore at myself. I realized that I wanted to be surrounded by people that would challenge every single one of my assumptions and that would not let me rest on my positions.

In this past year I also realized that I love people that always have something to say, the one that do not hide behind the “I am offended by this” or the “O my god you are so negative” or the “But I am trying to do something good, why are you criticizing me?”. I realized that I would rather be surrounded by people that try to always find fallacies in my thinking, than be surrounded by people that give me a pat on the shoulder so that they can receive one. So, I started to travel to spend time with these people. And the best outcome of these travels and of the people I met were the books that my free time now allowed me to read.

Each one of the books that are helping me to change my life comes out of a person, someone that pushed me to think beyond the accepted norms. And slowly by slowly I realized that each book brought me closer to a redefinition of the way I think the world works, and the way I think it should work. This is having implications on myself but mostly on the way I see the humanitarian and development world.

There is a long way to go, but here some ideas about what it’s emerging:

Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility

White people in general live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what Diangelo refers to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium. Although mainstream definitions of racism are typically some variation of individual “race prejudice”, which anyone of any race can have, Whiteness scholars define racism as encompassing economic, political, social, and cultural structures, actions, and beliefs that systematize and perpetuate an unequal distribution of privileges, resources and power between white people and people of color (Hilliard, 1992). This unequal distribution benefits whites and disadvantages people of color overall and as a group. This dynamic can be seen in the humanitarian system exactly in the same way, if not more, then in the rest of the fields of human interaction.

Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics

Humanity’s 21st century challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. In other words, to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and housing to healthcare and political voice), while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend – such as a stable climate, fertile soils, and a protective ozone layer. The Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries is a playfully serious approach to framing that challenge, and it acts as a compass for human progress this century. The environmental ceiling consists of nine planetary boundaries, as set out by Rockstrom et al, beyond which lie unacceptable environmental degradation and potential tipping points in Earth systems. The twelve dimensions of the social foundation are derived from internationally agreed minimum social standards, as identified by the world’s governments in the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. Between social and planetary boundaries lies an environmentally safe and socially just space in which humanity can thrive. Isn’t this the goal towards which humanitarian system should go? Why are we perpetrating old economical unsuitable models in developing countries?

David, Graeber, Bullshit jobs

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory is a 2018 book by anthropologist David Graeber that argues the existence and societal harm of meaningless jobs. Graeber contends that over half of societal work is pointless, which becomes psychologically destructive when paired with a work ethic that associates work with self-worth. Graeber describes five types of meaningless jobs, in which workers pretend their role is not as pointless or harmful as they know it to be: flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box tickers, and taskmasters. He argues that the association of labor with virtuous suffering is recent in human history, and proposes universal basic income as a potential solution. Graeber argues that these jobs are largely in the private sector despite the idea that market competition would root out such inefficiencies. In companies, he concludes that the rise of service sector jobs owes less to economic need than to “managerial feudalism”, in which employers need underlings to feel important and maintain competitive status and power. In society, he credits the Puritan-capitalist work ethic for making the labor of capitalism into religious duty: that workers did not reap advances in productivity as a reduced workday because, as a societal norm, they believe that work determines their self-worth, even as they find that work pointless. Graeber describes this cycle as “profound psychological violence”, “a scar across our collective soul”. I have known endless amount of people in the humanitarian sector that feel that their work is useless, but they keep doing it anyway because “at least they are trying”.

Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens

Homo sapiens rules the world because it is the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in its own imagination, such as gods, states, money and human rights. Starting from this provocative idea, Sapiens goes on to retell the history of our species from a completely fresh perspective. It explains that money is the most pluralistic system of mutual trust ever devised; that capitalism is the most successful religion ever invented; that the treatment of animals in modern agriculture is probably the worst crime in history; and that even though we are far more powerful than our ancient ancestors, we aren’t much happier. By combining profound insights with a remarkably vivid language, Sapiens makes you re-think and re-imagine the human species from a realistic and crude point of view. But most of all, it makes you realize that we cannot change what we believe is immutable, while almost anything in out lives is immutable. Sapiens forced me to re-imagine a world based on what I can change and not on what I believe I cannot change: the system, gender equality, religion, politics and our economic system.

Jacopo Romei, Extreme Contracts

Extreme Contracts is a concept created to redefine negotiation in any job happening in the turbulent and complex environment of knowledge work: designers, developers, architects, managers, photographers, and everybody in charge of delivering projects with volatile requirements, uncertainty and a variety of combined skills required. Extreme contracts try to re-imagine and re-shape the concept of contracting, starting from the concept of “skin in the game” and moving on to specific examples of contracting, from lump sum contracts to time based contracts. The overall point is that extreme contracting is based on trust, and trust is built by investing in the deal at the negotiation level, moving away from the mentality of limiting the losses, and moving towards a mentality of maximizing the results. Extreme contracts change the perspective of what work is and moves towards a vision of work as a mean and not a value in itself. This book describes very well some of the most pressing problematics related to supply chain in the humanitarian system and institutional accountability inside NGOs and UN agencies, redefining how we look at trust in our work interactions.  

Achor Shawn, The Happiness Advantage

Conventional wisdom holds that if we work hard, we will be more successful, and if we are more successful, then we’ll be happy. If we can just find that great job, win that next promotion, lose those five pounds, happiness will follow. But recent discoveries in the field of positive psychology have shown that this formula is actually backward: Happiness fuels success, not the other way around. When we are positive, our brains become more engaged, creative, motivated, energetic, resilient, and productive. This discovery has been repeatedly supported by research in psychology and neuroscience, management studies, and the bottom lines of organizations around the world. Achor Shawn book literally teaches you how to be happier, with practical tips, exercises and data to support his statements and research findings. This book makes you re-think your concept of happiness and how it applies to your life. It also shows you how our brains in humanitarian emergencies are trained to see the worst and prepare for the it, and the consequences this has in our lives.

What did I learn?

  1. The humanitarian system is the result of a colonialist, white-privileged, imperialist mentality where “we” think “we” have the solutions to the problems of the world, problems that often we have not solved ourselves;
  2. As a result of point one, we use humanitarian and development aid to do social experimentation on other communities, denying the fact that we too developed our own systems from a dramatic, often violent, process of growth.
  3. Our political and economic systems, which we believe immutable, are a construct of our ancestors. As they created these systems, we can create others.
  4. White fragility in the humanitarian world translated into “At least I am trying to do something good”. Good for whom is still unknown.
  5. In the western world we have developed way more system to minimize losses as opposed to systems that maximize outcomes.
  6. The rise of individualism in our society has created the illusion that we are on our own, and that we can build our own lives regardless of what happened to rest of the planet and to the people around us.
  7. The rise of capitalism has created another illusion, and namely one that tell us that the more we have, the happier we will be. Success is defined not as a relative factor, but as a universal one, defined by the same characteristics regardless of the person.
  8. Trust is the new currency. The more you exchange, the richer you will be.
  9. Working has become our new religion: despite the fact that technologies today will allow us to work much less than we do, and produce more, we cannot imagine a world where we don’t work. Work is a value in itself, one that according to us cannot be changed.

Well on to you now, what books are helping you re-imagine the world?

2 comments

  1. Thanks for sharing this and for the list of books. I am curious to know if in Bullshit Jobs the author also covers the fact that in our society professions are rewarded (in terms of $, prestige, etc.) with little or no connection with the actual value the profession brings to the society itself (classic examples are carers, teachers, and most doing volunteer work) I struggle to find a good book on this.

Leave a Reply to Francesco Ciriaci Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: