In the likely scenario that you’re reading when you do not have the time or headspace to properly process it and the links it contains, I recommend two things. 1) If you’ve received this by email, snooze it in your inbox (or mark it unread) and come back to it at a better moment when you have a cup of tea in hand. 2) Use a bookmarking tool like Pocket to save things to read later so you don’t end up with dozens of open tabs taunting you. Enjoy!
Not another newsletter!
Next week, I’ll celebrate a major milestone in my life - a third of a century on this planet (i.e. I’ll be 33.3333…). To mark this auspicious occasion, I’m following through with a recurring1 idea - starting a newsletter.
Why a newsletter, I hear you ask? I believe that part of what I bring to the world is connecting ideas and people. Colleagues seem to value the breadth of my reading and listening, and I find the discipline of writing helpful to synthesise and clarify my thinking about some big questions. Hence the name - ‘Learning Out Loud’.
There are many many people who know more than me about the things I’ll write about: anti-oppressive practice; coaching and facilitation; convening and community building; governance; horizontal leadership; narrative change; new economics and systems change. My aspiration is to weave together these themes and share them beyond their normal siloes.
I’ll start off with a rhythm of publishing a newsletter every second and fourth Friday of the month. I expect each one will include an update on what I’m doing, some curated links and thoughts around a theme and a selection of things I’ve been reading, watching or listening to. This time, there’s a longer introduction and personal update, so I’ll hold back on books etc. until next time.
Please do send any ideas or feedback you have. I’ll probably change things up over the next few editions to experiment with the format. For example, in this one I’m taking a bit of a risk by including a blog-like section and making this longer than your standard newsletter.
If you enjoy this newsletter please subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
What I’ve been up to
2021 was a year of transition and celebration for me.
I spent several months focussing on ending things well. The LearnAdapt programme finished in late 2020 with a flurry of events and publications. In April, I left the Curiosity Society team after four years (though I remain an Associate). And in August I moved on from the London International Development Network team, almost nine years after founding the group. (I have continued my roles as Co-Chair of RESULTS UK and on the advisory council to the Equity Index.) I’m now excited and curious about the opportunities, collaborations and experiments a portfolio of freelancing work can bring.
I got married in September on my family’s farm in Cornwall and had a beautiful honeymoon in the Scottish Highland and Islands (I highly recommend booking with Byway for flight-free holidays). I’m proud of the wedding my wife and I created, with help from family and friends. It really reflected who we are as a couple and was a special day for a lot of people. I’ll write another time about how I applied what I’ve learnt about the art of gathering and facilitation to the wedding.
I also played the biggest gig of my life with the Sunday Assembly band at Wilderness Festival. We provided the musical accompaniment to ‘The Mother of All Weddings’ - giving couples who got married during Covid restrictions a chance to celebrate their love with a lot more people. It was rather epic to drum “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” for a festival crowd!
I bring people and ideas together in pursuit of deep change, and support others to do the same.
My aim is to contribute to dismantling harmful systems and to catalyse, weave and seed the emergence of a more equitable, regenerative future.
I seek to do this through facilitating, convening, coaching, consulting, curating and leading.
Please do get in touch by email or set up a virtual coffee if you’d like to speak about potentially working together.
On one level, the passing of one year into another is arbitrary. However, such moments can mark a defining moment that draws a dividing line who you used to be and who you would like to be. Coupled with pandemic-induced introspection, a lot of people are thinking about what they could be doing differently in life and work.
I’ve been one of those people in the last year and have found the encouragement, challenge and accountability of having a coach hugely valuable.
So I’m delighted to offer this support to others now, having become a coach myself in 2021. I’m especially excited about coaching people who are exploring how they can contribute to change in the world while finding personal fulfilment.
My new year offer is to offer unlimited coaching over a 3-month period for £3002. That includes coaching sessions at a pace that suits you, exercises to do in between and support by email. Just make sure to sign up by the end of January.
If you’d like to explore what this might look like, get in touch to book a free 60-minute coaching session.
On the importance of vision
Recently, I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about the importance of a compelling positive vision of how we would like the world to be and to start building it. While it is important to critique the existing system in order to dismantle it, it’s easy to get stuck doing this and it’s only half of the puzzle.
In a gorgeous essay, [H/T Brian Stout] Donella Meadows argues that visioning is the most vital step in the policy process but is often neglected. Instead…
The best goal most of us who work toward sustainability offer is the avoidance of catastrophe. We promise survival and not much more. That is a failure of vision.
… There may be motivation in escaping doom, but there is even more in creating a better world. And it is pitifully inadequate to describe the exciting possibilities of sustainability in terms of mere survival — at least that’s what my vision of sustainability tells me."
There are also tactical and psychological reasons to express a positive vision. In an interview with David Roberts for the Volts podcast (How the left can suck less at messaging - H/T Ruth Taylor), researcher, campaigner, author, and speaker Anat Shenker-Osorio argues that the left needs to put forward a positive vision of change, instead of speaking in the terms of the right.
When you take your kid to a pool and your kid is running, a competent lifeguard will yell, “walk!” because if you yell “don't run!” at a kid, they will run, either out of defiance or because you literally just yelled “run” at them.
The core messaging lesson when I do presentations is, “forget everything else that happened today, I just want you to remember one thing: Say what you're for. Say what you're for. Say what you’re for.” You have to tell people what we want them to do, and stop telling them what we don't want them to do. We have to yell “walk!” not yell “don't run!”
A final blind spot can be a focus on participatory approaches to the exclusion of imagination. I think there’s some truth in what Cassie Robinson writes here:
So many co-design and participatory approaches never account for the unknown, unknowns — the fact that communities don’t know what they don’t know, or can’t imagine. This sounds really obvious, and it’s certainly something I have repeated 100’s of times the last few years, but it really isn’t very present in the stories people articulate about how they believe things will change. Never have I seen this more starkly than when the ‘communities know best’ mantra seemed to replace a need for more critical or imaginative thinking.
So, yes, participation is crucial AND it can limit ideas about change to what is already lying around.
So what could an powerful, motivating vision look like?
Stories for Life creates stories that contribute to the re-design of a healthy economy - going from “nature is our slave” to “nature is our family” and from “productivity is success” to “wellbeing is success”. The beautifully-presented website shows what this shift could look like and is well worth spending some time with.
My favourite podcast, Scene on Radio, recently had a season called The Repair. In it, the hosts trace “the evolution of the colonizing, extractive Western culture that has driven us into the ecological ditch” and “look at potential solutions—the repair.” Many of the answers they land on come from indigenous cultures and ideas.
In Rob Hopkins’ From What If to What Next podcast, he uses his time machine to transport guests to a 2030 where everything they are advocating for has happened. I love hearing guests be specific about what they can see, hear, taste and smell in this new world. Episodes pose questions like: “What if the future was non-binary?”, “What if the Black Imagination were Valued as it Should Be?” and “What if we could Live better in a Post-growth Economy?”
Visionary thinkers can show us that another way is possible. In The Will to Change, the late bell hooks describes how men can reclaim rich, inner emotional lives which patriarchal culture prevents.
Science fiction can be another way to immerse ourselves in alternative futures. I’ve been reading a lot of Ursula Le Guin’s work over the last couple of years, including books that explore themes of anarchism and ambisexuality.
Donella Meadows tells us that visioning is a skill that can be learnt. It requires quietening our skepticism, connecting to our heart and soul, and sharing our vision with others and incorporating their visions.
The work of Phoebe Tickell and Moral Imaginations seems deeply relevant and important here, especially going beyond typical Western ways of knowing:
Moral Imaginations is a humble community, a kernel of movement, a core set of practices, and a commitment to living in and enacting a world from a place of moral imagination. It is about de-numbing our perceptions and senses to perceive what was always already there, but we do not usually include in our understanding of value, perspective or virtue.
Moral Imaginations is about using the imagination to embody and explore the unseen, the unfelt, and the adjacent possible and bring an embodied imagination to new possibilities. It is about using imagination in a completely different way.
Who is creating and building these new visions and narratives matters. As Ruth Taylor points out in a new report on deep narrative change [link to PDF]:
“The space for deep narrative change work in the UK is largely occupied by white, middle-class, university educated, professionalised NGO staff.”
Fortunately, the National Lottery Community Fund’s Emerging Futures programme, which is all about new stories and community imagination in the UK, paid close attention to this in its design and decision-making. This intentionality is a step towards transcending the participation/imagination critique cited above.
Finally, we can go further that articulating alternative narratives and visions - to build the world we want to see in parallel to the world as it is.
The goal cannot only be to get those in power to change behavior; we can’t afford to wait. We must also build parallel structures — dare I say institutions — to meet the needs of this moment, and to welcome people as the dominant systems continue to lose legitimacy.
Our visions and stories will be most powerful when we see them in pockets of our world. This is part of the theory of change for the Doughnut Economics Action Lab, as I understand it - taking a powerful idea, putting it into action and making new economic possibilities visible.
As Rebecca Solnit puts it in the brilliant Hope in the Dark:
Hope and action feed each other.
So, what’s the compelling positive vision that motivates you? How can we use visioning to describe and then create a world that does not yet exist? I’d love to hear how you approach these questions.
Thank you for reading to the end of this inaugural newsletter. Please do get in touch if it has been useful to you and subscribe to receive the next one by email.
Yes, that is a maths pun. I hope it’s not too divisive.
If this figure is a stumbling block for you, get in touch and let’s discuss what might work for you.