One Apple A Day #699 – start with a vision

Yesterday, after a fantastic weekend spent in nature with some kids and their father, I was driving home. 

Alone, some relaxing music on the radio, no rush and still the smiles and the joy of those kids in my mind. My journey home became an opportunity to process everything I experienced, the small details, the conversations.

I think I was midway when, while reflecting on some exchange we had at lunch, an idea came up in the form of a sentence.

We need a vision before than a reason.

It was probably influenced by something I heard in Simon Sinek’s podcast the day before. In a conversation with General Stan McChrystal, Commander of The Joint Special Operations Command under President Obama, Simon Sinek talked about the speech with which Barak Obama, at that time President of United States, presented to the Congress his plans for national health care. In his speech, he made a rational argument for the plan. Absolutely reasonable but at the same time hard to fully grasp, plus it sounded costly. Simon suggests that instead, he should have reminded everyone of the principles defined by the founding fathers of the nation including the belief that all men are created equal, and the inalienable right to life and the pursuit of happiness. He argues that around those Obama could have united everyone, before moving into the how and what.

I feel we all do and experience this approach quite often. We try to convince others using reasoning. We provide all the reasons why what we have in mind is the right thing to do, and we struggle to understand why people are to following us. 

The fact is that we all have different ways to explain things in our mind. We have different beliefs, most of which we aren’t even aware of, that create a different perspective on things.

But if we can create a vision that appeals to their heart and soul, that can connect to something beyond the logic, then we have a lot more chances to inspire action.

So, a good reminder for the self is to start with the vision, not the reason.

A Long Way From ‘Family of Man’

I finally found the time to read the whole transcript of the speech that Vaclav Havel, 1st President of the Czech Republic, gave to the US Congress on the 21st February 1990.

I came across this old speech a few days ago, in one of my periodic online explorations around the subject of consciousness. I have to admit I didn’t even know who Vaclav Havel was before finding this historical document (thanks Internet). The full address is quite long and a bit tedious unless you’re interested in the history of Europe after the fall of Berlin’s wall. 

However, its last part is a gem of rare beauty. And after listening to it, I felt compelled to share it here. 

Before that, allow me to share a funny and personal little story about synchronicity.

This morning I met with my best friend and his seven years old son at a bar. Considering the circumstances, we couldn’t avoid talking about the rules for this phase of the pandemic in Italy. Because some of the rules can be “relaxed” between members of the same family, I made a joked about marrying my friend so we would become part of the same family. And then I went on saying that we should marry all the people working at the bar, and also all the customers. Until we will become a single big family, including everyone, and we can be all together again without any distancing.

I was just joking obviously, but you can understand my surprise when I sat in my garden, and while going through the whole transcript I came across this title; “A Long Way From Family of Man“.

Without further ado, here’s the transcript of the speech. The highlights are mine.

“A Long Way From Family of Man” from Vaclav Havel’s address to the US Congress, 21st February 1990

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve only been president for two months, and I haven’t attended any schools for presidents. My only school was life itself.

Therefore, I don’t want to burden you any longer with my political thoughts, but instead I will move on to an area that is more familiar to me, to what I would call the philosophical aspect of these changes that still concern everyone, although they are taking place in our corner of the world.

As long as people are people, democracy, in the full sense of the word, will always be no more than an ideal. One may approach it as one would the horizon in ways that may be better or worse, but it can never be fully attained. In this sense, you, too, are merely approaching democracy. You have thousands of problems of all kinds, as other countries do. But you have one great advantage: you have been approaching democracy uninterruptedly for more than 200 years, and your journey toward the horizon has never been disrupted by a totalitarian system.

Czechs and Slovaks, despite their humanistic traditions that go back to the first millennium, have approached democracy for a mere 20 years, between the two world wars, and now for the three and a half months since 17th November last year.

The advantage that you have over us is obvious at once.

The communist type of totalitarian system has left both our nations, Czechs and Slovaks, as it has all the nations of the Soviet Union and the other countries the Soviet Union subjugated in its time, a legacy of countless dead, an infinite spectrum of human suffering, profound economic decline and, above all, enormous human humiliation. It has brought us horrors that fortunately you have not known.

It has given us something positive, a special capacity to look from time to time somewhat further than someone who has not undergone this bitter experience. A person who cannot move and lead a somewhat normal life because he is pinned under a boulder has more time to think about his hopes than someone who is not trapped that way.

What I’m trying to say is this: we must all learn many things from you, from how to educate our offspring, how to elect our representatives, all the way to how to organize our economic life so that it will lead to prosperity and not to poverty. But it doesn’t have to be merely assistance from the well-educated, powerful and wealthy to someone who has nothing and therefore has nothing to offer in return.

We, too, can offer something to you: our experience and the knowledge that has come from it.

This is a subject for books, many of which have already been written and many of which are yet to be written. I shall therefore limit myself to a single idea. The specific experience I’m talking about has given me one great certainty: consciousness precedes being, and not the other way around, as the Marxists claim.

For this reason, the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and in human responsibility.

Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better in the sphere of our being as humans, and the catastrophe toward which this world is headed –be it ecological, social, demographic or a general breakdown of civilization –will be unavoidable. If we are no longer threatened by world war or by the danger that the absurd mountains of accumulated nuclear weapons might blow up the world, this does not mean that we have definitively won. We are, in fact, far from the final victory.

We are still a long way from that “family of man.” In fact, we seem to be receding from the ideal rather than growing closer to it. Interests of all kinds–personal, selfish, state, nation, group, and, if you like, company interests–still considerably outweigh genuinely common and global interests. We are still under the sway of the destructive and vain belief that man is the pinnacle of creation and not just a part of it and that therefore everything is permitted.

There are still many who say they are concerned not for themselves but for the cause, while they are demonstrably out for themselves and not for the cause at all. We are still destroying the planet that was entrusted to us and its environment. We still close our eyes to the growing social, ethnic and cultural conflicts in the world. From time to time, we say that the anonymous mega-machinery we have created for ourselves no longer serves us but rather has enslaved us, yet we still fail to do anything about it.

In other words, we still don’t know how to put morality ahead of politics, science and economics. We are still incapable of understanding that the only genuine backbone of all our actions, if they are to be moral, is responsibility.

Responsibility to something higher than my family, my country, my company, my success–responsibility to the order of being where all our actions are indelibly recorded and where and only where they will be properly judged.

The interpreter or mediator between us and this higher authority is what is traditionally referred to as human conscience.

If I subordinate my political behavior to this imperative, mediated to me by my conscience, I can’t go far wrong. If, on the contrary, I were not guided by this voice, not even 10 presidential schools with 2,000 of the best political scientists in the world could help me.

This is why I ultimately decided, after resisting for a long time, to accept the burden of political responsibility.

I am not the first, nor will I be the last, intellectual to do this. On the contrary, my feeling is that there will be more and more of them all the time. If the hope of the world lies in human consciousness, then it is obvious that intellectuals cannot go on forever avoiding their share of responsibility for the world and hiding their distaste for politics under an alleged need to be independent.

It is easy to have independence in your program and then leave others to carry that program out. If everyone thought that way, pretty soon no one would be independent.

I think that you Americans should understand this way of thinking. Wasn’t it the best minds of your country, people you could call intellectuals, who wrote your famous Declaration of Independence, your bill of human rights and your Constitution and who, above all, took upon themselves practical responsibility for putting them into practice? The worker from Branik in Prague that your president referred to in his State of the Union message this year is far from being the only person in Czechoslovakia, let alone in the world, to be inspired by those great documents. They inspire us all; they inspire us despite the fact that they are over 200 years old. They inspire us to be citizens.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote that “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” it was a simple and important act of the human spirit. What gave meaning to that act, however, was the fact that the author backed it up with his life. It was not just his words; it was his deeds as well.

I will end where I began: history has accelerated. I believe that once again it will be the human mind that will notice this acceleration, give it a name and transform those words into deeds.

You can read the entire transcript here, or if you prefer you can listen to the full speech here.

One Apple A Day #707 – on leadership

In these challenging times, leadership is more critical than ever. We look at our leaders for guidance, clarity and vision. At all levels, from local communities to countries, from families to big organizations.
However, I feel that many leaders are as lost as we are.
My feeling is that for too long, we thought that knowledge was a fundamental attribute of leadership. If you know more, you can make more informed decisions. Public leaders, in particular, have access to information that we, the population, don’t have. And that should give them the possibility to lead the community.
More and more though, knowledge is shared. Everyone can now access plenty of information. That is taking away a source of power from leaders. They know as much as we do.
Plus, lately, it looks like that, despite all the data and knowledge that we are acquiring, we are still walking in the dark.

All of this to say that I feel that leadership is not about knowing more. It is the ability to transform knowledge into choices and actions that make a positive impact.

One Apple A Day #698 – I have your back

Yesterday, a dear friend reminded me about this video from a few days ago. It’s a concise and powerful reminder that this pandemic is not hitting everyone in the same way. All the frontline workers are a lot more exposed than others. Some families, even in the wealthiest countries, are struggling to meet basic needs. 

When leaders ask to make sacrifices. When they say that we all need to play our part, they are right, but they should acknowledge those differences. They should show empathy.

While we were sharing all of this in our conversation, a thought hit me.

What I really miss right now, are leaders who make me feel they have my back. That they know that they are asking a lot, but that I should not worry, because they have my back. I get it that nobody knows what’s going to happen. They don’t have all the answers, and I get it. I also get it that every choice has consequences, and not all of them are predictable. That’s ok.

I just want to feel that, whatever will happen, you – my leaders – have my back.

So, I went to bed yesterday evening with these words playing in my mind. 

I have your back.

They were still there this morning when I woke up. But the feeling was different. 

What about me? Am I asking something I am not doing myself? Am I there for the people I love? Do they feel that I have their back?

As always, the change starts with me.

One Apple A Day #680 – demanding situations, choices and freedom

“I suppose the role of character is for the individual to rise to a situation. If it were not for the situation, we would never have heard of him. So that you might say that character is the product of an exceptional demand by the situation upon human ability. I think the ability of the average man could be doubled if it were demanded, if the situation demanded.” — Will Durant

Will Durant was an American historian, philosopher and writer. With his wife, he wrote The Story of Civilization, 11 volumes covering the whole story of humanity. The words opening this post are extracted from an interview in which he shared his thoughts on thoughts on the “Great Men and Women” in history. The heroes, the ones who shaped history and whose lives we study in the hope to become better.

In the same interview, he said that “the hero is a product of a situation rather than the result being a product of the hero. It is demand that brings out the exceptional qualities of man.

I love the idea of the hero as someone cut from a different cloth, with exceptional skills, wit and brilliance. 

However, I know we are all made of the same substance. I know we all have within us the potential to be heroes. And I know that hard times, like the one we are living now, can bring out the hero and the heroine from every man and woman. But it can also bring out the worst, the villain.

What makes the difference is a small choice. The choice of how we want to respond to the challenge.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” — Viktor E Frankl