On Well Being: Two Days In Germany

Feb 6, 2015

Around the theme of "global well being", Germany's GIZ, MIT's Prescening Institute, and Bhutan's GNH center convened a thoughtful dialogue over the last two days. Governments, businesses leaders, civil society change-makers.

From Bhutan, the visionaries of the Gross National Happiness; Oregon's First Lady whose state is implementing Genuine Progress Indicator; Scotland's Katherine Trebeck who created the Human Kind Index. And on the flip side, South African economist Lorenzo, who has written books on "Gross Domestic Problem" and how numbers rule the world, cited the complexities around quantification -- citing an example of many African communities that upend Maslow's hierarchy of needs when they self-assess very high levels of well-being despite not being materially well off. In theory, the idea is that there is vast amount of capital that can be liberated in a more wholesome direction, if we had the sufficient metrics that brought concepts of well being into our public policy conversations. Costa Rica's head of social innovation and co-founder of social impact bonds, David Bullon, shared how they redirected the country's entire military budget to social programs, a practice that is now being adopted by Panama. However, Daniel Izzo, who runs a $100M impact investing fund in Brazil, open-heartedly pointed out the limits of capital and his growing dissatisfaction with the capacity of money of bring about sustainable change.

Add ServiceSpace ecosystem, which represented creative solutions that go beyond financial incentives altogether, and one can imagine how rich the conversation was. :)  And it was in a picturesque, rural Germany setting:

Our circle was inspired by Otto Scharmer and his life-long work around Theory U. Growing up on a farm in Germany, he noticed a lot of unsettling divides in society that ultimately led him to his PhD thesis titled: "Transformation of Capitalism as a Revolution From Within." As he jokes, "No one read it, so I went on another pursuit to make such ideas more accessible to the public." Having now written several popular books, becoming a professor at MIT, starting U Lab and Presencing Institute and most recently hosting an online course with 27 thousand students, he's certainly tilled the soil.

The crux of Otto's thesis is about "bending the beam of observation to include the observer." If we are to collectively bridge the ecological divide between self and nature, the social divide between self and other and the spiritual divide self and the capital-s Self, we have work inside out. To summarize "300 years of economic thought in 3 minutes", :) he looks at how we have managed division of labor. Early on, labor was organized centrally in a state-centric economy with a command and control mindset; then we shifted to a more decentralized "free market" with a competition mindset; more recently, we've seen the rise of networked, social markets with a negotiation mindset. However, if we are to effectively dissolve our divides today, Otto thinks we need to shift from "ego-system to eco-system" and give rise to a fourth phase of an aware mindset that operates from a vision of the whole. It's a state of mind, where we have hold an open mind that can contain diversity, an open heart that can transcend cynicism, and an open will that can move beyond fear.  Then, William O'brien's words would ring true: "The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervenor."

Seeing the field is the core competency that we have to cultivate, as elegantly noted in this clip from the movie Bagger Vance:

"There's only one shot that's in perfect harmony with the field, one shot that's his authentic shot, and that shot is gonna choose him. There's a perfect shot out there tryin' to find each and every one of us. All we got to do is get ourselves out of its way, to let it choose us."

When we don't see the field, we externalize problems -- which eventually manifests as social dis-ease. Julia Kim, a researcher from Bhutan, shared lots of interesting data from political, economic social, environmental, spiritual sectors that seem to be building the conditions for changing our definition of success. Kids are engaging in 8.5 hours of screen time everyday, the use of Ritalin has grown by 44% in the last decade, we are consuming at the rate of 1.5 planets, by next year, top 1% will own more wealth than the bottom 99%. We have more people committing suicide around the world than those who are killed in war and natural disasters. The list goes on, to add a whole new level of urgency to Robert Kennedy's prescient talk in 1968:
Even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction - purpose and dignity - that afflicts us all.

Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product - if we judge the United States of America by that - that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans. If this is true here at home, so it is true elsewhere in world.

Tyler Norris, who heads up "Total Health" across all of Kaiser Permanente, reminded us: "In the US, today, 20 cents on every dollar goes to sick care. We now know that prevention comes down to three things: eat healthier, move more and find joy." To move that needle, he needs more well-being metrics on their dashboard. And he is the first to admit that metrics alone aren't enough; we need a shift in hearts: "In treating disease, we have to move from what's the matter with you to what matters to you."

Where is this change going to come from? Alfred Tolle, former CEO of Lycos and now known as Google's "Compassion Guy", underscored the need to re-channel money and elevate business. With advisor to the Costa Rican president, Brazilian member of parliament, and policy maker from Trinidad and Tobego, there was also a global sense that we shouldn't give up on government. Various grassroots leaders, like Totrinh Phan who is pioneering special education in Vietnam and Louise who is empowering schools in South Africa and Alex who is enabling bike sharing in Denmark, stressed the importance of bottom-up change. And in the end, everyone agreed that beyond the superficial boundaries of these sectors, it is all deeply inter-connected.

In one of the breakout circles, we were all discussing our definitions of well being. It's a complex topic -- how much of it is objective and how much subjective?  For me, an antecedent to well being is an alignment of my hands, head and heart. That takes me on a journey to my natural state, which is inter-connected and compassionate. If there is suffering along the way, I consider that to be a a gift -- part of the "caterpillar turning into a butterfly" process.

Generosity was a vibrant under-current across all the sectors. "What our societies are facing is a serious trust deficit," Mary Jane, from Nelson Mandela Hospital in South Africa, remarked. She cited some joyous examples of Guerilla Gardening in the slums near her residence. Ben, a local conference coordinator, mentioned examples of pay-what-you-can wineries in Germany. In Italy, there's the growing movement of Suspended Coffee, where people pay for stranger's coffees.  Katherina Lobek spoke about her engagement with bookshelves on the streets of Frankfurt (like Tiny Libraries in the US), where anyone can take a book or leave a book. Using the example of Karma Kitchen (and subsequent research), we explored the difference between pay what you want and pay forward.  Tho HaVinh shared his personal experiences of being part of a collective of 40 families in Switzerland (for 12 years!), who would pool all their salaries together every month and take whatever was needed. "First thing that happens is that you disconnect labor from money. That's powerful. We also had a rule of not-accumulating year over year, so we would always have lots of money left to give away." Few of us also had fascinating side-bar conversations around surviving in a gift ecology and the relationship between tragedy of the commons and inner transformation.

ServiceSpace threads were also found in so many unexpected ways. Dang Huong Giang, a happy spirit and a grassroots organizer in Vietnam, said it has been her personal practice to read DailyGood everyday for the last 4 years. In a circle, as I was sharing about Awakin Circles, we were all wowed when Julia and Tho remarked that they have been part of them in Bhutan! I was happily surprised to learn that Otto shows Designing for Generosity to all his students at MIT, and that we're part of his upcoming MOOC as well. Regina, an executive with Eileen Fisher, mentioned how she had also used that video with her staff at work -- and is now going to start a practice of picking a Smile Deck card at the end of a meeting and check-in to the next meeting with a story of that kind act. Gregor Henderson, director of UK's Wellbeing center, said one of the visionaries behind the upcoming What Works center, is very keen to get ServiceSpace spirit to UK -- and we've plotted many ideas. And of course, a lot many synergies emerged.  Hang Mai, a farmer activist from Vietnam who is currently translating Fukuoka's One Straw Revolution, is keen to start a Karma Kitchen with surplus from farm produce.  Gross National Happiness team wants to tie with Moved by Love community and co-create new ideas (particularly after Bhutan PM's recent talk in Gujarat).  With Tyler, we're exploring some very creative generosity interventions with Kaiser Permanente's community of 10 million folks.  I'm sure you'll see various people at our local circles and global Awakin Calls.  Even the gentleman filming, Johnny Burke, was keen to share his film, Tashi and the Monk, on KarmaTube as soon as HBO rights retire shortly.  The ripples will surely continue as they need to, especially since all of us are to meet twice more (in different parts of the world).

Pedro Paulo, a Formula One racer in Monaco turned farmer in Brazil, shared a beautiful native proverb: "You have a watch, I have time."  As we nuanced it further, we spoke about our capacity to align our attention with our intention.  If we can't control our attention, all our technologies, frameworks, metrics, and institutions can't create much change.  If, however, we are able to nestle our innovations in the field of our own inner transformation, then its potential is boundless.  Truly taming our mind, of course, is a long path, but the good news is that we have each other's support along the way.  Not just the support of those immediately present, but the richly diverse ancestry that had come together for these two days in a village that was home to German resistance to Hitler.

In our closing circle, I noted how my gratitude for the circle started even before I landed in Berlin.  When my Dad heard I was departing for sub-zero weather in Berlin, he excitedly said: "Wait, I have something for you."  He goes in to bring a coat he had bought in 1968!  On my first day, four of us walked up to the Berlin Wall, as I put on my Dad's coat for the first time.  The wall that divided Germans ultimately ended up being so thin, I thought, and the coat I wore with ripped up lining ended up feeling so warm.  When our hearts and minds come together as one, wonders can emerge.

[Post by Adam, of a spontaneous breakfast conversation with Otto.]

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