Week 13: Are we exploiting empathy?

By Leyla Acaroglu

Empathy, a term that was first brought into the English language in 1908, has become somewhat of a hot topic in design and business circles of late. A key part of the process of design thinking and human-centered design, it seems that “more empathy” has become the go-to solution for a myriad of problems, becoming a key part of the mainstream conversation around improving relationships and making better products and services. From better leadership, improved bedside manner for doctors, more progressive politics, and a fix for social crises like refugee relocation and homelessness, the call for more empathy is everywhere. Some schools, like this one in Denmark, are even teaching empathy in their curriculum in hopes of creating happier, kinder adults. But with considerable ethical and social implications, empathy as a tool for engaging with humans is a bit of a complex space, one that offers up many ethical issues that need some deeper exploration of this all-too-human experience.

What is empathy, and how does it affect the human experience? 

By now, you may have already seen Dr. Brene Brown’s work on empathy, especially since she has a new Netflix talk out at the moment that also dives into shame and compassion. If you have never heard of her, then you should at least check out the short video below, which illustrates the difference between empathy and sympathy and highlights the pitfalls in getting these valuable human experiences mixed up. 

Empathy is defined as the ability to feel, see, and understand the feelings of others. But empathy has a very clear physiological and neurological side to the experience (which, by the way, is a fascinating scientific process). We connect with the feelings of others because we are social beings that benefit from empathizing with those around us. In fact, our brains have mirror neurons, whereby our minds mimic the actions and facial expressions of those people we see and interact with so that we are more connected. 

Evolution has served us well when it comes to ensuring that we connect with our fellow humans. You may be one of those people that feels like vomiting when you see someone else doing it, or perhaps tears well when you hear of a friend’s pain. These are all triggered by the vagus nerve, which supports the biophysical reaction that makes up the empathetic responses we have. The vagus nerve runs down the spinal column and connects the emotional center of your brain to all the primary organs in your body, which then interprets things you see into feelings that trigger physical reactions — like vomiting or crying, or even that pang your get in your guts when you hear of a tragedy that doesn't affect you, but you can feel the loss and grief of others. 

Empathy is a cornerstone of the mammalian experience (humans are not the only ones who show prosocial behavior connected to empathy!), as it supports social bonding and builds connections by helping to identify with another’s pain or pleasure so that we can find common spaces and provide support when needed. However, there is a rising trend in misusing this powerful human connection tool to sell more products. 

Exploiting Empathy

Google search ‘empathy map’ and you will find a simple canvas used by design and marketing teams that doesn't really involve engaging with real humans most of the time. Instead, it is used to imagine a potential customer’s emotional space in relation to your product or service. Stage one of the design thinking process is to empathize with your ‘user’ by way of basic interviews and ‘putting yourself in the shoes of others’ by observing and gaining insights into how they feel or think of whatever problem you are attempting to solve. You can read more about the process in over at IDEO or d.School.

This approach to empathy has it diluted down to the sum of its parts — not as a complex holistic experience that considers the emotional, physiological, and deeply critical interpersonal experiences which have effects on people's emotional states and worldviews. Instead, it’s being leveraged to exploit people’s needs in order to sell them more stuff — stuff they may not actually need, nor perhaps can afford, because when we feel like someone understands us and we feel connected to them, we are more likely to connect with what they are trying to get us to buy. Not all empathy building is sinister by any means; much of it is done with good intentions to understand the human experience so that better services can be designed. But there certainly is a host of ethical conundrums that are evoked when empathy is used more so for extraction than for amplification of compassion and intercommunity understanding. There are many different opinions and critiques on design thinking that are worth the read (see here, here, here and here). Touted as the future of sales, with the ability to ‘empathize’ in the design thinking way, empathy can be used to find hidden desires and manipulate these into purchases, which unfortunately plays right into the systems failure of the hyper-consumption loop that has led to so many negative impacts in the first place and continues to create unintended consequences.

Does Empathy Promote Human Connection? 

I did a project a few years ago exploring leadership and specifically looking at why there are so few female leaders in the design sectors, despite the high rate of female graduates from design programs. I use the Disruptive Design Method for all my work, and in the mining phase, I conducted 30 face-to-face, semi-structured interviews with men and women from within the design industry. I asked them all the same starter question and then allowed the 20 minute conversations to flow based on their reactions. I collected data by touch typing their responses instead of recording them so that they felt more comfortable sharing their stories. As a sociologist, I am hyper aware of the power of asking questions, since questions triggers all sorts of emotional reactions in the interviewee and can open up old wounds or trigger entirely new avenues of thought.  As such, respect and consideration need to be held by the questioner. In my case, I felt so many connections with the stories and experiences of the people in front of me that, as a researcher trying to understand the experiences of others so that I could interpret a potential place to intervene to support changes, I ended up identifying a lack of empathetic understanding as a tool for shifting the status quo on this problem arena. 

But for me, this was the critical thing: this was not just about a lack of empathy toward women —  it was a two-way street. People just didn't understand the conditions and experiences of the other gender; thus it reinforced this inability to provide equitable access to resources such as mentoring, emotional support, time off for childcare, etc. Men told me of being seen as being lazy for wanting to leave early to hang out with their kids, and women found it hard to break into a Friday evening drinking circle because it just wasn’t their type of good time. Either way, everyone was stuck a little bit in their own understanding of the world, so in the context of allowing people to flourish in the workplace, building connections between genders, different age groups, and cultural diversity was a point of intervention that I felt could be leveraged to increase leadership opportunities in creative industries. 

So, I developed this Gender Equity Tookit… however, I may have been wrong. I tested the activities with hundreds of people and found, in the moment, increased levels of understanding, empathy, and connection — but I have no idea if this will affect anyone's lives when it comes to work opportunities. I believe the ability to understand others in whatever ways we can is a powerful approach to effecting positive change, but I also worry about the risks associated with one-dimensional empathy building, which leads me to the wider questions around the limits to empathy as a tool for affecting change.

Limits to Empathy 

A decades long study by Sara Konrath on the empathy levels of young people in America has shown that since the 2000’s, empathy has started to decline by around 40%, with many people saying it is not their responsibility to help other people in trouble. For some people, being empathetic is a problem; being able to feel other people’s pain can be debilitating, as it’s exhausting and can lead to a surge in the stress hormone, cortisol, and can even result in bad decision making.

In our current media landscape, where many agents are competing to milk your emotions through the algorithmic cycle of serving your own interests (like most social media platforms now do), we see just how easy it is to be drained by the pull on our empathetic responses to others’ pain and suffering. Click on a story about a child cancer survivor, for example, and the next time you are online, you are served more heartbreaking stories of children's illnesses. This uptick in feeling empathy-induced stress has led to the coining of the terms “empathy burnout” and “compassion fatigue.”  

There are counterarguments against empathy, such as the those put forth by psychologist Paul Bloom, who argues that because empathy creates a hyper focus on one individual that we identify with, it distracts us from feeling connected to bigger issues. There was this story that emerged after the disastrous earthquake that hit Mexico City in 2017 — the story of a small girl being trapped under the rubble of a school that had collapsed. The entire country was gripped with hope and anxiety when authorities announced that Frida Sofia was rescued from the rubble, only to find out days later that the entire story was made up. The backlash to this hyper-focused collective empathy was profound, especially since this same false story line had played out in the 1985 earthquake. 

Adam Waytz provides other areas of concern regarding empathy. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, he says, “Failing to recognize the limits of empathy can impair performance,” arguing that it is a zero-sum gain, where the more empathy you expel in one area, the less empathy you have left for others, and critically that in itself can erode ethics.

Ethics can be misguided by empathetic responses, especially when paired with the cognitive biases we all have that support our brains categorizing and preferencing people akin to ourselves. Empathy can absolutely be exploited — and in some cases, weaponized — in order to dehumanize others. We’ve seen this play out in the political theater of the last five or so years, for example, as right-wing populist candidates have come to rise around the world.  One of the common denominators among these politicians is their use of “othering” techniques that utilize empathy for some victims and not others. They evoke a sense of hate toward some victims (such as the parents of school shootings) and portray them as liars, thus othering them. This results in what’s been called selective empathy, which not only creates division, but it also creates a major distraction around important issues that the world so desperately needs to focus on, like climate change, poverty, clean energy — basically all of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.


The Ethics of Empathy 

So is empathy a useful tool for effecting change? Yes. Is it a tool that can be misused or exploited? Yes. Can empathy create more problems than it set out to solve? Yes, yes, and yes. When used as a core part of decision making, consciously or not, empathy can lead to positive, negative, and even immoral outcomes.

So what should we do with empathy? Use it well. Like any knowledge, knowing how something works should inform us on how to ensure we use it well, with respect and integrity, which is critical in the case of empathy. This means empathy should always be served with a good helping of ethics. Considering the ethical implications of triggering an empathetic response, or extracting responses based on empathy triggers in people, should, like all other aspects of our social conduct, be used in ways that don't manipulate, exploit, or create suffering in those around us. Of course, this Utopian view of ethical empathy use is far from the reality, but the case for ditching the fake one-dimensional version of empathy used by marketing and business development people is the first step in getting over the tragic empathy milking that occurs in the name of sales and profits. And for our day-to-day interactions with other humans, perhaps we should leverage compassion instead.

-----

At UnSchool Online we offer a host of deep dive classes into topics like ethics and empathy, cognitive bias, and systems thinking. You can also to level up your leadership and creative change making skills.

Week 7: What happened in Cape Town?

unschool cape town fellowship

By Emma Segal

I had the pleasure of being the lead educator on the 9th UnSchool Emerging Leaders Fellowship program when we took it to the beautiful city of Cape Town, South Africa, in May 2018. You may remember that this was right around the time that some of the city water supply was about to be shut off, due in part to lack of rain and subsequent reservoir shortages, along with a host of other issues. It was a bit of a stressful time, but at the UnSchool, we seem to have an unintended habit of running programs in extreme scenarios. For example, our Christchurch fellowship happened right after a major earthquake, and we’ve had cars stolen and venues flooded — so we are no strangers to a  rapid reorientation due to unforeseen circumstances!

 
cape town fellowship group
 

Our on-the-ground local co-producers in Cape Town consulted with their government contacts, and we were encouraged to go ahead with the fellowship, but with strict water conservation policies in place. The Cape Town program had 10 local and 7 international fellows join us, along with an inspiring array of mentors, for an incredible 7-day adventure in this fascinating and complex city in which we explored the dynamics of systems change, sustainability, and how to make a positive impact.

I’t’s been a year, so I caught up with a few of our very busy fellows last week to find out what they have been up to this past year and see how the fellowship has impacted them. I’ll share their updates along with what we got up to that week, as it was quite an adventure!

But first, check out the incredible video that highlights everything we packed into the 7 days!

We kicked off the week with local team members Thessa and Wisaal giving us a walking tour history lesson of the city as we made our way to District Six Museum, a community co-creation storytelling project about the aparthaid effects in this area. We then evoked our UnSchool tradition of discovering more about our own stories and history through mini-pecha kucha style rapid 3 min personal storytelling, after which I led our first knowledge session on sustainability (we dive in quick!), followed by a much-needed brain-refueling, delicious, plant-based dinner, served family style at a local Ethiopian restaurant.

District Six Museum

District Six Museum

Pecha Kuchas

Pecha Kuchas

Day two had us run through a teleconference session with UnSchool founder Leyla Acaroglu (calling in from our other on-going and newly launched project, CO Project), and a lively and engaging systems thinking and mapping session. These types of skills have since come in use for fellow Tim, who says that since the fellowship, “In all projects that I tackle now, I look forward to researching the problem, really getting stuck with the problem, and utilizing the systems thinking concepts to form more nuanced and, hopefully, effective solutions from the process.”

Exploring systems through UnSchool style systems mapping

Exploring systems through UnSchool style systems mapping

Sharing the results of the systems mapping session

Sharing the results of the systems mapping session

After one of our by now famous plant-based lunch feasts, we headed off to learn from Emile YX who works with youth through hip hop and dance, providing a place to grow and explore identity and career opportunities through the arts. This active session was followed by a beautiful communal dinner offered to us by Zaayan and her family in their home, where we made traditional snacks together while learning about Ramadan and Zaayan’s activism work in food gathering and the way it connects us to each other and the planet.

Emile YX

Emile YX

One of Emile YX’s group showing us his moves before we all joined in

One of Emile YX’s group showing us his moves before we all joined in

Zaayan and her father greeting us into their home

Zaayan and her father greeting us into their home

Zaayan telling us the story of the food we made together

Zaayan telling us the story of the food we made together

Neha

Neha

Story sharing has been important in fellow Neha’s work as well, as she finds that, “This past year has been life changing. Post-Unschool, I have been more involved with sharing my knowledge with individuals at school, colleges, and at peer-group level”.  Her work in India has been focused lately on hemp, while her previous project used soot as a design material (and was showcased on the UnSchool DIF sessions last year!). This project sees her working with industrial hemp to make products using sustainable agriculture and artisan empowerment. Neha describes her work, saying, “I look after the fabric department called Hemp Fabric Lab. My job here is to enable the makers and creators to adopt this sustainable material — hemp. I have been able to apply my learnings to research, marketing, product development, sales, education etc.; in short, my role is multifaceted.”

Day three was a full brain activation day with a mentor session from Naadiya Moosaje on women in engineering, alternative forms of capital, and a rapid group prototyping session to find solutions based on issues presented in daily newspapers.

Naadiya talking to the group

Naadiya talking to the group

Rapid prototyping session led by Naadiya

Rapid prototyping session led by Naadiya

Following this, we had our afternoon packed with thoughtful conversation on the water issues in Cape Town, led by Bernelle Verster, a bioprocess engineer with a focus on dry toilets and human waste systems (everybody poops!). To really dive into the subject, we had a high energy verbal fight club group debate on dry vs wet toilets, trying on different roles and perspectives to form a variety of arguments.

Verbal fight club with Kausar and Johan in the centre

Verbal fight club with Kausar and Johan in the centre

Verbal fight club with Wafika and Sizwe in the centre

Verbal fight club with Wafika and Sizwe in the centre

This type of perspective shifting has continued to benefit Tim, who says that his experience during the fellowship “reframed my world view considerably. I feel I'm better at removing myself or my 'ego' from projects and facilitating/coaxing solutions to emerge from others involved in the project… I'm a lot more conscientious with including more voices in the Gippslandia newspaper that I edit.”

Day four saw us take another field trip, this time to visit Quirky30, led by Sihle Tshabalala to address the 52% youth unemployment issue through coding and tech education to meet the demand for these types of skills, while simultaneously reducing poverty-driven crime. We then dove into a collaborative ideation challenge with their students and our fellows, and had an amazing lunch together, prepared by a local community caterer (food is a big thing for us!).

Sihle Tshabalala

Sihle Tshabalala

The two groups in a lively ideation session

The two groups in a lively ideation session

We hopped back on our bus and headed into the center of the city to meet social change architect Mokena Makeka, who introduced us to the ways he has been making positive social change through his building designs. He led us on a tour to check it out in person.

Mokena shows us around the redesigned train station

Mokena shows us around the redesigned train station

Discussing the impact of architecture at the base of the Museum of Contemporary Art Afrika

Discussing the impact of architecture at the base of the Museum of Contemporary Art Afrika

The Cape Town UnSchool team (pictured from left, Andi, Vanessa, Wisaal, Vicky, myself, Camila and Thessa).

The Cape Town UnSchool team (pictured from left, Andi, Vanessa, Wisaal, Vicky, myself, Camila and Thessa).

These types of experiential and deep dive sessions are unique experiences not only for the fellows, but for team members on the fellowship as well. Previous fellow from Mumbai and co-host for Cape Town, Camila, found that, “The UnSchool has set a high standard of what is sustainability, and how it ought to be taught. Through UnSchool, I understood the importance of design as a social scripter, not knowing anything really about design before. Learning the importance of how people will interact with what you try to communicate and has also given me the vocabulary and the hard facts on personal agency.”

Volunteering or working on a Fellowship is a great way to gain community points towards certification and get a behind-the-scenes look at how we put together our unique programs. While Camila is finishing up her Masters degree this spring, she will be returning to the UnSchool for “the types of skills and professional development, which again even after my Masters, I don’t see that type of learning in any other place.”

Day five was launched by Vuyisa Quabaka and the practical aspects of building, running, and succeeding in social change entrepreneurship. His extensive knowledge helped kick off a group ideation and investability session. Often put to the side when doing social or environmental work, being able to have a financially and ethically sustainable business model is critical to being able to keep doing good work and getting positive shit done!

 
Vuyisa Quabaka:  “I work with inspired people”

Vuyisa Quabaka: “I work with inspired people”

 

Alumni Zoe is putting her skills to work as she starts two new projects. She has been appointed to help facilitate and design interventions for the UCT Futures Think Tank to explore how the way they do their work, and how it should change to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world within the South African context, as well as being involved with Open Design Afrika who has launched a number of projects with the aim of building capacity and creating systemic change and social cohesion in Africa with creativity. She highlights that she finds, “Both of these experiences are helping to fill in that feeling of 'more' I was looking for after the fellowship.”

I then led the afternoon session on life cycle thinking, and sustainable design considerations when putting new things into the world, or engaging with those that exist. This is different than life cycle analysis (LCA), and provides anyone the tools to deeply understand how things are made and handled throughout their life. Alyssa remarked at the time that, “today’s Unschool Life Cycle thinking workshop is blowing my mind right now. How many things go into manufacturing a pair of shoes for instance? We have an end of life bias where we tend to focus on the landfill, reusing and recycling in terms of sustainability. But what about how our products are made, and all the parts of the system that contribute to the last product you bought? There is no code of ethics for designers and the potential destructive impact they can have with their designs.” She continued to explore this issue through an MBA in Design Strategy over the past year, having just finished up with a thesis project focusing on reducing single use packaging in grocery stores.

image of me and the group during the LCT session courtesy of fellow Alyssa Burtt.

image of me and the group during the LCT session courtesy of fellow Alyssa Burtt.

Deep diving into some of the objects we are surrounded by.

Deep diving into some of the objects we are surrounded by.

We worked as a group on investigating some of these common objects to get a deeper understanding of the systems that surround us. Alumni Saleemah also mentioned this session when caught up, reflecting that, “The thing that really stuck with me from the Unschool Fellowship is life cycle thinking. I'm working with a global educational NPO, and I use this approach for all projects, initiatives, and operations — it's been life-changing”.

The afternoon was capped off with another teleconference with Leyla on cognitive biases and an overview of the Disruptive Design Method. Neha has found the week to resonate with her professionally, noting that, “After UnSchool, the Disruptive Design Method have become ingrained in my design processes. I feel my method and approach of problem solving irrespective of the magnitude of the problem has changed towards a more holistic approach.” After the week’s download, a much- needed quiet writing and reflection time gave us all a moment to synthesize and digest our experiences thus far. Before everyone left for the day, briefs for the challenge were handed out, and everyone got excited to get started with their groups the next day.

getting ready for the next day

Day six was full of excitement as the teams arrived to dig into their positive future-framed challenge. They each ran through the Disruptive Design Method to identify and mine the issues they were working on in their teams, fueled by the tools they’d learned through the week and a steady stream of snacks and brain-friendly food.

The UnSchool team of Thessa, Wisaal, Vanessa, Andy, and I circulated through each of the teams to provide feedback, additional perspectives, idea prodding, local context from our Cape Town producers for those not from South Africa, and a late night sundae bar for extra energy. This real world application practice came in handy for Zoe later in the year when, “After the fellowship, I spent many months trying to work out how I could apply what I learnt to my big corporate world. I was optimistic about the change I could make and saw an opportunity to focus on sustainability as my angle (leveraging off the companies’ interest in design).”

Perris works late with her team to navigate the complexities

Perris works late with her team to navigate the complexities

Teams system mapping their way to new ideas

Teams system mapping their way to new ideas

The day wrapped up late, and everyone arrived early the next day for early morning practice presentations in front of the team including Leyla dialing in from the farm, curious to see what everyone had come up with. The afternoon saw each of the teams have time to present their ideas, with a community feedback session and group voting for the top choice based on viability, change potential, and community. Tim pointed out that this type of group collab “really stoked a passion for collaborating in cross-cultural and multidisciplinary groups too, something that is key to our thr34d5.org strategic design studio”.

One of the teams presenting during the 24hr Challenge

One of the teams presenting during the 24hr Challenge

All the fellows are now part of a wider UnSchool alumni community that offers the opportunity to connect with each other, a key benefit to all the Fellowships. Tim says that it was a “mega bonus that I got to meet Zoe, and she's a legend. We now get to shoot the breeze on lots of cool initiatives that we are exposed to, and she inspires the shit outta me.” Last month, Zoe was asked to go back to her old high school to serve as their Designer in Residence. Over two days, she taught eight grade 9-11 classes an intro to systems thinking (with a shout out to the UnSchool!). She shared that the aim was to show them “a bit of the world of design beyond what they're learning — architecture, graphic/ fashion/ product design, etc.” and she mentioned she got Tim “to co-facilitate with me which was really fun, and I'm glad we've remained such good friends since the fellowship!

Neha also has felt the momentum of the wider community, sharing, “Change makers from different walks of life have really inspired me in multiple ways. I feel nothing is impossible. I can make a difference in my own way and that one should not be restricted by an idea but should explore methods to expand the application.

Tiahnah and the group write down their reflections on each day before we close with a group reflection session and celebratory drinks and food

Tiahnah and the group write down their reflections on each day before we close with a group reflection session and celebratory drinks and food

Kausar and Saleemah celebrating the wrap up of the fellowship with South Africa’s national flower, the impressive Protea

Kausar and Saleemah celebrating the wrap up of the fellowship with South Africa’s national flower, the impressive Protea

Alyssa also reflected on her decision to come to Cape Town on her Instagram at the time, saying “It’s been such an epic week! Our 24 hr design challenge was fun and mind bending as we tried out the systems mapping and Disruptive Design skills to find a solution of our own design to a systemic problem we identify…. I’m so glad I signed up and traveled so far for this experience. It’s really been mind altering and eye opening, and the incredibly smart and diverse group of people I met have touched me deeply. It may be the end of our week together, but this is just the beginning!”

The fellowship week ended with a birthday celebration and group reflection on the experience. If you would like to read more (yes there is even MORE!) about this fellowship or any of our past 9 editions, then check out each day in detail on the blog!

 
High fives for positive change at the UnSchool!

High fives for positive change at the UnSchool!

 

Join our next fellowship!

Do you want to join our always growing and active community of social and environmental creative change-makers? We have just announced our 10th Emerging Leaders Fellowship program, happening November 17th-23rd in Kuching, Malaysia! If you want to be one of the 20 people selected to join us on a 7-day intensive adventure into all things sustainability and systems change, then get your application in today! Applications open now until July 12 > 

WEEK 1: One Person Can't Save the World, but Everyone Can Change It

Journal1a.png

By Leyla Acaroglu

Our lives are made up of actions that come about as a result of choices that we often make based on the available information we have on hand.

So when someone sees a tsunami of problems presented to them day in day out by the mainstream and now social media, it's easy to assume that these issues are disconnected to us, that poverty or environmental problems are the outcome of poor policy decisions, or even someone else's bad choices.

From a young age we are taught cause and effect; we intuitively know that every choice has ramifications. If you turn on a tap to get water, it only flows because there is an entire system that has been set up to enable it to do so. This is made painfully obvious when, for whatever reason, the water doesn't flow. Say you forget to pay your water bill, or a pipe bursts due to traffic work somewhere down the street, and suddenly you are confronted with a system impact that is an immediate loss of something that you are used to being always available to you. There are actions you can take to remedy this situation, like calling the water company or paying your bill if you have the means to do so. But, when it comes to bigger issues outside of your immediate control, the actions an individual can take to remedy the situation are less obvious and often far from the mind's ability to contribute constructively — so it chooses to avoid the issue instead.

We live on a planet that is intrinsically interconnected; we breathe in the byproduct of photosynthesis, which in turn oxygenates our blood and allows us to breathe out carbon to contribute to the cycle continuing. Each one of us, no matter how big or small our sphere of influence is, has an impact on the world around us. Everything we use, say, do — it all has the potential to unintentionally cause a negative impact or intentionally have a positive one, and that is why being equipped with the tools for making systems change is so fundamental in overcoming the reductive avoidance that so many people opt into.

AndBreathe.png

Know it or not, our lives are marked by change — changes that we can’t avoid.

For example, age: each birthday, the age we define ourselves by goes up by one.

  • Hair: it grows, goes gray, is lost, and in some cases, grows in very odd places.

  • Weather: it gets colder, hotter, and even more so nowadays, it's getting weirder.

  • Life aspirations: if you followed the dreams of your five year old self, you may be a miniature dragon doctor now.  

  • Opinions: every other day they should change.

  • Days: like seven times a week they change.

  • Lovers: insert your time frame here _____, but what we love changes over time as we grow and evolve as humans.

Change is the one constant in life (thanks Heraclitus for this great quote). We are all changing constantly, and the world we interact day in day out, changes us.

It’s less often that you are saving things. Like maybe you saved a baby from a burning building in your dreams (or in real life if you are a firefighter perhaps?), or you may have recently saved a breakable item from smashing on the floor. You may even be one of those people who is good at saving money. But changing is way more common than saving, so let's get this straight. YOU, yes you, you change the world every single day that you are alive, and in turn, the world changes you. You are in an interdependent relationship with a bunch of systems and hidden processes that you may not have any idea about, and together, we are going to uncover what they are, how they work, and why you can help change them by activating your creative capacity and leadership so that you can contribute to helping the world works better for all of us.

The saying “change is hard” is often used as an excuse for not taking action or deflecting responsibility to other parts of the system. But everything worth doing requires work, and if the systems changes needed were easy, then they would have been done already. Easy solutions to complex problems often lead right back into the problem —  that's one of the basic tenets of a systems mindset, and one of the core things we teach at the UnSchool.

You can't make change unless you know what needs to be changed. Just like you don't know what you don't know until you discover that you don't know it!

I started the UnSchool to help people like you. It’s all about providing tools to help redesign the world through creative systems change. I know that it's not possible for any one person to suddenly save the entire world, and nor should be the responsibility for anyone to do so, but it is certainly the case that every single person can change it. In fact, the world does not need ‘saving’ — it is us humans that need a salvation, given the hyper-consumption fueled constant-growth mindset that has permeated modern societies at the expense of the systems that sustain us and the values that maintain our species’ success!

The power to make change lies in our personal ability to see our own agency and opportunity for for creative leadership and to then make intentional choices about how we will activate the influence we organically have on the world around us, while working on enhancing this to a point where we can actively make more positive systems change.  

One of the reasons I started the UnSchool almost five years ago, was to connect and encourage a global community of rebellious creatives willing to activate their agency for sustainable and regenerative future. It’s for all the people who are deeply passionate about contributing to changing the way we humans treat and interact with the world, so that we offer back more then we take.

All the tools and resources that I create are intended to support people agentizing themselves to be positively disruptive change-makers, rather than passive observers, participants, or even complainers of the status quo.

Developing healthy critical thinking, reflexivity, a systems mindset, and a problem-loving attitude are all fundamentals to increasing your capacity to take action and to contribute to needed systems change. To be able to see the relationships between things that occur provides the foundations for moving from blame to understanding, which in turn supports the development of a problem-loving mindset.

Over the last 15 years of working in sustainability and cultural change, I have met way too many people who say that they are trying to solve problems when, in fact, they are reinforcing them by not choosing to understand the relationships and hidden aspects that make them exist to begin with. This reductive linear thinking plagues decision making and is one of the fundamental reasons that problem solving needs systems thinking.

I made a choice to dedicate my career to figuring out how to contribute to effective positive change and how to overcome the reductive mindset that disempowers and disables, while being a problem lover, systems explorer, and supporter of regenerative and sustainable change. To further support changemakers developing their own learning journeys and discoveries. That’s why I am so proud and excited to share the new certification systems (UnSchool style) that we have developed. The three advanced learning UnSchool systems are self-directed learning journeys into activating positive change, as a Practitioner, UnMasters or Educator.

Of course you don't need to come to the UnSchool to make change! But if you want the support and want to become more agentized around creative leadership, systems, sustainability, and design, then we have short or long-form classes for you to help change and not save the beautiful planet we all share!