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Choosing Optimism in the Polycrisis Era

Power of Ideas
Choosing Optimism in the Polycrisis Era

In the era of the polycrisis, there is a myriad of important issues to address. We see war, repression, modern slavery, inequality, climate disasters, pandemics.

Henry David Thoreau once remarked, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” I don’t want to be seen as a branch-hacker, but with such a tangled web of cause and effect, can we honestly identify the root causes of our greatest challenges?

As I travel the world, stopping at almost every major airport, my experiences are of genuine positivity—a picture that is far from what is painted in today’s headlines. I see people working hard and being kind to one another. I see resilience after a global pandemic. I see passion and care for the world and the people in it. What I see is...hope.

Hope and conviction may be the only strategy. Collective action and innovation will be our currency.

When speaking with business leaders, I’ve often heard (and sometimes repeated) that “hope isn’t a strategy.” This is, of course, meant to be a warning against sloppy planning. But, as the famous explorer Robert Swan said, “The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.” What I’m advocating is not blind faith or an abdication of our responsibility. Quite the opposite. I think we must envision a future-focused strategy based on hope—proactive and positive, ambitious and rigorous, profitable and people-centric. When dealing with the problems humanity faces, hope and conviction may be the only strategy. Collective action and innovation will be our currency.

There are three interconnected arenas that need to move in concert in order for sustained progress to occur: policy, the economy, and the individual. If we’re going to try to solve our challenges, we have to consider how to create the necessary mindset and behavioral shift to play a bigger game in each of these areas.

Policymakers

At the policy level, we need clear, robust pathways and support for long-term prosperity. This requires informed policymakers with a deep understanding of the real world and the courage to lean into the dynamism of the market economy. Policymakers can’t do this alone; leaders from across the ecosystem must become allies, helping to educate and influence government and policy decisions that will drive real outcomes aligned with shared goals.

Economic Actors

Beyond supporting policymakers, economic actors have to build resilience and adaptability into their business models. While we can never forget that capitalism has been a key ingredient in a great acceleration that humanity has witnessed over the past century, we are now experiencing a great transition brought on by the rise of stakeholder capitalism—and it carries huge potential as it matures. To operate in this new model, economic actors must be honest with themselves about their misalignments and commit to not just moving money but investing it—and more importantly, investing it over longer time horizons.

Individuals

In 1903, Hellen Keller wrote a book called Optimism. If you haven’t read it, you may be imagining a book about the positivity in everyday moments. Instead, Keller, a woman who could not see, hear, or speak, writes a publication exploring optimism across peoples, nations, and leaders. This story is a reminder that optimism is a choice.

While it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by humanity’s greatest challenges, letting that feeling lead to despondency or despair is shirking our responsibility. For individuals to do their part, they must choose to work hard and trust more. Choose to replace judgment with curiosity. Choose to get out of their comfort zone and take action. Choose optimism.

If there is a common thread between these, it is the idea that each of us must reflect on the balance between the limits of our agency and our duty to the system in which we operate. Yes, democracy is in trouble, but it always has been. It’s messy and complex, and also beautifully designed to evolve and improve and evolve again. My request of you is that you simply ask yourself, how can you play a bigger game to shape it? What is your gift to give?