What fills you with wonder? What do you wonder about? These different, but related questions were posed often during the TED event last week. The annual TED event that I attended was organized around the broad theme of the rediscovery of wonder.
As always, TED catalyzed deep thinking and deep emotion as I navigated through awesome sessions and stimulating conversations lasting late into the night. Before too much time passes, I want to step back and reflect on what fills me with wonder. It was only peripherally addressed in the TED sessions, but like many catalysts it helped to coalesce and amplify some thoughts that have been coming together over the past couple of months.
I am filled with wonder by many things, but in recent days I have been especially awed by the revolution that is taking shape before our very eyes. It has been gathering force for quite some time but it began to erupt in a serious way with the intensifying turmoil in the Middle East. Most people observing these events from the outside have been guardedly optimistic that these revolutions will be a peaceful force for change in the Middle East.
They seriously under-estimate what is going on. We are witnessing one dimension of the Big Shift that will shake and shape our world in ways that we can only begin to imagine.
The convergence of edges
How to describe this dimension of the Big Shift? It is the convergence of multiple edges, erupting with a force that will be felt in the most distant parts of our globe. What do I mean? The force of this eruption is shaped by three edges coming together: geographic, generational and technological.
- The Middle East and North Africa is a geographic edge defined by the intersection of three continents. In economic terms, this region is part of the developing economies operating on the edge of more developed economies.
- This region containing a large and very rapidly growing concentration of a well educated younger generation - a generational edge. These young people has been systematically excluded from meaningful jobs capable of developing their talents. Growing unemployment rates within the younger generation have been the catalyst to set the movement in motion.
- That younger generation has embraced new technological edges – especially the Internet and online social networks – to connect in ways that had not been feasible before, not just within their individual countries, but across the region. They have shared news and inspiration in ways that gave them the courage to proceed and helped them to focus the attention of the rest of the world on their quest.
It is an explosive convergence. One of the many things about it that fill me with wonder is that so far has been playing out with minimal violence from the youth movement. They are simply gathering in ever larger numbers to demand an end to regimes that have blocked them from expressing themselves and from pursuing meaningful work. Their example of conviction, courage and commitment has pulled others into the streets and squares, not just in their own countries but in a spreading ring of countries in the region.
Why the youth?
Who knows how far this will spread in the short-term? It may not spread too widely at the outset as leaders of a growing range of countries mobilize around a pincer movement of military deployments and “reforms” to try to preempt similar uprisings. But this I know. In the long-term, this movement will prevail, catalyzing cascades of change in countries occupying the geographic edge and ultimately spreading into the core of the developed economies.
So, what gives this movement the power to prevail in the long-term in the face of military forces that seek to preserve the status quo? Well, let’s start with the fact that these military forces largely consist of a younger generation who share the same frustrations of their brothers and sisters (sometimes literally) facing them in the streets and squares. And then let’s add in the growing confidence that comes with the demonstrated ability to make change happen.
But those are not the real reasons. This movement is giving voice to something that is profoundly global. You see, the older generation that I belong to has systematically opted for limited, short-term benefits at the expense of sustainable, long-term growth and prosperity. We have done this in multiple ways that, in aggregate, have put up global barriers to progress for the younger generation. These barriers include
- Widespread corruption
- Rapidly mounting government debt
- Environmental degradation that generates increasingly harmful long-term effects
Now, the relative importance of these barriers differs depending on the part of the world we are in. As a broad generalization, youth in the developing economies suffer most from the first two barriers while the youth from developed economies feel the effect of the last two barriers the most. The youth in natural resource rich countries around the world confront the first and third barriers most severely. But wherever we are in the world, these conditions are not sustainable.
To put it in Marxist terms (and, no, I am not a Marxist, or even a Hegelian), the subjective conditions are aligning with the objective conditions. Youth, led by those in the Middle East, are beginning to wake up to the realization that they are inheriting a world that is simply not sustainable. When subjective conditions align with objective conditions, revolution generally ensues. And, if I am right about the global presence of objective conditions, the revolution will eventually spread as younger generations around the world wake up to the lack of sustainability in every country.
The agenda for change
The spreading youth-driven revolution will have three agenda items:
- The first item on their agenda will be to confront and oppose the obstacles to sustainability that have been put in their way by the older generation.
- But in order to do that, they will have to embark on a more positive journey – an effort to re-think all of our institutions through the lens of talent development. If we took seriously the priority of accelerating talent development and realized that education and training programs are only a small part of the answer, how would all of our institutions need to change to become platforms for talent development? What would corporations, schools, NGO’s and government agencies look like? What would be required to foster a new culture of learning?
- And that leads to a third item, how would we re-think public policy - all public policy, not just education - through the lens of talent development? What public policies would we adopt in areas like immigration, trade, financial regulation, intellectual property, etc. if our goal were really to accelerate talent development?
Few, if any, of the youth rebels in the Middle East are explicitly focused at this point on the broader issue of talent development. They have more immediate obstacles to address. But this is the natural issue for youth – they have the most to gain from talent development – and the most to lose if they simply have to fall back on what they learned in school. The world is changing too rapidly to compress learning into a few years of prescribed courses that will barely prepare them for the world of today, much less the world of tomorrow. With most of their lives ahead of them, they will be the most at risk if they don’t address these needs quickly and effectively.
Accelerated talent development will also be required to effectively overcome the enormous burdens that our generation has placed upon the shoulders of the younger generation. These are global and complex issues – wicked problems. The younger generation has no hope of resolving them if they do not come together and collectively focus on talent development. They need to get better faster by working together.
The deep forces driving the revolution
This revolution is taking shape on the edge. That is where all true revolutions begin. It is easy to dismiss or diminish in importance because it is "over there", just as Mubarak a short time ago dismissed the youth of Egypt gathered in Internet cafes and around their mobile phones, far from the centers of power in Cairo. But the core is never safe as revolutions gather force. If the revolution is shaped by fundamental forces, it will ultimately prevail, even in the core. The older generation in power in the developed economies of the world, muttering about their sons and daughters spending all their time online, will not see it coming until it is too late.
And this revolution is shaped by fundamental forces. We are living in a world where flow will prevail and topple any obstacles in its way. As flow gains momentum, it underdemines the precious knowledge stocks that in the past gave us security and wealth. It calls us to learn faster by working together and to pull out of ourselves more of our true potential, both individually and collectively. It excites us with the possibilities that can only be realized by participating in a broadeer range of flows. That is the essence of the Big Shift.
A couple of years ago, I offered a Manifesto for Passionate Creatives. Perhaps it is time for a broader manifesto for the younger generation seeking to throw off the shackles of the older generation.
The TED question
These thoughts were stimulated by a variety of the talks I heard at TED over the past week. In particular, Wadah Khanfar, the head of Al Jazeera, gave an eloquent view of the bravery of the youth movement in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Salman Khan, a former hedge fund analyst, talked about the revolution he is leading from the edge in the world of education to foster student-driven learning. Sarah Kay, a woman in her early twenties, took my breath away with the passion and energy that surged forth from her spoken word poetry. And finally, Roger Ebert, one of my heroes, moved me to tears with his grace, humor and passion in the face of debilitating illness that has stolen his voice. Eyes twinkling, he shared with us his quest to find a synthetic voice that would make it possible for him to speak again – he simply would not surrender his voice. There were more, many more experiences at TED but these stand out in terms of the passion, commitment and courage that will stoke the fires of the global revolution ahead.
In the face of all of this, it amazes me that so many in the US are focused on the latest rant of Charlie Sheen rather than the events in the Middle East. Many of us seem to be mesmerized by the progressive breakdown of a human being. Perhaps he is an unconscious symbol for many of us of the progressive breakdown of a social order that is not sustainable. It is time that we shift our focus to the social order that is struggling to emerge from the corruption, debt and environmental degradation that saps the energy of our planet. It is time for all of us to ask what can we do to help? That is the question that TED left me with this year.