For about a decade now I’ve been opening my keynotes and workshops in pretty much the same way:
“Hi, I’m Cameron, and you may not like everything I have to say – and that’s ok. In fact, by the time I’m done, you may not even like me, and that’s ok too. I’m not here to make friends, although I’m certainly open to it. What I’m here to do is to tell the Truth, as uncomfortable as it may be hear.”
And it would pretty much go downhill from there.
I’ve made a reputation for myself over the past twenty years by being ‘that guy’ – you know, the one who sees a sacred cow and tries to figure out how to make a hamburger out of it? That’s me.
‘Fierce angel’, one of my friends and clients once said, and I felt good about preening my wings, polishing my armour, and suiting up for battle. I branded myself ‘uncompromise‘, and went out into the world in a fairly constant state of holy fury.
My belief for a long time has been “we need to stop being so nice; we need to stop being so diplomatic; we need to get outraged, and mobilise, with great force, in order to ensure the continuation of the human species”. I raged, and ranted, and ferociously attacked what seemed to be wilfully stupid ideas that squandered resources, and left people and planet significantly worse as a result. And nowhere was my ire felt more forcefully than when turned upon our market itself.
But in recent times, as I’ve been contemplating my own journey over the past twenty five years and wondering what the next twenty five will look like, I’ve found myself returning, again and again, to a conversation that I’ve been in with myself for quite some time.
I have less and less interest in the small answers to the big questions,
the simple and naive responses to the complex issues,
and the overly complex answers to the most easily answerable questions,
the well-intentioned, ill-informed self-perpetuating rhetoric masquerading as meaningful action,
the hijacking of compassion by seeming-intellect,
and the dulling of intellect by seeming-compassion,
the unintended arrogance and unhelpful humility of those who know less or more,
or have lesser or greater capacity than they declare,
the white-white-whiteness of the world despite our kaleidoscope of skins,
the diametric opposition of our various isms,
the deification of (celebrity) change-makers,
the abandoning of the tried, tested and true in favour of the new,
and the dogmatic adherence to the status-quo in the face of better information,
the abject foolishness of ideas of control, and the abandonment of empathetic, generative and effective action due to pseudo-spiritual notions of the perfection-of-everything,
the addiction to information and the abandonment of being informed,
the notion that humans are more or less important than any other species.
Mostly I have less and less interest in how I embody these confusions, these inconsistencies, these hypocrisies.
What I AM interested in is you. Not this seemingly singular you, this seemingly separate you, this limited, finite, ultimately endable you. I am interested in the collective you, the absolute you, the you that never ends.
I want to know you and I want you to know me.
And if, in our knowing of each other, we realise that we are one and the same, perhaps then, perhaps only then, can we come to peace … after all, once we know, not intellectually but absolutely, uncompromisingly, viscerally, that who we are is what lies beneath our seeming-separation, perhaps then, perhaps only then, we might stop doing violence to ourselves.
While there are many words I could use to describe myself, and many that are used to describe me – both flattering, and not so much – I want to start with what engineers call ‘first principals’. I want to start where I started, where we all started, and where I feel we need to return if we are to survive the unparalleled crises that we face as a species.
I am Cameron, and I am human.
I am Cameron. I am a speaker, facilitator, mentor, strategist, entrepreneur, investor, advisor, writer, musician, poet, man, partner, lover, brother, uncle and son.
But before all that, I am Cameron, and I am human.
I’ve travelled all over the world, speaking at conferences, connecting with politicians, entrepreneurs, academics, and non-profit leaders. I’ve written strategy, and raised money for projects of all sizes. I’ve visited some of the more uncomfortable parts of the world. I’ve slept on bare concrete floors, in truck stops, in the back of cars, in the back of conference halls, at airports, on trains, and sometimes standing up. I’ve walked through monsoons. I’ve hitched through the desert, and even across oceans. I’ve argued, and fought, and hunted with tribes-people. I’ve been robbed. I’ve been drugged. I’ve been beaten.
I’ve been invited into the homes of people all over the world. I, who have so much, have been gifted so much, by those who have so little. I have had my assumptions tested. I have seen my theories collapse. I have said and done some truly stupid things, and somehow scraped through with another chapter for the book.
For over twenty years now, I have been inspired by Buckminster Fuller who lived in response to his own enquiry of ‘what one man can do’. And as I have wandered purposefully about the planet – like Kane in Kung Fu – I have discovered that the thing that binds us together, even though we don’t talk about it all that much, is our humanity. Obvious, perhaps, but perhaps not so obvious when you pause and reflect on the state of the world. When we get behind closed doors, when we step out of the conference halls, and the expos, when we get up close and personal with each other and stop talking about theories of change, and new legal forms, and the role of government, and the future of philanthropy, and impact investing – when we get beyond all of that, what we are left with is our humanity. Our struggle to be of service. Our struggle to balance mission, and money. Our struggle to be good partners, good friends, good people. Our struggle to take care of ourselves when we are so busy taking care of others. Our struggle to balance our own very human needs, with the needs of those we seek to serve.
And that, quite frankly, is why we are here, and surprisingly, is the thing we tend to spend the least amount of time talking about.
We don’t talk about love. We don’t talk about compassion. We don’t talk about empathy. We don’t talk about how we can be better people, while we strive to make a better world. We are angry. We are judgemental. We are impatient.
We think of the world in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’. We behave as if the ends always justifies the means. We talk about the law, and finance, and government. We talk about scale. We talk about success, without ever really defining it, and we pursue it like a pack of greyhounds chasing a rabbit around a track.
Now imagine, if for just one day, we gave ourselves permission to be human. Imagine if we gave ourselves permission to screw up. Imagine if we gave ourselves permission to just tell the truth. Imagine if, for just one day, we gave ourselves, each other, and the world at large, the gift of our own humanity. Imagine that, if you will, for just a moment or two.
Who would you be if you were authentically human? What would you do, and what would you stop doing? What conversations would you have, and what ones would you end? How would you show up in your work? How would you show up in your world? How would the world be different if we gave ourselves and each other permission to be human?
Do you think there might be a little more patience in some areas that require it, and a little more urgency in others? Do you think there might be a little more caution in how we spend our time and our money, while also a greater appetite for risk in others? Do you think there might possibly be a little more haste with which changes to the tax code, the institution of new legal forms, the creation of investment incentives, and innovations funds, and good works are done? Do you think there might be a little less politicisation of change? How about a little less debating on the metrics of change, and just a whole lot more doing of it?
How would the work that we’re all doing be different if we put ourselves forward as humans first?
Frankly, I think it’s the fundamental consideration.
Innovation means being creative. Innovation means taking risks. Innovation means making mistakes. Innovation means failure. Innovation demands an unwillingness to accept the status quo, and a relentless demand for ‘improvement’. And let’s be clear, innovation and commercialisation are not two sides of the same coin. Creativity and innovation are. Commercialisation is an end point, not *the* end point of innovation. Commercialisation is not the *point* of innovation. Change is. Improvement is. The end goal of innovation is not profit. The end goal of innovation is ‘better’.
Someone much wiser than me once said ‘today’s heresy is tomorrow’s orthodoxy’, and I believe, that when we’re in a conversation about innovation, we would do well to remember this. Todays heresy is tomorrow’s orthodoxy.
I live in San Francisco, which is considered to be one of the most innovative cities in the world. In fact, the entire Bay Area has the highest density of compassionate, intelligent, wealthy, politically active, world-changing people of anywhere I’ve ever been. San Francisco is a mecca for people like us because, it seems, they get it. But do you know why so many great innovations come out of the Bay Area? Well, it’s due to a number of factors, one of which, I believe, is more important than any other.
It’s not only because there are so many smart people there – although that helps. But there are smart people everywhere. It’s not because there is so much money there – although that helps as well. But there are plenty of wealthy cities, and the global economy is around $40 trillion, so it can’t just be about money, either.
It’s not because of the quality of education, although Berkeley University and Stanford are pretty exceptional universities. But Australia’s universities consistently rank amongst the highest in the world, so it can’t just be education either, can it?
Culture and community are both significant contributors to the creativity of the Bay Area in general. Between Burning Man, the hippy movement, the grateful dead, the black panthers, Esalen, Effective Altruism and the maker movement, as well as a vast and far ranging set of cultural experiments and progressions, there’s no doubt that there’s something special going on there.
And Logan is one of the most multi-cultural cities in the country, with a relatively strong sense of community, so we have that too.
in fact, with the exception of one significant element, all of the primary elements for turning this city, Logan, into a globally respected innovation hub, are already present.
But here’s the kicker, and this is where government and industry, need to step up their game.
The thing that makes San Francisco and the Bay Area a global hub of innovation, is the billions of dollars and hundreds of millions of hours a year, every year, year after year, that get flushed down the toilet making mistakes.
Permission to be human means the permission to make mistakes. Accelerating the pace of innovation means accelerating the pace of screwing up, and being prepared to burn real time, and real money along the way. In the absence of a thriving venture-capital eco-system, the government has a responsibility to fund innovation, and to do so in a way that is about purposefully and powerfully failing forward toward success. And we MUST eliminate the utterly arbitrary nature of grant-making to non-profits only.
Most importantly, we need to stop demanding that the only way our best and brightest can rise to their highest potential is to take their talent, their inspiration, and their capacity to make a real difference in the world, and leave behind friends, family and community and move to somewhere else.
It’s the 21st Century. Let’s create a field of tall poppies. Let’s fix the NBN. Let’s not make innovation a ministry, and subject to politicisation, but a rallying cry at the the core of our political, economic, and social agenda so that when we run out of things to dig, suck and blow out of the ground, our young people actually have a future to look forward to.
We need to make peace with failure. We need to celebrate it.
In Australia, we have a low appetite for failure, and in my opinion, it’s because we have sacrificed our humanity on the altar of our intellect, and our belief in the myth of our own inviolability. Do you remember when Bob Hawke cried on national TV? I do! He was talking about his family problems, and he cried. And he was called out as being unfit to lead, But Brene Brown pops up on YouTube and suddenly it’s all about ‘vulnerability’ – unless you happen to be in business, or politics, or any real position of power, that is.
And conferences, expos and events, as much as they are part of the solution, can also be a part of the problem. And here’s why …. It goes something like this:
“Here is this person. They are awesome. Read their bio. It says they’re awesome. Go to their website. Their website says they (or their organisation), are awesome. Read the awesome testimonials, Look at the awesome photos. Read the awesome case studies. Consider, and be awed by, their awesomeness. Come and be in the presence of their awesome, and perhaps some of that awesomeness will be yours. There are many awesome people speaking. Here is the list. See how awesome they are?”
Well, here’s the truth – the unvarnished, unspeakable, unknowable truth. I’m human. I’ve failed, more than I’ve succeeded. I’ve made millions, and I’ve lost millions more. I’ve had business partnerships go disastrously wrong. I’ve Had personal ones go the same way. In fact, Ive lost more friends than I’ve made. I’ve started companies, and I’ve run them into the ground. I’ve made some very bad investments. I’ve felt sorry for myself. I’ve felt depressed. I’ve felt like ending it – more than once. I’ve broken my word. I’ve probably broken the law. I’ve definitely broken hearts.
I’m human. And you are too. And this is the first principal of this work, the first principal that we need to return to, every day. We need to be grounded in our humanity, and act from our humanity. We need to wake up every morning, stand in the mirror, and remind ourselves of who we are.
I am Cameron, and I am human.
This is where it all begins.
note: this is an edited transcript of the keynote I delivered for the 2016 Logan Social Enterprise Expo.