For most of my life I’ve been trying to save the world. Not because I’m particularly compassionate, or self-aware; not because I have the resources to do so, an innate capacity for grasping complex systems, or the arrogance to believe that I could actually be of lasting value. And not because I have the accidental privilege of being born into the race, gender, and sexuality that means the only problems I generally encounter are ones that are almost entirely of my own making.
Although some of that may be at least fractionally true.
I’ve spent my life trying to save the world because it was the only thing I knew to do to save myself.
For as long as I can remember I have been seeking salvation – at first for my transgressions against god, then against those whom I loved, and inevitably for my sins against myself. Consumed with understanding the roots of my suffering – real or imagined – I have engaged with anything I could to find peace.
I experimented with drugs in my teens; lived off the grid, and ran naked through the bush in the south west of Australia for almost six months not long after. And then I continued my walkabout for another three years – working odd jobs, front-line environmental campaigning, sleeping by fires, under the stars, on the beach, in the trees. I sang, and danced, and howled at the moon. I destroyed logging equipment, fixed cars, painted houses, and built fences. I hurled myself into the world – writing poetry, making music, forming friendships, exploring lovers.
I had a one word mantra. More.
Barefoot, bright-eyed, sun-burned. Thriving and alive. Shameless. Fearless. Clueless.
I wanted to know myself, and determined that the only way I could was to come as wildly and fully alive as I could. I engaged in a ruthless, relentless interrogation; reading, writing, meditating, sitting at the knee of listening.
Yet as free as I imagined myself, I was ensnared by my unseen privilege. I was tall, white, young, straight and male. The world was already mine. I didn’t know what it was like to live without, to be different, unknown, untrusted. I didn’t know what it was like to be ignored, invalidated, intimidated, or afraid. Doors opened before I even knocked. I had an all-access pass that was neither wanted, nor deserved, nor valued.
And then, in 1983, I found myself hitching 1000 kilometres to the most northerly point on mainland Australia- first with a truckie, then with a family, and finally with a young aboriginal guy who was heading all the way to the tip.
Cape York is a wild, and remote part of Australia, and the only permanent settlement is the small indigenous township of Bamaga – pop. 759.
I woke up, alone, in the pitch black, in an unlocked car, with the sound of a raging party in the distance. So I shrugged on my 40 litre pack – home for the better part of three years – and wandered off into the night.
Coming around the corner of a machine shed, I discovered over 100 Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islanders, and Papuans partying like there was no tomorrow. And not a single white face in sight.
Before I could react, I felt a hand press down on my shoulder, and I looked up into the face of the largest black man I’d ever encountered. He stared at me for a few seconds, then said:
“I guess you know how we feel now, don’t ya brother”.
He thrust a beer at me, and without removing his hand from my shoulder, guided me straight into the heart of the party. And while my presence was definitely noticed, nobody questioned my right to be there. A few months later, the Australian Federal Government approved its first native title claim, to Mera Island a couple of hundred miles east of Thursday Island (where I eventually wound up), and everything changed.
That night I was assaulted by a drunk islander, who hauled me half way over the bar, and bellowed at me to ‘get the fuck off his land’. I called him a racist, incensed that anybody should question my right to be in my own country.
Not surprisingly, the bar exploded.
Because I had always had more right to be there than he had.
The next day, a great deal more sober, we found each other, and sat and talked for hours on the steps of the kitchen – he about the need to welcome strangers to his country, and me about my need to belong. As much as I may have explored more of my country, and slept closer to the ground for longer than than many other white fellas he’d met, this was still his home, not mine. I was just a visitor, and would inevitably leave.
And so he did what many indigenous peoples do with strangers. He invited me into his home.
When I left not long after – disappearing on a pre-dawn tinny to the mainland after hiding out for a few days in an abandoned anti-aircraft bunker (after assaulting an off-duty police officer for making racist remarks to my island sisters), one thought came increasingly into focus.
Every environmental travesty I had fought to prevent, every injustice I had witnessed, were within my locus of control, but outside my circle of influence. I had chosen a path that appealed more to my need to fight than my need to win. And yet, unlike most who didn’t look like me, that was a relatively easy thing to change.
When I eventually found my way back to civilisation, I got to work; over the next twenty years I launched more than a dozen ventures, and formed roughly the same number of partnerships. Some were successful, some not so much.
And I learned fairly quickly that while some of my ideas were good, and some of my ventures worthwhile, people with more talent, more knowledge, and more experience than me found it significantly more difficult to make a living and make a difference. In fact, I often found myself speaking on their behalf, not because they had asked me to, but because they weren’t in the room.
And so I inevitably moved in the direction of supporting other entrepreneurs, non-profit leaders and executives in transforming their world-positive ventures, recognising that this would produce significantly more results than building my own.
And now, after over twenty years, working across a myriad of companies, countries, cultures and contexts, observing consistent patterns of behaviour, and building models to increase their revenue, reach and impact, I’ve recognised that one thing matters more than anything else.
It matters, but not in the way that I used to think of it. Integrity matters because without it, nothing works. What happens to a yacht when it’s hull lacks integrity? It sinks – and everyone on board goes down with it.
Nationalism, racism, sexism, and ageism lack integrity. They are intellectually indefensible.
And where the absence of integrity has challenged me the most is not in dialogue with loggers, or miners, or right wing politicians; it’s not in brushing up against racists, and rednecks, and isolationists. It’s in observing the incongruence between values and actions in those individuals and organisations who have made it their mission to improve the state of the world.
It’s not deliberate. But that doesn’t make it any more defensible.
It’s why I started every one of my companies. It’s why I founded uncompromise, and acquired a major stake in Sphaera.
Because what we desparately need are for good ideas to succeed, and bad ideas to fail, considerably faster.
And the only way that is ever going to happen is if we mobilise our resources at an unprecedented scale, if we let our base need for survival outpace our egocentric desire for recognition, and if we engage hearts, minds and hands in harmony.
Humanity has set itself some ambitious targets for 2030 – in fact, we’ve determined that we are going to fundamentally transform the human experience. Of course, if we don’t decrease our carbon emissions more than 45% in that time, the consequences of climate change will become increasingly severe. The former is a goal, codified by the UN, and informed in equal parts by science and compassion. The latter is an incontrovertible scientific fact.
And the harsh and undeniable truth is that, unless we get significantly better at the business of change, we’re going to go down in a blaze of stupid, with nobody to blame but ourselves.
We are facing the greatest existential crisis in recorded human history, and we seem functionally unwilling — not unable — to do what it takes to ensure our survival. And many of us who know better — who acknowledge that the tipping point between survival and extinction is a flashpoint closer than we care to admit — seem unable or unwilling to rationalise our philosophical positions with our practical realities. What’s worse, many of us — often the most experienced and best informed — are not invited to participate in the conversations that would most benefit from their individual and collective wisdom.
Most significantly, we have become so goddamn fucking polite in the face of the raging stupidity that threatens all life — not just ill-informed, uneducated and stupid lives — that we have failed to recognise that diplomacy has failed.
And now, like it or not, the world is on fire, and we are at war.
In the time it takes to read this,at leastten kids will have died from lack of access to clean water and sanitation – by this time tomorrow, about 1800 more. Not because we don’t know how to prevent it, but quite simply because we haven’t.
Pick any statistic on any issue you care about, and run it forward a day, a week, a month, a year. Then run it back to when you started caring about it, and contemplate the awful magnitude of our collective failure to act.
16 425 000 children have died since I started that pub brawl back in 1983.
And this makes me so angry I can barely speak – because it’s easier to get angry than it is to give way to the inconsolable grief that this has happened on my watch.
The answer is not to throw another conference, or sign another petition, it’s not to donate our profits or our spare time to worthy causes. Nor is it to lionise Changemakers with lists, and awards, and ceremonies. For fuck’s sake – how far have we fallen in our expectations of each other that we now expect accolades for behaving in ways that only a few generations back fundamentally decent human beings were expected to behave?
The answer is that we need to get more done, with less, faster. We need to accelerate the success of exceptional ideas, not least by ensuring that those people who have them are in the rooms where solving wicked problems are being discussed. Because as smart, as compassionate, and as experienced I like to imagine myself as being, the one frustration I have always had is that there are people I know who have significantly more value to contribute to the conversations I am in than I do. They are my friends, my colleagues, and my partners. They are authors, academics, and students. They are legion, and they are the vast unrequited asset we need to mobilise to ensure our survival.
What most people never understood about Uncompromise was it was never meant to mean ‘no compromise’. It has always been a clarion call to integrity. A reminder to take myself back to the mat, to constantly seek out those places in myself where my values and my behaviours are incongruent, and to find a way to bring them into alignment – so that I can thrive in a world on fire. And it was a challenge to all of us who do this work to be better, to do better.
Because if we are compromised — and by extension our movements, organisations, and communities — then we are broken, and of ever diminishing value.
And the price of failure, is everything.
Uncompromise is an invitation. Which is why it is relaunching, today, as a partnership between Madelynn Martiniere and myself. The purpose is simple —to ensure that wherever there is a solution to be found, a crisis to be averted, or a mission to be scaled, that the most skilled, knowledgeable, and experienced — not the best branded, most privileged, and most powerful — are called upon to contribute to the process.
Uncompromise is not the work of a single life. It is the essential and unending work of a species that has the self-awareness to recognise it’s in crisis, the intelligence to figure out how to avert it, and the deep love for its siblings to ensure that no-one gets left behind.