Lessons from Ken Burns

Good morning everyone


Over the past week I have been overwhelmed by the countless news articles and consultant reports on the economic gloom that we are in and the depression that is likely to deepen.

Understanding the reality of the current moment is essential. However, there is a point at which the analysis is no longer useful. The nuance from one report to the next fails to add significantly to our ability to act. Indeed, it becomes immobilising as we get flooded with anxiety. What the next months and years will require is imagination and action. To do so requires that we work creatively with the anxiety of the moment.

In the aftermath of each major crisis, the world has embraced the opportunity to reshape how societies function. This has always happened because of a reimagining that led to creation. The same is true for our lives and our businesses. What is needed is to understand and edit our stories, to imagine ourselves as successfully navigating this tumult and then act in order to bring that imaginary self to life.

Achieving that is a fundamentally creative act and so in this newsletter, I turn to one of the world’s pre-eminent documentary filmmakers, Ken Burns.

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Ken Burns’ films have won dozens of major awards.

His mother died when he was 11. Shortly thereafter, he witnessed his father cry whilst watching a movie. His father hadn’t cried through her struggle with cancer, nor at her death, nor at her funeral but he cried watching a film. Burns decided he wanted to be able to create that safe space for others.

In this wide-ranging Tim Ferriss podcast he describes how he used to grapple with debilitating anxiety, the kind of anxiety that many of us are confronting in this moment. He says that he found three things that made a difference:

  • Know that all things are transitory.
  • Get help from others.
  • Be kind to yourself.

Burns has a neon sign hanging in his office. It says, “It’s complicated”. Burns tells Ferriss that this gives him the freedom to say, “Even if it’s perfect, even if it’s working, let’s open it up and add in that complicated, conflicting, contradictory fact. And sure, it might destabilize it, but let’s do it anyway.”

He reflects that “I was with a group of students recently and I told them that every film that I’d done had at least a million problems. But I didn’t think that the word problem was necessarily pejorative, that it represented friction that needed to be overcome. It was the necessary friction of the creative process, of making progress.”

This is a complicated time, filled with problems and so the lessons are powerful. Be intentional. Step into the messiness and the confusion. Open yourself up. Ask yourself, “What is the contrary view to my current perspective? If that view and my existing view are both real, how might I work with that?” This kind of introspection holds the possibility for creativity.


At one point in Burns’ life he was in crisis. His father-in-law, a psychologist, said to him “look what you do for a living…You wake the dead. You make Abraham Lincoln and Jackie Robinson come alive. Who do you think you’re really trying to wake up?” Burns describes how from that moment on he forged ahead.

What his father-in-law did in that moment was to connect Burns to his essence, to help him see and understand himself.

This moment requires both an understanding of essence and may require change, for who is going to shape your world but you?

Matthew Budd and Larry Rothstein, the authors of You Are What You Say, reflecting on the work of Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana give this insight, “if you want to change yourself, you have to change your structurally determined responses…and if your responses are determined by your structure, and if your structure is developed in your past, then at any given moment you are doing only what your past allows.”

So, understand your past to understand what your default responses are likely to be. Then embrace Burns’ injunction to embrace complication and imagine a different you with different responses. That act of understanding and then exploration give you the basis for imaging a different way of being. And imagination is the precursor into enabling you to behave differently.


Jill Lepore writes in this New Yorker piece, What our Contagion Fables are Really About that “in the literature of pestilence, the greatest threat isn’t the loss of human life but the loss of what makes us human”.

Be warned, this is not a light read, Lepore traverses some 300 years of literature reflecting on plagues and pandemics starting with the London plague of 1665. I have included it because, context and history provide useful lessons with which to imagine the future.

The essay includes a reflection on Albert Camus’ The Plague. This book was an allegory for the ‘infection’ of Nazism. Camus wrote, “They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.” In this current moment, humanity faces a virus. However, we also create our own pandemics. The pandemics of poverty, of racism, of oppression, of patriarchy, of environmental degradation. As the world pauses in the face of an ‘external’ threat, it will do us good to turn our collective imagination to how we undo that which we wilfully create.


Yours in connection



PS: I am always encouraging my readers and my clients to share happy moments, so I am forcing myself to be transparent and tell you that it’s my 47th birthday tomorrow!

(This letter was first written and shared on 19/04/2020)


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