The Wisdom Of Elders

Good morning friends

The focus of today’s note, came to me via Chip Conley’s Wisdom @ Work, in which he recounts this proverb, “When an elder dies, it’s like a library has burned down.”

I was reminded of it this week when I read that education innovator Ken Robinson had died. I started to think of the other elders who have passed on this year. There have been many.

Today we revisit three of them. Ken Robinson. Clayton Christensen. Andrew Mlangeni. Because of this, today’s letter runs longer than normal.


I ‘met’ Ken Robinson is his 2006 TED Talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity? It has always been one of my favourites, but only this week did I realise that it is the most popular TED Talk of all-time, having been watched 66 million times.

In it, Robinson puts forth his argument that “creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.”

He argues that education systems prioritise academic learning, at a cost to other types of learning. As he puts it, “what happens is, as children grow up, we start to educate them progressively from the waist up. And then we focus on their heads. And slightly to one side”.

This approach comes at a cost to people who don’t fit the mould, and the “consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they were good at, at school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized.”

If all you have is 2 minutes spare, scroll to the 14-minute mark and listen to his anecdote about Gillian Lynn, who was the choreographer for Cats and Phantom of the Opera. It makes powerfully the point that overly rigid systems can end up problematizing strengths rather than harnessing them.

In the corporate world that often means that talented people and their views are excluded rather than leveraged. Being alive to this risk and being intentional about acknowledging a diversity of skills and experience, allows you to build the diversity essential to effective innovation.

As you look to strengthen your own leadership capabilities, think about the skills other than intellectual skills that you need to strengthen.

He says that how we run education systems and companies kill creativity because we ‘stigmatize mistakes.’

As he puts it, “if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original… And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. And we run our companies like this. We stigmatize mistakes. And we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.”


In 2010 Harvard Business School’s graduating class asked HBS professor Clayton Christensen to address them. His address was later captured in this Harvard Business Review article How Will You Measure Your Life?

For those of you who don’t know Christensen’s work, he was one of the world’s most pre-eminent thinkers on innovation. His 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, is regarded as one of the seminal texts on innovation.

In this address, he spoke not to innovation but rather to how to live a meaningful life. He reflected that many of his business school classmates had experienced immense personal turmoil and unhappiness. Some had even ended in jail.

He says, “I can guarantee you that not a single one of them graduated with the deliberate strategy of getting divorced and raising children who would become estranged from them. And yet a shocking number of them implemented that strategy. The reason? They didn’t keep the purpose of their lives front and center as they decided how to spend their time, talents, and energy.”

His address gels nicely with the themes developed by Robison’s TED Talk saying, “if your attitude is that only smarter people have something to teach you, your learning opportunities will be very limited. But if you have a humble eagerness to learn something from everybody, your learning opportunities will be unlimited. Generally, you can be humble only if you feel really good about yourself – and you want to help those around you feel really good about themselves, too. When we see people acting in an abusive, arrogant, or demeaning manner toward others, their behavior almost always is a symptom of their lack of self-esteem. They need to put someone else down to feel good about themselves.”

To learn, you need to be open to different types of knowledge.

To be open to others, you need to be comfortable with yourself, which means building all your forms of intelligence.

He says that in his view, figuring out your life’s purpose is the most important thing you can do, that without it you will “just sail off without a rudder and get buffeted in the very rough seas of life.”

Clarity about your purpose helps you keep focus in the context of competing demands.

Purpose enables you to decide where to allocate your time, energy, and strengths. All of these are finite resources and it is only in context of knowing your purpose can you decide how to spend it.

Without that clarity, you have no strategy.

With no strategy you’re simply adrift in the world.


Over the past few weeks, I have been listening to Pippa Green’s 6-part podcast series History For The Future which is the result of 6 hours of interviews with Rivonia Trialist, Andrew Mlangeni. It also incorporates some powerful narration from Mlangeni’s biographer Mandla Mathebula.

As I listened to them, I was reminded of Stephen Grosz’s comment that, “Sometimes change comes not because we set out to fix ourselves, or repair our relation to the living; sometimes we change most when we repair our relation to the lost, the forgotten, the dead.”

Mlangeni reminds one of the enormous sacrifices that his generation made to give us a free South Africa. In reconnecting with his story, we are reminded of how we should live today.

Each episode is about 20 minutes long. It is worth setting aside that time each day this week and sitting down with the family to listen to their conversation.

In it we hear how Mlangeni’s math and science teacher was OR Tambo, who went on to lead the ANC through its exile years. His cell leader in the Young Communist League, was Ruth First who was later killed by a letter bomb in Mozambique.

Mlangeni was Nelson Mandela’s first recruit into Umkhonto we Sizwe, as they ‘took up arms to defend our people’. It is a reminder that Mandela and Mlangeni, were people who literally fought for freedom.

South Africa’s freedom was not given, it was fought for. Mandela was and is more than a quote machine for social media memes. He is symbol of principled self-sacrifice and determined, focused purpose.

The second episode reflects Mlangeni’s incredible journey to China where he trained to become a soldier. The shenanigans with the Botswana Security Branch will make you smile.

His reflections on the hardships of Robben Island, of being separated from his children’s lives, of not being able to attend his twin sister’s funeral, remind us that our lives are always a gift because of others’ sacrifices.

That awareness is a powerful foundation from which to build a life of meaning and purpose.


PS: My coaching work incorporates the values and ideas that I reflect in this letter. If you’d like to know more click here or email me and let’s have a conversation.

PPS: If you were forwarded this newsletter, you can subscribe here.

(This letter was first published on 30 August 2020)

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