When I started working in the BBC’s Washington news bureau I made two rules for the weekly staff meeting. First, no meeting longer than 20 minutes. (Life’s too short.) Second, all ideas are welcome. Criticism was welcome, too, but only if it pointed to a better idea.
In other newsrooms, businesses, government and other organisational meetings I had attended, I often thought discussions went in circles and nothing creative emerged. In the hope of managing things better I also read a few American “self help” management books. These were a disappointment.
The titles promised “10 Tips for Top Managers” right up to “10 Ways To Reinvent The Universe”, but my inner critic wondered why – beyond a snappy title – there were only 10 solutions to life’s problems. Surely there could be 11? Or 57? And why were the books always so cheerful?
I considered the possibility that I'm simply a miserable Brit who doesn't get America’s can-do culture, but I’m recounting these personal eccentricities to explain why I approached Tom Fletcher’s new book, Ten Survival Skills For A World In Flux, with a sense of both hope and fear.
The sceptical me was fearful about the inevitable 10 (not 11) survival skills. I also wondered if Fletcher – a fellow Brit and contributor at The National – would truly confront how confusing and unnerving much of modern life seems to be, or be cheerfully whistling past the graveyard. But the hopeful me knew something of Fletcher’s reputation as an agile problem solver. He has been UK ambassador to Lebanon and worked with three hard-headed British prime ministers, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron.
By the time I finished the book hope triumphed over fear, partly because while Fletcher structures his analysis around 10 skills, his hints, tips, advice, comments and things-you-and-I-can-do-today to bring about change are so frequent that I lost count. Not 10 ideas, not even 57, but countless.
I made notes of quotes from what is a provocative and hugely thoughtful compendium of positive and realistic thinking to navigate an increasingly difficult world. It’s leavened by the wisdom of dozens of prominent thinkers and doers, many of whom Fletcher has met personally. The positive tone is admirable and ultimately infectious but only because Fletcher does not dodge the profound difficulties facing us now as individuals, nations, governments, businesses and as a planet.
To use Fletcher’s phrase, the world is in a state of flux, but it’s only a glimpse of what is to come. The human experience is changing faster than at any time in history. At the current rate of ageing, by 2100 10 per cent of global GDP will be paid in pensions to the elderly. Our information deluge drowns us in texts, emails, social and other media, not to mention innovations that haven’t hit us yet, some of which connect us and yet also divide us into tribes.
In the case of television alone, as Fletcher writes: “20 million watched Queen Elizabeth II coronation in 1953. Three-hundred million watched her sister’s wedding in 1960. One billion watched her daughter-in-law’s wedding in 1981. Two billion watched her daughter-in-law’s funeral in 1997. A reality TV presenter became US president in 2016.”
In the workplace almost half of today’s jobs are at high risk. Those which will disappear include taxi drivers, surveyors, fast food workers, translators and parking enforcement workers. Climate change means we will experience “the greatest wave of global migration the world has ever seen”.
We cannot escape from this unsettling world, and so many of us are daunted by it. Fletcher, meanwhile, offers a structure for seeing, naming and ultimately dealing with the torrent of problems now and to come. His account is enlivened by the thoughts of those he's worked with – including intellectuals and thinkers from around the globe, and some words with world leaders he happened to meet, including Barack Obama.
I particularly like how Fletcher suggests we should interrogate ourselves by asking “what guides what you do?” or what would a behind-the-scenes documentary of your life and work reveal? (Mine might resemble a horror film.)
I was also struck by Fletcher’s stories of how small changes can improve behaviour. One is of a university posting a series of interesting questions near their elevators. A sign told students the answers could be found in the stairwells. Curious students stopped using the elevators. They climbed the stairs to find answers.
Fletcher’s core message is, for me at least, realistically optimistic. For humanity to survive and thrive we must be both curious and co-operative. Yes, we can criticise each other, but only if we can offer something better. And urgent problems need long-term strategies but also urgent action, not endless committee meetings going round in circles.
Gavin Esler is a broadcaster, author and columnist for The National