We live in a paradoxical world where borders are fluid — with money, people and ideas travelling from country to country. Yet in many ways, the borders of our minds and our hearts are now more closed than ever.
We sit on subways alongside people carrying a diverse wealth of life experiences and worldviews, yet don’t even make eye contact with each other as we play games on our phones. We think sharing a post or changing our profile picture on Facebook is the equivalent of deep, sustained engagement for social change.
Going into the Virgin Unite and Igniting Change leadership gathering “Disappearing Borders,” I wondered what I could learn during a week on Necker Island about how to expand our limited worlds and bring down the barriers that stand between each of us and our planet. What I discovered was that through conversation, music, storytelling, play and adventure, we were able to enter into each other’s worlds. From music and film to anthropology and entrepreneurship, from investment banking and philanthropy to poetry and virtual reality, the worlds represented by each person I met offered a unique lens on how to dissolve the borders of our minds and hearts to see and create new possibilities.
We are naturally geared towards likeness — those who are like us, think like us, vote like us, raise their families like us. Some research even suggests that we care more about what people think, than what facts or data actually suggest. This phenomenon of seeking likeness is being accelerated with online algorithms that track and gear us towards that which we already want and believe. While it’s convenient to more easily find things and people we know we are like, there’s a risk of our mental, emotional, and social worlds shrinking.
According to Wade Davis, Professor of Anthropology at University of British Columbia and renowned expert on cultures and ecosystems at risk, our increasingly homogenised world is driving the many intelligences and orientations towards nature and God to become extinct on a daily basis. In hearing Wade, I gained new perspective on the value of proactively seeking and protecting people and ideas that are different from mine. As challenging as it can be, I realised how easy it can be to fall into ethnocentrism, and that we must be willing to transcend our own worldviews to see through the eyes of others.
Being at home anywhere we go
Even though we’re traveling more than ever, visiting faraway cultures that would have been a dream just a few decades ago, we often end up staying at the same hotels, going to the same stores, and eating at the same chain restaurants. We are trained and incentivised to like and trust that which is familiar. In this process, we miss out on truly connecting with where we are. How can we live authentically local, and still feel a home, with a host who can teach us about those places? In hearing from Joe Gebbia, co-founder and designer of AirBnb, about his vision to create a sense of belonging for people wherever they go, I began to wonder about the power of feeling at home with people, flavours, styles, sounds, and tempos foreign to us. How can feeling belongingness kindle our curiosity and inspire us to preserve diverse cultures and lifestyles? Could business be force that pull us toward this kind of belonging?
Cutting through the noise with audacious action
Despite general mainstream awareness of issues like animal extinction, what does it take for issues to pierce through our day-to-day patterns and habits? Despite critics proclaiming the futility of his plan, Louis Psihoyos, renowned National Geographic photographer and filmmaker, boldly projected footage of animal species becoming extinct on the Empire State Building, resulting in this issue trending on social media with millions of views and the Vatican requesting Louis to repeat the experiment in Rome. What might this lead to? Louis believes that if 10 per cent of a population starts to care about something, that critical mass can lead to a meaningful shift around the issue.
Mastery and commitment
In a world of self-proclaimed thought leaders, what struck me about our featured speakers was how deeply they are immersed in the subjects they so passionately represent. They all hold a deep sense of commitment to excellence to doing those fields justice, where awards and recognition are a byproduct of that degree of mastery — not the goal.
What impressed me about our hosts — Sir Richard Branson, Jean Oewang and Jane Tewson — is how they curated a group of seasoned and emerging big thinkers and change agents to ignite further around their own passions and to share in celebration of each other’s.
Necker Island was a beautiful canvas for a kaleidoscope of people from different fields, walks of life, bonding over the songs of Michael Franti, and sharing ideas and unique perspectives on how we can have an impact on this life and this world. I leave with many memories and new friends that I’ll cherish for years to come.