Between 2007 and 2014, I apprenticed to a man who helped South Africa transition out of apartheid, Colombia find the road to peace, and an alliance of North and South American countries change the war on drugs. He works in the background, well out of the public eye, facilitating high stakes dialogues. As his apprentice, I learned how to help even the bitterest of opponents sit and talk together as a way of healing conflict, finding their humanity, and embracing a future of working together.
During those years, we helped dangerous enemies become friendly collaborators.
If I were to boil down the essence of that work, I’d say it’s the art of helping leaders unlock a mental door that for many years has been bolted shut. To open that door is to release enmity, fear, grievance — the past — and to feel the possibility of beginning again in the present.
“Beginning again” is a simple but profound secret toward truth and reconciliation, peace-building, and social renewal. It is the “set” in “the truth shall set you free” — a moment of being present that releases the past and welcomes the possibility (and thus the beginning) of a new future.
We practiced, developed, and perfected our method of helping leaders from across a common issue area move from being enemies to friends, from rigidly stuck to flexibly moving. We worked on transitioning the energy system in North America from fossil fuels to renewables, realizing collective prosperity in Colombia, charting the future of democracy in South America, and many dozens of similarly ambitious, large-scale change projects. We were changing the world, making decent money as systems change consultants, and building an amazing company.
And then I walked.
Yeah. I did.
I’ve often looked back and thought, why on earth did I leave? I left my friends, my community, rewarding work, good pay…
But actually, I had a good reason.
You see, we were experts at unlocking leaders. But then came what for me was the most interesting part: the task of helping them create new realities. Our task was not only to help leaders end certain bad things (huge wealth disparity, violence within thousands of families); we also tried to help them create good things (collective prosperity and healed families).
But these good things are unprecedented. No one has ever seen collective prosperity in Colombia or the transformation of violence into peace within those thousands of families.
To me, this is the ultimate kind of creative work.
My mentor (in spirit, I never met him) Joseph Beuys called this “social sculpture.” His mentor Rudolf Steiner called this “a future art form” that would, many centuries from now, be practiced the world over — if we started to learn how it works now.
I was on my way to fulfilling my life’s mission — to learn how artistic creativity can be applied to solve humanity’s toughest challenges.
I had a hunch that if we could translate lessons from art to our work of solving tough social problems, we could dramatically increase our impact.
I often showed a film of Picasso’s painting process to illustrate how radical creative metamorphosis can be. Check out Picasso’s destruction of the bull’s head at the end. It’s 8 different bullheads, one after the other. Imagine the flexibility needed to destroy and create so ruthlessly — until the final form emerges.
Once I had that hunch, I couldn’t shake it loose. I pursued this question whole-heartedly: how can we help leaders create new realities? How can we help them create healthy society?
The main problem, however, was that our clients weren’t paying us to help them create the healthy society. They were paying us to help them solve their problems. It’s kind of like hiring someone to help you weed your garden and they start trying to be your landscape architect. It’s their garden — their realities. My partners asked me, Who are we to tell them what health looks like?
In other words, the innovations I wanted to realize would have fundamentally altered the brand promise and its methodologies. My partners wanted to grow what we had rather than leap into the unknown with me. But I had reached the point of no return, and my question became my mission.
It also became an ethical question for me. I believed that my questions were real and that they mattered for the social future, and I couldn’t ignore them. To continue as we were would only postpone my inevitable departure.
So I left. And it broke my heart.
I had co-founded the company with nine others on a beach in Cape Town. We were full of ideas, dreams, optimism, and world-changing aspirations. We’d been friends for years before we launched; we were a community. I did stints as treasurer, partner, chairperson, and operations manager — whatever it took.
And when I left, I took away nothing except what I had learned and some great stories.
Which is a lot — but still. I went from a somebody to a nobody, from doing great work in a company with a global reputation, back to square one with my wife and new business partner and the knowledge that the road ahead would be very hard.
There is a silver lining in this story, and it has to do with following your conscience and your highest truth.
In the three years since I left, I have built Magenta Studios, which now has the DNA I tried to build into my previous company: a profound understanding of how creativity works, how leaders working on today’s toughest challenges can learn and apply creativity, and how creativity works at large scales.
We’ve cracked the code; we know what creativity is, how it works, and how to apply it in tough social challenges.
The win here is that I’ve “put my stake in the ground” and am “raising my flag.” No matter where we go from here, we have something. We’ve followed our truth and we have something, dammit. And we’re going with it. Will we be successful? Too soon to tell.
But is it worth it?
I realize I’ve made a bold claim, namely that we understand creativity and how creativity works. We’ll substantiate that claim over time.
So. Should I have stayed in my old company, trading the excitement and danger I’ve since experienced for more predictable safety and security?
Maybe. There are days when I kick myself for leaving; those are the days when I don’t know if I can pay the bills, feed the family. That has been all kinds of hell, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
Was it worth it? I gave up everything I had to pursue a higher truth, walking through fire to reach a life goal. It was — and still remains— worth more than safety and security to me.
So, the big takeaway: walk through those flames. Even though it hurts, take that road. It really is as John Lennon said:
“Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”
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