It was exactly 30 years ago that George Orwell set the opening of his novel 1984: ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ Most people know Orwell for this novel, and his satirical tale Animal Farm. Less well known is that he was one of the great empathic adventurers of the twentieth century. In the following short clip from my RSA Animate The Power of Outrospection, I describe how Orwell learned to step into other people’s shoes when he became a tramp on the streets of East London in the late 1920s. Orwell was one of the major inspirations for my new book Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution.
It’s launch day for my new book How Should We Live? Great Ideas from the Past for Everyday Life, which has just been released in the US. Previously published in the UK under the title The Wonderbox (sorry, a bit confusing, I know), it’s about what history can teach us about the art of living. What might we learn from the Ancient Greeks about the different varieties of love, from the Renaissance about creativity and death, or from the industrial revolution about rethinking our attitudes to work, money and family life?
But rather than tell you all about the book myself, there’s a fascinating review and discussion of it by the brilliant Maria Popova from Brain Pickings, which came out today. She describes it (most flatteringly) as ‘an illuminating and awakening read in its entirety’. Check out her full article, which focuses on the topics of love, time and empathy.
Here’s an article I just wrote for the Wall Street Journal on the dilemmas of balancing work and family life. Is Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, author of Leaning In, right to think that women can ‘have it all’ if only they really believe in themselves? My approach is not to answer the question ‘Is it possible to have it all?’ but to put it under the microscope and rethink it. (And this is an issue for men too…)
So you’ve drawn up your list of New Year’s resolutions. Some are probably achievable, like giving up eating chocolate for breakfast. Others may be more daunting because they represent a long-held desire to take your life in a new direction, anything from changing career to renewing family relationships. If you’ve resolved to make a big change, I suggest having a companion by your side who’ll give you encouragement and inspiration. An ideal choice is the eighteenth-century German writer and natural scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In his book Italian Journey, Goethe describes an episode from his own life that offers three essential lessons for making 2013 a year of New Year’s adventuring. Continue reading →
Browse the self-help shelves of your local book store and you’ll spot that most titles draw on psychology, philosophy and religion for their wisdom. But there is one realm where few of them have sought inspiration: history.
When asking the big questions about life, love, work and death, we sometimes forget that people have been grappling with these issues for centuries – and that means we’re missing out. As Goethe put it, ‘he who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth’.
So how can characters from history help lead our lives in new directions in 2012? Here’s my personal selection of five icons from the past who offer good ideas for better living.
1.Matsuo Basho: make an alternative pilgrimage
The seventeenth-century Japanese poet Basho was a compulsive wanderer who reinvented the art of travel. On one of his pilgrimages, lasting over two years, he naturally visited the holiest Buddhist shrines. But his originality was also to make pilgrimages to non-religious sites that held deep personal meaning for him, such as seeking out the willow trees described by his favourite poets. Continue reading →
It’s about what the last three thousand years of human history can tell us about better living, and explores twelve universal topics, from work and love to money, creativity and empathy. What might we learn from the Ancient Greeks about the different varieties of love, from the industrial revolution about changing career, or from ancient Japanese pilgrims on the art of travel?
‘The Wonderbox is a cornucopia of delights. Completely fascinating, beautifully written and brimming with insights that challenge our entrenched and predictable ways of seeing and doing, it draws on an amazing range of stories from the history of human culture to explain how we can find true meaning in life. Every thinking home should have one!’ – Michael Wood, historian, broadcaster and author of The Story of England
Find out more about the book here. You can buy it from Amazon here.
The book is being launched with a series of five talks at The School of Life, Life Lessons from The Wonderbox, starting January 11 with ‘The Six Varieties of Love’.
Just as the world’s major cities now have Holocaust Museums, it is time they all established Empathy Museums too. Their purpose would be nothing less than generating a new global culture of empathy by creating adventure spaces where you can explore how to view life from the perspective of other people.
A typical Empathy Museum would not house dusty exhibits inside glass cases. Instead, it would be an exciting and intriguing playground rivalling the finest galleries and tourist attractions that the city has to offer. On rainy Sunday afternoons you might wander through the Empathy Museum with a few friends or your mother-in-law. During the week it is likely to be filled with children on school excursions and inquisitive visitors from countries where the ideal of empathy remains embryonic. The Empathy Museum will ignite the imagination just like the first public museums in the seventeenth century, whose collections of curiosities revealed the wonders of nature and human civilization for the first time. Continue reading →
Here’s an an opinion piece I wrote for The Scotsman newspaper last week.
Walk into a travel agency today and you will be offered the usual array of bargain trips to beach resorts, luxury cruise vacations and weekend getaways to romantic cities. But the founder of the most successful travel company of the nineteenth century had a very different idea of what a holiday should be all about. He was a lay Baptist preacher named Thomas Cook, who organised his first package tour in 1841, taking five hundred working people on a twenty-two mile train trip from Leicester to Loughborough to attend a temperance meeting, where pious ministers called on them to abstain from the demon drink.
Although this may not be your idea of the perfect holiday break, Cook believed that travel should not just offer leisurely respite from a routine job, but give you a chance to question your values and how you live. ‘To travel is to dispel the mists of fable and clear the mind of prejudice taught from babyhood, and facilitate perfectness of seeing eye to eye,’ he said.
If we want to embrace Cook’s original vision, we need to invent a new kind of travel which provides an adventurous and inspiring approach to the art of living…
Imagine you had to invent a new kind of atlas which showed the extent of our planet’s economic and cultural globalization, and the interconnections between the world’s environmental crises. That’s the aim of the ATLAS of Interdependence, a project being masterminded by the new economics foundation, the Open University and Sheffield University. The ATLAS will be an evolving online resource containing entries from geologists, geographers, scientists, journalists, artists, campaigners and historians, each providing their personal vision of global interdependence. Here is a sneak preview of my own entry, called the Global Map of the Empathic Imagination. Do let me know if you think it needs any additional landmarks.Continue reading →
Who was the greatest traveller of the Victorian era? Amongst the usual top contenders you will find the name of Sir Richard Francis Burton. Best known for translating The Thousand and One Nights from Arabic and for visiting Mecca in 1853 disguised as a Muslim pilgrim, Burton wandered for years throughout the Middle East, Far East and Africa. He had an extraordinary talent for languages – he could speak twenty-nine of them – and was a master of assimilating himself into local cultures. Just after his death in 1890 he was described as ‘a Mohammedan among Mohammedans, a Mormon among Mormons, a Sufi among the Shazlis, and a Catholic among the Catholics.’ Continue reading →