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Are We Kind 2
Are we
kind?
In his new book Human Kind, Rutger Bregman — who burst onto the global social media scene at the World Economic Forum in Davos two years ago “we should be talking about taxes, taxes, taxes…all the rest is bullshit in my opinion” — sets out what he believes is a radical new view of human nature.

Using a wonderful array of examples and inspiring exposés of erroneous research, Bregman asserts that our natural state is far from the selfish and cynical animal much of the Western world concluded we are in the 20th century. It turns out, the evidence shows that we are fundamentally kind, that it’s in our nature to get on with and care for those around us; that we blush and feel ashamed if we behave badly and that we have a clear sense of right and wrong from a young age.

It’s a remarkable read, some of which I have to confess practically had me in tears — see the story about the Viljoen twins in South Africa. Perhaps it’s the way it contrasts with the current torrent of horrendous news and rhetoric hurled from distant and distanced ‘trenches’ all suggestive of our common unkindness, that makes it such a timely and poignant point of view.

Bregman places much of the responsibility for the wrongs we see all about us on the power structures that evolved once we gave up our nomadic life about 10,000 years ago. That, along with the negative influence of much of our modern media, plus a sprinkling of sociopaths who never blush or feel shame, are the principal villains. The rest of us are, by and large, brilliant at building social networks and want to live good lives.

Understandably Bregman feels that if his analysis is true, it should change everything about the way we live, educate children, work and interact with the world around us.

There’s much here that can inform the anxious debate about what the ‘new normal’ could be like and he concludes with ten rules to live by:

(Mr. Bregman is Dutch. I’m only half Dutch, but I share the urge many Dutch people feel to be clear and straightforward to the point of clumsy bluntness.)
Bregman places much of the responsibility for the wrongs we see all about us on the power structures that evolved once we gave up our nomadic life about 10,000 years ago.
1. When in doubt assume the best
2. Think in win-win scenarios
3. Ask more questions
4. Temper your empathy, train your compassion
5. Try to understand the other, even if you don’t get where they are coming from
6. Love your own, as others love their own
7. Avoid the news
8. Don’t punch Nazis
9. Come out of the closet, don’t be ashamed to do good
10. Be realistic
Human Kind Illustration
In truth, it’s
the cynic who’s
out of touch.
I won’t go through these new ten commandments one by one — you need to read the book to understand number 8 in particular — but would like to include a quote that gives some context to the last rule:

If there’s one thing I’ve sought to do with this book, it’s to change the meaning of the word ‘realism’. Isn’t it telling that in modern usage the realist has become synonymous with the cynic — for someone with a pessimistic outlook?

In truth, it’s the cynic who’s out of touch. In truth, we’re living on Planet A, where people are deeply inclined to be good to one another.

So be realistic. Be courageous. Be true to your nature and offer your trust.


One can’t help but think immediately of the millions of people whose trust has been abused both today and across history. Violence and a horrific callousness characterise so much of our understanding of ‘how the world works.’ And yet, what Bregman exposes is the possibility that the conclusions we’ve come to about our human nature don’t rest on proven science and that things could therefore actually be very different. From prisons, to schools, to factories, to health care, everything could and should change for the better.

At Saboteur we adopt an experimental approach (inspired by the Holacracy movement and Aaron Dignan’s Brave New Work) to how we work together. At its core, our experiment is based on trust. Once it is clear that we genuinely trust each other, the need for job titles, holiday allowance, hierarchy and opaque finances disappears. A greater sense of being entwined develops and an authentic and dynamic culture starts to emerge.

To help deepen our understanding of one another and keep building that sense of trust, once a week we hold a discussion session called ‘Reality Check’. It’s a chance to talk about a topic that anyone can propose. Race and racism. Religion. China. The nature of beauty, our individual definitions of ‘home’, lockdown media consumption habits, which 5 objects would we each rescue from our home in a fire? What do we REALLY feel about marketing and branding? What would we like to happen to our bodies after we die? Nothing is off the table. There are no no-go areas.

The discussion is always lively, surprising and revealing and we all agree that it’s best when we don’t agree. Not only do we learn more about each other as we open up about topics not usually shared in the work place, ‘Reality Check’ also gives us all the opportunity to actually practise communicating with one another. And no matter how busy things get, we all agree that Reality Check is extremely precious and must never get bumped off the weekly schedule.

What’s even more surprising to all of us is how often the discussions we have during ‘Reality Check’, which are deliberately not meant to have anything to do with what we are working on during the rest of the week, directly help to enhance the solutions we provide our clients. Could it be that many of the brand and marketing challenges we strive to solve are really just human problems at the end of the day?

Some of us have spent many years in big, overly hierarchical organisations. We sometimes feel like liberated battery chickens blinking in the sunlight as we become aware of the lush garden we now find ourselves in.

It’s a kinder environment and we feel kinder, and crucially, so much more effective, in it.

Alex Clegg, The Dreaming Saboteur

Photo by Stijn Swinnen on Unsplash, Ypres Belgium
Once a week we hold a discussion session called ‘Reality Check’. It’s a chance to talk about a topic that anyone can propose.