Chimpanzees live in families. They clobber their neighbors while they happily groom and calm each other, building trust with one another. Yet, at the same time, they steal from the most vulnerable, even within their own families, and are even known to cannibalize their young when threatened. Most of all, they protect their territory. Chimps are our closest living relatives—96 percent of our DNA is identical—so it's no wonder we are uniformly convinced that we are natural born competitors,1 that war is inevitable, that we’re narrow minded, looking out only for our kith and kin. And that nothing will ever change about that. None of this is necessarily true.
Only the fittest survive, so says Charles Darwin, a concept often misinterpreted as most aggressive, strongest—and that you’ve got to be watching out for number one. But we now know it's the most cooperative who may be the fittest, who are part of the “we” who have survived to pass along their genes, even in the land of great apes. After all, over the centuries, the more aggressive quite often die without ever contributing to the gene pool; they take too many risks, anger their peers, get knocked off. (A huge exception is the ancient Mongolian warlord Genghis Khan who sired so many offspring all over Europe and Asia he may even be camped out in your DNA.)
As incredible as it seems, the brutality and overall toll of war has greatly diminished over recent centuries.2 The bottom line: We now realize we are happier, more relaxed, get more accomplished and make more balanced decisions when we cooperate, find common ground. On a planet where humans were once an endangered species (inhabited by under ten thousand breeding individuals), the population is skyrocketing towards ten billion humans by 2100 (a breathtaking increase of three billion in but a century). We are all getting squeezed. And, if sea levels rise as projected to two to six feet by 2100, high-population port cities like New York, Jakarta, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Cape Town, Casablanca and Sydney will be devastated. Species on all continents will face mass migration and/or extinction. The survival of our species hinges on our ability to cooperate effectively.
Chimps are hunter-gatherers; their food source is wherever they are. They are stuck walking on all fours and since they don’t have backpacks they can’t carry much. Consequently they must protect their precious territory from all others. The instinct to protect our tribe, to defend our territory, is also primary to humans, yet we have gone on to make the Internet, build the United Nations, flourish through international commerce while chimps still crack the same old nuts under the same old tree. We have clearly made a choice: We have decided we have to cooperate within and without our tribes. And we are starting to question whether aggressive competition ever gets us what we really need, want or desire—or if it ever did.
Although early humans were hunter-gatherers, like chimps, we evolved to become agrarians and tradesmen, clerics and teachers, manufacturers and creators of intellectual property. Each and every one of these endeavors has required mastering the skills of cooperation. And this evolution has clearly enhanced our mental faculties and quality of life as well. Is it a coincidence that the human intelligence quotient (IQ) has increased around the globe by 30 percent just in the last century? This advance means we are more able to grasp concepts, expand our thinking and therefore our doing, all of which can build our moral fiber, and enhance our ability to work well with others.3
IN ME I TRUSTThe correlation between trust and cooperation is undeniable, and the lowest levels of trust are generally found in the poorest countries. However, while homogeneous Norway, Finland and Sweden have the highest degrees of trust of all, the culturally diverse USA ranks way, way down with Mexico, Iraq and Chile. Humans often trust based on superficial assumptions, favoring people who dress and act most like us or whose status we admire. Put a wig and a dress on a man. Or change his suit to a dashiki. Or the color of his skin. Or put him in a wheelchair. Do you still want to follow his lead?
We develop trust by sharing hugs, handshakes, knowing looks and intimate actions. Physical proximity also works to glue us together. Chemicals like oxytocin are created in our brains so when we connect (even by text or e-mail) we are encouraged to trust even more.4 And since we will never understand everything, at some point, you have to trust somebody or some group that knows more than you do. Whether it’s mom, a best friend or the government. And since many decisions must be made for the benefit of the greater good—for us—it’s not just for you or me. In a culture of me, this is a bitter pill to swallow.
When we live in cubbyholes with others just like us—gated communities, corporations, private schools, clubs—where we never have to interact with anyone unlike us, we reinforce our beliefs with the beliefs of those with whom we are most vested in getting along. And then we can’t help but demonize or discount outsiders.
THE STORY OF KKarl, truly a mystery wrapped in an enigma inside a riddle, appeared at our Manhattan design firm one night in 1994 and stayed on as our janitor for many years. I don’t even know how he/she (we were never quite sure which) got hired. Karl’s pale blue eyes, ghostly smooth skin and hair, subtle hips and giddy laugh earned him/her the cruel nickname the “ex nun.” It struck me that Karl, whose age was also indeterminable to me, must not have been accepted in many employment situations. The plea for mercy in his/her eyes suggested that he/she had often felt the sting of exclusion.
When he/she changed to simply being “K” we were really stymied. One Saturday I was working at the studio alone (and avoiding my life) and K was dusting the shelves in my office. We started to make idle conversation. “May I tell your fortune?” he/she smiled shyly and took my hand, even though (at least in my mind) I resisted. Everything K told me that afternoon came true within a few months in the most uncanny of ways. “Everything that has been bad will be good,” K said. Somehow, even with all the myriad of questions I still had about who he/she was, I slowly learned to trust K. One day (shortly before he/she vanished without a trace) K, leaning on his/her mop handle, commented casually about some sketches that were pinned on the wall. K’s insights, brief though they were, suggested a new direction that I knew was right. We changed the focus of the project, which took off like a rocket. The lesson to me was not to dismiss the marginalized, the outsider. That cooperation’s rewards come from inclusion. My new slogan in the studio became, “The best idea wins.”
WHO LET THE OUTSIDERS IN?There are two kinds of people in the world. Them and us. My next door neighbors Cynthia and Jim have a regal brownstone. I have a humble little cottage. They drive a brand new silver Lexus. I drive my niece’s beat-up Toyota. We agreed a long time ago to watch out for each other. We traded house keys. My neighbors are black, retired civil servants, far from rich. They grew up in the South and still retain a Southern drawl. We’ve lived side-by-side in Fort Greene, a community in Brooklyn that’s been historically 80 percent African American for over 20 years. I can count a dozen distinct cultures on our block these days. I treasure the pharmacists up the street, Bangladeshi refugees. There are at least 25 restaurants with unique and authentic cuisines just within a 6-block radius (including Turkish, South African, Indian, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Cambodian, French, Moroccan, Mexican, Cuban, Chinese, Japanese, German, American Southern, Senegalese, Thai, Ethiopian and just plain American). There are five mosques within a mile and twice as many churches. The largest and fastest growing community of Hasidim in America live right next to us as well. These are the most orthodox Jews in the world: men wear white stockings, payot (hair curls), furry wide black flat brim hats and long black coats even in the heat of summer. The women wear long skirts and stockings and wigs (if they are married). Since they choose not to mix, the Hasidim are a very easy group to demonize, to see as “the other.”
ALIEN NATIONMoving to Fort Greene, Brooklyn 25 years ago was a leap of faith. The move threw me into the minority, in the land of “the other” and forced me to question every assumption I ever had about anyone not like me. It was hard work, integrating myself into my new community, finding common ground with my neighbors, each and every one with a story to tell and a talent to share. About ten years ago, a mass migration started here that threatened to ruin my neighborhood. I protested. I was deeply alarmed. “What are all these white people doing in my hood?” I whined. Then I remembered that I was white.
With 900 languages spoken in New York City, it’s hard not to jump to prejudiced conclusions. Learning to navigate in such a cultural maze is as exhausting as it is intimidating, but it works when you work it. When you find common ground, you also develop more flexible thinking, greater awareness of existing prejudices.
A lack of trust nurtures fear-based and, therefore, boxed-in, mediocre thinking. So if the missing ingredient in any cooperative enterprise that flounders or stalls is often trust, how do we know when to—and when not to—trust?
WORLD IN DENIALWhile we are wary of sophisticated and subtle cues meant to dupe or con us, it’s astounding how we can get sucked in by a good story, one we want to believe, told by someone who looks and seems trustworthy. Adolph Hitler truly thought he was doing a righteous thing for Europe by ridding it of all Jews, homosexuals, Catholics and any others deemed “impure” by the Third Reich. Around that same time the American anthropologist Madison Grant, revered founder of the Bronx Zoo, wrote The Passing of the Great Race. Grant’s book and general philosophy favored eugenics, a belief aimed at purifying the human gene pool, and this book found its way into Hitler’s hands, who praised it as his “bible” in a fan letter to Grant.5 Eugenics was also popular among us liberals, passing the US Supreme Court’s scrutiny. Think of animal breeding, culling out the runts and misfits applied to the human population. A human pygmy was exhibited with a chimp at the Bronx Zoo around this time for visitors to gawk, poke and jeer at on Sunday afternoons. This attitude—this “unnatural selection”—horrifies most of us today, as well it should. It’s a cautionary tale: It was accepted without question not so long ago.
Very recently, monologist Mike Daisey thought he was truthfully exposing the sins of Apple in his one-man show, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Daisey started his story with, “I am an Apple partisan. I am an Apple fanboy. I am a worshipper in the cult of Mac; I have been to the House of Jobs; I have walked through the stations of his cross; I have knelt before his throne!” In stark and ironic contrast Daisey went on to expose Apple’s callous view of human rights and the horrendous working conditions at Foxconn, the vast industrial factory city in China, of which he had solid proof, he alleged. Daisey performed this show for over a year during which millions of listeners (and media, NPR among others) accepted his story. It was only when facts were challenged by an American journalist working in China that the truth unraveled.
Social activist Greg Mortenson honestly thought it was OK to make-up stories about his exploits and efforts to build schools for girls in the Taliban-controlled areas of Central Asia in his best-selling nonfiction book, Three Cups of Tea (required reading for all US service men and women bound for Afghanistan). President Obama donated $100,000 of his Nobel Peace Prize proceeds to Mortenson’s charity, the Central Asia Institute (full disclosure, I donated as well). CAI has received over $60 million in donations. Mortenson’s made-up stories, flawed accomplishments and his personal mismanagement of donated funds (many sent in by school children) were only exposed years later. In 2012, he continues to be in denial.
Filmmaker and founder of Invisible Children, Jason Russell, also probably thought he was telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the exploits of the intensely evil Ugandan guerrilla leader Joseph Kony in his short film Kony 2012 that went viral on the Internet earlier this year. It took way too long for Invisible Children to be criticized for exaggerating and revising history, spending too little of the donations it received (also many from school children) on actually catching Joseph Kony and spending way too much on the running of the organization itself.
Except for Hitler and Eugenics (where there was no truth, only twisted logic), Daisey, Mortenson and Russell each had enough facts to tell a pretty good story. And, in all of these four examples, it was shock and awe that captured the imagination and attention of the audience-in vast numbers. If you add up the number of people who suspended disbelief in all these four cases, it would be well into the billions. In all cases, the audiences “cooperated” by pulling others into these belief systems, by spreading memes about them, by never doubting that these men were totally truthful and therefore trustworthy. (I honestly believe everything I write is true so I urge you to challenge any of it.)
Plausibility—Is this an exaggeration?
Research—How can I double-check this?
Images—Are the visuals meant to manipulate me?
Motivation—What is theirs? What is mine?
Absolutes—Is it too general a statement to be useful?
We fool ourselves constantly. Healthy skepticism requires systematic scrutiny, awareness and discipline. Charles Darwin was charming in his humility. And he would attach himself to someone if they could help him. He saw Robert Fitzroy, captain of the HMS Beagle as perfect in every way. The Beagle was the ship on which Darwin famously sailed on the voyage that led to his now ubiquitous theory of natural selection. Yet later, when Darwin became famous and could afford to, he adjusted his views, seeing Fitzroy as a deeply flawed human.6 In reality, we are all as deeply flawed as Darwin and Fitzroy.
HIVE MINDThe phenomena of “group think” comes from our ancient mind, from a time when our species’ survival counted on everyone pulling together. In the late 1940s Madison Avenue giant Alex Osborn of Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn (BBDO) decided to share all his creative secrets in a book called Your Creative Power, which became an instant best seller and introduced the concept of brainstorming to the rest of the world. The basic idea, which we all probably know and many follow, is to throw out as many ideas as possible, without judgment. Freewheel it. Get goofy. Write ’em all down. Don’t nip creativity in the bud! Above all, suspend disbelief!
We see this technique played out weekly on the television show Mad Men, about a New York City advertising agency in the 1960s. At the real-life, modern day industrial design firm IDEO, and indeed many others, brainstorming is practically a religion. Yet in experiments at Yale University as early as 1958, brainstorming was discredited as the idea igniter it had been cracked up to be (these experiments have since been replicated with the same results). As we see on Mad Men, the ideas the team comes up with at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (based on BBDO) are often shot down by the incisively brilliant Don Draper, creative partner, while “the creatives” look on in awe. Then Draper, a far better critical thinker, comes up with the winning idea all on his own, saving the day.
Those of us who have used the process know that brainstorming generally results in mediocre, crazy ideas. And that it definitely doesn’t encourage critical, on-your-feet thinking nor effective and persuasive communication skills nor does it build stronger teams.7 Yet, since it’s also been proven that most people do work better on teams, a more efficient tact may be to constructively, respectfully critique ideas as they emerge—while employing healthy skeptic skills,8 challenging assumptions—building on the best of the best ideas by interacting intelligently within a trusting, non hierarchical group-while accessing your inner Don Draper.
We tend to conform to the norms of the team, we establish a status quo through our habits and routines. We want to be accepted and appreciated. We want to cover-our-collective ass. So we get trapped in a web of assumptions that would perhaps not occur to somebody outside our sphere, which is why it’s so threatening to bring outsiders in. They would not follow the unspoken rules that hold us back. So sometimes we need to gird our loins but open our minds, acknowledge our blind spots and prejudices. Let “the other” in, access the genius of the janitor or the it guy or the intern to get a totally different point of view. Shake things up while trusting that it will all work out. Pry back open our minds clapped shut by conformity and the desire to be considered “just one of the boys.”
3M, the company that brings us the most mundane but essential of products—Post-it and Scotch tape—has one of the highest rates of innovation of any company with a uniformly successful product line of 55,000 items. That is a one-to-one employee-product ratio. Its policy is to move people from team to team. It embraces diversity—bringing an engineer onto a team with no expertise in the area in question—because it is open to the notion that the most gnarly of problems may be best solved by the new guy. The best idea wins.9 ca
Editor’s note: Part 3 of Cooperative! will run in the next issue.
1. Tom Shadyac, I Am, Shady Acres Films.
2. Steven Pinker, Better Angels of Our Nature, Viking.
4. Paul Zak, The Moral Molecule, Dutton.
5. David Samuels, “Wild Things,” Harpers.
6. Robert Wright, The Moral Animal, Viking.
7. Jonah Lehrer, “Groupthink,” The New Yorker.
8. Jonah Lehrer, “Better Than Brainstorming,” The New Yorker.
9. Jonah Lehrer, Imagine: How Creativity Works, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.