Bring Wisdom to Work


Based on my TEDx talk in Hong Kong on the 5th May 2015 (see

I want to dedicate my talk to my late sister Rebecca Dadswell, who passed away this year, exactly four months to this day. She also taught me to how to bring wisdom to work.

It is 7th Century in Ancient China. Guandong Province. Two monks are arguing whilst looking at a flag fluttering in the wind. One monk insists that the flag is moving and the other insists that it is the wind that is moving. Neither will concede. An old monk appears from the mist [because its always misty on such occasions] and says: “the flag isn’t moving. The wind isn’t moving. It is your minds that are moving.” The old man was Hui Neng, an old sage also known as the Sixth Patriarch. Over his lifetime he went on to teach the importance of keeping a clear mind, finding your true self and helping others.

Today, Ladies and Gentlemen I would like to talk about something that has a bad name, at least in the world of business – wisdom.

Although I was born a Christian I also do Zen meditation. After the GFC, I went to India to travel and also listen to some talks by the Dalai Lama. One day in New Delhi I had breakfast with the head of a multi-billion dollar PE fund. We got into a conversation about the seeds of the GFC and he said “Benjamin, the problem in the business and financial world nowadays is that we value intellect above wisdom.” I thought was perhaps one of the best explanations.

I am both a futurist and a catalyst for change in organisations and individuals. In the field of futurism, they say that the future is already here, but it’s just not evenly distributed yet. Ladies and Gentlemen, it feels to me that there are different forces at work in the world today. Whilst financial markets push on up ever higher it feels that underneath we are as precarious as 2007. Credit has expanded since the GFC, not contracted, and this has washed into all sorts of assets making many of them overvalued again. If 2008 was 1929 then we could be close to 1937 when markets had another gigantic shake out. Perhaps the next shake out will provide us with an opportunity to rebuild this system. I see some positive signs emerging, and for the future of humanity I want to focus on those.

But before we continue I need to talk about biology. I want to ask you how many brains are there in the human body?

There are actually 3. The head, the heart and the gut. Ancient wisdom traditions – especially in Asia – have known this for thousands of years. In English we also talk about a “gut feeling.” The gut has often been associated with mental strength and wisdom. A German scientist also rediscovered this enteric brain in the 1860s. Then the medical world ignored the findings for over 100 years until Gerson started talking about it again in the 1990s.   The head brain is also divided in to the left and right hemispheres. The left is the logical mind and the right brain relates more to visual, spatial awareness and creativity.

Nowadays, when we talk of intelligence we are talking about cognitive thinking. Visionary educators like Sir Ken Robinson complain that educational institutions and society are overly focused n the left part of the brain. It’s this logical thinking that actually torments us. Because we don’t live in a linear world.

I discovered this in midst of financial markets – few stocks or indices move in straight lines (because they are a reflection of the human mind or thinking about a given company or country) and I then I saw that nature was non linear. Look at the way plants and animals grow and change. Look at systems. We live in a chaotic, every changing, and impermanent world. Yet we are using a tool that’s unequipped to deal with it. Many ancient Sages have said that one source of human suffering is this grasping of control of this changing world.

Our organizations and workplaces are also set up like that. This is a legacy of the Industrial Revolution and the mindset of command and control, that humans are cogs in a wheel. We also think that the company needs just one brain. We are often using systems and mindsets that were developed 250 years ago. Many of the famous organizational theorists are engineers, many trying to efficiently eke out productivity from labour. But humans and human systems behave like nature.

I see 3 areas where we can change –and utilize more wisdom. As a futurist I already see some shifts.

First, the mind. We need to learn to start using the right tools. It’s wonderful that companies are starting to show interest in design thinking as this taps in to different parts of our intelligence (or wisdom). This is a reason why we have tied up with a design school and not a business school. I also think that the rise in interest in mindfulness and mind training is encouraging. Look at the success of the recent Wisdom 2.0 conferences in Silicon Valley encouraging mindfulness. In Zen we actually call it “No Mind” as mindFULness sounds like too much thinking to me. But it’s just a semantic difference. The starting point of all of this is relearning how to breathe. I have a 100-day-old baby – called Gaya – and she breathes from her belly button, her “dantian”, as its known in Chinese. She is full of life, alert and looks at her environment in wonder. Then as we get older we often breathe higher up when we get all emotional and sometimes from up at the top of chest when we can become neurotic. If we move our breathing back to beneath our belly button, we can kick start our gut (or enteric) brain and heart brains. And our head brains also become clearer. Young children are much more in the moment and are significantly more creative than adults. We need this kind of creativity at this important juncture of human history.

One other way of activating our wisdom – or other forms of intelligence – is to ask powerful questions. Questions can also shift us out of our cognitive thinking. There is great power in staying in the space of not knowing. Strong meditation or yoga can take you out of the mind into the intelligence of the body and a feeling of not knowing. This unknowing mind is a great skill that we have lost in today’s society because we are trained to know – we jump into answers so quickly. Hedge fund manager Ray Dalio – a meditator himself – wrote an article this year about the power of no knowing. Einstein once said that if he had 60 minutes to solve a question he would spend 55 minutes focused on the question. Then it would only take him 5 minutes to solve it.

Second is to recognize the power of collective intelligence (or wisdom). And to use co-creation.

I had my wake up call when I was the largest investor in a music technology company in LA. Google, Justin Timberlake and some other well known investors and billionaires invested alongside us and we were convinced it was going to be a billion dollar company. But it failed. And I believe that it was because we didn’t create a culture of dialogue where the youngest person in the room was heard. As the company was failing I had a random conversation with the youngest member of the team and realized that he had held the key to success all along but had never been given a voice because we had not created a culture of co-creation.

The good news is that more companies are recognizing the power of collective intelligence or co-creation as we call it. Although Steve Jobs is worshipped as one of the business heroes of our age, it’s quite interesting that he made his money on Pixar. Unlike his somewhat autocratic style at Apple, he left Pixar alone and just supported it – in many important ways I will recognise. This is a company that fuses different disciplines – technology, art and business – and has a culture that encourages collective insight. Vast numbers of people are involved in the rather chaotic but creative process of making their films. In fact the company includes everyone on its credits – even the cooks and babies born during the production. Tony Hsieh at Zappos has also moved to a more co-creative organization and banished middle management with its shift to Halocracy recently.

For a culture of co-creation and dialogue to happen, one needs to create space. This is both physical space and social space. We are in fact researching both in collaboration with the Design School here. In the ancient Tao Te Ching, it says that whilst the clay of a cup is important, it’s the space that the most important.

True dialogue can happen when space is created. My favourite quote about dialogue is that it’s not people talking, but “minds unfolding”. Communication is not dialogue. Our current generation is great at communication – whatapp, FB, e mail, Kakao, skype. But is that really dialogue?

The good thing is that you don’t have to wait for your CEO to implement dialogue for you to start. My colleagues Vittoria and Julian will probably elaborate more in dialogue in their talks but it’s a key part of what we do.

Finally there is direction or purpose.

Life is a journey. I am a big fan of Tolkien and Lord of the Rings. Tolkien once wrote “not all those who wander are lost.” Wandering into the unknown is part of life. If you keep trying to create your perfect world you might lose out on finding your authentic voice.

A few months ago I found a nice little café that looked like a library on the interior in South Korea to continue writing my book. I noticed the words “Wake Up!” printed on the side of the coffee cup. Does wake up mean the act of drinking the coffee and experiencing the caffeine-induced high of the morning, I thought. That buzz. Or does it mean something bigger? That how I read it. We are all walking around asleep, so caught up in our thoughts (whatsapps) and little preoccupations. There are more important things and forces out there. Perhaps we will never understand them with the head at least. Wake Up! is a all to action to follow ones life purpose. Should we drift through life following what someone else – or society – told us to do. I was always a bit of a renegade at school. Although I got good grades and did what I needed to do, I really didn’t want to conform. I wanted to take risks, to write poetry, and to have fun. I wanted to explore and I wanted to get lost. I used to get on my bike each day as a kid and cycle as far as I could into unknown places. There is an innate sense that we want to adventure I feel. Why are films like Lord of the Rings are so popular. Then I started getting graded at school and I started to care about what people thought of me even more. I started following my head.

When I was happiest it was following my heart – when I learnt salsa (quite badly) in the evenings, went skiing at the weekends, explored mountain peaks, and met and helped new people. At work when I did something innovative, creative, purposeful and compassionate it felt good. But the daily grind was soul-destroying. Waking up everyday with the same thoughts and feelings; sometimes it was a feeling of impending doom. Everything was going to be the same. It seems that as the world has become more complex and uncertain, leaders perceive heightened risks and they are applying even more command and control. People are filling out more and more forms and their reporting burden goes up. There is less time to connect with others. No wonder so many people just go to work joylessly to just put food on the table and defer their happiness. More and more people are suffering from psychological afflictions. Aside from alcohol and illegal drugs, modern society is now hooked on anti depressants, sleeping pills and legal mind-altering drugs. Don’t we all feel a call to action? Some of us have a yearning at a young age and we follow our hearts into the unknown. For some of us we need to suffer the drudgery of everyday life until the volume is so high we cannot ignore it. And some of us get a shock. The Heroes of antiquity had this longing to leave the mundane world and go to a special land, to fight dragons, enter dark caves and forests and get the treasure. One stage of this journey is called the Apotheosis, this is where you discover you true self, or the divinity within. This is what I named my company. In the arts its also interestingly known as the magnus opus of one’s artistic career like the Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel or Beethoven’s 6th Symphony.

My call to action came in the midst of crisis. I felt stuck in my job where I couldn’t move forward or backwards. I was full of fear. Deep down I knew I had a bigger mission in life – I was to write more, to be creative and to serve as a leader. I longed to write poetry again and be a human, not a human resource. So I anesthetized my feelings through sports and then drinking. Then came the dark night of the soul. Its darkest before the dawn they say. MY dark night was stressful indeed but it was followed by a beautiful space. One day I called my bank and told them that I wouldn’t be coming in that day.

Does that mean you should all quit your jobs like I did? No, I don’t think you need to. You can connect to your higher purpose and play it out in your current job quite likely. My sister died 4 months ago at 35 years old. My sister Rebecca was all about happiness. She innately knew her purpose was to be kind and compassionate to all. Although she started out as a dancer – with perhaps grandiose dreams of stardom – she become a police officer and used her unique situation to console the victims of crime, take homeless people for walks, hug prisoners and share love and laughter in the serious workplaces of the police.

She brought her purpose into her workplace

Her funeral was a testament to that life – she received a huge police funeral with honour guards and horses, despite only being a junior officer.

We receive energy from following our innate purpose. It not a Utopian idea. If you are a leader your employees will be stronger and your workplace will have fewer politics if you encourage them to find their purpose and unique magic. In Ancient cultures we always had rites of passage, where at certain ages people would go into the wilderness to use nature as a tool to help them intuitively go into the soul and discover their True Name and purpose. I also organize such events – some people call them Vision Quests, I call them Life Quests. I think everyone should do one in his or her lifetime.

A hero of mine died last year, Robin Williams. In the Dead Poet’s Society, the teacher that he played made this stirring quote:

“Boys, you must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said, ‘Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.’ Don’t be resigned to that. Break out!”


We do indeed live in interesting times. On the one had I can sense the beginning of a new renaissance. The breathroughs in biotech, robotics, neuroscience, quantum physics and the understanding of human consciousness are massive – as is the shift to more multi-disciplinary thinking. This is co-creation on a global scale.

On the other hand, our economies, social and financial systems are flawed and precarious. I sense crisis and I hope we can seize upon this. I think the answers lie both in the inner journey and collective intelligence and dialogue.

A great teacher once said “a good situation is a bad situation, and a bad situation is a good situation.” Wise words indeed.

Benjamin J. Butler


Don’t have an account? Sign up