Creating The Common Good By Habit: Nate Garvis at TEDxTC (Transcript)

Nate Garvis at TEDxTC

Following is the full text of author and civic though leader Nate Garvis’ talk titled “Creating The Common Good By Habit” at TEDxTC conference.

Nate Garvis – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT

Let’s talk about this fabulous world that we live in, and let’s talk about how can make it a little bit better, because it seems like we’re having a little bit of trouble making it a little bit better these days.

You know, from the dawn of time, we’ve looked at the stars and we’ve said, “Where am I?” and “What does that mean?”

We’ve asked other really important questions of ourselves, questions like, I don’t know, “Why are my crops failing?”

“Why are rivers rising?”

“Why did a puma eat my kid this morning?”

“Why are armies marching?”

And, “Why are very bad things happening to very good people?”

It is a fabulous world, but we have always had very big challenges. There’s a lot of nature and a lot of human nature to overcome, but throughout our history, we’ve always reverted to one thing. And we do it quite well.

We like to make tools. We’re very good at making tools. You know, maybe, I don’t know, maybe I want to track the sun, I want to grow some crops, maybe I would like to, you know, turn it into something tasty, right it down into a recipe. It’s such a good recipe, I want to sell it and buy myself a big house, and make sure it’s heated as well.

Or maybe, I want to just have an aspirin and a cocktail and fly away from it all, right? These are all tools. This is our technology. And, friends, you heard it here first: whiskey is a tool.

But there is a different side of the toolbox. We don’t usually think of these things as invented and as tools, but they are. These are the institutions that populate our lives. All of the civic organizations, all of our governments, all of our religious traditions, all of the businesses that make the technology that we love and drives us nuts, they were all invented as well. They’re all designed.

And our tools have a ton of power. Not good, not bad, but both. You know, we can look here in the United States and we can think of that as a designed tool as well, and the designed documents are things that we know as the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. And this intention goes into our larger conversation of our tools and making sure that they do good things for us and aid to the common good, because they have this power. You can capture fire and invite the neighbors over for a bowl of chilli.

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Or you might want to lob some flaming arrows at them. Capture an atom. You could, you know, power a city, or if you choose to, you could wipe it off the map. You can understand the human genome and start solving some problems around disease, or you can pervert that and create mechanized death. All versions of our tools.

Because they’re powerful, we need to purpose them for the common good. We need to make them regulated. Put this regulation more than, we’re at large, something accountable, something accountable to the common good.

But we’ve been having some problems about this accountable conversation, because we’ve been thinking in a very narrow way. We usually think of regulation as something like this: a law.

But there’s a problem thinking about regulation as only a law. First of all, it’s made in a place like this. This is a temple of conflict, populated by professionally pissed-off people.

Now, think about it. No, seriously. It’s a great design, but it isn’t an adversarial design. You know, committee hearings, party identification, issue identification. It’s actually a great design when the issue at hand is a policy: “I’m black; you’re white. We’ll debate. We’ll get to gray.”

But too infrequently, that’s what it looks like. Too often, it’s about politics, and this is how that design works in politics: “You’re black; I’m white. You have to be blacker; I have to be whiter. And we get killed, if we even look gray.”

That’s a problem.

We can’t produce very good laws right now, but, guess what, there’s a bigger issue at hand. You see, we live in a world that looks like a whole world right now. We have globalized. And laws are products of physical, political jurisdictions.

Think of the financial crisis. Money, at the technology of money, flowed from New York, to London, to Tokyo, and back, but the tool of law did not follow it. Our technology outstripped an institution. We don’t have a global regulatory framework around finances. We have other kinds of regulation, though, and we always have, quite frankly.

In this case, we have global cooperation with central banks, but we have always populated ourselves with other kinds of regulation, whether it is things like table manners, or rules of the road, accords, religious tradition, contracts.

There’s lots of ways that we regulate our world. What if we looked at regulation as something of habit? What if it was just stuff that we did? I used to describe habit as something that we’re not told to do. And habits live in “habitats”.

What if we looked at regulation as building habitats? Let me give you an example.

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I’m 46, but in the home I was raised in, tolerance was not an issue. It was a value. Now, for my parents, it was an issue. It was a political issue. There were martyrs, there were murderers. There was a lot of bad things, but for the world I was raised in, in my home, it really wasn’t about laws of tolerance.

I had something very powerful in the house. I had The Jackson 5. I had the Jackson 5 and their very funky music, and their even funkier clothes. I also had these fury friends. I had Sesame Street, and Sesame Street told me that people of color and women in my society could be beautiful, and funny, and productive and a great part of my world.

And I’m not arguing that laws like the Voting Rights Act of 1964 are unimportant. Incredibly important. It’s just that the culture, the habits that we built along that law are the reason why, in my lifetime, we’ve gone from “I have a dream” to “I have this guy as my president.”

We did something that was a very big deal, because we raised an entire generation to think it wasn’t a big deal. And when I look at what’s happening right now with environmental stewardship, I see the same thing.

Again, it’s not that laws are unimportant. It’s just that sexy electric sports cars are as well. When green becomes luxury, we know we are acculturating things. When green becomes fashion, we know that we are changing our culture as well.

Even something as mundane as laundry detergent gets pretty darn exciting, when you think about how we are integrating green as a built-in designed value into the world around us, to complement the laws that we are discussing. So, that’s how we’ve done it. That’s how we’re doing it right now.

Here’s how we could do it in the future as well. Think of healthcare. You can’t pass a law that will make you healthy. In fact, what happened last year in Congress wasn’t so much healthcare reform as it was access to sick care reform.

And why was that important? Because we have built a habitat. We have built a habitat that seems to value two ideas. One is: get sick and we’ll fix you. And the other is, for some reason, we think that death is optional, but that’s where we’re spender of money.

But what if we treated you like you weren’t born broken. Let’s keep you that way. Wouldn’t that truly be healthcare reform?

Now, if we did that, we’d start building more of this into our daily diets, we’d start thinking about this as more of a daily part of our mobility. And look who’s even giving up the cookies!

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The last part is pretty important, because if we are going to create cultures, if we’re going to create habits and habitats, we’d better start playing with things like intrinsic motivation. We’d better get pretty serious about having fun, because when I tell my girls to run around the park, that’s different than run “a round” the park.

And if they’re in the playground, I can’t get them off. If I ask them to do a lap, I get one and many: one lap, many complaints. And yet, all I care about is the outcome of movement in their lives. If we were more interested in the public policy of outcomes, rather than output, then we would start thinking about building cultures, and habits and habitats, and we could have some fun making the world better.

You know, no one does well in a bad neighborhood. No business does well in a bad neighborhood. No government does well in a bad neighborhood. No church, no mosque, no synagogue, no non-profit does well in a bad neighborhood.

The problem is that we’ve been thinking about building this neighborhood with one tool. And do we swing it hard, or do we swing it softly? Do we swing it from the left or from the right?

If you had a remodeling project, would you ever walk up to it and say, “OK. What needs hammering?” But that seems to be how we’re looking at our world right now, when we could be looking at our world as a hammer in a sea of other tools.

We have never had so many tools at our disposal. We have never had so much technology and so many institutional forms to go at creating a better world. And we can do that by using all those tools, integrating common good values into the products and services that we use everyday, having fun doing it.

And then, once again, we might look at those stars and we might say to ourselves, “Aren’t they beautiful? And aren’t we lucky to be here tonight together?”

Thank you.


Download This Transcript as PDF here: Creating The Common Good By Habit_ Nate Garvis at TEDxTC (Transcript)


For Further Reading:

Julien S. Bourrelle: How Culture Drives Behaviours at TEDxTrondheim (Transcript)

Rethinking Culture: Small Actions Today, Big Impact Tomorrow by Jolynna Sinanan (Transcript)

Saba Safdar: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Culture (Transcript)

HSN’s CEO Mindy Grossman on Culture Trumps Strategy (Transcript)

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