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tom wolfe

    Creativity Corner Inspirational People

    in conversation with roman krznaric

    November 1, 2012

    Today i’m honoured to introduce you to a man i’ve been stalking for just over four years. The good news is that he knows about this and doesn’t feel threatened in any form or shape;)

    I first met roman in 2008, at a talk held by the school of life. Interested in his views on how to find fulfilling work and his other passion, empathy, i immediately felt i connected with a kindred spirit. I’ve been following roman’s work ever since. For those of you who don’t know roman, in essence, he is a cultural thinker and writer on the art of living.

    Over the summer, i emailed him asking whether he’d be up to appear on my blog. Graciously, he accepted so we spent an hour or so together where he allowed me to delve into his past and into his mind. I thoroughly enjoyed it, albeit a little nervous of doing him justice here!

    Some of you might remember my post on brené brown. She was being interviewed by roman so i thought it appropriate to turn the tables and be ‘in conversation with roman krznaric’. Take a look here for roman’s write up of that same interview.

    I had some questions prepared, but decided to keep it organic and see where it took us.

    I’m interested in how you got to do what you do today. Can we explore the notion of role models while you were growing up? I think I had role models in retrospect. I look back, particularly at my grandparents on my mothers side, who were unusual people. They were bohemian intellectuals, living on the bushy southern outskirts of sydney. My grandmother was a member of the communist party, a vegetarian, and a nudist. You must remember this was in the 1930’s, she was very unusual. It was post world war I and there was an explosion of bohemian living. She was very experimental with the way that she lived. A romanian jew, she fled across to china in the early 1920s, begged her way down to shanghai and eventually arrived in australia.

    As a child, of course, she was just my grandmother. But if I think about it, she was breaking lots of social taboos and definitely thinking about the art of living. She was true to her beliefs, and completely lived by them. She was definitely a big role model to me and i have a picture of her in my hallway. When i have to make a big decision i often find myself thinking: what would my grandmother naomi have done…. she died when i was 9 years old.

    When did you first realise that your grandmother was a role model for you? When did you first make the link between your thinking and the possible connection to your grandmothers thinking? Probably in my 20’s. I was a late developer, in terms of maturity, about self-reflection around my own life. In my mid 20’s i had this inkling she was an interesting and unusual person and i decided to do some research about her. I went into the australian national archives and dug out all these interesting radio programs she had made. She was one of these lone women voices on australian radio and used to give little lectures on the radio on her favourite subjects like the life of tolstoy, anatole france and on political issues.

    Listening to you now, you seem so like her…. I don’t know whether i am or not. I just wish i could have known her better. I dug out some autobiographical stuff she started writing and you start constructing a person out of these fragments and start seeing parts of yourself in those. She is a constructed being from my imagination.

    How was she to you? Was she a normal grandmother? Did she bake cookies for you? No, she wasn’t like that. She didn’t bake cookies. She was vibrant, loud, strong, intellectual. She used to stand on the australian equivilant of speakers corner and make political speeches. Her husband, my grandfather Leo, was much more part of my life. He died 5 years ago at the age of 91. He was a constant inspiration to me. He tried to be an independent intellectual, not part of any institution. He left school when he was 16. He was a writer, poet, journalist and spent 30 years writing one book about an obscure subject…the building of the australian overland telegraph line in 1871. He wrote this as an historical fiction. I admired that staying power and that independence of mind. He was politically radical on the left but was also a devotee of sufism. He juggled everything.

    Wow! I suppose having such strong role models did influence your path? I can see now that with this kind of background it’s probably no surprise i turned out this way, however, it really depends what you pick up on. I actually grew up in a very middle class family in the suburbs of sydney and I could have, I guess, drawn on that stability, security and conformity about my life.. but in a sense i jumped back a generation!

    Did you feel comfortable and part of your family structure? Yes, i did. My mother died when i was 10 and so I was left with my father. My stepmother, who came along a couple years later, became a great inspiration to me. She was a high school history teacher and she inspired me with the love of the past, social history and thinking about those who have been forgotten by history. Again, one realises these things in retrospect. I’ve just written a book about history, what history can teach us about how to live. I did not choose to write about philosophy or psychology or religion and what they can teach us about how to live, i chose history. Why? Why did i write this book? One of the reasons, the deep reason, is because of my stepmothers influence. The other influence was one of my high school history teachers when i went to a british international high school in hong kong in my last four years of secondary school. I had a wonderful history teacher.

    Tell me about your education and your subsequent working life. My father had a job in hong kong so we went there from australia when I was 14. I came to england at 18 to study at oxford. After my studies i worked as a financial journalist and i also worked as a tele sales operative. Then i went to live in spain for a year. When i came back I did my masters in latin american studies, followed by a phd in political sociology.  For a short time i worked as an academic, lecturing in politics and sociology. I have quite an academic soul. I like sitting in libraries and thinking. But I found academia limiting and i wanted to be able to escape somewhere i could write about different philosophies, psychology, religion, whatever i fancied. Maybe write about memoir and play around with film.

    I decided to leave academia and started working with this historian called theodore zeldin who wrote an intimate history of humanity. I discovered he ran this little foundation called the oxford muse, which was invented to create conversations between strangers across social divides, get beyond the labels and discover the uniqueness of each individual. I was project director and worked with him for about three and a half years. Empathy and work were very connected in every project we did. I liked that because i was already interested in empathy. It was there i started running conversation meals where people would sit down with menus with conversations topics on them like: ‘what have you learned about the different varieties of love in your life so far?’ We’d get jews talking to muslims, the rich talking to the poor, older people to younger people. Also, what theodore was interested in was how work can be re-invented. How can you create a new kind of conversation in the workplace to bring out and make use of people’s potentials and uniqueness? For example, we went and did some work in neals yard remedies and there were all these people working in the warehouse that were fantastic film makers. No one in management knew that, so we tried to create conversation meals to bridge that gap in order to promote mutual empathy.

    Do you think there are fundamental flaws with our schools and universities? Yes, i think that every school and university should teach the art of living. That’s why we need to re-invent universities.

    So you left the oxford muse to pursue your interest in how to find fulfilling work and in empathy. What happened next? There seems to be a real hunger for re-thinking what life is all about. The dissatisfaction with high consumption – the idea that consumerism is going to be the path to the good life is changing drastically. The idea for setting up the school of life started in around 2007 and i was invited to design the school of life’s original work course. Once i started teaching the course, it was interesting to see what inspires people and what doesn’t, what works and what doesn’t. A lot has been tweaked in the various classes at the school of life, but the core message has never changed, which is to provide good ideas for everyday living from a range of disciplines, from philosophy to psychology, sociology to the visual arts. It’s been just over four years since its launch. Around 50,000 people have been through the doors. 

    On the subject of empathy, how can we create a better world?
    In the 70’s, the american journalist tom wolfe talked about the ‘me’ decade. Everything was about ‘me’ and ‘i’ became the most fascinating thing in the world. We lost something about communities, social connections and empathy and so i think we’re moving into an age where we need to recover that and move from introspection to outrospection, where we discover ourselves by stepping outside ourselves and the boundaries of our own egos, and becoming interested in the lives of other people. Empathy is the ultimate artform for the age of outrospection. That’s the best way to do it – empathically – changing the world one relationship at a time.

    Do you believe then that empathy can be taught? I absolutely think it can be taught. Current research shows that in part we are wired for empathy. Our brains are wired for social cooperation. We have the capacity to step in someone else’s shoes and understand their feelings. That emotional connection emerges in early childhood and research shows that if you don’t get a lot of this in the first few years, you’ll find it very difficult to expand your empathy in later life. That said, things can happen during our lives that can shift us and that can shift our views. There are two basic ways to expand empathy, through experience and conversations. A lot of people have empathic leaps through conversations. They may have had assumptions about someone, maybe about their educational background and it turns out that their assumptions are totally wrong and now they realise that this someone is very different from their initial assumptions. When you start appreciating someone’s uniqueness instead of just seeing them as a label like ‘religious fundamentalist’ or ‘single mother’, you are being empathic.

    In my own life, i was once having a conversation with a man who was a paranoid schezoprenic, with a history of violence. I was talking to him and i thought we were very different people and had nothing in common. Then the subject of philosophy came up and it turned out that this man, in his 50’s, had studied philosophy in oxford in the early 70’s. He was a guy who lived for years and years on the streets, picking up cigarette butts and jabbering to himself. We ended up developing a friendship based on our mutual interest in philosophy – something i would never have expected. Those kind of moments where the way i labelled him was torn apart through our conversation, are the kind of moments that can shift us. Of course, empathy is taught in schools. There is a very famous empathy teaching program in canada called: the roots of empathy. So it is something that can be taught, that we can learn!

    Take a look here at roman’s wonderful essay (in pdf format): empathy and the art of living. In fact, check out all his essays.

    You’ve just published not one but two books in the same year. What an amazing year you are having! You must be over the moon? Yes, the first one, the wonderbox, is an attempt to re-invent the self-help genre or the genre of how to live by drawing on the untapped resource of history, rather than on philosophy or psychology. What can three millennia of history tell us about better living?

    How to find fulfilling work is one of six books in the school of life’s new practical philosophy series, edited by alain de botton. The desire for fulfilling work is one of the great aspirations of our age and the book aims to reveal how one might make it a reality.

    In terms of being over the moon, sure, on one hand i’m delighted with them. On the flip side, i’ve spent a lot of time this year giving talks, going on tours and doing interviews. What i’ve lost and what i haven’t had is regular writing time, you know sitting down at my desk from 9 in the morning and writing until 3 in the afternoon. When i don’t have that, I really feel not myself as it’s such a big part of me. I’m in the middle of writing something new. It’s a kind of prequel to a new book, an essay about how self-help and the happiness industry have gone in a terrible direction and how we can bring them back. It’s helping me think about this new book i’m writing, entitled: the six habits of highly empathic people. This makes me happy, for want of a better word!

    When you and i first met you talked about your wish to set up an empathy museum. I know the format has slightly changed since then. What are your plans for it now? Yes, back then it was a physical museum that would have been set up like any museum. Now i’m thinking it may initially start as an online project with downloadable exhibits. The idea is to create a downloadable kit so one can put on events in communities, organisations and schools, a bit like the conversation meals i described earlier on. This would encourage a much more interactive way of creating a museum. It hopefully then will become a museum created by people and communities.

    Roman, i cannot thank you enough for your generosity and inspiration. I can’t wait to read your new book and will now resume my role as your stalker. See you soon:) For those of you who would like to join me in stalking roman, here’s where you’ll find him next.

    I will keep this post up here for a week and see you all back here next thursday. Tara.