The case for Compassion X: Bridging the gap between cleverness and wisdom

Compassion X
Lindsay Levin

Lindsay Levin

02 December 2015

This article is a call to action. It is an invitation to engage with a series of questions to explore compassion in different spheres of life – and to share some of the radical ideas with the power to transform our path to the future.

In 1968, astronauts on Apollo 8 sent back the first photographs of the earth taken from the far side of the moon. This marked a profound step in the human journey of understanding who we are and where we live. The opportunity to stand outside, look back, and marvel at a glowing blue ball suspended in space, its fragile line of biosphere barely hugging the surface. Nearly 50 years on from that first overview, thanks to the Hubble space telescope, scientists now estimate there are 65 billion galaxies in the known universe, and 70% of all energy is ‘dark energy’, something we do not understand and that appears to be pushing the universe apart at an ever increasing rate.

We are, it turns out, even tinier than we imagine.

Three years before the Apollo 8 flight, Gordon Moore, then head of R&D at Fairchild Semiconductor, published an article describing an idea that would become known as Moore’s Law. It stated, in essence, that the power of computing doubles approximately every two years. It describes a continuing driving force of change that has proven strikingly accurate over the last five decades – a force that today applies to advances across multiple fields of study, from biotech, nanotech and robotics to artificial intelligence or the cost of solar power.

Moore’s Law, when plotted on a graph, looks something like a hockey stick. A flattish beginning that sweeps upwards to a near vertical line. It’s a curve that looks uncannily similar to those that plot the rate of change in many other areas of life. From population growth to the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere, accelerating human change is having a profound impact on the natural world. Organizations like the International Geosphere-Biosphere Project are working to track this Great Acceleration in the relationship between the human footprint and the destruction of natural capital. So great is the current rate of plant and animal species loss, that humankind is now in the process of contributing to the 6th mass extinction – the Anthropocene.[1]

Rapidly, and sometimes unwittingly, we are destroying our own habitat whilst leaving many of our fellow citizens behind. Yet we have within our grasp knowledge and solutions with the potential to turn around our impact on the earth and improve the wellbeing of all. The struggle between short-termism and self-centeredness on the one hand, and wisdom and inclusion on the other, has probably never been more important than it is today.

The power of X

Meanwhile, in other fields of endeavor, the idea of exponential, transformational change has become embedded in the modern lexicon to symbolize a new nexus of wealth, power and heroic possibilities. Google X is a lab in California dedicated to making major technological advances. Current ‘moonshot’ projects range from creating the world’s first mass market driverless car, a bid to deliver products across a city by using flying vehicles, and project Loon which aims to make internet access ubiquitous by creating a network of balloons flying through the stratosphere. Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s Space X is seeking to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.

It’s a heady brew of discovery and the chance to make a mark. The X prize for example, a self-described “catalyst for the benefit of humanity”, invites teams of innovators to compete to find breakthrough solutions to problems which will not be addressed by conventional market forces. They aim to harness the power of competition and financial incentives to bring new ideas to life. “We believe that you get what you incentivize. And that without a target, you will miss it every time.”

Even in this ‘X’ world, the centrality of money as motivator and pre-eminent measure of success remains striking. The collective effort focused on enterprise geared to sustainable, inclusive wellbeing remains miniscule compared to investment in creating ever more stuff to consume to excess.

It’s 21 years since John Elkington came up with the term ‘Triple Bottom Line’ as a way for business to account for people and planet as well as profit.[2] He’s one of many who have spent the last couple of decades working to bring a broader definition of business and societal bottom line into public consciousness. Yet real progress is hard and slow. Collectively, as consumers, producers and citizens, we are far from embracing the self-evident need to live within planetary constraints or to narrow the growing gap in inequality.

Our modern mix of concentrated wealth, dismal political leadership, narrow focus on financial profit in much of corporate life, along with exponential technological change, ought to give us pause for thought. Too much of the culture at the top of each of these food chains is characterized by status, hubris and a comfortable kind of insularity. A belief that ‘we can and will change the world’ but typically very little interest in the diverse voices and perspectives that make up that world.

One way to think about this debate is to frame it as the tension between cleverness and wisdom.

Intellectually, scientifically, humanity is in the midst of a period of radical change. After thousands of years progressing at a relatively modest pace, we’ve accelerated in an extraordinary fashion with the graphs that plot all of this literally shooting off the page. But where are we in terms of emotional development, ethics and spiritual growth? What happens when we stick these on a graph and plot our evolution over time? One great challenge we face today – and the source of much of the dis-ease that people often feel – is the huge disparity between our intellectual capacity and our emotional, ethical and spiritual growth. In a world of eight, nine, ten billion people, wisdom, not cleverness, will determine our collective fate.

The power of compassion

We’ve arrived at a fork in the road. Not suddenly or overnight. Rather it has crept up on us and us on it. We are utterly inter-dependent with one another, with the earth and with all of life, and we have today more scientific insight into this interconnectedness than ever before. Just as we are learning to manipulate our own DNA and make synthetic life, so we increasingly understand the wonder of our own existence. We are indeed in need of exponential change – first and foremost in our own consciousness and sense of compassion. Cleverness alone won’t cut it. We’re going to have to tap a deeper awareness of who we really are and how we are related.

Compassion is a hard word to use in tough company. It’s a quality often associated with sentimentality and idealism that can render itself powerless. Yet true compassion – the capacity to take the perspective and feel the emotions of another person, the desire to care for one another – is core to being human. Strange then, that the very idea of talking about it should feel so awkward.

The idea of Compassion X is about a transformation of heart. It’s about reimagining our approach to mutual care and how we scale it to address humanity’s greatest challenges. For sure, it includes the need to set ambitious goals, scale beneficial solutions and build more purposeful companies and communities. But the X in Compassion X is not just about doing more and faster. Rather, it’s about a mindset shift – something that more often comes from increasing stillness than ever more frenetic activity. We have to feel our way to a broader, deeper caring, to expand our sense of family circle, and experience the vulnerability that comes with this. If we are all part of the same whole, then your pain and mine are intertwined. I cannot insulate myself by acquiring assets or building walls – certainly not without losing part of who I am in the process.

Human behavior is slow to change – our brains evolve as gradually as everything else. So when it comes to scaling compassion, the weight of history would seem to set a poor precedent. Yet there is ample evidence that people can and do rise above fear and closed-mindedness. Empathy and cooperation are core to human identity. We are wired to help. The idea that we are all hapless hostages to our own selfishness is not only hopeless, but also unduly pessimistic.[3]

In the 1960s, psychologists began to paint a picture of how adult development unfolds beyond the familiar accumulation of knowledge, skills and experience, to include the potential to see new perspectives, develop mature wisdom and move to powerful action. Since then a body of work has emerged to describe this vertical development as a series of transformations that build upon one another.

“Transformations of human consciousness, or changes in our view of reality, are more powerful than any amount of horizontal growth and learning,” writes Susanne Cook-Greuter, one of the leading researchers and pioneers in this space.[4]

Cook-Greuter is describing how a person learns to make meaning of life, growing to become more flexible and inclusive, and better able to cope with constant change. It’s a path to new awareness that is not learned in the conventional sense but, rather, comes through self-reflection, lived experience and dialogue. Growth that translates into a way of being, as much as doing.

We need to develop wisdom today like never before, to pursue this kind of growth with as much passion as we currently direct towards the economic kind. Never mind that not everyone’s interested or on the journey – what matters is that a critical swell of influencers summon the courage to step forward. The world needs many more people prepared to engage with different cultures, lifestyles and generations – people with the curiosity to listen to another point of view and find their own heart opening in response.

Above all, we need to find the space for a quiet mind, as well as an active one. To sit and contemplate the life we are part of, and the extraordinary ripple effect we have on everything around us by the way we choose to show up and engage.

“Intuition is dead” a Silicon Valley entrepreneur said to me recently, describing the power of big data to inform every decision.

Now, of all times, humility looks a wiser path.

IQ we know how to measure. Personality types we are happy to define. But capturing EQ and beyond, assessing good judgement, empathy and the ability to see the bigger picture, remains something of a taboo, despite ample evidence of its importance. Millions of students graduate from universities and business schools every year with barely any ethics class. You can become a biochemist without ever studying toxicology, a politician without demonstrating any kind of integrity. Executives are more often promoted because they are perceived as winners than people with the patience to build bridges with unlikely partners.

We can turn a blind eye to the widening gap between the impact of human cleverness and the wisdom with which we apply it – or we can open up to new ways of being and responding to a fast-changing world. Compassion X is the case for love in action. It calls for the kind of bold vision that took us to the moon, and the wonder and humility of that first glance back at the earth. It starts with work on the inside – listening to an inner voice as well as those on the outside. It’s about asking questions as much as offering answers. It means living our most deeply held values both at home and at work. It calls for courage not blame, partnership not division, a renewal of priorities and purpose. Happily, we don’t need to begin from the ground up. We can stand on the shoulders of previous generations. People have always contemplated who we are and what we’re doing here. The questions are not new, but now, of all times, we need to respond on a wholly different scale.

Compassion X is a project convened by Leaders’ Quest. It is an invitation to contribute to positive change faster and more profoundly than each of us now imagines we can.


[1] A term coined in 2000 by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer to denote the present epoch, in which many geologically significant conditions and processes are profoundly altered by human activities. It comes from the Greek words ‘anthropos’, meaning human, and ‘kainos’ meaning 'new'.

[2] John Elkington, Cannibals with Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business(Capstone, 1997).

[3] See The Altruistic Brain (published 2014) by renowned neuroscientist Donald Pfaff for an up-to-date and comprehensive summary of the biological basis for altruistic behavior in humans.

[4] http://www.verticaldevelopment.com/main.html