Life is Good

Life is Good

For long-haul travel, my favorite antidote to jet lag is a good book. Not only can you use that extra time during which you can’t-quite-fall-asleep to get something fun done, but also I feel that when traveling my mind is primed to absorb new ideas. Or at least be more aware and open to them.

This trip back to the U.S. for my reunion was no exception. I arrived on Wednesday and took off on Sunday at 6am, so my body clock was a little funky the whole time. Luckily for me, I had recently picked up a copy of Hans Rosling’s Factfulness. Bill Gates is giving a copy of the book away to all college graduates (or anyone who is a member on his site).

The basic premise of the book is that over the last 100 years (and longer), life on planet earth has gotten systematically better and no one is really talking about it. Rosling, who is famous for his TED talks (where I first saw him), is a master storyteller and data analyst all wrapped up in a friendly and approachable tone, sharing memories of his time as a doctor in Sweden, Vietnam, and Mozambique.

Among the jaw-dropping statistics showing our world is actually a quickly-improving place are the following:

  • In 1800, 44% of all children worldwide died before their 5th birthday. Today, that is 4%.
  • In 1893, 1 country had equal rights for women to vote as men. In 2017, the figure was 193 (out of 194).
  • In 1970, 65% of girls of primary age are enrolled in school. By 2015, the figure had reached 90%.
  • In 1980, 22% of children worldwide received some form of immunization or vaccination by their first birthday. In 2016, 88%.

Of course, there’s much more to the book than simply reporting the facts. Rosling’s candid admission that human condition is still not great took me by surprise. After a winding road of statistics and cognitive biases that prevent us from seeing the good in the world (the real content in the book - and fascinating at that), I was expecting him to say, “Look how much better we are. Excellent work everyone! We’re great!”

Rather, Rosling provides a more nuanced view. He writes that we can be ‘not great’ and ‘getting better’ at the same time - that’s where we are today. While the human condition for some can still be nasty, brutish, and short, the pace at which we are reducing the maladies that affect humanity negatively is staggering.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, after putting the book down my thoughts circled back to our work at LearningLeaders. It is tempting, much like the general populous, for us to focus on the negative headlines. Let’s be honest: drama can be exciting to talk about! If no drama happened during the day, then we don’t have much to talk about with our friends or part- ner over after-work drinks when they start complaining about a crazy colleague.

Rosling proves satisfyingly we may have a natural predilection to focus more on the negative than the positive. But let’s not get sucked into the trap of focusing on limited negative news at the risk of forgetting the improvements that are being made every day. I’m probably more guilty of it that anyone because I’m a self-admitted progress zealot. There are so many attributes of our work going in such the right direction - let’s focus there!

By the end of Factfulness, I’ve never been so optimistic about the world’s direction of progress (still holding that injustices that exist - we must see continued improvements).

Coming back to Shanghai, I feel similarly about our work - many sunshine-y days ahead!

Life is Good.