Turning Challenges into Possibilities: A Process for change

A revolution of thought

Several moons ago, astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus discovered something rather disappointing to the 16th Century ego. Up until that point it was believed that the Earth not the Sun, was the centre of the universe. Mr Copernicus disagreed. He asserted that the Earth was one of several planets revolving around the Sun. What is now referred to as the Copernican Shift changed, well, everything.

Fast forward around 450 years and we are faced with the extraordinary possibility of a similarly history-defining shift. The Covid-19 pandemic is asking big questions of us and its only now – some 5 or 6 months in – that we are beginning to hear them.

The “what if” question

The questions are gritty, often intensely personal, not easily answered but whole-hearted and possibility based. As we experiment with asking these mind-bending, Copernican-style questions, the invitation is surely to begin some of our sentences with the almost magical words, “what if…”. As these questions emerge, so does the potential for a very different future. Here are some that I have heard:

  • What if we use this opportunity to rethink education?
  • What if we decide not to fly to meetings ever again?
  • What if we continue to feed the hungry, give to the poor, support local businesses – as we have during the lockdown?
  • What if our families were to remain more important than our work? What would need to change?
  • What if we fully embrace technology knowing that in doing so, we are healing the planet?
  • What if we revamp our healthcare systems to cater for everyone – not just the rich?
  • What if we allow the starkness of inequality – so evident throughout this time – to stir in us a real desire to rectify this injustice?

A process for creating shift:

There are endless C-19-gifted “what if” questions like these just waiting to be discovered and the encouragement is to take some time to unearth a few of these with family, friends, colleagues or members of your community.

When you hit on one or two that excite you, jot down a dozen or so outcomes that would result if that “what if” was to become a reality. This will stir your spirits. Then, pick an outcome you truly want to make happen and jot down a couple of micro-steps that you are going to take in the next 1 – 2 days to make that outcome come to life. Voila – your very own Copernican Shift!

The great losses endured by so many worldwide from this pandemic must not go to waste. In fact, they must be seen by all of us as the wake-up call we so desperately needed. We have been given a chance to once more remove ourselves from the centre of the universe. What we do as an expression of this shift in thinking doesn’t have to be big or impressive; it doesn’t have to solve the whole issue.

But we must do – or continue to do – something.

Covid-19: Do for one what you wish you could do for all

We are now deep in the bowels of lockdown phase 2. Phase 1 was all about denial; tearing around the place exercising, homeworking, cooking, feeding, cleaning, meditating, Zooming/Skyping/Teaming, giving, writing, responding, watching, listening, reading. On and on we did.   

The mood is shifting

7 weeks in, and the mood is shifting. Can you feel it too? We are moving beyond our own personal need for safety and control – trying to maintain life-as-normal – towards an acceptance of our collective vulnerability and humanity. We are beginning to look out at the terrifying consequences that this crisis is having on our economy and on people’s lives. The loss of income is now biting hard. Over a third of our population has gone to bed hungry in recent weeks. The myriad social consequences of hunger and deprivation are rising. Millions of kids are idling. It is a powder keg.

The reality is cutting deep

Vast scores of small and micro business owners – around 5 million to be exact, many in the informal sector – simply will not survive Covid-19 without serious interventions by both government and the private sector. Unless we all make decisions in the interest of the common good – to support one another flat-out once – I don’t believe we can begin to grasp the social fallout that we will face. What can we do now – during Covid-10 – that will enable people and small businesses to live and survive through and beyond this time?

Do for one what you wish you could do for all

Andy Stanley once made a statement that radically changed my thinking about the impact I could have on the world: “Do for one what you wish you could do for all.” This time is giving us all an opportunity to live this challenge no matter our circumstances; to move beyond the head space – what makes sense from a rational perspective – into the realm of hearts and hands, where we do for others – even just one – beyond what we ordinarily would. But in order to do this we need to think differently – beyond charity – and towards partnership and co-ownership in our collective future.

Our local pizzeria which has had no custom for 3 weeks, will go under soon. Yet I have saved R300 a week that my family would ordinarily spend on pizza. I will put R900 into their account as a pre-payment for pizza in future. The same applies to my hairdresser; our local coffee shop. A small homemade ice-cream business that produces a life-changing product and that is a standout employer in our area (www.scoopicecream.co.za) just received an order of way too much ice cream from the Foxtons.

Of course, not everyone can afford to do this and do for one what we wish we could do for all means different things to different people. That’s okay – do it anyway.

So, what can you do? Who is to your left and right, right now? Do for them. If we all did for one to our immediate left and right, we could survive this lockdown for months on end.

Do what you can for as many as you can.  

This article is sponsored by Partners for Possibility (www.pfp4sa.net)

Changing our language – building our nation

Many of us wish to contribute to our country, help confront our many societal challenges and make a positive difference. This is often expressed sincerely in words like: “I want to give back” or “I want to repay my privilege.”

I have chewed on these words for over a decade now. What has become evident to me is that we need to begin a fresh, new conversation in order to grow and sustain our involvement in the important work of giving and building. This becomes more-and-more vital as our democracy matures and citizens begin to realise their responsibility as co-architects of our future.

Shifting the narrative

Language is powerful and the issue with words like, “giving back” and “repaying” is that they kick-off our change-making efforts from a point of indebtedness. So, the impetus is usually something akin to guilt. Now, I am not saying that we are not indebted or that we don’t need to “give back”. I am saying that whilst guilt can be a start point as a motivator, it seldom drives people to a lifetime of quality service.  So, great new possibilities arise when we ask: What if we could sustain ourselves and one another for a lifelong journey of service? For me, this is a truly exciting possibility. It paints a picture of millions upon millions of us all building, growing and giving – over the long term.

A vision of a new future

And what if this vision could begin to take shape simply by me changing my language and moving from the paying back narrative to: “I want to be the change I wish to see in the world”; “I want to be a contribution”; “I want to use my privilege to tackle inequality and restore balance”; “I want to build my community by starting fresh, positive conversations”; “I want to serve people who are struggling”?

These statements are radically different because they are rooted in love not guilt. They involve the heart – the spirit – not just the head. They require an ongoing and very positive commitment backed up by effort and joyful sacrifice. The work is not a once-off but a part of who I am and a daily source of joy, as I live within the reality that it is better to give than to receive.

These generative narratives shift us into new and exciting spaces. They take us away from deficit and lack towards positive and intentional lived responses to the myriad challenges of our society.    

Rewriting the South African story – One sentence at a time

I read a great quote recently that speaks powerfully of the role South Africans can play in creating the future reality we want for our country. It said simply: “You are just one sentence away from changing the story.” It seemed to echo another commonly articulated trope that the battle is always won first in the mind. If we can exercise the mental muscles to come up with new and more positive story lines – starting with just one new sentence – the battles we face will always be won. History proves this point every time.

What is our current story about South Africa?

I must confess that as we enter this new decade, I am surely not oozing positivity. But if it is worth considering that we are one sentence away from a different story, then what could that sentence possibly be? And would it help to spend time talking about and creating new sentences rather than rehashing our old tales of woe?

Its just a jump to the left

As human beings we get stuck in narratives that bleed us of hope. For example, if we have made up our mind that the Department of Health is inept and will never deliver improved health services to our people, then hope vanishes and we look for validation of this viewpoint, which abounds. If the battle against hopelessness (and indeed poor health care) is to be won in the mind (and hence in reality), then a different sentence leading to a new story needs to be crafted. This might be: “What if I begin to seek out and tell the many success stories in the Department of Health?”. Or better still: “What if I find ways to contribute to better health care in our country?” This kind of thinking takes some serious effort, but it disrupts our personal and collective narratives and sets us on a new and more productive course. It requires us to physically jump out of our current mindset to create new realities and when we do this, reality literally shifts.     

The power of possibility

Where are you stuck in terms of your current story of our country? If you stay there, it will become a self-fulfilling prophesy. If you start a new sentence – and I suggest beginning that sentence with the powerful possibility words “what if….” – you will quickly enter a new realm of possibility and positivity. Suddenly, the future will become brighter as the feel-good chemicals flood your brain.


You will need to do something painful before constructing new possibility-laden sentences; let go of some stinking thinking as we call it at home. You will need to be prepared to make peace with being wrong in your current assumptions, judgments and attitudes about our country and our people. You will need to let go of your view that we are on a course of failure. You will need to let go of some stereotypical, single-story narratives and the notion that this is not your problem to solve. This is painful because many of us have held our tired old views for a very long time.

But if the battle can be won one sentence at a time, isn’t that a much better way to go into 2020 than holding onto our old negative stories that will ultimately lead only to failure?

Bottling the Hope and Unity of the Rugby World Cup

We did it – now what?

With the euphoria of our magnificent Rugby World Cup victory in Japan beginning to level off, we are beginning to change our focus and ask some powerful questions: How can we sustain the unity that #RWC2019 created? How can we maintain the heightened levels of hope and positivity? How can we continue to live out the mantra of #strongertogether?

These are the right questions because as jubilant as we are, there is a limit to how far sport can take us before we as citizens must step in, grab the baton and continue leading the charge.    

How do we “bottle” the World Cup gees? 

In order to “bottle” the positive effects of the World Cup victory, we first need to clearly name what they were. Two things stand out: Hope and unity. Now, the exciting thing about these two affects is that it is easily within our ability as individual human beings, as families, communities and organisations, to not only sustain but create them. Both are, in the first instance, decisions that we take to allow hope and unity to become our dominant narrative and pattern of behaviour.

Creating hope and unity

So, the event of the Springboks winning the World Cup did not of itself create unity and hope. We allowed unity and hope to rise in us as a response to their victory. Sure, we had turbo-boosters – a massive national surge of endorphins and serotonin and all the other feel-good hormones that promote positive, happy feelings and behaviour. But interestingly, we then translated those intense happy feelings into words and deeds of hope and unity. And by the way, this started way before the final.

We needed this

Now, an already hopeful, united nation say, Denmark, would not have had these affects triggered in the same way had they won the World Cup. They might not have felt the victory so intensely, and if they had, they might have allowed other affects to be triggered – affects that they needed at that time as a nation. But we needed hope and unity so as a result, we allowed those to be triggered in us.

Creating hope and unity: A 2-step process

Sustaining hope and unity is seemingly as simple as a two-step process: First we must decide to be hopeful and united with all humanity. Having made the decision to be hopeful and united, we decide to act on it. Here are two actions you might take for each:     

On hope:

  • Surround yourself with positive, hopeful people     
  • Speak (and forward, like etc) only positive and hopeful words

On unity:

  • Be intentional about greeting people and perhaps smiling at them
  • Spend time getting to know people who don’t look, sound or think like you

I am sure that as a family or community you could come up with loads more actions. But if all we do is these few simple things, our country will ride the wave of victory for many years to come.

Let’s also say #impartofthesolution

Whether you like the #imstaying campaign or not, it is doing a significant job of giving a section of the population a much-needed shot in the arm. Given the vast numbers of people lending their voice to the movement (650 000 and counting), there is a huge opportunity for a phase 2 called something like #imstaying #impartofthesolution.

To inspire us and hopefully get things started, here are 4 short stories from my own life of people who have been part of the solution. There is an entrepreneur, an Organisational Development specialist, a mother and a group of passionate S’affers now living abroad. All 4 have one thing in common; they have used what was in their hearts and hands to be part of the solution.

Mam Khanyi – Home of Hope (www.hopehome.org.za)

Nearly 20 years ago, an import/export entrepreneur noticed 4 girl children standing near the robots near her Johannesburg apartment. She asked a man who these children were and was horrified when he told her they were prostitutes. She invited them into her apartment for tea and after being told that they were forced to deal drugs and sell their bodies on behalf of pimps and drug lords, she stormed off to find said men and gave them a dressing down they will never forget. Those 4 girls were rescued and nearly 2 decades later Mam Khanyi has cared for over 10 000 girl children all of whom had been trafficked and sold for sex.

Dr Louise van Rhyn – Partners for Possibility (www.pfp4sa.org)  

Nearly 10 years ago, an Organisational Development specialist was profoundly moved by the Dinokeng Scenarios (www.dinokengscenarios.co.za). Dr Louise van Rhyn responded to a scenario inviting us to work together to build the nation, by starting a program called Partners for Possibility.  The program partners school Principals of marginalised schools, with ordinary citizens from the non-educational working world in a co-learning, facilitated 1-year leadership development program. Since then over 1000 schools and hundreds of thousands of children nationwide have been positively impacted by the power of this globally recognised program.

Eunice Khumalo – the uMlazi Baby Home (www.peaceagency.org.za)

“Auntie Eunice” has cared for abandoned and orphaned babies all her life. Just this week, she got the keys to a house in uMlazi, South of Durban. From this home, she will now run her own Baby Home and will work together with the local community to care for babies, drive down infant abandonment and provide necessary support to vulnerable girls and women who are unable to care for their babies.

Lana & David Stephenson and Barry and Katherine Corden  

These passionate South Africans now living abroad are leveraging their networks and social media skills to raise the funds necessary for Auntie Eunice to open and run the uMLazi Baby Home.

For each one of these 4 stories there are tens of thousands of others; stories of ordinary South Africans using their talents, passions and contacts to be part of the solution in South Africa.

A recipe for being part of the solution:

What are you best at? What do you love doing? What is easy and satisfying for you? Add these things to what gets your blood boiling and you have a perfect recipe. At some point these people – all ordinary South Africans like you and I – used this recipe and are now in their sweet-spot, making a difference and being part of the solution.

I invite you to give this recipe a bash so that you too can say #impartofthesolution.