Flat White

Tough love: why we risk being a really miserable lot

6 October 2021

4:00 AM

6 October 2021

4:00 AM

A regular series of rules for life by Pete Shmigel, a former senior state and federal political advisor and CEO of Lifeline Australia.

One of my side hustles is political commentary. Recently, I’ve written a few pieces with some hard, cold analysis of why so-and-so may or may not win an election. It’s all been very clinical, data-based and objective. 

The feedback, mostly from others who have professionally participated in politics and elections, has been positive. Mostly because such colleagues also look at democracy in this technocratic way that is designed to manage risk. 

I know from many years around businesses and other organisations that the usual path to success is also a type of approach founded in a kind of mechanical precision about issues, options, and opportunities. We’re a society that’s trained itself to measure its way to sustenance.  

But one particularly perceptive friend – who has won more campaigns than anybody else and succeeded in business more than most – was alone in his comments back to me.   

He simply reminded me – the guy who rabbits on about well-being and mental health – that political and other success in future will be about emotional connection. 

And, he’s completely right for a bunch of reasons. 

  • Humane Advantage. As we move to a more automated and digitised world, that which is purely human – empathy, kindness, and concern for the commonweal – becomes a competitive advantage. It will be a while before artificial intelligence fully translates to emotional intelligence. Survival of the fittest may come to include who is emotionally fittest to navigate a robotic future. 
  • Feelings Over Facts. In a post-modern, post-ideological and more secularised world where people rely less on established frameworks and can’t cope with information overloads, they will fill the vacuum with immediate experience. Their choices will be more about what they personally have encountered and what they intuitively made of it. Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt and others have discussed how our feelings already make up 80% of our decisions.
  • The Connection Deficit. It’s been widely established in research that we probably live in the loneliest time in human history – as our work, our families and our social lives all essentially contract into optic fibre cables. As Lifeline CEO, I would regularly ask roomfuls of “suits” if they were lonely and the majority of hands – of very successful people – went in the air. Given that strong sense of isolation and alienation, it’s very likely that the messages and personalities of those with antidotes will strongly resonate in future. 


Oh my. I read the above and realise that I’ve been technocratic about why cultivating emotional connection is a key to future success. You’d almost be able to accuse me of “fake it until you make it” when it comes to empathetic behaviour. A cynical old hand once said to me: “You know you’re a pro when you can successfully fake authenticity.” 

Yuck. What I very candidly want to say, therefore, is this. Without restoring our capacity to feel and to connect with others’ feelings and experiences, we’re going to increasingly be a really miserable lot, even as our society’s wealth levels increase.  

We eat better than the kings of the sixteenth century, but many of us regularly feel more downtrodden than their dung-covered serfs. 

It’s this phenomenon that explains the growth of mindfulness as both a philosophy and a personal practice. At its core, mindfulness is about being more aware of my feelings and thoughts in the present tense in order that I can have them rather than them have me.  

When I’m not mindful, I’m not self-regulating and consciously responding to the world. According to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy precepts, my auto-pilot function can take over and I’m just reacting by freezing, flying away, or fighting rather than facing up to a given situation. 

I wonder if future leadership may be about the capacity to be “publicly mindful”.   

To have the guts to pause from the pressure of daily events, the relentlessness of the news cycle, and the myopia of modern media, and then to see clearly.  

To more deeply and non-judgmentally listen and really seek to sense what the community (or stakeholders, or employees, or supply chain partners) is feeling about something.  

To recognise limiting beliefs in the public or organisational spheres, call out cynicism and negativity, and then say how to move beyond them. 

To have the wisdom to combine the emotional and the rational in public policy or business solutions rather than callously exploit the former (read: scare campaigns) or obfuscate through the latter. 

There are many ways to “get into” mindfulness and an Internet full of different instructions and guides.  

Here’s the shortest one ever. Breathe deep. Ask yourself what you are feeling right here and now. Register it. Repeat. 

It’s a small practice, but it can lead to much greater understanding – and compassion in a chaotic time. 

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