Heart knowledge | what’s love got to do with it?

For me it happened in a very old room. I was told by the facilitator that the group would now take part in a structured exercise. My role was to say nothing. I sat and listened, and by the end I was angry. I don’t often get angry, but I was Greta Thunberg-level angry. I had passed from head knowledge to heart knowledge. It was May 2019. 

I thought I knew about climate change. I had already been talking about it as one of the two biggest risks facing humans for a number of years. But this was only head knowledge. It was an intellectual exercise. I could pick it up, and put it down when I chose. Heart knowledge can’t be put down. It can be supressed for a while, but it can’t be ignored indefinitely. Heart knowledge has been internalised. It is now part of who you are. 

Given that this is the Thinking Ahead Institute, it is worth stressing that I am in no way suggesting we subjugate our thinking to our feelings or emotions. We are still talking about knowledge. In fact, we are talking about the exact same knowledge. The difference is how the knowledge affects our behaviours. Head knowledge implies rationality and cost-benefit analyses; a careful weighing up of probabilities and consequences and the like. Heart knowledge has access to all this data, but runs it through a new algorithm. I ask that you stay with me here, as I am going to call this algorithm ‘love’. 

Let me try out a couple of illustrations – one preposterous and the other more reasonable. Imagine one of my three children falls into a dangerous ocean current. Should I use head knowledge to assess the probabilities and consequences, and possibly conclude that being alive for the remaining two is the best course of action? Or should I let love decide for me – use my heart knowledge and jump, whatever the possible cost?’. For our more reasonable illustration, consider a subsistence farmer and her family, somewhere in Africa. Head knowledge recognises that climate change and the associated increase in extreme weather events is going to make life more difficult for her. Heart knowledge knows this too, but also feels a twang of pain. In neither case do we change our portfolio at all. But who knows, maybe we consider an investment opportunity that crosses our desk three months later slightly differently? 

Where am I going with this? Well, a number of threads are starting to entwine in my head. First, I admit to a degree of personal frustration at the lack of movement relative to (my judgement of) the size of the need in respect of climate change. I am actively wondering if there is a lot of head knowledge out there, that hasn’t yet made it to heart knowledge. 

Second, I have been reframing climate change and seeing it not as a problem, but as a symptom. A symptom of the working of the system – a human-built system. If we have built the system that has caused the problem(s), then it is up to us to fix it. The polar bears are not going to fix it for us. So how do we best fix a system so that it is fit for human habitation? With head knowledge alone? Or do we need heart knowledge too? 

Third, as a team, we have started to ponder the future of work. We think it is becoming increasingly apparent that individuals want and deserve personal attention from their employers. For their part, employers can (will need to?) become more human, and approach every issue from a human angle first. We believe organisations will need to provide purpose and meaning as key attractions for talent. I interpret this to be a shift in emphasis – to more fully embrace issues of the heart alongside the traditional strengths of the head. 

Then there is the net-zero journey. I (and we, as a team) forsee that the investment decisions could become harder and harder as time passes. If the rate at which I have committed to decarbonise my portfolio is faster than the opportunity set is actually decarbonising will head knowledge alone show me the way forward? Or might heart knowledge make the decision making easier? 

My final thought is a revisiting of an idea within Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics. She outlines five different levels of response a corporate could take in confronting planetary boundaries and social floors ranging from ‘do the minimum’ through ‘do my fair share’ to ‘be generous’. Head knowledge might, by working very hard on enlightened self-interest, get a bit beyond ‘fair share’ – but the natural domain of head knowledge is ‘fair share’. Being generous is the natural domain of heart knowledge – because love is about choosing to put the interests of others above self-interest. 

If there is any merit in me entwining these threads into a stronger cord, then it suggests adopting a leadership position in our industry that requires us to bring more of our heart to work, not to replace but to complement our heads. In short, human solutions to human-caused problems will require us to be more fully human at work.  

If you accept my premise that the essence of love is about raising the priority of others relative to self, then a number of things should follow directly and immediately – as alluded to in my list of thoughts above. On climate change specifically, heart knowledge (or love) should cause us to become justifiably angry at the injustices climate change brings. It should also compel us to spend more of our self in pursuing solutions. 

These thoughts work at the level of individuals. This piece will either resonate with you – or not. But the mapping to organisations is more difficult. Organisations are comprised of people but are not people. So I wonder if an organisation’s equivalent to heart knowledge shows up in its purpose? At TAI our purpose is to serve the end saver, and consequently we strive to mobilise capital to secure the sustainable future our end savers need and deserve. If this much resonates with you, then why not engage more deeply with TAI and strive together to mobilise capital to address the climate challenges. 

In the end, what do we want to be remembered for? The power of our intellect? Or that we loved, and spent ourselves for others?