Arthur Brooks has audience buzzing at yesterday’s “Tennessee Valley Corridor National Summit”

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

I have attended almost every “Tennessee Valley Corridor (TVC) National Summit” since the inaugural one, branded as the “Oak Ridge Summit,” was held in 1995, and yesterday’s keynote speech during the opening session of the 2021 two-day event might be the most memorable of all. It was not focused on technology, but on a topic that, if not addressed, might undermine the great opportunities that the TVC aspires to achieve.

Hosted by the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in the new Student Union Building with more than 100 in attendance and also delivered to a virtual audience of about 270 pre-registrants, the first session featured Arthur Brooks. He’s the William Henry Bloomberg Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, a former President of the American Enterprise Institute, a columnist for The Atlantic, host of the “The Art of Happiness with Arthur Brooks” podcast, and author of 11 books.

Arthur Brooks

In a captivating 30-minute presentation that seemed like he was physically in the auditorium even though he joined via Zoom from Boston, Jones asked and answered this question: “How do you solve a problem that doesn’t appear to have a solution?”

If you were not in the audience or a viewer, you are not doubt asking your own question: “What is the problem?” It was captured in the theme of the talk, “Bringing People Together When the World Is Coming Apart,” and is based on his 2019 best-selling book titled Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt.

Brooks combined humor, some of it self-deprecating, life experiences, and science to explain how willing Americans can address what has become a pervasive and potentially devastating challenge for our democracy.

From the scientific perspective, he began by describing research undertaken by Adam Waytz, Professor of Management and Organizations at Northwestern University, that was focused on something called “motive attribution asymmetry.” While the research started as a way to understand the IsraeliPalestinian conflict, one of the world’s most enduring hostilities, it was later applied to the American political environment during the 2014 election cycle that has only worsened in the ensuing years.

Brooks cited an unidentified survey where 93 percent of Americans responded that they don’t like how polarized the country has become. “Your mother doesn’t even poll that high,” he noted, asking, “How do we solve it (polarization)?”

To understand the answer, Brooks again turned to science and an example that laypeople could understand. The scientific aspect was a part of the brain named the “nucleus accumbens” that controls habits. The example was divorce.

“Anger is not the problem,” Brooks said in most divorces. “Anger and divorce are uncorrelated. Instead, it’s contempt. We have a contempt habit in America.” He then punctuated that point with this statement: “America is a big married couple on the rocks.”

What’s the solution? “To break a habit, you need to reprogram the nucleus accumbens,” Brooks said. Your response might be, “That’s easier said than done,” but that’s were love plays a role, and he cited a quote from Martin Luther King and a conversation with the Dalai Lama to underscore his advice.

In the case of King, he recalled this quote from a 1957 speech: “Love your enemies . . . the very root of love in the power of redemption.” To that, Brooks added, “Love is an action, a commitment, a choice.” And, he reinforced the point with advice from the Dalai Lama where he shared a personal story of dealing with a 5,000-word email that literally criticized every data point and conclusion Brooks made in the 2019 book.

Instead of immediately reacting by firing back an email taking the sender to task, Brooks stopped and substitute something positive. In this case, he thanked the individual for taking time to read his book and offer his thoughts. Within 15 minutes, Brooks received a response with an offer to have lunch or dinner the next time he visited Dallas.

He had diffused an opportunity for continued conflict into something much better.

As Brooks related that story, he recalled the observation that the Dalai Lama made: “Remember feeling how your heart was on fire when someone treated you with contempt, and you returned it with love.”

I know; it seems counterintuitive, but there’s something that we need to do to address the contempt problem, and Brooks said it starts with three steps: (1) unplug the industrial outrage complex; (2) run toward contempt and become a healing missionary; and (3) express more gratitude.

He concluded with a reminder that those in the audience are leaders, and “it starts with you. Incredible leadership starts with gratitude.”

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