While many report on Americans’ dying optimism for our future, I’m not one of them. I’m ecstatic for the future. Here’s why.
In early 2014, former Greek prime minister George Papandreou heard my boyfriend, Jordan Shapiro, give a speech. George was impressed with Jordan’s presentation on education, technology, philosophy and video games. So he approached us, later learning about me (I’m the founder of an established Internet startup), and invited us both to Greece for a symposium. Every year, George organizes the Symi Symposium, an in-depth conversation between a small group of world leaders on a particular topic. This summer’s topic was “Reimagining Democracy.” If democracy needs reimagining, what better place to do it than Greece? We accepted.
Fast forward to July: We found ourselves on the Greek island of Spetses, sitting at a table of 20 world leaders. The group was impressive. There was an Egyptian Nobel Peace Prize winner, a World Bank official, a dozen major European NGO leaders, a Harvard economist, a Stanford political scientist, and us.
While I had a few Lean In-esque “Am I qualified to be here?” thoughts, it was more the case that Jordan and I were grateful to bring the thirtysomething perspective to a group that better resembled our parents in age.
The conversation started out bleak. After suffering a devastating financial collapse, Greece feels broken to its core with no idea how it will return. By any measure of inequality, hunger, and authoritarianism, the collective symposium sentiment was that the world is getting worse, not better. Most Symi participants were politically left of center, advocating for collective prosperity over individual gains. And on any survey of global measure, the human condition is in decline.
The reports on Americans’ dying optimism were mirrored in the words and faces of these leaders. But I refused to fall to the same level of woe.
Running an Internet startup, I’ve learned that times of crisis are when magic happens. The best ideas materialize when you’re in the most pain. No time like an apparent global crisis to ask big, seemingly absurd questions about what we want for our collective futures. We don’t have a choice. That’s why I’m optimistic.
Over the three days, I listened more than I spoke, until George's director surprised me with a request. He said, “Amanda, tonight fifty young Greek leaders will attend the closing Symi dinner. After George speaks, we would like you to summarize the three days of conversation, and end the night with your conclusions.”
Sure. I’d be happy to speak on behalf of 20 world leaders, and then offer my own conclusions.
In working out my speech with Jordan and the Nobel Peace Prize winner, they helped me see that my call to the audience wouldn’t be to reimagine democracy, even though that’s what we were brought there to do.
The question we explored wasn’t “What do we have to become?” Instead, we asked what we have to let go of to regain optimism. How do we no longer see ourselves as subjects at the mercy of dysfunctional governments, but as agents in a broad interconnected web of global citizens?
We need to reimagine ourselves. When we reimagine democracy, we still put accountability outside of ourselves and into the hands of people we don’t know — people who can barely push through a proper education budget, let alone help you with your niche issues.
Turning back to my nation, the U.S., we have to let go of some core belief systems that frame what we believe it means to be American. They’re not serving us anymore.
In our plight for more freedom, bigger houses, privacy, individualism, and so on, we’ve lost our humanity. We’re isolated and cracking from the pressure of keeping it all together.
Is our house a very, very, very fine house? Not really. Our houses are giant, empty, wasteful properties that drink water needed by a billion people living in water scarcity.
We have to let go of some of our individual entitlements for the sake of more collective support. We can’t afford to raise our children without some free assistance. We can’t afford to pay back our credit card debt and student loans while also paying for kids’ summer camp so we can keep working in order to do so. We can barely afford to save for our kids’ college and also retirement. Net worth has fallen by one-third in the U.S., but life continues to get more expensive.
And perhaps this is a good thing. Perhaps this is the final set of straws we needed to force us to change fundamental truths about how we interface with one another. What does it mean not to be subject to a political leader, but to be an agent in local and global networks of exchange? We have resources we can provide and resources we need to receive. Why aren’t we engaging this way more often? Because we still think life should look a certain way — independent, separate, pristine.
Big empty houses and dinners alone in front of a TV are overrated anyway. That’s why I’m optimistic. More than political reform or more job creation, we need to start with each other. I believe we will be happier that way.