What would MacGyver do? An excerpt from the revised edition of Life Changing: A Philosophical Guide (2016)


Angus MacGyver thought when he retired from the secret service, he’d put his days of danger behind him. But MacGyver was forever getting caught in life and death situations. Fortunately, MacGyver had a preternatural knack for improvising his way out of them. Since Richard Dean Anderson played MacGyver in the eponymous TV series (originally screening on ABC television between 1985 and 1992), MacGyver has become synonymous with seat-of-you-pants, DIY innovation. In each episode of the show, MacGyver gets caught in at least one life threatening situation, only to escape it, Houdini-like, by applying his knowledge and cobbling together an improbable solution using whatever happens to be lying around.

MacGyver’s indefatigable knowledge and resourcefulness became a running gag on the show. As the episodes rolled by, MacGyver revealed extraordinary insights into medicine, engineering, chemistry, physics, and a host of other disciplines beyond the ken of your average secret agent. The show’s writers would drop MacGyver into increasingly desperate situations only to have him invent ever more outlandish ways to escape them. MacGyver treated every situation with his trademark cool. While other people panicked and despaired, MacGyver would cobble together a parachute, a rocket launcher, some plastic explosive, or a jerry-rigged jet ski that would enable him to avert the crisis and save the day.

Most of the time, it was ludicrous. Still, audiences loved it. Such was the success of the show that one still hears talk of people ‘MacGyvering’ their way out difficult situations today.

Thirty years on, MacGyver is more a cultural icon than ever before. The recent announcement of a movie reboot of the show is not surprising. MacGyver personifies the agile, entrepreneurial, innovative ideal of contemporary startup culture. He represents the hacker genius we’d all like to be – the nimble, resourceful, visionary individual who is always changing and inventing things, never standing still. MacGyver is a hero for our times.

MacGyver is a hero for readers of this book – or should be, at least. Consider the attitude MacGyver displays towards change. MacGyver is never stumped by a situation. He confronts each new challenge head on and reveals it as an opportunity to apply his knowledge and skills. MacGyver doesn’t worry about what is out of his hands. He is too Stoic for that. He focuses on his resources and what he can do with them. Drawing on his full range of powers, and applying them in creative ways, MacGyver transforms crises into moments of glory. He flourishes in contexts of change. Calamitous situations bring out the best in him. Given the regularity with which MacGyver finds himself in peril, one can only assume he pursues these situations to put himself to the test.

Life Changing is a handbook for philosophical MacGyvers. Obviously, the point of this book is not to teach you how to devise unlikely gadgets to escape life or death situations. The aim is to show you how to cultivate the essential skills needed to transform the experience of change, and turning it around, to make it an adventure. With resilience, agility and vision, it is possible to ‘MacGyver’ change by revealing new opportunities in unexpected situations.

Next time you find yourself in a difficult situation without any idea how to proceed, ask: ‘What would MacGyver do?’ MacGyver would get a grip on himself, tap into his powers, and project a solution that transformed everything. MacGyver would rethink the situation and turn the moment of change into a life-changing moment of vision. [Read more…]

Commemorative vision: how to use the past to transform the present and future

It is August 28, 1963. A crowd of 200000 people gathers in the National Mall in Washington DC. Black and white faces choke the avenues down either side of the Reflecting Pool. Their numbers stretch all the way to the Capitol Building.

Before them is the Lincoln Memorial, where Abraham Lincoln studies them from his giant chair. A man stands at a microphone, dwarfed by the statue behind him. The civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King is ready to deliver his speech.

The people have come to the US capitol by buses, trains, cars, and planes. Their hearts are full of hope, their minds full of memories of recent struggles. They have known discrimination, inequality, and injustice. Canvas the crowd and you’d hear thousands of stories of persecution, forced eviction, police brutality, murder and lynching. You’d hear the name Rosa Parks, who eight years before had refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama. You’d hear stories of boycotts, sit-ins, angry demonstrations and non-violent protests.

The crowd simmers with anger and frustration. Will this day mark a grand step forward in the struggle for civil rights? Or is it the case, as Malcolm X says, that the organizers have compromised too much by allowing white folks to participate?

The crowd has come to Washington DC fired by the momentum of the Civil Rights movement, which is not yet a decade old. They reflect on this struggle and what it has achieved as Martin Luther King steps up to the microphone.

Dr King takes a deep breath, as if drawing back the string of a bow. He has never addressed a crowd of this size, in a moment of such importance. He looks down the Mall towards the Capitol Building. Yes, he thinks – this is my time.

He tenses the string and releases it. The arrow of vision flies into the future.

‘Four score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation’.

It is an epic start. Instead of invoking the present struggle, reinforcing in the minds of those gathered the memory of the movement that they are presently engaged in, King has them remember a different struggle: the struggle by Lincoln’s Republican Party to free the American slaves. In this gesture, King invites those gathered – black and white – to reflect on a common source of empowerment: the fact that one hundred years before, the United States granted freedom and equality to all its citizens. Yet as people’s breasts swell with patriotic pride, King brings them back to earth. His next line speaks of present day reality.

‘But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. … And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition’.

In the space of two paragraphs, King has projected for his audience a visionary sense of what it means to exist in the present. The people in the crowd have inherited the empowering promise of freedom, but today, this promise is denied them. How can they forge ahead? How can they overcome this ‘shameful condition’ – a condition that affects all of them as Americans?

Dr King speaks. The arrow of vision flies into the future, and the hearts and minds of those gathered in the Mall fly after it.

‘I have a dream’, King says – a dream that is ‘rooted in the American dream’.

‘I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

King’s speech is a brilliant example of commemorative vision. Commemorative vision involves reframing people’s perspective on, and expectations of, the present moment by taking the memory of a common source of empowerment and projecting it differently. King’s dream concerned the future of the Civil Rights movement, yet it didn’t simply tap the energy of that movement, it’s anger, resilience, its practical and symbolic achievements. King reached back one hundred years to find an important source of empowerment that everyone contributing to the movement could take pride in. The Emancipation Proclamation was a historical precedent that legitimated the struggle and that warranted an optimistic vision of its success. Seizing on this historical touchstone, King projected a bold vision of the possible future, offering an inspiring map for thought and action.

Martin Luther King transfigured the historical moment. It is not that he predicted the future. By drawing on a common memory, he projected a roadmap linking the past to the future, which would serve as a guide for those who continued the struggle, even after his death.

By refiguring elements of the past, visionary leaders make the present a place of opportunity. This is what King did in his speech at the National Mall. This is why we remember him as one of the great leaders of history.