Photo of Mark Hopkins by Neil Zeller Photography
1. Tell us who you are, what class you were in, and what else you do in the world.
I’m Mark Hopkins! I was in the Leadership Calgary class of 2014, stayed with the program for a couple more years as a Guide and Program Team member… and now I’m on the board of Human Venture Leadership, and helping to design and deliver HVL’s new Alumni Program and Integrity Leadership (an HVL-inspired program offered by the Alberta Network of Immigrant Women).
I also do other things! For example, right now, I’m…
– Co-Artistic Director of Swallow– a-Bicycle Theatre;
– organizer of We Should Know Each Other;
– Festivalscape Programming Coordinator for the Calgary International Film Festival;
– a volunteer with the Calgary Foundation’s Neighbour Grants committee and VoteKit Calgary;
– making art! (A short film that I co-wrote, One Night in Aberdeen, is online; next, I’m a presenter at Getting to Know You(Tube) and developing more work with Swallow-a-Bicycle.)
… and, y’know, trying to maintain a social life, and keep my apartment clean, and learn how to cook. And sleep.
2. How would you describe the work that Human Venture Leadership and the Human Venture Institute do?
Hmm… there are lots of angles to take on this, but here’s one stab. I’d say we’re trying to understand what “life progress” looks like, and how humanity can move in that direction. When we only define progress in terms of ourselves, our families, our communities, our corporations, our nations and so on, we risk creating problems in the bigger picture (climate change is a prime example). By developing capacities that respond to the threats and opportunities at a species and life level, we can work to align our personal/corporate/national/etc. progress with life progress.
As Ronald Wright puts it in A Short History of Progress (2004):
“Ever since the Chinese invented gunpowder, there has been great progress in the making of bangs: from the firecracker to the cannon, from the petard to the high explosive shell. And just when high explosives were reaching a state of perfection, progress found the infinitely bigger bang in the atom. But when the bang we can make can blow up the world, we have made rather too much progress.”
The idea of moving toward life progress quickly spins off into other questions. What are the biggest threats and opportunities at a species and life level? How would we know? How do we develop the capacities we need? These questions, and many more, are what we explore at HVL and HVI.
3. How do you know this is a worthy way to spend your energy? What informs your sense of purpose?
In my application to Leadership Calgary, back in 2014, I wrote this:
“I want to change the world, but I don’t know what changes I want to make or how to approach them. … I’m frustrated with many of our existing systems. Government at all levels seems like a cobbled-together mess of egos and outdated traditions, with a few brilliant forward-thinking individuals trying their best to pull the whole thing along. Business is a mess, with corporations speeding ahead with no thought for sustainability and an insatiable hunger for revenue. The not-for-profit sector… well, it was crippled before it even began, with a name that defines it by what it isn’t: “for profit”. As a global community, we can’t stop killing each other for long enough to look at the needs of the decades and centuries ahead.
All that being said, I’m constantly humbled by the incredible efforts of inspiring individuals to make our world a better place, and I want to be one of them.”
In re-reading that, I remember having a keen awareness of humans’ capacity for brilliance and atrocity, but very little understanding of how either are developed, and what it would take to reduce the waste, suffering and injustice that I saw everywhere.
The Human Venture approach is the best I’ve found for learning from life, and from the entire record of human triumph and failure, in all of its complexity… and starting to understand what it would take to be helpful in the face of existential challenges like climate change, armed conflict, genocide, income inequality and more. It doesn’t provide easy answers, because there aren’t any easy answers that respond to the full breadth and depth of the situation. It does, however, sketch out a promising path forward, and that’s the path I’m trying to take.
4. What challenges have you faced in your learning journey? (internal, external) Have you run into significant barriers or if not, do you expect to?
Holy crap, so many.
In the programs, we often say, “we are more ignorant than we are wise”. That seems common sense; it’s a big universe out there, and we only understand a tiny fraction of it. But confronting and challenging my own ignorance has been a staggeringly difficult task.
As background, I have an English degree with a concentration in creative writing. I’ve won awards for playwriting and screenwriting, and reading has been a central part of my identity since I was young.
Then, in my first year at Leadership Calgary, I read How to Read a Book, a 1972 book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, which gave me a new perspective on the function of reading and made me question my whole approach. At the same time, the LC class was reading books about psychology, wilderness survival, military philosophy, economics – books I never would have sought out on my own. And not only were we being asked to read them, but also to search for patterns and meaning across and between these wildly diverse texts.
I had defined myself as a reader, but suddenly I was being challenged to read in ways I had never read before, and I often felt stupid or inadequate to the task. The realization that learning was work, and that I had only been doing a fraction of the work that was necessary, was heavy and challenging to my sense of self. And as I started to work on my adaptive learning capacities, previous priorities started to fall away – some volunteer commitments, friendships, conventional markers of success. It was pretty damn dislocating.
5. How have you prepared yourself to meet those challenges?
Um… well, maybe I’ll answer with another example. As I went through the programs, learning in greater detail about the staggering, real and present threats that face our species and world, about the injustices of our current economic systems, the atrocities of war, the ongoing extinction event that we triggered… I looked at my little arts company, Swallow-a-Bicycle Theatre, and it seemed insignificant, a waste of time and energy in the face of life’s true challenges.
I felt an urge to do something that mattered – run for public office, go work for War Child, something, but I didn’t know what. So, one of Ken’s favourite sayings kicked in: “When you don’t know what to do, you know what to do. Learn.”
I started digging into the metaframework to see where arts fit in to the big picture of human learning and development, and quickly realized that the arts are a specialized field of activity – just like engineering, education, government, social justice, military strategy and all the other things that humans do. Moreover, no field of activity has it all figured out… so while I could certainly jump ship and do something that feels more significant, I would probably run into similar challenges in that new field, so I might as well dig deeper into what I’ve already learned.
I started looking around for resources and found Chris Hedges’ Death of the Liberal Class (2010), which has a chapter focused on the function of the arts during the New Deal in 1930s America. Ken gifted me a copy of The Theater of War by Bryan Doerries (2015), detailing how Greek tragedies can help modern war veterans understand how their trauma and grief fit into the greater human story. I learned that, like any specialized field of activity, the arts are subject to developing faster than the conduct systems that govern them; two very influential artists, Leni Riefenstahl and Ayn Rand, used their art to bolster the Nazi Party and neo-liberal economics, respectively.
I’ve also dug into my own art practice, seeking training opportunities with people that seem to be pushing on new frontiers – Gob Squad, Belarus Free Theatre, Rimini Protokoll, Mammalian Diving Reflex. And I’ve tried, with great difficulty and so far little success, to understand what it would take for our little theatre company to create cultural resources that help equip us and our audiences with the adaptive capacities we need to confront our species’ greatest challenges.
So… that was a long way of answering a question that could probably have been answered with a single word. How do we prepare ourselves to meet challenges? Learn.
6. What has been the most significant impact or change for you since LC/LE?
There have been lots, but I’d say the biggest is the way I understand myself as part of the human story. We’re a remarkable species of primates with a tremendous capacity to build upon the triumphs and failures of distant generations and geographies. When scientists map a genome or land a space probe on a comet, we did that. Humans. When warlords abduct children and turn them into soldiers, or when corporations ravage our forests and watersheds, we did that. Humans.
I used to have difficulty understanding how “normal people” could help perpetuate a genocide… but seeing that they’re humans, that their learning is the product of their situation, helps. Much as I perpetuate and benefit from the inequities of the situation I’m in, were we to swap places, I could very easily take the same path. It takes incredible self-authorization to learn and act without the support of your culture or context, and can come at incredible risk and cost.
So… now, when I see people or groups acting in ways that are incomprehensible, I try to comprehend, look beyond the words and actions to their origins. And I try to do the same for myself – understand why I believe the things I believe, and do the things I do.
7. What are your future plans? What impact do you want to have?
Frig, I don’t know.
I want to keep learning, and learning how to learn. I want to make kickass theatre that helps us learn more about our situation and what needs to be done. I want to contribute to the Human Venture in whatever ways I can, and help equip other folks to do the same. But what that looks like? … frig. I don’t know.
8. An easy one: Your favourite/recommended book.
Hmm… there were two books that had a huge impact in my first year of Leadership Calgary, and I’ve already mentioned one of them: How to Read a Book, by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren (1972).
The other was Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies and Aid, by Dr. Samantha Nutt (2012). It was an eye-opening and incisive look at the causes and devastating impacts of war, and how the humanitarian aid sector (and the Canadian government, and individual Canadians, and well-intentioned volunteers, and…) contribute to its perpetuation. It was a clear illustration that good intentions aren’t enough, that they must be accompanied by deep and full understanding of the situation, and the willingness and ability to act adaptively.
There have been SO MANY MORE BOOKS since then, but these two blew open my horizons and helped launch me on the learning path that I continue to travel.
9. How do you remember all this? How do you keep going?
It’s hard. The pull of “everydayism” is wickedly strong. As H.G. Wells describes it in The Open Conspiracy: Blue Prints for a World Revolution (1933):
“The dinner bell and the playing fields, the cinema and the newspaper, the week-end visit and the factory siren, a host of such expectant things calls to a vast majority of people in our modern world to stop thinking and get busy with the interest in hand, and so on to the next, without a thought for the general frame and drama in which these momentary and personal incidents are set. We are driven along these marked and established routes and turned this way or that by the accidents of upbringing, of rivalries and loves, of chance encounters and vivid experiences, and it is rarely for many of us, and never for some, that the phases of broad reflection and self-questioning arise.”
The Human Venture community has been super helpful in keeping me focused on adaptive learning. The formal commitments of the board and programs provide external deadlines and encouragements to stay engaged in learning. Beyond those formal roles, I host monthly metaframework study sessions at my house, I’m part of two monthly learning groups and a book club, and I often sit down one-on-one (often over beer) with HVL alumni to test ideas and go deeper with them.
But I also recognize that the Human Venture community, as it currently exists, isn’t enough and might not always be available to me… so I try to pay attention to the world, stay curious about people and situations, dig deeper. I often don’t succeed. When I do, the results are always surprising and reveal how much I still have to learn, and hopefully that will be enough for me to keep going.