In a world characterised by an accelerating pace of change and increasing complexity, striking a balance between holding strong opinions and remaining open to challenge can be a difficult task.
My approach to this is best captured in a concept first introduced to me by the author Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
“hold strong opinions, loosely”
This approach encapsulates a mindset that encourages depth of conviction, allows speed of execution, and offers clarity while acknowledging the potential for growth and change. In the below text, I explore some of the ways this approach manifests itself in our work at Oxygen Conservation and the way we approach interacting with the many complex and interesting people we meet throughout our work.
The Strength of Conviction
Having strong opinions can be empowering and motivating. When we deeply believe in something, it drives us to act, advocate for change, and stand up for our values.
Strongly held opinions can foster a sense of identity, allowing us to connect with like-minded individuals and form communities united by shared beliefs. This is perhaps most true in the way we’ve built the culture of Oxygen Conservation. We have brought together a team of incredibly talented individuals around the single goal of Scaling Conservation. To do this we’ve built a culture that is all about environment, impact, and adventure. In some ways these values serve as a moral compass, guiding us through the many challenges and uncertainties that we face multiple times on a daily basis.
Speed of Execution
The urgency of the climate collapse and biodiversity crisis means that we no longer have time for indecision and inaction. Holding strong opinions creates a powerful decision matrix allowing for more immediate decisions and faster, more purposeful actions and in some cases, inactions.
In a sector defined by talking, endless meetings about meetings, procurement processes, bureaucracy, inaction and inactivity, costly feasibility studies, endless pilot projects, and far too much what-if debate: we are different. Speed of execution is a clear point of differentiation in our approach to Scaling Conservation: from the determination of a site’s natural capital potential, the decision to pass or acquire an estate, the immediacy of appointing incredible people, to simple things like responding to the correspondence we receive.
Even the decision to do things patiently is made purposely and quickly; the best example might be our approach to listening and learning from each new landscape we acquire before we begin building a long-term strategy. This can take months and even years; after all, we’re working with nature’s clock, not ours.
The Dangers of Rigidity
Unwavering rigidity in our convictions can lead to a host of problems. It blinds us to alternative viewpoints, stifles growth, and can so often lead to mourning the past even in the face of a potentially better future. It can foster an environment devoid of debate, resistant to change, and sadly too often, a lifetime of sadness.
History is rife with examples of industries and businesses that suffered due to the unwillingness to question and adapt, emphasizing the importance of avoiding an overly rigid stance. Blockbuster, Blackberry, Nokia, Kodak, MySpace, Yahoo, Toy R Us, Woolworths, Debenhams, and many more former household names refused to change with customer demands. We’re desperate to avoid their mistakes. So whilst holding strong opinions and seeking clarity and conviction in everything we do, we’re always open to challenge, striving to remain curious, and trying hard to adopt a learning / growth mindset.
The Emotional Impact of Close-mindedness
On a personal level, we have had the opportunity to meet a huge number of landowners, land agents, and farmers whilst reviewing land opportunities over the past two years. And whilst I recognise that generalisations are often far too crude to be meaningful, we have certainly found some commonality between people looking to exit farming.
These very proud people hold incredibly strong opinions that have many similarities, including the way they are expressed. Almost all without fail, both love, and now hate, the land that they’re selling. They are happy to be leaving farming behind but both heartbroken and relieved that their children don’t want to follow in their footsteps. They think regulation has caused the demise of farming and that the climate collapse and biodiversity crisis is overblown, purely used as a campaign of hysteria by others (but they’re never sure by whom or for what reasons).
They don’t believe electric vehicles are practical or necessary and question the sourcing and ethicality of the materials required to build an electric car, without once questioning the materials or fuel for their diesel 4X4s. They don’t like the fact that farming is changing and often don’t like the concept of conservation beyond the version they’re passionate about: be it birds, butterflies, bees, or any other specific passion they hold. Often this is accompanied by a belief that nature needs help, but that it can only thrive when being firmly steered by a human hand, usually as part of an agricultural system. They always ask about natural capital and want to understand how the economics of the rural economy are changing, but generally conclude that they don’t want that to happen, so in the end, they decide it isn’t.
Whenever we meet people with these views, I listen seeking to learn, and more often than not, I end up recognising the fear and sympathising with each of these incredibly hard-working people who see an industry and chapter of their lives rapidly running out of time. Perhaps this is the same fear we all hold about the future of our planet, that sense of running out of time if we don’t change our behaviours and relationship with the natural world.
A Note on Land Acquisition
Interestingly, it is rare that we actually acquire sites from landowners with this perspective, as they’re often not ready to sell either emotionally or practically, refusing to engage in the work necessary to complete on large-scale land transactions. Instead, we’ve been hugely fortunate to work with forward-thinking landowners who are excited by their own next chapters. They have enjoyed their journeys so far but are equally excited about what’s coming next, both for them and for the landscape they’ve passed on to us as the next custodian – often commenting that “we never really own land do we”. They certainly hold strong opinions, but they hold them loosely, helping share our future thinking and vision instead of carrying old opinions like a burdensome weight.
The Virtue of Open-Mindedness
Open-mindedness is the antidote to the pitfalls of rigid conviction. Embracing an open mind means being receptive to new ideas, even if they challenge our existing beliefs and / or make us initially uncomfortable. One of the most amazing things about the Oxygen Conservation adventure has been the process of becoming more comfortable with being uncomfortable.
It involves actively listening, seeking out diverse perspectives, and being willing to revise our opinions when presented with compelling evidence. If you can find a way to be just a little more open-minded you can become more adaptable and resilient, more capable of navigating the complexities of an ever-changing world, and maybe, just maybe, happier and healthier in the process.
Our incredible team challenges each other daily to change our views on literally everything from rural land use, to property development and redevelopment, to technological solutions, resourcing decisions, and – much to my disappointment – the need for more processes and procedures around some decision making, to ensure we’re ready to scale the team as we grow to continue Scaling Conservation.
Balancing Act: Holding Strong Opinions, Loosely
The concept of “hold strong opinions, loosely” encourages a dynamic equilibrium, an agility between conviction and open-mindedness. This philosophy acknowledges that while we should be passionate about our beliefs, we must also recognize the potential, or in my case the likelihood, that we’re wrong. This is so exciting because it offers the opportunity for growth and evolution. It encourages a willingness to engage in thoughtful dialogue, to question our assumptions, and to consider viewpoints that may and should differ from our own in so many ways.
Applications in Personal Relationships
This principle finds relevance in personal relationships. Disagreements and differences of opinion are natural, but embracing the mantra of “hold strong opinions, loosely” can transform conflicts into opportunities for mutual understanding. When we approach discussions with a willingness to learn from one another, relationships flourish, and bonds strengthen.
At Oxygen Conservation we only recruit people better than us in a meaningful way, making it nothing short of madness if we don’t listen to these incredible people and let our thoughts, feelings, and underlying beliefs be challenged. This level of openness and intellectual flexibility is such a powerful tool in creating a genuinely diverse and inclusive environment, helping everyone develop together, in their own unique ways.
The phrase “hold strong opinions, loosely” encapsulates a fusion of passion and humility, conviction and open-mindedness. It serves as a reminder that our opinions, no matter how deeply held, should rarely if ever be considered beyond challenge or debate – please feel free to challenge this thought. By cultivating a genuinely open, adventurous mindset, we can navigate the ever-changing landscape of ideas with enthusiasm, empathy, and intellectual curiosity. But then again, I might be wrong…