Creating space for diverse conversations

Founded in London in 2008, The School of Life (TSOL) is the brainchild of Alain de Botton, a Swiss-born essayist and modern-day philosopher.
Since opening in 2008, the ‘School’ now operates in Paris, Amsterdam, London, Melbourne, Antwerp, Belgrade, and Istanbul. Like an informal university, the school teaches students how to explore and discuss the philosophies of life. The School of Life (TSOL) offers a variety of programmes on how to live wisely and well, addressing issues such as why work is often unfulfilling, why relationships can be so challenging, and what we can do to try to change the world for the better.

TSOL came to Melbourne, Australia in 2013 and the Sydney chapter opened in 2016. Since then the Sydney team have hosted workshops and conversations with many notable individuals including:  Noni Hazelhurst (Australian actress, director, writer, presenter and broadcaster), A.C Grayling (British philosopher and author) and Krista Tippett (American journalist, author, and entrepreneur) and upcoming events include Lawrence Levy (Former CFO of Pixar), Michael Leunig (Australian cartoonist, poet and cultural commentator) and Dan Ariely (the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioural Economics at Duke University and is the founder of The Center for Advanced Hindsight).

Eleanor Gammell has been the Director of the Sydney TSOL since it opened and said that: “The School of Life is a place to step back and think intelligently about central emotional concerns, through increasing our emotional intelligence we can create space for more diverse conversations.”

What is the School of Life?

The School of Life runs classes, workshops and major events to explore and develop emotional intelligence as well as a bookstore, YouTube channel and website. The Book of Life that we like to call the brain of The School of Life.”

What is the purpose of the school?

“The School of Life is a global organisation with a very simple mission in mind: to increase emotional intelligence in our communities. This permeates through people’s relationships, work, leisure and their engagement with culture. Essentially it’s about learning to live well.”

“We have all heard of the person who is clever and may have received straight A’s throughout school – but they repeatedly make a mess of their personal lives, or the person who has made a lot of money but is hard to work with. This is where emotional intelligence comes in. The more we can understand ourselves on an emotional level, the better equipped we will be to deploy patience in trying times, to grapple with the fear of failure and understand how to communicate better with others.”

What is the school aiming to achieve?

“We want to create an accessible space where people feel comfortable asking big questions of themselves and their everyday lives, and a forum for public discourse. Ultimately, if we have a more emotionally intelligent and self-aware society, we will bring the best versions of ourselves into our communities.”

You recently hosted Krista Tippett, she spoke about creating space for more diverse conversations.
Do you think that the TSOL achieves that? In what way?

“Krista is one remarkable human. If anyone hasn’t heard her podcast On Being I certainly recommend it. Krista’s event with The School of Life talked about the need for a vocabulary that can deal with the complexity of the environment we live in. This is something we certainly strive for at TSOL. Robust public discourse is key to connecting the hearts and minds of people with the issues they feel strongly about, as well as the ability to bring deep listening and empathy to the people and discussions we feel challenged by.”

Why do you think people are looking for ‘space’ for diversity of thought and conversation?

“We live in a country that is incredibly diverse, but we perhaps need better forums to celebrate our differences. This is certainly one of the aims of the School. I think it’s important to reflect on the root cause of our desire for diverse conversations, too. We are engulfed by a new media landscape and a curated echo-chamber of opinion that contributes significantly to a feeling of one dimensionality. I think many of us feel strongly about attempting to transcend same-ness and continually engage with people and cultures unlike our own. If we were to consider which emotional skill we require most in this context, its empathy. How can we develop more empathic selves/couples/families/workplaces? This is the task at hand.”

Since the TSOL opened in Australia, have you noticed changes, with particular emphasis on Diversity of Thinking?

“The very nature of our classroom experience is casual, accessible and fun. Our conversations class will literally take you from Socrates to Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, Monty Python and the poetry of David Whyte. We celebrate tapping into the breadth of wisdom from various thinkers throughout the ages. It’s a wonderful environment to meet other curious, open-minded people so the discussion in the room celebrates diversity of thought both in the content and the group dialogue.”

We have staged major events with thought leaders like Krista Tippett On Conscience, Alberto Manguel (Argentine Canadian anthologist, translator, essayist, novelist and editor) On Curiosity, Laurie Penny (English feminist columnist and author) On Freedom and AC Grayling On Democracy’s Crisis. The number of people we have signing up to these indicates a very clear appetite for diversity of thought.

How can businesses or leaders bring create space or bring more diverse thinking into what they do on a day to day basis?

“I think there are three things organisations can do;

1. Don’t think of leadership as hierarchy

Think about leadership as something that is encouraged at every level of the organisation, detaching it from the traditional idea of hierarchy. This will give you the ability to hear from people you don’t otherwise hear from. New perspectives are critical.

2. Be an authentic leader

Bring your full self to work. This will encourage others to do the same.

3. Ask courageous questions

If your organisation is not as diverse as you think it should be, start asking the brave questions and encourage the changes to be made.”


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