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How I Stopped Being a Panicky Perfectionist: The Freedom of an Eco-mind

I guess I’ve always been one — a panicky perfectionist. Still way-too-vivid is a memory of sitting on the rust-colored corduroy couch of my Pt. Richmond, Calif., home in the spring of 1971. Staring out on the bay, I’m talking with my mom just as Diet for a Small Planet is about to hit the bookstores. Panic had set in, and I’m confessing: “Mom, what my book says — that there’s enough food for all — is so obvious, it can’t possibility be true. If it were, surely someone else, some Ph.D. somewhere, would be seeing it and saying it. What if I got a decimal point wrong and my whole thesis is off?”

Since that heart to heart, no one has ever challenged the basic math showing that scarcity of food is not the cause of hunger — a fact even more true in today’s world.

Yet, through 17 more books and 41 more years, I’ve remained a panicky perfectionist. My latest book EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want has more than 600 endnotes — an average of three per page. Not only did I ask a really smart assistant Samantha Mignotte to “fact-check,” but I hired an environmental educator to double fact-check. Yet, anxiety about making mistakes has always haunted me.

Most recently, I upped the ante on myself. I felt compelled, with colleagues, to challenge, by way of a petition campaign, the standards of the most prestigious publisher in the world, Oxford University Press. What was I thinking? If I’ve been panicky about making errors before, well, this had to be the acid test.

Yes, but it’s also turning out to be an acid powerful enough to burn an opening — an opening to a new freedom.

One of my most self-mocking but useful mottos over the decades has been this: “When all else fails, Frankie, why not try practicing what you preach?”

And what have I been preaching? My latest book, EcoMind, explores what it could mean if we took to heart a global cultural shift flowing from breakthroughs in science and reflections on our species’ historical record. I call the new way of seeing the “eco-mind” because it embodies these truths: 1. All life is connected, shaping all other life moment to moment. 2. Change is the only constant. 3. Therefore we are all co-creating our reality.

An eco-mind, focused on the power of context to shape members of any system, also acknowledges that our species sees the world through cultural filters (I call them our “mental maps”) that determine what we can see and what we cannot.

With an eco-mind, aware that change is continuous and the shape of reality co-created, “knowing” is not an endpoint but a process, an endless process. All “knowing” is iterative. Bringing that insight down to earth, I realize that my panic about getting all “my facts right” once and for all is a fool’s errand — on several levels. For one, since I, too, am shaped by my context and see the world through my own filters, I will miss things. I will unwittingly distort something no matter how hard I try not to.

And what seemed like a fact today may be disproven or greatly refined tomorrow.

I’d used Brazil prominently in the first chapter of EcoMind, for example, to make the case that even one of the worst global offenders could successfully combat deforestation. But just weeks before my book went to press, a breaking news story reported an international forestry watchdog group apologizing for vastly overstating Brazil’s progress. So, zip, Brazil was out. Then, earlier this month, I read that Brazil has made significant strides after all. And now, today, an email appeal asks me to sign a petition to Brazil’s president to veto a bill that could result in deforesting an area the size of Chile!

So what is the answer? What’s the cure for my perfectionist affliction? It’s to rethink what it means to be a public intellectual. I am actually a public learner, a co-creator of iterative knowledge, not a deliverer of once-and-for-all facts.

The Internet makes this possible. It is my liberation.

Right now on the Small Planet Institute’s website I have posted all EcoMind endnotes. There I am updating “URLs” as I discover them to be dated. Even more important, readers can find — by chapter — updates, including corrections. I’ve just started this process, but I’m committed to expanding it. I may add others’ feedback by chapter as well.

There is a catchword for all this today. It’s “transparency” — exactly the opposite of Fox News-style combat media without transparency or opportunity for correction or refinement. The value of transparency is gaining ground and urgency: Think of the bipartisan anger at the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, enabling the unprecedented flood of secret campaign money. It’s deadly. On the positive, think of Wikipedia, where it’s possible to uncover the identity of any contributor, or Politifact, where I can find not only judgments on the accuracy of controversial public statements, but the reasoning behind them. So I can go behind the spin.

Transparency, as a core value of democratic society, also goes right to the heart of the petition appeal to Oxford University Press that colleagues and I are pursuing. We’re simply asking the press for: 1. Citations for evidence-based claims; 2) Disclosure of potential conflict of interest, whether financial or other associations; and 3) Accurate representation of the publication by the Press in its promotion. Pretty basic!

Beyond transparency, the Internet enables collaborative knowledge creation. I “crowd-sourced” EcoMind, for example, so dozens of people weighed in on my draft book, offering the equivalent to 80 pages of suggestions. The approach is gaining ground even “within the stately world of peer review,” wrote Jack Hitt in the New York Times last Sunday: “New ways to encourage wider collaboration before an article is published — through sites like ResearchGate — are attempts to bring the modern world of crowd-improvement to empirical research.”

Redefining my role as a public co-learner rather than Ms. Never Wrong, I am free. I am free to continue to do my best to be as carefully accurate as possible, and I am free to continually refine what I say. I undertake the later not as the woeful admission of a perfectionist’s failure, but as evidence that I am inhabiting an eco-mind—a mind of continuous change within an endless community of learners.

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