It doesn’t matter how you start a conversation about change, they all end the same way: when someone declares your idea will fail because it is contrary  to ‘human nature’.

‘People won’t go for it…they hate change… they’ll cheat the system…they’ll screw this up because they just won’t give a damn… it’s just human nature.’

Really? I’m not so sure.

To say  something is human nature is to say it’s been hard-wired into our minds and bodies and therefore true about every human, every time.

We all breathe, eat, grow, sleep, dream. We all die. We all get tired, emotional and scared from time to time. These are true of us all and cannot be changed, so therefore qualify (in my book) as ‘human nature.’

So what about selfishness; are we all just out for ourselves? Think of all the rescue workers and volunteers, charity groups and activists, ‘Professionals Without Borders’ and community organisers giving their time (and often their lives) for the sake of others.

How do we explain such people? Either: a) selfishness is NOT a hard-wired ‘nature’ or b) these people are not human… although all the ones I’ve met so far clearly have been.

Test out other ‘human natures’ (‘we’re all vain, we all want money’ etc.) and you find the same thing: most of us are not like that at all. But some of us are, so we should start searching for something much more specific, something that might apply to a particular individual or their group; in other words, their culture.

When we say ‘culture’ we’re talking about all the things we’ve learned to think, say and do that make us distinctive from others. It’s all the subtle things that make a book club distinctive from a sports club, a circus distinctive from a platoon, a bureaucracy distinctive from a commune.

They’re all cultures and they all produce distinctive notions and behaviours. They ‘cultivate’ collaboration or competition, playfulness or aggression, logic or instinct to suit the needs of its members, which might explain why there are cultures dedicated to just about any human tendency. There are action groups and discussion groups, help groups and hate groups, arts groups and gun groups; groups devoted to selfless altruism, groups committed to selfish materialism.

Still with me? Good.

Because if things like aggression and selfishness and hate are ‘human cultures’ NOT ‘human natures’ then they are NOT a hard-wired feature of who we are; they’re just things that some of us have learned to do. And whatever has been learned can be unlearned.

Of course, some behaviours really are part of our nature and cannot be changed, but not as many as everyone seems to think. So next time someone plays the Human Nature Gambit to block meaningful change and reform, don’t just accept it without a fight.

‘Cos that’s not human nature. Or is it?

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Written by Jason Clarke

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Celebrated author, adventurer, gold medal Olympian and popular TV chef; Jason is none of these things. He is, however, one of the most sought-after creative minds in the country. As founder of Minds at Work, he’s helped people ‘think again’ since the end of the last century, working with clients across Australia in virtually every industry and government sector on issues ranging from creativity and trouble shooting to culture change and leadership.