After the success of his first bestseller Utopia for Realists, Dutch historian Rutger Bregman has just published his second book “Humankind: a hopeful history”.

The main idea in a nutshell

The book’s main thesis goes as follows: “Most people, deep down, are pretty decent” and if we want the best from people, we need to believe in their innate kindness and ability to organize themselves for the common good. Inversely, if we are looking for the worst in people, we are bound to find it even when it does not exist!

Why this is important? Because of self-fulfilling prophecy: If we assume that most people are selfish and cannot be trusted, then we will design our institutions based on that assumption, which will create exactly the kind of people that our human nature view assumed.

Rousseau vs Hobbes debate on human nature: and the winner is …

The author cites two basic ways of understanding human nature. On one hand, Thomas Hobbes, claiming that, left to their own devices, people will wage a “war of all against all”. Hence, they need the institutions of civilization to restrain their instincts. Hobbes’ view aligns with the veneer theory stating that human morality and kindness is just a thin layer over an otherwise nasty human nature. On the other hand Jean-Jacques Rousseau, stating “that man is naturally good, and that it is from these institutions alone that men become wicked”.

When we look at how schools, leisure centers, companies, prisons have been designed, it is clear that the Hobbesian view dominate (ie. our natural selfishness and aggression can only be contained by strict laws, rules and regulations). However, Bregman, which sides with Rousseau, says that scientific evidence suggests that Hobbes’s assumptions are flawed. Bregman’s solution is to leverage people’s innate kindness to rethink” the way we organize our lives and societies.

Bregman’s plethora of examples and anecdotes

The book is full of examples, research and case studies to support Bregman’s argument and to overturn many common preconceived ideas based on Hobbes view. Examples include:

  • Agora: The school with no classes, no classrooms and no curriculum.
  • Buurtzorg : The “best employer” and “Best marketing in health care” in Holland with no HR nor a marketing team!

Bregman’s 10 takeaways:

In the book’s epilogue, Bregman recommends 10 rules to live by :

  1. “When in doubt, assume the best.”
  2. “Think in win win scenarios”
  3. “Ask more questions”
  4. “Temper your empathy, train your compassion”
  5. “Try to understand the other, even if you don’t get where there are coming”
  6. “Love your owns as others love their own”
  7. “Avoid the news”
  8. “Come out of the closet : Don’t be ashamed to do good”
  9. “Be realistic”

Selected quotes from the book

  • “Crisis brought out not the worst but the best in people”
  • “Basically, (…) we are trained to see selfishness everywhere. See someone helping an elderly person cross the street? What a show-off”
  • “There is a persistent myth that by their very nature humans are selfish, aggressive and quick to panic”
  • “A drug we use daily, that’s heavily subsidized and is distributed to our children on a massive scale. That drug is the news”
  • “Poll among twelve thousand parents in ten countries revealed that prison inmates spend more time outdoors than most kids”
  • “The opposite of play is not work (…) the opposite of play is depression”
  • “Our biggest shortfall isn’t’ a bank account or budget sheet but inside ourselves. It is a shortage of what makes life meaningful. A shortage of play”

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