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  • Nicole Lisson

What are Ancestral Smarts? And How Can They Boost Your Workplace?

Updated: Mar 23, 2021



‘Ancestral Smarts’ refers to the collective intelligence that arises when a small group commits to something they can achieve only together - as was required of hundreds of thousands of human generations.

Our brains were made for it.


The 1-year anniversary of the Covid pandemic arrived this week. While vaccinating is spreading and optimism rising, the world is still suffering from the passing of loved ones who died and others trapped in long-haul symptoms and economic desperation.

A less tangible loss was the illusion we knew what we’re doing.


Illuminated by extreme politics, storms, and power outages, the tragedy of fragmented local communities is coming into focus. We are starting to understand we need each other. The tough nut for many of us – privileged global citizens - is that we need the people living right around us to be OK in order for our children to thrive.

Yet few of us are equipped to uplift our communities and workplaces. Those ways were lost about 8 generations ago in the first word. Fortunately, we have the choice to grow the practices of shared wellbeing.


We are alive today because small groups of ancestors put their heads together and figured out how to protect their progeny from fast, well-endowed predators. It wasn’t an easy job. Their climate was changing. Walking upright was an advantage that decreased the width of the birth canal; birthing itself became more difficult and infants more helpless. Those enormous demands on cooperation made us the animals we are today: living in language, dependent on communication.


Can you imagine a life that did not include anxiety about whether you would be included? A life knowing who has your back and over whom you watch, complete with their respective strengths and vulnerabilities? That is the life in which – and for which – our brains evolved.

We can intentionally curate those conditions; that's what good leaders do after all. We steward a reality that recruits everyone’s heart toward a shared value. Our ancestors didn’t have to remind each other that they needed each other to stay alive; they probably didn’t individuate. “Ubuntu” is still spoken in rural Africa.


We born in the world operationalized by industrialization need more than reminders. Our communities are dying. This is the moment to reclaim ancestral smarts around you. The pandemic has highlighted that we do live locally; we stay alive by interacting with those around us.


Please put your focus on the people who live around you. Try listening in groups of three. Try mingling in three groups of three, reflecting on what each trio observes about what’s happening around you. Whether or not you’re able to build a crackling campfire, shared smarts will naturally emerge. See what happens – let us know.


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