10 inspirational tips by the man from MONGOOSE

I want to be wrong.

Do you?

We should all long to be wrong. So says the man from MONGOOSE. Otherwise known as Dougald Hine.

Dougald Hine (photo by squircle)

Dougald Hine (photo by squircle)

Dougald is on a mission to bring people together and to generally help make the world a little bit more awesome for us all:

“It all starts from a desire to understand how we change things – and how things change, with or without us.” [Source]

Dougald recently gave a speech on universities and transition. Speaking in the slot that was originally meant for the “man at the ministry”, Dougald decided to put his MONGOOSE hat on. In other words, the ‘Ministry Of Non-Governmental Organisations Or Similar Entities’, which is “For when the state is failing to deal with major ongoing crises”.

So, Dougald is serious about helping make change happen. He’s happy to be light-hearted along the way. And, if you prefer, not so light-hearted.

The path to change is never smooth, but our attitude makes a big difference to how we tackle that path. Along the way, we make many mistakes. Luckily, mistakes are important — and necessary — stepping stones.

This is just one piece of advice Dougald gave when he spoke. Here are some more gems I took away from his talk:

1. Take nothing for granted

Chances are you go about your day without paying much attention to your surroundings, each slight movement, basic interactions between other people, and so on.

Dougald mentions his friend, Lottie Child. Before giving a lecture, Lottie will say, “I’m going to stand here. You’re going to sit here and occasionally get a bit restless and shift your buttocks a bit and get momentarily distracted and…”

This introduction allows everyone to consider their position and the situation. Sometimes we need to step back and survey the world differently. Reframe what’s ‘normal’ and see how it changes your perspective.

2. Try to be wrong

So, mistakes are necessary. Yet, from an early age, students are taught to be ‘right’. This is incredibly dangerous.

At school, you were probably penalised for being wrong. These experiences train you to stop acting on anything that leaves you doubting.

But there’s nothing wrong with being wrong. It’s how you learned as a baby. Every moment of every day babies discover new things. And they cope by making mistakes. Loads and loads of mistakes. Until they get things right. Until they discover the next step.

And babies learn pretty fast.

It’s time to regain our love of the mistake process. It’s messy and confusing and utterly, utterly beautiful.

3. The fringe is not the fringe

You may consider yourself a tiny dot on the edges of everything that’s important, but it’s all a matter of perspective.

When you hit upon ideas through experimenting, through starting things, and through making mistakes, those ideas can be valuable. You don’t have to be at the centre of everything to come up with a brilliant solution to something.

The fringes impact upon the centre just as much as the other way around.

It’s okay to feel important, just as it is to feel small. You need to feel both extremes and everything in between. Enjoy the contradiction. You’re on the fringes and at the centre. You can be everywhere. You’re not the centre of the universe, but you have a chance to occupy every part of it.

“We do not influence the course of events by persuading people that we are right when we make what they regard as radical proposals. Rather we exert influence by keeping options available when something has to be done at a time of crisis.” – Milton Friedman

4. Self-organised learning is brilliant

When you stumble upon stuff that interests you, it results in greater engagement. Don’t view learning as a formal, rigid structure. If a particular textbook doesn’t gel with you, you’re not forced to stick with it. There are other books. You’re no longer limited to your own lectures. There are loads of lectures available online from institutions around the world.

When you find yourself switching off, you have the tools to switch back on. The subject is rarely the problem. It’s more likely the way you’re being taught. New approaches bring with them new perspectives.

5. Be aware. Feed your desire to find out more

Don’t stop at enough. Keep going. Every day is about learning. If you do nothing new and make no discoveries, you’ll be bored.

You do more learning and make more discoveries than you think. There’s nothing more or less complex about learning a new song or remembering what’s happening on your favourite TV show than there is about learning a new skill or a new subject. With the right reference point, anything is possible.

Knowledge of bands and entertainment may not move you closer to solving any big world problems, but you’re still learning. The process helps you understand that your mind is not the problem to retaining information and linking details.

6. Don’t just talk. Test and develop

Academic research is handled in a destructive way, according to Dougald. It currently begins with private research. The finished result is then presented to the wider world. At this stage, the researcher needs to defend their work from criticism.

But we should make research public from the outset, says Dougald. The process can create greater collaboration and allows the research to cover a wider framework since it’s out in the open.

And by testing, we continue to discover regularly.

“To develop skill requires a good measure of experiment and questioning; mechanical practice seldom enables people to improve their skills. Too often we imagine good work itself as success built, economically and efficiently, upon success. Developing skill is more arduous and erratic than this.” – Richard Sennett

7. Collaborate and converse

The more you present yourself in public, the less dangerous it can be. That sounds strange, but it’s important to unlearn closed thinking. You don’t need to pour every secret thought and desire out, but learning requires a sense of place. Without that, it may seem as if there’s no point in learning at all.

Online services are used by many as a social service to chat with friends and have a laugh, but they have a wonderfully collaborative purpose too. Dougald explains that they make event organisation and people finding so much easier. Setting up contacts and finding like minds is simple now compared even to a year or two ago.

And whatever you’re doing, there are other people out there who’ll be interested and who’ll want to help. Collaboration should be a win-win most of the time.

8. Embrace uncertainty and opposition

Many situations involve either ignoring any opposition you have, or blocking the possibility of discussing alternatives and oppositions.

By seeking only solid answers, people can either ignore opposition altogether, or frame things in order to block any possibility of discussion. Yet discovery is fluid. Life is subjective.

There is no line that requires you to be on one side or the other. You have a whole spectrum of possibly to play with.

Uncertainty isn’t just about fear and gloom. There are many chances for it to be enabling too. And it needn’t result on you ‘sitting on the fence’.

“Communication is no more or less than the exposition of the overflowing, inappropriable, un sharable finitude that we share.” – Diane Davis

9. You are a movement, not a degree robot

Your time at university should be about *you*. The marketisation of higher education can hide that. Fees don’t have to create consumers. You can still be a producer.

Rather than see university as a means to an end, consider it as a set of tools, experiences and opportunities. If you don’t rely on yourself to keep pushing forward, don’t be surprised if all you get is an occasional nudge.

10. Reclaim what’s good and make things real

The government is making use of the term ‘Big Society’ to bring back ‘people power’ and collaboration in order to start projects and run services.

But Dougald argues that the term ‘Big Society’ needs to be reclaimed. He put it plainly: “We ARE the big society”. When Dougald was discussing possible names for what has become the “Really Free School“, his favourite name was “The Big Society HQ”.

Although “Really Free School” won out, that name still uses a concept to reclaim. While the government are keen to introduce a number of Free Schools, the reclamation is that this genuinely is a “Really Free School”. Nobody takes credit for the work of others, there is no wider remit or reason behind it.

In terms of your study, you do have essays and exams and various things expected of you. But the responsibility is your own. The blank canvas is yours to fill. The more you consider what’s important to you, the quicker you can start making a difference for yourself and the wider world.

At the end of Dougald’s talk, I felt ridiculously small and inconsequential, yet equally big and important. The contradiction isn’t all that surprising when you consider how confusing we are as people and how complex our lives are. As Robert Kurzban, author of “Why Everyone (Else) Is A Hypocrite“, says:

It is a virtual certainty that if one looks all of a given individual’s actions over time, because they are severally caused, they are guaranteed to be mutually inconsistent.” [Source]

If that’s not a reason to let yourself make a few mistakes in life, I don’t know what is.


  1. Thanks for writing this up, Martin. Apart from anything else, it’s very useful for me to see what points stand out from a talk for people!

    Following on from the points about your time at university, here’s another talk I gave a few days later, about what happens when you get to the careers service and find they don’t have a life your shape:

    How to avoid getting a proper job

    Also, if people want to listen to the audio recording of the talk you were at, I’ve posted it here:

    The University in Transition

    Great to meet you in Winchester – and I hope we’ll see each other again soon.

    1. Thanks for those links, Dougald. I urge everyone to listen to these talks in full. My post is from one perspective, but you covered a lot of ground on a wide base.

      That’s what I liked about the conference at Winchester. It tackled so many issues that it could have turned into a confusion. Instead, it provided a great deal of perspective.

      And it was great to meet you too. Keep on inspiring.

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