Less thinking, more doing: I have a bad tendency to overthink things and to be wary of acting before I feel I know enough to do so. In reality, almost always the best way to learn things is to just do them — no amount of theoretical learning will give you similar thorough and practical insights. Furthermore, one can often derive much more value out of theory when the actual practice is known and familiar.
As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Martin Mikael Lilius.
Martin Mikael Lilius is the author of Trust, Knowledge and Society — a deep inquiry into the nature of trust and its essential role in our societies. He is based in Helsinki, Finland and works as a strategy consultant when not digging into trust and other topics concerning society and human nature. Prior to embarking on a writing career, he allocated capital at a local private equity investment company.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Looking back, my childhood and youth probably reflected a quite typical Finnish experience during 1980’s and 1990’s — marked by ice hockey and other sports, a highly supportive school environment, and in hindsight, a remarkable degree of general safety and wellbeing. By the time I was in high school, my more bookish and nerdy nature started to dominate, leading me away from the childhood hockey hobby, towards more intellectual interests.
Another typical Finnish or Nordic aspect of my childhood background is summers spent at our family’s country house by the coast — another luxury I have grown up to appropriately appreciate only as an adult. Despite all the wonderful experiences in the beautiful Finnish nature, somewhat untypically for a Finn, I somehow ended up as a more city-oriented person.
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?
The answer is pretty clear: Lord of The Rings by JRR Tolkien — which I read for the first time when I was 7–8 years old. It was an unbelievable experience that lured me deep into its world and lore. So much so, that I probably read the books (and pretty much everything else by Tolkien) once a year for at least the next 5 years or so. That was really my start as a voracious reader.
From there, I quickly got into Science Fiction, which often featured deeper societal considerations that turned out super interesting for me. A great example is Asimov’s Foundation series, turning around the plans of Hari Seldon and his science of Psychohistory, which used mathematical techniques to predict societal development. Against this backdrop it is probably not surprising I ended up studying economics myself.
Finally, from science fiction my interests migrated further to various forms of non-fiction: history, psychology, philosophy, economics and various other subjects. There are probably too many books to name that urged me to some sort of action or change in my life. But it can perhaps all be tracked to that first engagement with Tolkien that sparked an unquenchable curiosity to know more.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
It’s not really a funny story, but something that I have had to learn over and again — so I’ll settle for important instead of funny. Namely, it is the lesson that mistakes are not to be feared and are a necessary part of the process. My problem has always been that I have always stressed way too much about failing or not being great, to the degree that it has really hindered my process of growing up as a person, because the fear of failure led me to avoid things I really needed to engage with.
The lesson here is to acknowledge that failure is an inevitable part of the process of learning and not something to be feared. So, the main thing is to go out there, to do things, to fail and to learn. And then after enough learning one may finally succeed.
Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?
The book has two aims: 1) to show why trust is at the core of societal development and many of the good things we appreciate, such as internally stable and peaceful communities 2) to use this understanding to provide fresh perspectives and solutions to the present societal challenges in the west
This means that I am aiming for significant social impact on two fronts: by providing a new and highly useful intellectual framework to understand societal development in general, as well as by mapping out first ideas how to apply said new understanding to the practical problems we are facing.
I strongly believe that a comprehensive understanding of trust will prove to be a revolutionary step forward in social sciences.
Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
An interesting story that really ties the book together is about the long-term development of various institutions in the west since the renaissance. Typically, we have learned to associate things like printing press, universal education or modern corporate law with the development of capitalism, prosperity and democracy — and not be wrong. My story and argument in the book is, however, that these institutions also contributed in a hitherto unappreciated way — by building trust.
This matters because trust is the foundation of all voluntary cooperation. As these and other institutions helped buttress and foster trust in the west, they acted as a significant force multiplier for the countries that adopted the trust-enhancing institutions.
In other words, high-trust societies can coordinate and achieve common goals much more efficiently than low-trust societies. In this way trust greatly contributes to prosperity, capacity for action and general wellbeing.
Of course, you’ll have to read the book to understand the whole of the argument!
What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?
There was a very clear “aha moment” that led to my interest in trust, and the eventual writing of the book.
The big moment happened in the old pre-covid world in summer of 2019, as I was sitting in the office of my previous employer. As a part of my work at the investment company, I was naturally keen to keep up with the economy and its latest developments. And so, I was reading up on a report by Citi Global Markets Strategist Matt King, who always had interesting takes on economic matters. This time he however outdid even his typical high-quality output. As a side-discussion to his thesis at hand, Mr. King referenced statistics showing a long-term and steady decline in trust in the US and the west. As a comment to the data, he mentioned that trust was the very foundation of society, without which a society would crumble.
This was a mind-blowing moment for me. I had never thought about trust, but these statistics and Mr. King’s comments suddenly aligned many things in the world that had become increasingly strange to me, from Brexit to Donald Trump and many things besides. These were surely all topics connected by the underlying erosion of trust seen in the statistics — this was my immediate intuition.
This hunch led me to dig deeper into trust research, which eventually culminated in the realization that trust was indeed a window to societal developments that was highly useful and informative. The initial intuition about trust’s importance was not only confirmed, but far exceeded by the vast scope of insights a thorough analysis of trust yielded. Once I realized all this, I knew I had to write about the topic.
The decision to research and write was not a random fluke of course, as I had previously had a spot at an Economics PhD program (which I decided to forgo to work and earn some money) and used to write for student papers. Discovering the topic of trust finally provided the right frame and time to return to these earlier interests that had been sidelined for too long.
Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
A wonderful example of the kind of impact the book can provide comes from a reader in the UK.
Having read the book, the reader commented that they now saw things quite differently than before. They now noticed trust in action in many instances, which they had not previously connected trust to. More importantly, having made these connections, many things appeared now to make more sense than before. In short, through understanding trust, the world as a whole became more a comprehensible place.
This kind of change in perspective is exactly what I am aiming for with the book. Once we understand things in a new way, our view of the world is enriched, and new ideas and new options become possible.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
The starting point for my book is the dramatic decline in trust in our governments, fellow citizens and media seen in statistics and real life across the west. At the end of the book, after examining various aspects of trust, I turn to provide my solutions to fix the deficit we are seeing and feeling. In short, what we need to do is address the following topics:
- Tackling income inequality: The divergence in economic fortunes is clearly negative for trust. This is however not an argument for redistribution. Rather, the solution is to get everyone back onboard through work that pays off. This means investing in re-skilling and practical education that corresponds to the real needs of the economy (e.g. coding) as well as rethinking the offshoring policies of the past. Given the ongoing divergence in the global economy, it appears the offshoring trend is thankfully likely to abate or reverse.
- Bridging the values gap: The left and right sides of the political spectrum are increasingly drifting apart in their values — with significant negative impacts on trust. Common values and behaviors are a significant factor for trust but are becoming more difficult to come by in increasingly diverse societies. A first step to mending the situation would require both sides of the spectrum to admit the legitimacy of opposing views and open themselves up for genuine dialogue, as opposed to current categorical denials and denigrations of the opposition. Likewise, the media should focus on developing genuine and constructive analytical understanding of underlying issues and grievances on both sides, rather than seeking to create friends and foes, victims and oppressors. A part of the problem arises from the click-baiting incentives of the internet economy, rewarding sensationalism and emotion instead of coolheaded analysis. These incentive problems are another issue to address.
- Combating Climate change: Climate issues are a huge source of anxiety, especially among the young, eating away trust. Besides adopting necessary plans and steps to actually address the climate challenge (while at the same time being mindful of energy prices and material needs of the economy), states should also adopt a frank and forthright way of informing and communicating the actions taken and impacts achieved to the citizens. By clearly showing plans and actions taken, and their expected impacts, states can start to gain back the trust they have squandered by dithering on the issue. This could start out as simply as through an easily accessible website showing plans and progress graphically, with ability to click into the details. By showing data and concrete plans to achieve stated targets, states are also consequently forced to start holding themselves more accountable on the topic.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
For me, leadership is fundamentally about showing a way forward in difficult or unclear circumstances. This means that it is always forward-looking, but not tied to a specific context or environment. A teacher advising high schoolers on future study paths can be a leader, a CEO articulating a game-changing strategy can be a leader, a captain motivating their sports team to catch up and overtake the opposition can be a leader.
A position does not necessarily make a leader. A CEO can often lack a genuine forward-looking vision and capacity to inspire new and creative action, and be a mere overseer of daily activity, rather than a real leader. Typically, leadership is something social related to inspiring and guiding our fellow humans. But I would consider the ability to direct, motivate and plan for one’s own actions an important aspect of leadership as well.
For a Finn, a great example of leadership comes from the second world war, when we were fighting against the Soviet Union. The leader of our armed forces at the time was Marshal Mannerheim. Through daily communications he provided by now legendary guidance and inspiration to the nation through wartime, while also acting as a commander-in-chief of the military. Later, he also became the President of the Republic. Mannerheim’s words and actions provided the forward-looking vision, guidance and inspiration exemplifying true leadership that helped the nation through the war.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
Life can be surprisingly difficult, especially when you don’t know what to do with it — which is unfortunately a feeling I have struggled with more often than I’d like. Through the years I have managed to pick up some sort an understanding of how to approach these types of moments however, the lessons of which I am happy to share. Perhaps the following could be a worthwhile framework to those trying to figure out what to do, whether younger people thinking about what to study, or older ones pondering new jobs for example. At any rate, understanding these would have been highly useful for 20-year-old me…
- Less thinking, more doing: I have a bad tendency to overthink things and to be wary of acting before I feel I know enough to do so. In reality, almost always the best way to learn things is to just do them — no amount of theoretical learning will give you similar thorough and practical insights. Furthermore, one can often derive much more value out of theory when the actual practice is known and familiar.
- Failure is OK: As I have already elaborated, failure is part of the learning process and needs to be understood as a fundamental part of it — not as something to be feared. Accepting this will make it easier to take action and to learn faster.
- If you don’t know what you want to do, just try something: I had terrible trouble figuring out what I wanted to study after high school. After a few years and trying out different subjects, I stumbled onto economics. This was a moment when things clicked, and I finally felt like I had found an intellectual home for myself. Despite everything working out in the end, the process could have been much faster had I been more eager to try out different things. If you don’t know what is the right way forward, just try something. Whatever you discover, you will probably find things you like and dislike. These in turn will help you rule out wrong things and gravitate towards the right ones.
- If you dislike where you’re at, don’t be afraid to change course: as a continuation to the above, sticking too long with things that are not working out can waste you a lot of time. Therefore, don’t be afraid to think creatively about new and different options. Things tend to work out in the end — and success tends to come much more easily when you’re enjoying what you are doing.
- Do not expect one job/project/thing to be everything you need for all your life: As an addendum to all the preceding lessons, let’s take a moment to acknowledge the multifaceted nature of our lives. Our personalities have many sides, and we learn and change as we grow older and wiser. In contrast with this variety in interests and aspects of personality, our working life tends to be more focused and repetitive. And so, we may easily find that our work does not let us express our personalities as fully as we would like to. This is of course perfectly normal and natural. What it means is that we may over time lose interest in our old jobs and yearn to do new things. Just as well, it may be that there is no single job can let us manifest ourselves fully — so perhaps we need to spend time on different things at different times in order to lead balanced lives. This was at any rate my personal experience. I love to read, research and write in my own peace, and was very happy to write a book. At the same time, the solitary work left me quite without the social connections and co-workers whose company I enjoy. This in turn meant that, despite the enormous joy I felt writing the book, by the end of the writing project I was quite ready to jump back into the far more social world of consulting.
Acknowledging this state of affairs should be helpful in bringing in some flexibility of mind and putting into context the challenges we face, and the different things we want to accomplish.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Without truth, no trust; without trust, no society. Truth and trust create a world we can share.” — By the late and great Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.
I came across this when I was reading his book “Morality” at some point during the writing process of my own book, Trust, Knowledge and Society. It really summarizes the interconnected relationships between knowledge (truth), trust and society.
In terms of a more personal connection, I have always strived for truthfulness in all matters. But in the process of discovering the many meanings of trust, I have increasingly started to apply a trust-based on perspective in many instances, for example how to improve my performance or impressions I give in my consulting work.
Trust is one of those things where, once you attain a new way of looking at things, you start to notice it everywhere.
The quote nicely ties both of these personal tendencies to a greater societal context.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Given his pivotal role in inspiring the whole book, I would be happy to have lunch with Matt King — the market strategist whose note launched my personal interest in the subject area. Who knows, maybe he would have a new topic for me to delve into!
Of course, there are plenty of other interesting people in the world, who would benefit from an understanding of trust, and who would be super interesting characters to me personally. Elon Musk and President Obama come to mind in this regard, both having major, yet somewhat different, audiences. They would be great envoys for a trust-based understanding of societal development.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I have a website at trustknowledgesociety.com, which will be updated with news as they arrive. My social media efforts are focused on Instagram under the account @trustknowledgesociety.
My book is most easily accessible in physical and digital formats on Amazon.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author Martin Mikael Lilius Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.