Skip to main content

The power of unlearning 'learned helplessness'

This article is drawn from the VERGE Weekly newsletter from GreenBiz, running Wednesdays.

I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling disheartened by the drumbeat of dreary news these days. Even an eternal optimist has her limits.

So, instead, consider this: What if the way we are telling stories — to ourselves and each other — is part of the problem? What if the steady diet of depressing headlines and newsfeeds is both psychologically and physiologically conditioning us to believe that we are incapable of effecting positive change?

It turns out there’s a term for this: learned helplessness, the condition in which a person — or in this case, I’d posit, society as a collective — "suffers from a sense of powerlessness, arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed," according to the Oxford Dictionary. The term was coined in the 1960s by American psychologist Martin Seligman, known as "the father of modern positive psychology."

Telling stories about what’s working, and facilitating the necessary connections to advance those solutions, are some of the most powerful tools we have to create the change we all want to see.
The idea behind the term reinforces a core premise of our mission here at GreenBiz. Namely, the idea that telling stories about what’s working, and facilitating the necessary connections to advance those solutions, are some of the most powerful tools we have to create the change we all want to see. This includes budding, emergent ventures as well as those that are proven and already moving the needle.

That’s why I am excited to announce two programs launching this week, one long-standing and one brand new, both of which include participatory calls to action.

VERGE Accelerate: The nomination window is open for our VERGE Accelerate program, which gives entrepreneurs with early-stage companies the opportunity to pitch at our flagship VERGE 18, Oct. 16-18 in Oakland, California. The program, a cornerstone of VERGE almost since its inception, demonstrates the depth and breadth of ingenuity and innovation emerging across sectors and around the world. These inspiring entrepreneurs show us what courage and creativity look like when tackling big problems.

For the first time, we’ll host three VERGE Accelerate pitch sessions, aligned with each of this year’s concurrent conferences: VERGE Energy, VERGE Transport and VERGE Circular. Our goal is to elevate, celebrate and accelerate innovators on the cusp of game-changing innovations in each market.

Think you or an entrepreneur you know would benefit from global exposure to the VERGE audience? Check out the qualification criteria and apply before the July 30 deadline.

VERGE Vanguard Awards: This week also marks the opening call for nominations for our inaugural VERGE Vanguard Awards, designed to celebrate those on the leading edge of the clean economy. This is another opportunity to honor those that most inspire you, and ultimately inspire others, too.

As Heather Clancy put it in her piece announcing the call, this is about "the dreamers, pioneers, entrepreneurs, designers, engineers, business leaders, policymakers and investors on the cutting edge … whether it’s the founder of a paradigm-smashing startup, a multinational company turning its back on the status quo, an elected or appointed official laying the groundwork for innovative policies or a business collaboration transforming an industry."

So, give it some thought: Which people, companies and organizations are deserving of this honor? Make this a moment to overcome any lingering learned helplessness. Submit your nomination by Aug. 3.

More on this topic