Coloured Pencils

I’m not going to lie, writing for me takes effort. I have so many things to say, but to sit down and structure all those thoughts in a cohesive format feels quite serious suddenly. I’m going to try speak from the heart in what I hope feels like a conversation.

So, what do I want to talk about today? Coloured pencils.

My first set of coloured pencils was a beautiful metal set from Faber-Castell. Quite similar to the image below. It was my pride and joy. I was one of those kids who, quite unusually loved school and anything that went with it. The love was not limited to polishing my shoes, ironing the uniform, making sure that my pencils were sharpened and the eraser was free of any marks. The coloured pencil set also got the same treatment; love that veered on touches of over protectiveness.  What attracted me was the sense of calm through order – each pencil had a place, a duty and a function.

What I have realised growing up, is that the coloured pencils can also be metaphorical for something else. They are representative of each one of us – we are all unique and have something distinctive to contribute to the whole set or community. What does happen however in society sometimes, is cultural homogenization.

While there are some advantages to a homogenized culture such as in some cases better quality of communication or more global cooperation due to shared understanding of the world, shared goals and shared methodologies of achieving these. Arguably, global cooperation requires a degree of similarity, values are shared in similar cultures. There are also some disadvantages to consider

  1. Less diversity of ideas. Different cultures are powerful experiments in seeing how else a society could work and provide examples to challenge existing norms and status quo. They provide inspiration for changes within any given culture.
  2. Blandness in uniformity. Most of us are fascinated to understand how a totally different system works – this allows us to build and innovate.
  3. There may be some aspect of “specialisation” that comes out of having different cultures. So there could be a net economic loss from this factor (in isolation).


Identify any global brand from Coca Cola to Facebook and the chances are, you will see or feel their presence in most countries around the world – this is exemplary of cultural homogenization on a consumeristic level. It is easy to see homogenization in terms of loss of diversity, identity or the westernization of society. But, the rapid pace of change also raises the more interesting question of why humans have had so many distinct cultures in the first place. If we consider why diversity ever existed we need to talk about migration and survival – and how that has created a psychological make-up of culture and community. The need for this is explored by H. Wiley who states:

Around 60,000 years ago, cumulative cultural adaptation was what propelled modern humans out of Africa in small tribal groups, by enabling us to acquire knowledge and produce technologies suitable to different environments.  Eventually these tribes would occupy nearly every environment on Earth – from living on ice to surviving in deserts or steaming jungles, even becoming sea-going mariners as the Polynesians did. And amongst each one we see distinct sets of beliefs, customs, language and religion.

H. Wiley

If diversity is a part of our psychological make-up, why are people still averse to diversity, when we live in a world that is benefiting from bringing together people from different cultural backgrounds and traditions? Before we are able to answer that, there is a concept of ‘capacity for culture’. This trait, is outlined further in H. Wiley’s book Wired for Culture. Put simply, we can pick up where others have left off, not having to re-learn our cultural knowledge each generation, as good ideas build successively upon others that came before them, or are combined with other ideas giving rise to new inventions.

Two factors are likely to slow the rate at which cultural unification will happen.  One is resources, the other is demography.   Cooperation has worked throughout history because large collections of people have been able to use resources more effectively and provide greater prosperity and protection than smaller groups.  But that could change as resources become scarce.

A critical concern for the future will be the question of how resources are managed. The conversation around sustainability is accelerating, but that is only one action – the action to raise awareness. We also need to think about the action to manage, and distribute to support the needs of all our planet’s inhabitants. When we talk about unity and collectiveness, we invariably also have the flipside that results in a reduction of cultural diversity. How do we manage both? The answer is not simple, but similar to human evolution – it is evolving. We need to be open to understand and appreciate the needs of our fellow humans. This can be in the form of resources needed in both succeed in expression of individuality, collective culture and diversity allowing us a whole to achieve social equity.

Going back to the coloured pencils. Each pencil has a shade to contribute, a hue to add and its own distinct place. What we need to understand is the varying views and richness that we can gain by differences and hold on to the commonalities that make us human. Moral of the story? Celebrate being your own unique colour – and create art by making that colour shine.

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