ILC Ideas | Hrund Gunnsteinsdóttir

In January 2024, the ILC sat down with 2016 Yale World Fellow Hrund Gunnsteinsdóttir, an Icelandic author, advisor, and speaker, to discuss her new book, “InnSæi: Heal, revive and reset with the Icelandic art of intuition,” available in the United Kingdom in March 2024. Hrund shared her insights on the art of flourishing, leading, and innovating in an age of distraction and planetary crisis.

I found this remarkable fact about you: You’ve had up to 30 job titles over the course of your career. Looking back, was there a guiding logic or an arc to that journey? What are the different constellations that you draw from all those different points of reference?

I love that question. I resigned from my dream job, a permanent position with the UN, before I turned 30. At the time, I felt disconnect from within and the system I worked for also felt disconnected, siloed, and abstract. I felt we were serving a system instead of the system serving people and the planet. I decided I would commit my career to turning ideas into reality that felt regenerative and were good for the planet. I promised myself that I would have the courage to go into any domain or area that was best fit for the ideas that kept me awake at night. That’s why I have had so many different hats. As for your second question, I’m just going to go with my first feeling for that answer. I sense an immense amount of lost opportunities because we don’t work across different sectors and groups of people and disciplines as much as we should. We have become so fragmented and incremental instead of seeing the big picture and how things interconnect. A lot of local and global challenges call for ecosystems thinking. So, I have noticed how we’ve categorized our knowledge into silos and boxes and created man-made divisions between ideas, knowledge, thoughts, and relationships. The creative mind is borderless but we insist on creating borders.

There’s something about — even in education — how we stifle the motion, the life force and energy and creativity and the permission “to think outside the box.” I don’t really like that terminology, but you get my drift. I think that’s a remarkable achievement, how we’ve just kind of boxed in life that is otherwise very fluid and interconnected and dynamic and reaches way beyond the written word and all that is quantifiable. We could invest more in the imagination of the human spirit, which is not the same as fantasy. In today’s turbulent, complex and uncertain world, it’s important to be able to imagine things like peace where there is conflict, flourishing futures and constructive solutions. Imagination, I think, is one of the most practical tools in the world today. If we can’t imagine better outcomes, how are we going to achieve them? Everything is possible today; humans have a big say when it comes to the state of our planet and the power of the human mind is immense, if we would just harness it the right way. That’s another thing that I encountered in all these different roles that I’ve had; we could do so much more when it comes to creativity and imagination.

You started your career at the UN, thinking that you'd be a career bureaucrat, and you had an encounter with a system that has high ideals but often underwhelms and works to perpetuate itself. I want to talk about your encounter with systems. What’s interesting in your career is that it’s so individual and entrepreneurial, but you’ve ended up working a lot with businesses, corporates, media, arts — with different systems. What have you learned about systems and bureaucracies and getting them to work better for us?

My experience with the UN and other systems has been very, very important — and I also want to say that I still believe in the ideals of the UN. I think the UN, the idea of the UN, is so incredibly important. We can see that in the world today, although we know that it’s not working as we would like it to work. Another thing that has to do with your first question and it may sound abstract, but to me it really isn’t, is the following: I think that we have throughout education in our, let’s say, Western culture, we have overemphasized the role and value of analysis and what we call rational thinking. We have underestimated education in how we can better harness our intuition and creativity, perhaps because that is more difficult to repeat and scale up. The value of everything that we can measure and weigh and touch with our fingers is really important, but it is just a small part of the human spirit and what goes on in our lives.

When I was working with the UN in Kosovo, my agency was working in a post-conflict setting for the first time, it was a pilot project. As such, we were not yet totally suffocated by the system, so we had a lot of leverage and that was amazing. I was the only international person in my office, and I was working with the people that we were meant to serve and support. That was an incredible experience. But then I got this permanent position with the UN and started working in Geneva and the idea is that you travel between different continents and have different roles within the UN. When I was in Geneva, I could just sense how we were so disconnected from the people and issues on the ground. I felt we were too consumed by bureaucracy and hierarchy to the detriment of harnessing talent, passions, and hands-on knowledge.

Even the way that you are rewarded for your job, for your work, what your people contribute, was skewed to the benefit of the system. It’s an indication of a bigger problem. We have had levels of burnout rising in the world — and it’s not just a privileged problem, it’s everywhere in the world. The main cause of disease and disability in the world today is anxiety and depression according to the WHO. It was the fifth highest risk 20-plus years ago. It’s now the leading cause of illness. What does this mean for our ability to think differently and to realize a different kind of world that is more sustainable and regenerative than the world we live in? We need to have the creative capacity to think those things. And when we are stressed, depressed, when we are under a lot of pressure, we feel undervalued and we’re doing something that doesn’t spark our lifeforce, our sense of belonging and sense of purpose, we’re not on the right track. I think that is part of the problems we have with systems all over the world. If we talk about education, we also have school systems where it’s easier to teach kids, teenagers and adults in a way that’s easily replicated and measured. That’s why we do more of it; it’s not because it’s best for us. It doesn’t create the agility and the creativity and the innovative spirit that we actually need. I could go on and on — I just think it’s a universal thing within our culture and it doesn’t have to be like that.

I want to cite Ian Goldin from Oxford, who says we are going through the second Renaissance in 500 years. He says it’s largely because of technology and our scientific capacities that we have today. From the point of view of intuition, human consciousness and intelligence, it is important that we are mindful of what we put into it. How this renaissance transforms our cultures will be very important for people on the planet and I worry that we don’t think enough about what we put into it. We need more love. We need to re-connect with ourselves, other people, the planet, and connect to the things that we are working on. When you mention the individual approach that I have, close to 30 titles and so much entrepreneurial work — I don’t do anything by myself. I am acutely aware that reality happens in relationships. When particles, people and dots connect, that’s when reality happens. That’s what creates life. Even though I navigate and I wayfind, nothing I do is all by myself. If you would look at my website and go to the bio page, I state in bold that I haven’t done anything by myself. It’s all about making connections and enjoying the ride with people.

You made a movie and now you’ve written a book about this Icelandic word for intuition: innsæi. Why this word? What does it capture? Why is this the framing that you chose?

It’s a word that is poetic enough to weave together different meanings that help us understand consciousness and intuition. When I started having more conversations about intuition around our documentary film InnSæi, mostly in English, I would say, “Talk to me about intuition. What’s the state of intuition in the world? Are we connected to it or not? Does it matter? And if it matters, why?” And then I just realized that, in English, the people that I spoke to — from shamans to Harvard professors and everything in between— had different ways of defining intuition. It was defined as an irrational impulse that we should never rely on, or something that is spiritual guidance, and then something that is fundamental to the highest possible intelligence and best decision-making and the most incredible artwork that we can make. I found that very interesting. In a way, I traveled the world to collect answers and came back home to my local backyard. And I thought InnSæi is actually the best word for what we’re talking about because it combines different definitions and worldviews on what it really is. It is an Icelandic word and consists of “inn,” meaning inside, and “sæi,” meaning to see. I prefer to write it with capital I and S to underline the universe found in that single word — InnSæi.

“To see within” means to know yourself well enough to put yourself into other people’s shoes and be more aware of your own biases, fears, and things that interfere with intuition. InnSæi can also mean “the sea within.” It’s that borderless world within us, the worlds of imagination and feelings beyond words, the unconscious, where about 99% of everything that we sense and perceive takes place. You know, according to consciousness researchers, we are only consciously aware of about 1% the things that our consciousness picks up every second of every day. Our unconscious is constantly brewing ideas and feelings and directions in life and intuition taps into that. It is an embodied feeling.

And then thirdly, InnSæi means to see from the inside out. It’s about carving your own way in a world that feels very much like an ocean. You know, directions lead to all directions and there is often no land in sight. So, what do you do in the ocean of life? One: You keep your head up so you don’t drown. And two: Decide which way to go. The second one is more complicated, so having a strong inner compass as you do that is very important, especially in the world we live in today which is characterized both by uncertainty and possibilities.

Philosophically, abstractly, that all makes perfect sense. But how do we change our habits and our lifestyle to embody all this? How have you changed since starting this journey thinking about InnSæi?

This is a great question and it’s a challenging one. But I do want to say from the start that intuition is fundamental to all our intelligence and cognitive capacities. It’s not divorced from analysis, reason, or data. It’s part of that, too. It’s very important that we keep that in mind. It’s not either/or. Good reasoning depends on good intuitions. Good intuitions depend on good reasoning.

Because InnSæi is almost like the blood in our veins, it’s part of everything and ignoring it is ignoring a huge part of our intelligence. In fact, most part of our consciousness. How do you connect with it? It’s possible to go through life without being very aware of your intuition. It’s always there. It’s always doing its job, more or less. But if you ignore it, it often backfires and you miss noticing possibilities and opportunities. And you’re not as creative, there is no innovation without intuition. My book is full of exercises and advice. I would say the most important thing is presence. For people who are thinking, “Oh my goodness, here we go again, mindfulness, being present, meditation,” — I encourage them to think again, because presence is very important. Whether it is martial arts, lessons learned from military history, innovation, strategic thinking, decision-making, risk taking or risk assessment — being present is key. The more present you are, the more you can harness in the moment the knowledge that you have accumulated through research, life’s experiences, and education and make the best decisions. Presence prepares us best for the unexpected. But if we are absent minded, over-thinking and over-planning, we risk overriding intuition and thereby optimal state of mind.

So whether you’re thinking about intuition in situations like that or you’re thinking about your well-being, ability to be in a flow state of mind, being aligned with InnSæi, is key.

There are many ways to be present. One thing that’s very simple is breathing, being aware of your breathing. You don’t have to take aside 20 minutes a day to do that. You can do it now as we’re speaking. You can put your feet on the ground and just notice that your feet are on the ground. If you’re in a meeting, listening to others and your mind wanders off, you can pretend to pick yourself and say your name in your mind just to remind yourself to come back to your body. You become a better listener and more present. InnSæi is an embodied knowledge. It’s not just in a small part of our brain. It’s not something that we look up in a book. Learning how InnSæi is embodied, being present in your body, learning to listen to your intuition through your whole being, enables you to harness your creative intelligence. That’s my short answer. At the end of the day, intuition and InnSæi is a muscle we need to exercise. Clearing our way to our best harnessed intuition is part of the training and maintenance.

How do we scale this up? You’re talking about change from within, starting at the level of the individual. You've worked a lot on sustainability and circular economy, and clearly you've been thinking about structural change at system levels. How do you tie InnSæi to the big questions: peace and climate change and the systemic shifts that we need to achieve progress?

That’s another great question. And also, how do I combine these things in my different types of work? Some of the hats I wear include sitting on boards, being involved in investments, writing, social impact advisory and public speaking.

My answer is always going to start with the personal. Instead of allowing external forces to hijack our attention, we are conscious of how we pay attention first and foremost. We shift the center of gravity in how we show up and we stay aligned with our inner compass, our InnSæi, as we navigate day to day. We start to see and decide differently. This helps us not get drained and lose interest. We become more useful and relevant and nicer to be around. For impact, decision, leadership, vision, solutions and innovation, InnSæi is like an antenna that enables us to understand how everything is interconnected. When I talk about the circular economy, I find it very easy and important to go between different ways of explaining it, because we have different minds and different backgrounds. I am not as stuck in a tunnel view or one-sided perspective. If you come from the legal sector and you’ve done nothing else in your life but law, and you’re very dry in that sense, I totally honor that. I will speak to you from that perspective if I possibly can and being aligned with InnSæi makes us better listeners and readers of other people. But I would always direct the conversation, if I feel like we are getting totally disconnected from reality or stuck in the micro, then I would direct it back into a bigger and realistic context and say, “So how does this affect this and that?”

It all depends on the context you work in. When you build leadership and expertise and elevate the conversation around something important, intuition and InnSæi helps us see what is on the periphery, what is rising, the undercurrents, and it helps us bring out varied voices and harness the human potential in ourselves and others. We begin to see patterns, how people and things mutually reinforce something constructive or destructive. At the sustainability center I led in Iceland until recently, this was our strategy in many ways. Sustainability is about transition and radical changes to sectors and business models and that’s why it is important to see anew, with fresh eyes and look to what is on the horizon. We intentionally looked for people on the periphery, brought them together, connected them with others, nourished them with support and constructive relationships. The “soil” that you work with gets richer and expands and, when you have a crucial core of people talking about something, it has social tipping point-effects. It’s like this rule-of-thumb; a small percentage of people need to be speaking for something for it to reach a tipping point of actual change in society.

I want to ask about greenwashing. You’re providing eloquent language for people to talk about these things, so there’s the risk that corporate leaders will just use the language as a fig leaf. How do you ensure the change is substantive and sustainable?

Speaking about InnSæi and change starting from within, if anything, gives you more courage to name things their right names. In Europe, there are laws that we are implementing to prevent greenwashing and make our economies more sustainable. The reason why this is needed is because our economies are unsustainable. Many of the companies in the world have been greenwashing unsustainable businesses, whether they are aware of it or not. And the reason why I decided to commit my work and life to making the connection between sustainability and InnSæi is because I think we’re just so disconnected from ourselves and the natural world; often we don’t even dare to name things anymore. Intuition does not undermine facts or truth in any way. If anything, it can greatly enhance integrity. How we pay attention to the world is a moral act, and intuition and InnSæi provide a gateway to a deeper understanding of our lives and the world. We need to combine more of the analytical, the rational and the science with well-harnessed intuition. Being aligned with intuition gives me the courage to speak up. Like Gerd Gigerenzer, psychologist and researcher on intuition, said when I interviewed him for my book, “Last time I checked, there was not demand for leaders who lack courage.” But you have to do the homework; intuition has to be grounded in experience and factual knowing about the issue, to be able to call out greenwashing.

We can see the impact humans have on the world and the planet. Aligning with our InnSæi and intuition deepens not only our greatest intelligence, but also our understanding of the innate relationship that we have with mankind and life on Earth, including natural ecosystems. InnSæi and intuition embodies knowledge; we need to feel it in our bones, what we need to do. We have no time to lose.