Paul Callaghan: How can we design a better world with Indigenous thinking? (part 2)

Paul Callaghan: How can we design a better world with Indigenous thinking? (part 2)

Paul Callaghan: How can we design a better world with Indigenous thinking? (part 2)

Paul Callaghan: How can we design a better world with Indigenous thinking? (part 2)

Acknowledgement of Country: This interview was conducted on Gadigal and Worimi Country. We pay our respects to the traditional custodians of this land, past, present and emerging. We recognise their deep connection to the land and their unique cultural heritage, which continues to enrich our shared community.

Dr Paul Callaghan is an Aboriginal man belonging to the land of the Worimi people, now called Port Stephens. He is an author, storyteller, dancer and consultant. His latest book, The Dreaming Path: Indigenous Ideas to Help Us Change the World, written with Uncle Paul Gordan, has inspired many of us. 

In this three-part series, Dr. Paul Callaghan invites us to explore the wisdom of Aboriginal culture, and how it can help design a better world:

PART 2: Wellbeing, relationship & sharing

The Aboriginal definition of wellbeing

From a scientific perspective, wellbeing is a lack of symptoms. The United Nations' definition of wellbeing is wellbeing in mind, body, spirit and social. A bit better, but it still falls short of the Aboriginal definition of wellbeing.

The Aboriginal definition of wellbeing is, I must be well, mind, body and spirit. But so does everyone around me—Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people on Country need to be well, mind, body and spirit.

Wellbeing is about all of us. We are one. We can't be well in an isolated way. We can only be well when we are one. It's all about unity and harmony. 

Think of my people, the Saltwater people, our way of living, knowing, being and doing—we were very content. We knew Country so well, we knew where all the food was. We didn't have to pay off a mortgage. We didn't have to get the latest car. We only worked half an hour a day to survive.

For Aboriginal people, the Country gave us everything. We gathered food as we travelled. We didn't leave an unsustainable footprint because we needed to come back and find the food again. As we travelled, we shared stories. We had ceremonies and spiritual sharing. That was the way we lived. 

We can't go back there, but we can ask ourselves, what can we learn from that way of living? As we talk about design, how can we design our life? 

The three levels of relationships 

In the Western world, success is forced upon us from when we're young at school. We need to be successful in education and career to have material wealth, power and influence.

That's why social media and celebrities are problematic. They iconise people and people say I want to be like them. In Aboriginal society, we don't want to be like anybody. That's not how we measure the richness of our lives.

We say: I want to walk my footsteps, and give to my Place and all things in my Place. When we leave this world, we leave our story behind. Make it the best story possible.

The best story possible isn't I've got all this material wealth. The best story possible is my relationships.

  • What are my relationships?
  • How have I lived my life sharing love and kindness?
  • How have I lived my life with respect, love and humility?

With design, it's not the design itself. It's what you brought to the world with that design, and how it touches humanity and creates enjoyment.

Think about the three levels of relationship. They're not hierarchical, just three different things:

  • Relationship with yourself. Who am I? Why am I designing? And how does that reflect who I am?
  • Relationships with others. How do we share our story with others? How do we interact? How do we build communities?
  • Relationship with Country. How do I care for Country? How do I care for my Place and all things in my Place?  

Reshaping the world from competing to sharing

In the Western world, our whole life is about competition. We fight from school. We fight each other's businesses to get an edge in what’s called a competitive market. 

We have 7.8 billion people in the world. There's enough resources for everyone if we share it. We've got a few with a lot, and a lot with a few, because we haven't got the will to re-shape it.  

Most Western companies are very deficit-based. They say, we're not good enough. We need to be better and stronger. We need to have stretch targets.

An Aboriginal person says, I'm good. Now the Western world will say, but we want to make you great. The Aboriginal person says I'm happy with being good. I don't need to be the best.

The Old People say, spiritually, everything including people, is conceived in love. We're born in love. We live in love. When our time comes, we go back to loving our Mother. We’re born perfect, so we don't have to compare ourselves to anybody. Our only obligation is to walk our footsteps and care for our Place, and all things in our Place. 

I particularly love the way Stephen King talks about how he writes. He says a story is like a dinosaur fossil in the sand. It's already there. You've just got to bring it up without breaking too many bones.

When I write, I do what Stephen King does. I don't set up a story. I don't need to break things. I just need to let the story come to me. It taps into spirituality. Things are already given to us. We just need to bring them together. We don't have to compete.

In Western world, a lot of people hold on at all costs, because it gives them what's called a competitive advantage. How do we come up with a way where we share, but not at the expense of others? It comes to a premise in Aboriginal ways of thinking: We aren't about holding on. We pass on.

This is Part 2 of the three-part interview with Dr. Paul Callaghan: 
Part 1: Care for Country 
Part 3: Leadership

Read Dr Paul Callaghan’s book, written with Uncle Paul Gordon  
The Dreaming Path: Indigenous Thinking to Change Your Life


This interview is part of ReCo Circular Sydney 2023 Series, supported by the City of Sydney Knowledge Exchange Sponsorship program. Explore more free content at:

Join ReCo to help end plastic waste.

Refillable eco-friendly products, delivered in your local areas


Interviewed by Matthew Wright Simon. Edited by Danling Xiao.

Matthew Wright-Simon is a creative facilitator and founder of Engage Change, a specialised engagement practice that has led many strategic projects, forums and initiatives across the commercial, government and not-for-profit sectors. Matthew also runs Newday Leadership Summit. Connect with Matthew on Linkedin

Danling Xiao is the co-founder of ReCo Digital. Danling has an unwavering passion for creativity, spirituality and the pursuit of positive change in the world. Connect with Danling on Linkedin

Join The Local Reuse Movement
Get 10% Off Your First ReCo Order

Subscribe to our newsletter and stay updated on product releases, events and circular economy progress.

Thank you! Please check your inbox in a few minutes.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Circular Sydney banner

New things are happening at ReCo Digital. Join us as we learn and grow.

Thank you! Please check your inbox in a few minutes.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Got a sustainability project?

At ReCo Digital, our passion is driving positive change. We integrate sustainability, creativity and technology into our approach. If you're working in a sustainability project, let's connect and explore how we can support you.

Learn more