Ülo Vooglaid


Message to a Citizen

Thinkers handbook

“Message to a Citizen” is a recipe how to make quality decisions – how to achieve results and avoid negative consequences accompanying EACH DECISION. How to create conditions for cooperation, preserve and live in harmony with the environment, society and culture.

The book you are holding in your hands was written and first published in spring 2019 in Estonian. Its original title (“ELANIKUST KODANIKUKS”) sounds different from the English translation presented here. “From a resident to a citizen.” This is meant to convey the journey that each of us must take, making sure that we remain not just an inhabitant of our country, but a person who is willing, able, and truly able to influence its present and future.

The author, Ülo Vooglaid, is a renowned sociologist, social scientist, educator, and social activist. You can read more about him and his work in the last chapter. His name is associated with numerous studies, the results of which formed the basis of the most important economic and managerial decisions in Soviet times. Ülo Vooglaid was one of those who shaped the political face of modern Estonia in the years of independence, who designed the structure of its major state systems. The book “Message to a Citizen” is a generalized and systematized presentation of the author’s civic position, based on his professional experience, accumulated knowledge, and an in-depth analysis of the development of society.

Philologist Ann Merrill brilliantly coped with the translation from Russian and Ukrainian to English, managing to convey in it not only the content, but also the author’s characteristic style of narration. The book was originally conceived and written for the Estonian reader as the author lives in Estonia. There might be similarities to other countries and cultures, but every representative of the specific culture could find it out himself. However, society rules are universal for thousands of years and they are valid despite the culture or the country.

Some of the author’s turns of phrase are characteristic of the Estonian language. In the mouth of an English, the same expressions would not only sound different, but would have a different construction. And some of the words Vooglaid just made up! And this is no joke – using his right as a craftsman, an acknowledged maestro, the author of the book boldly introduces concepts that previously had no definitions in any language of the world. A prime example of this approach is the word “generalist.” In Ülo’s conception, this is a person fully endowed with virtues, able to think big, systematically and holistically, a true teacher and leader, ready to lead. It is the generalists who move our lives forward, who are the true elite of society. Which university is the first to open generalist faculty?

The book teaches how not to be a hostage to appearances, and to be able to recognize the essence of what is happening around. The author approaches the content and meaning of words, processes, and phenomena with special care. Thus, one of the key concepts in Ülo Vooglaid’s worldview theory is that of the decision: the process of its formation, as well as the activity and feeling of responsibility that this entails for those involved in making the decision. According to the author of the book, a decision must be formed, then it must be expressed (in this way, an act of will occurs), after which it must be accepted by someone for execution. A person either decides for themself or accepts someone else’s decision (for information, for execution, etc.). In English the word “decision” is used in conjunction with the word “make” – to do. The importance the author attaches to this action is so high. You may agree or disagree with this approach, but the logic of this book’s narrative is largely based on strict adherence to the meanings of concepts and expressions.

In psychology the unity on roles and statuses is well-known basic knowledge. In this book the situation is added. People act differently in their roles in calm or extreme, real or game situation. It is highly unlike to understand someone´s behavior only by analyzing psychology – the unity of psychology, social psychology and sociology is needed.

The average person will not see much difference, for example, between the words “circumstances” and “situation.” For many, the phrase, “I am in a difficult situation” is equal to the phrase, “I find myself in difficult circumstances.” Or the verbs “to manage” and “to govern.” Do you suppose these are also synonyms? In everyday life, yes, dictionaries will confirm this. However, for Vooglaid, they all mean completely different things. Circumstances are general and institutional possibilities with no clear time limit. And the situation is how one finds oneself in given conditions and circumstances. You can manage processes, but you can govern people. And so, literally, in everything!

If words (thought models) are not clear, it is highly unlike to think and express your thoughts to others.

The attentive reader will find so much new in seemingly long-established concepts and notions that familiarity with Vooglaid’s book can seem like a journey into a previously unknown world. Although this world is ours, and so far we thought we were good at it. We consider it from the position of dialectics, believing that thanks to this we have a fairly accurate understanding of things, processes, phenomena. But who limits us to two-dimensional space, who makes us think flat? In his reasoning, Vooglaid calls for mastering three-dimensional models by introducing the concept of the trialectic. In reality there is n-dimensional world, but it consists of trialectic cubes – thought models like building blocks. Human mind is unable to understand the n-dimensional representation of reality. Trialectic approach allows to construct most complex thought models and still be able to understand their essence and connections to other trialectic cubes.

As you read “Message to a Citizen”, you will learn that familiar concepts such as goal visualization and feedback do not mean communication. What we used to think of as feedback – books of reviews and suggestions, reader letters, surveys, calls, employee questionnaires, etc., etc. – it’s all a simple data stream. Moreover, it will only become useful information to us after it has been processed according to specific theory. There could be many meanings, contexts and theories from different points of view (in society and culture (in intangible world) they all might be true!). The notion of goal visualization is not connected to information at all. Any processes and their stages must be directly connected. First priority is to imagine, what we would like to achieve.

A direct connection is the correspondence of the results obtained at the output of one process to the needs of the next process, their acceptability for the next stage. This is easy to understand with an example from manufacturing: the manufacturing process of prefabricated elements has a direct connection to the subsequent process taking place in the assembly shop. And that, in turn, has a direct connection that allows it to link with the paint shop, and so on. It is important to understand that exactly the same approach to the definition of goal visualization is characteristic of absolutely all spheres of human activity, including public life.

Ülo Vooglaid believes that everyone should continue to learn throughout their lives, without stopping and without ceasing to educate themselves. In fact, it is impossible to finish or get an education. Education is the path that people follow, the aim that allows us to achieve life’s goals. One of the purposes of the book “Message to a Citizen” is to help the reader find the right path and stay on aim, learn to choose the right goals, set tasks, be able to see objects and phenomena both in general and in detail, understand what processes are happening around and be able to influence what is happening. You may ask, what’s the point of all this? It is necessary in order to be and feel as a person, not to be manipulated, to take an active position in life. It is necessary to be, not to appear to be, a citizen.

In addition to its title, the book has a subtitle from which it is clear that Ülo Vooglaid appeals to those of us who are able and willing to think for ourselves. “Think independently, think holistically, think systematically” is a message addressed to intelligent readers and reads the same in all languages.


editor of the English edition