What Did We Know About What Is Real in 1929? — Recommended Reading

Eddington, Arthur Stanley. The Nature of the Physical World. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1929.

In a set of lectures, given in 1927, astronomer Arthur Eddington described an emerging understanding of what was known, at the time, about what was real–the nature of the physical world.  Eddington’s journey to the west coast of Africa to observe the 1919 solar eclipse provided initial proof for Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.  One of the first in the English-speaking world to begin to see the new picture of reality suggested by Einstein’s work and the emerging work in quantum theory, Eddington used his ability to explain very difficult concepts and mathematics in simple analogies, without losing the rigor of the shift in perspective.

In this very accessible set of lectures, Eddington explores the new reality, where there is simultaneously perceived forms that extend over space and time and nothing there.  He walks us through the framing and consequences of special relativity, general relativity, matter, space, time, entropy, gravity, and quantum.  He then explores what this shift in perception of what is real in nature means for consciousness.  While many scientists in the 20th century began to define reality as only that which is physically observable, Eddington who worked with the people who initiated the physics revolution suggested that the physicist is describing some dimensions of reality and the explorers of consciousness are describing other dimensions, of the same reality.

Having read dozens of books on these topics, I find this to be the best entry point into these difficult topics.  I now have a much clearer map with which to enter this exploration, for which I am grateful to an astronomer from ninety years ago.

 

Is It A Mission or A Mess-ion?

When most groups start up, they begin by defining what they intend to do in the world.  They use this defining exercise to bring others into their doing, whether these are people doing the work, people funding the work, or people impacted by the doing.  Many of these groups call this their mission.

Is it a mission or a “mess-ion”?  Saying that one is trying to achieve some impact for someone by doing something in a particular way is a form of a mission statement.  The statement might seem to be clear.  The who, what, and how.  The more fundamental question is whether this statement brings coherence to a group of people, in service to the impact.  This coherence, over time, requires a deeper set of agreements about what is being achieved, one’s connection to that purpose, one’s unique contribution to that purpose, the relationship one experiences in expressing one’s creative forces with others towards that purpose, and the efficient effectiveness of the group’s processes, structures, strategic focus, and invitation to include those being impacted by the work.  It requires a strong agreements field.  A field of agreements that clearly invites and connects people to a deeper shared purpose, to which they uniquely contribute in a trusting environment.  That is a mission.

That is not what most groups have.  Most groups have a mess-ion statement.  A mess is a set of interrelated problems that are treated as separate, unrelated issues, according to systems theorist Russel Ackoff.  A mess-ion provides misguided clarity for the direction of a weak agreements field—low engagement, transformation, and release of energy.  It might seem to be clear, but its just a jumble of wires going in every direction.  No coherence.  With a mess-ion there is no deeper shared purpose, no harmonic from combining unique contributions, no engagement and trust in the experience, no use of the engaged energy.  Little energy comes in and less goes out.

You can have a mess-ion, which will not do much, or you can have a mission.  The difference is huge, in what can be invited, engaged, and transformed for a far greater impact.  The difference is a choice.  You choose.

What Do We Mean When We Say Something Is Political? — Recommended Readings

Berlin, Isaiah. Liberty. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Cahoone, Lawrence. The Modern Political Tradition: Hobbes to Habermas. Chantilly, VA: The Great Courses, 2014.

Fukuyama, Francis. State-Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004.

Keltner, Dacher. The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence. New York: Penguin Books, 2016.

Leys, Wayne A. R. Ethics for Policy Decisions: The Art of Asking Deliberative Questions. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1952.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Revised ed. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2003.

Smith, Steven B. Political Philosophy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

Woodward, Orrin. Resolved: 13 Resolutions for Life. Flint, MI: Obstacles Press, 2011.

We participate in political systems, when we vote, and when we talk about our favorite politicians and about our least favorite.  We say that decisions that we don’t like were made politically.  What do we mean by this term “political”?

The word comes from the Greek polis, which means city, state, people.  Interesting that people, city, and state come from the same word.  Aristotle used the word as the title of his book Politics, where he describes the decision making process for the principles, standards, rules, and actions of a people.  Political then just means “who decides.”  Who decides how to allocate resources and how to enforce those decisions.  Who has the power to make those decisions, who gives them that power, and what backs up that power?  Big questions.  Ranging from philosophical to practical, theoretical to empirical, valuing freedom, equality, or solidarity, these eight authors provide different avenues into these questions.

Evolution of Political Frameworks

What we mean by a political process varies greatly over spacetime.  Over space, every culture has a different perspective on who decides and enforces, and how they should do it, with practically every individual everywhere holding different views on the particulars of how it is applied within their specific culture.  Over time, every culture’s political process has evolved, dramatically, often experimenting with political systems based on royalty, church, military, individuals, small groups, large groups.  None are exactly the same, over time and space.  Interestingly, most of us seem to assume that our system is the right one, now and for everyone, extending our current system infinitely over time and space, though our own grandparents might have disagreed vociferously, as they lived in a different space and time.

Political scientist Steven B. Smith and philosopher Lawrence Cahoone map out large swaths of time in the development of western political systems, ranging from the Greeks with Sophocoles around 441BC, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, to the Christian bible in the early 100sAD, the Italian Machiavelli in the early 16th century AD, the English Hobbes and Locke in the mid to late 17th century AD, and the Genevan Rousseau, the German Kant, and the French Montesquieu and Tocqueville in the late 18th and early 19th century AD, coming to today with modern political philosophers.  A broad sweep, showing the dramatic changes in western political philosophy over the past 25 centuries.  Professor Smith frames the evolution of political philosophy, “The proper subject of political philosophy is political action.  All action aims at either preservation or change…[A]ll action presupposes some judgment of better and worse…The oldest, the most fundamental, of all questions of political life is ‘What is the best regime?…Every regime shapes a distinctive human character with distinctive human traits and qualities'” (p5-6).  Political systems change, according to the context of their own here (space) and now (time) because there is always a “tension between the best regime and any actual regime…[the] zone of indeterminacy between the Is and the Ought, between the actual and the ideal” (p9).  People have always ended up giving the decision and enforcement power to someone, because cooperation and agreement are required to establish predictable order, and people seem generally incapable of doing it themselves, reliably (p11).  Hobbes, in the mid-1600s, brings in to the design of political systems the question of what the human being is like in a state of nature.  Were it not for this state of nature, humanity would not need to be governed, to have decisions made and enforced for them.  This logic runs through to the middle of the 20th century.  Professor Cahoone shows how each new political philosopher borrowed and built on earlier philosophers, carrying some elements forward, disregarding others, and adding some new ones.

Modern Frames

Philosopher Isaiah Berlin brought focus to the language we use and how it confuses our understanding of what we are supporting.  Two different people can both say they support freedom, and mean contrasting things.  “Almost every moralist in human history has praised freedom.  Like happiness and goodness, like nature and reality, it is a term whose meaning is so porous that there is little interpenetration that it seems able to resist” (p168). In this set of lectures, he distinguishes between negative liberty and positive liberty, where the negative is the freedom from and the positive is the freedom to.  Freedom from the interference of others in an individual’s decisions.  Freedom to pursue one’s own potential.  Freedom from what limits what we can do, the freedoms we must lay down, to not interfere in another’s freedom.  “I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no man or body of men interferes with my activity” (p169). Freedom to describes what we are allowed to do.  “I wish to be the instrument of my own, not of other men’s, acts of will” (p178). Very different decision making and enforcement processes emerge, based on which definition of liberty one uses.

Philosopher John Rawls framed a different path by exploring a different inquiry.  He explored “‘justice as fairness.’  The central ideas and aims of this conception I see as those of a philosophical conception for a constitutional democracy…a reasonably systematic alternative to utilitarianism, which in one form or another has long dominated the Anglo-Saxon tradition of political thought…I do not believe that utilitarianism can provide a satisfactory account of the basic rights and liberties of citizens as free and equal persons, a requirement of absolutely first importance for an account of democratic institutions” (pp xi-xii).  Professor Rawls sets up that “the primary subject of justice is the basic structure of society, or more exactly, the way in which the major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties and determine the division of advantages from social cooperation” (p6).

Building Political Systems

Political scientist Francis Fukuyama maps the terrain of “the state,” what it means, what dimensions are missing in weak states, and how state weakness influences the international system  The role of the state is contested, with some wanting to give more power to the state and others wanting to reduce the power of the state.  “The essence of stateness is..enforcement: the ultimate ability to send someone with a uniform and a gun to force people to comply with the state’s laws” (p6).  Professor Fukuyama’s assessment of states distinguishes “between the scope of state activities, which refers to the different functions and goals taken on by governments, and the strength of state power, or the ability of states to plan and execute policies and to enforce laws cleanly and transparently…We can array the scope of state activities along a continuum..from necessary and important to merely desirable to optional, and in certain cases counterproductive or even destructive…Strength..includes..the ability to formulate and carry out policies and enact laws, to administrate efficiently and with a minimum of bureaucracy; to control graft, corruption, and bribery; to maintain a high level of transparency and accountability in government institutions; and, more important, to enforce laws” (pp7-9).

Philosopher Wayne A.R. Leys explored the ethics of policy making.  Within the framework developed above that politics is the arena of decision making and enforcement, Professor Leys finds that, “The study of standards of decision making is the part of philosophy that has been called ethics” (p4).  He maps the development of ethical frameworks with their practical tools, from the Greeks to modern times, for good judgment, utilitarian, morals, state of nature, precedents, consistency, and policies as means or ends.

Psychologist Dacher Keltner explores what power is, what it does, where it comes from, how it is given, how it is abused, and how to develop it.  “Power [is] the capacity to make a difference in the world, in particular by stirring others in our social networks…Power is the medium through which we relate to one another” (pp3-4).  With power comes the power paradox, “we rise in power and make a difference in the world due to what is best about human nature, but we fall from power due to what is worst.  We gain a capacity to make a difference in the world by enhancing the lives of others, but the very experience of having power and privilege leads us to behave, in our worst moments, like impulsive, out-of-control sociopaths.  How we handle the power paradox guides our personal and work lives and determines, ultimately, how happy we and the power we care about will be” (pp1-2).  “The experience of power destroys the skills that gained us power in the first place” (p100).  “Power makes us blind to our own moral missteps but outrages at the same missteps taken by others (0131). “People resort to coercive force when their power is actually slipping” (p21).  Professor Keltner’s fivefold path to power is: (1) be aware of your feelings of power; (2) practice humility; (3) stay focused on others, and give; (4) practice respect; and (5) change the psychological context of powerlessness.

Author Orrin Woodward takes us to the workshop, looking across the ages for wise tools for developing a healthy process for deciding and enforcing in our daily lives.  These tools group around the development of one’s character,  wisdom, and humility.  The human being “is a wonderful creature..[it] is mind..heart..and..will.  Those are the three main constituents of [the human being]…Transforming one’s life, then, requires the whole person to be involved..mind..heart..and..will must be engaged in the process.  True change isn’t just a mental (mind) assent, isn’t just a emotional (heart) experience, and is more than just regimented (will) learning…It’s only with a mind that understands, a heart that generates passion, and a disciplined will to follow through that change inside a person is generated” (pp22-23).

“We the people” are the polis, the people.  We are the decision making and enforcement process.  In all of its forms, in all of its contexts, over all of space and time, it is a human endeavor.  That makes it an agreement, whether we unconsciously accept it or consciously choose it.  Our participation in political systems is our choice.

Clarity on Your Deeper Shared Purpose: A Matter of Life and Death — Really!

To paraphrase  the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, if you don’t know where you are going, it doesn’t matter what direction you go.  It seems obvious.  Knowing what you want to achieve with your efforts, where you want to go on the journey.  If you don’t know this, you probably won’t get there.  And, though it seems obvious–getting clarity on your deeper shared purpose, on what you want to achieve in life and with others–many people cannot answer the question.  My colleagues and I in the field of large-systems change find that very few groups have actually done the work of gaining clarity on what the group is actually all about, far beyond its mission, to its deeper shared purpose, the force that connects them all and drives the will to change.  Within that same observation, we find that this lack of clarity at the group level stems from a lack of clarity within each of the individuals as well, clarity on their primary agreements, what they are in service to with their lives.

Not only does this influence the ability of a group to achieve its intended outcomes, it seems to also affect your physical health.  A recent study published in JAMA Current Open found that, “People who didn’t have a strong life purpose — which was defined as “a self-organizing life aim that stimulates goals” — were more likely to die than those who did, and specifically more likely to die of cardiovascular diseases.

How Influence Spreads Through Human Interactions — Recommended Readings

Centola, Damon. How Behavior Spreads: The Science of Complex Contagions. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.

Ferguson, Niall. The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook. New York: Penguin Press, 2018.

How do networks work?  How does influence spread amongst people, through human interactions?

Historian Niall Ferguson digs into the archives, exploring how people have spread influence for thousands of years.  “Social networks have always been much more important in history than most historians, fixated as they have been on hierarchical organizations such as states, have allowed–but never more so than in two periods.  The first “networked era” followed the introduction of the printing press to Europe in the late fifteenth century and lasted until the end of the eighteenth century.  The second–our own time–dates from the 1970s, though I argue that the technological revolution we associate with Silicon Valley was more a consequence than a cause of a crisis of hierarchical institutions.  The intervening period, from the late 1790s until the late 1960s, saw the opposite trend: hierarchical institutions re-established their control and successfully shot down or co-opted networks.  The zenith of hierarchically organized power was in fact the mid-twentieth century—the era of totalitarian regimes and total war” (p xxv).  Professor Ferguson explores why different forms of human interaction are just different forms of networks–an arrangement of interrelated people.

Communications researcher Damon Centola explores the dynamics of how behaviors spread through social networks, mapping the pathways of network diffusion to accelerate social change.  “Diffusion, like schooling, is a collective social process that unfolds through the complex interactions of many independent actors” (p4).  The network dynamics that are required are quite different than what most people think: who is in the network, how they are connected, and how their influence flows, sustainably.

Extreme Human-Weather Effects

Is it normal for you to be engaged or to be disengaged?  By normal we mean that this is what you expect, what you expect of your life.  Do you expect, in any given day, to be engaged in what you do, in who you are, in how you interact?  By extreme, we mean furthest from a common point, furthest from the desired state.  Do you prefer to be closer to your desired state or the furthest from it?  Assuming that you prefer to be closer to it than furthest from it, why are so many people disengaged and disaffected today?  Maybe it is because they are experiencing the effects of extreme interactions.  How might we understand extreme interaction effects?  Let’s look at a parallel experience in extreme weather effects.

News about “extreme weather effects” is all over the news these days.  What is extreme weather? What are the effects of extreme weather?  Weather is the interaction of temperature and pressure changes in the air, water, and earth.  This is the interaction of the earth’s elemental spheres; the lithosphere, the hydrosphere, the atmosphere, and the biosphere.  Now these elemental spheres seem to be mixing, as they always do, in new ways, in extreme ways to which we humans might not be as resilient.

In parallel, a lot of attention is going to the globally disengaged workforce and strong political swings around the world.  The usual framing of disengagement and disaffection is to try to engage people, usually in the same, already-existing form of interactions.  Maybe it would be more helpful to realize that the reason so many people are disengaged at work these days is because they are experiencing “extreme interaction effects.”  Through more engaging experiences they have in other realms of their life, they now have an expectation that they will be treated like creative, contributing humans beings who learn, who are social, and who love to engage their deeper potential towards a purpose that moves them.  When the agreements field they are in becomes too turbulent, when the elemental spheres of human interaction mix in extreme ways, in ways that exclude the individual, the other, their unique, creative contributions, their learning and evolution, then they experience extreme interaction effects, human-weather conditions to which they are not as resilient.

Maybe people are more resilient in human interactions that require more and deeper connection, connection to a deeper, shared purpose, connection to their own higher self, connection to the other in support of their expression, connection to the gifts of the group, connection to the evolutionary process of creativity, connection to the infinite creative source.  Maybe disengagement and disaffection come from extreme interaction effects.  Maybe we can change the human-weather patterns, and thus increase our resilience and engagement, by choosing how we interact, away from the extreme interaction conditions of exclusion, scarcity, and collapse, towards the normal interaction conditions of inclusion, abundance, and engagement.  It is a choice, a choice you can make right here, right now.

Resilience at Scale — Recommended Readings

Coleman, Peter T. The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts. New York: Public Affairs, 2011.

Homer-Dixon, Thomas. Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2006.

Rose, Jonathan F.P. The Well-Tempered City: What Modern Science, Ancient Civilizations, and Human Nature Teach Us About the Future of Urban Life. New York: Harper Wave, 2016.

Thompson, Michael. Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value. New Edition ed. London: Pluto Press, 2017.

West, Geoffrey. Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies. New York: Penguin Press, 2017.

Resilience is the capacity to bounce back, when the context changes.  Scaling is the ability to maintain a level of interaction while growing the volume of interactions, often by orders of magnitude.  Being resilient at scale is the ability to bounce forward even while scaling beyond known boundaries.  The five authors in these highly recommended readings share their deep observations about what resilience at scale is and how to achieve it.

Physicist and complexity theorist Geoffrey West provides a rich journey through an understanding of how nature scales and what that means for the challenges facing humanity in the coming decades.  Looking for nature’s principles of growth, research on scaling shows that animals ranging from a mouse and a small bird to a dog to an elephant scale logarithmically in the relationship of their body mass to their metabolic rate.  With this ratio and many others (i.e., patents to population, income and assets to number of employees), Geoffrey West and colleagues suggest there are “a few simple rules that all organisms obey, indeed all complex systems, from plants and animals to cities and companies” (p2).  “When an object is scaled up in size, its volumes increase at a much faster rate than its areas…This has huge implications for the design and functionality of much of the world around us” (p41).  Nature does not scale linearly, rather nonlinearly.  “For every order of magnitude increase in strength, the weight that can be supported increases by one and a half orders of magnitude” (p45).  This ratio of areas and volumes lies at the foundations of nature’s scaling, maximizing metabolic rate by maximizing surface area.  The book shows how this logic applies to the scaling of resilient infrastructure.

Urban planner Jonathan F.P. Rose applies complexity theory to the urban setting, starting with its metabolic boundary, the area of food production it requires to feed the people in the urban setting.  He finds examples through history of cities where the metabolic boundary grew to support urban development with more and more people producing things other than food.  The metabolic boundary grew to be far greater than the boundary of where these people lived, and that requirement of building food production and transport systems far beyond the city boundaries lowered the city’s resilience, leading to the city’s eventual demise–more and more of its energy went into generating enough energy, a disastrous feedback loop.  For an urban setting to survive, as it scales, it must increase the coherence of, the circular flow of its metabolism of the energy, information, and materials flowing through it, the harmonic interaction of the community of citizens, compassionately balancing the health of the individual and the collective.  The book provides many examples where cities are developing these capacities.

Political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon looks at the energy return on investment, looking at the ratio of the energy produced and the energy required.  Pulling from many examples, the ratio must be “much greater than  1 to 1..to run a society” (p51).  Like with the metabolic boundary, if more energy is required to run the society than it produces, it loses resilience.  A change in its context, which continuously happens, leads to catastrophic failure.  There are many systemic stresses on an urban setting, and when they combine, the system can fail catastrophically, as the interrelated elements kick off nonlinear overload.  The more interconnected a system is, the more likely this is to happen, and the more the system has to be designed to be resilient to these shocks.

Michael Thompson frames catastrophic failure as an unexpected event in the mix of groups of people trying to evolve a system and those attempting to maintain a system.  The system can be experiencing continuous change, meaning the change happens smoothly, when all of a sudden it experiences discontinuous change, an abrupt, often massive change, which the system is often not resilient enough to survive.  This dynamic inevitably occurs in urban settings, generated by the dynamics between what some call the durable and others the transient.

Psychologist Peter Coleman explores the terrain of “intractable conflicts,” which seem to emerge in this space of scaling urban settings, where multiple stresses converge and lead towards catastrophic collapse, dramatically reducing a city’s resilience.  To address these complex problems, most people seem to oversimplify them, generating the conflict traps that Michael Thompson also described.  An initial step to resolve these conflicts, according to Peter Coleman’s work, is to conceive of the social phenomenon as a field of attractor forces, seeing the relationships among these attractors, and embracing the conflict, looking for evidence of what is actually happening.

The rich histories and case studies provided by these authors show the importance of embracing the complexity inherent in a network of interactions, understanding the deeper shared purpose that holds the interactions together and drives the desire to scale growth, for more to share in the deeper purpose.  It is possible to come together to see the shared purpose, the dynamics generating the boundary issues, the agreements that could generate new dynamics and sufficient resilience, avoiding catastrophic collapse while scaling growth.  It is also possible to agree on the evidence that supports the testing of these hypothetical shifts and measures the progress along the way.  This requires shifting from a theory of change to a principle-based, theory of impact resilience.  From looking at only the local, short terms needs and actions to address them, to looking at the local and overall needs, short and long term, and the dynamics that generate them.  This shift is a choice.

How Many Generations Lead Your Efforts? — A Clear Indicator of Long-Term Resilience

How many generations are actively engaged in the leadership of your efforts?  In many groups, whether they are companies, families, communities, government agencies, schools, nonprofits, cities or whole nations, leadership is mostly in 1-2 generations.  In some groups, it is only young leaders.  In some groups, they are only elders.  Sometimes there are 2 generations, rarely there are 3, and very seldom there are 4.  What difference does this make?  Two immediate consequences of the number of generations in leadership come up: leadership experience and leadership relevance.

Leadership Experience.  Leadership requires understanding and engaging others in the group’s deeper purpose, in engaging people outside of the group (external stakeholders) in interactions with the group, in understanding the complex dynamics of human interactions to achieve the group’s goals efficiently and effectively, innovating along the way, and in accessing the resources required today and tomorrow to support the work of the group.  This is a lot.  And, it requires different kinds of experience.  Understanding how to access current structures of resources is in the experience of current power holders.  Innovation is in the experience of current and emerging leaders. The complex dynamics of human interactions within and outside the group are in the experience of the elders.  Engaging the deeper purpose and outer groups is in the experience of current and emerging leaders, each with their counterparts.  The ability to align purpose, understanding of the external and internal environments, accessing the required resources, in complex interactions requires all three types of experience: that of the emerging leaders; the current power holders; and the elders.

Leadership Relevance.  Leadership is relevant when it can provide guidance in today’s context towards the group’s goals today, while strengthening the group’s resilience to be able to achieve tomorrow’s goals.  Today and tomorrow.  Achievement of outcomes and strengthening of inner structures.  Flexibility, stability, and resilience.  This is what we look to our leaders to provide.

What works today and how to access power structures today is the domain of the current power holders.  What will work tomorrow and how to be resilient in emerging structures is the domain of the emerging leaders.  It is the domain of what is coming, how people engage, interact, and structures of access to resources in the emerging future.  The complexity of the underlying dynamics in the current and the future is the domain of the elders–how to see the patterns, and how to test ideas of what to do with them.

If resilience is the ability to adjust to changes in the context, one of the critical factors that constantly changes in the context is how to connect with, engage, and interact with the population, which itself contains multiple generations.  Most organizations have one generation leading. some two, how do three or four strengthen a group’s current work and future resilience?

Where This Applies.  In companies and communities, succession planning is a big deal, and often a big reason for long-term failure.  The current leaders are not able to understand (1) what specific competencies made their organization successful, so (2) they do not know what competencies to look for and develop in the next generation of leadership.  Current leaders also do not know how to invite emerging leaders to take on responsibilities, in ways that make sense to the new leaders in their context.  The new leaders see the world different and are preparing their community for an emerging reality.  This is often hard for the current power holders and elders to see.

A different way of looking at this is to have multi-generational leadership with emerging leaders bringing in resilience for new realities, the current power holders breaking down barriers and providing access to resources, and elders providing the wisdom of seeing many cycles.  This is the possibility of intergenerational improv.  Mutual mentorship of the emerging, the power structures, and patterns of cycles.  A framework for abundance-based succession planning.

The Power of Choice Is Everywhere in the Field of Agreements That We Are — Recommended Readings

McTaggart, Lynne. The Field: The Quest for the Secret Force of the Universe. New York: Harper, 2008.

Braden, Gregg. The Divine Matrix: Bridging Time, Space, Miracles, and Belief. New York: Hay House, 2007.

What are we made of?  What is real?  From cosmologies as varied as the physics of string theory or quantum theory, the wisdom traditions, modern psychological research, and your own experience, they all point to a reality of interpenetrating dimensions of energy, generating a field of purposeful energy.  This energy is everywhere, always.  It is a field.  An agreements field.

These two authors describe current efforts to describe this field, from physics, chemistry, biology, psychological, social, and spiritual perspectives.  These descriptions converge on the existence of the field, that humans are part of the field–made up of the field–and therefore able to work with the power of the field.  Consciously or unconsciously, we are made up of energy, which Einstein described over 100 years ago [m=E/c2], and which quantum theorists proved over the past 90 years, and we align our cognition, emotion, and volition with this energy towards a purpose, our purpose.  We can do this because it is a field, a resonant field.  We are also that field, it is us.  Knowing how to use our energy is a matter of being human, of resonating with that field.  Deciding to use it is a choice.  A choice you have to be able to see.  The agreements field makes it visible and, thus, available to you.

The Danger in Your Objective Function, Missing Your Deeper Shared Purpose

You want your efforts to have an impact.  To increase your impact, you engage others in generating that impact with you.  While it takes a lot of work, that is your objective, why you do what you do.  Your ability to generate that impact, with others, is a function of your inputs and what you do with those inputs.  In technical terms, this is your objective function.

What if you actually achieved your objective function, in ways that you did not control, could not influence, or did not understand?  To avoid this unintended consequence, let’s understand what an objective function is and how to work with it.

With an objective function, you are trying to optimize the mix of benefits and costs.  Either maximizing the net benefit or minimize the net cost.  You are trying to optimize a set of things that vary, called variables.  UC Berkeley professor of computer science Stuart Russell warns us to be very careful with this kind of approach.  While Stuart is talking specifically about artificial intelligence, the advice applies to complex social systems as well.  If you give the system a goal, and you do not know what the system is doing, you might very well achieve the goal, but at what cost.  You might maximize impact, today, and ruin all relationships along the way, or miss the opportunity to receive a sustaining gift.  Since some variables were outside of the set you designed, and you gave clear mandates to achieve the objective, the system did achieve it, oblivious to the other variables, which could have changed how you would have optimized your impact.

My colleagues at Vibrancy and at the Institute for Strategic Clarity find that there are usually three dangers in your objective function:

  1. unspecified objective — you do not know what you want to achieve
  2. misspecified objective — you do not actually want what you state you want
  3. underspecified objective function — you do not know how to get what you want

What You Want. You can know that you have a passion, and that you want to have an impact.  This can lead you to a general goal of something you would like to achieve.  Do you want to help others?  Make money?  Teach kids.  Unfortunately, this very open statement of a general goal does not guide you to what you need to do to have an impact that is meaningful to you.  And, a general goal like this makes it very hard for others to focus their efforts with you in achieving it. To know what you want to achieve, either individually or as a group, you simply need to ask.  What is it I really want?  If I actually achieve it, will I be satisfied?  It will take lots of effort.  Will it be worth it?  It is a simple question, one many people have not really asked.  It is the first step to getting what you want.

What You Really Want. You might be working hard at achieving an objective.  It might even be a clear and obvious objective.  The question is whether that is what you really want.  If you do not know what you really want to achieve, achieving something less or different probably will not satisfy you, and you will have spent a lot of effort to get there. To achieve what you really want to achieve, you have to be clear and specific.  Following the work of our colleague Ralph Keeney‘s value-focused thinking, we use the 3 whys to structure your fundamental objective.  What do you think you want to achieve?  Why do you want that?  And, why do you want that?  And, finally, why do you want that?  This leads to the higher purpose, or deeper values, actually guiding the impact you want to have.  With this higher purpose, you have defined a boundary around the factors that need to be addressed to achieve your desired impact.  Knowing what you really want to achieve, either individually or as a group is easy to do.  For us, it usually takes less than an hour of real inquiry.

What Drives What You Really Want.  While you might know what you want, clear and specific, if you do not know how to achieve it, you are sub-optimizing your efforts, at best.  Now you need to know how to achieve it.  The “how” might be clear to someone, because others have achieved it (like how to prepare to run a mile), or it might be something nobody has done before (like ending poverty).  In either case, the “how” is a hypothesis, and you can increase your odds of learning how to achieve it by setting the intention, engaging people who understand key elements, working collaboratively towards the objective, and adjusting along the way, as you learn from the feedback the world gives you.

What Your Objective Function Does.  Once you know the why, the what, and the how, the objective function begins to work throughout your organization.  People are making decisions all day long, most of which you are unaware of and do not involve you.  You cannot control your way through that, though many leaders try.  There are too many decisions constantly being made.  This is a danger of an objective function.  You do not know how it is actually being operationalized.  So, you can either try to control it, which does not work as there are too many decisions being made.  You can just hope for the best, which also does not work as it gives no direction or feedback. Or, you can collaboratively engage the people who are making the decisions, constantly informing each other about the decisions being made and the lessons being learned.  That has proven to work.

You Can Choose the Agreements.  You can see your objective function as a set of agreements, with lots of people acting on those agreements.  You can assume that you and everyone else know what those agreements are, that the agreements are the right ones, that the agreements are working to achieve the desired impact, and that no lessons are being learned, so there is no need for adjustments.  That does not work well, most of the time.  You can also assume that it is important to be clear on the deeper intention, and that it is important that everyone else shares that deeper intention.  You can also assume that the agreements need to be surfaced and worked with, on a regular basis, to see if they work well, if they actually do what you think they do, and how to adjust them as the context changes.  This is a leadership system based on shared awareness, attention, and feedback amongst the people cohosting the purpose, the objective function.  This is what Stuart Russell suggested.  It is better to know what is happening and adjust.