How to Talk with Lower-Engagement Leaders

Your way of making sense of the world is clearly useful. It seems to work for you. You got this far. Then you meet people who just don’t see the world as clearly as you do. They seem to see it differently.

While there are many explanations for differences in worldview (different cultures, different languages, different life experiences), one difference we have found to be critical is in what you perceive to be real. Your level of perceived reality.

Do you tend to see reality as that which you can touch? Mostly it is what is directly right here right now, often in quite material terms. That’s real. Or do you also include how things ebb and flow over time, how people develop in new capacities and relationships? It’s about the material and the dynamics of networks of influence. That’s real. Or do you also include the potential you and others see in what is not yet here, in the creative arts? It’s about the outcomes and the learning and the potential. That’s real. Or do you also include the learning from feedback of what actually happens, and how that informs the potential you see, in service to a deeper purpose, and pathways to getting there. It’s about evolutionary co-tangibilizing. That’s real. It turns out that these are four very different perspectives of what is real. And, most people think that theirs is the right and only one, in any given moment. At each of these four levels, you are adding dimensions of reality.

Our global survey research, with over 100,000 people from 125 countries, finds that there is a distribution of people, across these four perspectives of what is real. And, the same people might vary what they perceive to be real depending on the group they are with, the group’s agreements field–how the group engages, transforms, and transfers creative energy.

Communicating with someone who is working with a different perspective of what is real, along this continuum, is very challenging. If you perceive more of reality to exist than they do, they don’t necessarily see you as stronger, rather weaker. That their reality doesn’t include dimensions that yours does means that you are focusing on things that are invisible or irrelevant to them. Those dimensions you find to be so interested are not in their equation.

Here is a 4-step process to communicating with someone with a different perspective of what is real.

Step #1 — Where You Are. The first step to communicating with someone with a different perspective of what is real is to determine where you are, what you include in your perspective of reality. In very simple terms, you can think of these as nouns-only, verbs-nouns, light-verbs-nouns, and ecosystems of sacred hospitality levels of reality.

  • Nouns-only — there are things, mostly material, that are right here right now
  • Verb-nouns — there are things, and there is change over time and space
  • Light-verbs-nouns — there are things, change, and always-present creative potential
  • Ecosystems of sacred hospitality — there are things, change, creative potential, all in an ever-evolving service to a deeper shared purpose

Step #2 — Where They Are. The second step is to determine where they are. How does the person you are communicating with see the world? What do they include in what they perceive to be real?

Step #3 — Understand How They See You from Their Reality. The other person can only see you and your reality from their reality. If your reality has more dimensions than theirs, they don’t see that. Often your attention to and inclusion of these other dimensions creates confusion for them. You are talking about things that are not in their definition of what is real, which usually is interpreted by them as a weakness. What you are going on and on about isn’t real.

The following table provides a first scan of what each perspective of reality experiences when communicating with someone from one of the other perspectives. This is based on what we observe when working with people across levels.

Perceived RealityN SeesVN SeesLVN SeesESH Sees
Ecosystems of Sacred Hospitality (ESH)High-risk explorersLack of alignment on agreed purposeShifting purposeComprehensive clarity (purposeful evolution)
Light-Verbs-Nouns (LVN)Lack of clear focus (high risk ventures)Lack of applying learningsComprehensive clarity (tangibilization)Beingness
Verbs-Nouns (VN)Inefficient, always experimentingComprehensive clarity (learning)Stuck in own thinkingBecoming
Noun-only (N)Comprehensive clarity (efficiency)Static surprise from dynamicsCollapsed in outcomesAlready finished

If they are coming from a perspective with fewer dimensions of perceived reality than you–for example, they see Nouns-only (N) and you see Verbs-Nouns (VN)–they see your focus on learning and developing new capacities and relationships as being inefficient. You are always experimenting with something new, never focused on what you have already done. Always moving on to the next thing and not leveraging what you already have.

Step #4 — How to Communicate with Them. To communicate with them, you are trying to invite them into a reality, yours, that is not part of their reality. It works best to start with remembering what they see as real. If you are a verb-noun-reality person, you might be most excited about sharing your focus on the learning, the verbs. To you the importance of the nouns is obvious and already proven, so you are focused on how to improve on what you already know. To communicate with the Nouns-only person, start by showing that you can speak their language, in their reality. Yes, you have nouns, which you have proven to be efficient. You have outcomes. You are efficient. Now you can ask, what if we could have even more-efficient nouns? You are introducing verbs-nouns dimensions of reality, in terms that a Nouns-only reality can begin to perceive. Focusing only on your leading-edge understanding of the cool features of learning and developing sounds to them like you are not grounded. Stay grounded and add the benefits of some verbs.

This logic works all the way up through the ESH levels. Start with what they can see as real in your world. Then you can begin to see if they might see the value of beginning to add dimensions of the next level.

What do you do if you are communicating with someone whose reality includes higher dimensions than yours? You might be working with a Verbs-Nouns (VN) reality, while they appear to be working from an LVN or ESH level. You might perceive that they can see things you can’t. You can invite them to share what they see. It is most helpful if you clarify with them that it is most useful to you if they can explain it first in terms you can understand–in verbs and nouns. Then they can begin to show you the value of adding dimensions from LVN or ESH. The point is to communicate with others. If you experience that you want to communicate with someone else and that it seems like you are talking about completely different things, while still in relatively the same context, maybe you are assuming different levels of perceived reality. Ask. See if you can get to a shared understanding at the Nouns-only level. Then you can try the Verbs-Nouns level, and so on.

The good news is that we all have all of these levels of perceived reality within us, so we can access all four of these levels of perceived reality. And, the agreements we tend to work with in some groups exclude some of them, making communication difficult. Since you already have the dimensions within you, you can still access them and ask the question. It is your choice.

What Work You Agree to Do: Recommended Reading

Suzman, J. (2021). Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots. New York, Penguin Press.

You can hear a sample from the book (here).

Why do you work? Who are you working for? What, even, is work? In the book Work, anthropologist James Suzman takes us through a deep history, back to the early days as hunter-gatherers, looking at how what we consider to be work has shaped what we think it is today and how that determines, in great part, what we agree to do. Maybe it is all a choice. A choice that different peoples across the globe make differently, based on different assumptions that evolved from different circumstances.

The work we do also defines who we are; determines our future prospects; dictates where and with whom we spend most of our time; mediates our sense of self-worth; molds many of our values; and orients our political loyalties.

Work, p2

From an ecosynomic perspective, Suzman’s simple observation, from scanning anthropology’s observations of thousands of groups over the history of humanity, includes the 4 big questions of how much resource we have (the economic lens), who decides and enforces the allocation of resources (the political lens), the criteria used to decide what is valued (the cultural lens), and the rules of the game of how we interact (the social lens). How we understand what work is and what we agree to with work influences all of that. That seems like a significant choice: one we seldom are aware we are making.

One of the key factors in determining what we seem to accept in the definition of our work, through these 4 lenses (economic, political, cultural, social), is the underlying economic assumption of scarcity. Suzman points out that, according to the economist Keynes, the most pressing problem of the human race is the economic problem of scarcity–“there are simply not enough resources to satisfy everybody’s wants, everything is scarce” (p4).

But the problem of scarcity offers a bleak assessment of our species. It insists that evolution has molded us into selfish creatures, cursed to be forever burdened by desires that we can never satisfy.

Work, p5

While mainstream thinking suggests this scarcity-based view is the only one, Suzman observes that anthropologoical studies now show that “hunter-gatherers had few material desires, which could be satisfied with a few hours of effort. Their economic life was organized around the presumption of abundance rather than a preoccupation with scarcity. And this being so, there is good reason to believe that because our ancestors hunted and gathered for well over 95 percent of Homo sapiens’ 300,000-year-old history, the assumptions of human nature in the problem of scarcity and our attitudes of work have their roots in farming. Acknowledging that for most of human history our ancestors were not as preoccupied with scarcity as we are now reminds us that there is far more to work than our efforts to solve the economic problem” (pp6-7).

When economists define work as the time and effort we spend meeting our needs and wants, they dodge two obvious problems. The first is that often the only thing that differentiates work from leisure is context and whether we are being paid to do something or are paying to do it [for example, painting, gardening, writing]…The second problem is that beyond the energy we expend to secure our most basic needs–food, water, air, warmth, companionship, and safety–there is very little that is universal about what constitutes a necessity.

Work, p7

Suzman then defines work, “the closest thing to a universal definition of ‘work’–one that hunter-gatherers, pinstriped derivatives traders, calloused subsistence farmers, and anyone else would agree on–is that it involves purposefully expending energy or effort on a task to achieve a goal or end” (p8). This gets us to the choice of who is engaging your will, your purposeful energy, towards what purpose.

To understand how we got here, Suzman then takes us on the long journey of two pathways. “When it comes to charting the history of our relationship with work, there are two intersecting pathways that are the most obvious to follow. The first maps the story of our relationship with energy. At its most fundamental, work is always an energy transaction and the capacity to do certain kinds of work is what distinguishes living organisms from dead, inanimate matter. For only living things actively seek out and capture energy specifically to live, to grow, and to reproduce…The second pathway follows the human evolutionary and cultural journey… The journey down this pathway reveals how, as our ancestors developed the capacity to master many new different skills, our remarkable purposefulness was honed to the point that we re now capable of finding meaning, joy, and deep satisfaction in activities like building pyramids, digging holes, and doodling…But it is the points where these two pathways converge that are most important in terms of making sense of our contemporary relationships with work” (pp9-10). Suzman identifies four such convergences: when humans mastered fire; started storing food and farming; gathered in cities; and industrialized work in factories and mills.

In trying “to describe, measure, and compare accurately the capabilities of things like water wheels, cart horses, steam engines, and human beings” (p26), Gaspard-Gustave Coriolis coined the term “work,” and developed equations to describe it, basically as the transfer of energy. This solved the hard problem of being able to characterize and compare different forms of transferring energy, whether people, horses, or machines. This form of work is measured in joules or calories. And we see another form of energy, in our minds. The mind uses a different form of energy, according to George Armitage Miller. “‘Just as the body survives by ingesting negative entropy [free energy].., so the mind survives by ingesting information…(It) is now clear that all living things, from prokaryotes to plants, are informavores…Much of the energy captured by complex organisms with brains and nervous systems is used to filter, process, and respond to information acquired through their senses…With our super-plastic neocortices and well-organized senses, Homo sapiens are the gluttons of the informavore world…Our brains only constitute 2 percent of our total body weight but they consume around 20 percent of our energy resources…for most other mammals it is between 5 and 10 percent” (pp87-88, 104).

As you can tell, from the extensive quoting from this book, I found this to be a fascinating look at why we see work the way we do, how there are currently on the planet many different, evolved forms of how people see work, and this gives us the chance to choose how we engage with work. There is not one right answer for everyone. That would be a law of physics. Suzman shows anthropologically that there are many different answers, depending on your context, and what you choose to include in your context. Your choice.

The Science of Abundance: 4 90-min talks (3 in Spanish and 1 in English)

Together we can take on huge challenges. I am grateful to my colleague Adrian Joyce for joining me in this 88-minute session with the Centro de Liderazgo y Tecnología UPM in Madrid. With our co-host Isabel Ortiz, we shared what we are learning at the Institute for Strategic Clarity (isclarity.org) about the “science of abundance” and cohosting societal collaboration. We specifically explored Adrian’s work with the Renovate Europe Campaign.

You can see the recording of this session and 3 others, exploring this “ciencia de la abundancia,” on the Centro de Liderazgo y Tecnología UPM YouTube channel [https://lnkd.in/dkAhmJB].

Is It Winter? That Depends. Really?

When working with groups, I challenge them to think of anything that is fixed, unchanging, always the same. While people pop up with some possibilities–my sister is my sister, that building is there, time is time–we quickly discover that all of these understandings have shifted dramatically in recent years. Family relations can be defined biologically and socially. The building used to be materials, which were minerals before, and will be materials then minerals again in the distant future. Time was constant and universal, until Einstein’s theory of relativity. Everything changes and depends on other things. While this is leading-edge thinking in organizational strategy, it is a very old teaching.

I just found out another one this week. Is it winter? Surely that is fixed. Winter is winter. Isn’t it? Nope. It turns out that there are different definitions of the seasons and when they start. Two basic definitions of seasons are meteorological and astronomical.

Meterological seasons are based on average temperatures. Winter is the coldest average temperature for three months. Since there is a lag in the cooling down or heating up of the lithosphere and hydrosphere, winter officially starts, in the USA, on December 21. This is the winter solstice. In this way of thinking, the solstices and equinoxes mark the beginning of the season. In other countries, winter starts officially on December 1. And, that is for the northern hemisphere, with the southern hemisphere being in summer at that time.

Astronomical seasons are based on the tilt of the axis of the Earth. Winter is when the nights are shortest, with the winter solstice marking the middle of the season.

Well, at least we humans agree that there are four seasons. Right? Nope. In some cultures, there are two seasons, others have three, six, or twenty-four seasons in a year. Even though I thought I was thinking about everything as being dynamic and systemically interconnected, I had never even questioned whether I knew when winter started. Well, it depends on how you define it, the culture you come from, and the distance you live from the equator. Once again, life is even more interesting than I had thought.

Getting The Universe To Conspire With You

Does the universe seem to conspire with you?  Everything seems to work.  Or does the universe seem to conspire against you?  Nothing seems to work.

Building on our global work of the past twenty years at the Institute for Strategic Clarity, my colleagues and I have been building an understanding of the underlying ecology of consciousness and nature, the reality that humanity is and in which it swims.  The practical application of this ecology is the agreements field.  An agreements field is the energetic field that you experience of a set of agreements, of the reality you experience with a group, in a specific space.  This agreements field–what you unconsciously accept or consciously choose about how you will interact with reality, with each other–includes 10 dimensions of reality.

These dimensions describe the reality of the ecology of consciousness and nature.  That means that they are dimensions of your reality.  By seeing them as dimensions of your reality, dimensions that you can directly experience, this gives you the tools, the choices to change the agreements field, to adjust to the reality you want.  The reality you need to have the experiences you want and to achieve the outcomes that are yours to achieve.  They are all there, for you to choose.  This is getting the universe to conspire with you, because the universe asks this of you.  Decide how you want to agree to enter and relate with each of these dimensions.  Set your intention.

The ten dimensions are relatively straightforward, building on thousands of years of observation across all human cultures, as well as string theory in physics.  In essence, the universe is made up of purposeful energy, energy that transforms to and must serve a purpose.  It is in the very nature of energy.  So here is the first choice–what is the purpose towards which the energy is invited to engage.  A tool for this is the Deeper Shared Purpose.

Then you have to connect to the energy.  This is the choice of how to connect you and others to a purpose that engages them.  This is connection to the source of the energy.  Does your purpose and your process for connecting to it engage?  We call this cohosting.  That’s the second choice.

This purposeful energy comes with many different ways of understanding it, of relating to it.  You can think of this as another multidimensional energy that requires many different lenses for engaging it.  Like an 8-part harmony in a jazz ensemble or the 3 parts of deciding whether you can make money building and selling something (can we make it, can we sell it, can we profit from making it and selling it?).  You need all of the requisite perspectives of that specific purpose to perceive it and engage it.  You cannot do an 8-part harmony with 3 voices.  You cannot decide whether you can make a profit by just knowing how much it will cost to make.  You need all of the required perspectives.  What perspectives are required depends on your purpose.  The choice here is in how you bring in and work with those perspectives.  One tool for this is the O Process.  This is the third dimension of choice.

The degree to which those perspectives engage and share what they are perceiving depends on their experience of trust.  This is reflected in the level of vibrancy experienced in five primary relationships: the relationship to one’s own self, to the other, to the group, to nature’s creative process, and to spirit’s creative source.  When you have generated a space of low vibrancy where the experience is of a weak relationship to these five primary relationships, almost nothing of what the people perceived is shared.  When you have generated a space of high vibrancy, people experience very strong relationships to these five primary relationships, and they share all of what they are perceiving and build on it together synergistically.  From very low energy throughput to very high energy throughout.  This is the fourth choice.  A tool for assessing the level of vibrancy experienced is the Agreements Health Check survey, available free online.

These first dimensions describe whether you were able to engage the purposeful energy.  The next set of dimensions describe your choices in transforming that purposeful energy.

Do the agreements in your group work with the energy engaged?  The engaged energy comes in three forms: in knowledge of what already is, in developing new capacities and relationships, and in seeing new possibilities, accessing new potentials.  Do your organizational agreements, structures, and processes work with all three forms or focus mostly on one?  If you tend to focus explicitly on outcomes, existing capacities, and what is already known, you might capture the energy engaged around the knowledge shared of what already is, but you will lose all of the energy engaged around learning and seeing of new possibilities.  You have to be structured consciously to work with these three forms and not lose them to entropy.  This fifth dimension of choice can be assessed with the Agreements Evidence Mapping tool.

Once you have the engaged energy flowing into your organization, do you know how to transform it efficiently and effectively into something that others want?  This means taking the inputs of raw resources and creative energy and putting them together in unique ways that drive value for others.  This is the crux of the resource-based view of the strategy of the organization.  This transformation works at three levels of leverage: direct, dynamic, and structural.  Direct leverage is working directly with the resources in the most efficient way: knowing what you are doing to transform these enabling resources into value-driving resources.  Dynamic leverage is knowing how to work with the system dynamics of feedback loops that either stabilize towards homeostasis, balancing the local system or grow the system exponentially–balancing or reinforcing feedback.  This requires knowing how to work with the feedback dynamics of functional areas.  Structural leverage is coordinating multiple balancing and reinforcing feedback loops–the organizational system–to achieve the overall desired goal.  Maximize output from minimal inputs, across interacting feedback loops.  This requires knowing how to bring together interacting feedback loops of balancing and reinforcing forces to achieve desired outcomes.  This strategic systems work is the sixth dimension of choice.  The Systemic Leverage Index tool describes the level of direct, dynamic, and structural leverage in your system and how to increase them.

For you to be resilient in your ability to continue to transform the engaged purposeful energy, you need to be able to access the resources you need.  This resilience is a function of inflows and outflows.  To be resilient, your resource inflows must match your outflows.  Your resource outflows are the resources you need to transform the energy inputs into the product or service you are offering.  Think of these as the costs of bringing in people and resources and having facilities.  The inflows are the resources you need to provide the outflows.  Think of these as the money, products, and services required to provide for the people, enabling resources, and facilities.  When your inflows match your outflows, you are resilient.  When your outflows exceed your inflows, you are not.  When your inflows exceed your outflows, you are wasting resources.  A tool for measuring your resilience is the Resilience Dynamics map.  This is the seventh dimension.

These are the dimensions of transforming the purposeful energy engaged.  The third set of dimensions key in on transferring that transformed energy.

Do the people you are intending to offer the transformed energy want it?  Are they ready to receive it in the form offered?  Shockingly, most groups will expend great amounts of resources to know how much money they have (accounting information systems and processes) and how much inventory they have (enterprise management systems), and they will then survey their consumers every couple of years, meaning they spend almost nothing in knowing whether people actually want and are able to receive what is being offered.  When I ask, many, many groups tell me that they don’t really want what is being offered.  This shows in the marketplace, and is harder to see in civil society and government offerings.  And, when they do want what is being offered, it is often offered in ways they cannot work with.  It is too much or too little, or in a form they don’t want.  I don’t need soup, I need clothes.  We want water access, but not through the policies you implemented.  We want to educate our kids, but not your way. But you don’t ask, so you don’t know.  Anther possibility is for the intended recipients of the transference of the transformed energy to be deeply involved in the process, co-creating the forms they most need and are ready to accept of the transformed energy.  This is the highest value they can put on that energy.  The Memetics and Epimemetics tools describe the ability to transfer the transformed energy, your eighth dimension of choice.

Who in the system are you actually serving?  What percentage of the time?  Many groups declare they are serving the entirety of a specific population, when their outcomes show they are not.  Public K-12 education for all citizens.  Serving all sports fans in our area.  Yet, they only reach half the intended population, and the half they don’t reach is predictable, often by zip code.  And, they reach most people in the system some of the time.  The eCubed tool measures the degree to which a system serves everyone in the system (E1), everywhere in the system (E2), everyday in the system (E3).  A system says it is designed for the people it is serving.  This is eCubed (E1 * E2 * E3) equals 100%.  Most systems have an eCubed far less than 100%: they are not serving the system they say they are.  They are not transferring all of that transformed energy to the explicitly intended community, rather a subset of it.  This reflects the quality of the overall system design.  This is the ninth choice.

The 10th dimension of choice is the people you engage.  When you invite people into your purpose, you are asking them to exchange their calorie burning for lumens generating.  They need money, food, housing, etc to take care of their needs.  These are all calorie-equivalents.  Things to provide and protect more calories into their bodies for existence.  When these are covered, these calorie burners become lumens generators.  Lumens are the creative expression of human energy, as people connect to a purpose and the creative energy begins to flow.  This is what you are doing with your organization: bringing in calorie burners to generate lumens.  These lumens generated bind with the inputs of enabling resources to transform into value-driving resources.

You have all of these choices.  Choices that you make every day, whether you do it consciously or unconsciously.  The agreements field of these ten dimensions that you generate directly influences how much of this purposeful energy you access, engage, transform, and transfer and how much you lose to entropy.  In all probability, you are currently losing most of it to entropy, because you have accepted an agreements field and not consciously designed it.  You are expecting the universe to work in a specific way, which sometimes works for you and sometimes doesn’t.  Another way of understanding this is to see that these are all dimensions in a set of choices, an agreements field that you can generate.  They are all there for you to work with. This is how you get the universe to conspire with you.  You tell it to.  That is the choice that the universe expects from you, to know how to breath with you, to conspire with you.

Revisiting Agreements–Are Your Agreements Static-Dead or Dynamic-Living?

Most of us humans tend to act and interact as if our agreements, the guidelines for our interactions, are fixed.  If they are fixed, they are permanent, static.  Dead.  If they are fixed, then they cannot be changed.

And, if they actually are agreements, a mutual understanding, then we can decide what they are.  This means that we can change them.  They are just agreements.  They are changing, impermanent, dynamic.  Living.

If they are living, then agreements are constantly evolving, changing in content as the context changes.  If they are constantly evolving, then it would probably be a good idea to revisit them periodically.

In my own practice, I used to focus on making the best decision.  After all, I have advanced degrees in the decision sciences.  And, once I had followed a good decision making process, and made a good decision, I was done.  Complete.  On to the next decision.  A few years ago, I began to see the brilliance in “rushing to failure,” learning from trying something, making mistakes, and adjusting.  Much more interesting.  And, it was a mind shift to focus on getting to the awareness of the mistakes quicker.  While the rewards were high with this focus on failure, the fail language brought in lots of scarcity and feelings of weakness.  We were constantly asking about and focusing on our failures.  Good learning, and a bit debilitating in the language.

A couple of years ago, a colleague and I started experimenting with the practice of tangibilization.  Through the O Process, we would imagine possibilities, see a pathway of relationships and activities to manifest it, and a tangible outcome.  We would then look for the feedback in the pathway and outcomes, over time.  With this feedback, we would re-envision the possibilities, adjusting the pathways and outcomes we saw.  We were engaging an evolutionary process–learning and adjusting.  Over time, we saw that in this process we were constantly revisiting our agreements, adjusting them based on what we learned along the way.  With this realization, we shifted our language from “rushing to failure” to “revisiting our agreements.”  Now we actively seek and celebrate the feedback, with a reinforcing feeling, continuously evolving our agreements.

At first, this might seem inefficient.  Surely it is more efficient to decide once and be done.  Less time spent on process.  Right?  Back when we focused on making one decision and being done with the process, we observed that we actually ended up spending much more time on fixing the consequences of agreements that no longer worked.  This is analogous to the observation that most organizational work is spent correcting mistakes made from poor planning.  This does not mean spending endless time talking through every agreement over and over.  That IS a waste.

We found that it was far more efficient to continuously iterate the O Process, remembering the potential, pathways, and outcomes we saw, comparing those with what actually happened, and adjusting.  This is also known as the scientific process.  It turns out to be much more efficient and effective to revisit our agreements frequently, adjusting based on the feedback we received from the universe.  We learned that our agreements are dynamic, alive, so we revisit them continuously.

People Aren’t Dumb. The World Is Hard.

People aren’t dumb. The world is hard.”  So says Professor Thaler, the 2017 Nobel laureate in economics.

From an ecosynomic perspective, the world is hard, for two reasons: the environment and the individual.  The environment is the exterior experience of the embedded agreements we live in.  The individual is the interior experience of our perception of our existence in the world.

Professor Thaler uses this quote to point at what we can do to improve our outcomes and experiences.  It you think people are dumb, then you can either make them smarter or deal with the fact that they are dumb.  If you think people are not dumb, and the world is hard, then you can try to make interacting in the world less hard.  Thaler suggests it is more the environment than the people.  We agree.  

We can understand the embedded agreements, in a way that works with our ability to perceive.  We can develop lenses on our agreements and processes for shifting them, which we can test, to see if they lead to the behaviors (outcomes and experiences) we want to have.

[To hear Professor Thaler describe what he means with this quote, listen to the July 11, 2018 Freakonomics podcast.]

A Reframers’ Coup — Recommended Readings

Klarman, Michael J. The Framer’s Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution.  2016, New York: Oxford University Press.

Kishtainy, Niall.  A Little History of Economics. 2017, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Are the agreements that we live with today, whether consciously chosen or unconsciously accepted, the only agreements that are possible?  Are they “true,” in the sense that they are the only way that life could be?  While we tend to unconsciously act as if they were given truths, I find that all of these agreements have shifted over time.  Whether the laws of physics, the laws of medicine, the laws of economics, or the laws of politics, they all change, and often by a lot.  This constant reframing of what we “know” to be true intrigues me, so I have been looking into the history of thought and practice in many of these disciplines.

I recently recommended a book that explored the evolution of the modern mind.  A wild ride through the wars and tectonic shifts in how we define what a mind is.  I also recommend two books exploring how we arrived at our current-day understanding of two very influential systems, which we also tend to assume are given facts of reality:  the US Constitution and modern economics.

Professor Klarman, of the Harvard Law School, digs deep into the archives, through hundreds of letters from the framers of the US Constitution to describe, in the words of the framers themselves, the process that the framers went through to get from the Articles of Confederation to a ratified Constitution.  It was not a forgone conclusion that the convention could legally happen, that they would reach an agreement, or that the document would be ratified.  They just knew that the Articles of Confederation were not working, with bankruptcy and civil war imminent, and little else had worked. “By 1787, a decade’s worth of failed efforts at securing incremental reform within the framework of the Articles had convinced many political leaders of the need to pursue more fundamental change–and through other avenues” (p 72).  Where many of the states were moving towards democratic systems of local decision making, and many of the political leaders did not support a strong federal model, the framers were successful in changing the foundations of the USA going forward. To get this highly negotiated document ratified, “invocations of divine inspiration for the Constitution by supporters of ratification, were, at least in part, a conscious political strategy to maximize the chance of winning” (p 2).  While the Constitution has proved to be a very strong document, its framers wanted it to be revisited soon and strengthened, seeing it only as a better temporary solution than the Articles of Confederation.

While Professor Klarman’s archive-rich narrative includes 181 pages of endnotes, making it a long, nuanced read, London School of Economics guest lecturer Kishtainy‘s A Little History of Economics covers a wide spread of history in a few pages, highlighting key thinkers and tinkerers along the way, showing how they took a legacy of key concepts and the pressing issues of their times, to mold a new perspective on how people come together to produce and exchange goods.  It is the idea in a context that made huge shifts that we then consider normal or given today, many years later in a completely different context.  “Before Jevons and Marshall, economists imagined people as colorful characters.  In Adam Smith’s version of competition, merchants haggle and hustle to make the best deals, and Malthus’s poor liked to breed like rabbits.  Now economists place a new character at centre stage: ‘rational economic man,’ a person who decides what to do by weighing up marginal costs and marginal benefits, for example by comparing the price of a spoon with its utility.  The economy was seen as being full of cool-headed people who do all these calculations perfectly.  This kinds of economy looks calm and harmonious, quite different from how earlier economists saw it.  To Marx capitalism was all about the exploitation of workers by capitalists.  Workers create the economic value, but capitalists take most of it as profit.  In the world of ‘rational economic man’ there are simply lots of people buying and selling things.  There’s no such thing as exploitation” (p 65).

Another coup.  Take one idea, add some content and a new context, stir, and change the game.  We then accept the new game, and forget that there ever was a previous game that others previously also thought was true and given.  Two highly recommended books on the history of thought underlying major institutions today.

Hidden Bugs, Hidden Agreements

Like when germ theory replaced miasma theory, the intuition was right, the deeper cause was hidden.  It is in the environment, just not the way miasma theorists thought it was.  New technology made it visible, the microscope.

Likewise, low engagement, low creativity, and higher returns from automation are all signs, correctly interpreted, of a deeper, hidden problem.  Like bugs–the hidden germs and the “undocumented features” in software–the hidden agreements are there too.  These bugs embedded in the social soup, like germ-bugs and software-bugs, can be exposed, understood, and chosen.

The intuition about what to do is relatively right, the understanding of what drives it is being updated.  The bugs are no longer hidden, with the right technology.  The bugs in our agreements no longer need to be hidden either.  We have the technology to see them, and to choose our relationship to them.

Seeing What We See–Another Perspective on The Agreements We Accept

The British philosopher Alan Watts observed, “If I draw a circle, most people, when asked what I have drawn, will say that I have drawn a circle, or a disc, or a ball.  Very few people will ever suggest that I have drawn a hole in a wall, because people think of the inside first, rather than thinking of the outside. But actually these two sides go together–you cannot have what is ‘in here’ unless you have what is ‘out there.’

What agreements have I unconsciously accepted, such as seeing the circle from the inside, that limit my ability to see the circle from the outside?  How many ways have I boxed myself into a corner, from which I cannot see the possibilities I am seeking?  Watts’ observation invites me to remember that I was the one that boxed myself in–with the agreements I unconsciously accepted–so I can remove those boxes I put in place, the constraints on what I can see, consciously choosing the agreements I accept.