Identity and Prejudice


Thinking in Categories
One-way language works is by sorting words into class types. A word, such as “chair” is an object that has a basic commonality with all chairs. When we say “chair,” the mind goes to the “Chair” category, a grouping that all chairs share in common. To understand the actual chair under consideration, we would begin to sort out the similarities and differences between this particular chair and all chairs. That’s the way the mind works to create and use language. We have general categories of nouns (things) and verbs (actions.) We place what we see into these categories, and, once they are placed, we then consider the unique differences a particular item has with the traits of the general category.

This way of thinking makes the world simple to negotiate. We don’t have to rediscover the sink, the door, the TV, the car, the building, and so on. Our minds can quickly know what these objects are and have a sense of what is going on.

However, too often, thinking in categories obscure accurate perception. Too often, we think we know something before we actually know it. We adopt a “this looks like that” mentality, rather than observe what is before us. And because of that, we distort reality.

In 1954, psychologist Gordon Allport related prejudice to categorical thinking. Because we think in terms of generalized categories, Allport suggested that prejudice is a natural and normal process for humans. He wrote: “The human mind must think with the aid of categories. Once formed, categories are the basis for normal prejudgment. We cannot possibility avoid this process. Orderly living depends upon it.”

While the mind will run on automatic, we have the added control of observation and reason. Here is the mix: three forces in play: automatic categorization, observation, and reason. In a way, sometimes they are in competition, especially when observation and reason contradict the attributes of some category the mind has generated.

It is easier to give in to the assumptions of the category than to observe more closely, and from that, use reason to come to a conclusion. It is easier to be prejudice than not. Prejudice means you have come to conclusions BEFORE you observe, which is completely different from true judgment, in which you reach a conclusion AFTER you have looked at facts and evidence.

You see a white person, and you think white race and whatever attributes that your mind has in that category. You see a black person, and you think black race and whatever attributes that your mind has in that category. Your mind instantly puts people into an assortment of categories. We need to understand that the mind is just doing one of its jobs. Its other jobs include observation and reason.

If you are an inner-city young black man, you may have a category we could call hostile police. Whenever you see a policeman, or a police car, your mind may make an automatic association of unfair treatment, danger, and antagonism. If you are a policeman working in the inner city, you may have a category we could call gang member. When you see a young black man, your mind may make an automatic association of life-threatening danger, violence, crime, guns, and antagonism. These conclusions are not a product of considered thought, but what seems like an instinctive survival mechanism.

Each side can blame the other without considering the dynamic in play. Each side is tied to their concept of the other. From this, a pattern of behavior develops that reinforces each group’s impression of the other. The more the police act antagonistically, the more the young black man sees the police as his enemy. The more the young black man acts antagonistically, the more the police see the young back man as their enemies. Each side will have real examples to prove their point, which entrenches their fixed concepts.

This structure leads to a destructive cycle: a policeman shoots an unarmed young black man. He seems to get away with it. The black community protests. The protests begin peacefully, but soon, some who are more hostile, become violent. This leads the police to feel more defensive. Some individuals assassinate some members of the police, which reinforces to the police that they are in danger. And on it goes. Calls to reason seem weak in light of the mind’s automatic reactionary impulse. What makes it hard to resolve the situation is that people, unbeknownst to themselves, are players in a system, a vicious cycle fueled by how the mind categorizes.

Each side has legitimate complaints. It is true that gangs exist in the inner city. These gangs are dangerous. It is true that some police members are prejudice against black people, especially young black men. It is true that black people have a higher rate of being stopped by the police than white people. In some locations, it is five times higher. It is true that some black men are members of gangs. Most are not. The mind says guilty before proven innocent. The problem cannot be solved by its own terms.

What needs to happen is observation and reason over habitual categorization. Prejudice comes from mindless automatic categorizing based on conceptual generalizations. Another way to describe this is prejudice is an example of not being in touch with reality. Rather than see reality as it is, including actual risk assessment, a worst-case scenario generates an emotional reaction. People feel they are in danger, and act defensively with increased hostility as the cycle escalates. Each side claims that the other side is at war with them.

It is one thing to have a concept that your mind assumes is true. It is another to have a concept that is tied to your identity. Observation and reason can overturn an inaccurate concept. But it takes more than that when identity is tied to the concept. Sometimes, no amount of objective facts and evidence can change the concept. The reason is that anything that contradicts the concept seems like a personal attack or a threat to one’s existence. That is because some concepts and beliefs are tied to a person’s identity. Of course, as we have said before, you are not your beliefs or concepts. This understanding may help to overcome the feeling of threat when a deeply held belief or concept is challenged.

Beliefs about others, especially groups (or tribes,) can also become fixed as if those ideas are inextricably tied to your own identity. The older you get, the tendency is to get fixed in your ways. Once you settle into a worldview, it because harder and harder to change your mind. Your mind can become entrenched into rigid, inflexible, and unyielding concepts that are resistant to change, defying logic and good sense. This is not a good pattern.

Age, alone, doesn’t cause this, for many of the world’s most creative people have become more and more flexible and open as they have gotten older.

Knowing how the mind works, that it is more apt to automatically jump to conclusion based on prejudice, put special focus on observation and reason. This is a good discipline one can develop over time and practice.


butterflyLast week at The Art of the Creative Process, our workshop for artists, one of the pieces we analyzed was Mariah Carey’s song Butterfly. It is a masterpiece of song writing and performance. The song has the general theme: If you love something, let it go, if it comes back to you, it’s yours, if it doesn’t, it was never yours to begin with. Of course, the way the idea is developed in Mariah’s song is more beautifully expressed.

Once we had worked with the song, I became curious about how she had written it. I went on line, and I was stunned with some of the history, especially the many critics who panned it and her other work throughout the years. None of the criticism makes sense to me, and I was wondering if they had heard the same song I had heard. That led me to think about the life of a critic Vs. the life of a creator. It is easy to be a critic. You don’t have to do much but give your opinion. And the term itself – critic – too often tells the story: look for something to criticize rather than appreciate.

Mariah Carey is not just a rock star. She has been one of the most influential singers in modern times. Some of the artists who have cited Carey as an influence are Beyonce, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Christian Aguilera, Rihanna, Leona Lewis, Justin Bieber, Pink, and there are so many others.

She has had good times and hard times in her career. In other words, she is a human being. And, she is a true artist, always bringing something new into existence no matter how it’s going. She is rich enough to never have to work another day in her life. But, now, at 46, she is working on a new album, acting in an episode of Empire, and doing an ongoing Las Vegas show. What in the artistic spirit motivates this? The desire to create, to make music, to perform, to record. Art for art’s sake.

When I was finishing my book Creating, I first heard Mariah sing Vision of Love. Right after seeing her music video, I had an appointment with my editor at Ballantine Books. I told her that I thought Mariah was the modern day Judy Garland. I couldn’t believe her virtuosity, musicality, and artistic power. Breathtaking, really.

One of her worst career moves was staring in the film Glitter. The film wasn’t as bad as the critics said, but it didn’t make use of her talent, and the story was pretty flimsy. But what followed was an onslaught of the cruelest denunciations from critics yet. (Praise for Mariah’s acting in the Lee Daniels brilliant film production of Precious was universal, proving she is a wonderful actress as well as singer.)

I think there is a dynamic going on here. Too often, society wants to topple those on top. Maybe it is a type of jealousy. If someone is talented, beautiful or handsome, is a big success, then many people want to see him or her fall off the pedestal. Maybe it is hard to admit there are special people among us. The press likes to cut them down to size, ignore their gifts, make them seem flawed, just so we can feel better about ourselves. If you look at the pattern, it runs like this: talent is discovered and celebrated, followed by pot shots, followed by ridicule, followed by marginalization. Look how the press has gone after Taylor Swift about her love life, ignoring the fact that she is one of the greatest songwriting talents of her generation.

Personally, I’d rather go through life as a fan than a critic. There is so much to love and appreciate. The greats are the greats, make no mistake.

Vision of Love:


Conflict Manipulation

conflict manipulation blogHere is a principle I wrote about in The Path of Least Resistance.  It is called conflict manipulation. I began to notice how often certain people were trying to manipulate others through heightened conflict designed to created emotional distress that would cause a reaction. I was one of the speakers on a platform with various other speakers talking about the future. One of the other speakers was against nuclear proliferation, (as we all were.)  She began to describe the impact of a nuclear bomb in the most graphic detail. She was very effective at creating a sense of impending doom, many in the audience breaking into tears, moans, and depression. They were ready to sign any petition against nuclear war.  The cause was right, but the approach was ineffective. Yes, people signed a petition. But once the emotion was over, they just got on with their lives as if it never happened.

The structure of conflict manipulation is simple. It begins with an image of something terrible, which is designed to generate a negative emotional reaction. That emotional conflict leads to action. However, the motivation for the action is to resolve the bad feelings, not create a desired outcome. More conflict leads to more action, which, ironically, works. In other words, the action itself reduces the emotional conflict, even if the situation doesn’t change or gets worse. Conflict manipulation can work short-term to get taxes paid, cars inspected, or partitions signed. But it is not sustainable and cannot work for creating long-term goals.  That’s the structural dynamics.

As Robert Frost said, “I never tried to worry anybody into intelligence.”

When I was on the faculty of the Leadership Academy for Harvard Vanguard, the largest medical provider in Massachusetts, one of the major principles we worked on was the difference between conflict manipulation and the creative process. I would always ask every cohort how many of them worked with life-style conditions. As it turned out, at least half of the doctors and nurses treated conditions that required life-style changes: diabetes, obesity, smoking, asthma. Most of them had found that the usual approaches they used didn’t work long-term. First the patient would change their destructive habit: they stopped smoking, changed their diet, lost weight, and so on.  But then they fell back into their old ways, returning to smoking, reverting back to unhealthy eating habits, and gaining their weight back. Most doctors and the medical profession generally have concluded that people cannot change their bad habits. Therefore, they have come to rely on drugs to treat medical conditions, given people can’t change.

We introduced these medical professionals to the principles of structural dynamics so they could see just WHY, with all their warnings and pictures of gloom and doom, the patient seemed not to stay on a healthy program for very long. We taught them the technique of structural tension, in which desired outcomes became the central organizing principle. The motivation to bring a healthy condition into being is in direct contrast to trying to rid the patient of an unhealthy condition. Creating health is not the same as healing disease. Most of these doctors reported dramatic changes in their patients’ ability to change their lifestyle habits once they had a true goal in mind they were working towards.

I remember once listening to a radio interview with a person who ran a worthy charity in which he said, “The public has the attention span of a gnat.”  From his fund raising point of view, he couldn’t seem to keep people in the world of the problem he was trying to solve. He didn’t know he was up against the structure he was in. At first, conflict manipulation seems to work because you get some quick action: people donate money, letters are written, people charge into action. But very soon, the heat is off, and what seemed to work no longer works. You will notice that people who use conflict manipulation over time become more and more hysterical. The same amount of threat that once worked, no longer does the job. So they increase the level of threat.  And then more, and then more. But the impact on the subject of the conflict has become more and more immune to the commotion. Have you ever seen a frustrated mother in a super market screaming at her child? “Johnny, if you don’t put that down, something bad will happen!” Of course, while everyone else in the store hears her, little Johnny has learned to ignore his mother’s hysteria. The same thing happens with managers who try to motivate their workers by threat, warnings, and conflict. At first, the claim that if they don’t do this or that, the company will go out of business gets people going. But over time, the same threat loses its punch. And like little Johnny, they begin to ignore the manager; while at the same time, he or she becomes more and more hysterical.

In reality, sometimes there are real dangers that we need to address. Put in the context of the creative process, we would position them in our overall current reality. In relationship to our vision, we would find more than just the dangers though. We would see an objective viewpoint of reality, the good, the bad, and the ugly. The idea is to see things as they actually are.  Conflict manipulation appeals to subjectivity. The creative process, using structural tension, appeals to fact-based objectivity.

In our work, one of the concepts many people have is imagined danger. Without actually evaluating reality objectively, they imagine a worse case scenario of what could go wrong. That concept leads them to a few telltale signs. The first is that they don’t trust others because most other people do not see the dangers they see. They also limit input that might show that things aren’t as bad as they imagine. They set up rules and regulations.  And they feel terribly powerless. All of these behaviors together are seen as a control strategy. The person tries to control others, but not as a power hungry dictator, but simply trying to protect everyone from the dangers they don’t seem to see.

As Paul McCartney wrote: “When you find yourself in the thick of it, help yourself to a bit of what is all around you.” See reality for what it actually is, warts and all.

Over the years, we have helped people avoid the bad habit of falling for conflict manipulation in its various forms. Long-term, no good will come of it. It is better to see reality for what it is, but not only that, have a vision for what you want to create.


Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 6.24.36 PMWhat a week. Another horrendous terror attack, innocent people lost, an attempted coup in Turkey, police killing people they didn’t need to kill, police being killed while protecting protesters who were marching against injustice, and strife around the world. On it goes. Almost too much to take. But not quite too much for those of us who care about the fate of the world. With crisis after crisis, it is easy to react to the most recent crisis without thinking. The usual reaction is a demand for action. Kill the jerks, make them go away, solve the problems. And that is ONE of the problems, problem solving. Something is wrong, then solve it. Make it right. Get rid of what is wrong.

That is why things don’t get better. There is a difference between problem-solving the troubles of the world, and creating the world we would like. While it is natural to jump to a reaction when faced with strife, it just doesn’t help, even if it feels as if we are actually doing something worth while and good. Notice, please, that the problems don’t actually go away. They transform into bigger and bigger problems. Maybe it is the approach of the problem orientation itself that is the problem.

With a problem orientation, there is no vision in sight of what we actually want. We can solve all of our problems and still not have what we want. I have come to think that human beings can be so basic and simple to the point of being suckers for a good sounding solution to a problem. Be upset and then, mindlessly, jump into reaction that, in the end, often makes matters worse than they were.

It is a matter of conflict manipulation, something the terrorist knows so well. Do something horrific, then watch as your enemies react. What is the terrorists’ basic motivation? To build a better world? No. To watch people react to the emotional conflict they have generated. Yes. Nothing good ever comes from reaction. This is not to say that dangers do not exist. They do. And some of the terrorists have used as their strategy to make it seem as if the world were as dangerous as can be, thanks to their acts of terror. It gives them a feeling of power that they don’t deserve. After all, what have they accomplished in their lives? Being destructive is not an accomplishment. It is, at best, crazy, at worst, evil.

What a world. But if we look at history, there have been many times when it was worse. World War one and two, for example. I won’t even go into the dark ages or the Roman Empire.

A society has a right to protect itself from destruction. And when that safety is threatened, it is natural to put in controls. These often take away individual freedoms. But sometimes, that’s okay. If, for example, it is better to regulate electricity so that houses do not burn to the ground, and people do not electrocute themselves, then regulate all you want as far as I’m concerned. Do what makes sense.

Just never tell me how to think, how to spend my time, what to write, or compose, or to what to dedicate my life. That is not a social matter but a personal matter.

And here we are in our history. As we become more global, there is a light side and a dark side. The light side is that we can be enriched by the cultural benefits that are usually not available to us. We can think in terms of humanity rather than localized group identity. The dark side is that now any deranged person can do a lot of damage, encouraged by people far away who have no interest in building our civilization. And a person can take a truck and, with his own suicidal impulses, create a lot of pain in people who are simply watching some nice fireworks.

We want to protest. We want to punish the injustice of it all. We want to make it right, if we can. But, we can’t. The event is over, and we can’t go back in time.

So, as for me, this week, I’m going camping. Not to get away from the world, and not to avoid anything, but to be in nature. To wake up in the woods, hearing the birds, smelling the forest, reconnecting with the most basic simplicity there is. To back up for a moment, to align with the most essential aspect of reality. To experience what Robert Frost described as “a momentary stay against confusion.” The world will still be there when I get back. And, from a greater perspective, think about what I want to create.

Can People Learn to Think?

Can People Learn to ThinkSince we teach structural thinking, our answer is a definitive YES.

For more than thirty years, we have been teaching structural thinking. In one way, it is a simple process to learn. Structural thinking has to do with understanding structural relationship, how elements combine in a structure to give rise to consistent patterns of behavior. For example, hunger gives rise to the behavior of eating. What causes hunger is the contrast or difference between the actual amount of food in the body and the amount of food the body desires. The difference creates a tension, and tensions seek resolution. When you eat, you resolve the tension of the difference between the desired state and the actual state. The desired state and the actual state are now equal to each other.

The tension we are talking about is not a metaphor. Rather it is dynamic; a force in play both in the physical and non-physical world. For example, a jet airliner is able to fly because of something called the Bernoulli effect. This is when there is a difference between the air pressure on one side of the wing and the other side of the wing. To resolve the tension, the airplane is lifted up into the air.

Back to thinking. Most people do not think structurally. They think situationally. We have learned to react or respond to the situations we find ourselves in. We have little understanding of what causes these situations because of our usual explanation of how and why things turn out the way they do. This is called “event causes event” thinking. Why did you do that? because of what happened before that. Why did that happen? Because of the situation that came before that one. And back and back it goes.

Some people see the overall patterns that these situations cause, and that is a step forward. But while that is a better vantage point with which to view reality, we don’t have a clue about cause and effect from a structural point of view.

It is critical to know that tension will always seek resolution. This is because of physics, the principle being that structure seeks equilibrium. Whenever there is a state of “non-equilibrium,” the dynamic within that structure will change and move until equilibrium is established. But not all structures are able to accomplish equilibrium.

For example, if you are hungry the tendency of behavior is to eat. This is a simple tension-resolution system. Sometimes, the structure is more complex. There are two competing tension-resolution systems that create an oscillating pattern. You are hungry, so you eat. But, let’s say you are overweight, and another tension is formed by the difference between your desired and actual weight.

Here is how that structure works:

You are hungry, so you eat. But then you become overweight, go on a diet and eat less then your body desires. Once that tension is resolved and you lose the weight, you begin to eat again, and gain the weight back. There is more to this structural dynamic, but this example should illustrate the point. Sometimes, in this structure, it is easier to eat, and sometimes it is easier to diet. In fact, more than 80% of people who go on diets end up weighing more AFTER the diet than they did before they went on the diet.

Most people who have such patterns think they are weak-willed or have a character flaw. But what is going on is that they are up against an oscillating pattern caused by an oscillating structure. Like a rocking chair, movement in one direction induces movement in the other direction.

If you think situationally, you will never understand the structural dynamic in play. You are left with speculative theories, some about your relationship with your parents, some about how you think you don’t deserve love and so you keep love interests away by adding on the pounds, some about your birth trauma (if you happen to have had one.)

Your mind likes to resolve tension ASAP. Any question will demand an answer. However, your mind is a sucker for any pretty answer that comes along. It doesn’t matter if it is true or false. Any old speculation will do the job. And that lack of rigor, precision, accuracy, and quest for the truth will provide a sense of easy resolution for your mind’s bad habit.

There is a group of prefabricated answers that people carry around with them at all times. These are their concepts and beliefs. Think of concepts and beliefs as your personal thesaurus of answers designed for the mind to quickly and synthetically resolve unanswered questions, mysteries, puzzles, or any other types of tensions it experiences. Remember, tension always seeks resolution, and your concepts and beliefs can be plugged in at a moment’s notice to do the job. This doesn’t mean you have the right answer, but structurally, any answer will make you feel better, and give you the impression that you actually know something. The so-called “Ah-ha” experience is usually people thinking they have THE answer. Trouble is, THE answer is almost always consistent with their preconceived concepts and beliefs. Another way of describing the “Ah-ha” experience is that you “discover” what you thought was true, was true after all. Well, not usually actually true, but it sure feels that way.

Substituting one set of concepts with another does not change how people think one bit. That’s just a new database with which to compare reality. While new conclusions may be reached, the process of “thinking” is still a matter of comparison. People free associate, bias their viewpoints, insist that they are right, fight with each other about it, all the while trapped in a thought process that is incapable of new, accurate and original thought.

Changing your way of thinking takes training. Like all disciplines, it is not natural. It is counter-intuitive and counter-instinctive. But so are so many other disciplines we value. Reading, writing, playing the cello, and making a soufflé are also counter-intuitive and counter-instinctive.

Structural thinking is a very special realm. Very few traditions demand it, so very few have it built into the thought process. The traditions that do require structural thinking are music, architecture, screenwriting, mathematics, and some forms of engineering. Yet, even if you were raised in those traditions, you seldom think structurally, except when addressing those specific areas.

Thinking is one of THE most critical abilities you have. It is the major factor in how you make decisions. Your decisions will determine most of your life’s path. And yet, most people make their most important decisions without knowing and understanding the structural forces in play that will make the difference between success and failure.

Since we all think, we assume we know how. That is a faulty assumption. Know there is something to know that you have not learned in your education. Know that your mind, without proper guidance and discipline, will run wild with theories, conjecture, speculation, and walks down memory lane of past experience. Your mind is filled with clutter, so naturally clarity is a rare commodity.

For more information about structural thinking, read about the FST (fundamentals of structural thinking) in Vermont, June 2-5

Two Roads…

Two RoadsBy now, everyone knows the famous line from Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” which is: “The road less traveled.” This line has come to mean doing something different from everyone else, going your own way, finding and exploring paths that others haven’t discovered. Yet that is not at all what Frost was getting at.

Like another one of his lines – “good fences make good neighbors” – people’s interpretation is opposite to what he meant. In “Mending Wall,” the good fences line is said by a rather dull neighboring farmer. He says it out of ignorance and an inability to understand that the character on the other side of the fence is mocking the need for a fence. “My apple trees will never get across/And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.” That’s when he says the good neighbor line. Frost doesn’t leave it there. Frost writes:

“Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?’ But here there are not cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

Now, when you read the actual poem, you can’t miss the meaning. Anyone who understood the poem would never cast themselves as the dull farmer repeating an old cliché. Yet, people have come to think that there is wisdom in the good fences line. As I said, quite the opposite of what Frost was saying in the poem.

And the Two Roads thing, again something twisted from its original meaning. The situation in the poem is that the character is describing walking through the wood, when he comes across a fork in the road. He looks down one as far as he can, and then takes the other one, the so-called road less traveled. BUT, according to the poem, there isn’t a lot of difference between the two roads:

“Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.”

In other words, the road less traveled was NOT the road less traveled, given they were equal. After years of glorification of the road less traveled, Frost told the story of how he came to write the poem. He said he had a friend that, no matter what he did, would regret he didn’t do something else. In other words, the protagonist of the poem is actually complaining about having taken the road he had taken. Hard to glorify the “road not taken” once you know it is said with the irony Frost describes this way: “I shall be telling this with a sigh/Somewhere ages and ages hence:”

As Yogi Berra said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Who Are You?

This is another longish blog that focuses on issues of identity as Dr. Wayne Andersen and I work on our new book Identity. Yes, a little long, but worth the read. Enjoy…

Who Are YouHow do you define yourself? There are many types of answers from the toothpaste you use to the car you drive to where you live to how much money you make to how well your kids did in school to your politics to your religion to your profession, and on and on it goes.

At a dinner party, two of the guests were economists. One of them began to make the assertion that the worth of a person was directly tied to how much money he or she had made. As it so happened, the other economist was an academic who did not make a lot of money himself. In exploring the first economist’s idea, he became more and more entrenched in his belief that worth of a human being was directly connected to earning power, inadvertently insulting his colleague. His position was, to say the least, extreme. But often the extreme viewpoint makes it is easier to see a concept for what it is.

When the concept is expressed with more subtly and nuance, it can be harder to observe. Yet the basic thought is still the same. Too many people, worldly success is the standard by which others, and even themselves, are to be measured. There is a name for showing off all of your expensive toys to the world: conspicuous consumption. This is a theory that was developed by economist Thorstein Veblen. His idea was that much spending by the affluent is motivated primarily to display wealth and status to others rather than from enjoyment of the goods or services themselves.

“Who are you?” some say, is the most important question you can ever ask yourself. Why is it important at all? The question is truly unanswerable. But, but if you have to answer it, ask, “Who wants to know?”

Let’s use a little logic for a moment. We cannot BE what we possess. If you HAVE something, you can’t BE the thing you HAVE. Who is the YOU that has it? Therefore, anything you HAVE can’t be you. So you can’t be your car, your good looks, your mind, your spirit, your soul, your membership in a political party, your citizenship of a country, your creed, beliefs, religion, possessions, accomplishments, failures and successes, or your bank account.

Think of the ways you may have defined yourself in the past. Was it your accomplishment, failures, education, groups you belong to, ideas you held, your politics, sex appeal, intelligence, moral code, spiritual precepts, or other such things? It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking what you have or fail to have somehow defines you.

We often identify people with their professions. A doctor has achieved certain medical knowledge and skill that can be used professionally. A pilot has another set of skills and knowledge that can be used in the field of aviation. A musician has yet another set of skills and knowledge, as does a taxi driver, deep-sea diver, computer repairperson, etc.

These types of definitions are based on facts. There is an objective reality to each of them. However, they are not able to define the essence of a person, only his or her abilities, knowledge, talents, skills, and professional qualifications. Some professions demand certain levels of aptitudes, innate natural abilities, or the capacity to learn. And we may have high regard for what it takes to reach the distinguished levels of achievement to qualify for those professions. But these professions fail to answer the question, “Who are you?” You cannot be what you possess. You are not your accomplishments or skills anymore than you can be your car.

It is easier to say what you are not than to say who you are. Yet, the world is filled with answers that commonly follow a worldview. From a spiritual point of view we could say that you are spirit that has entered into matter. Or you are love. Or you are a sinner that needs to be saved.

From a psychological point of view, you are your pathology, your hang-ups, your problems, your repressed areas of consciousness, your past traumas, your gestalt.

From a communist point of view, you are the proletariat (workers), or a capitalist (those who exploit the proletariat), or the bourgeois (tools of the capitalists.) According to Karl Marx, these roles lead to a class struggle. Communism, as most isms, tries to appeal to identity. Those who are adherents, the good guys, and those who do not follow the party line, the bad guys.

From an Eastern philosophical viewpoint, you are your higher-self obstructed by your illusions and karma. And, the ideal is, that once you reach Enlightenment, you will finally know yourself in the ultimate sense, something that is seen to be impossible until then.

You may have various deeply held beliefs, but you cannot be your beliefs anymore than you can be your kitchen stove because, as we said, you cannot be that which you possess.

Which leads us to a very useful insight: anyway you try to define yourself is futile and misleading.

You do not have the ability to say what you are. Nor does anyone else. There is no right answer to this question because there is no accurate answer to this question.

Yet, people love to define themselves. It gives them a feeling of place, of belonging, of knowing where they stand in relationship to others. I’m a Aries with Gemini rising, I’m a obsessive/compulsive, I’m a type B personality, I’m a vegetarian.

On the one hand, functional definitions such as pilot and doctor are useful. But, these definitions are not able to penetrate the deeper essence of who we are. They simply tell us what we do.

Some people claim that we are the sum total of all we have experienced, learned, thought, done, and known. Yet, you are the very same person before you had all of these experiences and develop skills or had the accumulated learning. If you are working toward building a new career, it is you, before entering into the career, still you, while you are learning what you need, and finally, you, even when you become a veteran in your profession.

We can say things about ourselves. These things do not tell us who we are. We can say what we like and don’t like. We can say what we fear and what we love. We can know our values and aspirations. We can know our good and bad habits. We can care about the people we love. We can hold religions and spiritual beliefs. We can know our history. We can know many things about ourselves, but we are not the things we know.

In fact, it is good to know things about yourself, your values and aspirations, your patterns, your likes and dislikes, all valuable information in your life-building process. But, don’t confuse this useful knowledge with the more profound question of who you are.

Here is the lesson in a nutshell: Give up the question of who you are. Free yourself from such existential mysteries. We don’t and can’t know. Don’t be fooled by others proposing answers to you. They may be sincere but they won’t be very helpful, given no one has the answer. These fallacious answers might make you feel a sense of peace for a moment. But, like all nice sounding untruths, their comfort will run out pretty fast.


David Bowie

David BowieIt was sad to hear of the passing of David Bowie, one of the most creative and talented artists in music and film. This blog is not a eulogy, and there are countless very good ones we can read. I wanted to talk about Bowie the artist, and how he positioned himself to become a true master of the creative process.

He began his pop career creating a zany character, Ziggy Stardust. He had said that he was essentially a writer and songwriter, and that he was hoping others would perform his songs. When they didn’t, he created a series of personas that would perform his material. The reason for using various characters was the simple fact that he felt uncomfortable performing on stage. By inventing these characters, he could be like an actor playing a role so he could better perform his own material.

What led Bowie to such clarity between himself, as creator, and his creations? His ability to separate himself from his work. This is a major principle for all artists to learn. That you are not your work. That your work is not a representation of you. That your work is an invention, and not a factor of identity.

In fact, Bowie said, “I didn’t try to identify myself or ask myself ‘Who I was?” The less questioning I did about who I was, the more comfortable I felt. So now I have absolutely no knowledge about myself and I’m extremely happy.”

Of course, as Dr. Wayne Andersen and I are working on our book Identity, David Bowie became a very good illustration of the principles we have been writing about.
Not only was Bowie a singer-song writer, but also an incredible actor. He knew how to play a role, partly because of his enormous natural gifts and creative discipline, but also because he knew the job of an actor, to play someone else, rather than to play oneself.

Here is a short example of his power as an actor playing Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ

How sad that we have lost such a man, artist, creator, and unique human being. But we can celebrate the fact that there was a David Bowie and that he shared his art with the world.

In Search of Civilization

CivI have a sort of nostalgia for the Age of Enlightenment, also known as The Age of Reason. I can imagine the excitement that many of the greatest minds of that age had when they discovered reason, science, considered thought, and freedom of the individual, as a civilizing force. What hope for the future there must have been as a new door opened to them: which was the idea that progress moved in a straight line, and that the intellectual and artistic direction of the world could get better and better. This must have inspired the greatest faith in the development and evolution of humanity. But history doesn’t move in a straight line. In fact, it oscillates.

There is the long wave theory of history and economics. I am not doing it proper justice in this blog describing it, but, in essence, history moves in an oscillating pattern. Classical periods are followed by Romantic periods, and then back as the pendulum swings. If you back up enough, this patterns becomes pretty obvious.

From The Age of Reason back to a less reasonable age. I can’t wait for the next swing of the pendulum back to reason and enlightenment. I think we could call our current age The Age of Belief. Belief Vs. Reason. Science Vs. Religion’s dogma.

My point of view is not against religions belief itself. Nor was the Age of Enlightenment against such beliefs. Rather, it was against belief as an organizing principle for society. Freedom of the individual respects individual belief as a personal and private matter. There is no place for it in politics. Thomas Jefferson, a true son of the Age of Reason, wrote some of the most brilliant and profound works on this principle:

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.”

Thomas Jefferson

If only we had listened. Now, in what I am cynically calling The Age of Belief, that wisdom seems far away, a bit like how things might have seemed to people in the Dark Ages when they thought back to the more brilliant ages of Greece and Rome.

How did the Dark Ages come about? In his excellent book A History of Knowledge, Charles Van Doren describes the Dark Ages as God Obsession. The idea was that Christ would return in the year 1000, so what was the use of trying to build anything substantial? Belief was central, which, of course, led to wars, strife, injustice, and the dark side of humanity acting badly in the name of good. The star of the show was various beliefs that people were happy to die over. In those days, Islam was the most open religion, respectful of different religions.

The Christians were doctrinaire, authoritarian, and dictatorial. We had the Inquisition, which gave people a choice between adhere to the party line, or be exiled or torched. Then there was the 30-year war between Protestants and the Catholics. After all of this, the Age of Enlightenment must have seemed as if it were coming out of a long nightmare, a trance, a painting by Hieronymus Bosch showing the horrors of Purgatory.

And here we are again. The Age of Belief would love to pit one belief system against another. Sunni Vs. Shiite as the Middle East falls apart fighting it out as to who has the real Truth. Or West Vs East, as if the Crusades were on again. As I said, nothing wrong with having personal religions beliefs. But when some try to impose their beliefs on everyone, spare me from those who are “Holier than Thou.”

To get back to the idea of civilization for a moment, Jefferson was so right. Freedom of the individual is impossible when belief is imposed on any social order. For many, there is a built-in conflict between the value of freedom, on the one hand, and belief doctrines imposed on everyone, on the other.

Do we think that the leaders of the Age of Enlightenment did not have their own powerful spiritual experiences? Many of them, as it turns out, were mystics, meaning, that their foundation for their spiritual knowledge came from their direct higher experiences rather than belief, which is always secondary. That is why often the best part of any religion is found in their mystical traditions. This is why the radical Islamist terrorists hate the Sufis, who have one of the most mystical expressions of Islam.

Civilization is a human invention. It is not a natural organizing principle of nature. One day, maybe far into the future, the whole world may join together to create a new Age of Enlightenment. This age will not negate God, or personal belief, or organized religion. In fact, the richness of those thoughts, instincts, and institutions will be much stronger when they are a matter of choice rather than obligation. And, together, we can support the arts, commerce, science, exploration, and true evolution of progress, while also supporting beliefs as a personal matter.

So, just for now, I’m waiting for the pendulum to swing in the opposite direction.

To Resolve New Year’s Resolutions

newyear15New Year’s are a moment in time to both reflect the past and imagine the future; perhaps the most thoughtful time of the year. As we all know, this is the time that people make New Year’s resolutions. “I’ll eat better, exercise, accomplish more, be more green, learn a new language, write a novel, keep up with relatives…” And on it goes. Of course, most of these well meaning declarations of being a better person fail, often within days after they are made.

It is human to have good intentions. It is also human to ignore them, even while they are made sincerely and with great commitment. But why?

There are a few things. All of them are structural. In other words, the reasons why they fail have to do with the structural dynamics that are driving the process.

  1. The resolves are about fixing yourself. Therefore, they are problem or conflict based, and not true desired outcomes. The underlying assumption is that you’ve been bad, and now you better get your act together, straighten out and fly right. The motivation is to get rid of something you don’t want, which is not sustainable over time.
  2. Too often, the resolves are about process and outcomes.
  3. The resolves are not based on the creative process, which is history’s most successful process for accomplishment, but rather a reaction to bad habits and sloppy behavior.
  4. There is little understanding of why you had bad habits or sloppy behavior in the first place. If the structure remains the same, even with all your good intentions, you will revert to the original behavior because that is the path of least resistance. You can’t fool Mother Structure.

These are just a few things. There are more. But, there is something good when you reflect on your life, see how you would like it to change, and generate a strategy to accomplish the change. Your instinct is good and proper. Your approach may be flawed.

Here are a few suggestions to actually use the New Year as a focal point for a better life:

  1. Think in terms of final desired outcomes.
  2. Know your current reality in relationship to them.
  3. That will form structural tension, the best dynamic for real and lasting change.
  4. From that, create an action plan with due dates.
  5. Don’t have too many “resolutions” because that will lead to overwhelm.
  6. Choose a few that can be created quickly, within the first few weeks so you can generate some momentum.
  7. Manage the process directly.
  8. Learn, adjust, learn, adjust, learn as you engage in the process.
  9. Don’t take it personally, this is not about you but about the end results you are creating.
  10. Build foundation. The more you create, the more you are able to create.

Best wishes for this New Year!

Robert and Rosalind