Again in Paris

Below is a blog I wrote about the previous terror attacks in Paris. It is sad that these words are more relevant than ever, and, again, our hearts go out to the people of France, of Europe, of the world.

Terror’s Grand Strategy

Paris AgainSo, yesterday, there was another example of the tactics extremist use to break hearts, limit free thought, and, because it is terrorism, terrify us. The world becomes focused on the horrible event, as it should. More and more of these destructive acts are developing throughout the world. Has the world gone crazy?

There is a grand strategy behind this. It was developed by Osama bin Laden and is one of the al-Qaeda’s founding tenets. It is to polarize, to generate a reaction of the West to abhor the East, to hope that the West will overreact and reject innocent Muslims unfairly, who, will then in turn, react against the West and join the extremists.

Unfortunately, too often the strategy is working. There is more and more Islamophobia in the West. In Europe, the radical anti-Muslim right wing is gaining political strength.

The grand strategy is designed to lead to prejudice, hate, polarization, separation, suspicion, mistrust, skepticism, and cynicism. It is designed to generate unfair criticism. Those who fall into this orientation are supporting bin Laden’s grand strategy. The French Muslim Council said, “This extremely grave barbaric action is also an attack against democracy and the freedom of the press.” This group represents France’s Muslim community, which is Europe’s biggest and estimated to be between 3.5 and 5 million people.

In light of such a horrible terror attack in Paris, we want to do something because we feel such a sense of lost, pain, and powerlessness. What can we do? There is one thing, actively reject the grand strategy. Reject prejudice. Support truth. Avoid the propaganda on either side to villainize the other side. Non-Muslims, avoid those who want to paint 1.6 billion people with the same brush. Muslims, avoid those who want to paint 5.23 billion people with the same brush. One thing we have in common is that we are human beings.

Our hearts and prayers are in France today, as is all the world.

The Illusion of Perfection

PearlRichard Bach stated a typical New Age notion this way, “There is such a thing as perfection… and our purpose for living is to find that perfection and show it forth…”

Is that really our purpose for living? Many people have adopted this concept without question. But there are built-in assumptions here that need to be questioned. For one, we have a job in life and that job is to be better than we are. It reminds me of what Lucy said to Charlie Brown when he told her that we are here to help others. “What are the others here for?” She asked.

People come by the goal of perfection honestly. It has been with us well before the ancient Greeks first invented the Western notion of perfection that they saw as one of life’s highest aspirations. Plato wrote that to reach perfection, one had to transcend the imperfection of reality and strive for a perfect state in which such things as beauty, justice, or goodness are in an ideal or complete condition. Plato thought that philosophers’ had the job of contemplating the nature of the “good,” and by doing so, perfected themselves.

Predating the ancient Greeks, Eastern religions such as Hinduism saw perfection as its primary spiritual goal. In their tradition and teachings, perfection means to make the “soul the real master of oneself,” to be above the senses, passions, and worldly concerns. By overcoming ignorance and ego, one can reach “enlightenment,” which is seen as a perfect state of being, knowledge, and understanding.

Aristotle thought of perfection as potential being fully realized and expressed. Later, St. Thomas Aquinas, who was deeply influenced by Aristotle, concluded that perfection should be one of Christianity’s highest goals. To both Aristotle and Aquinas, their concept was this: that we contain certain potentials that have the possibilities of being developed in the future. They believed that the purpose of potential was to seek fulfillment. The stronger the potential, the more intensity its fulfillment. Therefore, potential was a dynamic force that had its own unique purpose, that of reaching the full expression and realization of what was possible.

Let’s take a moment to explore the underlying assumption of this concept. Your gifts, such as talents and natural abilities, are your potential. Potential, according to Aristotle, has a built in dynamic, that of striving to be fulfilled. If you have certain gifts such as talent or great intelligence or mechanical ability or mathematical aptitude, are you obliged to fulfill these attributes? Does the very existence of aptitudes form your life-direction, mandate a life-purpose that is ordained, in which there is no free choice?

It is important not to confuse perfection with excellence. That which is perfect is without flaws, excellence simply means “the state or quality of excelling or being exceptionally good; an action, characteristic, feature in which a person excels.” The irony is that one can be perfect and not be excellent, and one can be excellent at something, and not be perfect. These two conditions are vastly different and independent from each other. Excellence usually includes a high degree of imperfection that is an aspect of reaching excellence.

If you have the talent to become a barber, do you have to spend your life cutting hair? If you are good at math, do you need to become a mathematician, or scientist, or engineer? If you excel at playing the piano, do you need to become a professional musician? To what degree do you have to forge a life based on your natural talents? To what degree must your talents govern your destiny?

Schools give their students aptitude tests designed to measure their abilities. Then, guidance counselors sit down with these students, and give them advice. Their advice usually suggests pursuing a career based on their aptitude. If the student is good at math, become an engineer; if you are organized, become a manager; if you are artistically talented, become a graphic artist; if you are good at communication, become a journalist. For many, by following their guidance counselor’s advice, they find themselves in careers they never cared about, and, once they get to middle-age, they are ready for their midlife crisis. They know there must be more to life than they have experienced, but they are unable to reach something better through the compromises upon which they have built their lives. This is because they have based their lives on their attitudes and not on their true desires. They thought they were obligated to develop their talents and abilities independently from their own aspirations. For many, their life-direction was determined by some talent they had when they were 14 years old. This is the dark side of Aristotle’s notion of potential seeking perfect fulfillment.

Of course, the deeper basic premise is that people cannot learn and develop unless they already have gifts built into the circuitry. According to this mentality, you should base your life on your aptitude rather than your true desires. Therefore, your actual questions of true desires go unanswered. These true desires don’t go away simply because they are unaddressed. They go underground, waiting for a full-fledged midlife crisis to set them free.

Here is a basic, yet profound, question: if you have talent and abilities, are you obligated to develop them? Or, are you free to live your life the way you see fit, pursuing your own aspirations, independent of your talents and abilities? Many people think their job in life is to develop their gifts. Often, this notion is seen as their life purpose. Furthermore, they see their purpose as connected with their sense of themselves, their identity. They think that once identity is tied with purpose, how well they develop their gifts defines them. But this is a no-win situation. There can be no final success since there is no way to reach the ideal of perfection, no matter what your gifts are. An unwinnable game like this leads to obsession. This, in turn, leads to constant frustration and dissatisfaction with oneself, with life, with the world in general. Nothing is ever good enough and each success is tainted with the innate demand to do better and be better than is humanly possible.

Does the person who has fewer gifts have less responsibility and obligation in life? Are they freer than someone who has great talent and abilities? If that were so, then many people would wish for fewer gifts because your talents and abilities control their fate. The underlying assumption for a majority of people is that they must use and develop their gifts. That is why you’ve been given them in the first place. So if you have talent for drawing and math, and your brother has talent for athletics, you should become an architect, and he should be a football coach, no matter what you might want personally. Your wishes don’t count. At least not if you assume that you must honor your own potential by pursing a life built around them.

Must all potential seek its perfect realization?

Do you have to use your gifts?

If your Aunt Sally gave you a horrendous pair of pajamas for Christmas, do you have to wear them?

If you have a gift for playing the harmonica, do you have to play the harmonica?

The Art of Christine Triebert

Here is a new Art Doc on the great photographer Christine Triebert. I really love doing these types of films which feature true artists talking shop and showing their unique approach to the creative process….

Thinking in Structures

Our Flagship course The Fundamentals of Structural Thinking (FST) will be offered only twice this year, once in America and once in Europe. The dates are May 14th-17th in Vermont, and November 11th-14th in Vienna. The one in Vienna is a co-production of our European friends and colleagues at Heitger Consulting. This is a course especially designed for consultants, coaches, managers, and those in the helping professions. Below is a 30 minutes video with excerpts from last years Vienna FST. This serves as a good introduction to some of the unique principles of structural dynamics. And also, below that, is a write up about thinking structurally... Robert.

One of the most useful skills is the ability to see and understand the structures we are in.
The reason is that the underlying structure of anything will determine its behavior. This insight is not obvious to most people because they think in terms of situations and circumstances. They assume that events are caused by previous events, and their path to the future is by anticipating the events that may come next, and having a ready-made response to them.

In my book, The Path of Least Resistance, I describe two vastly different types of orientations: reactive-responsive; and creative-generative. In one orientation you either react or respond to the prevailing circumstances. In the other, you organize your life around your choices, often about your highest aspirations and deepest values. These orientations are not simply a matter of adopting a new attitude or trying on different beliefs. It is a matter of structure. In fact, people often want to make positive changes in their lives, but if the underlying structure is unchanged, all that will happen is an oscillating pattern in which for there is change, but then there is a reversal that brings the person back to the original condition. This is a structural dynamic, and, like the rest of physics, is nothing personal.

But it can feel awfully personal when it’s your life. One step forward followed by one step back can give the impression that you are powerless to change anything of significance.
This very same principle is true for organizations. There are two patterns. One is oscillation and the other, advancement. We have seen organizations build up capacity and then downsize, and then build up capacity again, and then downsize again. They have centralized decision-making, and then decentralized decision-making, and then centralized again. They have oscillated from the focus being on shareholder return of investment to customer satisfaction, back to shareholder return of investment. These types of patterns are more common than not. And with all the change efforts that have hit the corporate scene over the years, most processes have first had their day, only to be rejected later and replaced by the next flavor of the month.

A change of underlying structure will lead to a change of behavior. Not your good intentions, your sincerity, your hopes, your goodness, or how much you care. When you are in a rocking chair, you will go back and forth. That is the nature of the structure.

This is not a problem to solve, but a matter to understand. How can we understand the structures we are in? For the most part, they are invisible at first. It takes training and practice. It is unlikely that knowing that there might be some structure in place that is causing an oscillating pattern will change the pattern or the structure. Structure is made of a network of relationships among various elements. Often desires are tied to concepts and reality and other forces in place. It takes a type of deep level of observation to come to understand the exact forces in play in any structure. This is not something that can be done by formula or matrix. It can only be done by clarity and knowing what you are seeing. How the elements of any structure impact each other and the whole. How the structural dynamics have tendencies for behavior and how to change the underlying structures so that the patterns of behavior can move from those that oscillate, in which success will eventually be reversed, to those that advance, in which success becomes the building block for further success.

The best training for this on the entry level is our Fundamentals of Structural Thinking, a four- day course which trains participants how to see structures in play, and how to change them in ways that lead to real and lasting change. This is our flagship course. Most of those who attend are consultants, coaches, managers, and others in the help professions. Some come focused on professional and business uses of structural dynamics, other for personal and family uses. These people learn how the underlying structures are THE causal factors in people’s lives, and therefore, they are not fooled by the situations they find themselves in. Rather, they are able to see the deeper level of causality: that the underlying structure of anything will determine its behavior.

To find out more about the FST: email:

The Creative Process is Philosophically Neutral

neutralOne important understanding of the creative process in its long tradition is that it is philosophically neutral, in other words, the process itself has nothing to do with what you believe, or assume, or your deeply held convictions. The proof of this is history. People from various and contradictory belief systems have mastered the creative process.

Those who think it is important what you believe often tried to tie their beliefs to how your life will turn out. If you adopt the “right” beliefs, you will be all right. But if you don’t, look out! You will have hell to pay.
Human beings want to believe in things. That is our nature. And belief is a personal matter. It is no one else’s business if you believe in God, or metaphysics, or have your doubts, or are a confirmed atheist.

Yet, it is common these days to ask politicians what religious beliefs they hold. And they are expected to hold ones that are acceptable to the general public. And God forbid if they don’t! In fact, for some politicians, they do not respect the intellectual discipline of science, but they will happily go on about their religious concepts about life’s true mysteries speaking as if they had a mystical understanding of what can’t be understood.

Our society has fallen into the bad habit of tying belief with things that do not call for belief. Integrity, for example. The fact is one can have integrity independent of any belief system. If we think about it, in fact, integrity must be completely separate from any set of beliefs for it to be true integrity.

Integrity is about values, not beliefs. Values are about the choices you make when they are competing with each other. Truth Vs. Kindness is one pair of factors that are often mutually exclusive. Love Vs. Duty is another, and one that makes for great film plots as in Casablanca. Quality Vs. Quantity might be another, one that we see occur in business. What matters most to you? If it were truth for truth’s sake, belief must be put aside, not considered at all. As in the old TV cop show Dragnet, “Only the facts, Ma’am.”

But, you might think that at least you need to believe in yourself. This is one of those silly ideas that has become a social norm and a truism that is simply not true.

It began with the positive thinking folks, and then infiltrated the rest of society. Then came the self-esteem movement, and the rest is the unfortunate history of the popular notion that you need to believe in yourself and have good, positive thoughts, and love yourself, and have high “intention” to get anywhere in life. Not only is this total nonsense, it is a detrimental notion.

One study that Dr. Wayne Andersen and I found while researching our book Identity comes from Columbia University. They took 400 eighth graders and divided them into two groups. They were all given the same easy puzzle to solve. Every child in one of the two test groups was told this one line, “You must be smart at this.” The kids in the other group did not get any feedback. When the time came for the children to choose the next puzzle, a majority of the children who were not complimented chose a harder puzzle to try. But, a majority of the children who were complimented, even though it was only that one sentence, chose an easier puzzle to solve. The study showed how those students who were focused on “how smart they were” were de-motivated to challenge themselves. But the ones who were left to whatever they thought, were ready to engage in more complex challenges. This is only one of many such studies we have seen, now contradicting the claims that it is important to think well of yourself.

It is not that each person who creates has no personal belief or even philosophic viewpoints. It is that it doesn’t matter at all.

So, while those in the “belief business” try to sell you their various beliefs as if it were the ticket to success and happiness, know that in the “Creating business” it doesn’t matter what you believe. Creating is as philosophically neutral as is swimming, driving, walking, cooking, painting, commerce, and science.

The Discipline of Discipline

disciplineSomeone once said about a very talented person, “He has many talents but one: the talent of using his talents.” There is much insight in this remark. It is not the talent, abilities, skills, intelligence, nor experience you have that matters. It is the ability to put it all together. And that takes discipline.

We can see that there are many talented and successful people in the world. Some of them build and build. Some of them self-destruct over time. And it is so sad when that happens. Of course, we are prone to think, “How could they have been saved?”

Maybe a better question is, “What was missing?” Or, “What makes the difference between those to build over time, and those who fall apart?”

All of these people began with a large degree of discipline in their art. No matter how talented you are, there is work to do. But then, after that, there is even more work to do. And that is the history of artists. Unlike celebrity, in the arts you never make it. There is always a next step, a new vision, a new place to go, something new to learn, new challenges to conquer.

What is discipline? Many of us have the wrong impression because the word was used in some schools to mean punishment for bad behavior. But the real thing is the factor in how we are able to go well beyond our current capabilities, talents, skills, and knowledge. Discipline is the central way to put into practice experiential learning we might need to be able to accomplish goals that we care about.

Much of the time, discipline involves doing things we might not like doing. Some people think that discipline is forcing yourself into doing these things. Willpower, manipulation, and intimidate yourself into “good behavior” never works for very long. It is not sustainable. You can’t build an orientation of true disciple that way. Yet, the advice many give us is to do just that.

In our approach to the creative process, we work with a very different principle to create discipline. It is the dynamic relationship between the primary choice, which is the goal you are working toward, and the series of secondary choices, or actions, that are needed if you are to accomplish your goal. This is technical, on the one hand, and orientational, on the other. The technical aspect is the strategic development of the process by which you will create your goal. This means that you will understand the relation between the primary choice and the secondary choices, which give you the most solid reason to take the actions you take: not because you like these actions (often you don’t,) but because this is the path that will enable you to create to result you want.

About orientation, discipline itself has an overall context in which it is always seen and understood as a system of choices. Choice always means you can do it or not. This is an important insight. If you are forcing yourself into action you don’t want to take, that is not out of real choice, but out of the pressure you are putting on yourself. The truth is that you can take this action or not. If it were not for the primary choice, you would not take it at all.

There is only ONE reason you choose to take the action, and that is because there is a higher order choice it supports. In this orientation, you never feel like you are giving up something, or making trade-offs. There is no resentment about what you are doing because the reason you are doing whatever it is in support of your goal is crystal clear. Yet, because you are not putting the typical emotional strain and resentments people often have when doing things they do not like to do, you are free to exercise your system of choices strategically and effectively.

That is the key to discipline, on the project to project level, and the discipline of discipline, on the creator level.

A Little Lesson in Song Structure

Screen Shot 2015-08-30 at 10.57.56 PMA study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology claims that repetition was the key to the success of most hit songs, such as Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk,” and Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.” The study asserts “This finding supports the theory of processing fluency, which suggests that the easier a message is to digest, the more positively people will react to it.”
So that’s it, then. If you want to write a hit song, just repeat something a lot.

What the study misses by a mile is how the structure of songs work. In “Shake it Off” and “Uptown Funk,” as in every other great song, there are built in tension resolution systems both in the actual music, but also in the lyrics. These tensions drive the piece forward, and strive for resolution in the end. As David Mamet said about drama, it creates order out of chaos. At first, we don’t know exactly what is being said or implied, but later we do. The tension is resolved, the question is answered.

In “Shake It Off,” the first lines are:

I stay out too late
Got nothing in my brain
That’s what people say, mmm-mmm
That’s what people say, mmm-mmm

Okay, what Taylor is describing is the criticism the character in the song gets from other people. She is dumb and stays out “too late,” meaning she is having too good a time because she is stupid. Then more criticism:

I go on too many dates
But I can’t make them stay
At least that’s what people say, mmm-mmm
That’s what people say, mmm-mmm

So, she can’t have better relationships, and it is her fault that they leave. Notice it is that SHE “can’t make them stay.” But, the clever and skillful masterstroke here is in this one phase, “At least.” Here is a situation that may not be true, even if people claim it. In those two words, Taylor has completely positioned a contrast between what may be true and others impressions, which may not be true. These types of contrasts create tension-resolution systems that propel the song forward. This is not the function of repetition but of very carefully crafted structure.

Now, to contrast the original situation in which she has reported the criticism, she says (sings:)

But I keep cruising
Can’t stop, won’t stop moving
It’s like I got this music
In my mind
Saying, ‘It’s gonna be alright.’

No matter what they say, she has a certain level of self-knowledge, in which her restless spirit will keep moving, and no matter what is said, things are going to turn out alright, independent of the critics.
Then she states the condition of the world:

Players are going to play,
Haters are going to hate,
[BUT she is going to] shake it off, shake it off.
Heart-breakers are going to break
And Fakers are going to fake
[And she is just going to]  shake it off,

in other words, not let the phonies, the “fakers,” the “haters,” and the heartbreakers get to her. She will be free of them.

See how much the researchers didn’t know? It is as if they were watching the film Casablanca, and claimed that the reason people love the film was that there were a lot of black and white stripes in the film (which there are.) Kind of misses what’s really going on.

“Uptown Funk” is one of the best music videos I’ve seen in years. Bruno Mars is fantastic, as are all of the performers. And yes, there is a lot of repetition. But the repetition is in contrast to what is not repeated.

The song is in distinct sections, which is not a matter of repetition but contrasts of form. The first lines are:

This hit, that ice cold
Michelle Pfeiffer, that white gold, …

The next stanza contrasts cold with hot:

I’m too hot (hot damn)
Called a police and a fireman
I’m too hot (hot damn)
Make a dragon wanna retire man

In fact, the major contrast in the song is between uptown and downtown folk. The song claims that uptown folk are much sexier and hotter. And the entire song is done with wonderful tongue in cheek. The video, itself, besides having magnificent choreography, moves in and out of street scenes, a beauty parlor, a shoe shine stand, and, in the grand finale, a club setting where everyone we’ve seen performs as one of the best show bands you’ve ever seen. Professional creators know how to create structures that build, and lead to final resolution of the tensions they have carefully set up. Movement, not repetition, is what people love about song form.

The fact that this study was taken seriously maybe one of the problems with the discipline of psychology, and it’s overall lack of understanding of structural dynamics. The principle is this: the underlying structure of anything will determine its behavior. Without understanding structure, it is easy to miss what is really going on, and hard to find the causal factors in anything.

One of the world’s best development programs…

Screen Shot 2015-08-30 at 11.07.40 PMTake a look at these websites to see what the power of the creative process can do within the context the developing world. This effort is led by my long-time friend and colleague Mwalimu Musheshe who has brought the creative process to rural development and brought new levels of understanding and dramatic improvement when people place the power in their own hands through such things as structural tension. The URDT (Uganda Rural Development & Training Program) is forging new ground for questions of development, not as aid imported by external forces which tends to make people less self-generating, not as problem solving which is one of the worst ways to address issues of development, but from within communities themselves, so people find the power of their own creative process.

There is a lesson in this for us all! Bravo URDT, The African Food and Peace Foundation (American partners with the URDT,) and Mwalimu Musheshe.