What we can learn from music

Back in 2007, the writer/neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote a book describing a disease he terms musicophillia. It is when the brain cannot process music. Most people do not suffer from musicophillia. In fact, music is one of the most universally loved art forms throughout the world.

What is it about music to which human beings so relate and respond? Is it about sound, rhythm, form, melody, texture, sonic relationships, the combinations of all of those things, or perhaps something else?

To Sacks, it was a matter of how the brain functions. In a PBS special, they hooked him up to a MRI brain scan and played him a piece by Bach and one by Beethoven. As it happened, Sacks liked Bach better than Beethoven, and his explanation was that his brain activity during the Bach was more stimulated than it was during the Beethoven. He suggested a few questionable conclusions from this. One was that somehow Bach was a better composer than Beethoven, and his brain waves were simply proving his point.

To think that one can claim that Bach was a greater composer than Beethoven, or the reverse of that seems the height of folly, and Sacks was too smart a guy to put his name on that declaration. But, after all his qualifiers, that’s exactly what he thought.

Taste is a personal matter. Some of us like sweet flavors, some of us prefer sour. Some of us like the combo of sweet and sour together, and some of us don’t. There is no right or wrong when it comes to taste. But, and here is the more interesting question, are those neurologists working on brain research today really understanding what came first, the preference or the brain activity?

In Sacks’ case of liking Bach over Beethoven, I would guess, and it’s only a guess, that his taste in music came first, his brain waves followed suit. Because he preferred Bach, his brain sort of said, “Mmm, Bach! How nice!” And then, his brain lit up like a young girl at a Justin Bieber concert. For me, while I love the Bach, the piece he was listening to by Beethoven was more interesting, more expressively powerful, and, if I had to chose between to two masterpieces, it would be the Beethoven hands down. I’m sure my brain would become more active with the Beethoven than the Bach, the opposite of Dr. Sacks.

I think that the late Oliver Sacks’ research over the years was brilliant. And he had a masterful ability to write about his findings. I’m a fan. But, music, that’s a realm that many neurologists have tried to explain without much success. The book This Is Your Brain On Music by McGill University neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin, while popular, was a very silly book. His understanding of music is limited to that of an uneducated fan, and he had little knowledge of how music works structurally, something that all composers learn in music school their first year. McGill has a world class music school, and I’m sure he could have gotten a little help from his friends there, or maybe, better yet, taken a few classes in harmony, counterpoint, and form and analysis. If he had, he wouldn’t have ended up saying some of the childish things he said. Again, like Sacks, he tried to link his personal tastes to brain activity and neuroscience, and that weakness discredited his claims and demonstrated his lack of understanding.

Musical tastes develop over time. The 1913 premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring caused near-riots in the audience. Now it seems tame and mainstream. This tends to be the way new trends in music develop. Beethoven’s Third Symphony was a breakthrough that took getting used to by the audience of that day. Elvis’s first appearances were met with controversy and a storm of protest. The history of music shows that taste in music is often acquired. But, if, as some neuroscientists claim, that somehow the brain will gravitate toward structures that are predetermined by the neurological disposition, how can they explain the ongoing invention of new styles of music, and the fact that the pattern of audience response is often rejection followed by appreciation. Think of the development of reggae, techno rock, rap, minimalism, atonality and electronic music now heard in most Hollywood suspense films?

In 1863, German physicist Hermann Von Helmholtz published his groundbreaking book On The Sensations of Tone in which he explains how the overtone series creates its own built-in tension-resolution systems, the underlying structure of tonal harmony. From what we’ve seen from neuroscience, it is hard to imagine those who work in that field know much about Helmholtz’s work. If they did, they would begin to study why the overtone series generates the harmonic structures it does, and why throughout the 20th Century, music has moved from lower to higher aspects of the series, in other words, became more complex and dissonant. The inventions of Debussy and Ravel, followed by the discoveries of Schoenberg, Boulez, and Stockhausen created new systems of harmony and counterpoint. These new methods were directly consistent with Helmholtz’s descriptions of the physics of music.

The brain learns. The brain changes with new experiences over time. That observation leads to this question: is it the brain that dictates what you want, or does what you want dictate to the brain, instructing it to develop whatever connections it needs to accommodate your wishes?

There is a lot of interesting research going on in neuroscience right now. There are a lot of claims being made, often by people who sell programs that assert validity through neuroscience. I have yet to see anything compelling that explains how structure works within people’s lives. Music, one of the most structural of art forms, has yet to be explained by the wonders of neuroscience. Your brain may be waiting for your direction, and after a while, will do what it needs to do to comply to your wishes as much as it can. Perhaps this is art over science.

The Passing of Fidel

Before Fidel there was Fulgencio Batista, a corrupt dictator who used his military to control the country. He had overthrown Gerado Machado, another dictator. I was a kid when Castro took over Cuba. At first, most Americans were for him. They thought he was a democrat fighting for freedom and justice and they hated Batista who was close to the American Mafia. Soon, though, the truth became known. Even before he announced he was a Marxist-Leninist, he was killing his enemies in grotesque public firing squads. Then things got worse.

There is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions here, for Fidel had special qualities that could have served something positive and creative. Seems that in our world, you can only have one of two opinions of him: he was a despot; he was a revolutionary hero. The facts support the first opinion more than the second. I had known his chief architect who had built many of the modern public buildings in the early 60’s before escaping to America for his life. Fidel liked to kill people, put them in prison and lose the keys, control the press, intimidate the population, give the longest winded speeches in history, and he almost guided the world into a nuclear war. He tried to export his type of revolution to the third world, mostly in Africa.

Yet he created a fairly good medical system, produced the highest literacy rate in the world, and created other social benefits. Of course, the Cuba’s with their high literacy rate could only read what Fidel approved. I think he had a brilliant mind. But that only made matters worse given he was a total ideologue.

My co-author for our book IDENTITY, Dr. Wayne Andersen, had been on a fact-finding trip to Cuba, and had met with Castro. Dr. A said, “My experience with him confirms he was long winded, prone to talking in the abstract, and although he used physicians as ambassadors of health to different countries, the medical delivery system in Havana was quite dated and not close to our standards. He was brilliant but also twisted! A presence yet a threat to mankind. Suppression is what I felt while I was in Cuba.”

Castro’s worldview was so abstract, theoretical, dogged, and entrenched, with all his intelligence; he was self-defeating in his claim for a better world. This is the problem with true believers. They must make the world in their own image, ignoring reality whenever it contradicted the party line.

In little Havana, the Cuban part of Florida, the news was greeted with celebrations on the streets, Champaign bottles popping, and wild dancing, hugging, and breathing a sigh of relief. In the real Havana, things are quite different. Some people are saying it feels like they’ve lost their father.

Here was a man who could have been great. Was it his megalomania that turned him into a ruthless despot who trampled rights and freedoms? Reminds me of what Robert Frost taught us in his poem: A Semi-Revolution…

A Semi-Revolution
Robert Frost
I advocate a semi-revolution
The trouble with a total revolution
(Ask any reputable Rosicrucian)
Is that it brings the same class up on top.
Executives of skillful execution
Will therefore plan to go half-way and stop.
Yes, revolutions are the only salves,
But they’re one thing that should be done by halves

Dylan and the Prize

dylanWhen journalists write about music or pop culture, they are generally so unbelievably shallow it is more than annoying. And nothing proved that more than the announcement this week that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. They have no idea why he has won. They talk about things that don’t matter, missing everything that does matter.

Even some “serious” writers were critical. Once, reading something by a mystery writer talking shop, he said: “about ‘serious writers,’ “do they think the rest of us are just kidding?” Personally, I am both thrilled that he won, and thrilled for the recognition of the Nobel committee that literature has more avenues of expression than prose and poetry. And while many will see the prize to Dylan as if he is a poet, he works in a different medium, the song form.

Of course, winning the prize in literature is about words. But in the song form, the words are married to music. There is a vastly different way words work with music than alone. That is why it is hard to set the best poetry to music. A great poem defies the limitation of music because it takes something that can be understood a hundred ways and confines it into one single modality. It is what Stravinsky said about music, that music is too specific, that it is exactly what it is, and, because of that it is hard to write about. He said that writing about music was like dancing about architecture. Take a great poem and put music to it is like being able to see 3 dimensional sculpture from only one angle.

So, here is the song form, its own art form that is also a form of literature. And why is Dylan so great that he deserves the highest prize in the world for it? Because, through this form, through his words and music, he was able to reach something truly original.

Now, detractors will point to how Woody Guthrie influenced him. And that is true. But Dylan did something beyond Guthrie, which doesn’t take anything away from Guthrie. Everyone is influenced by those who come before. Sometimes the influence is to further develop what they had done the way that Beethoven further developed the classic style of Mozart. Sometimes it is to go in the opposite direction of what has preceded the trends the way Pop Art went in the opposite direction of Abstract Expressionism.

Dylan’s originality is not only in the way he moved the song from a strict form to something that could go anywhere, but how he captured irony and truth in such few words. Before Dylan, most Rock songs were about going out with your boy/girl friend, or the latest dance craze, or breaking up.

Dylan’s ability to see through pretense was disarming and raw. It had something the arts always strive for: emotional truth. It seemed as if he was creating little dramas, poetic moments, seeing everything there was to see, without filters, without an editorial position. This is something the greatest art can do better than any philosophy there ever was. And when the journalists tried to make him a political leader, or the leader of a generation, he said, “I like to think of myself as a song and dance man.”

Of course, he was the most influential songwriter in his generation. Artists from the Beatles to Joni Mitchell to Paul Simon to… well all of them… took their lessons at Dylan’s feet. For many of them, he opened up a new world they didn’t know was available to them. For them, the world moved from black and white to color.

For me, I often find the type of truth in rock songs more authentic and real than in any other form of expression. And Dylan was everyone’s father of that.

His body of work is too enormous to say anything useful about in this little blog. But it is there to listen to forever. Bravo, Bob! Bravo!


rejuvenationRejuvenation is the reversal of aging and thus requires a different strategy, namely repair of the damage that is associated with aging or replacement of damaged tissue with new tissue. Rejuvenation can be a means of life extension, but most life extension strategies do not involve rejuvenation.

Now the traditional meaning of the word is the reversal of aging.
As far as it goes, I have experienced a series of, what could be called, rejuvenating cycles. They have to do directly with the creative process. And, they have to do with learning new things. Creating and learning are inextricably tied. If you are creating you must learn. It comes with the territory. I know young people who, to me, seem like old fogies. They are already, even in their 20s, set in their ways. They are bored out of their minds. And the reason is, they are boring. What I mean by that is they have ground down to an attitude in which they know it all, have nothing to learn, are not interested in opening new possibilities, and are not in the business of creating anything, especially their own lives. I feel sorry for these kids.

Maybe later in life they will become young again. And that is the principle of rejuvenation, becoming young in spirit. What does that mean, young in spirit? First let’s say what it is NOT. It is not having a mid-life crisis, buying a sports car, and trying to act like a teenager. It is not entering a childlike dotage, either. Rather it is rediscovering that youthful spark you had in the best parts of your life.

It is opening a level of involvement with life that is fresh, new, interesting, dynamic, where something new can be born, something so new, that, maybe you’ve never thought about before.

It is overcoming the predictable, routine, day-in, day-out grind. But how is that actually done? That is the central question.

Let’s focus on cause rather than effect. The effect is rejuvenation, but the cause, what you can do to create that effect, is by delving deeply into your own creative process. This is about orientation and activity. Creating is generative. The more you create, the more energy you have to create.

And there are a few more things that those who know my work will find familiar. One is to eliminate concepts from your life-building process. Exactly what I mean by that are the various worldviews, personal ideals, social ideals, notions about how the world works. As I have said many times, get out of the belief business and into the creating business.

What is the opposite of rejuvenation? I suppose degeneration, or maybe decline. It certainly is going in the wrong direction. Well, your concepts are the ticket to that destination. The more you fill your life with your beliefs, worldviews, philosophic constructs, theories, speculations, and dogma, the less you will be able to engage with life. Here’s why…

If you think you have the answers, you don’t look at reality to see what’s there. Your concepts hypnotize you. This is what every art student has to learn: how to see reality without the filter of their concepts. Don’t look for answer’s to life, instead, look at life itself. Observe, look, without assuming you will know what you will find. If you do this, suddenly you begin to see some things that you had never seen before. Suddenly, life because more interesting. Suddenly you have new ideas, new interests, new aspirations.

And this is the key to rejuvenation. Originality. This doesn’t mean simply coming up with crazy ideas no one has ever thought of before. In this sense, originality means you are in touch with the origins of a new idea, the source of it. And that source is your own imagination, your own observations, and your dynamic urge to create something new.

Don’t use the creative process as yet another process to react or respond to circumstances. Use it to create. And when you do, and when it becomes your orientation, your way of life, that youthful spirit will emerge as a by-product.

And there is the old pursuit of The fountain of Youth. Many have gone on a quest to find it. They thought something outside of themselves would bestow that on them. Ponce de Leon, for example, was in search of the actual physical fountain of youth when he discovered Florida. He never did find the fountain of youth because it doesn’t exist. And while, it this day and age, explorers are not seeking the actual physical fountain of youth, many still have the same form of exploration. What is that thing I can find that will do it for me? For some, they think it is the right doctrine, or others, it is the right meditative technique, or some it is the right amount of money, for some it is the right relationship, for some it is the right spiritual, economic, or political beliefs. Something outside them can be found, and adopted.

The creative process is no such a thing. It is not something that happens to you, it is something in which you engage. It is not what it does for you, it is what you are doing to bring into existence those things that matter to you.

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.”