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

Pope Francis’s Deeper Insight

Pope Francis in KenyaIn Kenya last week, Pope Francis asked a stadium of young people to stand up and hold hands. A simple gesture. But the deeper message was about the destructive force of tribalism and the generative force of alignment with all of humanity. Historically, Kenya has had trouble with tribalism as recently as less than 10 years ago. But tribalism is not limited to the developing world. It is a world predicament.

One of the biggest issues in our modern times is not terrorism as such, but the roots of it: tribalism. That word has a certain primitive connotation. We think of the jungle, and people with spears running around trying to protect their area in some tropical rain forest 10,000 years ago.

But, in many ways and in spite of modern civilization, tribalism, called by other names, still plagues us. Some of the other names are nationalism, chauvinism, xenophobia, and intolerance.

Not all nationalism is tribalism. There is a pride one can take in the unique cultural virtues of a country. French cuisine, American rock and jazz, German engineering, Japanese design, and so on. We can share in these wonders, even if we are not members of the country. In fact, the whole world benefits from the cultural richness of many countries’ unique gifts. But the ugly side of nationalism comes in the form of denouncing other groups who are not members of the nation (tribe.) A “we against them” mentality. The notion of one group’s superiority and another group’s inferiority.

Issues of group identity have been with us since our earliest beginnings. Yet, the dilemma is that they are as powerful a force now as they have ever been. And this may be a flaw of the human psyche. Our basic nature is to collect around a group of similar people. We are social animals. We seek connection with others. On one level, with the globalization of technology, that could be a good thing. People can connect with others who are not in their immediate “tribe.” Differences enrich the larger sense of community, as people get to know each other and find that they have a lot in common. Unusual for a Pope, Pope Francis told his young gathering in Kenya to go on line, meet others through social media, connect with the broader world. He understands this as an antidote to radicalization. If the whole world joins together in friendship it is hard to become radicalized.

Those who become radicalized have one thing in common. Individually, they feel insecure. They, by themselves, think they are nothing, or nothing special. They seek to bolster their identities by group membership. The leaders of cults and radical movements understand this well, and are very clever at offering something these individuals lack and desperately seek: glory, glamour, and praise. It is easy to grab a gun and kill innocent people as they go about their business. It is counter-instinctive and hard to die for such an event.

The glory, the promise of a type of stardom, the rewards in heaven or paradise is compelling, but, by themselves, not enough to overcome the instincts of survival built into the human condition. There has to be another factor to compensate for the powerful dynamic of the survival instinct: that other groups are not only evil, but also threat to the survival of the tribe. It is easy to unite people when they have a common life-threatening enemy.

To accomplish this, the enemy must be seen as an existential threat. It takes ignoring reality to buy the party line because human beings have more in common than differences. Culture, when transposed into identity, robs culture of its richness. Everything becomes symbolic. That means, reality is not seen or understood for what it is, but becomes a symbol for whatever is assigned to it. For some, it may be adopted in the name of religion, or politics, or ethnic origins. It will always be about identity and tribalism.

In the West we often hear that we need to have a better message to counter the ones that Isis and al Qaeda have through their mastery of their propaganda machines. Given the nature of the messages, there is no counter message that can compete. You can’t fight one appeal to group identity with a different appeal to group identity. The basic premise of identity itself needs to be revealed as the charade it is.

Freedom of the individual within the context of a healthy and productive community is a more sophisticated social structure. It is more complex to manage. It requires more than a tolerance of differences. It demands an appreciation of differences. It calls for the deep human desire to join together with others to build something we cannot do on our own. Such a structure brings out the best in everyone, not as some utopian ideal, but as a highly workable social order, which itself is an invention of humanity and well beyond a tribal mindset. And Pope Francis understands this well as he asks people of all nations, beliefs, ethnic groups, and cultures to join hands as an act of our common humanity.

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.