Perseverance — Thx Meg Wheatley

One of the books I’m reading these days is Margaret Wheatley’s Perseverance. I’m reading one or two pages each day. It’s something about these times, these CoVid times, that has me reaching deeper to the internal with rigorous truth-telling. I’ve found myself oscillating — at times, wanting to numb to what is current. At times, wanting to wake fully to what is systems-crash reality.

Meg’s book Perseverance was published in 2010. She’s been speaking an important story for many years about the kind of change we humans will eventually face. It includes these key points and practices.

  • A systems level crash is upon us. Overdue in some way. Stunning. Impactful.  Once one system comes down, the interconnected other systems also come down. It’s negative emergence.
  • In such crash, as practice, it is important to commit to externalizing. “There is fear. There is despair. There is terror.” These statements are deliberate to nuance ourselves into what is universal, not just personal.
  • In such crash, the honest internal matters. It is deep inner work that will pull us through. Do the work on self first. Do it with community, but still with explicit attention to what is internal. What we feel on the internal will always influence what we experience on the external.

Meg has been training into a vow for many years, that I’m finding lends courage.

“I cannot change the way the world is. 
But by opening to the world as it is 
I may discover that gentleness, decency, and bravery are available,
not only to me but to all human beings.”

So here we are folks. The times call for us to be good to ourselves, to be good to each other, those on our left and those on our right. The times require an awakening that is so much more than waiting for the “old normal” to return.

The times call for what has always been called for, but perhaps more poignantly in this pandemic — our perseverance to wake and face the day as it is.


From Teacher / Classroom to Community / Engaged

Education is as old as humanity. Since the beginning of time, I believe we have been trying to teach each other. We’ve been trying to learn together to understand our surroundings, to be safe, to try cool things, and to encounter the inescapable qualities of mystery.

Somewhere in one of the authoritarian eras, our initial and naturally curious dispositions were channeled into learning much more mechanically and much less holistically. Learning shifted into transactional exchange, with unusual attention to the parts rather than the whole.

Phew! I realize I’m pulling out a rather big and spotty narrative here — stay with me.

The industrial era, for example, radically changed the nature of craftsmanship. Capitalism brought speed and efficiency. So did the arrival of the factory. It also collapsed a pile of artisanry. What once was responsibility to make the whole shoe became scores of people that only mass produced the heels, or the tongues, or the eyeholes for laces.

Authoritarian eras highlight power and transaction. One person knows something and must teach to others, who are generally expected to absorb the expertise and then replicate it. You can feel the partial truth in this, right? Of course it is important to learn. Of course it is important to learn from people who know how to do things.

However, I’m a bit disappointed with the limits of the expert model and what that does to communities trying to engage — these days. I feel myself and many others trying to rework, and reclaim alternative stories that bring greater vitality among all of us learning, and the temporary spots we hold of teaching.

Let me pull this down a bit to more specific contemporary example. A couple of weeks ago I was participating in an online class. The format is one hour long. There is good material that the teacher shares. This is a small class — there are 8-10 of us. After going through the material, the teacher asks, “Do you have any questions?” It seems like a good question. It seems kind. There are times when this is just the right question. However, in that moment, and I believe most moments like this, that question intended to invite added learning actually shuts learning down. People clam up. There’s quite a silence. And as often seems to be in those circumstances, it’s only an obligatory kind question that someone asks just to remove the silence, but has very little meaning.

To be fair, I’ve asked that kind of question before. Sometimes with success. Sometimes with similar weird silence. These days, I grumble a lot inside. What takes this from teacher / class to a community / engaged is rather simple. One, invite all to speak to a slightly different, yet significantly altered question — “Is there a learning or question that this stirs up in you?” Notice that this question presupposes a bit more room for the unresolvedness that lives in questions. It’s not a report. It’s not a test. It’s an invitation to deposit your transparency to the good of the group. The other simple thing, two, particularly if the group is too large or the time is too short, is to make smaller groups. Again, have each person in the smaller groups respond to the modified question — “Is there a  learning or question that this stirs up in you?”

What comes from this shift in question is, one, much more participation. And, now back to the bigger sweeping story, creating more participation and engagement is the reclaimed modality here. Less “I’m the jug; you are the mug.” Way too old of a disposition. More “There is wisdom in the group that will only come about through some designated and deliberate interaction.”

This post feels like a bit of a rant. It is, I suppose. I feel a bit whiny in writing it. Yet, I also feel a bit aware that interrupting patterns, including the primary assumptions about interaction, is some of the most paramount work of our times. The renewed story these days — I’m glad for those in it — is to help animate more aliveness in everyone connected to the issue, or the problem, or the opportunity, or the wondering.

Let’s wrap this one up for today. I’ll offer a premise that rests behind most of the work I do that has direct implication on nuancing questions and working in any group settings. This is the most simple I can find for me. It’s the most honest I can find. And, well, thankfully, it’s quite fruitful (again when indicator of fruitfulness is about witnessing people and groups come alive). Ready?

There is always more unseen than seen.
There is always more unknown that known. 

This alone changes how we are together.

Now let me quote again Margaret Wheatley, friend and colleague from these many years. On the back cover of her book,  Turning to One Another she offers this:

There is no greater power than a community discovering what it cares about.

Ask “What’s possible?” not “What’s wrong?”  Keep asking.
Notice what you care about.
Assume that many others share your dreams.

Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.
Talk to people you know.
Talk to people you don’t know.
Talk to people you never talk to.

Be intrigued by the differences you hear.
Expect to be surprised.
Treasure curiosity more than certainty.

Invite in everybody who cares to work on what’s possible.
Acknowledge that everyone is an expert in something.
Know that creative solutions come from new connections.

Remember, you don’t fear people who’s story you know.
Real listening always brings people closer together.
Trust that meaningful conversations change your world.

Rely on human goodness. Stay together.

I believe we are living in an era that seeks so necessarily to reclaim aliveness with one another. The tools to get to that are not particularly complicated. But they are a practice, and ongoing practice. They point us to encountering one another, and trust that there is some of the mystery that we will find together, and in the moment, that will carry us to another part of the mystery. It’s rather simple, but oddly, changes the whole picture, just like a slight adjustment does in viewing a kaleidoscope. The shift in the questions we ask, and the assumptions behind it, I think move us, thankfully from old strictarian teaching to animated community, which I’m guessing, is where education has been wanting to return to for a long time.


Emergence — It Takes A Commitment

I’m enjoying writing this week, inspired in part by my friend and colleague (frolleague) Kinde Nebeker. We’ve been thinking together about emergence. Putting words to it. Getting to the heart of it. Growing our understanding. Understanding and working with emergence is a key part of the series we are offering again this fall in Salt Lake City, The Inner and Outer of Evolutionary Leadership.

Here’s a teaser from the three-page thought paper I wrote. The full piece is here.

In the 1990s I was part of several leadership conferences offered in the beautiful Wasatch Mountains at Sundance Utah, where there are a lot of Aspens. Sundance is the resort that Robert Redford built and was original host to the Sundance Film Festival. Those conferences were on “Self-Organizing Systems,” lead by my friends (and bosses at the time) Margaret Wheatley and Myron Rogers. They were three-day gatherings with up to sixty people who wanted to learn of this self-organizing paradigm. Some were consultants. Some were internal leadership. Some were community leaders. Some were C-level in corporations. It was a beautiful place to learn, and that brought out the beauty of those people together.

One of the guest presenters at those conferences was Fritjof Capra, the Austrian Physicist, renowned for his writings (including The Tao of Physics, The Turning Point) and his work at Berkeley’s Center for Ecoliteracy. Fritjof, like Meg and Myron, like many of us that have continued this work, was studying the qualities of living systems, including emergence, and applying those learnings and principles to human systems — teams, organizations, communities. 

I remember Fritjof describing an example of sugar in one of his teachings — though he seemed to be thinking it out loud and coming up with the example in the moment. “Sugar is a mix of three elements: carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, none of which are sweet.” He continued, “the sweetness,” he paused to peer out into that beautiful forested Sundance setting, “is in, the relationship. It is not in the parts.” In making that statement, his peering outside came back to those of us inside. He’d made a discovery, which got a good chuckle from all of us — in the way that in-the-moment simplicity does.