Apology, and Some Early Thinking on Stuff

It’s about time I stop pretending there’s nothing wrong. If you’re a regular reader of How to Save the World you’ve certainly sensed from my writing that something’s amiss — my writing is shorter, disjointed, unfocused, just not all there. My patient colleagues on our AHA! The Discovery & Learning Centre project must be ready to give up on me. I owe considered responses to thoughtful e-mails from 127 readers dating back six weeks, and have not participated in the dialogue in the comments threads of my weblog for eight weeks. Anita, to whom I owe everything, is justifiably angry at me, and worried about my mental health. And many of the daily and weekly chores I’d trained myself to do diligently, and found surprisingly therapeutic, lie neglected and undone. Whatever is the opposite of having one’s shit together, whatever is the opposite of paying attention, that’s me.

I say this not as a prelude to an important announcement, nor as a request for advice, or even as the pretext for offering some excuse. I say this just to let you know I’m aware of it, and I know you’re aware of it, and I’m sorry I have been so irresponsible to you all. This article is about where I’m at and what I’m thinking. This is my written ‘thinking out loud’ way of rocking the vehicle of my life back and forth in the attempt to get it unstuck.

I was always impressed at Neil Young’s ability to capture the essence of our humanness and the reasons for our behaviour in a handful of words, and these days I keep hearing these words of his in my head: “I am a child. I last a while”. I have no stamina. I get interested in things and get wrapped up in them for awhile and then my interest flags and I do something else for awhile. I don’t abandon things (though that’s probably how others see it), I just put them aside, and usually take them up again later with just as much intensity. When I wrote the article about the importance of Doing One or Two Things Really Well (Believe in yourself, Find 1-2 things you’re passionate about, Hone your skills, Stop doing other distracting things, Show others how good you are, Trust your instincts to guide you), I was trying to provoke and teach myself that very valuable advice, but I often do not take my own advice. I’ve stopped beating myself up for this, and accepted that that’s just the way I am. Just because you know just what to do, doesn’t mean you’re going to do it.

I’ve been doing some early thinking about several subjects and projects, and I’m not far enough along to write anything polished about them, but I thought I’d tell you about them anyway. Maybe thinking out loud will get me unstuck. Maybe it will get some of you unstuck.


First, I want to talk about AHA!. I’ve changed direction on this so often that I’ve practically paralyzed my thinking on it, and in the process driven to distraction the online colleagues who have been so helpful in incubating the concept. Here is the essence of the idea:

  • Its objective is to explore and discover approaches to complex issues, from global warming and violence and poverty in the Mideast to the dysfunction and lack of innovation in large organization. We know that complex issues can’t be addressed using the old merely-complicated approaches (like systems thinking, reengineering, cause-and-effect analysis, etc.), and in fact the group that is most enthusiastic about AHA! are disgruntled consultants (mostly my age and older, some retired) who are fed up with using approaches that sell well but just don’t work — three years later you look back at the project you poured so much sweat into and nothing has really changed. AHA! implements Einstein’s advice that we won’t solve problems using the same kind of thinking that gave rise to them. Complexity theory is new and largely untested in this area but there are some fascinating and powerful techniques (open space, tipping points, narrative and storytelling, probe/sense/respond, conversations, appreciative inquiry, empowered autopoiesis, collaboration, mindmapping and concept mapping, passion bounded by responsibility, the gift/generosity/support economy, pattern recognition, improv, the wisdom of crowds and the four practices, all of which I’ve written about in these pages) that seem well-suited to support a complex adaptive system ‘discovery-and-learning based’ methodology.
  • We’ve identified a group of people who we think have the experience, knowledge, motivation and collective skill to develop this methodology, and put together (but not sent) an open space invitation (taking our own medicine) to attract them to come together for either or both of two sessions to co-develop it. A lot depends on who comes to these sessions, and I’m stalled on this point — before we can hope to get the world’s greatest minds working on this, we need to build momentum and recognition, but we need those minds to develop it effectively in the first place, and we need their reputation to attract others. My partners tell me “just start!” and they are of course right, but thanks to my not having my act together we’re still not started. I/we have a lot to learn about invitation.
  • Everything we develop will be open source and creative commons licensed. We may charge for-profit organizations to help them apply the methodology, but only for the purpose of funding sessions to use the methodology to solve the world’s most intractable problems for free. The business model here (how we make money, which we all have to care about to some degree unless we’re independently wealthy) is to earn money around the edges of AHA! — If this works as well as we think it might, those of us who are truly expert in applying it might well get some lucrative offers to talk about it, to teach people how to use it, to develop spin-offs etc. But it will not be proprietary.

I give my colleagues, especially Dave Davison, Rob Paterson, Chris Corrigan and Dave Snowden, 90% of the credit for this idea, which is brilliant, important and truly inspired. But an idea is only an idea, and implementation is everything. So what’s the matter with me that I’m not getting on with it?

Six weeks ago Dave Davison sent me a note with the chart above, taken from this wonderful article called The Inviting Organization by Open Space pioneer Michael Herman. The chart is now pasted on my Getting Things Done list under my daily reminders of what’s important. It seems to me that our answers to the four questions he asks: Why do I work? (passion/purpose), What do I make? (action/responsibility), Where should we go? (culture/story) and How do we get there? (structure/systems) largely define us as individuals and peoples. Herman quotes Angeles Arrien from her book The Four-Fold Way on how to answer those questions: show up, pay attention to what has heart and meaning, speak your truth, and let it go. To some extent AHA! aspires to be the vehicle that will enable us to do so more powerfully and more effectively.

The Importance of Self-Esteem

A while ago Chris Corrigan was kind enough to send me some notes he had taken from a presentation by Lakota leader Martin Brokenleg. The presentation was about reclaiming youth at risk, but its lessons are lessons for all of us. Here are a few of the key ones:

  • The self-esteem that makes us healthy and productive members of society stems from four traits: Belonging (your significance as a member of communities and through relationships with others), Mastery (becoming extremely competent at something, not through competition but by learning from role models), Independence (the personal power that comes from knowing that you can do things for yourself), and Generosity (the virtue of unselfishness and the self-worth that comes from helping others). Whales, ravens, eagles and wolves are the respective totem symbols for these four traits. As we get older, Belonging leads to Attachment, Mastery leads to Achievement, Independence leads to Autonomy, and Generosity leads to Altruism. This is what maturity is about. (Suddenly I feel very immature.)
  • Rather than using punishments, laws and other barriers, we can keep peace in society far more effectively by creating resiliency in people. We can do that by stressing the positive (rewards and appreciation for things people do that are healthy and helpful, rather than deterrence and punishment for destructive acts), by addressing the environment that causes behaviour rather than just the behaviour, by preventing rather than fixing problems, and by promoting and participating in activities that unify us and stress collaboration and cooperation rather than conflict and competition.
  • When you create a society that says children don’t matter, you create a society that says people don’t matter.
  • Education is about creating capacity and expanding choices, not developing skill. It’s about learning responsibility, not behaviour.
  • Restorative justice has a recidivism rate ten times lower than incarceration and punitive justice systems.
  • The need to belong is so strong that if we can’t find healthy, constructive, inclusive places and groups to belong to, we will choose unhealthy, destructive, exclusive ones and pick up their behaviours (gangs, snobs, addicts).
  • The need to learn to do things yourself is behind much ‘terrible twos’ behaviour and teenage rebellion (and perhaps mid-life crisis).
  • The love of learning is natural, and if someone doesn’t want to learn, the problem is in the environment, not the person. Learning needs to provide a sense of accomplishment.
  • Neither authoritarian nor passive parenting approaches work. Only the nurturing approach — parent as coach and cheerleader — works.

This is so utterly different from the way that we are raised today it is startling. We are taught to get self-esteem by winning, by competing, by overcoming obstacles through struggle dammit. How warped is that when we can get it more easily, more positively, more healthily through social, cooperative means? But instead we are taught to get self-esteem by rugged individual effort, and we measure it by our power over others, and by what we possess.

A belief system that finds no tension or conflict between belonging and independence, no incompatibility between attachment and autonomy, is one that is vastly beyond the sophistication of our ‘modern’ civilized belief systems. How much we have unlearned!

Mars and Venus

Lately I have been listening to a lot of music until late into the night, and almost all the music I’ve chosen to listen to is by women composers: Sarah McLachlan, Trespassers William, Michelle Branch, Sheryl Crow, Toby Lightman, Frou Frou, Alanis Morrissette, Jann Arden, Barlow Girl, Hope Sandoval and many others. I am led to understand that these tastes are very unusual for a guy in his fifties. And I confess that when I read the lyrics to many of the songs from these composers they aren’t very, well, substantial. Looking back at my postings on this blog almost all the song lyrics I’ve cited have been by male composers. And my friends Rayne and Aleah have pointed out that almost all the books I’ve recommended are also by male writers.

I’ve concluded that this has a lot to do with the very different ways in which women and men communicate. Since men have hogged most of the power since the dawn of civilization, it wouldn’t surprise me if most languages are skewed in favour of male communication styles, and their preferred subjects. So perhaps that explains why a lot of songs by brilliant women songwriters are kind of spare on words and rich in tones, harmonies and expression. Most of the emotion in music (and in conversation) is conveyed by those qualities anyway, not by the words. And I confess that when I study the lyrics of women composers I have to admit (a) they don’t seem to be about what I thought the music was about, and (b) I really don’t understand what they’re singing about. But it doesn’t matter — I love the music, I find it transporting, I connect with it in ways that I rarely connect with the music of male composers (exceptions: music by African and Latin American male musicians, male instrumentalists and a few guys like James Taylor and Neil Young). When Sarah sings “Elsewhere” or Michelle sings “One of These Days” or Sheryl sings “Light in Your Eyes” or Trespassers sing “In a Song” I am carried away, my eyes fill with tears, and somehow I understand.

Of course I do not. What is really scary is that this “illusion that communication has really occurred” (as Shaw put it) may actually be far more pervasive than just our (mis-)reading of music. It may be that almost none of what we think we are communicating, beyond the simplest and most unambiguous information, is actually understood by anyone else. In fact the tone and the body language and all the chemical messages flying between our bodies when we converse, and all the repetition that to a third party must seem almost comical, may all be necessary to stand even a 1% chance that 1% of the intended meaning of what we were trying to communicate was actually conveyed. And in communications between males and females that percentage is perhaps even lower. How else can we explain how it is the people we love, people with whom we share so many hours and experiences and even bodily fluids, can have such atrocious and inexplicable taste in music?

There’s a commercial out now for (I think) Right Guard men’s body spray (whatever the hell that is) that depicts a woman talking rapturously with another woman about how much she loves the clown practicing his horrific guitar-playing (or in another commercial, he’s making goofy noises with his buddies watching a sports event) in the next room. This passion is triggered entirely by how his body spray reminds her of her favourite moments with him in the past (shown as balloon flashbacks in the commercial, from a perspective of memory only a women would have). I think it’s a brilliant commercial, even if it’s a little too close to the truth for comfort.

Now I guess I need to figure out what ‘body spray’ is. Deodorant for places that don’t smell? Perfume that goes for quantity over quality?
. . . . .

Well, I guess that brings this strange apology to an end. I will try to be more responsible in future, and I hope you won’t give up on me. My heart’s in the right place, my head is full of very interesting and potent ideas. If only the rest of me could get in step, maybe I could actually get somewhere.

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13 Responses to Apology, and Some Early Thinking on Stuff

  1. Well done, Dave. You’re in my tiny group of Thought Leaders I read and analyze almost every day, so hearing your experiences (I’ve been in that same “state of mind” many times) gives me greater insight to your comments and a deeper perception of how what we see as individual traits are actually human traits. Keep up the good work, because–rest assured–you are doing good work.

  2. step back says:

    Dave, don’t be so hard on yourself. Just because you connected with your limbic inners does not make you a wuss. It makes you more of a person. You are reaching new levels of complexity as Martha Rogers might say.And it matters not what dismay your writings trigger within yourself. They trigger something meaningful in others.Keep spiralling outward. Don’t be frightened by the dizziness.What exactly is AHA? A computer program? You didn’t say.

  3. zach says:

    You forgot “What do I enjoy?” Thats the most important thing. Or don’t you want to be happy and peaceful? I highly recommend you read “The Art of Happiness” by the Dali Lama and Howard Cutler.

  4. gregor@hober.com says:

    Wow this piece is right on time for me. I have been under the influence of the same whatever it is, I think. I had chalked it up to the state of the world, like how everyone agrees the war should stop but nobody goes ahead and stops it. Or like how the global economy is in this suspended limboland between the end of an unsustainable potlatch and a great crash. All of the cool social software I think up is played out before I actualize it, like when I don’t want to go on a long trip after I’ve already lived the trip out while planning it. But I can see also that what has happened is that the development cycle for social software has become longer than the life cycle of the product. By the time you make something, it’s obsolete. That may be the nagging little thing inside you that is keeping you from setting about AHA with total clarity of body, mind and soul. Anyway, your words today were very meaningful to me. Nothing wrong with conceptual art.

  5. I totally love what you are trying to do/achieve.I come from a very religious background, so I can understand the root cause of this feeling of dissatisfaction.From my understanding, your dissatifaction, seems to come from this…. its like you are trying to water the trunk, branches, twigs & leaves of a tree, but completely intentionally or without knowing its importance leaving out the root unwatered.Anything, we try to do without connecting back to the source, will sooner or later lead to dissatisfation.But even if its just a small service that you do after connecting to the source will give us much more satisfaction than anything else ever will.I am sorry if this sounds like a sermon, but find the root of all things and serve it, and you will automatically find true and complete happiness.

  6. jim wilde says:

    Ideascape gives every employee, wherever they are, a shot at an aha moment every day. With that moment connected to a business goal, one the employee understands, you get ass-kicking results. So you get deep smarts fast! Hey, the software is based on open source but configuration and implementation are the keys to successfully solve complex problems.

  7. Patry says:

    I frequently find that I’m much better at dispensing advice than in following my own inner wisdom. A frustrating situation, indeed, but being an optimist, I believe that if we keep trying, we may get there. Or maybe that’s not your purpose–or mine. Maybe helping others to do the things we can’t do ourselves is our personal form of altruism. (?)

  8. Bruce Winter says:

    Mars Venus …”I am led to understand that these ( music) tastes are very unusual for a guy in his fifties” … hmmm Dave how would you access a guy in his 50s who complied all of Enya. Segmented it to his version of ballad and pop. Plays it as background for his exercise routine, Yoga…I suspect there are many descriptors.The rationale for this ‘peculiar’ behavior can be found in cliches of the moment… ‘off the chart’, out ‘of the box’.Consider the possibility, you’ve taken a step ‘past’ the socialization process that created the norms you seek to reverse.You’re out there without a net.I suspect there are lots of ‘guys’ in their 50’s wondering where the energy went and what they are doing about it.

  9. Mike says:

    We are entering a time of accelerating rapid change, and are not used to coping with it. While in years past I read accounts of (such as) accelerating the rate at which human knowledge doubles, now we can access it. FYI emails to friends are obsoleted by shared blogrolls. It becomes possible to say simply, ‘Have you heard?’ about the latest news…I figured some years ago that whatever the future would bring, we would all be shuddering, just a little, but every day. Maybe not as dramatic as seeing machines that bleed or animals that splinter into gears and chips, but something, each day, that makes us shudder just a little. The extent of human capacity for slaughter. The intersection of machinery and flesh ‘cutting’ across war and body mods.Where one used to read of ‘the masses’, there is now ‘the reaction mass’. The singularity payload carries only the tinyest bit of humanity: the superfluous readily expendable, a sacrifice so that a very few might become something like gods. And you had a nice life with your barbeque and church going, what more did you expect?I remember Bruce Sterling talk glowingly of leaving the bloody 20th century behind, but the optimism of a new millenium didn’t last very long. Many millions have long since given up, the ‘left behind’, so to speak, who rapturate themselves with dreams of apocalypse.Sometimes I think I’ve forgotten something, something really important, can’t quite put my finger on it but a memory of having once had it.In stigmergy there is hope: let’s stop trying to talk to each other, and instead, talk to the machine and listen to the machine. I don’t want to have to guess at what you mean by something, I want the URL. There are things important to you which I really care nothing about, and vice versa, so why waste each other’s time: let’s separate talking and listening.Like here…

  10. didier says:

    Re: music by women: I like the latest from Fiona Apple, Sleater-Kinney, PJ Harvey and Tori Amos. In genral I find their lyrics impeccable.

  11. Karen M says:

    No need to apologize… actually, it’s refreshing to read about a man’s thoughts as he struggles with depending less on male structures, in order to experience a more feminine sensibility. Ironically, women can struggle with this, too.

  12. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks, everyone. I especially like Patry’s comment “Maybe helping others to do the things we can’t do ourselves is our personal form of altruism.” (Patry has a great blog, too.) When I write like this, it seems to bring out something in readers (and bring comments from different readers) that my more polished pieces do not. Like Mike’s comment “Sometimes I think I’ve forgotten something, something really important, can’t quite put my finger on it but a memory of having once had it.” I’ve felt that way so often. And to answer the question of whether AHA! is software, we don’t know yet. We think it will be people (network) + process (methodology) + technology (tools), but we don’t yet know how they will fir together or operate — this will be codeveloped by us, all of us, as AHA! comes to fruition.

  13. Dave Pollard says:

    That should be ‘fit together’ not ‘fir together’ (though the latter is an intriguing idea ;-)

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