How to Be a Model

The word model means literally a ‘miniature form or provisional representation’. It’s the small-scale draft version of what will become the final, larger, perfected product. To describe a model as ‘full-scale’ or ‘final’ is hence oxymoronic. It is almost ironic that what we call a model today is a mannequin, a full-size (or nearly so) human person reduced to an object, a hanger. And those we call ‘role models’ are often not at all provisional, but fully-formed and (to all appearances) unchanging. What’s more, we don’t want them to change.I have argued that what we need, if we are going to make the world a better place, is not more plans and movements and top-down reforms, since all these things tend to be stillborn and futile in the real, complex world, but rather working models:

  • Model intentional communities that show the rest of us how to identify those we want to live with, and how to form and build and sustain true joyful community with them,
  • Model natural enterprises that show the rest of us how to identify those we want to make a living with, and those with skills and talents that complement our own, and how to create and evolve sustainable, useful, joyful organizations and workplaces with them,
  • Model peer-to-peer information and organization exchanges that show the rest of us how to find people with whom to make common cause, and how to share and collaborate with them effectively, and
  • Models for living a radically simple lifestyle, that show the rest of us how to live sustainably, responsibly, yet fully, richly and happily.

I think by prefixing the word ‘working’ to ‘model’ we get closer to that provisional, unperfected, forever evolving and becoming sense that the word model was meant to mean.

It is the small scale nature of true models that, I think, most discourages us from creating, being, and studying them. We despair of the possibility that, at any meaningful scale, even the most beautiful and appealing model could replicate, reproduce,┬áproliferate and connect, network-like, with others until it became the prevailing way of making community, or making a living, or sharing and organizing, or living our lives. Nature reproduces cellularly, of course, from true models, but the dominant human constructs of our modern world have not evolved that way. Rather, they have been imposed on us by hierarchy — our political systems, economic systems, business systems, educational systems, health systems were not chosen by us but for us, and we have had no say in their construction. And these systems are quite monolithic, stubbornly resisting change, because with their hierarchical structure and top-down ‘management’ they are inflexible, unresilient. Rather than evolving, these rigid, imposed systems collapse, to be replaced by other rigid, imposed, unsustainable systems that, for a brief time, beat the incumbents at their own game. In these systems we are told, not shown, what to do.

So what does it mean to be a model? This is what Gandhi was getting at when he said we must be the change we want to see in the world.

  1. It means being open and accessible to others. The neosurvivalists who are preparing for The End of Oil by hiding away and learning personal survival skills just for themselves are no models. When we create, or become, a model, there is a tendency to want to shield it from harm and criticism, but we cannot yield to such temptation. A true model must be, as Dave Smith has explained, of use to others. That doesn’t mean we need to defend our models from criticism — there will always be vexatious and malicious critics of change, of other ways of doing things. It simply means they must be available to those who are ready to study, learn from, and follow them.
  2. It means being understandable. Cliques and cults are not models, and those who deliberately obfuscate the reality of what they are, and are doing, are, to use my favourite writer Frederick Barthelme’s worlds, “pin-headed and unkind”. Beware of movements that use convoluted language and ritual, and tell you that to really understand them takes a lifetime of study and followership, or whose spokespeople are immodest and disdainful or condescending to others.
  3. It means being flexible, embracing change and complexity, and being resilient. A model is an open system, not ‘owned’ by anyone, and it is open to change, open to new learning and ideas and understanding, and open to genuine collaboration with others. One of nature’s most successful models, the amoeba, pictured above, takes its name from the Greek word for change.
  4. It means being honest and modest. A working model is a work in progress, imperfect, evolving, flawed. The Achilles’ heel of most successful enterprises, political movements, and economic systems is that their members and supporters think they’re ideal, and cannot and need not be improved on. The average tenure of a Fortune 500 company is a few decades, and most of them collapse arrogantly believing they were victims of outside forces instead of their own inflexibility and unwillingness and inability to adapt and evolve. Very few proponents and ‘leaders’ of successful organizations and movements have the humility to admit that successes and failures are invariably collective and mostly a matter of fortune, not skill or knowledge. Even fewer will tell you what’s (still and newly) wrong with what they’re doing, what keeps them awake at night — though those few are the most likely to evolve and continue succeeding.
  5. It means enabling organic, ‘imperfect’ replication, not ‘growing’. Organizations like WL Gore refuse to grow and refuse to adopt the hierarchy that is necessary to keep large organizations cohesive. Instead, they spin off replicas of themselves — not identical copies but similar models adapted to whatever their members (they aren’t called employees) want to do. Likewise in nature cells reproduce ‘imperfect’ copies of each other, and the imperfections that work best survive and become the new models.
  6. It means protecting your integrity. This is not at all inconsistent with definitions #1 and #3 above. Models, like amoebas and other cellular and organic constructions, are vulnerable to corruption and decay, and the successful ones have a defensive system that is open to change and evolution but not to corruption or malicious attack. In order to be able to determine the difference, the model must know what it stands for, what its principles are. What makes this so difficult is that these principles themselves may evolve as the model gets to know itself and its relationship with the rest of life on Earth better. This often requires trusting your instincts, your subconscious, and your partners.

I can’t think of any other criteria for a true and great model. When I look at all of the hierarchical, imposed systems that we struggle under in our modern, civilized world, I can’t think of any that meet even half of these criteria. Nor do any of the organizations I know well enough to judge. And I think these criteria apply equally to all kinds of models: communities, enterprises, exchanges, and individuals.

I was tempted, when I put together this list, to grade myself against these six criteria. But then I realized that the ‘grade’, the current, measured state at any point in time, doesn’t matter. What is important is the journey, which never ends, the striving to be a little better at being a model every day, and the learning of how to do that. “For us”, as Eliot said, “there is only the trying — the rest is not our business”.

(Postscript: As I was about to post this article, it suddenly occurred to me that, because of its title, it might attract, through Google, some people who would never otherwisestumble upon HtStW. I wonder what they will think?)

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3 Responses to How to Be a Model

  1. Kay Dayss says:

    I especially love the last paragraph! The journey is what is important. It is the journey, not the model, that makes that HUGE impact on the world. The model is just a way for us to SEE the impact that we are making. It is like a “mind map” in that regard. Thanks for all the work you do, Dave. I hope I meet you in Mystery School 2007. Blessings, Kay (

  2. Jeff says:

    Your 6 criteria in musical form = The Polyphonic Spree.

  3. PaulSweeney says:

    It might be useful from time to time to put examples of “living models” that break the mold. I am thinking for instance of that micro-lending effort in India where money was only loaned to women, say 20 dollars, and they used to to buy materials, which were then sold by them at market. It broke the loop whereby they had to borrow from money lenders, who in turn took their margins. In turn (perhaps) this created a global opportunity for someone to re-design the way people borrow money in general ( The “model” absolutely sells.

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