The Responsibility of Privilege

Writer’s Note: I wrote this piece 60 days ago and due to travel chose not to publish it. This is still very much an open exploration and this piece feels less finished, perhaps because it’s more important, than much of my other writing. Given the personal development of the last 60 days, I have much more commentary on this topic. In the spirit of brevity, I made a few grammatical edits and am publishing as was composed then.


1 The Essence of Privilege

In regenerative practice, understanding essence is essential, particularly in the context of place like when discerning “what makes here, here?” What is the essence of Lansing, Michigan? How does it differ from Grand Rapids, Detroit, Dallas, and Sante Fe? What makes this place unique? What are its patterns? It is from essence that we are able to consider a system’s potential. By starting with essence we tap into template reality, the innate design inherent within the Tao – all objects, places, and beings.

What is the essence of privilege? By definition, privilege is a special right or advantage which is granted or available to only a particular person or group. For those that have it, it can be difficult to see. For those that don’t, its absence is painfully present. It has the power to completely shape our worldview and the difference in the lifestyle, access, and treatment between those who have it and those who don’t is astoundingly significant. 

Privilege comes in many forms. Peggy McIntosh lists in her seminal work “sexual orientation, employment, class, physical ability, region, handedness, religion, language, nation of origin, gender, gender identity, ethnicity, a families’ relation to money, education, housing, neighborhoods, and a families’ languages of origin” as some of the domains in which privilege exists. 

It can be difficult to see from the inside. For those that grow up with some type of privilege, or have grown accustomed to it, life becomes normal from that particular advantage point. When you’re surrounded by others who are also privileged it becomes the social norm. Normative ways of being and acting emerge during childhood and are impactful on shaping human identity. Soon privilege can become an entitlement, a projected expectation that privilege be maintained. 

Privilege is self-reinforcing. It congregates with other privilege to maintain itself. It builds momentum seeking to attract more privilege. As is said, birds of a feather. And when called out privilege often uses a myriad of explanations to justify itself. Social darwinism, “it’s a stroke of luck”, recounting the scoreboard of past compensatory actions, and pointing to the positive outcomes ie “the ends justify the means” or trickle-down economics are a few of the many defense mechanisms consciously or subconsciously deployed. 

It’s easy to deny this when we don’t possess them, but humans like privileges. They’re alluring and externally validate the internal feelings of specialness that most possess. People like to sit in the private box at sports parks and have access to the faster moving line. Our velvet rope society caters to this perfectly. And it seems that when those who are disadvantaged quickly gain privilege they accept it readily as if it’s due to them rather than breaking a cycle of haves and have nots.The Dictator’s Handbook describes in detail the truth behind the classic aphorism “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Examples abound from Africa and South America of how quickly the deprived liberators become the privileged oppressors. Similarly, in the Stanford prison experiment access to privilege was purposefully manipulated and both the guards and prisoners eagerly played into their new found privilege to shocking results. In many political coups, the formerly downtrodden faction which usurps power is intoxicated with their new authority and quickly become the brutalizers they despise. 

Privilege’s existence is tightly interwoven with humanity. It is driven by differences between one and another. While pre-agrarian societies were likely more egalitarian, the rise of concentrations of power – and thus privilege – has been occurring for many thousands of years. The Vedic caste system is an institutionalized system of privileges dating back to 1500 BCE. And before that the many empires that arose around acquiring and protecting land and treasure were societies in which privileged royals, priests, and merchants – almost exclusively men – lived much differently than workers, peasants, and slaves. 

Money and wealth is one of the most clear determinants of privilege. The more you have the more a different set of rules apply, the more access you can buy, and the more you can get away with. Between our globalized entanglement of capitalism and our legacies of oppression and racism still alive today, it seems that privilege is here to stay.

1.1 Accepting Privilege

In Alcoholics Anonymous the first step is to admit there’s a problem. Accurately defining problems is an undervalued step in realizing potential. Charles Kettering, an inventor of General Motors fame, correctly stated that “a problem well stated is half solved.” We, particularly those with privilege, need to get real about its presence in our lives.

The problem isn’t that there is privilege. The problem is that it is not being used to lift others up. If all of those with privilege used their privilege to level the playing field, the relative difference between the haves and have nots shrinks. Here lies the great potential. In a zero-sum world where there are winners and losers this would seem to be against one’s own personal interest. We’ll explore that more shortly. 

The first step is to understand our privilege. In an interview with The New Yorker, renowned women’s studies scholar Peggy McIntosh shares a simple question to pierce the veil of privilege. What do I have that I haven’t earned? It was this question that led Peggy to publish her 46 observations about white privilege by seeing how her privilege inundated her everyday life.

Self-awareness and acknowledgement allows us to map our privilege. I’m not going to hang my laundry so to speak. I’ve read plenty of articles where people list out their privileges. That’s not necessary here. Sufficive to say – I am privileged and I know it (said Gangham style). And the likelihood is you are too if you’re reading this. 

A quick note on shame here. The only way I will feel shame about these privileges is if I didn’t use them to benefit my fellows. I’m not ashamed of these privileges in and of themselves, most of which I was born into. It is the lot into which I am cast. My mother always said “there but go the grace of God go I” and “it’s a stroke of genetic luck I wasn’t born on the plains of Africa with no water, education, and healthcare.” For those born into or who have accumulated privilege, the question is what is the responsibility of privilege? 

2 The Responsibility of Privilege

So I’ve accepted I am privileged and sought to understand it. I’ve mapped my own privilege. Now what? 

The primary responsibility of privilege is wielding it to expand other’s access to opportunity. It is tempting to say that the responsibility is equality. Forced equality is different than equal access to opportunity. We have rarely had equality as evidenced by the millenia of hierarchical systems stemming back to earliest nomadic tribes who had hierarchical chiefdoms. Our goal is to eliminate barriers to accessing opportunity so we maintain the necessity of free will, self-determination, and natural variation. Ideally, access to opportunity is equal and what an individual chooses to do with that access is left to their own accord, supported by healthy parenting, whole human education, and vibrant communities. 

An important question emerges. Why would someone seek to expand other’s access to opportunities which if taken advantage of would seemingly reduce the relative power of their own privilege as others gain more? The answer lies in our intertwined fate.

An antidote to the many modern problems we are now facing is the evolution in understanding of humanity as a species whose common fate is total. At the species-level, we all thrive or we don’t. This realization, long since emerged, now beckons us to see the complexity, interdependence, systems, and patterns that don’t just link us – they bind us. By recognizing the fundamental connection between all things, expanding access to opportunity ensures all of our survival. All ships rise. 

We must grow the pie but not confuse this as a raison d’être for unfettered economic growth. “Opportunity” is so quickly taken to mean the opportunity for financial well-being in the capitalistic system. This narrow view fails to account for the multiple types of capital (financial, human, social, cultural, natural, built, and political). We must take a wide view of opportunity. It is the opportunity to breathe clean air and have water. It is the opportunity to have healthy systems of education, money, justice, etc… The opportunity to have our needs met in ways that aren’t explicitly tied to money first. To have vibrant, diverse, and resilient communities. 

Systemic imbalance and injustice, the hard-coded disadvantages of our systems and the soft-coded biases in human behavior, plagues humanity. It proliferates differences in access to the basic needs, most importantly education, furthering the stratification of our social relation. It is those who are privileged who must take the lead on this as they are the ones who control the systems. Passivity is an endorsement of the system as it stands today. “Silence is violence” is a popular phrase post-George Floyd. 

One responsibility of privilege is also to maintain privilege. It should not be shunned. Rather it must be wielded. Privilege’s viability, that is its ability to maintain itself across time, is essential. Its effectiveness diminishes as it is lost. One must fill another’s cup from their own abundance. If the systems which created said privilege are fundamentally unsustainable at their core then the preservation of privilege requires attention be directed to these systems. Ill-gotten privilege harms the self. If you can’t see it you’re not looking broadly enough. 

2.1 Safety Nets

I recently left an amazing job at an amazing company. I turned down career advancement in response to this inquiry about the responsibility of my privilege. 

The reality is I’m a highly educated and capable white male (among my many privileges). I don’t have to worry. My work experience is deep and varied and I continue to make significant investments in my personal and professional training and development to increase my capabilities. I’ve been successful and I have in the past and can in the future add a lot of value to organizations. I write and speak well. My network is full of advantaged people. I can’t fuck it up. 

What a safety net! Take a minute to reflect on your safety net. If today was the day you turned your life energy over to service, how much would really be at risk? Instantly the mind likely goes to the bank account balance. But ask yourself, what is the cost of my inaction? Not in dollars and cents but in quality of life, connection, and your personal vibrance?

I could continue to use my privilege to amass a very comfortable and abundant life. Sure, I’d donate or volunteer in the margins. But is that enough? If most of us did just a little would it be enough to meet our current crises? Can a minority solve the meta-crisis affecting the majority? 

Like most, I am not financially independent. Yet the relative safety net of my education, experience, and network afford leaps of faith into the unknown terrain of wicked problems and societal need. What sacrifice and service does the comfort of your privilege afford?

And what of our individual legacies? What will we tell our children when they ask ‘what did you do when you first knew?’ Continue on in willful ignorance (or cognitive dissonance) kicking the proverbial can down the road? Or take the hard actions which require sacrifice of today’s comfort for tomorrow’s vibrance? What of our personal daily actions that are meaningful for the 7 generations?

For me I am frequently reflecting that “life is short”. There’s only so much time to accomplish our potential, to realize our soul’s dream for our unique life, before we’ve joined our ancestors and are pushing up trees. This is not the first or last last lifetime which I’ll be incarnated in. And while everyone has different goals in each lifetime, this life’s set of lessons require me to skate to where the puck is going and to be of service. All that glitters is not gold despite the pleasing nature of the shiny and alluring career. 

Many traditions the world over emphasize service to others over service to self. These indigenous ways of living and being are struggling to survive the effects of modernity’s encroachment on their land and cultures. Yet until the industrial revolutions these societies thrived for millennia in great harmony, abundance, and health relative to the dominance of Western econo-politics. 

It is also out of self-interest and as a steward of our unborn children that the harsh realities of our modern world can no longer be ignored. The climate, education, economic, spiritual, and moral crises, also known as the meta-crisis, the seeds of which were sowed long before I was born, is reaching criticality, word choice which is a nod to Bucky Fuller who described this lucidly decades ago. While earth will be fine and nature’s antifragility will ensure its survival, it is the human species which may or may not survive (or thrive). 

Amidst all of the dire predictions and my own predilections towards doom and gloom, it is difficult to have certainty about the future given our crises. It can always be said that the future is uncertain though 100 years ago that uncertainty didn’t reasonably include the potential for the downfall or destruction of our species in the consideration set. Since the dawn of the Nuclear era, humanity has possessed the capability to destroy itself. Fortunately we were able to avoid our own hubris and now the clock measuring the likelihood of our Mutually Assured Destruction ticks backwards from midnight. Despite this, we are now on the verge of tipping the ecological balance of this planet through modern industry and the effects of unbalanced capitalism.

Our best option is to engage our sensemaking using the highest quality and most varied interdisciplinary information currently available to determine what future outcomes are most probable. This function, the luxury of being able to pay attention and devote time, attention, and precious life energy to this conversation, is at once both a privilege and a necessity for successful navigation of the 21st century. It is matched only by the requisite inner work, the evolution of our individual emotional and spiritual faculties which connect our hearts with that which is also alive. 

Through my sensemaking I arrive at an overplayed sentiment: the time is now. The risk of cataclysmic events is far greater than the reward of today’s personal comfort. I can no longer in good conscience stand on the sidelines. This life’s energy and attention must meet the moment. Even if the cataclysmic events never materialize it is an abandonment of conscience and the Eightfold Noble Path to not respond to the determination of our dire present need for broad systemic, bio-regional, and local evolution. Every single one of us is needed. Given the scale of our challenges, tremendous opportunity is available and we are still at the early stages of realizing this potential despite many decades of diligent work.

Only the ostriches are left with their heads in the sand about the manner in which humans currently occupy Earth. Side note – ostriches don’t actually bury their heads in the sand – it’s an urban myth.

3 The Regenerative Take

If we view society as a complex system where there is natural variation in an individual’s capabilities, whether they are inherited or created, it makes sense that privilege arises out of nature’s diversity. Yet the distance between the least and most privileged is growing exponentially based not on inherent qualities but on systems of tax avoidance, wealth transfer, institutionalized and systemic injustice, corporate favoritism, and too many other methods of “looking out for our own”. A society with significant stratification of privilege may be an inevitable consequence of our modern push for human “progress”.

To gain the most leverage we must focus on nodal interventions that specifically target where privilege and power coagulate and fortify. This requires us to examine and evolve the incentivization systems that allow for the destruction of habitat, monetary manipulation, economic fail-safes like bail outs and subsidies, all of the industrial complexes, the partisan politics masquerade, and the doom loop of campaign finance and corporate corruption. New incentives must stimulate actions that expand access to opportunity and hold bad actors accountable for their externalities. 

This developmental effort must occur at all levels of work. On the first level (ourselves) it is not only the actions described above to examine and take responsibility for one’s own privilege that is required. We must continue to create on-ramps for people to become regenerative to the systems within which they are nested and begin thinking in terms of connections and wholes. At the second level (us and those around us) it is the necessity to use our privilege to benefit our communities and take actions that are slightly more than proportional to one’s privilege. On the third level (all of us in the greater whole/system) we must be advocates and donors, voting with our dollars & feet, and hopefully transitioning one’s life work to generative and beneficial endeavors.  

It is also important to realize that lack of privilege and the subsequent disenfranchisement, suffering, and anger represent enormous activating potential and the transmutation of these into higher levels of consciousness is best facilitated through appropriate interventions. Stoked to a proper degree and collectively harnessed our outrage at the social, economic, and environmental injustices of this world can lead to the powerful reconciliation of the systems as they stand today. These systems are the restraining forces that seek to keep the status quo, associated power structures, and beneficiaries producing privileges for the minority at the expense of the majority.

It is trauma that obscures our seeing of true essence and potential. While history may contain much trauma inflicted by the hands of other fallible humans acting from their patterns of trauma, these actions are not our highest nature. By recognizing and addressing traumas and creating spaces for healing, we can engage in the multi-level healing required to unstick dense and stagnant privilege in our interdependent systems. The way out is through it and up (think Sprial Dynamics). 

Many privileges have social and economic externalities. A wide view of externalities defines them as an unintended consequence of an action that is pushed on a different party than the beneficiary of that action. Many of the privileges that are enjoyed in the West are at the expense of someone or something else. When the full-scale multi-systemic impact of our actions and consumption is not reflected in the costs we pay for products we are creating imbalance in the macro-and-micro flows of our systems. Just because the outcomes of these balances are not visible or purposefully obscured does not mean they don’t exist – they do. For pop culture reference, see the Architect scene in the matrix discussing the “sum of an anomaly”. These are the black and grey swans which are inevitably forming as the unintended consequences of irresponsible and unchecked privilege. 

4 Rights and Privileges 

There is a distinction between rights and privileges. As defined by John Locke which became the basis for U.S. democracy we are all born with inalienable rights. A right cannot be taken away. It can be blocked, but it still exists a priori. 

We need both rights and privileges. The problem is that we have lost sight of the difference between the two and are now frequently misconstruing our privileges as rights (ie driver’s license and weapons of mass destruction like automatic weapons) and our rights as privileges (ie health care and a healthy ecology).

What happens when rights are not accessible equally? Does everyone receive the same right to a fair trial? No. We have different justice systems depending on race and socio-economic status. Does everyone bear the environmental costs of our modern way of life evenly? No. The biggest polluters (individuals and countries) do not experience environmental degradation like the poor do. Does everyone have access to health care (which should be a human right)? Not in most places on the planet. 

Life is unfair. Boo hoo. Good intentions and idealism make for easy targets in our laissez-faire capitalism. In a world where there are scarce resources to meet everyone’s needs and there is not enough to go around, it’s a tough argument that the privileged should advocate for the disadvantaged. But that is not reality. The privileged have plenty of resources, access, and special treatment. And rights are not equitable either. This is not an argument for the redistribution of wealth. Rather it’s the call to action for those with privilege to answer the moral obligation of their privilege and to act in their own self-interest.

5 Onward

These thoughts have been simmering for a while amidst the pretty fancy circumstances I manifested for myself. Over the past years I have lived in a really nice part of Dallas, traveled everywhere I’ve wanted, and essentially wanted for nothing (because it’s easier to actually just want less but that’s a different article). I’ve eaten many nice meals and stayed in a few superb resorts and lived a life of privilege begat by the many privileges of birth which I already enjoyed (not to downplay my substantial hard work but I’m sure it pales in comparison to a day’s labor of a physical worker in the poorest places on earth). 

With such a personal safety net it’s unconscionable to look out at the world, replete with its many systemic challenges and enormous potential, and continue to cruise on easy street. For several years I have prayed for “hard work that is easy to do”. It is my service to community and life that I now take responsibility for by focusing on actualizing the potential of our systems. 

What’s your move?

The Conversation We’re Not Having About the Pandemic

I hate to be the bearer of bad news but I think we’ve been deluding ourselves. For the past months, perhaps since shortly after we settled into our new life of quarantines, masks, and physical distancing, we’ve all been fantasizing about what it will be like after the pandemic ends. For me I’ve most eagerly looked forward to getting back to crowded sweaty germy dance floors and shoulder-to-shoulder packed events. Perhaps you too have been dreaming about what our return to “normalcy” will bring back into your life.

With the arrival of vaccines dawns a new hope that our fantasies may become reality in the near future. Articles announce the approaching end to the pandemic and a return to summer as we once we knew it. Cue the summer montage scene and the mad dash to beaches, movie theaters, and yes, even the office.

Let’s not be too hasty. Because there’s a conversation we’re not having and a question we’re not asking. What if the pandemic continues for another two to three years?

It’s okay….breathe….breathe….everything will be okay.

This is not just an alarmist sentiment aimed at getting a reaction and sparking fantastical notions about survival in a zombie-like COVID apocalypse. There is a distinct and non-zero probability that this may actually occur. Let’s consider a few thoughts.

First, a cursory search shows that roughly 55% of global pandemics over the last two millennia have endured for longer than two years. The Antonine Plague lasted five years from 165 to 180 CE. The most deadly pandemic in modern human history, the Bubonic Plague (Black Death), lasted four horrid years. The many multi-year waves of the Cholera pandemic lasted five to ten years a piece. Counting the number of calendar years an epidemic is active on Wikipedia’s list of epidemics, the average length of an epidemic is 4.3 years not factoring HIV/AIDS (an outlier in length) and 6.3 years counting HIV/AIDS. Using this logic, the Sars-COV-2 pandemic which started in 2019 will end in late 2022 at the earliest. Perhaps the vaccine gods and modern technology will save us this time.

Second, many of these pandemics occurred before globalization and the massive entanglement of global commerce. Despite lockdowns and travel bans, humans (and thus germs) are still circulating the globe more quickly than ever before. It’s a big planet from a virus’ perspective with plenty of terrain to slip by our best efforts. Commence the ultimate high-risk game of whack-o-mole with our ever evolving hydra opponent.

Third, we’re spoiled by modernity and it’s on-demand delivery of everything we want. We’re like the J.G. Wentworth commercials “I want my freedom and safety and I want it now. Call 877-GONE-NOW.” Nature’s timeline works entirely differently. How quickly we forget the scale and scope of nature and her history. A few years, hell, a few decades is a blip on the evolutionary radar. We’ve proven vaccination technology can eradicate viruses and doing so in 2021 would be an absolute coup and wondrous feat of humanity worthy of the biggest worldwide blowout party we’ve ever seen. But we must remember…we are a part of nature, nature herself, not above nature. Full control of such a miraculously complex system is an illusion.

Fourth, and perhaps most startling, is that as community spread continues to run rampant in some parts of the world COVID mutations that are not stoppable by our current vaccines have a greater chance to emerge. Tentative results already suggest reduced vaccine efficacy with our South African, Brazilian, and Indian variants. Research published in Science suggests “the full evolutionary potential of SARS-CoV-2 has yet to be revealed.” Put simply, right now we should count ourselves lucky that it hasn’t mutated more but that reality can’t be ruled out yet. Heavily immunized places like Israel and the United States may not be out of the woods yet.

Admittedly, this is an uncomfortable conversation. Yet it is an inquiry that we must explore. It is our weakness and impatience that begs a quick end to all of this. Our emotional fatigue and our cabin fever. The very real impacts in the living of our everyday lives. The evidence suggests we might have a few more years ahead of us. Will this happen? Your crystal ball is as good as mine.

It’s not surprising that it seems we’re avoiding this conversation. We crave certainty and avoid uncertainty like the plague (literally). This willful avoidance of the conversation stems from the fact that the pandemic sucks. Sure, we can be optimistic and talk about the many silver linings. We can discuss how our personal and evolutionary resilience is higher. But a longer timeline means more uncertainty, risk, and unknowns. It means we’ll stay in the domain of the complex and chaotic far longer than we are individually accustomed too. This is great practice for the future, a world in which increased complexity brings more volatility, uncertainty, ambiguity, and a necessity to thrive by being antifragile.

Many questions emerge, prime among them is what would you do differently if you were 100% sure the pandemic will last another 24 to 36 months? Will you hold off on having kids or decide you’ve waited long enough and go for it? Will you opt to buy, sell, or move (good luck in this red hot real estate market)? Maybe you might decide now is the time to take more career risk and see this as a window to take the leap? How might you make different business investment decisions? A myriad of personal and professional questions offer an array of possibilities in this new decision set. We must think about these business and societal consequences.

No one among us is 100% sure of COVID’s course. This is where our individual and collective sensemaking becomes critical to our decision making and the actions that follow. Sensemaking is our ability to evaluate the information available to us, observe and account for our personal biases, and create a coherent understanding of this complex situation. How one makes sense of the probability that the pandemic continues on, and does so with their human networks, is dependent on a variety of factors. Let’s make sure wishing it wasn’t so doesn’t cloud our judgement.

My dance floor awaits.

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Transition: Where is the Puck Going?

I have not written much about my current transition as I’ve been deeply engaged with ensuring it’s successful. In shamanism we call this a bid for power, when one sets out to acquire more power, to “level up” by accomplishing some task. Bids for power usually come with tests to challenge us and ensure that we are ready to rise to the next level. That has certainly been the case with this transition. 

What transition? After much consideration I have decided to leave the role of Director of Business Development at AppFolio, “the world’s fastest growing company.” It has not been easy to arrive at this decision. I have, above all else, built many close relationships over the last five and a half years with humans I truly enjoy and appreciate. Some I expect to be friends with until my sun sets. AppFolio is truly a phenomenal world-class company and I keep reflecting how blessed my life is that I get to leave such a great place because I know there are more great experiences and opportunities waiting for me in the world. 

I have learned and contributed much during my time as a manager and director. I am humbled by the words shared about the contributions I have made to the people I have led and coached. And our results speak for themselves. An average of 107% quota attainment across 22 quarters amidst the company growing at a CAGR of ~30%. Not too shabby. 

Why leave? There’s nothing wrong at AppFolio. In fact, much is right. I reflect back to when my close friend and the previous director gave Socrates’ famous words, “know thyself”, as his final advice before he too walked out of the door leaving greatness to pursue his heart. I have been investing deeply in this knowing of myself for many years now and I’ve learned key attributes, values, and needs about myself:

  1. I am far more creative than I have led myself to believe in the past. 
  2. Spaciousness is required, an exploration of the void, in order for me to fully bloom.
  3. It’s not about the money. 
  4. Life is short, use it wisely. Time is the most precious resource in life. 
  5. I require and thrive with variety. I am fundamentally interdisciplinary and my college degree was more reflective of my instincts and modes of learning, being, and operating than I once realized. 
  6. I enjoy thinking, strategy, and operationalizing that strategy. I easily create structure. 
  7. I love speaking about the things I care most about. 

It’s for these personal reasons that I see these primary needs best met in another pasture. “Greener” pastures assumes a better/worse relationship, laden with hierarchy and judgement. Life’s not about greener pastures. It’s about other pastures, the simple opportunity to experiment and bring forth new experiences into one’s life. Good and bad are relative. It’s all one point on a spectrum, each point as valuable as the next. Life is experimental. And as I mature I become more clear that truly, life is short, from just about every perspective that I look at it. 

When the offer came for a promotion to Senior Director with a substantial raise to match the responsibilities I was already performing, I immediately knew the answer was no, no matter how much cognitive dissonance existed between society’s definition of success (which I was clearly achieving) and the knowing in my heart about what I am called to. 

As reflexive and self-conscious as I can be at times, this decision is not just about me and my internal machinations.

Skate to Where the Puck is Going 

Those of you that know me personally know that the best I can muster about sports is my shallow attempts at sports humor by trash talking about things I have no clue about or purposefully using the wrong sports vernacular. However recently it is the words of the great hockey player Wayne Gretsky that I have spent significant time pondering. 

While I wouldn’t have worked at AppFolio if I didn’t find SaaS and the real estate market interesting, I do wonder, “where is the puck going?” 

As I look out at the world, I see crises and realities that require all of our earnest attention if we are to co-evolve as a human species from this dangerous precipice upon which we now teeter. The puck is moving towards:

  • The arriving climate disaster and sixth mass extinction. The health of the entire living earth system, our trees, soil, air, and water, is in rapid decline at the hands of the suicidal tendencies of modern extractive capitalism and the mindset of Cartesian reductionism that fails to account for the complexity of the systems which sustain life. There are many reasons to be hopeful and there are plenty of reasons to fear that we are not doing enough. What is one’s role in securing life for the next seven generations?
  • Emergent technologies beckon our close attention for the many benefits and risks they pose. Between blockchain, Web 3.0, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and much more, the intersection of new technology with our wicked problems represents enormous opportunity – and danger – as each is capable of accelerating or decelerating our growth towards dystopian or utopian futures. If we’re honest, Homo Sapiens has a fairly dubious record of treating our environment, “lesser” species, and even one another. How can these new technologies be harnessed for productive, life-positive outcomes that unfold more vitality, viability, and evolution?
  • The two bullet points above necessitate a global cultural rotation and reconnection to community as a primary organizing principle. With the high level of complexity and interconnectedness of our global economies comes more fragility (when not thoughtfully designed or cooperated on), a reality recognized by the shocks to supply chains and economies through the pandemic. Now is the time for the preeminence of place in how we relate to our world. As much as global problems direly need solutions they are most effectively addressed at scale by a series of bio-regional or local solutions. How do I take care of my backyard with my neighbors and assist you in building your own capacity to take care of yours?
  • Everywhere I look the signs are evident – human consciousness is rising. The Archaic Revival talked about by Terrence McKenna is unfolding, a natural, even carnal response to the downsides of modernity. Cyclically speaking, when observing the prophecies of long-time calendar traditions like the Mayan (Toltec) and Vedic Yugas, our lowest is behind us and ahead of us is a golden age of consciousness. We’ve turned the corner. Right now we are building the foundations for the mass expansion of our spiritual faculties on a species-wide and planetary level and this will continue to accelerate far beyond our human lives. What is my role in this healing?
  • All of this requires shifts in three primary systems:
    • Education is a first mover to every bullet point here. Building the capacity to expand these many ways of thinking (regenerative, complexity, holistic) is a necessity. Ensuring that on a societal level we raise functional, whole humans will solve so many issues and free us up to work on what’s most important. 
    • Consumption is rapidly ceding mind-and-wallet share to the experience economy, a principle first written about in 1999, a book I’ve yet to read. The evolution of understanding and connection can be facilitated through experiences designed to touch the heart and align the mind with it. 
    • Culture is our most powerful technology creating the very container in which human evolution takes place. It was Western culture that enabled the Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution, and Technological Revolution, for better AND worse. 

As I consider these realities as where the puck is going, I realize that I’m not “leaving such a great place because I know there are more great experiences and opportunities waiting for me in the world”. I am embarking on my dharma, this life’s sacred duty to be fulfilled. I am motivated by this deep knowing that I am responsible for applying my talents to being of service. 

I have spent many years building a set of skills which I am now ready to apply to the tasks of which I am called to. Calling is an interesting concept. Some say it is a myth. I perceive that for me, there are the right endeavors at the right time and that there will be many of these opportunities (callings) throughout this life. One door closes. Another opens. To transition with power, grace, and clarity of heart even if the vision is not crystal clear, these are my tasks at hand. To complete the harvest such that I am capable of service in the next endeavor. It sometimes requires silence to hear the next calling. 

I cannot devote my time to all of these issues. The question is, what is the next right divinely-inspired action I will take? Off the cliff I leap, trusting in myself and the universe, that I will hear a call, the one I’ve been praying for and calling in. I am ready and I will answer with passion and gusto.

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This next article (coming soon) in this series on Transition is “What’s the Responsibility of Privilege?”

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A Butterly Flaps Its Wings | Interconnectedness & Complex Systems

First published Nov 26. Slightly edited April 2.

Don’t get a liberal arts degree they say. It’s not useful in today’s modern economy. Specialize in something technical. Computer science is cool. Engineering will take you far. Finance is the ticket! Never mind that artificial intelligence and machine learning is mastering all of these disciplines precisely because they are technical. Today a liberal arts degree, particularly an Interdisciplinary Studies degree, has more value than ever. Indulge me here for a few minutes. 

I earned an Interdisciplinary Studies degree from the University of Texas at Dallas. It was a wonderful education that allowed me to nurture my various interests that ranged widely from business and entrepreneurship to sociology, political science, and public policy. What I didn’t know is just how valuable the capability I was training would be: thinking across domains.

As I took a variety of classes, I began to synthesize information from disparate domains and used seemingly unrelated information to build deeper understanding. I sat in lecture analyzing what I was hearing about international relations and how its principles related to business. I searched for patterns and similarities and focused on making connections in my brain. This habit has served me well in business where I’ve been able to solve problems using insights from domains “unrelated” to the exact topic at hand. 

We are at an unprecedented point in history. Never before (that we know of) has the world been so vast and complex as it is today. Much of that complexity is driven by the specialization of practically everything which has driven incredible economies of scale, technological advance, and depth-of-domain. Human knowledge is doubling on the order of every two years. (Too bad our wisdom isn’t increasing at the same rate. I digress…) We have great need for people who can think across multiple domains, consider larger wholes and systems, and build deeper understanding of this complexity.  

The following is an early attempt to feel my way through concepts that I perceive to be related to our complex environments. I believe that there is very little left in the world that is simple. It is only our perception that is simple and once expanded cannot be unaccounted for. Such is the nature of expanding consciousness. It is precisely this state of being and thinking that will drive the actions necessary to create the broad systemic change our ailing modern systems require if we are to achieve a just, healthy, and viable future. 

“A butterfly flaps its wings…”

Chaos Theory says that “a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon and subsequently a storm ravages Eastern Europe.” This can only happen in a hyper-connected world. Whether true or not from such a micro-to-macro scale, it is far easier to see the level of interconnectedness that permeates our man-made and natural world. It doesn’t take a butterfly flapping its wings to see how COVID sent ripples through global supply chains that resulted in not being able to buy certain items at the grocery store (like toilet paper…but that’s a different post…). 

The case for the grand scope of our interconnectedness is all around us if we look:

  • The Natural Systems that have been evolving and adapting for millennia are the original models of interconnectedness. That sand from the Sahara desert feeds plants in the South American jungle and interferes with hurricanes in the Mid Atlantic headed for North America is but one of an endless number of interaction chains on this beautifully complex natural planet.
  • In Education, while Western models have followed a science-based Newtonian worldview, Indiginous learning models like those of the Inuit, Metis, and First Nations peoples still highlight the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. The line here between education and spiritual belief is very thin and mirrors the beliefs in many world religions of a fundamental interconnectedness.   
  • In Business I first saw I, Pencil more than a decade ago, an eye opening video about how a simple yellow pencil is sourced from across the globe. Imagine what it must take to manufacture a cell phone or computer. Floods in that other part of the globe can cause a slowdown in metals mining which cause a whole supply chain to slow down and inconvenience our ability to buy something on this side of the planet. 
  • In Security researchers have been preparing and hardening devices connected to the Internet of Things. IoT’s great possibility is its ability to harness data from every type of device allowing for incredible measurement and manipulation of the world around us. The risk of every device being connected comes from bad actors hijacking these devices for nefarious purposes or simply to sending undetected messages.
  • In Insurance actuaries have been building models and tools capable of accounting for ever greater scales of complexity in order to produce working models of risk. The greater the interconnectedness the greater the variables to account for that could affect liability in unforeseen circumstances. 
  • In Financial Markets we have to look no further than the financial contagion of the 2008 financial crisis which swept across the global financial systems. It took years to fully understand how subprime mortgages were being tranched into risky Mortgage-Backed Securities which were improperly evaluated by ratings agencies and insured through Credit Default Swaps and then matriculated into investment portfolios of all types. Regulations have not simplified the complexity of our capital markets
  • In Health we are just scratching the surface of understanding how human habitation encroaching on wildlands increases the risk of pandemic or the importance of gut microbiota and its effects on many aspects of our health. In the “alternative” realm we have increasing evidence of extra-sensory interconnectedness that hints at untapped powers in the body and collective conscious.
  • In Conservation it is now said by some that the classic slogan “Think Globally, Act Locally” is outmoded and impossible to do given the scale-linking of every system from the micro to the macro and vice versa.
  • This list will be limited for the sake of brevity…

Many have noticed the need for interdisciplinary approaches to our world’s biggest challenges. From Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si “On Care for Our Common Home”:

“Given the scale of change, it is no longer possible to find a specific, discrete answer for each part of the problem. It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions that consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems. We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.” (139)

The world has always been interconnected but in ages past it took greater durations for these influences to play out. People and commerce moved slowly and natural systems were more resilient. Today interactions are sped up with peoples across the planet connected through telephony, travel, and global commerce. To operate effectively in today’s modern environment requires perceptive capabilities and systems of thinking that account for greater variables and exogenous influences. 

Complexity

The universe is made of FRACTALS, or at least is fractal-like. According to Fractal Foundation, “Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop. Driven by recursion, fractals are images of dynamic systems – the pictures of Chaos.” This definition surprisingly describes reality in many ways. 

The Hermetic wisdom tradition posited 7 Principles which includes the popular phrase “As Above, So Below”. This principle is recognition that the skies above mimic the earth below which mimics the microscopic universe unseen to the naked eye. Thus is the basis for astrology and the reliance of most indigenous traditions on the heavens as maps for our world below. This worldwide belief is fractal in nature suggesting that complex patterns are similar across different scales. 

For something to be a universal truth it must scale up and scale down and be operable on different levels of abstraction and reality. A concept related to fractals is that of templates. For instance, an acorn already knows how to become an oak tree and cannot become a maple tree. It contains the template for oak tree, a unique pattern in the universe that creates a tree that looks, feels, and lives a certain way. Trees are fractals as they repeat smaller and smaller versions of themselves across the forest. The trees are never identical. Each is unique. Identical is not found in nature. 

This variance appears to be a universal truth, that no two things (stars, planets, humans, animals, etc…) are the same. If uniformity were to exist it would create much higher degrees of certainty and order. Variance creates complexity, exceptions, and character which requires us to connect to the unique soul of something, its individuation.

As all living things (and many of our man-made things too) individuate, they can be thought of to be held together by a CONTAINER. Two oak trees next to each other each grow from the template/essence of oak tree but look dissimilar in their main and minor branches (variance). The boundary between the dirt and the root, the trunk and the air, and the branches/leaves and the sky is the outline of the container which holds the oak tree. 

Every thing has a container, a defined edge that creates differentiation and distinction. This laptop is not the desk because there is a clear boundary between the two. The edge of my body is the edge of the container of Evan and the same for you, dear reader. Edges mark BOUNDARIES where one thing ends and another beings. Boundaries are often where greatest aliveness occurs. Where the container of ocean meets the container of continent is a significant boundary where biodiversity is high. 

Containers exist in many ways beyond the natural world. Police jurisdiction ends at one road and another begins. A team or an organization is a container. A tribal identity or a family is a container. All are unique, defined, and highly complex. Any thing that is not everything has a container. This is the nature of duality, individuation, and otherness. 

With individuation and distinction comes RELATIONSHIP. A monad (me to myself), dyad (me to you), and triad (the three of us to each other) are the most basic forms of relationship. Relationships permeate our entire human experience. Because we are individuated, the container of me is in relation to all individuated things. This is the basis for the Lakota wisdom of Mitakuye Oyasin (Me-ta-ku-ye O-ya-see-een) translated as “All My Relations”. The fundamental truth that indigenous peoples have known and kept alive is that all is related. This is the basis for stewardship and reciprocity which is evident in indigenous cultures. This ethos of connection is juxtaposed by the Western reduction of everything into its constituent parts leading to the phenomena of tragedy of the commons and externalities where adjacent or distant relationships are not considered.

Relationship occurs with or without direct contact. I have never been to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant yet because of my knowledge of its history I have a relationship to it. Every thing that I can conceive of I am in relation to. In this moment every thing I cannot conceive of I am in relation to, I just haven’t conceived of it yet. Noodle on that for a while…

It is across boundaries that relationships can be most easily observed. Consider the boundary between the U.S. and Mexico, a national border where significant activity occurs. Move the border north 200 miles and the activity will adjust accordingly. If a fence is built across a field separating two plots of land this new boundary will become the locus of greater biodiversity and interaction. 

By observing individuals in relationship across boundaries, we can perceive flow. FLOW is movement of life energy in a direction. When the Nile River (individuated) bursts its banks (boundary) and expands for miles there is incredible flow of life enabling energy. When the great annual migrations cross boundaries these immense flows bring food, fertilization, and healthy cycles to land, flora, and fauna. 

Without flow, there is stagnation and less aliveness in living systems. Apply the fractal principle and zoom from earth scale living systems (above) to our human body living system (below) and see that if flow in the form of blood, oxygen, and nutrients is cut off, your appendage will be too. Zoom below to a cellular level where the flow of potassium and sodium through channels (across boundaries) is vital for healthy cell function without which we would not be alive. 

Flow often occurs in more than one direction meaning EXCHANGE is occurring. This can be explicit, like the imports and exports across a border. Or take the form of symbiosis or mutualism where one or both species benefits from a relationship, like the shark and the Remora fish or the Plover and Egyptian Crocodile. Nature abounds with examples of exchange. 

Observing flow and exchange is essential for understanding organic, artificial, or hybrid systems. Studying flow can reveal relationships and vice versa. It is also important to pay attention to where flow is blocked. Before the appendage is cut off the blocked flow can be addressed. A dammed river can stop the annual fish migration and flooding, both important flows in an ecosystem. Healthy systems are balanced and analyzing flow can also show where excess or lack is occurring.

Complex systems often feature flows that repeat over time. These are PATTERNS which are the tracks of relationship, movement, and flow. They are influenced by the system of containers and boundaries within which they operate – otherwise known as an environment. The ability to discern and track patterns is an essential skill for navigating life. Patterns of behavior can reveal the essence of an animal or a system. Patterns over time reveal cycles and feedback mechanisms. Healthy cycles are virtuous and self-perpetuating. Unhealthy cycles are doomed and self-destructive. Because nature often takes the path of least resistance, patterns can reveal the most efficient processes. 

Those peoples who are intimately connected with nature are often the most literate at pattern recognition. In its highly refined form this is the skill that allows bushmen in the Sahara to accurately navigate large expanses of “indistinguishable” land and track prey precisely. Nature is so fundamentally driven by cycles and patterns that they are difficult to miss when looking. 

Pattern recognition emerges from the cognitive ability to perceive similar and dissimilar expanded across terrains, datasets, systems, and time. While we rarely track animals as our ancestors once did, we are nonetheless surrounded by opportunities to track flows, behaviors, and threads across the variety of natural and artificial systems. By studying patterns an observant can develop a baseline and begin to understand divergence from the norm. Following the outliers can reveal great insights about the function, dysfunction, and adaptation of a system. 

As all is related these patterns form interrelated webs of relationships that become NETWORKS and SYSTEMS. Various definitions of “system” suggests they are a set of things working together in an organized manner. Systems are often driven by organizing principles. Living systems are driven by evolution (propensity to evolve), vitality (increasing aliveness), and viability (endurance across time). Artificial systems may have different principles. The stock market is driven by fear, greed, and the concept of arbitrage. Systems orient around potential and can be activated or restrained by different influences. Nature has a potential for greater biodiversity and the stock market the potential to create greater financial capital. Whether each system unlocks that potential depends on the environment and its actors.

Systems are either centralized (one authority), decentralized (two or more authorities), or distributed (collective authority). Systems with some level of centralization have internal structures composed of hierarchical relationships and patterns. More complex systems have more hierarchies or internal structures that interact. The body (whole system) is structured internally with many subsystems like our circulatory or excretory systems. A river (whole system) has its tributaries, flow, and distributaries. The military, education, and corporate systems all feature hierarchical models with greater responsibility and complexity flowing to the top from larger numbers of nodes at the bottom. Other systems have no hierarchy like P2P sharing networks where the elimination of any node in the network is less likely to affect system resiliency. All systems are nested within larger systems if the appropriate context can be perceived. 

As all things are non-identical, systems naturally contain variance. Random distribution in theory deviates into non-random distribution in reality. Choice, free will, chaos theory, and quantum mechanics all create exceptions where rules may appear to make the most sense or are at least more convenient.

Healthy systems have the ability to persevere or flourish over time. They absorb randomness and create order (negentropy). They have a higher degree of resilience and are capable of achieving homeostasis (internal equilibrium) and dynamic equilibrium (external equilibrium). They can better absorb shock and release inefficiencies. 

Unhealthy systems degrade into chaos over time(entropy). They have a higher degree of fragility and struggle to maintain homeostasis or equilibrium. Shock tends to magnify across the system and inefficiencies often proliferate, as cancer does. Anti-fragility is the ability of a system to actually become healthier and more functional when shocks to the system are introduced. 

Systems inform participants how to be successful in the system (procreation, competitive advantage, etc…) and what behaviors fall outside the norm. In this way culture and society appear as robust systems which move through distinct periods over time. COLLECTIVE BEHAVIOR depends on the context of the particular period. Among humans herd mentality creates homogenous narratives and ideological structures that seek conformity in exchange for tribe membership. Threats to dominant paradigms are threats to the system itself and are quelled though peer pressure and groupthink typically with little regard to the validity of the counter-narrative or criticism. 

Marco population-level (whole system) trends and biases can be traced through sub-population (subsystem) micro influences. Rivalry is another common attribute of complex systems where complex wholes compete against each other (see Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations) and subsystems compete against each other (ie Democrats and Republicans). Social sciences like sociology and political science operate at this level. 

Broad categorizations and monolithic sentiments typically break down when applied to INDIVIDUAL BEHAVIOR. The classic economic assumption that humans are rational actors is absurd. Humans are inherently imperfect individuals layered with needs, wants, programming, ego, trauma, and free will – a perfect recipe for non-rational behavior (and I love each and every one of you messy humans)! Here the uniqueness of each soul is on full display. With our large prefrontal cortexes, Homo Sapiens are capable of significant strategic thought through abstraction and planning which enable game theoretic agendas to be conceived and executed. This is the realm of psychology and game theory.

Taken as a whole both individual and collective behavior in systems must be accounted for. Gross disparities in resources and power in the human socio-economic, political, and cultural spheres mean that single actors can alter entire systems. Simultaneously the scale and scope of systems mean that significant change in those spheres is often slow pacing like moving the rudder of a giant tanker ship. Side-note: one of the master’s of systems thinking, Buckminster Fuller, had the phrase “Call me Trim Tab” chiseled on his tombstone. A trim tab is a tiny flap in the larger rudder that causes the rudder itself to change directions. By this thinking, finding the leverage points where the least effort causes the largest result is of greatest use.

Stepping back to the level of systems and patterns which contain the many behaviors within them, all of this occurs over TIME. Patterns wear into cycles which mark the passage of time in our daily lives. The circadian rhythm, menstruation, earth tilt and rotation creating seasons, moon cycles, migrations, and brain waves are but a few of the cycles that regulate earth. 

All of these systems and cycles are dynamic and fluid over time. No tide or menstruation is the same. The examination of any element occurs at one static moment like taking a single splice from a movie reel. This splicing may happen automatically by the brain if the time period is minute or require critical thinking if the time period is more grand. As time marches continually forward each system adapts and evolves to the changing environmental conditions, flows, and behaviors.

Knowing the past is essential in developing functional models of complexity. To recognize patterns requires orientation beyond the current moment in order to have a working model that accounts for the past and future. The disciplines of history, anthropology, and archeology allow us to peer back into time, unearthing patterns of life that more fully inform how we arrived at our present state. 

Western thinking has for millennia billed time as linear whereas indigenous experience perceives time to be polychronic, meaning all happening at once. It is possible to experience time as both ordinal and collapsed, though maybe not at the same time. While most of the world now works on ordinal, linear time marked by intervals on the Gregorian calendar and 12-hour timepiece, there is significant wisdom in the NON-LINEARITY of time. 

Whether time is ordinal or collapsed, it is clear that not everything moves linearly. Breakthroughs often occur through leaps in logic. Our ability to use inductive reasoning hints at deeper organizing forces that exist outside the confines of human logic. 

Treasure, Catwalks, and Mice

All of this can be quite overwhelming. It’s all occurring always in an infinite array of abstraction and perception. Without proper methods of looking (perception) and thinking (epistemology) it can seem as though there is chaos without order. Building pattern-and-systems literacy is crucial for MAKING SENSE of this increasingly complex world. 

MAPS are useful in reflecting what’s happened in the past forward to the present. They help chart familiar territory and create order of what’s already been discovered. They can create taxonomies to help clarify and classify ideas as well as orient us toward reliable stakes in the ground.

MODELS are useful in describing how a system is thought to currently work or how a system should work (predictive/theoretical). Models of complex systems often include individuals, groups, flows, processes, boundaries, feedback loops, and time in diagrams. These metaphorical pictorial representations encode a frame or way of ordering chaos into a coherent structure of reality. Anything can be studied, tracked, mapped, or modelled and there is no shortage of existing creations. It’s important to get clear on what needs to be understood and what existing models, if any, apply. 

Given the interconnectedness of the world and expanding depth-of-domain, models are critical in simplifying complexity and creating order. They allow us to sort greater information/variables through useful epistemic tools. As with all tools they can be used incorrectly – there are many TRAPS. Every model is incomplete and all are fallible. The chances that any existing model has enough information to fully describe/predict reality is slim. The nature of knowledge is that it inevitably expands to greater depths and previous certainties evolve with deeper understanding. 

If we rely too heavily on a model we fall into the trap of its structure becoming a heuristic, a crutch in our thinking that keeps us from doing real thinking (rather than the repetition of memes, troupes, and popular ideas). While heuristics are useful, it is important for a systems thinker to continually check the epistemological processes for laziness which is in many ways human nature, a method of programming in the brain that seeks to lower the energy cost of tasks. Another trap is the attempt to fit everything into one model. Theories of everything, like Integral Theory, are ambitious yet challenging. In their attempts at complete explanation they are likely to miss nuance. 

Systems thinking effectiveness and the application of models is limited most by proper execution. Personal bias, agenda, ego, funding, etc…can all get in the way of proper thinking. Which elements are discounted or highlighted can become blind spots that cripple the integrity of a whole system. Effectiveness can also be hampered by information overload and analysis paralysis. Meaning must be made that is grounded and rational. 

All of this work can be extremely heady. It is essential to ensure that systems and complexity thinking is not relegated to the realm of intellect only. There is great wisdom is sensing, feeling, intuition, emotion, curiosity, and leaps into the void. Whole humans bringing their whole selves as creators and operators of these models are required to pierce the intricacies of complex living systems and it can be argued all systems are living systems.

In the realms where “thoughts are things” these models and systems become realities unto themselves which permeate and shape reality. If a model does not exist for what needs to be understood, rather than fit a square pen in a round hole, it is time to create a new model. 

With all of this written, to what end does one engage in this work? Theoretical or scholastic endeavors that fail to move particles in 3D realm have lower utility. Utility is maximized when the outcome of this work is clarity. With clear thinking comes aligned action seeking desired outcomes. The system must be put to use to serve the desired outcome. And one must not become slave to the system. It serves us. Not the other way around. And it will undoubtedly evolve. 

What’s Next

The questions we ask yield our next discoveries. I’m asking:

  • Which systems are useful to learn? The answer here is driven by the real-world set of complex problems I am identifying as potential lines of inquiry and investment of attention and resources.
  • How do I continue to develop the internal capabilities (awareness, pattern literacy, sensemaking, etc…) requisite for appropriate epistemological processes?
  • What thinkers or organizations should I engage with?

If you have answers to these questions, comments on this piece, or suggestions on how to deepen this arena of inquiry, let’s dialogue about it! 

 

57 Days? What Are You Up To, Evan?!

It’s been an astounding 57 days since I’ve last posted here. Is that a problem? Perhaps for my commitment to write frequently this year. 

Alas! I have been writing, just elsewhere. And through this process I’ve come to understand that my commitment is not just to write. I am committed to creating. As an artist, a term I use very loosely to describe the many mediums through which I express, I’m finding that I will create even if I’m not trying.

Here’s what I’ve been up to:

  • Sensemaking101.com is a website I’ve created from scratch over the last two months. It is my journey to “expand sensemaking for the masses”. I have researched and written a variety of content on the topic with more articles identified as I continue to peel back the layers of sense-making. 
  • Regeneration.us is another website I’ve designed and a project that I am resourcing as part of my continuing work as a regenerative practitioner. 
  • Another website that I’m not ready to share yet with the world…

Amidst all of this, I’ve been diligently prepping for the most significant transition period in my adult life. More to come on this…

Drop me a line (I’m getting into some fun stuff)…

A Week’s Links January 24

What’s blowing my hair back? See below. 

  • Internal Family Systems came on my radar when Paula recommended it to me. Tim Ferris has a good interview with the progenitor, Richard Schwartz. I’m diving into his book Introduction to Family Systems.
    • Why it’s relevant: I find this practice related to both Shamanic healing and complexity science by relating parts to wholes and the dynamics between them. The method resonates in that I have certainly said “a part of me wants X and a part of feels Y”. Good first-and-second line work here. I think it can be harnessed as a good rhetorical tool and may be one method of inching people towards embodying opposing ideas. “I know a part of you is mad as hell…what might the other parts believe about X…”
  •  A video of Dr. Simone Gold came onto my radar where she advocates for hydroxychloroquine and against the new Sars-COV-2 vaccines. It was great sense-making practice to debunk her ideas and spot the cognitive biases she employs amidst her talented oration. I was subsequently very pleased when Dr. Wilson Debunked the Funk of Simone Gold two days after she was arrested for taking part in the ‘insurrection’. In parallel, I was pleased to find that Dr. Wilson was interviewed on the Conspirituality podcast where he demonstrated his dedication to good science and healthy dialogue. After vetting his videos, I assess that Dr. Wilson is a trustworthy source.
    • Why it’s relevant: It’s important to track the anti-vaccine movement and how it has moved parallel QAnon and ethnonationalism as well its intersections with the Christian right (Simone’s video took place at a church as ministry because the link between faith in Jesus and rejecting the vaccine is apparent…). The principle here is to invest more time with the perspectives that make less sense to me such that I understand their merits or lack thereof. 
  • I’ve enjoyed the podcast Conspirituality in general, having listened to more than a dozen episodes now. Their latest episode, which I haven’t finished yet, dives into the allure of esoteric knowledge before addressing a number of known channelers.
    • Why it’s relevant: If we’ve been talking recently, you’ve likely heard me rail agains the spiritual marketplace and it’s associated industries of funnel marketing and consulting. I see this podcast as a good faith effort to disassemble much of the new age bait that many have swallowed (including myself at various points). Most importantly: they are addressing their critics directly. With their material, like all sources, I have practiced discernment in understanding what biases are present and its clear to me their work falls squarely in the realm of skepticism. The hosts’ willingness to use their platform to address critique is modelling the behavior of engaging in a healthy dialogue. Kudos!
  • As I dive deeper into Cynefin as a sense-making tool that assists in determining which actions/tools are appropriate for the task at hand given its domain, I find this article on scaffolding and constraints applicable beyond the Cynefin framework. I am working my way through the references listed.
    • Why it’s relevant: Constraints are real characteristics of complex systems. Understanding the typology of constraints is necessary to understand the environments in which we operate. The nature of the constraint dictates how we might design with it in mind. 
  •  In my disinformation research this week, I came across Playmaker Systems which has a full taxonomy of influence strategies. They link to the blog and podcast over at the Information Professionals Association which looks rich and is on the TBH (to be harvested) list.
    • Why it’s relevant: Our media landscape is littered with overt and covert agendas. Deception is not new though it certainly is increasing. Deciphering signal from noise is essential for those intent on seeing and operating in the larger environment. A study of the tactics and strategies available to the many actors in our systems reduces the first-mover advantage of information operations.

At some interval, I’ll continue this type of link sharing to leave a trail of artifacts to track over time.

The Case for Rituals in the Workplace

1 Wired

U.S. public places and office spaces are becoming more secular each year as adherents to the Establishment Clause seek to reduce the exposure of one belief over another. There are many arguments for not having a state religion and this premise was a founding principle that ensured U.S. citizens were free from the religious persecution that drove early settlers to these shores. While not having a formal state religion (arguable) benefits the plurality, the push for sanitizing most traces of religion from our public spaces is depriving us of an essential activity: rituals. 

We are a ritualistic species. This is an evolutionary advantage that led H. Sapiens to triumph over Neanderthals. Cultures all over the world are bound together by a rich tapestry of rituals that contribute to social cohesion. They often center on stress reduction, community building, and status recognition and involve synchronized, attention-getting, and stylized behavior taking place in ceremonial or symbolic settings. 

We’re wired for ritual, an instinct that emerges and is solidified by every major religion. Every major religion is full of rituals, each with their holy day requiring specific actions that typically involve gathering together for group activity in symbolic devotion to a belief, god, or historical event. 

Rituals take place on a schedule, based on the calendar (like a month of fiscal quarter), celestial events (cycle of the moon or procession of the equinoxes), events (achieving 100%, marriage, or childbirth), or aging (job tenure or initiatory rites). The regular schedule creates familiarity and expectation that something will happen at a predetermined time. When the ritual occurs we feel comfort and relaxation, all is as it should be (even if the ritual is painful). 

As we come together for this ritual we create space that is held together by collective intention. When gathered together for a collective purpose we learn to trust those observing the ritual with us. This creates common reference points and builds deeper social bonds. 

As the ritual continues a rhythm develops. This routine leads to depth. Inside the safe space woven by trust  held together by community, we drop deeper into the ritual, daring to be exposed, seen, and felt, and by doing so become more raw and honest with ourselves and others. This depth ushers more power for the individual and collective. The ritual ends by us recognizing status, accepting a shared truth, empathizing with our fellows, feeling compassion for our humanity, and celebrating.

Ritual space is sacred. The word comes from the Old French sacrer meaning “consecrate, anoint, dedicate”. We are dedicating a space for a purpose, setting an intention for how this time and place will be shared. We have lost much of the sacred in our secularization. Public space is secular, not sacred, and as such we grow more disconnected from our shared rituals. 

2 Work Needs Ritual

We need more rituals in the workplace. Whether we’re digital, remote, or in-office, ritual helps create the space for genuine connection in a work environment. We bring our best selves. When people expect ritual, they prepare. If the ritual occurs after achievement, it gives us something to shoot for and a shared memorable moment to commemorate our attainment. Ritual helps calibrate our humanity, create commonality, and have fun. 

In the team meetings I’ve led recently, we’ve taken to starting our meetings with the ritual of sharing three gratitudes. When it becomes an expectation, it becomes a way that we set the space. There’s plenty to read about the benefits of being grateful so I won’t bore you with that here. When we come to a meeting expecting it, over time, the gratitudes become more personal and engaging. 

Sales is abound with potential for rituals. Welcome rituals for joining a new team or starting a new position.  Recognition rituals for hitting month, quarter, year, and club. Celebration rituals like banging the gong or happy hours. And then there are company rituals like commemorating an important milestone, connecting to the early days/founding, or devoting time to a certain cause each year. 

Ritual requires reverence, meaning we must make our rituals overt. It is time to recognize our need for ritual, normalize it for the work environment, make its existence explicit, and allow participation as optional, but encouraged. We want people to lean in and bring their hearts, not engage begrudgingly while rolling their eyes. Rather than push for the secularization of our work space, let us anoint it in our shared intention. 

Rituals can also be personal as well. The surgeon scrubbing their hands in a certain way is a ritual that creates the sacred (dedicated, anointed) space called the operating room where great concentration occur. The same can be said for our morning, coffee, exercise, and work preparation rituals. All can help create the sacred space necessary for the performance of some meaningful activity.

Note that a routine is something we do that needs to be done regularly while a ritual is a deeper more meaningful practice engaged with purpose behind it. By this definition, we need less routine and more ritual in our personal and professional lives.

3 Variety is the Spice of Life

It also makes sense for our workplaces to encourage the sharing and observing of other rituals that are important to our diverse employees. Homogeneity creates fragility. Variety creates resilience. Let’s welcome the full spectrum of rituals to be acknowledged in the office, though not necessarily practiced. This allows us to bring our whole selves to work and to (hopefully) be seen and appreciated for who we are. Sure, it could lead to some conversations with HR, and this will be healthy in our pursuit of inclusive work environments. 

We must do more than merely tolerate those who have different beliefs if our communities, businesses, and country are to thrive. Toleration is often thought of as grudging and short of acceptance. None of us have to accept another’s beliefs. The skill (yes, it’s a learned skill) of being able to maintain one’s own beliefs while seeking to understand (or even engage in) another’s is essential for building mutualism in our pluralistic society.

Our ability to be open to the beliefs that underlie an entirely different worldview is one measure of our compassion and humanity. It is through the exposure to different beliefs and rituals that we come to more deeply know our own. That you are different is to be expected and celebrated, not denigrated and relegated to hiding. Bring your ritual and your beliefs. Know they are welcome here and in the organizations I lead or am involved with. 

4 In the Workplace?

Yes, now more than ever. American culture rotates heavily around the workplace as a primary nexus of socializing and interaction. We “live to work” more than the other way around. As the nature of work continues to evolve it must continue to meet more of our needs, ritual being one of them. It is time to create and acknowledge rituals centered around the organization’s shared mission and our work within it or create the space for personal beliefs and welcome their rituals.

Many of us are unable to sit on each other’s desks. “Death by Zoom” is nearing workers’ compensation levels. We’ve lost the breakroom coffee chat. Many experiences cannot be replaced digitally. It is from the comfort of our homes that we have a great opportunity to welcome ritual into our digital work space to battle digital fatigue and build deeper interpersonal relationships. Ritual can then follow us back to the office (if we ever go back) as one of the big boons from this time.

As I wrap up this piece, I found a great article in the New York Times about Sacred Design Lab. It is full of resources and other practitioners who have already put significant effort into this need of ours. Reading the comments on the NYT article I notice a high level of cynicism from commenters about whether this is really needed. In the constant effort at sense-making, I will explore the case against rituals in the workplace soon, just as I recently did in the cases for and against space settlement.

Homo Sapiens Regenerata

Each holiday season I find myself indulging in a guilty pleasure: playing my old favorite computer games. Between Shogun: Total War, The Sims, Starcraft, and Age of Empires, each is good for a stroll down Familiar Lane. 

This year I played Age of Empires and left the game running while I engaged in other more fruitful and productive activities. If you are not familiar, Age of Empires is a real-time strategy game released in 1997 where players harvest resources, advance their civilization, research new technologies, build armies, and defeat other civilizations.

On one particular type of map, Black Forest, the map is covered almost entirely in trees. I set out to do something I have never done before in the past. Harvest all of the resources on the map. If I just leave it up in the background, eventually the villagers will be able to cut down every tree, mine all of the gold and stone, and harvest all of the fish. I wondered to myself, how high can these resources go? Certainly higher than I’ve ever gotten them before I surmised with glee. 

As I embarked down this venture I suddenly realized what an appropriate analogy for the real world this game had become mirroring the resource extraction that dominates much of our world today. Why is it that – even in a simulated game – humans have a tendency to amass resources? What is our human nature? Are we hard wired to accumulate?

It was only 10,000 years ago that agriculture ended nomadic life. As foragers quit roaming the land and settled into permanent houses the accumulation of physical materials became practical for the first time. Enter grain silos, surplus, and the first inequality known to humanity. Has 400 generations of time programmed us to use resource extraction as a means of survival? 

Is resource use our nature as opposed to learned behavior? Perhaps it is that Homo Sapiens Sapiens is such a cunning manipulator of tools that it’s inevitable that our tools will lead us to terraforming this planet. The book Sapiens paints the picture of a human species whose very history is explicitly linked to the decimation of competing hominids and large megafauna. If the extinction of other species extends back to our early history, what does that say about the nature of man?

For someone who professes to be eco conscious and willing to take actions in my life to align with the best ecological outcomes, here I am, excited to chop down every tree. It might be a simulated game and not something I would do in real life. But the proclivity to do so raises questions about the task at hand for ecology, permaculture, and regenerative design practitioners. Is it our nature to push our resources beyond sustainability? What might the dodo bird, the giant kangaroo, or the woolly mammoth have to say about this?

It seems we are at the dawn of becoming a new species. As we careen into the Anthropocene strapped to our carbon rocket, necessity requires us to evolve our very instincts. Emerge Homo Sapien Rengenerata, the evolved human species regenerating our life sheds and coming into balance with Nature. This new human species will evolve out of ecological and economic necessity, mothering the inventions and tools capable of saving our species. 

As amply noted, the planet will be fine without us. It will keep going. The question is how far will humans push the envelope of ecological, economic, and political disaster? Will we (or have we already) moved beyond the point of no return? Or is there still time for Homo Sapien Rengenerata to emerge? Perhaps we should or shouldn’t escape off planet.

There’s nothing wrong with our extractive, accumulative, and terraforming instincts. Whether born into our DNA or bred into our cultures these instinct’s evolutionary purpose has ensured successful propagation of the human species across the planet in a relatively short period of time. 

What’s different now is that we’ve become gods capable of material and digital manipulation at scales once dreamed of only for the gods. Our instincts haven’t had time to readjust to such sudden and significant expansion of technology.

My villagers crowded in a corner of the map. They had nothing left to mine, fish, or chop down. Nothing but empty space was left. Their options and ingenuity is limited by programming. Will ours be too?

Salience and Weighting

How do you know what to look and listen for when assessing a situation or building a perspective? At every waking moment, you are engaged in sensing the world around you. We all have an inherent skill in what neuroscientists call saliency. 

According to Wikipedia, the saliency of an item is the state or quality by which it stands out from its neighbors. Saliency detection is considered to be a key attentional mechanism that facilitates learning and survival by enabling organisms to focus their limited perceptual and cognitive resources on the most pertinent subset of the available sensory data.

Making this process explicit and cultivating it as a skill enhances one’s ability to sense, probe, categorize, analyze, and act. 

Open the Doors of Perception

What we find salient can be a matter of life and death. If you fail to pick out the red truck screaming through the intersection 4 seconds after the opposing stop light turns red, you might accelerate to great injury. In this moment, like all others, the brain is receiving a vast amount of information. 

The eyes are seeing all of the textures of the buildings, sidewalks, trees, the movement and trajectories, the colors, depth, and much more. The skin is feeling the pedals, the clothes, the steering wheel, the temperature, the wind from the open window, the car’s locomotion, and much more. The ears hear the sound of the radio, the engine, the breath, the traffic, the people at the crosswalk, and much more. The nose is smelling the coffee, the truck exhaust, the scent of the daffodils blooming, the perfume, and much more. The mouth is tasting the coffee, the bit of pepper stuck in the teeth from breakfast, the leftover toothpaste, and much more.

This vast array of inputs forms our surroundings at all times is processed in our brains in fractions of a second. Vision can process as quick as 25 milliseconds. Vision has a time resolution of three milliseconds. Hearing can take 50 milliseconds. And smell and taste take a full second each. Together, all five senses send approximately 11,000,000 bits per second to the brain, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. 

Of that 11 million bits per second, it is said that we process only 120 of those bits at one time, or .000001 percent, one one-hundred thousandth, of the total. Our brain is constantly acting to filter out almost every single bit of information we receive. And as an adaptive capability, it is likely that our ability to filter out information is getting stronger given the vast quantities of information we are now exposed to, estimated at 5 times what we received just 35 years ago. It seems that at present we have no practice that meaningfully increases the amount of information the brain can process. 

If our goal is to be more effective at sensing and operating, we must turn our attention to…attention itself. If we’re hard coded for 120 bits then harnessing the power of the conscious mind to select the most useful bits from the information array is a skill to cultivate. Development of the faculties through meditation and awareness practices is key to entering a being state necessary to effectively observe and direct one’s own attention. The monkey mind is cunning. Without discipline and practice it quickly will lead one astray of the moment’s most relevant information bits. 

Through concerted effort over time, the mind can be tamed by you, the combination of your conscious awareness, intention, and will. This is the “power of now” that is heralded by many. Its gift is full presence with the information being transmitted by the senses. Then through attention the filtering process can be engaged with rather than simply run on automatic. Here the confluence of gnosis (wisdom from experience), frameworks and models, intuition, and don’t know mind become one’s toolkit for filtering in the moment.

Many Variables

As this information filtering processes at high frequency, we can begin to make note of the various pieces of information that we find most salient. But salience is different from relevance. In the car example above, we may notice that a woman standing at the crosswalk is wearing a blue-and-yellow polka dot dress and that “sticks out” (is salient) because grandma used to wear a dress just like it. Just because we found that piece of information standing out from its neighbors does not mean that it is relevant or meaningful to the task at hand. In fact, it may be that very salient information bit, the dress, that is the distraction that has you not looking as you accelerate into the car crash. The dress is salient, but not relevant, to the task at hand, driving safely. 

Arriving at meaningful data then becomes a step-down process of filtering. First from the 11 million bits to the 120 that we find salient. Then from that 120 bits into the few that we find relevant, repeating many times a minute to arrive upon a relevant information data set. Memory then enters the picture as the process that stores and retrieves similar bits to build a consolidated view of an assemblage of bits.

Weak arguments and poor understanding is built upon a smaller number of variables of relevant data points. Robust positions and deep nuanced understanding is built upon a larger number of variables and data points. 

Our effort in understanding the world around us is to build mental models that most accurately reflect how reality actually works. This is difficult because reality is exceedingly complex and the limits of the brain’s bit processing capacity. This is the great potential of artificial intelligence as applied to sense-making but that’s a different article. 

Our goal is to develop the knack for finding what’s most relevant, understand how those bits interact with other bits, and assemble interactive, complex models that guide our decision making and actions. If we’re not moving particles in the 3D then this is all mental masturbation – fun but not procreative. 

When this process is complete (11 million bits → 120 salient bits → relevant bit filtering at high frequency → memory storage and retrieval → assembled into a working mental model → action ), it’s important to now challenge this new perspective. Given the very complexity of this physiological and mental process, it is our nature to be prone to errors in our thinking (fallacies and biases). If a position is to hold water, then it must by necessity stand up to inspection and critique.

Where to Settle

Recently I’ve been inquiring about the best place to plant roots and build community. This exploration has me thinking deeply about what’s most important in the place we live. As easy as it is to determine what’s important, it’s more important how each of the criteria is weighted. Any number of criteria can be deemed relevant and the same set of criteria can lead to different outputs depending on how the decision variables are weighted. 

For the sake of making it easy, we’ll use five criteria to illustrate the point. In the following chart I use four different weighting versions to arrive at four different conclusions that are part of the decision set.

Unordered Criteria

Weighting Version 1

Weighting Version 2

Weighting Version 3

Weighting Version 4

Spacious / non-metro-sized population

10%

20%

30%

0%

Proximity to international airport

10%

10%

0%

50%

Four Seasons

30%

20%

10%

0%

Like-minded community

20%

30%

40%

50%

Favorable 20- and 40-year

climate outlooks

30%

20%

20%

0%

Affordability Target

$

$$$

$$$$

$$

United States City

Lansing, MI

Santa Fe, NM

Santa Barbara, CA

Dallas, TX

In making a long-term decision like this, deciphering which set of variables stand out from the mass of possibilities is the first and most important step. One could consider schools, healthcare, crime, weather, education, economics, housing, politics, job market, and much much more. It’s easy now to see side-by-side comparisons of all of these variables and more. 

Weighting a large number of variables means by necessity the weights you start assigning become very small and distinguishing how a 10% weighting might differ from a 6% weighting in altering the outcome becomes tricky. This means that it is just as important to understand what is not relevant to the decision at hand. Ultimately there is a set of criteria that is more relevant than the rest. How weights are assigned to these variables gets into the complicated realm of polling and regression. 

It seems that our brains can do this type of weighting on the fly. Back to the car example where two bits of information hit the brain at the same time, polka-dotted dress and vehicle moving through a crosswalk as the light is green. With or without prior training, the brain is likely to assign a very low relevance weight to the dress when a vehicle is moving into a collision trajectory. The brain automatically organizes for the most meaningful bit in relation to survival which is an adaptive trait from an evolutionary blink-of-an-eye ago when early Sapiens were hunter gatherers. These predator instincts have evolved in many species to sort for the right bits of information.

Together saliency, the information step down process, and weighing comprise essential elements of healthy decision-making. Situational training, whether in the military, for a flight steward, or on the soccer field, creates a situation which mimics the information landscape of an actual situation and allows the player to practice their saliency, relevancy, and weighting skills in real time. 

Why It Matters

Shining the light of consciousness on the way the brain functions physiologically and mentally gives valuable insights into the hard-and-soft coding driving our thoughts and decisions. In developing proper epistemics it is useful to understand the mechanisms which are prone to error, fallacy, and bias, topics to be explored in a later post. 

By understanding the anatomy of the brain, the evolutionary purpose of each part, and how that might be shifting given modern stimulus, a practitioner of regenerative and sense-making technologies can purposefully design with these tendencies in mind. This means using saliency and weighting to guide both the design process itself and the very environment being engaged with.   

In this learning path, what’s next is deeper dives into the latest cognitive science, fallacy and bias, the role that emotion plays in cognition, and how the nervous system affects these functions. 

 

The Case for Space Settlement

1

A few days ago I wrote why I am against space colonization. In an effort to build a healthy understanding of the issue in question, it only seems appropriate to steelman the opposing perspective. This thought exercise builds a skill important to sensemaking and a well-functioning epistemological practice. 

No issue is monolithic. There appears not to be black and white but a multitude of perspectives that require considering. Once a good faith effort has been made to understand the full spectrum of potential perspectives a cogent and well tested position can be chosen, ever subject to a further review. 

In the realms of complexity, accurate information is an essential ingredient in the process of understanding how a system functions. While there may be a limit to the number of variables a human can consider well, it is nonetheless important to put as many of the cards on the table. Depth of understanding is bred in nuance by discernment.

2

“You can’t fight fate” is one of the lines the movie Law Abiding Citizen rotates around, a line that must be applied to human’s inevitable emergence from a one-planet species into galactic settlers. First, it’s important to create a distinction between “colonizer” and “settler” in particular calling out the troubled and bloody history surrounding colonizers and dispensing with what that label suggests by opting for the label settler. “Colonizers” bring images of invading land that is already inhabited where “settler” suggests habiting unclaimed land. As humanity leaves planet earth, it is likely that any planet we arrive upon will be devoid of life, as far we know now.

In the previous piece, the contention is that dreaming of off-planet settlement perpetuates a dangerous collective mindset that promotes the expendability of our current planet. The danger is said to emerge because of global warming, the sixth mass extinction, and imbalance of social, political, and economic systems. However, the piece itself mentions that there is cause to be dubious about the accuracy of climate change predictions. There two likely scenarios emerging from this climate conversation, both of which suggest that exoplanet settlement is required:

  • Scenario 1: Climate change is not as impactful as predicted. The earth’s ability to absorb and adapt to human effects is greater than what scientists account for. As such, space settlement is not escapist. Rather, it is the natural extension of our burgeoning economic might and a foregone outcome of human industriousness. Homo Sapien Sapiens as a species are the most resourceful creatures on planet Earth, proving our mastery of tool manipulation in ever-increasingly more abstract, precise, and transformational ways. Space is our fate. 
  • Scenario 2: It’s already too late. The predictions are too conservative. The train is too far down the tracks. Humans have neither the will nor the courage to take the drastic actions necessary to reduce global warming. Coastal flooding, increased natural “disasters”, and mass population migration and death will all take place in the 21st century. As such, our only hope is to follow the plot of our many science fiction movies escaping planet Earth before human civilization’s demise. 

In both scenarios, it is our responsibility in the present to push aggressively to expand our off-planet capabilities to ensure the survival and extension or our species. Consider the sheer number of successive generations that will follow successful extrasolar habitation. Billions or trillions of human lives depend on our ability to replicate the necessary conditions for life. 

3

The piece also takes a dim view of the techno-industrialists who are pioneering the technologies necessary for the survival of the human species. The view of corruption, greed, and economic enslavement fails to take into account the natural trait selection that will occur through a human migration off-planet. While the proletariat bemoans the unfairness of the modern economic system, it is the most successful humans who have succeeded in amassing the wealth needed to “be the first to punch their tickets to the New New World”. 

But success by what definition? Evolution selects traits that are most likely to continue the species. The most successful today, by the dominant cultural standards of wealth, are people most comfortable with competition and winning in zero-sum games. And while these traits may not be the “best of humanity”, they are the traits most likely to ensure the survival of the species. 

Will peace and love hippies pull the trigger to defend the colony? Will enlightened new agists proactively wage interstellar war to protect the settlement? Will environmentalists extract space’s vast resources to build our future spacetropoli? Will socialists decisively direct the machinery of the human mass’ work efforts to accomplish great feats?

Since the agricultural revolution our species has demonstrated our predilection for social hierarchy which is no different than the hierarchies observed in the multitude of earth’s fauna. That this hierarchy should guide the process of human propagation off-planet and establish the structure of society necessary for division of labor is a natural feature of the human species. When more than 99.9% of species over the millenia fail, survival is a cutthroat affair and the success of Sapiens to date demonstrates our ability to adapt as necessary to thrive.

4

As noted, the settlement of Mars is an uphill battle to create the conditions for life on an inhospitable planet barring the discovery of a tremendous amount of water that can be converted and used. The Martian with Matt Damon appears to explore the scientific realities of mars settlement with a level of believability. If we are to settle space all signs point to finding a planet that is equidistant from its sun as earth is from ours with an environment, air, and temperature suitable for habitation. 

These requirements mean that the next human planet, Earth 2, will be a great distance from our present location in the milky way galaxy. To settle this distant planet will require planning, resources, and technology that will stretch the current limits of human capability. Just as the moon program created many beneficial technologies in its wake so too will this great journey push the frontier of human knowledge and technology, a beneficial exploit in itself. 

Because of the great distance, communications between Earth 1 and Earth 2 will likely take time. This means that Earth 2 will have to be self-governing. This is a tremendous opportunity for the innovation of our governing structures. 

5

The challenge of sending many thousands of new humans across space to populate Earth 2 cannot be accomplished by one country alone. This endeavor will require the sum total efforts of every nation and every people coordinating together to solve various technical challenges. Each nation will bring different parts of the puzzle piece together, much like the International Space Station, in order for the human species to successfully move off-planet. 

Space settlement is human’s greatest shot at global peace and unity. If we are to survive as a species, we must transcend petty differences and the lower instincts of our nature. Space offers this opportunity to us, just as the acknowledgement of extraterrestrial life, or a hostile ET attack, will do. 

6

Ironically, it’s this very solidarity, or the lack of it, that is the block to the vibrant, verdant, functional, just, and equitable Earth alluded to in the previous piece. 

If we are to save planet Earth, it is best accomplished by pursuing the path that leads to greatest human cooperation, even if through that path the wealthy of each human nation are the ones to head off-planet. To put all of our species’ eggs in the “must save Earth” basket is naive-at-best, homicidal at worst, accounting for the many variables of our current state of affairs. And while idealism has its place, so too does pragmatism. 

If there is no saving planet Earth, we are compelled to act with great urgency at developing the capability to settle other planets. While technology is advancing exponentially, there is still a very large gap in our ability to sustain in a spacecraft a population large enough to resettle a planet and then successfully settle what will be a totally unknown environment. 

Either way, it seems most advisable that we buy ourselves as much time as possible by vigorously pursuing a set of actions that hedge the possibilities of extreme climate change. We must be all-in on a set of policies and actions that represent a BOTH/AND solution. 

Space may be the final frontier, but it soon won’t be made in a Hollywood basement. 

Hill Climber or Valley Crosser: Is Your Hill Worth Dying On?

Here’s an overused truism: life is a journey. 

In longer form: life is about the journey, not the destination. 

These linguistic phrases are repeated often because they accurately represent our lived experience. 

Language shapes our world and we often think in metaphors like this.

They help us grasp concepts in relatable terms. 

Enter a newer metaphor: Hill Climber and Valley Crosser. 

Which one are you?

Genesis

Theoretical physicist Lee Smolin first wrote about the concept as applied to academic research. His point, as summarized by Tim Kastelle and Roland Harwood, is that:

Some scientists…are what we might call “hill climbers”. They tend to be highly skilled in technical terms and their work mostly takes established lines of insight that pushes them further; they climb upward into the hills in some abstract space of scientific fitness, always taking small steps to improve the agreement of theory and observation. These scientists do “normal” science. In contrast, other scientists are more radical and adventurous in spirit, and they can be seen as “valley crossers”. They may be less skilled technically, but they tend to have strong scientific intuition — the ability to spot hidden assumptions and to look at familiar topics in totally new ways.

I came across the concept from a single mention made by Daniel Schmachtenberger during Rebel Wisom’s Sensemaking Course (highly recommended). Its profundity as an useful analogy struck me and its exploration has led to the distinctions below.

What is a Hill Climber?

Hill Climbers are motivated by traditional definitions of success like status, title, and wealth. Like the playground game, their goal is to make it to the top and become king of the hill. Their role is that of a Motivated Climber, where there is a set destination, the social, economic, or political top. Hill Climbers demonstrate their attainment through virtue and success signaling. 

The structures Hill Climbers navigate are hierarchical, and thus, zero-sum, by nature. There can be only one CEO, one VP, or one Executive Director. Moving up the ladder requires acquiring the finite availability of resources and power positions at the exclusion of others. Successful hill climbers are masters of power dynamics. 

A Hill Climber has bounded returns, meaning that because the success path is pre-defined and previously ascended by others, the opportunity to add value or novelty is bounded by incremental, rather than phase-shift, innovation. Because the destination is along a more known path, Hill Climbers iterate and improve what already exists and are much more likely to end with a modicum of financial success.  

The top level Hill Climber becomes the master of an existing domain by iterating and improving existing processes, excelling and dominating over competitors, & ascending and defending the hill. 

Hill Climbers ask themselves “how can I get ahead?” and “how can I create more?”.

What is a Valley Crosser?

Valley Crossers are motivated by achievement and exploration of uncharted territory. As they look across a chasm in front of them, they cannot decipher the distance to the other side or the contour of the terrain they must cross in order to achieve their outcome. Their role is that of an Intrepid Explorer, driven into the unknown allured by what might await them. 

The structures Valley Crossers navigate are more cooperative than competitive. These grand explorations are rarely embarked upon alone and require a complex web of collaborators to achieve breakthroughs. 

A Valley Crosser has the potential for significant, unbounded returns alongside a higher risk of “failure”. Because Valley Crossers trek an unknown path, their journey is one of trial and error, where maintaining a “don’t know mind” is essential for new discovery. Rather than iterate and improve what exists, Valley Crossers invent entirely new realities, or nothing at all and end with little financial success. 

The top level Valley Crosser is the forebearer of a new domain in thought or commerce, unearthing new inquiries to be solved and eliminating possibilities that don’t work. 

Valley Crossers ask themselves “what problems are worth my time to solve?”, “what’s difficult?”, and “how can I create something new?”.

HILL CLIMBERS VS AND VALLEY CROSSERS

When I first set out to write this article, I set out to prove that Valley Crossers are more important to our society because I have a personal proclivity (read bias) towards the value of Valley Crossing. Either/Or thinking like this will almost always fail us. This is the same type of polarized thinking fueling our many ideological clashes drawn around cultural battle lines: our “us versus them” mindset. 

The reality is typically more complex and nuanced than the easy and convenient temptation to default to one pole or another. The role of the Sensemaker is to decipher the signal from the noise present in all perspectives and then create a coherent understanding from the signals that drives personal meaning and action.

Some of the top Hill Climbers are by necessity Valley Crossers. Anyone who has climbed a mountain knows that the route to the top is rarely a straight shot and often a surprise valley or ravine is hiding between here and the top. Similarly, the top Valley Crossers have to climb hills to get traction and compete in the modern economy and marketplace of ideas.

Our primary societal orientation is Hill Climber. We need more Valley Crossers. Will society’s most vexing problems be solved by Hill Climbers or Valley Crossers? Or those that play in both realms? It seems that innovators cross valleys before climbing hills. Our trumpeted technopreneurs like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs (and all the others), even Thomas Edison, all crossed valleys before commercial success catapulted them to the top of a hill many others now find themselves on. 

“A hill worth dying on…?”

You may have heard the phrase “that is not a hill worth dying on” before. I have learned in my career to choose carefully which hills to die on (figuratively of course). Perhaps the most important part of this entire analogy is hill or valley selection. 

Whether we are climbing a hill or crossing a valley, which one is ultimately more important than the means by which we’re pursuing it. Think about the hill or valley you are on. Trace the outcome of your escapade to its conclusion. Begin with the end in mind. What is the expected natural outcome of this particular path? How does it align with your values?

Thinking like this must be one reason why I’ve heard people say, “I looked at the future and realized I didn’t want my boss’ job so I opted out…” No matter where you are today, remember that it’s never too late to start a new hill or a new valley. And it’s essential to periodically evaluate your path, progress, and destination.

Some Questions to Consider:

  • What’s at the top of this hill? Is it worth it to me?
  • What do I vision is at the other side of this valley? Is it worth it to me?
  • If money were no object, what hill or valley would I find myself on?
  • If I cast off societal expectations/taboos, would I choose a different hill or valley?

Answering questions around legacy and purpose is useful when considering your trek. 

Whatever hill or valley you find yourself on, may you become aware of your path’s trajectory, evaluate its merit, and chart the course that best suits you (and those you consider). 

Carry on my intrepid friend! 

How to Make a Light Pole Interesting

Engage visual observation. Rust and patina suggest an age as old as WWI. Access knowledge of history. The McPherson Farm became the Westside neighborhood around in the mid-1920s and early 1930s and the box could be as old as that. Research suggests the box is from the 1950s, fifteen years after the introduction of MUTCD standards. 

Chart the location spatially. Note the proximity to Sexton High School, built in 1943, which is likely the earliest year of installation. The box powers a blinker at the top of the intersection, not a street light, meant to draw attention to an intersection with higher traffic, two blocks from the entrance to Sexton High School.

Observe the obvious age of the wooden pole and the burn marks. Given the age of wood and wear, this is likely a white pine tree from a stand in Michigan. The pole is stamped with Michigan Bell who planted millions of white pine trees for telephone poles. The pole and box, antiques to be sure, appear to be absent stylers or flyers, suggesting that this box has either been ignored or treated with respect, both surprising given the proximity (two blocks) to an inner city high school.

Trace lineage. Where is the box from? It is stamped from Illinois. Out of state manufacturing suggests this was forged in the mid-to-late second industrial revolution, a time when goods were manufactured non-locally and shipped using locomotion and internal combustion technologies. 

Think across time. The fact the original light pole is still standing suggests the intersection is a lower traffic accident street corner. But high enough traffic that the intersection warrants a blinking light above, but not high enough traffic to need an actual stoplight. Question: how has the light influenced traffic accidents at the intersection?

Examine the System. The concept of a blinking light itself exists on a timeline evolving from train and trolley signals to centerlines to stop signs to lighted traffic signals. No one person can build a traffic box. It requires a long history of metallurgy to make the box and the legacy of Edison/Tesla (and some other unidentified people) to create electrical switching technology. Electrical engineers, supply chain people, salesmen (this was likely sold in an era dominated by male salespeople), maintenance men, and municipal departments are all instrumental in the placement of this specific box on this specific corner. 

Look for Life. One quality of life is vitality, the ability for a system to exist over time. This blinking light system equipment inside is likely not new. In fact, it may be original switching tech that still works, harkening back to a time before integrated circuits (made overseas) when U.S. manufacturing produced equipment with high reliability and quality. That was 452 words!