The Highest Common Denominator

We are incredibly complex creatures. From macro to micro, our design is beautiful, intricate and marvelous to behold. I remember watching a short video in physics class in high school similar to the one below which showed the wave dynamics of a crowd of people:

People, when moving in an aggregated mass, tend to “go with the flow” in a way that modifies their approach to fulfilling their self-determined desires. Given that human beings are generally gregarious creatures, it follows that the longing to belong tend to bring them together into masses that move in concert with one another.

These masses are unified in purpose, interest or some other common denominator, and the individual actors tend to trade personal identity for group identity. The homogenized group may be as small as two, and if you’ve ever watched a young couple lose themselves in one another, you know what I mean. Scaled out significantly, you begin to see larger groupings such as races, religions, nationalities and so on, which are masses of people who recognize a common identity.

The rise of individualism is apparently a recent phenomenon, fueled by the great thinkers of the Renaissance. I imagine that this was only the rebirth of the idea and that individualism was generally accepted as a cosmology in earlier civilizations, but it is hard to imagine a grouping of people more tied to the notion of individualism, self-determination and self-realization than modern Western society.

We – especially in America – see ourselves as individuals capable of independent function. For many the independence is based on a freedom from the deterministic oversight of a Creator, for others it is based on the freedom from the unifying and directive control of a Church, while for some it is based on the relative sense of independence stemming from the freedoms promised by the Constitution that governs our Republic.

The roots of self-reliance, self-love, self-education are found in the soil of the notion of individualism. The rise of knowledge and the structural members of individualism – free will and choice – create the impression of self-determination, yet the physics of the matter tell a different tale. Aggregated individuals become groups and the groups take on a life of their own that in many both obvious and subtle ways undermines and dilutes the potent and catalytic influence of free will and choice.

The net result is that in many groups there are individuals who would fight to the death to defend their right to individual expression, yet they more often than not do so on the basis of the dictates of a larger group, rather than at their own behest. The perception of individualism, in my observation, is more important for the large majority of people than the reality of its manifestation.

A question I would love to realize the answer to is this: is there a unifying impulse or compulsion inherent in life itself that better heard and heeded would create a more harmonious and productive whole? Individual actors, acting primarily on the basis of unadulterated self-interest, produce in large measure the world we have today. Everything else in the observable world seems to function according to a more natural, deeper, invisible impulse.

Even our own complex, highly organized physical and energetic bodies seem to be guided by something that we haven’t sufficiently understood or explained to date. We have compiled a mountain of knowledge over the last six centuries, but what really have we learned about how to live better, more productive, happier, more harmonious lives? Precious little in my estimation.

In a world where everyone simply does what is right in his or her own eyes, without respect to a deeper unifying influence, the lowest common denominators – fear and greed – reign supreme. These base influences not only seem inescapable, they seem normal and are determined by social and physical science alike to be natural. But are they?

I don’t think that we can conclude, without reasonable doubt, that we do not have an ability to perceive and to move in concert with a higher common denominator. As human beings we tend to focus on that which we can see and we consequently explain away and dismiss, often with prejudice, that which we cannot see or adequately explain through the lens of our present consciousness. Call it group bias, fanaticism, prejudice or whatever you’d like, limited thinking leads to limited function and limited function constricts vision and understanding.

My own thinking on the matter at present is that individualism and determinism are not opposites, but instead complements. Free will and choice are vital to right function, but I do not feel that it is safe to conclude that they operate without respect to some other coordinating influence.

What about you? Another cup of coffee or tea might be in order at this point before you answer… Have a great day!

The “Inner Go”

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman used an interesting quote yesterday from Lewis Mumford‘s book “The Condition of Man,” about the development of civilization. Reflecting on the American nation in 1944, Mumford drew a chilling parallel to the decline of the mighty Roman Empire:

Everyone aimed at security: no one accepted responsibility. What was plainly lacking, long before the barbarian invasions had done their work, long before economic dislocations became serious, was an inner go. Rome’s life was now an imitation of life: a mere holding on. Security was the watchword — as if life knew any other stability than through constant change, or any form of security except through a constant willingness to take risks.

Every great civilization that has come and gone through history collapsed first internally before it was vanquished by a foreign power. The collapse, as with the Roman Empire, was slow and hardly noticeable to its citizens. Once complete, however, the people were left stunned and amazed at how a civilization as great and mighty as theirs could collapse so suddenly and so completely.

The same is true with corporations. Many a great and purposeful organization has come and gone according to this progression and industries, like the American automotive industry, are struggling with the intense gravitational pull that builds up beneath years of complacency, self-satisfaction and unrealistic practices.

Where expansion and progress stop, decay begins. Imperceptible at first, the decay, as with dental caries, eventually breaks through to the surface. Early warning systems may raise a few heads in an otherwise oblivious herd, but in most cases the alert is overlooked by people who insist that all is well and that neither introspection nor change is needed.

When life becomes as Mumford wrote: “…an imitation of life, a mere holding on,” something is amiss. The economic dislocations of late can be nothing more than a wake-up call if we take the steps necessary to reawaken the “inner go” of our people. If we ignore the alarm, however, I cannot imagine that we will come out the other end without any game-changing consequences.

As such, I am committed to doing my part with the resources – both inner and outer – that I have at my command. There is but one way to embrace life when it has gotten away from you: reach out and grab it by the horns. Mediocrity cannot overcome lethargy; vivacity and the spirit of service can.

Take time to cultivate and nurture what Mr. Mumford called your “inner life.” Who are you at the root of yourself? What are your deepest convictions, your greatest hopes and your highest goals? How consistent is your “outside life” with your “inner life”? Where there are inconsistencies, there will be tension. And unfortunately for us, unrelieved tension is the precursor to most disease.

Take note, for most people’s lives are destroyed from the inside out. While I hesitate to call this a law, it does work out this way with alarming regularity. The moral of this story? Rediscover your inner go!

What’s new?

A friend of mine likes to ask “What’s new” when he sees someone for the first time each day. I’ve noticed that most people answer “nothing much” or “same old same old” and rarely do they elaborate on what is actually new in their lives.

Whether or not the question is intended to be rhetorical in nature, I wonder how often we stop to consider what is actually new in our lives? What is new in your life today? Does a list suddenly come to mind that you’d love to share? Or do you have to stop to think about it for a while before you eek out a thin but eager answer?

The new things in life are often how windows of opportunity are packaged. It’s easy to overlook them, especially if you are stuck in a mode of droning along, like a good little worker bee. Even if nothing is new in the circumstances round about, every day provides a fresh canvas upon which you can express yourself in new ways. Just because your circumstances are stale doesn’t mean that you have to be!

You’ve no doubt heard the statement which goes something like this: “If you are bored, you are boring.” While that may not always be the case, boredom is often the result of the prolonged experience of sameness. Sameness, in turn, is often produced by habitual reactions to the world’s happenings. If, therefore, you change up your habits of reaction, you are likely to enjoy a new experience, even if all other things are held equal.

When my friend asks me “What’s new” my first response is, “Well, everything!” I suspect he gets a kick out of that reply as much for its uncommonness as for what is to follow in conversation. The recognition of newness is the first step to experiencing a more vibrant, dynamic and influential life.

So…what’s new with you?

Creative Cycles, Creative Outcomes!

Between the shoulders of summer and fall lies my favorite ‘tween’ season. The bugs are less common in the cooler evening air while the biological clocks of the furry animals signal a coat change in preparation for the winter to come. The days, in the Great South anyway, continue to impart their only slightly diminished chaleur upon those who brave the full midday sun while the gentle evening breeze begs longer sleeves and if you’re lucky, a light sweater.

Transitions are an important part of the days of our lives, and a well-handled transition – be it for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness or in health – plants the seeds for a successful future harvest.

I would venture to say that the majority of new beginnings are spoiled before most people even recognize that change is in the air. Human beings have, broadly speaking, insulted themselves from the seasonal shifts that condition to varying degrees virtually every other process in the natural kingdom. Call it progress, human ingenuity or whatever you’d like, we are slowly isolating ourselves from the world we inhabit in ways that are ofttimes useful, but occasionally dangerous.

One of the unintended side-effects of the technological advances of our recent era is the loss of sensitivity to cycles and seasons that govern every creative process. If you think about your own life, there was first conception, followed by birth, childhood, adolescence and your adult years (if you’ve made it that far yet). Every new business follows a similar pattern, as does the creation of a family, the execution of a project or the provision of a meal.

Participation in creative cycles is often subconscious and rare is the individual who has a conscious awareness of the phase in the process he or she is in at any given point in time. Some cycles are short, lasting only seconds, such as the reaction taken in response to a flat tire in your car while speeding down the highway, while others might have longer periods, such as the earth’s orbit around the sun. All cycles have a beginning, a middle and an end.

There is the old question: “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” From the standpoint of the creative cycles, they work out whether or not there is human perception of the process. Perhaps this is why the purpose of life has been so mysterious to people through the ages?

The first step in learning to work more effectively with the forces that govern the various phases of these cycles is awareness. What are the phases? I outlined the basics above: conception, birth, childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Where are you in your life? What about your career? And relative to the actualization of your biggest dreams?

As with human growth and development, a different approach is required in each phase of development. You don’t deal with a start-up business the same way you would a well-established business for the same reason that you don’t treat a three year old boy like a forty year old man. Once you recognize where you are in the process, you can begin to ask yourself “am I handling this phase wisely?” You may be smarter than a fifth grader, but are you applying that knowledge correctly?

Think about your world in this light and you will begin to identify the areas in which you’ve been operating inefficiently. We’ll cover this topic in greater detail in the days to come…