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So Far from Home: Lost and Found in Our Brave New World

So Far from Home: Lost and Found in Our Brave New World by Margaret J. Wheatley

Some of my favourite excerpts…

This is not a book that contemplates what we might do next, what we’ve learned from all our efforts, where we might put our energy and experience in order to create positive change. I no longer believe that we can save the world. Powerful, life-destroying dynamics have been set in motion that cannot be stopped. We’re on a disastrous course with each other and with the planet. We’ve lost track of our best human qualities and forgotten the real sources of satisfaction, meaning and joy.

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We thought we could change the world.

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This vision, this hope, this possibility motivated me for most of my life. It still occasionally seduces me into contemplating what might be the next project, the next collaboration, the next big idea that could turn this world around. But I’m learning to resist the temptation.

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My intention is that we do our work with greater resolve and energy, with more delight and confidence, even as we understand that it won’t turn this world around. Our work is essential; we just have to hold it differently. This was beautifully described by Václav Havel, leader of the Velvet Revolution, the poet-playwright who then became president of the new Czech Republic: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

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How do we replace hope of creating change with confidence that we’re doing the right work?

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Though in frequent battles with politicians, leaders and bureaucrats, they strive to keep their hearts open and not to succumb to anger and aggression.

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Or perhaps you still rely on the hope that it’s possible to save the world.

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If we choose to stay in our work and claim the role of warrior, our aspiration changes in a dramatic way—we give up needing anyone else to adopt our good work. We focus on where we are, who we’re with, what we’re doing within our specific sphere of influence. We do our work with even greater focus and determination: and we abandon dreams of influencing anybody else. This is what I mean by giving up saving the world.

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As we accept what is, we become people who stand in contrast to what is, freed from the aggression, grasping and confusion of this time.

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The world does not change “one person at a time.” I’d like to abolish that phrase—now applied to just about every-thing—because it misrepresents how change happens. To understand emergence, we need to shift our attention from the one-at-a-time to the whole, to the varying dynamics and influences that are clearly visible in individuals but that do not originate in the individual.

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I know of many people doing change work who are consciously using emergence as their theory of change. They work from an “emergent design” rather than a strategic plan, meaning they have a clear intent, take the first actions, then see what’s needed next. Working this way requires a great deal of awareness, constantly curious to see how the larger system is interacting with our project, what other dynamics are in play, how people are reacting. If we’re really good, we take in as much feedback as possible and use it to figure out what to do next.

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Epigeneticist Richard Frances describes genes not as directors of the play of life but as part of an improvisational ensemble cast.

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Sherry Turkel, in her brilliant book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other,

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This loss of capacity to describe experiences in anything over 140 characters or in descriptive language compounds a more serious consequence of working and living with the Internet. We are rapidly losing the ability to think long and hard about anything, even those issues or topics we care about.

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And as we surfed, clicked, and linked on the Net, discovering things that interested us, we didn’t notice that we were losing fundamental human capacities such as memory, meaning making, and thinking. We were paying a terrible price for instant access to everything, but we were too distracted to even notice. Information, the fundamental source of change, lost its essential role. Distracted but not informed, with no patience or time to think, the world now looms as increasingly chaotic. We lost our sense-making capacity but didn’t notice that it was we who were no longer making sense. As the world appeared more and more irrational, we lost interest in the future. It was just too random.

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Before I map how we got into this cycle of escalating bureaucracy that makes us impotent in the face of life’s uncertainty and complexity, let’s relax for a moment and recall where we are in this universe filled with complex systems that find order for free, that create rather than destroy life.

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Nature’s complex systems achieve order without control, order that displays itself in patterns of great beauty. The intricate, infinite patterns of fractals and the rhythmic beauty of strange attractors mesmerize with their revelations of life’s deep harmony.54 These exquisite patterns are self-organization made visible—diverse and plentiful parts interacted and interpenetrated to create a well-ordered system.

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The beautiful order of complexity arises from deep within the system, from internal coherence, not external control.

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All systems create themselves from self-organization, organizing around an identity. Behaviors, norms, cultures arise from this process. Normally, we try to fix bad behaviors or dysfunctional patterns at the surface level by reprogramming people’s behaviors or changing bosses (which leads to a lot of wasted effort and money). To understand where behaviors come from in a complex system, we need to discern the identity. What values gave rise to these behaviors? What seem to have been the values and agreements people used as they made decisions and determined a course of action? (Amanda’s note: Cognitive Edge emergent values identity activity)
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Let’s start with the belief that bigger is better, or, more accurately, “I’ll show you I’m better by building bigger.” Mergers and consolidations continue to create organizations too large to be led. Size is an expression of ego, not of effectiveness.

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You can’t keep doubling a recipe and expect the same cake.

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And complex systems, no matter their size, can never be managed well by imposed controls.

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Instead, in an atmosphere of self-protection, anxiety, and loss of control, most leaders grasp to control and stabilize anything within their reach which is, of course, the organization. They clamp down on staff, put more policies in place, push, punish, and threaten people, people they never did trust. Because they don’t trust the people they lead, their decision to rule through coercion is predictable. When you distrust people, you don’t engage them in decision making, you don’t share information, you don’t give them an inch (because they’ll take a mile). Instead, effective leadership is defined as how well you enforce the rules.

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After all these years, you would think leaders would have learned that distrustful, compliance-enforcing behaviors only lead in one direction—to demotivated, demoralized, disaffected, and disappearing workers and colleagues. People’s motivation and commitment degenerate in direct proportion to the amount of control and distrust in the environment. But this learning hasn’t taken hold because other values are more important to most leaders: the need to be in control and to maintain one’s power at all costs over people who are inferior to you.

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We need to use whatever time we have to create stronger relationships and community. This is our work as warriors.

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I haven’t discovered any other means to develop insight except through a daily practice of quieting the mind, tuning in with all senses, being patient and open, just sitting, willing to watch thoughts come and go.68 It needs to be a daily practice because the world is so crazy. We get pulled in contradictory directions by multiple demands; we get pummeled by fear-inducing reports; we move from task to task, gradually losing the capacity to think straight; we end up tired, perhaps uneasy, dissatisfied, frustrated. Perhaps too exhausted to even notice how we’re feeling. And this is a normal day for many of us.

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Finding time to be with yourself—to watch your thoughts come and go for just ten minutes a day—develops the capacity to be aware of your reactions as you are out in the world dealing with your day. As we learn to be mindful, it is easier to be less reactive and more present; we don’t get dragged off quite as fast by strong emotions. Watching our minds—whether in silent meditation, in a meeting, in traffic, or any high-stress place—it becomes possible to notice when we get “triggered” by a person or comment, when we suddenly find ourselves shifted from okay to angry, from open-hearted to hurt. And it becomes easier to notice how quickly we make up stories about others, filling the void of our ignorance about them with judgments and opinions.

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The measure of success here is not that we stop getting provoked, but that we notice when it happens sooner and get over it faster. With a lot of practice, gradually the triggers fade away and it becomes easier to be less reactive and a more helpful presence for others.

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I expect these things to occur every day now, but without a commitment to try to listen, pause, and not react instantly, I’d succumb to anger and despair.

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The Brazilian theologian Rubem Alvez defined the source of discipline: “We must live by the love of what we will never see.” Yet as I walk this path, I do see things that inspire me to maintain discipline. I see not only the pain and suffering, but the natural goodness, compassion and intelligence of people. Even though we’re not going to save the world, we human beings are worth struggling for. And in the midst of all the struggle, there are still great pleasures to be found, especially moments of joy. There is joy because we humans are meant to be together, we are together, we were never separated. That was just a terrible optical delusion. In the worst times of loss and grief, when everything has been swept away, we’re still here. We have not lost our compassion or intelligence. We’re still together, just humans, being.

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But inside, we’ve changed radically. We now work from different maps and expectations. We no longer think like most other people. We’ve recognized how lost we are, that no matter how hard we try, this world cannot be saved. We know that things will not calm down, that crises will not diminish, that leaders will not behave rationally, that global problems will not be resolved. We see clearly that there is no way out of the life-destroying cycles set in motion many years ago.

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Here is a practice I’ve found very helpful to keep me from getting lost in the bushes. If I remember to do this when I wake up (not always the case), I create a focus for the day: what behavior will I especially attend to today? What behavior will I seek opportunities to practice this day?

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Examples of questions I’ve used: ~ How present was I for people today? What pulled me away from staying present? ~ How often did I get triggered today? Can I identify what those triggers are? Were there any new ones I could notice? ~ How good a listener was I today? Did I catch myself when I wasn’t listening well? Did I refrain from interrupting or giving instant advice? ~ Where did I act aggressively today: wanting to get my own way; thinking of how to get back at someone; pushing through a crowd; swearing at a driver or news commentator? ~ How often did I act from true generosity, not wanting something in return? ~ Did I let fear get inside me today? How did I respond when I noticed the fear? ~ What behaviors would a stranger have observed in me today?

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Earlier I called attention to how distracted we are, how our communication habits have deteriorated into texts and by-appointment-only phone calls. Here, I want to describe some truly radical behaviors for us warriors focused on how we communicate, fully aware of how much courage it takes to do these things. Here are a few radical acts: pick up the phone and call each other for no reason; drop in on each other; make it a priority to visit with one another in person.

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A conversation in which at least one person is actively working to be present and stay calm (that would be you) is most welcome these days. We respond to any opportunity that makes us feel less alone. We humans really miss each other.

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Those who didn’t survive, he emphasized, were the optimists, those who believed they’d be out of prison by a certain date. As each date passed and they were still imprisoned, they gave up and died, in his words, “from broken hearts.” Stockdale understood why they died: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

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a familiar phrase in Buddhist texts: “the place beyond hope and fear,” a state of awareness that frees us from suffering.

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And yet, there is something to what we call “hope” that I would never abandon. I’ve looked for words to describe this and the closest I’ve come is “the essence of being human.” I learned this from Václav Havel, poet, playwright, leader of the Velvet Revolution and then first president of the Czech Republic: “Hope is a dimension of the soul … an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. It transcends the world that is immediately experienced and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.”

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As Havel also said: “Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”75

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We embody values and practices that offer us meaningful lives now. We let go of needing to impact the future. We refrain from adding to the aggression, fear, and confusion of this time.

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We delight when our work achieves good results yet let go of needing others to adopt our successes.

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