Storytelling may have been the first human art (and entertainment). The power of story remains, in my view, unrivaled. No matter what type or genre you’re writing in, try to tell a story.

Creative Writing: Creative writing is a passion of mine. If it’s one for you too, and if you’d like some help along the way, I’m happy to offer my services. I don’t believe there’s one best way to write, but there’s probably a manner or style in which you best express yourself. It may take a lot of experimenting to come to it. But I’m a firm believer that nothing is wasted. Wherever you’re at in the process, you can achieve excellence. I’d define excellent writing as saying what you want to say well, bringing to life the worlds and the characters in your mind, and immersing your readers in those characters’ emotions, as each struggles to unfold her or his own τέλος.

Academic Writing: While academic writing isn’t my greatest passion, it’s a useful craft that I’ve mastered. I can guide you through each step of the process, from identifying research, discerning what’s key and what’s superfluous, taking and organizing notes, organizing topics into a cogent outline, and annotating sources, to progressively refining your product through several drafts, each devoted to a particular stage of the editing process.

Editing: Perhaps you don’t so much want guidance as a writer as you just feel the need of a good editor. My promise to you is that the preservation of your thoughts and your voice are my predominant concern. That is, the excellence I can help you achieve will be your own.

My Approach to Writing: My overall focus, working with a writer at any stage of development, is to cultivate the capacity of effective self-editing. However, this is a highly individualized process, as each writer will easily see (and be able to correct) certain types of errors, but will require considerable assistance and practice with others. In either case, self-editing must be rigorously practiced to be effective. When this is consistently the case, rapid improvement follows.

My overarching desire is for those I work with to experience the joy of writing—as both an art and a craft. Generally speaking, I start with the art. Though mastering the craft of (for example) punctuation is satisfying, it’s not where the deep joy springs from. Once people are hooked on the love of writing, plenty of opportunities for bettering their craftsmanship arise. But the joy comes first.

You may have noticed that some of my writing breaks the rules you were taught in school. For example, I ended with a preposition (“from”) and started a sentence with a conjunction (“but”). But I did these intentionally! With beginning writers, I make sure they know the rules. With more advanced writers, I help them to know when to break them. Below are some of the topics I’m likely to work on with any writer (though not necessarily in this order):

  • Choosing the right word: An expansive vocabulary allows you to find those words that are full of life and juice, and that best fit what you’re trying to say (and how you’re trying to say it).
  • Phrasing: Phrases and sentences should flow, not stumble (unless the action, mood, or character call for some stumbling). Writers need to hear phrases in their minds—if not speak them aloud—just as a composer hears the music in his or her mind before committing it to black marks on a page. Every writer should also be a poet (the art), not just a practitioner (the craft).
  • Making the whole coherent: Organization can be loose and emergent; it can be tight and pre-planned. It can even be random, if that’s what the work calls for. But it has to be there (even if only in its intentional absence). Tools such as paragraphs, headings, and chapters—as well as the unity of the entire work—support both the art and craft of effective organization.
  • Concrete, not abstract (find the telling detail): Writing that evokes sensory experience has more punch than detached, intellectual description and definition. In academic writing, a priority is placed upon the latter, but even here a little color can make academic papers more palatable to the reader.
  • Specific, not generic (avoid tired words): If I say they laughed, that may be true. But did they snort, chortle, titter, or guffaw? If any one of the above, saying so makes your writing more lively. (Note: you can also make the abstract “laughed” more concrete by telling the reader if, e.g., tears sprang to their eyes or they were gasping for breath).
  • Use clichés only knowingly and purposefully: Clichés aren’t always lame and tired phrases. Sometimes they have unexpected vigor and power. And, being pithy and familiar, they can save you from being longwinded.
  • Variation and repetition: In general, don’t repeat the same words and phrases. Don’t stay too long in the same tone or mood. Let the action speed up and slow down. People (i.e. readers) are stimulated by variation—that is to say, they like being surprised. It’s also best when your readers stay awake. That said, repetition is a time-honored rhetorical device and can be a wonderfully powerful tool when used in the right way, in the right place.
  • Tone, mood, action, plot, and character: When writing fiction, you need to tend to all of these, though some writers do quite well by leaning more on one or the other.
  • Omit needless words, omit needless words, omit needless words: The Strunkian adage is especially apt for the beginning writer, but often one wishes that more accomplished writers had not abandoned it.
  • Use proper grammar . . . when it suits your purpose: Intentional rule violation can be highly effective and is at least defensible. But unintentional grammatical lapses make the (educated) reader lose faith in you.
  • Mechanics (punctuation, capitalization, etc.): Accuracy and consistency are the hallmarks. Again, inadvertent violations weaken your authorial authority (though purposeful violations can be helpful, so long as they fit the given context).

Once I know a writer’s strengths and weaknesses, I can begin to address them. More importantly, I can help writers develop self-editing protocols that best suit their particular aptitudes and goals. Generally speaking, I’ll at least touch on all of the above, but I’ll also tailor our sessions (which can be in-person or long distance) individually, to strengthen and improve where most needed—while always keeping the joy of writing at the forefront.

The end goal is for you to become a capable and consistent self-editor. This doesn’t mean that you can’t benefit from other editors, but it does mean that your writing will make a much more favorable first impression on anyone who reads it.

To SCHEDULE A FREE CONSULTATION, at which we will discuss how I might best serve your needs, go to Contact and call and/or email.

Life Transitions & Search for Meaning

Sometimes you find yourself in a time of transition—perhaps related to career change, loss of a loved one, end of a relationship, etc.—when you just don’t know where to turn or how to proceed. Or, though you may not be going through some dramatic life change, you may find yourself feeling that life should be something more. You’re looking for greater meaning, searching for τέλος. In either case, I can offer you both tools and guidance to help YOU take the best next step along your path.

Personal Biography: We begin where you are, then work backwards in time to your earliest memories. Next we work our way forward to the present moment. We may repeat this process a few times, each time noting recurring themes, influential people, and key moments. At some point, having progressed from past to present, we keep moving forward into the future (unfolding τέλος). Again, we may do this several times, exploring different possible paths each time. But we don’t try to reach definitive conclusions. Rather, we take a closer look at each of the following aspects of yourself, as a complex system.

Phases of Development (Strange Attractors & Bifurcation Points): You’ll begin to see distinct phases in your life (possibly not what you would have guessed, before doing the biographical work). Each phase has its own “strange attractor,” which is a recurring pattern, but with slight variations each time around its “orbit.” Next we focus on “liminal moments”—the transitions between two strange attractors. These may be fairly brief. Often they’re chaotic—the center does not hold. We look closely at these bifurcation points (as they’re termed in complexity theory), at the events leading up to them, and at the (often mysterious) processes that have brought you to each new phase of development.

Emergent Properties: At each stage of your life, you acquire new capacities. These emergent properties vary from stage to stage. It may seem that some get lost—or perhaps they’ve just gone dormant? Perhaps, also, the losses of certain capacities are somehow compensated for in unexpected ways. We identify your chief capacities at each stage of life, to see if we can detect a “golden thread” that links them together. Looking back on these phases—each with its characteristic capacities—we extend that thread again into the future. As before, we do so tentatively, then turn our focus to the cycle of development within each phase of life.

Balancing Stasis & Chaos: A complex system in a “Vishnu” phase exhibits a balance of negative and positive feedback. The system stays within a zone of optimal functioning, because strong negative feedback loops keep it from going to unhealthy extremes (“switching off,” from an epigenetic perspective). At the same time, positive feedback loops enable the system to respond appropriately to changes (“switching on,” as when the immune system kicks in to fight off an invading microbe).

Systems get out of whack when one extreme predominates. Lack of positive feedback leads to stasis. The system can’t adapt to environmental changes, leading to death by extinction. Lack of negative feedback leads to too much change—too fast, too random. The system can’t hold together, leading to death by chaos. Shiva has two faces.

Where’s your system now, along this spectrum? Looking back, can you see periods where it tended to one extreme or the other? If you’re presently in a period of great instability, more change leads to turbulence and chaos. If you’re in a stage of excessive rigidity, you need some creative chaos so you can find ways adapt and evolve. Within a Brahma phase, rapid change is natural, although such change is still guided by order and purpose (τέλος). Within a Shiva phase, the changes inherent in the process of deterioration may be irresistible (as in hospice care, where the emphasis is on providing comfort rather than preventing inevitable death). Therefore, your time and effort may be better spent looking towards the next phase than in trying to hang on to the status quo. Where you want to go depends a great deal on where you are now.

Embracing Uncertainty: You may realize that you need to change—to take a step into the unknown—but you’re afraid to do so. It’s natural to want to stay with the “devil you know.” But it’s illusory to think that you can put an end to change by sticking with what’s worked before. Change is inevitable. And complex systems are inherently unpredictable. So uncertainty is a fact of life.

But embracing uncertainty is far easier said than done. Fear shuts us down, prevents us from being open to the τέλος that wants to emerge. Embracing uncertainty means staring our worst fears in the face. It may help us to know that—in terms of the cycles of change within complex systems—the phoenix does indeed arise (and arise transformed) from its own ashes.

Unfolding Your τέλος: Recall that complex systems are probabilistically predictable, at least in the short term. By strengthening your perception of τέλος, you can see it as an active force in unfolding your life path. Now you can move forward—not with certainty, but with confidence in your ability to unwind the golden thread—knowing that old and new capacities will support you along your way.

To SCHEDULE A FREE CONSULTATION, at which we will discuss how I might best serve your needs, go to Contact and call and/or email.

Leadership, Coaching & Mentoring for Individuals

Leadership: You don’t have to be in a position of authority to exercise leadership. Even if you are, it takes more than authority to make you a good leader. Leadership is a skill that you can apply in many situations and life circumstances, both personally and organizationally.”

Coaching & Mentoring: The usual difference between coaching and mentoring is that, in the former, my purpose is to draw out YOUR expertise. However, at your request, I can also share some suggestions drawn from my own experience and expertise (such as education and writing). From a complex systems perspective, coaching makes a lot of sense to me.

YOU are the expert on your life. You know yourself best—both as a complex system in your own right and as a member of wider systems (such as, family, workplace, groups of friends, affinity groups, etc.). My primary role—mostly through asking you questions and reflecting back your answers—is to help you to see more clearly the various aspects of these systems. This, in turn, enables you to find and implement those change-levers that you believe can best effect the kinds of systemic change you want. In this role I’m a coach.

However, if you wish to work with one or more of the approaches outlined in “About,” you will probably need some mentoring to understand more about how they work. This requires me to share some of my expertise. Mentoring may also be useful to you in the implementation phase, as you apply your new understandings.

Therefore, my usual preference is to combine coaching and mentoring as appropriate, but always in consultation with you. I’ll let you know when I think I can offer some expertise or insight that may be helpful. But you’ll be the one who decides whether you want that or not. Always, my goal is to empower you to acquire new tools and learn how to use them, in unfolding your own τέλος.

To SCHEDULE A FREE CONSULTATION, at which we will discuss how I might best serve your needs, go to Contact and call and/or email.


Presence, Alignment & Flow

In discussing states of flow, I both draw upon and differ from the work of Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi. I agree with his assertion that flow represents a “growth towards complexity.” I disagree with his assertion that flow requires a clear goal.

In fact, I don’t think the latter assertion is supported by many of the examples—often drawn from sports teams or jazz musicians—that Csikszentmihalyi uses. Is a point guard’s clear goal to win, play her best, score a lot of points, make some great assists, impress a significant other, impress the scouts? Is a trumpet player’s clear goal to play some awesome riffs, get a big paycheck, drink a lot of free beer, impress a significant other, be totally in sync with the rest of the group, try to hit that note that Satchmo made seem easy?

Rather than being clearly defined, I believe that the goal—or τέλος—should be meaningful. As a systemic goal, I think it should be open-ended and subject to ongoing revision. For example, can you plan for an upcoming chess game in minute detail? If you could predict each move your opponent is going to make, that would be tenable. (Or if, like Deep Blue, you could calculate pretty much every conceivable move.) Certainly you can prepare by studying your opponent (or likely opponents). And you can know that your general goal is to improve, or even to win. But finding your best move in each turn (and revising your strategy as you go) must take place in real time.

I believe that flow arises from very fine internal alignment of the system, along with incredibly acute awareness of the environment (which in turn allows the system to exquisitely align itself with external factors). This means that flow is cultivated by greater alignment.

Alignment has to do with dynamics, and therefore with feedback loops (both external and external). Again, sensitivity, openness, and presence are key prerequisites. An adjustment of filters or membranes also seems to contribute.

We function well because our mind filters out a lot of extraneous input, allowing us to focus on what matters. (People with ADD struggle because their sensory filters are so wide open.) But opening our filters wider can also be a gift. Opening our filters can happen in a number of ways.

More open membranes can be drug-induced, and can be related to a sense of euphoria. They can also be related to “peak,” “transcendental,” or “mystical” experiences—again involving euphoria. Flow is also equated with brain states such as those achieved in meditation, being in nature, etc.

Csikszentmihalyi says that flow depends upon (among other things) immediate feedback. I think this is true in the sense that more wide-open membranes increase sensitivity, which heightens feedback mechanisms and messages (often sensory, as with kinesthetic awareness in athletes or aural awareness in jazz musicians).

In spite of his insistence on clear goals, Csikszentmihalyi points out the creative and spontaneous nature of flow. This seems important to me. It supports the adoption of an open-ended, systemic approach to managing complex systems (which are directed to a τέλος that is nonetheless in continual flux).

Csikszentmihalyi’s observations are pertinent to both individuals and organizations, though I temper a number of his recommendations. In particular, Csikszentmihalyi’s emphases on the internal locus of control that is essential for flow experiences, and on the essentially playful nature of flow, seem to me extremely apt.

Both can be found in my metaphor of the surfer and the wave. That wave can crush you, but the surfer is able to tap into its power in a highly attuned way, and so “control” it to produce an exhilarating ride (a type of play). This is essentially what we try to do in applying epigenetic and complex-systems approaches to our personal and organizational lives.

Therefore, if we are successful in applying such approaches, we should experience increased and prolonged occasions of flow. We can then look back on those experiences and reflect on what brought them about (or brought them to an end). But, rather than aiming directly for flow, I advise focusing on greater internal and external alignment (which are enabled by increased sensitivity, which in turn depends on being truly and fully present). When all these are the case, the flow will come!

To SCHEDULE A FREE CONSULTATION, at which we will discuss how I might best serve your needs, go to Contact and call and/or email.

Deep Listening & Dialogue

Deep listening and dialogue are extremely helpful to working productively together, so organizations benefit greatly from cultivating these practices. But they are also key life skills for personal development. Learning by practice is the best approach here, so it’s helpful if the same group can meet regularly over a considerable period of time. At the same time, individuals should practice in day-to-day situations, between group meetings. Typically, I facilitate the first several conversations, then group members alternate filling that role. A core attitude is to stop trying to change other people—rather, change the way you relate to them, even how you feel about them.

But, if you can’t change dysfunctional people (read here, “people you disagree with you or who just plain bug you”!), how can you break old patterns? First, you’ll usually find that people do change, as others begin to relate to them differently. They probably don’t enjoy those old patterns either—everybody’s trapped in the same dynamic. Second, you still give feedback—honest but tactful—only the objective isn’t to show that they’re wrong but to describe which dynamics you perceive as helpful and which ones you don’t.

This kind of group-work requires an utterly safe environment—both in and between conversations. Perhaps this seems unrealistic. (It’s certainly unusual!) What makes it possible is that, the more you’re able to see things from others’ perspectives (especially those of the people who irritate you), the more you see their potential to contribute in helpful ways.

As an organization, you can use this knowledge in an epigenetic way. You use negative feedback (damping down, not blaming and shaming) to put the lid on dysfunctional patterns. And you use positive feedback (amplification and encouragement) to increase ways of interrelating that are mutually affirming—and ultimately more productive (because they incorporate those contributions from each member that others value most).

Deep listening and dialogue are among the best ways to cultivate “relational trust” within an organization. Practicing them faithfully takes strong commitment. But doing so will build a cohesive, positive, and well-aligned organizational culture, which will in turn produce a whole range of benefits in terms of work environment, commitment, job satisfaction, and productivity.

To SCHEDULE A FREE CONSULTATION, at which we will discuss how I might best serve your needs, go to Contact and call and/or email.

Living Systems Leadership

Living systems are complex adaptive systems (CAS). All people (and all human organizations) are, by definition, CAS. To find and unfold your τέλος (or to lead your organization well), a firm grounding in complexity theory is an invaluable asset.

My work with living systems leadership has six parts. These are best explored (and utilized) as a whole package, but I will tailor my work with you (or your organization) according to your needs and preferences.

Part I: Seeing Systems: Knowing complex systems as a basis for systems change.

We will explore the following facets of complex systems:

  • Self-organizing, dynamic, unpredictable, resilient, emergent
  • Part and wholes
  • Stasis, dynamic equilibrium, and chaos
  • Negative and positive feedback
  • Membranes, inputs, and outputs
  • Communication, information, and learning
  • Adaptation and evolution: Systems as historical; complex adaptive systems (CAS)
Part II: Self-Transformation: Knowing oneself as a basis for systems change.

We will explore various ways to become more aware, present, and accepting of oneself as a whole, seeking optimal alignment and integration.

  • Mindfulness, or simply being present.
  • Meditation, or simply being who you are.
  • Body, mind . . . and spirit? Alignment and integration, or simply being whole.
Part III: Engaging with Others: Constructive conflict and collective intelligence as bases for systems change.

We will explore practices such as deep listening and a form of Bohmian dialogue, which make all group-work much more rewarding, productive, and enjoyable. These tools also enable us to use conflict constructively (by seeing it as an indication of the need to more deeply examine seemingly antithetical perspectives). Usually antipathy is not so much inherent in the varying perspectives as in the underlying emotions—often fears and frustrations—of the clashing adherents. As groups become better acquainted and forge deeper relationships, practice of the above skills results in periods of genuine collective intelligence, where surprising insights and agreements emerge, which are greater than the sum of all members’ individual understandings.

Part IV: Open-Ended Leadership: Balancing unpredictability and probability in facilitating systems change.

We will explore what it means for complex systems to be causal but non-deterministic. They follow “laws” (or “strange attractors”), but never repeat themselves exactly (sort of like π, or any non-linear process). Usually, negative feedback keeps systems within a zone of equilibrium, so future behaviors can be fairly reliably estimated (at least in the short term). But sometimes (as in the case of the “butterfly effect”), positive feedback can throw the whole system into a radically different arrangement (or into the orbit of a new strange attractor). Complex systems encounter “bifurcation points” that launch them on new trajectories. The manner in which we influence systems change should be informed by all of these surprising aspects of complexity, so unlike the behaviors of mechanical systems.

Part V: Ethical Leadership: Weighing the consequences of systems change on multiple levels and on various constituencies.

In the ideal case, system dynamics benefit all members—as when wolves actually strengthen the health of a caribou herd by taking the weakest, sickest individuals. However, when you’re being eaten by a wolf, it’s hard to see things that way! Even when an ecosystem retains stability in the face of significant environmental change, some organisms will go extinct. In an organization, you may not be able to prevent job losses as you re-tool. There’s no magic formula for facing such ethical dilemmas—each case is individual. But we can become more sensitive to the implications of change on various members, which will always lead us to better decisions and outcomes.

Part VI: Contextual Leadership: Facilitating continual change in adaptive and evolving systems.

Change happens. An unchanging system is a dead system. So leaders MUST facilitate change. In biological evolution, most scientists don’t believe that nature acts purposefully in “designing” new adaptations. However, as human beings we have the ability to purposefully adapt and evolve—we can consciously design. Nature uses types of “intelligence” (such as “jumping genes” and immune systems) that respond to stress or invasion by throwing a lot of stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks. We can try that too. However, we can usually rule out many options that are highly unlikely to stick (and save ourselves a lot of time and effort). Even so, it can be prohibitively time-consuming to try the remaining options one at a time (controlling one variable). Instead, in a systems approach, we experiment with mixes of inputs that have a hig probability of success and adjust the mix frequently, as we watch how the system responds. In so doing, we also adjust our τέλος as appropriate.

To SCHEDULE A FREE CONSULTATION, at which we will discuss how I might best serve your needs, go to Contact and call and/or email.

Goethean Phenomenology

Goethe is far better known as the author of Faust than as a scientist. Yet he made key scientific contributions, such as his discovery of the human intermaxillary bone, which showed that apes and humans are indeed related. Goethe’s insight came, he said, “by reflection and coincidence.” We get a better understanding of what he meant when we examine his scientific method, known as Goethean phenomenology. Below, I correlate the four steps in Goethe’s process with four levels of complex systems:

Complex System Level
Step in Goethe’s Scientific Process
Members or Parts: This is the “noun” or “thing” level, where we look at each of the pieces that, properly interconnected, create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts (i.e., one that exhibits emergent phenomena). Precise Sense Perception: We immerse ourselves in direct sensory experience of the phenomena (percepts), putting aside all concepts about them (that is, everything we think we already know about them, or concepts). At this stage, our observation is what is before us NOW. We take a snapshot in time, a static image. We simply soak in percept. Our question is, What is? Note that we DON’T start with a hypothesis. Thus, at this stage we purposely avoid, not only pre-assumptions, but conceptual analysis altogether.
Processes and Relationships (Dynamics): This includes both current dynamics and the time-flow (history) of the system. By imaginatively recapitulating that flow, we can imaginatively extrapolate into future states. Precise Sensorial Imagination: Here, instead of static, think dynamic. Still immersed within the sensory phenomena, we open ourselves up to their qualities of relationship, correspondence, and contrast, as well as movement, rhythm, flow in time, and transformation. Some questions might be: How does this aspect relate to that one? What processes are taking place? How do they interrelate? What preceded this moment and what will come after?
Gestalt: First having seen the system in pieces, then having looked at the dynamics amongst the pieces, we now view the system as a self-organizing whole. Of particular importance here are patterns (which are produced by rhythms, as patterns in the sand are produced by the flow of the waves). These indicate the true τέλος of the system. Seeing in Beholding: The first two stages had to do with the phenomena as parts, first static and then interacting. On this third level, our focus shifts to the underlying unity that “lies behind” the sensory phenomena. The information of the percept is still before us, but we use it as a window to peer through, into what unites and animates the multiplicity of interacting phenomena we are observing. Here we can also step back from the immediacy of the phenomena and become aware of the environmental context in which they are embedded. Some questions might be: What is the unifying character or quality of this wholeness? What is its personality or inherent gesture? What functions or products do the unity of these phenomena habitually bring about?
Paradigm: Paradigms are the core values of the system, the “laws” they follow in their functioning. (For Goethe, the archetypal plant, or Ur-pflanze, epitomized the Law of Metamorphosis.) We’re often surprised at what we find at this level: e.g., does our “free market” economic system really epitomize prosperity at all levels? Being One with the Object: In this stage percept and concept at last unite. Yet here we do more than arrive at an abstract understanding―we gain an insight into the essential nature of the phenomena. Goethe called this the Ur-phänomen, the primal phenomenon. But this is not primal in the sense of original or ancestral. Instead it is archetypal or essential, original in the sense that it is the ultimate source of the phenomena. Such unitive (unity of percept and concept) consciousness resembles the transcendent states of deep contemplation. In Greek, theoria means contemplation, so Goethe’s scientific method may be said to result in a kind of “theory” that goes beyond (but complements) mere intellectual understanding.

Goethean phenomenology is a demanding but rewarding practice. It makes us struggle with our western scientific education, most of which is derived from mechanistic rather than holistic and systemic worldviews. One might surmise that people always utilized such holistic approaches rather than modern scientific ones. It’s highly unlikely that ancient peoples discovered the healing (and poisonous) properties of plants by the steps of (1) hypothesis, (2) reduction to one variable, and (3) controlled experiment. Of course, they must have used trial and error, but shamanistic traditions suggest that their methods also cultivated and drew upon out-of-body relationships with the “beings” of plants, etc. We can question or reject such methods, but the science of indigenous peoples is nonetheless extremely impressive.

However, to be clear, Goethean phenomenology differs from many types of shamanism— which induce trance-like states through drumming, chanting, or psychotropic drugs. Instead, Goethean observation sharpens our perception through intense sensory focus, enabling us to progressively engage and develop an innate imaginative capacity that has, it would seem, been largely lost to our western scientific world. But this imaginative state is achieved in the clarity of a wide-awake consciousness that is both rational and, at times, supra-rational.

For those willing to immerse themselves in a challenging practice—transcending the mindset that almost all of us have grown up with—the fruits of Goethean phenomenology can be extremely enlightening and useful, leading to moments of clarity yielding essential insights. These insights can then guide us in creating systemic change (both personally and organizationally). They also help us to deeply understand our τέλος.

To SCHEDULE A FREE CONSULTATION, at which we will discuss how I might best serve your needs, go to Contact and call and/or email.

Gentle Action

Gentle action is an approach, developed by physicist F. David Peat, to effect sustainable systems change—an excellent toolbox to have at your disposal. Peat notes that, in physics, equations (or processes) can be run, with equal validity, with the arrow of time moving forwards or backwards. (Running time forwards is just a convention, with no scientific basis.) Now, imagine a great stone dropping into the middle of a pond. There is a huge splash, then large ripples spread out. As they near the shore, the waves have become much smaller, finally lapping gently at the bank.

Now run that tape backwards. Imagine many people, spread out around the edge of a quiet pond, each dipping in a finger and creating little ripples. If their actions are very finely synchronized, by the time these ripples reach the center they’ve grown quite large. Suddenly a great stone shoots into the air!

We usually try to change things by using the biggest hammer we can find, to make the largest possible impact. Peat says that even very small efforts, spread out among many people and carefully coordinated, make huge changes. Of course it’s more detailed than that. I worked with David Peat to distill the essence of gentle action into the following two tables:

Building a Basis for Action:

  Typical Approach Gentle Action Approach
Change others or change ourselves? Typically, we try to bring about change from the outside. In doing so, we focus on trying to change others . . . . . . rather than realizing that true change begins at home. Gandhi said, “Be the change. . . .” This means that we can only bring change to a system of which we are (or have become) an integral part.
Act from a limited or a comprehensive picture? We tend to see things from a limited perspective (our own), then try to get others to see them our way and enlist allies to promote our own agendas. Even when we are part of a complex system, our individual perspectives are bound to be limited. To more fully understand all aspects of the system, we need to listen to a variety of other perspectives, working with others to build a comprehensive picture.
Focus on what’s wrong or what’s right? We tend to focus more on what’s wrong with a system and how we’re going to fix it, than on understanding how the system actually functions. By immersing ourselves deeply in the workings of the system, we can see what’s working well. This helps us to imagine ways to subtly redirect energies, refine processes, and readjust relationships, in order to achieve helpful changes with minimal disruption.
Wait till we’re certain or embrace uncertainty? We can never have complete information about a complex system or how it will respond to change. This may make us feel inadequate to proceed. Even as we try to build a thorough understanding of how the system works, we need to accept the fact that complete knowledge is unattainable. We must build a comprehensive picture, but we simply can’t afford to allow uncertainty to prevent timely action.

Taking Action:

  Typical Approach Gentle Action Approach
Central power or grassroots actions? We tend to equate power and control with change. That is, we think we need great power to address big issues. But complex systems typically change as the result of small, frequent influences over time. When we recognize this, we realize that even widespread or obstinate problems are within our collective reach.
One solution or many small actions? We tend to think in terms of “a” solution―one big hammer or silver bullet to make radical change. But a complex system depends on many small parts, functioning intricately together. By working in many complementary ways, we can influence multiple aspects (and levels) of the system at the same time.
Definitive plans or ongoing, flexible responses? We tend to try to make  detailed, definitive plans and think that we have to stick to them at all costs. Not doing so is seen as a sign of weakness. But complex systems are inherently unpredictable― we can’t know for sure how they’ll respond to our actions. So, as we proceed, we watch carefully to see how our actions are affecting the system, making continual adjustments to our plans as we go along.
Expect a dramatic response or watch patiently for small signs  of change? Complex systems can be highly resilient, and therefore resistant to change. When we don’t see the system changing according to our inputs, we may grow discouraged and give up prematurely.


Often a system stays in equilibrium until a “tipping point” is reached. Our actions may seem as if they’re having no effect. But, once critical momentum is achieved, deep-seated changes take root and begin to ripple out. Understanding that it takes time for momentum to build, we’ll be less likely to give up when success depends upon our ability to sustain our efforts faithfully over time.

An aspect of gentle action not discussed above is what Peat calls “creative suspension.” This takes place after we’ve made a thorough and sustained effort to learn about the system on multiple levels and from multiple perspectives. At this point we try to find a quiet inner space. (Getting away in nature—finding a quiet outer space—can also help.)

Creative suspension is a bit like the following experience: You’ve lost your keys and searched everywhere (including in your memory, trying to recall the last time you had them). Then you’re interrupted by an important phone call (forgetting completely about your lost keys). As you hang up, you find yourself remembering a metallic sound, just as you shut the car door, turned around, and walked away—as if you’d kicked something. Sure enough, you go to the car, reach behind the driver-side front tire, and there they are.

Peat gives numerous examples of scientific insights that are reached after the relaxation of intense, sustained concentration. But we tend to credit the active mode of focused thinking and discount the receptive mode of inner quiet. Actually, both are necessary.

I can help you utilize gentle action in your own life or in your organization. To SCHEDULE A FREE CONSULTATION, at which we will discuss how I might best serve your needs, go to Contact and call and/or email.

Why Complexity?

When I speak of complexity, I’m NOT speaking metaphorically—both people and organizations are complex systems. Aristotle was on to this holistic way of seeing things, when he spoke of the true Self as both mind and matter [mind/body in people; in organizations, mission/vision (potential) and what actually happens day-to-day].

Remember SMART goals? They’re great for mechanical systems. Mechanical systems follow linear rules of behavior. These systems are predictable and deterministic. Not so you or your organization, which follow complex rules of behavior (which are inherently unpredictable and non-deterministic).

That’s why data can give us a false sense of security, as when FiveThirtyEight.com assured us that Donald Trump had no chance of winning the Republican nomination. In the world of complexity (pretty much where we live), SMART goal thinking—making a game plan and sticking with it—is very often going to get you into trouble. This is so no matter how good a game plan it is, at the time when it’s made.

Case in point: You and your significant other (or boss) need to have an important conversation. Are you going to script this out in advance, line by line and word for word? Maybe your part, IF you knew exactly how your significant other (or boss) would respond at each point. But you don’t (even if you think you do!), so you can’t. You can have a general goal (working through an issue, finding common ground, agreeing on how to move forward) and even prepare by trying to to see things from the other’s perspective and anticipating their concerns. This approach might not be “SMART,” but it’s sure a lot more sensible!

If you know the other person well, you can make reasonably good predictions of how the conversation will go, because there are rules of behavior (dynamics) for complex systems. Outcomes can even be fairly well predicted, probabalistically—especially in the short term. Think of your weather forecast—say, 60% chance of rain. (That’s a probability, not a fact, as we know all too well!). Very accurate for tomorrow, still pretty good three days out. But ten days out—not so much. A month out?—forget it!

So data is still useful, especially in the short term. But the takeaway is: To intelligently plan how best to achieve your goals, you need to know and apply the rules and principles of complexity. Below is a short primer. (To get the long version you have to hire me!)

Self-Organization: Think of a time when you met some people and then grew very close. Or think of John, Paul, George, and Ringo. As relationships deepen, a kind of group mentality (or collective intelligence) develops, in which the whole is greater than the sum its parts. Nonetheless, parts influence other parts, all parts influence the whole, and the whole influences all parts. Think of your family, when you were growing up. For better or worse (or both), it helped form you into what you are. Yet you, in turn, helped form the family unit. A family’s a complex system, continually self-organizing from the interactions of its member-parts.

Like a new-born baby, a newly forming complex system undergoes rapid change. The Hindu Trimurti has a name for this: Brahma, the Creator. I mention this because the two other aspects of the Trimurti (Vishnu and Shiva) also have parallels in complexity theory.

Feedback: Complex systems exhibit negative and positive feedback. Negative feedback damps down behaviors (your mother glares at you for reading a comic book in church). Positive feedback amplifies behaviors (your mother smiles when you share your toys). Negative feedback keeps systems within zones of optimal behavior. It keeps things the same. Positive feedback encourages needed changes in the status quo. Without negative feedback, systems would lack stability. Without positive feedback, systems couldn’t innovate, adapt, and evolve. Within the political arena, conservatives emphasize negative feedback and progressives accentuate positive feedback. In fact, both are necessary.

Within the Hindu Trimurti, a healthy balance of negative and positive feedback corresponds to Vishnu, the Preserver. One way to describe such a state is dynamic equilibrium—the state of continual but regulated change.

But complex systems can fall out of dynamic equilibrium by going to one extreme or another. A system that changes too much, too fast (too much positive feedback) may dissolve into chaos (conservatives are right). A system that’s unable to adapt (too much negative feedback, leading to rigidity) may collapse when the environment changes (progressives are right too).

Within the Hindu Trimurti, an imbalance of negative and positive feedback corresponds to Shiva, the Destroyer. Shiva can kill by stasis (too much negative feedback, strangling innovation and adaptation) or by chaos (too much positive feedback, leading to turbulence and incoherence). 

As an individual, do you tend toward one extreme or the other? Do you utilize both types of feedback, as appropriate? As an organization, do you have both types of people? Are both listened to and valued? Such things are helpful to know.

Using feedback effectively depends upon awareness. Your mind is very good at screening out or explaining away things that you don’t want to hear. And data is no particular protection—remember FiveThirtyEight.com? In hindsight, we can see that the signs were all there, but we ignored them. See “Deep Listening & Dialogue” and “Presence, Alignment & Flow” to find out how to gain greater objectivity, so that you can actually take in (and utilize) the feedback that’s staring you in the face.

By the way, now that you know about feedback, you can see that epigenetics is basically a means by which environmental feedback is used to alter structures and behaviors within the system. It’s kind of like a mute button. You can use it to discriminate amongst all the voices in your head—choosing to listen to those that are most pertinent and constructive in the current moment. Within an organization, you can tailor assignments within particular situations, so that they’re carried out by those who do them best. People may need to come into and drop out of a project, playing their critical roles when needed. (This is usually much easier and more effective than trying to fire and hire your way out of dysfunctional dynamics.)

Emergence: Emergent behaviors arise at the whole-system level and are different in quality than the behaviors of any of the parts. The human brain is a good example. As a general rule, particular functions are accomplished by neurons in particular regions of the brain. But people can lose an entire brain hemisphere and—over time—“rewire” the remaining one so that it carries out functions previously performed by regions that have been removed or damaged. Simply put, individual neurons don’t think and don’t learn. However, as neurons develop complex networks of interconnections, thinking as a global phenomenon emerges. This is why integration (of parts) is the name of the game—for personal and organizational development as well as for your brain.

History: It’s obvious that your experiences have helped to form who you are and how you act. You also can’t walk back history. You can only move on. But mechanical systems are different. We don’t need to know who owned a gun to know whether it will fire. We just need to know that the parts are intact and put together properly.

If the real world were mostly full of mechanical systems (in fact, it’s the opposite), life would be more straightforward. Machines don’t acquire habits, nurse grievances, harbor (or transcend) prejudices, or learn (at least not in the way that people do). But you do all of these things and much, much more. So do the people in your organization, thereby influencing the collective behavior of the system as a whole.

When we know our histories well, we understand the present much better—and how to reach our desired future. At the same time, history never repeats itself exactly. We can try not to get into “another Vietnam” but there will never be “another Vietnam”—so we need to use caution when making predictions (or forming plans) from history. We should ask what’s similar or the same—but also what’s different.

Τέλος: We tend to talk about purposes with regard to complex systems. The purpose of a bird’s anatomy is flight. The purpose of a beaver’s behavior is building a dam. But few scientists think that some ancient feathered dinosaur decided that flying would give it an evolutionary advantage. And how much intention goes on in a beaver’s mind is a matter of scholarly debate. Fortunately, in practical affairs, it doesn’t really matter whether τέλος arises from a designer (as Aristotle thought) or simply emerges. Either way, complex systems behave as if they’re designed to accomplish certain purposes.

The takeaway here is that complex systems are dynamic. Heraclitus observed that you can’t step into the same river twice. A complex system is always a moving target. In fact, it’s a BECOMING (much like the Buddhist understanding of the soul). It’s a verb, not a noun.

This means that a τέλος can change. A bird can BECOME a penguin—forget that whole flight thing and get really, really good at catching fish! In fact, a τέλος must change, if it is to reflect the current state of a dynamic system. Since the understandings of complexity theory square with Aristotle’s idea of τέλος, it makes sense to use complexity theory to realize your (or your organization’s) potential.

To SCHEDULE A FREE CONSULTATION, at which we will discuss how I might best serve your needs, go to Contact and call and/or email.

Why ‘Epigenetics’?

For decades the nature vs. nurture debate raged. Eventually, sociologists declared about a 50/50 split. About 50% of what we do is genetically determined, they said, and the other 50% is environmentally determined. (Note that this didn’t leave a whole lot of scope for free will, but we’ll get there later.) Recent advances in epigenetics changed all that.

Perhaps you’ve heard that certain genes can be “switched on” or “switched off” in response to environmental factors (and that some of these “switch settings” are even passed along to future generations). This is a kind of “learned behavior” that doesn’t depend on chance mutations. In other words, it’s a type of intelligence. This means that life isn’t as simple as nature vs. nurture. There’s a whole lot of in-between, in which the two interact dynamically to help us function optimally.

I’m using epigenetics metaphorically, in applying that concept to personal and organizational development. I’m NOT referring here to DNA or to genes or to how they respond to environmental factors. So what’s the use of such a metaphor?

First, let’s revisit Aristotle and the acorn that’s BECOMING an oak tree.  An acorn sprouting in a high, rocky, windswept place may grow into a stunted and extremely gnarled tree. An acorn sprouting in a lush, open meadow may grow into an enormous tree, full and symmetrical. Obviously, the way the DNA expresses itself is greatly influenced by the environment. But recall that BEING is mere potential until it BECOMES, so the τέλος of the actual tree is what counts. (That is, the τέλος of the true, composite Self.)

As Tom Petty might have observed about the stunted, gnarled oak tree, “Somewhere, somehow, somebody must have kicked you around some.” Life happens to us all. One lesson is, don’t get stuck on some kind of idealized τέλος. Yeah, your life plan (or organizational mission) sounded good, but it was just potential anyway. What actually unfolded was the oak tree actualizing its potential in the best way possible, within the conditions it had to cope with. That’s the true measure of success. (In organizations, the plan of unfolding or BECOMING is captured in a vision statement, which should be continually revised to reflect both internal and environmental changes.)

That’s the second lesson: Life is a conversation. Unlike oak trees, we can walk around, respond, seek more favorable conditions. Sometimes we can even make more favorable conditions. Often we just have to cope better with the conditions we’re in. As we do all of the above, the τέλος we BECOME continually changes. And recall that what BECOMES is our true Self. This means that we have to continually revisit what we think we’re here for (mission), where we want to go (vision), and how we’re going to get there (strategic plan). It’s a dynamic process.

Which brings us back to determinism vs. free will. It turns out that the dynamic interaction of DNA and the environment is incredibly (and inherently) complex. And complex behaviors are inherently unpredictable. (Have you ever noticed this about life?) This means that our actions are NOT determined (they’re non-deterministic). That’s not just my opinion. It’s the consequence of a scientific definition. What’s determined can (in theory, if not always in practice) be predicted. What’s non-deterministic is unpredictable, even in theory.

So we’re not at the mercy of either a pre-determined blueprint or environmental factors (though both exert their influences). Remember, we’re BECOMERS! And how we realize our potential is an “epigenetic” process—sort of like the conversation that the surfer (an “organism” consisting of two arms, two legs, one surfboard, etc.) has with the wave (the environment). Yes, we’ll probably wipe out at first—repeatedly. But we can learn, get better, and catch some damn good waves. Most importantly, as we do so, our actual (or rather continually actualizing) Selves are changing.

So, whether the “we” I’m addressing is you personally or your organization, the lessons are the same. You can learn to interact with your environment more intelligently and adaptively (like the “learned behavior” or epigenetic intelligence referred to previously). Epigenetics is very practical stuff. It also happens to be how life actually works!

I can help you apply epigenetic perspectives in your own life or in your organization. To SCHEDULE A FREE CONSULTATION, at which we will discuss how I might best serve your needs, go to Contact and call and/or email.