Couple of Complexity-related Conversations

A couple of complexity-related conversations—the topics progress and diversity—drawn from a Creative Systems Theory draft manuscript:

Evan (an economist):  My question concerns progress. I suspect we need to rethink the whole notion.  We equate progress with more and more things. But the planet can’t sustain that kind of progress. And even if it could, something is missing in the definition.

CJ:  What do you see missing?

Anne: Lots. To start with, a deep enough appreciation for most anything that isn’t a commodity…nature, communities, families.

CJ:  And?

Evan:  We hear a lot these days about society becoming less civil. Traditional indicators of progress like the Gross Domestic Product don’t address civility.

CJ: Anything else?

Evan:  The disadvantaged. Our present definition tends to increase the split between the wealthy and the poor—both at home and around the world. And kids, certainly.  I think the health of young people says a great deal about the health of a society. The concerns of children tend to get left out in how we measure progress, at least formally.

CJ: Anything more?

Evan:  You are pushing me. There is another thing, but I feel funny mentioning it. I don’t want to end up sounding flaky.

CJ:  Go ahead. Sound flaky, then we’ll sort it out.

Evan:  We’ve left out the spiritual in our thinking about progress. I don’t necessary mean this in a religious sense. But I think our old definition of progress, if carried too far, does damage to our souls. I like how children’s author Maurice Sendak put it: “There must be more to life than having everything.”

CJ:  So, in a lot of ways we need to include more in how we measure progress if progress in the future is really to be progress—something that makes life more healthy and full.

Evan: Yes.

CJ:  I think you are right. And the observation could not be more important.  Mismatches between how we conceive of advancement and the critical tasks ahead will lead to dangerously ill-conceived decisions. And how we conceive of progress and how we understand meaning are intimately tied—progress describes the values and priorities we hold most dear, how we measure “more.” Notions of progress that miss the mark will lead to deep personal and social confusion and even hopelessness.

Evan:  That says it.

CJ:  A couple aspects of what you point toward are not just important, but new to us as a species. Each follows from the tasks of Cultural Maturity. They are worth separating out.

Evan:  Sure.

CJ:  The first concerns the fact that you would bring up the question of progress at all. Go back to the middle of the last century and we might talk about whether we would succeed at progressing—will the United States beat the Russians to the moon? But it is unlikely we would be talking about what progress itself should appropriately entail. Back then, progress’s definition was a cultural given—like gender roles—water to the cultural fish. Progress meant new inventions and material growth—”onward and upward.”

Evan:  The first new piece has to do with that need to take new responsibility in the story of culture we talked about.

CJ:    Yes—and for that to be possible, the ability to step back sufficiently from culture’s story in the first place. Reformulating progress—or at least rethinking culture’s truths—is not itself new. In a lesser sense we’ve done it before. For example, the Reformation and the Age of Industry each introduced not just new inventions but new sets of values.1 But what we see today requires a more fundamental kind of reformulation—and, for this to be possible, a more complete kind of stepping back.

You implied how different the new definition must be in the missing elements you listed. Rethinking truths and values in time’s past continued a familiar direction—toward individual autonomy and material achievement. Cultural Maturity brings into question whether the basic direction that advancement before has taken can serve us in the future.

Evan: I need help with that one.

CJ:  The second new piece helps clarify. It concerns the greater complexity of progress’s needed new definition. You captured it well. The task with rethinking progress lies not just with questioning the old definition and coming up with a new one. We have to hold the question of progress—and its definition (and human meaning as a whole)—more expansively and complexly.

Production and consumption provided an adequate measure for the tasks of the industrial revolution. Bigger (in a material sense) came pretty close to equaling better. But a healthy future today requires more multi-faceted measures—a lot more must be taken into account. Progress’ new definition must be more fully systemic, encompassing in a sense that before now we could not have grasped..

Evan: That makes abstract sense, but I would hardly know how to start making use of what you describe. Application would seem very difficult.

CJ:   Yes and no. It certainly means more must be considered, and much of what we need to consider is not so easily quantifiable. But complex in this context does not necessarily mean more complicated. In ways the task becomes simpler. Try a thought experiment with me. You’ve been asked to convene a group to take on the task of redefining progress. Who would you invite?

Evan:  More than the group that sits at the table for most policy decisions—people from government, business, and sometimes science. I’d want to include maybe an ethicist, a social worker—perhaps a farmer, a policeman, a religious leader, an artist. I’d want both rich and poor represented. I’d want some kids. I might even go further. Why does this need to be just people? Maybe someone could represent the world’s oceans, or endangered species.

CJ:  And when you get this group into the room, what would you do? What questions would you ask them? And what traps would you need to watch out for?  For example, an economist—though not yourself—might miss how economic wealth is but one measure of cultural success. Or a person might fall for an opposite trap. Someone whose deepest concern is the environment could end up forgetting that economic and social factors are as critical for good long-term environmental policy as a love of nature.

Evan: I think, ironically, I sometimes fall for that one.

CJ:  I can see that. The things you mentioned could be lumped together as an opposite to our old onward-and-upward definition. But you also implied a simple way beyond the trap. We just need to include those people who have always been at the table (or better, more top-notch replacements), folks from the harder side of the equation—government, business, science.

Evan:  So, rethinking progress is about getting all the pertinent dimensions of the question into the same room—a real room if we were to act out your thought experiment, or the room of one’s mind.

CJ:  Yes, and we also have to be ready to think this large, to get our minds around such complexity. Miss why an effort like this is needed, or just not be up to all it asks,2 and not much is going to happen. At best we end up with something like the blind men and the elephant—people arguing over whether it is the tail or the ear that matters.

And, actually, there is more. In the end, we need also to think in some new ways about complexity itself. Even if we accept that all the parts hold truth, just having parts in a pile doesn’t give us a living elephant. We are dealing not just with a picture that has more pieces, but also a different kind of picture.

Evan:   You said mature perspective would make the task simpler. All that doesn’t sound simple to me.

CJ:  I said simple, not easy. But a couple factors do make the challenge—if we are ready for it—easier than we might assume.  Each follows from ways the new picture is new.

First is that fact that we have a living elephant not a pile of parts. In one sense this makes our task more difficult, but there is also a way  in which it makes what is needed more within our reach. An elephant’s workings are complicated, infinitely so. But the fact that it is alive provides a coherence—we could say a simplicity—that otherwise would be lacking: A living elephant is also just an elephant.  Social systems are not living in quite the same sense as an organism, but the particular way they are systemic gives approaching your task of discernment—if we can hold it large enough—a special logic and order.

The second factor concerns ourselves, we who are doing the discerning. Creative Systems Theory proposes that as individuals we embody a complexity—a logic and order—very similar to what we are trying to make sense of in culture. If accurate, we may be particularly well equipped to sort out this more complex picture. If we can’t adequately bring to bear our own complexity, such apples and oranges multiplicity becomes confusing if not overwhelming. But if we can, the task, while not easy, becomes surprisingly straightforward. It asks more of us. But taking it on, when the task is timely, can feel very much like common sense.

Evan:  I guess whether simple or not, we have no choice.

CJ:  That is true. And this need to think more complexly doesn’t apply just to progress. Most all critical questions today require that we get our thinking around multiple, often incompatible-seeming considerations. Understanding all this involves will be essential if we are to successfully address any of the major tasks ahead. We need to practice thinking more complexly every chance we get.


Bonney (A psychotherapist and trainer):  As I listened to you and Evan, I was struck by how much my work has to do with complexity—more fully holding it and what can happen when we do.  I get to practice every day.

CJ:  Great, say more.

Bonney:  I lead workshops on diversity. I don’t think what I do would be possible without the changes the two of you were talking about. Bigotry is simple—about us versus them. Getting beyond it requires a more complex picture of the world around us—and of ourselves.

CJ:  What kinds of diversity do you most work with?

Bonney:  Often the more obvious kinds of diversity—gender and sexual orientation differences, ethnic and racial dynamics, all that. But I find working with personality style differences most fascinating.

CJ: You are probably aware that temperament diversity has an important place in my work—both on it own and as a tool for supporting culturally mature understanding.

Bonney:  You use a different conceptual framework than I do, but I think what we are trying to accomplish is pretty similar.

Cj: What has made your work with personality style differences particularly enjoyable for you?

Bonney:  Enjoyable sounds a bit too cheery. I have often found the work decidedly unsettling. But I think personality style factors underlie a lot of other differences—political, religious, even differences we often associate with race or ethnicity. Certainly they color our prejudices.

Cj : I agree.

Bonney: Personality diversity also fascinates me on its own. To a startling degree, individuals with different temperaments live in different realities. I think I got involved with diversity training because I was afraid of difference. I wanted everyone to get along. As you might imagine, I have not always been grateful for what doing this work has taught me.

CJ:  But it is important work.

Bonney:  I think very much. We are just beginning to grasp all the ways it is.

CJ:  Your question?

Bonney:  It’s a bit rhetorical. I think I ask it because I’m getting closer to an answer.  To put it bluntly, why should people who are different—often so fundamentally—even bother to connect? Certainly it’s a lot easier to just hang out with those who are like ourselves—which is what we most often do. We need a good answer. In my experience, just wanting to get along is rarely a good enough reason for people to leave behind their prejudices. I think I also find personality diversity so interesting because it provides the beginning of an answer.

CJ:  Which is?

Bonney:  I found myself thinking about it as you talked with Evan. You described different constituencies as like parts of the proverbial elephant. Personality styles, too, are about more than just difference; we are different in ways that at least in potential add to one another. It is increasingly obvious to me in my work just how powerful such complementarities can be.

CJ:   Temperament categories are less like boxes and more like notes on a scale, or colors of paint on a palette.

Bonney:  Exactly. If we really want to be effective in what we do together, in some way we need them all. I wonder if this is not the reason we see such diversity in the first place. Given how evolution works, differences this dramatic must have somehow helped us as a species be more effective.

CJ: Certainly, today we need them all. When I bring together think tank groups to work on difficult social issues, I make an effort to include not just different viewpoints and knowledge sets, but, always, too, people who are different by virtue of personality style. I find it hard to generate the kind of creativity, and the maturity of perspective, such efforts require without such diversity in the room. I do the same thing with trainings I lead.

Bonney: So while temperament differences may have always been important,  somehow today we need to be more aware of them—and make more conscious use of them.

CJ:  I think that is right. I’m interested more specifically in how you work. For example, how do you get beyond the easy-answer conclusions of simple inclusiveness?  It is a place that diversity training, even at its best, so often gets stuck.

Bonney:   I don’t think it is really possible to get at the commonalities—at least the ones that really matter—without first addressing differences. That is where I always start in my teaching. I talk about the diverse value sets and worldviews we commonly see with personality style differences. I describe conflicts that predictably result from such differences, and how, because such conflict is based on something much deeper than belief, it can be particularly intractable.

I can sometimes be startled, even bit frightened, by what happens when people became more conscious of differences. I often begin classes by breaking the group up by temperament and giving each smaller group a set of questions for people to answer: “what do you see as your greatest strengths and your greatest weaknesses,” “what attributes do you find most irritating in others,” “if someone wanted to most compliment you or most insult you, what would they say,” “how would you describe your spiritual or religious beliefs,” “when people misunderstand you, what most often is it that they are missing.”

Later, I bring the small groups back together and have them interview each other. It can be tricky. Feelings in the room, at least initially, are often not that pleasant. Unconscious bigotries toward people with different personality styles—people who are more introverted or more extroverted, more artistic or more scientific, more intellectual or more down to earth—can be quite extreme.

Cj: I often work in similar ways—and have seen similarly extreme responses. Just the degree of difference explains part of it—we aren’t used to confronting this kind of difference so directly. But there is also how we’ve all experienced violation at the hands people who are different from ourselves by virtue of temperament.

Bonney:   I’m getting better at the difference part—though I’ve had to deal with that good girl in myself who wants everyone to get along. Now with diversity training of any sort—not just with temperament—I am immediately suspicious when I hear people putting too much emphasis on sameness. Appreciation of our individual richnesses and collaboration in any deep sense both require understanding of difference.

CJ:  Where do you go from there?

Bonney:  Once participants begin to be comfortable with the differences—hopefully by this point rather fascinated by them—I work to help people get at how differences can directly benefit us. This isn’t just touchy-feely, get along, stuff—it can be as unsettling as seeing differences. But it is about mutuality.

We discuss the way each temperament has both particular strengths and particular blindnesses. I also tell stories about the kinds of mistakes people are likely to make if limited to the beliefs and biases of one personality style. Most important, I put people together in work groups so they can experience how creative and powerful a team with lots of diversity can be—once people can handle the differences. This is where people really get it.

CJ:  How has this work affected you personally?

Bonney:   Certainly it has helped me understand many things in the world that I’d before found confusing and made me a better collaborator. But just as important, it has helped me appreciate my own complexity—to use your words, more of my personal notes and colors. I’ve become more interesting to myself, and also stronger. I’m less likely to run from my contradictions, more likely to be intrigued by rather than fearful of what I don’t immediately understand in myself.  It helps me think more complexly in general.

CJ:  What you are doing is very important in its own right, and, as you suggested, it also makes great practice for what the future requires more generally. You are getting people to engage a kind and degree of complexity—in themselves and in the world around them—which we as a species are only just learning to tolerate much less make sene of.  In times ahead, we must learn not just to tolerate it, but to celebrate it and to consciously draw on the greater power such complexity makes possible.

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