Conversations

You and I find ourselves sitting in a pub. Within earshot, we can faintly overhear two other conversations.

One conversation sounds like a rigorous dialogue between two intellectuals. The level of their discourse renders you and I as curious laypersons. We admire their knowledge and academic prowess in the field of their expertise (even if we are confused by their technicality and lexicon). Their discussion seems to exude urgency.

The other conversation in auditory range involves two enthusiastic individuals pouring over colourful, popular magazines. Their exuberance is as visible as it is audible. We hear snippets of their fast moving conversation, which touches on flashpoints of fashion, the rumoured lives of popular celebrities, clips of sport highlight reels, viral cat videos, and the domestic complexities of fictional characters on television.

On the surface, the two conversations seem like they belong in alternate universes. As we sit here, we would likely (and easily) differentiate between the flaky banter of pop culture and the consequential exchange of the specialists. Yet our judgments themselves are superficial. Consider what the two conversations have in common.

Both discussions are intensely relational. While we might suppose that the academics are “all business” and the boisterous cultural consumers are “all play,” such an arbitrary division only exists in our minds. The learned experts are no less relational creatures than their counterparts. In fact, to the same extent that popular culture creates a shared language for human connection, you will sense and see no less human need for commonly held values at a scholarly conference. Both conversations, different as they may be on the surface, exist as essential platforms of human connection. The extreme dissimilarity of their content does not diminish the identical nature of their function — two humans interacting in a pub over a set of creative and shared ideas.

Equally, both conversations include reference points for respect between people. Both frequencies of dialogue come with their own codes of conduct, and both celebrate different domains of knowledge. Even so, do we calculate their value differently? What shall we say of consequence?

On one level, we might hypothesize that the conversation between two research professors about theoretical chemistry of a new vaccine will have ‘bigger’ and ‘better’ impact on the world, but we would be remiss to ignore the fact that reality television influences the lives — and minds — of millions of people. Fluency and influence in either domain can lead to ‘consequence,’ and how we go about differentiating impact ‘value’ will be in large part dependent on what we value in the first place.

The point of this reflection: we humans are a connective species, and our need for interconnectivity underscores everything we do. Consider a brilliant discovery in a laboratory by a single scientist (a notably rare scenario as most discoveries involve teams): even the biggest breakthrough carries no consequence until the network of social nodes succeeds in transferring the knowledge where it needs to go. Ultimately, ‘consequence’ is simply the result of where we move knowledge.

So is there a fruitless human conversation? Could you ‘waste’ time in a meaningless dialogue today? Or, could buried treasure lay in every interaction of humanity, across the bizarre, divergent, and creative landscapes of our imaginations? I suppose the only way to really find out is to listen — non-judgmentally — to both conversations.

What are your conversations about today?

[This post originally appeared in Caesura Letters – Volume II: All That We Are, released 03/20/2013.]

God of Leadership

There are certain kinds of human activities that we observe behaviourally and then describe as ‘leadership.’ We call the people who do these activities ‘leaders.’ And as we describe leadership, we shape the parameters of what who recognize and ‘observe’ as leaders. Observation, description, and back again. Around and around it goes; a feedback loop. Along the way, we write lots of books and design conferences about how to be better leaders.

But what is leadership? Ask five different people, get ten different answers. In the meantime, there is apparently a lot of cash to be made by telling people the secrets of these mysterious ‘leadership skills.’ But who defines leadership? Who benefits the most by peddling concrete definitions about how ‘good leaders’ act in the world? Who gets to decide what makes a ‘great leader’ so ‘great’ in the first place?

To ponder… I’m thinking about leadership as something like reified cultural iconography. Like a cathedral, a ‘leadership conference’ is a brick and mortar edifice that converts a set of cultural ideas into physical infrastructure. The infrastructure is real. (And the take-home paycheque of leadership gurus — like the temple priests — is real, too.) But the concept of leadership, well, maybe it’s more like a god than anything else.

The Medium is the Epistemology

Put a group of people in a room. Give them a whiteboard, pens, and markers. Ask them to develop an idea.

Put the same group of people in another room. Give them pipe cleaners, Play-Doh, a stage, a guitar, and LEGO. Ask them to develop an idea.

How different will the ideas be that emerge from the two different rooms? Do these rooms represent a shift from semantics to somatics? Does each room favour a different ontology above the other? Are we culturally enslaved to a kind of linguistic-bound epistemology at the expense of other ways of knowing?

I know many people who are more than happy to play with bristol board and post-it notes who, when invited into the other room, tend to flee in terror. This observation isn’t a value judgment about them as people. It is interesting to me how culturally conditioned we are to ‘think out loud’ with pen and paper, but not so much with just about everything else. Our culture is so deeply embedded in written language that we seem to equate ‘meaningful thinking’ to ‘letters on a page.’

From ‘But…’ to ‘Yes, And…’

One of the tidbits I appreciated from Andre Vashist’s presentation at the System Thinking Exchange this morning was this little takeaway:

Try replacing the word ‘but…’ with ‘yes, and…’

‘That’s a great idea, but…’ positions the remaining words to stand in opposition to the idea. ‘But’ is used as a contradiction to the proposition that the idea is ‘great.’ Alternatively, ‘That’s a great idea, yes, and…’ invites layer and nuance.

How many things exist as binaries? Replacing ‘but’ with ‘yes, and’ — in speech and in writing — is a very interesting experiment.

Not getting angry about issues that make me angry

I have been thinking about this image a lot recently:

This graphic is taken from research published this summer. The image represents 563,312 tweets about three polarizing issues in the United States: gun control, same-sex marriage, and climate change.

The study presented two particularly compelling findings. First, tweets that are emotional and moral are retweeted significantly more than posts that are emotional without expressing moral indignation. Translated: if you want to get lots of retweets, let loose your outrage at wrongs committed by someone else.

The second intriguing finding of the study — illustrated above — is that your emotionally-amped indignation only goes viral as a ‘social contagion’ within the boundaries of your ideological group. Emotional-moral language galvanizes people to spread a message quickly, but only amongst themselves. Emotionally charged tweets about moral issues thus render a map that illustrates the polarization of society as a whole.

When I look at the image above, I reflect on my choice of words and language over the last few years. I wonder how I am implicated in this graphic. Ideally speaking, I guess I assume we all have a responsibility to forge (or reforge?) some middle ground: not because we need to compromise our convictions, but because history has nothing encouraging to say about societies that splinter at the ideological seam. But how do I, as an individual, engage with the most emotion-inducing moral debates without merely adding to the echo chamber of my choir? How do I talk about morally-charged issues without getting angry? Where am I engaged in a discourse at the convergence of these blue and red clusters? How do I intentionally not get angry about the very things that I am most angry about in the first place?

I suspect this image also captures at least some of the reason so many people I speak with do not describe the present state of Twitter as a particularly edifying experience. It seems like Twitter is, at this point, just making everyone upset. And divided.