The Edge of the Real: The Call of Desire



The physical, emotional, or intellectual longing that is directed towards something or someone that is wanted.

Sarah Coakley, PhD.

Cambridge University

Desire is a longing which bridges our inner life with the outer world. It is a longing for connection, completion, and relationship.

Desire is a longing for fulfillment or achievement. It is a longing that is born in emptiness, frustration, or loss. It is the feeling that comes from a missed opportunity or the sense of unrealized potential when a project ends suddenly, or when love shared goes unrequited. 

This longing is born in our experience of change. It is something we feel inside. It is our inner voice telling us that more could be done or needs to be done.

Desire does not fade. It seeks out that which is beyond our grasp today, but maybe not tomorrow. Our desires define who we are.

Desire precedes and is greater than our goals, strategies, plans and intentions. Desire is that deep core within us that we identify as what we love, for those people and causes to whom we give ourselves with passion and sacrifice. It is that place within us where human flourishing finds its source and motivation.

I've seen desire in people for a long time. Early on, it was that "thing" which emerged when a group began to have a vision for their organization or community. They are passionate about their cause. They see it, feel it, taste it, smell it as this movie-like visualization of a idea that comes to life and compels them to invest their shared life to bring it to fulfillment.

Passionate desire is a longing for something better that engages the whole person, mind, body and spirit. It is who we are at our most central, deep and intimate level.

The desire for wholeness is born within us. Philosophers, theologians, motivational experts, story-tellers, and artists have spoken about desire, passion, and completeness in many and various ways. They know, as we know, that this is the nature of our world. Broken, incomplete, unjust, raw, untouched potential, filled with passionate visions of the good which touch us down deep inside, drawing us out into a life which is better, more complete and whole. This isn't a new story. It is rather the oldest story of human endeavor taking on urgency for each of us, everyday.

To follow our desire, we must think for ourselves, act as responsible persons, and live as the embodiment of that desire. Out of this commitment we discover a new life, and the potential for completeness.

Philosopher James K.A. Smith, writes,

“… we are primarily desiring animals rather than merely thinking things ... what makes us who we are, the kind of people we are – is what we love. More specifically, our identity is shaped by what we ultimately love or what we love as ultimate – what, at the end of the day, gives us a sense of meaning, purpose, understanding, and orientation to our being-in-the-world. What we desire or love ultimately is a (largely implicit) vision of what we hoped for, what we think the good life looks like. The vision of the good life shapes all kinds of actions and decisions and habits that we undertake, often without our thinking about it.”

The challenge is to not get lost in the rush of emotion that comes from passion.  We need to treat our passions with maturity, respect, and understanding.  Our passions have the power to create goodness as well as to destroy the very desires at the heart of our passion. 

We, therefore, need to understand the source of desire. We need to find a way to create patterns of thought and practices of behavior that allow us to see how to bridge the deep reservoir of meaning within in us with the world of change that envelops us like the sea does its fish.

The Three Desires

Over the years, as I've listened to what people say and have observed what they do, both in private and organizational settings, I've seen that this inscruble thing called desire is always present. It is evident in the passions and visions that people have for their future. It is also evident in their response to situations where they are frustrated, disappointed, anxious or angry.

I eventually came to see that this desire from down deep within us is a mix of three desires. I've concluded that this is the spiritual core of our humanity, or, what we mean by our human spirit. It is the center of our individual humanity that is the platform for the life and relationships we nurture in the outer world. It is what is celebrated, what elicits tears, cheers and commitment to making sacrificial gifts of art, wealth and time. From my own experience, I see this as the mark of divine intention upon our humanity. Nourish these desires, and we see why we exist, and what our lives are to mean in practice and difference. Our desires carry that kind of singular importance.

The Three Desires guide how we function in our work, our communities, and our families. Our desires are revealed when we plan, in how we address problems, in our celebration and mourning of life's transitions , when we succeed or fail, and, in how we go through the changes and transitions of our lives and work.

What are these desires and how are we to understand their function in our lives?

Our Three Desires are

for Personal Meaning, for Happy, Healthy Relationships,

and, to Make a Difference That Matters.

 Three Desires-Impact-NoFill
We desire for our lives to have personal meaning.

Our minds sort through our experiences; sift through the sensory data we are receiving; categorize the information that we absorb; identify patterns of behavior and recurrence of ideas; then, our minds establish order, perspective, understanding, and finally meaning.

Most of the time, all of this takes place just below the level of our conscious awareness. Learning from childhood onward to think this this way, it becomes second nature. Physicist and philosopher Michael Polanyi describes it as tacit knowledge. It is that knowledge that we know, but we don't know how we know it. We just know it. It is learned in the experience of life.

We think this way, finding meaning in our lives and in the world, until there are too many discontinuities. Increasingly, in the modern world, these discontinuities are markers of societal and intellectual change on a grand scale. All the meaningful continuities of the past, of belief in God, in the goodness of humankind, in the power of government to do good, in freedom, opportunity and progress. Each of these points of personal and societal meaning are in transition. It doesn't mean that the foundational truths are changing, but rather how they function in the world is changing.

Personal meaning is not just a set of intellectual or spiritual beliefs that are important to us. This sense of meaning rises from down deep in us. It is not just individual, but a shared feeling. I've seen it in working with businesses. There is something that draws these people together. Some vision or desire that compels them to join their lives together to venture forth in some great endeavor.

A vision of this sort, as I point out in my Circle of Impact Leadership system, is formed by ideas. They provide a core belief or meaning for us to make the commitment to work together towards goals that we define as our organizational purpose. A vision, then, is a picture of shared meaning that is acted upon by the people who work within an institutional system to create impact.

Circle of Impact- simple

We articulate this order by telling stories. We share our opinions, make decisions and practice ethical discernment because of the clarification of the values that form our desires, or are the product of our desire for personal meaning.

We act on what is personally meaningful, by defining our purpose, by elevating values that underlie our purpose to a central place in our relationships with others, and, then, together, implement a vision that leads to the impact that is a fulfillment of that which is meaningful to us.

Unless there is constant attention to sustaining a culture of founding values, future generations only see those values as relatively meaningless, and possibly, irrelevant cultural practices.* In other words, Personal Meaning is not private meaning, but meaning that is shared within the social context of our lives.

We desire to have happy, healthy relationships.

In a previous post in this series, Fragmented Boundaries, I write,

I am who I am, always have been, always will be. Though I live in the external world, I am who I am, in an always changing interaction between this person who I am and the world in which I live. Therefore, I am always becoming the person who I am right now.

Crossing the boundary from our inner life to the outer world requires an engagement with that world. It is in our relationships with one another that we find our most tangible connection to the outer world. Let me describe what I see.

Recently, I took a salsa making class. In this class was a retired couple who had been married for six years. As we prepared our salsas, they talked about all the cooking classes that they had attended, from Santa Fe to Boston to Paris, and soon, in Tuscany.
I asked them, "Which one of you was the foodie who got the other involved? They said, "Neither. When we got married, we decided to do something that neither of us had ever done. We took a cooking class, and found out that we both loved it."
What was it that they loved? Sharing the experience of learning, of being creative, and establishing a whole new circle of friends in their hometown.

In the context of their relationship, individual desires, long dormant, came to life. Joy and meaning, and a life that matters resulted. For not only has their experience provided them a context for a happy, healthy marriage, it has also brought them into relationship with people that they may never have had  the opportunity to know.   

We are social beings, even the most shy, introverted and individualistic ones of us. It isn't that we want to hang out with people all the time. It is that our engagement with people, more than in any other facet of our lives, is where our inner selves meets the outer world. To speak, to know, to share, or to love, requires something from within us to form into words or actions that communicate to the other person, who translates what they see and hear into something that touches their inner self.

We are not random objects bumping into one another, like billiard balls on a pool table. We are purposeful, desiring beings who seek connection with other purposeful, desiring beings.

Our shared connections make us tribal beings as well. We gather around the things we love which release our passion in life. My tribes are the church, social entrepreneurs, organizational and community leaders, people who desire change, the Red Sox Nation, jazz and classical music aficionados, lovers of history, philosophy and culture, and travelers through landscapes of mountains, oceans and open spaces.   

We learn in the context of relationships; a living context where our inner lives touch the outer world in a less mechanistic, more organic way. To know someone, to interact with them, requires us to live in a shared story of meaning and expectation. This is true for our oldest friends and family, as well as the person that we have just met.

Our human relationships are the embodiment of particular values that are intimate, social and practical.

A happy relationship is one free of doubt, open to vulnerability, peaceful, affirming, with genuine compatibility, and love.

A healthy relationship is built upon the mutual practices of openness, respect, trust, honesty, and responsibility.

There are two distinct contexts for our relationships. One is personal, the other professional.

Happiness and health in our relationships with friends, lovers, spouses, children, parents and in-laws function in a long historical arch. Live with someone for ten, thirty or fifty years, and our lives are bound together in ways that are invisible and continually present. We nurture the health and happiness of long term relationships by giving our attention to the core desires that we each have individually and those we share. It is by this daily practice that we produce happiness and health. The ancients believed that happiness and health came as the virtues of life were mastered. This is the intention that is needed in our closest, most intimate relationships.

A relationship between two people is between individual persons. Each is defined by their own distinct values. Each is defined by what they desire in a relationship to the other, and, together they grow into an understanding of the difference their lives are to make. When there is compatibility and a sharedness in each of these three parts of our lives, then happiness and health can grow.

In the professional sphere, our relationships are less personal, more detached, more difficult to be qualified by the terms happy and healthy. Modern organizations have become increasing dehumanizing, unreceptive to human interaction (communication), and lacking the supervisory space to allow for the expression of individual initiative to create a collaborative environment for relationship.

As the old, dying models of 20th. century hierarchy fail to adapt to the rapid introduction of technologies for individual autonomy and collaboration, resistance to change grows. Defense of institutional positions of power and influence create weakness in the operating structures of organizations, making them less agile and more prone to corruption and violation of founding values.

Outside of many of these corporate structures are networks of relationships that are spontaneous, open and collaborative. Leadership is not directed and delegated, but shared and facilitated. The network of the relationship is marked by the phenomenon of shared values, responsibility and outcomes. The structure of organization that is needed rises from the purpose and desired impact of their work together, and by design is agile and adaptive to contexts of rapid, discontinuous change.

Network-Hierarchy ImageThe weakness of these networks of relationships is that it is difficult to scale and sustain the work of these kinds of relationships. As a result, they need a structure within which to work that can accommodate the energy and ambiguity that exists in these relationships. The challenge of hierarchy is nimbleness for change. Networks of relationships emerge out of the discovery that we - WE - share similar desires that call us together for achieving impact.  These structures need one another to counter their inherent weaknesses.

We desire to make a difference that matters.

The desire to make a difference that matters is the most fundamental expression of human desire. It is what we do, and the effect of what we do that we see as validating the value of our lives.

For some people, the obsessive need to prove their worth in achievement is the extreme expression of this most human of desires. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the lack of desire towards achievement or fulfillment is the product of the weaknesses or absence of the other two desires.

To make a difference is to create impact. To create impact is to take some idea or value and create a living expression of it.

If there is a forward movement through the three desires, it is towards making a difference that matters.  It is the most logical place where achievement and completion are realized.

There is some satisfaction in finding what is personally meaningful, as well as in having happy, healthy relationships. But it is this third desire which brings wholeness to our lives. If values strengthen the mind, and friendship enriches our physical life, it is making a difference through the expression of values in our relationships that brings the three parts of ourselves to fulfillment.

As a result, it is what we do, create and the impact we have which is the greatest expression of human spirit, and where wholeness is realized.

The Leadership of Making a Difference That Matters

Early on in my exploration of leadership, I came to see that all leadership begins with personal initiative. This initiative is specifically an act of decision in response to an inner desire for change. In effect, leadership is a form of our inner selves' engagement with the outer world.

This perspective is vastly different from views that are hierarchial or inspirational. Neither view places the source of leadership in human desire. Instead these views see leadership as either a position of responsibility within a management system, or, a kind of sloganistic pumping up of one's emotions to do various kinds of work.

My early inspiration for seeing leadership as a function of human desire towards creating change came from Peter Drucker, one of the preeminent management thinkers of the 21st. century. In his book, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, that was spark that led to the creation of my own leadership consultancy a decade later. Drucker writes about entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurs see change as the norm and as healthy. Usually, they do not bring about the change themselves. But – and this defines entrepreneur and entrepreneurship – the entrepreneur always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity.

Drucker's view from three decades ago remains true today. Change is the norm. Effective leaders, as well as managers, learn to work within the context of change. This requirement is now no longer limited to people in positions of leadership, but the necessity for each individual, regardless of their place, standing or position in life or work. To respond to one's desires, is to accept, not a leadership role, but a call to take initiative to make a difference that matters.

The Call of Desire

Desire rises from within us as a longing for connection, completion and fulfillment. It is expressed in the desire for personal meaning, happy, healthy relationships, and, to make a difference that matters with one's life. This movement of desire bridges our inner selves with the outer world. When we act upon our desires to make a difference that matters, we are exhibiting the character of leadership.

Our desires, therefore, are a call upon our lives. A call to step out to make a difference in a way that fulfills one's desires.

The Call of Desire is a call to meaning, friendship, wholeness and impact in life. When we respond to this call from within us, we are deciding to change not only our outer world, but also ourselves. When we do, we turn away from the world of the Spectacle with its artificial hyper reality. We claim a reality that can be touched and experienced, created and replicated. This is how we reclaim the real for our lives and for the people and places where our lives make a difference that matters.

The call begins within, must be answered, and lived out in the world of change. As a result our lives take on the character of an unfolding story. It is this story that I'll explore in my next post.

*See Jim Collins and Jerry Porras' Built to Last for a description of this reality.

The Edge of the Real: Our Fragmented World

Big Hole Battefield 1

I have been arguing that in order to make minimal sense of our lives, in order to have an identity, we need an orientation to the good, which means some sense of qualitative discrimination, of the incomparably higher. Now we see that this sense of the good has to be woven into my understanding of my life as an unfolding story. But this is to state another basic condition of making sense of ourselves, that we grasp our lives in a narrative. This has been much discussed recently, and very insightfully. It has often been remarked that making sense of one's life as a story is also, like orientation to the good, not an optional extra; that our lives exist also in this space of questions, which only a coherent narrative can answer. In order to have a sense of who we are we have to have a notion of how we have become, and of where we are going.

Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity

Charles Taylor

We all exist in time. We know that yesterday we went to the market, and tomorrow, we'll visit with friends over dinner or spend our days at work. We look back in remembrance and forward in time with anticipation. We understand the cycle of time as a part of life.

The Teacher in Ecclesiastes wrote a very long time ago,

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
  a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
  a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
  a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
  a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
  a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
  a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
  a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

While we may acknowledge this to be true, we also desire for time to stand still. We desire stability and continuity, to keep the good and avoid the bad. This is a response to a world that is more fragmented than whole.

Look to the conditions of our external world. It is a world of change that is often disruptive, random and unwelcome. Yet, it is this very fragmented world that we ask to be consistent, stable and compatible enough to make us feel good about ourselves and provide a ground for a personal identity that can withstand the change we experience. This fragmentation is primarily between our inner selves and the world that is separate from us.

The challenge to be a whole and complete as a real person becomes more urgent as our world fragments into hyper-realities.  Of course, to see this, understand it, and live into it requires us  to understand how our inner and outer lives have become so fragmented, how the world is and is not a mirror of our inner state, and how we can establish a path to personal wholeness.

The Hyper-reality of the External World

The hyper-real social world that I describe in The Spectacle of the Real is a world of random experiences that are presented to us as daily events of significance intended to define who we are as people.

Look at your Twitter or Facebook feed, or, watch the news scroll across the bottom of the screen of your favorite news channel, and you'll see events, causes, ideas and personalities that are promoted as information that is important for us to engage. These status updates are not descriptions of all that is taking place, but rather a filtering of what is important and what is not. The selection of what is included and not included is commentary on the news, not the news itself.

ALL media content is mediated content, not raw data for our own critical mind to determine whether it is news or not.

The early promise of social media was as a more or less unfiltered reservoir of people and information to connect and engage.  Social media sites have evolved into clever, highly sophisticated advertising platforms, promoting not just products for sale, but perspectives and social philosophies intended to guide our understanding of the future and our place in it. The more they know about us through our social media postings, website selections and online purchases, the tighter and more closed the sources of information that are provided to us.

The hyper-reality of social media fragments the narrative sense of our lives, that Charles Taylor describes. For our lives to be understood as a continuous, unfolding story, we need to be able to see our life experience as a whole in two ways. First, as having continuity and connection over the entire length of our lives, and second, as being open to what is new, different and unpredictable.

Hyper-real contexts always place us on the outside of the screen, looking in at those who are doing the real living. We are meant to see a reality that is larger and more important than our own existence, filled with the fascinating people we must follow, and never, ever, involving us as direct participants in their lives. The result is that our inner lives take on a stunted, not flourishing life, disconnected from an outside world that can fully engage us

I have often heard people say in response to my daily change of my Facebook cover picture, how much they would like to go to the places that I have been. There is nothing unusual about those places. Many are within minutes of where I live. Or, the number of times the thought has crossed our minds about how much we would like to do what those crazy guys in a YouTube video did or say what they said. Social media sharing is a vicarious experience, not a direct one, as it is not quite as real as the one we create when we act upon some desire to go see a concert or hike to a beautiful mountain waterfall.

The reality is that the attraction of the screen is always random, momentary and intermitant, never whole or complete. Our lived lives, on the other hand can be filled with meaning, friendship and a real sense of accomplishment and contribution.

As Umberto Eco wrote in Travels in Hyperreality"the American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake." This is the hyper-real, social media context in which we seek to understand who we are as persons. The more deeply engaged in this hyper-real world we become, the more disconnected we become from our inner selves.

The Numbed Self, or, The Hyper-Real Inner Life

Marshall McLuhan, writing in the 1960s, was one of the first to recognize the social impact of images on a screen. His most famous epigram is the medium is the message. In McLuhan's most important book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man there is a chapter entitled The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis. In this essay, he uses the Greek story of Narcissus as a way of seeing the effect that electronic technology has upon us a persons.

"The Greek myth of Narcissus is directly concerned with a fact of human experience, as the word Narcissus indicates. It is from the Greek word narcosis, or numbness. The youth Narcissus mistook his own reflection in the water for another person. This extension of himself by mirror numbed his perceptions ...

... the wisdom of the Narcissus myth does not convey any idea that Narcissus fell in love with anything he regarded as himself. Obviously he would have had very different feelings about the image had he known it was an extension or repetition of himself. It is, perhaps, indicative of the bias of our intensely technological and, therefore, narcotic culture that we have long interpreted the Narcissus story to mean that he fell in love with himself, that he imagined the reflection to be Narcissus!"

Narcissus was unaware that the image was of him. His inner self-awareness was disconnected from the external reality of the pool. His sense of self or identity was broken.  His awareness of who he was had been severed from his awareness of the world beyond his perception. The wholeness of life was lost on him. He had no way to tell a complete or whole story of seeing his reflection in the water, because his perception of the image in the water and his self-perception were disconnected. He was a fragmented man captivated by a hyper-real image in the water.

McLuhan was one of the first media critics to see electrical technology as a tool for replacing our sense of identity with an artificial image. The computer screen, the iPad, the Smart Phone are objects which are now extensions of our identities, representing our inner selves in the outer world. This is why it is do difficult to let go of them. To let go is to lose our identity.  Whatever is on the screen is not who we are, but, rather, a substitute representation, a hyper-real presence.

Sherry Turkle two decades ago began to speak about how Life on the Screen provides us multiple identities. In her book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other  she has similar insights as McLuhan's.

Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies. These days, it suggests substitutions that put the real on the run.

... we seem determined to give human qualities to objects and content to treat each other as things.

But when technology engineers intimacy, relationships can be reduced to mere connections. And then, easy connection becomes redefined as intimacy. Put otherwise, cyberintimacies slide into cybersolitudes. And with constant connection comes new anxieties of disconnection, ...

This is a fragmented relational world lived through the hyper-space of the screen.

At The Edge

Charles Taylor in his book, A Secular Age, draws a distinction between the self of the modern age and that of the premodern one. He speaks of the modern self as being "buffered" against the intrusion of the outside world, and the pre-modern self as being "porous" so as to allow what is in the outside world to take on meanings that intrude into our sense of who we are.

By definition for the porous self, the source of its most powerful and important emotions are outside the "mind"; or better put, the very notion that there is a clear boundary, allowing us to define an inner base area, grounded in which we can disengage from the rest, has no sense.

As a bounded self I can see the boundary as a buffer, such that the things beyond don't need to "get to me", to use the contemporary expression. That's the sense to my use of the term "buffered" here. This self can see itself as invulnerable, as master of the meanings of things for it.

... the porous self is vulnerable, to spirits, demons, cosmic forces. And along with this go certain fears which can grip it in certain circumstances. The buffered self has been taken out of the world of this kind of fear.

... the buffered self can form the ambition of disengaging from whatever is beyond the boundary, and of giving its own autonomous order to its life. The absence of fear can be not just enjoyed, but seen as an opportunity for self-control or self-direction.

As Taylor's description shows, the separation between our inner selves, or "minds"  and the world at large is much more complex than simply identifying either a connection or a detachment between our inner and outer worlds.

The point I wish to draw here is that the extremes of either a "buffered" or "porous" self are products of the fragmentation of the world in which we live. Wholeness is discovered, lived out, at the boundary between them, which I'm calling The Edge of the Real.

Two Questions

There are two questions that I wish to raise that I will pick up in part two of this essay.

1. Is the fragmentation between our inner selves and the outside world neutral, neither good nor bad, just the way things are, and therefore, just something to adjust and adapt to each day?

I am asking whether what I have said thus far has any merit. Am I just creating an issue where this is none?

I ask this because Taylor in his A Secular Age clearly shows that there are benefits to living a bounded, buffered life, creating a safe space between my inner self and the outer world.

2. If this fragmentation is unhealthy, then what does it mean to be a whole person, and how does one bridge, cross over, heal the gap between our inner lives and the outer world?

I ask this question because of what I observe in people who are broken and people who are whole. I see a pattern or a collection of patterns that point to how the boundary between the world of our minds can engage in the world apart can become a place where life is made whole.

The Edge of the Real is a place of discovery. In part two, I'll explore what I see as the source of wholeness, and part three how to create wholeness in our lives and work.

What's at Stake?

How do you know when you really know someone?

This is a question that I've pondered often over the years. It has usually happened with someone I thought I knew well acted in a way that was inconsistent with the person that I thought I knew.

In one case, a friend walked away from our friendship. And did so with intention and announcement.

In another case, a friend essentially disappeared. Changed jobs, twice; moved, twice, and the links, even those online disappeared.

I've thought about this over the past few days as I've reflected on seeing James Cameron's technological marvel, Avatar. You should see Avatar in 3D. It is an experience that you should have to see how far the digital film technology has come to be able to create the scenes you'll see.

That said, I was disappointed with the film as a story. I sat there in the theater detached from the story. I thought, "What size HD TV will I need to watch this at home." "Imagine Lord of the Rings with this level of visual effect." "Isn't this Dances with Wolves in Space?"  Granted there is an interesting moral question at the heart of the in-story Avatar technology, but the context and story that is wrapped around it is not. It is too much a retread of simplistic themes we've seen elsewhere.

What makes for a compelling story is compelling characters? What makes for a compelling character is the same thing that makes it possible to really know people.

We need to know what is at stake for them. We need to know what they fear losing, not just what they love.

In Avatar, the Stephen Lang character, Colonel Quaritch is a cardboard cutout of every blood-thirsty maniac soldier we seen before.  He is a cartoon caricature of those who are serving in Afghanistan and Iraq right now. We know that because for this Colonel, he has nothing to lose. His only concern is completing his mission. It is what he believes in. We don't really know this man. He's just a vehicle for moving the story along, providing some dramatic contrast between the good guys and the bad guys. As a result, he distracts from the story and makes it less interesting.  It is the real reason that movie Westerns lost favor with the public. Now the setting is outer space.

As a result of watching Avatar, I am rewatching The Lord of the Rings. The story is filled with the realization of what is at stake, of what could be lost, and therefore, what truly matters to people. It is the kind of story that I wish Cameron would have written. Here's a comparison between these two fantasies.

For Frodo Baggins, if he fails in his quest, he not only loses his life, but the Shire as well and all of Middle Earth is lost. Here we see author JRR Tolkien's lament for the loss of the simple human scale values of the medieval world to a modern culture of technology that rules all of us.

For Jake Sully, to foresake his human life to live permanently as a Na'vi seems as normal and simple as changing jobs. Did the world and the people from where he came not mean anything to him? What would his mother say of his choice? Is he just a nice version of Colonel Quaritch, only living to complete the missions given him by his superiors, detached from his humanity with nothing really to lose but his disability?  Is this what he found in the Na'vi? Is their primal culture more authentic and humanitarian than the technological, consumer one that he has lived in all his life? Or is it that he finds something that he really wants - the girl? - that is not worth losing? It isn't really that clear to me.

It is common for people today to speak about what they are passionate about. It is an indicator of what they believe in and what they love.

However, until we understand what they fear losing do we truly know people. It is a far greater motivator than desire. When we know what is at stake then we know what truly matters.

Bloodline in the rock

Over the weekend, we attended our church's annual congregation retreat. This year's theme was Play, and we played in many creative ways.

Bloodline in the Rock - Mt Moran 2

Drawing and painting on the form of a small Greek cross was one of activities. The collection of pictures will be brought together into a larger painting to be hung in the church in the future.  I painted two of these pictures.

Bloodline in the rock is of a mountain in Wyoming of which I'm particularly fond. Mt. Moran, in the Grand Teton range of Jackson Hole, is a mountain of massive granite which has a diabase basalt dike of reddish brown lava that cuts vertically through the mountain.  I find its presence endlessly fascinating because it represents to me how good things can rise up from the hardness of life. My picture is more of what the mountain represents to me, than a picture of the mountain itself.

In much of life, when we try something new, we are taking a risk. Risks are inherent in life. Do we accept these risks as a way to expanding the range of our expression, or as an unavoidable facet of life?

Andy Goldsworthy is a sculptor who uses natural materials in extraordinary ways. In his video Rivers and Tides, a sculpture that he has been working on falls apart in the wind, he says,

"When I make a work, I often take it to the very edge of its collapse; that's a very beautiful balance."

Here is Goldsworthy creating an arch out of stone, and toward the end of the video removing pieces of it to see if it will collapse.

As in art, so also in life, translating what we see in the natural world into expressions of our passion and commitments enable us to see more of who we are in the context of the world we live in.

Cairn of Fire 2

Having painted Bloodline in the rock, and then introduced to Andy Goldsworthy by our artist guide, I decided to paint another of my favorite objects, a simple rock cairn.  I called it Cairn of Fire.

What did I learn from this little experiment in artistic expression? It really helps to be an observant person. We see things as objects, like a mountain or a pile of rocks. But we don't normally see the interrelation of the parts. For example, in trying to draw a cairn, I knew that the typical cairn is not uniform, but very eclectic. What I did, as a result, is try to draw the stones in the cairn very quickly so they would not be uniform. 

The ability to see what is there in the picture is no different than seeing and hearing what is going on around you. Learning to observe is learning to be a better communicator. To observe is to shift one's attention away from your own thoughts to what is happening in front of you.

Whatever you think you see or hear is a perception of what actually takes place.

Mt Moran close up

Bloodline in the rock is not an exact representation of Mt. Moran. The lava dike on the mountain is visible in the circle.  My painting is my perception of the mountain that you see here. To see it with the human eye, rather than through a photograph is to see it differently. In this shot, it seems insignificant. But to stand here by Jenny Lake in the Grand Teton National Forest and look at it, the dike stands out much more.

What I learned from playing with paint, a brush and some crayons is that we can learn to express ourselves in new ways. This is important if we are to communicate what is important to us.

I encourage you to take a pencil and quickly, in a manner of a few minutes, draw something that matters to you. It won't be perfect because there is no such thing in art. I once heard it say that a work of art is never finished. I think this is also true for our lives. And the more we test the boundaries and horizons of our expression, quite possibly as Andy Goldsworthy has learned, we'll find a very beautiful balance that will enhance the quality of our lives in ways unimaginable right this moment.

Don't tell me you can't do it!

I hate waste.  In particular, I hate the waste of people's talent.  If they'd just get up and start something, they'd discover all sorts of cool things about life. 

Here's a great story that Dan Pink has on his blog today about a woman who did just that.  Pink tells the tale:

Seven years ago, Diane St. Clair didn't know boo about making butter. But she wanted to learn so she taught herself the trade via the Internet and some books. Soon she cadged a "small-scale pasteurizer and got a license to go into production." And with one Jersey cow, she went into business. She called her operation, based in rural Orwell, Vermont -- wait for it -- Animal Farm. One day, she sent her butter to Thomas Keller, an all-star chef. He proclaimed it the best butter he'd ever tasted -- and ordered it for all his swank restaurants, as did many other fancy joints.

Today, St. Clair's one-woman operation has six cows and continues to produce butter for the best restaurants in the country. Now she's contemplating starting a butter of the month club that will offer subscribers a pound of butter a month for ten months for a subscription price of $750. That's $75 a pound! As they say, margins like that are like buttah.

Initiative.  Diane St. Clair took initiative to learn something, and then built a business from it. Initiative.  That is all it takes to start. Personal Initiative.

This is a story fit for both Mavericks at Work and The Long Tail.  Mavericks because she took an idea and built a business from that idea.  Long Tail because she has created a niche business from one cow and some pasteurizing equipment.

To me this one is just another example of a person who doesn't listen to the naysayers and goes and tries something. 

Listen, I don't know everyone who reads this blog, but I do know that all it takes is an idea, some personal initiative and commitment to see it through.  Sure there is hard work, but life's richness comes from giving your very best to what you love.  Follow Diane St. Clair's lead and go start something.  And then tell everyone your story.

UPDATE: As I watched the supplementary materials in the Miracle DVD, the footage of the meeting of Kurt Russell and the filmmakers with Herb Brooks prior to filming, I kept hearing Brooks say things relevant to this post.  Here are two.

"You have to make sacrifices for the unknown."
The unknown for most of us is what we can achieve if we start something.  This goes to a meme that I've been thinking about lately about how ideas get translated into action.  For example, how did Diane St. Clair move from an interest in butter along all those steps to the creation of the Butter of the Month Club? 

If success is unknown, then how can we calculate the level of sacrifice needed.  Is there a line we draw that says, beyond this I will not go?  I think it has more to do with how willing we are to deviate from our original conception of the plan. How willing are we to change in order to achieve our goals?

When I heard Herb Brooks say this, I immediately thought of Lewis & Clark two hundred years ago.  They had a mission and a goal. The mission to find a commercial water route across the country.  Their goal was to reach the Pacific coast.  When they left St. Louis in 1704, some of their route was known because of trappers and traders who worked the Missouri up to present day North Dakota. But after the winter of 1705, they were off the map. They were in the unknown, and day after day, they kept moving forward.  Everyday was filled with hardship.  Sacrifices?  I'm not sure they would have thought so.  They were in beautiful country on a great adventure.  But they daily faced the unknown with resourceful optimism.

The second thing that Herb Brooks said that I insight was his understanding of the development of greatness in his team.  He spoke about how you can't force greatness on them.  Instead you (1.) believe in them, set (2.) high standards, and (3.) pull the greatness out of them. This goes back to the first sentence of this posting.

Most of never experience the fulfillment of the potential that we have.  As Linda mentioned in her comment below, it sometimes that another person to bring it out.  That is what Herb Brooks did with his hockey team. 

Lurking within every human being is some hidden greatness.  For most of us, we need other people to draw it out of us.  I'd like to know about the circle of friends and family that gave Diane St. Clair the encouragement to pursue her dream

What's the origin of humility?

Following on my reflections on Ira Williams' Change This manifesto on humility - Speak Softly , I wrote my friend and philosopher Tom Morris about the relation between Homeric courage and the biblical understanding of humility. My perspective is that to be a truly humble person requires courage in order to make the sacrifices needed to help others. 

Tom responded ...

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Passion is essential, but what is it?

A posting  over at Church of the Customer by Ben McConnell - Wanted: Passion. Inquire within.- made me think about this whole passion thing in a new way.

Is passion becoming one of those words that is becoming so over used that we run the risk of losing clarity about what it means?

I'm finding that the whole emotional element of leadership is an emerging trend.  Call it passion, or emotional connection, it is something that is resonating with people. Is this just another gimmic, a ploy to get attention, or is there some paradigmatic change happening in the way we understand marketing, business and leadership?

What are we talking about exactly?  And more specifically, what does this mean for leadership?

Maybe the days of the Whyte's 1950's Organizational Man and the film The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit are really over.  No more locks-step follow the follower in front of you.  Now it is Free Agent Nation, with American individualism emerging as a competitive edge in new ways.

It seems that what is truly happening from a leadership perspective is the liberation of leadership from the rigidity of dying organizational structures for the freedom of individual freedom in pursuit of vision, passion and results.

It is easy to describe this in terms of emotions because that is really the first place people feel free.  That rush of emotion is a signal to the rest of the being that old constraints are gone.

The challenge is to focus this emotion.  The tendency is to treated liberation self-servingly, as my freedom.  Instead, this freedom is a liberation to pursue a passion for impact, results.  It is the acceptance of responsibility and accountability for outcomes.  It is a passion for change that the elevates the organization.  As this liberation permeates the whole of the organization, the internal relationships within the organization by necessity change.  Now, my relationship to others is now a matter of following some prescribed ritual of tasks, but rather a shared ritual of initiative to fulfill the potential that resides in the talent and experience of the people who work there.

Passion becomes a way of talking about the freedom to pursuing one's purpose in the context of the purpose of the organization.  And the organization's purpose is rediscovered in the context of  the  interaction between those within the organziation and those they serve on the outside.  In this sense, there is a community that forms around this purpose.

This is the challenge for leadership accustomed to the old ways.  Things are not so certain or predictable or controllable.  On the other hand,they are more fun and potential more vital for all parties.

Real Life Leadership: Celebrating "Dear Abby for leaders."

My latest Real Life Leadership column is online.  Today's column celebrates the first anniversary of the column and my blog.  When I began both, what I sought to do is create "Dear Abby for leaders."  By answering the real leadership questions that people have, it moves them a step or two closer to the confidence they need to be at that best.

In the column I point to three conclusions or trends that I've seen through the responses to the Real Life Leadership column.  Let me share those trends and ask a question for response by readers.

One trend is business leaders' interest in ideas about passion and emotional connection. My sense is that for a long, long, long time, the emotional side of business has been suppressed.  But as competitive pressures increase, creating experiences for customers, not just serving them has become a competitive edge. 

Question:  What is the secret to making passion, emotional connection and customer experience something that is genuine and real?

A second trend I note in the column is "the questions you have are not clear to you. They exist as some strange unease or sense of discontinuity."   We need to learn how to ask questions.  Too often our gut response is built on assumptions that are untested or are counterproductive to our interests.

Question:  When you are confronted with that knot in your belly that says something isn't quit right here, do you have a method for framing the question so that you can get at the answer you need?  If so, what is your method.

By even articulating your method, you begin to understand the role that questions play in how we problem solve and make decisions in our organizations.

The third conclusion is that we need more time to ask questions.  That maybe an impossible expectation given most of our lives, but by asking questions, we are forced out of our lock-step drill of repeating the same actions and decisions over and over again. You've heard the adage, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results."  Regular, systematic questioning break us out of non- productive, or worse, destructive, patterns of behavior.

The key to having more time to ask questions is having a group of people from whom you are constantly learning.  All these trends inevitibly have a social component to them.  We need to be with people with whom we can raise questions, learn different approaches to the solution, as well as offer our own insight. 

Question: If such a social group of question-asking leaders was to gather for an after-busines social event, would you attend?  Would you come to both offer your questions and your own experience?

If there is sufficient interest, I will host such an event.  You raise the questions, and the gathering of leaders provides the answers.

And we can begin with the most simple question, "What's on your mind today?"

Innovation, passion, creativity and worklife

Metacool links together innovation and organization creating environments where their employees are happy.  Diego sees innovation rising from enjoyable employment cultures.  He uses Ferrari as an example. 

I am not an avid fan, but having grown up in South around NASCAR, I appreciate the complexity and innovation that go into racing.  This is particularly true of Formula I where automobile innovation has always been at the forefront.  And it must be a very exciting place to work.

Diego speaks of the flow that  produces innovation when employees enjoy their work.

There are several questions that come to mind in responding to his thought all rising from this principal question - What are the components of a happy, enjoyable work environment and how are they produced?

The philosopher Aristotle speaks of happiness as eudaimonia, as a fulfillment of purpose.  And that purpose is developed as an artist develops their skills for mastering their craft. 

2. How can leaders enable their employees who do the most menial of work find a sense of personal fulfillment in their worklife?
The answer is simply to recognize that the person who cleans the lavatory or does data entry contribute to not only the outcome of the work, but to the creation of a happy, enjoyable work place.  Years ago, when I work at a small college, we discovered, after a little research, that the staff people who had the most regular and immediate interaction with students were the housekeepers in the residence halls.  As a result, we began to interact with them as partners in the work of student services.

3.   How can leaders foster openness that allows for pent-up creativity to be released?
I craft this question intentionally as one where there is a culture of constraint, rather than one of openness.  What I have discovered over the years is that leaders unwittingly or intentionally send a message that an employees ideas are not wanted.  A culture of compliance, or staying in your place, speak when you are spoken to, grows.  Why?  I believe it is simply that leaders fall into the trap of a) believing that leaders is telling people what to do, b) their ideas are better than anyone elses', and c) that innovation isn't needed, "we are doing just fine, thank you".

Ultimately, if an organization is to innovate, it means that leaders must instill confidence in their people and trust in their relationship with them.

Until this happens, it is difficult to imagine an atmosphere for innovation happening, and consequently, the organization being a leader in their industry.