Oh! The roots of postive organizational scholarship in Henry Thoreau and American transcendentalism

Sept2010 by anjanettew via FlickrWalden Pond .   .   .

I had to rummage around on Wikipedia to disentangle my memory traces.  Walden Pond is the home of Henry Thoreau, the American poet.   On Golden Pond is a Fonda movie.

Henry Thoreau .   .  .

I am sure that all well brought up Americans have read Thoreau in the original. The rest of us come to him by the way of quotations.

Dwell as near as possible to the channel in which your life flows .  .  .

Henry Thoreau was an “transcendentalist”, which Wikipedia informs me was a New England movement in reaction to the intellectualism of Harvard and the utilitarian church.  To my naïve ears, this sounds like the basic thrust of the French Revolution that rejected the supremacy of priests and their dictates,.  Once we have rejected the priests as the authority in all things, we needed a way to think about secular authority         and social sciences and psychology arose as formalized ways of describing how we each discover our own truth (Remember the Pope anyone?  Not surprisingly, he is not enthused by this venture.)

Transcendentalism underpins much of contemporary positive organizational scholarship

This is an important read.  We see here the essence of dominant aspects of American culture and at least part of the foundations of positive psychology.

Ralph Emerson, I believe, was one of the early proponents.

“So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes.

It shall answer the endless inquiry of the intellect, — What is truth?

And of the affections, — What is good?

By yielding itself passive to the educated Will. .  .

Build, therefore, your own world.

As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions.

A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit.”

As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions.

A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit.

We bring about the world by what we attend to and value.  The world blossoms under the attention of what we value and love.  Whatever situation we are in (like it or not), we move in the direction of the questions we ask and so does it.

This is more appreciative inquiry (Case Western) than positive psychology (Pennsylvania).

It is the start point and as you read the now not so young Thoreau describing his life at Walden Pond, you hear the same complaints that we have about life today.  You hear the echoes of Joseph Campbell who followed a similar experiment with life. You hear British poet David Whyte who reconciled his life a marine biologist and NGO worker with is poetry.  You hear Gen Y Tim Ferris and The Four Hour Work Week.

I am enjoying this!

When fear and desire are in residence, we are self-exiled from our immortality

Happiness is a choice

With apologies to Joseph Campbell:

When you are in a place

Defined by fear or desire

Then you are self-exiled from your own immortality.

Entertain fear or ambition, and you have exiled yourself from your own immortality.

Is it possible to escape fear and desire?

If you were brought up in the west, you probably think my assertion is absurd.  So I’ll break it down logically.   The statement seems to have 3 logical parts.

  • We do this to ourselves
  • There is something called our own immortality
  • Fear and ambition have the same effect

Our own immortality

Let’s define immortality simply.  When you are exiled from your own immortality, you feel a sense of not belonging and being uncomfortable “in your own skin” and “in this world”.    You feel restless, dissatisfied and disrespected.   Of course, that does not mean there is anything called your own immortality, but that is enough for now.  You would simply prefer not to feel restless, dissatisfied and disrespected!

We do this to ourselves

Yup, fear is real.  Desire is quite fun when we don’t over do it.  Ambition is cool.  We can imagine relinquishing ambition, but relinquishing desire and fear?  The big test is to prove to you that fear is a choice.

Fear and desire have the same effect.

I need to show you that they both have the same effect.  Let’s see if I can!

#1  Fear and desire are both about what is not rather than what is

With fear, we fear not being in some way. We don’t fear being.  We fear not being.  Isn’t ambition exactly the same?  We want to be what we are not? Desire is similar.  We want what is not.

Fear, ambition and desire are essentially about nothing.  They are about absence.  We are focusing all our attention on what is not.

#2  We do this to ourselves

Why are we thinking about nothing?  Why not think about who we are and what is?

#3  Can we think about who we are when we are frighten or driven?

Yes, we can.  Indeed it is the only way to stop thinking about what we are not. Forsake fear, ambition and desire and we have time for ourselves. (TG for our small minds; we think of one thing at a time.)

Being present

It’s an odd idea, or so it seems to us in the west.  But it is a long standing idea in east.  We can call it mindfulness.  Pay attention to what is here, now.   Other religions call it giving up attachments.

In the secular world, we help ourselves move from agitation to calm thinking by making checklists and keeping gratitude diaries.  Other people meditate.  Take your pick!  If you pray or balk at prayer, try a gratitude diary on for size.

Is being present selfish and irresponsible?

The curious thing about stopping and focusing on what is closely around us is that there is an immediate effect of connecting us more fully to the world.

Paulo Coelho suggests a simple exercise of stopping to listen.  Close your eyes and listen for the furthest sound.  You thought your fear and ambition came from paying attention to the world.  Now you feel your horizon of attention recede a little and the world seems more alive, more interesting.   There is more space for you.  You come back from your self-imposed exile.  You can breathe.  Try it. It is amazing!

Yes, it seems as if our fear and restlessness came from shutting the world out, rather than letting it in. We are scared and dissatisfied because we are not paying attention.  Or rather we were attending to what is not there rather than to what is.  We drove ourselves into exile by worrying about what is not.  Nuts.

Interestingly, you can call back the fear and ambition any time you want it.  But why replace the exciting world around you with nothing?

Learning about leadership from bankers :)

How do you greet a banker?

I did the two-step shuffle down the aisle of the aircraft, muttering apologies here and there, bobbed and weaved like Muhammed Ali  determined to get to my seat quickly, without being run over by bags-on-wheels, or clouted over the head with duty free wine as someone swings it into an overhead locker.

Blessed relief.  My seat!  Unfold the seat belt.  Move the blanket and pillow.  Plop myself down.  Greet my neighor.  Start chatting civilly.

It turn’s out my neighbor is an ex-banker.  I catch my breath for a moment, feel my pupils dilate slightly, and I burst out laughing.  A test of social skills, perhaps?

How do you greet a banker who helped design the Titanic of the UK economy – the ship that would never sink?

He’s a idiot, he’s a fool, he’s knave  .  .  . do I greet him with contempt, anger or curiosity?  Sell him something perhaps. He’s gullible after all.

Behind my impulse to laugh is a mix of embarrassment (for him) and traces of British irony – can’t fix it so you may as well live with it.

The natural born salesman, on the other hand, approaches life differently.  He understands that everyone should take initiative – all the time, every day, where ever we find ourselves.

These three attitudes correspond to three prominent ways of we talk about leadership.

Heroic

In the heroic idea of leadership, which we often associate with American movies, an individual leader rises to the fore, points to the horizon, and carries us off to our salvation.  It’s deemed hard to do.  That, of course, is just a belief to justify rewarding some people a lot more than others.

We have this idea in British culture too.  In the biography of Winston Churchill, Gathering Storm, it is clear that Winston had strong ideas about saving his country, long before there was any call to do so.

The trouble with heroism is that outside the moment of heroism, we look more than a little batty.

Ironic

The ironic story line of leadership runs a little differently.  It goes like this.  I tried.  It didn’t work out.  What a plonker I turned out to be.  So I will go back to the status quo.  It is not so bad after all.

We come together at the end of the story in a ‘group hug’, where no one wins or loses, and there is no challenge at all to distribution of rewards.  We celebrate the status quo.  Very British, of course.

Irony is funny when it is done well, and often awesome in its execution.   But it is a form of narcissism.  We do so love preening ourselves in the mirror.  It is such a good excuse to do nothing!

Personal

Personal leadership is a new label for understanding leadership in the networked world.  The salesman who promptly sells something to the ex-banker (a new job or a new Caribbean island, perhaps), sees the world as a network where everyone is influencing everyone else in their small way.  Tacky when I talk about a salesman, but very important as the world becomes more networked.

The Hero’s Journey

This genre, with its understated label, is a version of the heroic – where we are each our own hero traveling our own hero’s journey. It’s inspired by author Joseph Campbell, who believed that all good stories have a heroic structure.  We set off on a quest, meet a number of challenges on the way, overcome them, and return home in triumph to a new challenge – how to integrate our new life with the old.

In the cloud

Though this genre is a simple heroic form, and individualistic to boot, it fits neatly into our every increasingly networked world, where each person really does influence the world, and can influence the world.

I imagine Earth from outer space with a blanket of mist around it, cocooned in a mohair mesh of internet messages.  Anyone with an internet has free access to the cloud.  They need skills, but little is stopping them entering, and influencing, that space.

Swirling with others

But, of course, others are doing that too.  At the same time.  So, it is an ever evolving space and requires a new way of thinking.

Life becomes less a matter of right and wrong.  To predict an outcome requires the world to change slowly.  At the minute you believe you are doing the right thing, someone, maybe a ten year old in a rural village in India, does his own thing, and changes conditions and renderes your calculations incorrect.

To play in the new connected world, we have to play.  We have to be ever present. This bothers people who are not used to taking into account what a ten year old is doing in rural India.  It scares the pants off the old guard.

Learning about personal leadership in the cloud

Well, I might be squirming on behalf of the banker sitting next to me.  And maybe he is a fool or knave. But just maybe, he also understands banking sufficiently to see where banking is going.

Maybe, he will straighten out the mess and be our new hero of tomorrow?

Let me ask.

So where is banking going?  Where do you see banks in the future?

[And if he is heading towards his Caribbean island, maybe I can cadge a invitation for a holiday.  Have I lived in England too long?  Well, this will be an interesting flight, anyway.  I always talk to people on planes.]

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Be still

Learn to be quiet

Franz Kafka

You need not do anything.
Remain sitting at your table and listen.
You need not even listen, just wait.
You need not even wait,
just learn to be quiet, still and solitary.
And the world will freely offer itself to you unmasked.
It has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

Joseph Campbell

We must be willing to get rid of the life we planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.

The world is a match for us.  We are a match for the world.

It is all about finding the still point in your mind where commitment drops away.

P.S. Thanks to readers picking up the following post and it appearing in my side bar, I went back to what I had written 9 months ago.  This post on action and stillness has many useful links to the psychological and scientific literature.

Poetry and essays on the Hero’s Journey

Sometimes during the working day, I arrive at a website.  I have no idea how I got there and I have no idea why I have never been there before.  But there I am, at the place I want to be.

A site with essays and poetry about the Hero’s Journey.

For people new to the Hero’s Journey, the HJ is a narrative form, the structure of a story, that seems to be a suitable way of organizing our stories about our own lives.  Who else is the hero of our journey but ourselves.