Oct 042014
 

Most writing is the scratching of an insatiable itch for immortality. Alas, the more written, the greater the itch.

Dee Hock

Since reading Dee’s most recent work, Autobiography of a Restless Mind, I have been pondering the human desire for immortality, and wondering if, perhaps, we understand immortality inaccurately.

2.2 million books were published last year. As of this writing, 152 million blogs pepper the Internet. Two are added every second…63 million per year. WordPress, one of many blogging sites, documents 2 million posts every day. And these figures ignore journals, periodicals, newspapers and editorials.

If Dee is correct, the itch for immortality is indeed insatiable and growing at an unprecedented rate.

It would be convenient to claim I am unmotivated by Dee’s itch, but it would be disingenuous. Who amongst us, when mortality tugs at our coattails, can make an honest claim to nary a qualm? Has it always been so?

The period from 800 B.C.E to 200 B.C.E., often referred to as the Axial Age, was a time of great change. Prior to the Axial Age it was impossible to imagine individuals separate from their tribe. With no stored wealth, and each day’s survival in question, the effort of every member was essential. If the tribe was to survive, each person’s gifts and capacities had to be discovered, honored and engaged. Every person mattered.

With the advent of the Axial Age, cities emerged and wealth accumulated. Families and individuals could, for the first time, survive independent of the tribe. Wealth lubricated, if you will, families from many of the day-to-day terrors that made the lives of their ancestors so precarious. But with life becoming safer and a tad easier, individuals and their unique gifts became less important for survival. Perhaps for the first time in our history, individuals might have begun to wonder if they were necessary.

The Axial Age was also an astounding time in the development of human wisdom. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle laid the groundwork for much of the West’s rational, scientific views. The Buddha proposed his ideas for reincarnation, and an end to human suffering through non-attachment. Jainism gave us the principles of non-violence, karma and asceticism. The Upanishads, the Tao, the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Bhagavad Gita were written during this period. Confucius, Archimedes, Elijah and Isaiah are also considered to be of this age.

Is it coincidence that, facing the possibility this life might be meaningless, desires for immortality emerged, and definitions and descriptions flourished? For Buddhists, immortality was realized by reincarnation through many lives, eventually reaching an unending state of Nirvana. The monotheistic religions (Judaism, Islam and Christianity) found comfort in a single life with a heavenly destination in which we could spend eternity in bliss reunited with our maker. The Greeks found a form of immortality through thumos, recognition and fame that would secure a person’s place on the lips and in the hearts of future generations.

If there is any veracity to the claim that riches and an easy life can make self-worth elusive, our craving for immortality is exacerbated by our unimaginable collective wealth, and our belief that medicine, science and technology will make life safer, easier and perhaps even everlasting. It’s paradoxical I admit, but, as life becomes safer and easier, could it mean that each of us matters even less? And if so, might the quest for life’s meaning become excruciatingly difficult, elusive and painful?

I know this: I talk to many people for whom life has become unbearable for one simple reason—their life has no meaning. They have given up the search for the gifts that make them unique and magnificent. The tribe no longer needs them.

So I wonder. Is it possible the only immortality—unending existence—that truly matters, is in discovering our gifts and being fully exhausted of them by life’s end…knowing they have been given in service to the human tribe. Perhaps immortality and humility emerge from gently etching our irreplaceable footprint on the human journey as the tribe searches for a sustainable path into the future.

Feb 232012
 

Note: The following is being published this week in the March issue of Batavia Business, the monthly publication of the Batavia Chamber of Commerce.

When I began these words, I would have thought that being human and being inhuman were opposites and mutually exclusive. But now I wonder.

The spectrum of words that define “inhuman” range widely. At the brutal end are words like barbarism. At the softer end, even “lacking kindness, pity, or compassion” are invited to this party.

Steve Jobs, was a creative genius, and he could ignite fire in those around him. And yet, his ability to frighten, intimidate and reduce others to tears is legendary.

Was this brutal side an integral part of his success? If someone had found a way to polish Jobs’ rough edges—soften his abrupt, angry, impatient manner—might Apple have succumbed to one of its near-death incidents? After Lisa (a commercial failure in the 1980s), might Macintosh have remained only a variety of apple you eat. Might iPod, iPhone and iPad never have seen the light of iDay?

Was Jobs’ willingness to reduce others to rubble what ensured the innovations that made it to his office were more refined, more dramatic and more creative than they would have been if he treated product developers and researchers with kindness, pity and compassion? Did those invited to his office, knowing their careers could be made or broken by Jobs’ quixotic reaction, work harder, refine further, create more before daring to walk under the transom to his office?

The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics were organized under the attentive, uncompromising, often critical eye of Peter Ueberroth. Those Games were to become the first privately financed Games and resulted in a of $250 million surplus that supported youth and sports activities across the United States. Compare that to the Montreal Games eight years earlier, which left that city burdened with debt for 30 years. For reimagining the financial foundation of the Games, and perhaps rescuing them from ruin, Ueberroth was awarded the Olympic Movement’s highest honor: the Olympic Order in gold. He was named Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1984.

I once had the great joy of spending time with Dee Hock, founder and CEO Emeritus of Visa International, considered to be one of the greatest businesspersons of the 20th century. Similar to Steve, Dee was a visionary and innovator. Visa—or BankAmericard when first formed—saved the credit card industry from turmoil and eventual ruin with Dee’s radical view of the electronic transfer of bits and bytes that represented money. If you read Dee’s book Birth of the Chaordic Age (sadly renamed and reissued as One from Many) he too was very hard on those around him during his career, Like Jobs and Ueberroth, Dee had a vision that was so clear, so inviolate that compromise was simply not possible. When I asked him why, he looked at me and said, “I had a sense that if I didn’t take a stand, something in me would die.”

I hold each of these leaders in the highest esteem. Each opened doors to innovation that might have remained closed for many years without them. And yet, each let some edges of inhumanity slip into their lives. Or perhaps, our definitions of inhuman simply do not allow us to be fully human.

Feb 032012
 
At the end of a very successful, and completely redesigned, Chamber event, I turned to a member of the Board and told him I felt much of the success emanated from having turned many of the evening’s details over the young man who was emcee. “You should do that more often!” he suggested. The lightness of the moment did not ameliorate the painful way the comment pierced my psyche with its implication that I am otherwise too controlling. I need to tease apart, and try to understand, what the comment means, and how I will use it to move forward.
Having planned and executed hundreds of events in my life—everything from small, casual lunches to community events capturing the attention of tens of thousands, I have long wandered the hallways that define event planning and project management.
There are many doors that can be traversed in moving from concept to completion. Some lead into rooms filled with riches. They included “vision”, “mission”, “goals”, “values”, “teamwork”, “planning” and “attention to detail”.
There are other doorways labeled in less-flattering ways. “Overly-controlling”, “my way or the highway” and “closed to new ideas”. These are the rooms one is not supposed to visit along the journey. But I wonder?
The 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games were organized under the attentive eye of Peter Victor Ueberroth. Through his leadership, those games became the first privately financed Games and resulted in a surplus of nearly $250 million that supported youth and sports activities across the United States. Compare that to the Montreal Games just eight years earlier that left that city with debt that burdened its citizens for 30 years. For reimagining the financial foundation of the Games, and perhaps even rescuing them from ruin, Ueberroth was awarded the Olympic Movement’s highest honor: the Olympic Order in gold. He was also named Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1984.
In the last few months, the creative genius of Steve Jobs, founder and visionary behind Apple computer, has been splashed across every medium of communication imaginable, including those that wouldn’t have existed had it not been for Jobs’ vision.
But if you read reports of these two visionaries, they traversed all transoms I have seen along the hallways I have traveled. Each used vision, mission, values and teamwork in extraordinary ways. But make no mistake, for each, much of their vision was so clear and inviolate—contained so much personal passion—there was to be no compromise.
I once had the great joy of spending time with Dee Hock, founder and CEO Emeritus of Visa International, considered to be one of the greatest businesspersons of the 20thcentury. Similar to Peter and Steve, he founded Visa on a vision and set of values on which he simply refused to compromise. When I asked him why, he said, “I had a sense that if I didn’t take a stand something in me would die.”
I do not, nor will I ever, deserve to even be in the shadow of the likes of Peter, Steve or Dee. But in my own very, very small way, I have plied my creativity to help midwife a future slightly brighter than the past that preceded it. There have been many times I have crossed the thresholds of the politically correct doorways. And many times I borrowed from the rooms generally banned, and, when standing my ground on those things I felt were critical, I wielded the less desirable weapons of “overly-controlling” and “closed to new ideas”.
So let me return to the comment that sparked this discourse. I have a vision and set of values upon which the event in question has been built over the 8 years it has been under my watch; principles upon which I would never compromise. I turned the details of the evening over to our young emcee because I have worked with him enough to know he truly understood. And while he built the evening in new a creative ways, the foundation was never under attack. If “You should do that more often” means allowing for creativity within the boundaries defined by the vision and values I believe are essential for success, I am in full agreement. If I allowed those values to be violated, however, I too would feel as though “something in me would die.”
Sep 062010
 

Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World by Margaret J. Wheatley.

I rarely read books more than once…at least not since my children were enthralled by Dr. Seuss! Occasionally, however, a particular book and I develop a rewarding long-term relationship. Meg Wheatley’s masterpiece and I have been friends now for more than 15 years. I just finished reading the 3rd edition and it was as generous in challenging my thinking and providing mental nourishment, as were the first two.
In this perennial best-seller, Meg examines the new sciences—Quantum Mechanics, Chaos Theory, Field Theory, self-organizing systems and others. From these she extracts topics like uncertainty, strange attractors, fractals and action-at-a-distance, and uses them to re-imagine organizational theory in light of how we now understand the Universe’s modus operandi.
What Meg asks the reader to consider is that the world does not operate by the dictates of Newtonian and Cartesian science—in a clocklike, mechanical, cause-and-effect way. She reminds us that in open systems, like the organizations we inhabit and nurture, entropy will not cause anarchy to reign. We do not necessarily need humanities’ extraordinary management skills—and boxes on an organization chart—to whip the Universe into shape. As I recall, the Universe organized itself fairly well before we arrived…thank you very much!
She describes so eloquently that vision, values and self-reflective identity can serve as organizing principles—what Dee Hock, CEO Emeritus of Visa, calls organizational DNA—around which we gather to be creative and add value to the world.
If you have been kind enough to travel this far in my review, you obviously did not allow the scientific jargon to dissuade you. If so, this book will invite you into a comfortable conversation about the future of organizations. However, here’s my warning: this book, based on my 15 year friendship, can leave you adrift. The ideas will so deeply challenge the very essence of what we were raised to believe, you may be tempted to ask, “This is all very fine, but certainly this does not apply in the real world?” I am convinced it does…and that a livable future for our children and grandchildren hangs in the balance.

Bon Appétit!

Feb 132010
 
Once again, my ego is doing battle with the world and the skirmishes leave me confused and sad. I am, unfortunately, not yet enlightened, so my ego still cries out to discover its place…its value. As I move through life, my ego remains fascinated by the way others witness me in the world. As it sees me reflected in others, it often seems as if the mirror is cracked and the reflection distorted and incomplete.
A Chamber member caught me one morning not long ago and said, “You’re too deep…too philosophical. Just tell people what to do!” I stood in the door of his shop with emotions dueling for control of the future into which I was about to wander. I don’t take criticism well. From somewhere in my past, even helpful suggestions feel like a critique of who I am. A little voice shows up that seems to scream, “I told you you were doing your life incorrectly!”
Am I doing my life incorrectly? There is an inner voice that wonders if it is possible to do life wrong. All we can do is be in the world…and notice. Even if what I do hurts another, life offers ways to turn the wound into a moment of reconciliation, redemption and healing.
As I reflected on the suggestion I am too philosophical, I wondered if the things I say…the things I commit to writing…are too abstract for others to turn into action. Is it possible I am in the world invisible to many because what I have to say has no impact? Do the ideological boulders I heave into the pond slip through the surface without so much as a ripple?
How is it I decide who I am in the world? How much should I listen to others? When do their exhortations have value, and when are they simply demanding I become who they want me to be…not who I am?
When I can fight off the voice of insecurity—listen instead to that voice that loves me—I can hear what is true. If I listen carefully to my heart, I can avoid being swayed by the insecurities of others that want me to be something other because who I am scares, intimidates them, or simply confuses them.
When we listen with love for self, the community names our gifts. Too often we take our gifts for granted since they seem easy, obvious and readily available to everyone. It is only by seeing who we are reflected in others that we come to know who we truly are in this world. There is a time to listen to those who love us and care about us when they say “This I see in you.” Then we simply need to accept it with love and humility.
So as I reflect on the “critique” I received that morning a few weeks ago, I choose to listen to the voice that honors my ability to see the depth of the world. I choose to be grateful for those moments when I can ask others to see in a very different way and ask “Is it possible the world really is that way?” They may not know how to turn that new thinking into concrete action in the very next moment, but when people begin to think differently, it is simply impossible to continue to act from the old paradigm.
I am thankful for the moments I have been granted to think about who I am in the world, and yes…to sooth my fragile ego. I am in a search, in my own simple way, for the meaning of life…or at least the meaning of my life. If I give up the deep search for meaning, it feels, as Dee Hock once said, like something in me will die.