Sep 132010


I have been thinking a great deal about what it means to be wrong since reading Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz. The author asks a fascinating question. What does it feel like to be wrong? Her answer? It feels the same as being right, because before we realize we are wrong, we think we are right. A more interesting question is what does it feel like to realize we are wrong? The emotions range from mild embarrassment to deep guilt and utter shame. I know them well, both from personal experience, and from stories on the suicide hotline from those for whom being wrong and being worthless are synonymous.
Here is a question Being Wrong forces me to ponder: Is it possible that most of what I believe at this moment is wrong, even though I feel right? After all, most of what I believe today is different from what I once believed. From thoughts about the Chamber of Commerce to who I know my wife and children to be. From business methodology and writing techniques to sales and philosophy, virtually everything I think today is vastly different from what I once thought was true.
This dilemma of learning something new, only to be shown its limitations in the future, isn’t just true for us as individuals. Consider this excerpt from Being Wrong:
By way of example, consider the domain of science. The history of that field is littered with discarded theories, some of which are among humanity’s most dramatic mistakes: the flat earth, the geocentric universe, the existence of ether, the cosmological constant, cold fusion. Science proceeds by perceiving and correcting these errors, but over time, the corrections themselves often prove wrong as well. As a consequence, some philosophers of science have reached a conclusion that is known, in clumsy but funny fashion, as the Pessimistic Meta-Induction from the History of Science. The gist is this: because even the most seemingly bulletproof scientific theories of time past eventually prove wrong, we must assume that today’s theories will someday prove wrong as well. And what goes for science goes in general—for politics, economics, technology, law, religion, medicine, child-rearing, education. No matter the domain of life, one generations’ verities so often become the next generations’ falsehoods that we might as well have a Pessimistic Meta-Induction for the History of Everything.
A “Pessimistic Meta-Induction for the History of Everything” suggests that humans are sentenced to a future in which everything the species believes will someday be found to be short-sighted, inaccurate or just plain wrong. And those new theories—the ones that laid waste to our current beliefs—they too will eventually hit the trash bin of human thought.
The implications are enormous. If humanity’s most cherished beliefs—those “proven” by the scientific method—are to be questioned, what then of the thoughts, projections, conclusions and analyses that pop out of my brain relatively untested or unexamined? How might life be different if I woke up each morning yearning to discover the ways in which I am wrong, rather than shielding myself from the slings and arrows aimed squarely at my deepest beliefs. How might I be in the world if I knew most of my current thinking was wrong and looked for ways to find out how?
I don’t know the answer, but the older I get, the more I feel as though I am missing a great deal of what is possible in life as long as I remain certain I am right—when I am in fact wrong and just need the wisdom and courage to acknowledge that possibility.
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!

Sep 022010

What appears below was published recently in Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

On July 13, separated by a mere 22 minutes, calls arrived at the Batavia Fire Department announcing that the community it had lost two of its elders. On that warm summer day, we lost one who, through her extraordinary life of generosity, created much of the history that makes me so proud to call this enclave my home…and we lost one who chronicled our story and brought our history to life through her generous and precise use of language.

I knew Mildred Bailey for most of the years I have lived in Batavia. It was impossible to walk the streets of the town for very long before witnessing the joy left in the wake of her activity. A day seldom passed when she failed to turn to her husband and say, “Let’s go Roy, we have work to do.” They were instrumental in the success of the Interfaith Food Pantry and Clothes Closet. Even as she died, Mildred was searching for apparel so the less fortunate amongst us would be prepared for the new school year. However, her most endearing legacy will live in the hearts of thousands of children delighted by the toys and clothes they found lovingly placed in their homes Christmas morning. She and Ruth Johnsen inspired an army of citizens to donate, sort and distribute a mountain of gifts every year.

Marilyn Robinson inspired a generation of Batavians as a teacher at Batavia High School. When she left teaching, she abandoned plans to retire to Arizona because the pull of the community she claimed as her own was far too strong. She had grown to love this place too much for it to fade into her past. It was to become the entirety of her remaining days and all of us were to become enrolled in it. She and Jeff Schielke undertook the task of rewriting the tale of Batavia, originally penned by John Gustafson. Marilyn contributed, along with the facts of our past, her passion for the accuracy of ways the fibers were woven into our story. As a result we know better from where we have come, and have a stronger and more majestic foundation for the journey into our future.

As I tried to comprehend the magnitude of our collective loss on that July day, I was drawn to a favorite book: Claiming Your Place at the Fire by Leider and Shapiro. In this work, the authors remind us that in tribal cultures, the elders—the men and women of wisdom—were offered places nearest the evening fire as a way to honor the lessons and wisdom life had bestowed upon them. The remainder of the tribe took positions behind them, further from the flames of the fire, but close to the flames of wisdom emanating from the minds and hearts of the wise ones.

I wish I could journey back to July 12 so I could build a fire. I long for one last opportunity to invite Mildred and Marilyn to sit in that place of honor nearest the flames so they would know the love and deep respect I had for them. I wish too, there were still time to ask them to share with me the lessons and wisdom they harvested during the many seasons of their lives. But I have lost that precious opportunity.

But the future has now opened to us in another way. With the passing of these elders, we have two places at the fire. I am left to wonder if we have the generosity to turn to the one next to us and ask them to move closer to its flames by encouraging them to share something of the wisdom they, and only they, possess. And I wonder if we have enough respect for ourselves to summon the courage and humility required to share the wisdom we have been given. Mildred and Marilyn are looking down, hoping we do.