Meandering thoughts on creativity, change and consciousness

“The most effective way to manage change is to create it.” —Peter Drucker

I have been collecting quotes for my Leadership class, and this one in particular made me think about my own creative process—or really any process that I can’t do on autopilot.  The above quotation is actually in respect to organizations (yawn), but I think it closely related to my earlier advice for youngish people.

When I wrote about the difference between becoming and being was characterizing them mostly in regards to external cues: as you get older, you are very seldom asked “what do you want to be when you grow up”, nor are the resources to help you decide so readily available.  On an internal level though, you can be constantly re-imagining who you are no matter your age.

In re-launching this blog a month ago, I rewrote my personal statement (that thing on the right-hand side with the hang-loose dude) to include “artist”. I did that because I feel like a lot of the projects I envision (and involve myself in) involve a personal reflection of my identity and values.  And with many of those projects, they languish, frustrate and never get started—despite the grief the cause me before I even begin.  To be clear,  a project can be as simple as writing an introductory email to an interesting stranger or an all night jaunt of coding.

In thinking about the life-flow of these creative projects, I often visualize it as a precipice, a chasm and a path. Beginning at the precipice, I am faced with choices, doubts and fears.  Should I  step off, I’m forced to enter someplace new and unfamiliar—someplace that will challenge me and require me to change: thinking, learning and acting differently than I have done before (I have heard this referred to as  the “messy middle”).  Somewhere in that chasm there is a path that will lead me back out again; it may not lead to “success” as I envision it now, but it will lead to somewhere beyond the pit. The problem is, I can’t see the path from where I am on the precipice.

For myself, the reluctance to step over the precipice of fear and doubt comes from the uncertainty of finding the path back out: I fear I will become stuck in the chasm—unable to recover my identity or right my place.

The following quote captures the danger of remaining upon the precipice and never venturing forth. It is from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (which is entirely about the heroic path) quoting Charles Francis Atkinson’s Art and Artist (reformatted for easier reading):

If we compare the neurotic with the productive type, it is evident that the former suffers from an excessive check on his impulsive life. Both are distinguished fundamentally from the average type, who accepts himself as he is, by their tendency to exercise their volition in reshaping themselves. There is, however, this difference:

That the neurotic, in this voluntary remaking of his ego, does not get beyond the destructive preliminary work and is therefore unable to detach the whole creative process from his own person and transfer it to an ideological abstraction.

The productive artist also begins with that re-creation of himself which results in an ideologically constructed ego; [but then in his case] this ego is then in a position to shift the creative will-power from his own person to ideological representations of that person and thus render it objective.

It is admitted that this process is in a measure limited to within the individual himself, and that not only in its constructive, but also in its destructive aspects. This explains why hardly any productive work gets through without morbid crises of a ‘neurotic’ nature.

At 26, I would say the most amazing thing I have realized about myself is that I am still myself. As a younger person, I was always expecting some conscious-breaking event between youth and adulthood. A clear cusp in which I would know “I’ve made it”, stripping away the old for something new. And as I now believe, there was no chrysalis (at least not in my agnostic, protective, modern upbringing). Change did not come as a distinct event, instead it was gradual and iterative—I am still the same person I was at 8 years old, just with more experiences (and body hair).

I have heard many people say different activities cause profound socio-psychological changes—having a child, the passing of a close loved one, extreme violence or abuse—but I’m dubious that such activities will produce distinct break with the before (not that they would not profoundly affect me). Without sinking too far into solipsism, if I wanted to make a phrase for this, I would call it conservation of consciousness. (On googling this, people mostly seem to refer to this on a non-personal level; ie, when you die, your consciousness hangs around; this is not what I mean.) In other words, I will remain myself no matter what happens or who I become. (I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant.)

To briskly wrap things up change is a given and will happen regardless of if you’re ready for it or not.  The way to most effectively deal with change is create it. And the way to create change is to step off into the unknown (prepare as best you can) with the confidence that you will find the path back out.

Press Release Rhythm

Minimal comment on Microsoft entering the retail space with Apple-_esque_ stores—dumb—but I liked the press release:

We’re working hard to transform the PC and Microsoft buying experience at retail by improving the articulation and demonstration of the Microsoft innovation and value proposition so that it’s clear, simple and straightforward for consumers everywhere.”

You do though have to mis-pronounce proposition as proposation to really maintain the flow. That would also help to further increase the irony of the ending clause.

Thoughts on Nonprofit growth, management and culture

On the ride home last night from my Institute for Nonprofit Management and Leadership Class, I was talking to my classmate about the difficulties of creating a comfortable workplace environment.  Both of us had worked with organizations who’s good works externally did not match internal working conditions.

Nonprofit organizations walk a difficult line. Businesses have an easily measured metric of success. Nonprofits on the other hand have a broader basket of mission, vision, values and promises; these are often enough matched with the weak verb “interpret”. In trying to change society for the better, or just provide stop-gap services for an imperfect society, it can often be difficult to know where you draw the between internal and external priorities.

Can you create an organization that fully engenders your vision and values while, at the same time, effectively and efficiently achieve its mission?  It’s difficult to say. As nonprofit organizations are increasingly pressed to adopt business-style methodologies (“Social Entrepreneurialism”), I’m placed with conflicting emotions. I do not believe that growth and impact (impact being the social version of profit) are the only ways to create change; yet I am aware that these methodologies can quickly and efficiently affect broad-reaching change.  But are these business-style values able to adequately create dialogue and engender engagement with a broad diversity of people and viewpoints? Will they ultimately create the world we want, and if so, does the ends justify the means?

One of the issues is people (well, all issues are people, but that’s out of scope of these thoughts).  Many of the people who want to work within the nonprofit sector have strongly articulated values and vision for the world they would like to live in. In my own experience, I would broadly put the majority of these within the box of Liberal Democratic principles: meritocracies embracing diversity, collaborative decision making, and inclusive participation.  Unfortunately, these ideals can be at loggerheads with the management that is required of business-style growth and impact: strict hierarchies, delineated responsibilities and externally-legitimated authority.  I know many groups—collectives, cooperatives and adhocracies—that are successful; but for the most part they are small, or only act upon narrow missions (for example, planning an annual conference).  I also know of organizations who by growing lost aspects of a communal culture which they highly valued.

Such are the difficulties of trying to create cross-sector models of success.  Our model on the for-profit side seem to be the large, publicly traded corporations: Google, Microsoft, GE. Businesses with professional managers—and for whom much of our current management training, philosophy and literature is geared towards.  And yet the business world is so much richer than that.  The privately owned, mom-and-pop store on Main Street (to borrow the common invocation of our last national election) has values closer to my own: local ownership, community values, emphasis on quality and relationships rather than profits, and not necessarily striving to be greater than they are right now—only better.

The Purpose of Copyright

I assume I’m not the only person making this connection, but it’s interesting how successful the entertainment industry (and anyone with an intellectual-property axe to grind)  has been in making this rhetoric commonly accepted:

Ludvig Werner, the boss of IFPI’s local Swedish chapter, had a somewhat different perspective: The Pirate Bay is about keeping money out of creators’ hands and putting it into Pirate Bay pockets. “Copyright exists to ensure that everyone in the creative world—from the artist to the record label, from the independent film producer to the TV programme maker—can choose how their creations are distributed and get fairly rewarded for their work,” he said in a statement. [from the trial against the Pirate Bay in Sweden]

And this is from the United States’ Constitution—though obviously (I hope) not in force in Sweden:

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries

Not that I agree with the Pirate Bay’s methodologies, but as I’ve written before, this isn’t the first time that copyright rhetoric has been manipulated… all the way back to the 19th century.

Existential Charters

I just finished reading a New York Times editorial “ Is the Supreme Court About to Kill Off the Exclusionary Rule?” that ended with this line:

“Nothing can destroy a government more quickly,” the [Federal Supreme Court noted in Mapp v. Ohio], “than its failure to observe its own laws, or worse, its disregard of the charter of its own existence.”

I also just finished reading Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother (which you can download free under Creative Commons).

18-25: moving from Becoming to Being

I got to talking to one of my favorite coffee shop girls at my favorite coffee shop today.  She’s 23 and just graduated from College and living with her younger sister, 21, and we were talking about differences in age.  In my day job I spend a lot of time interacting with people in the 18 - 25 year range—and though I just left range a few months ago myself—also spend a lot of time with those ages in my personal time as well.

The 18-25 age range isn’t so much generationally awkward—though you might hear otherwise—as externally/socially awkward.  In the social service sector, there is at least an order of magnitude decrease in support service spending for individuals once they reach 18. Even in our infantilized American society, there is a marked difference in how people are treated once they reach adulthood.  It’s surprising that, despite the near-general view that our Education system and family/social support networks (learning towards one or the other depending on your politics) do not prepare young people do be adults_,_ that they are still expected to act like them—whatever adulthood means for you, that is.

Off the soapbox…

In my AmeriCorps*VISTA orientation, I give a presentation—a charismatic lecture—that I’ve developed entitled** Advocate for Yourself**. (I am most proud of myself that it does not once include the word “Professionalism”, other than in derogatory aside.) The presentation is geared towards incoming VISTA members, who’s next 12 months of highs and lows is pretty well mapped out.  Because I can’t guarantee that narrow track of experience for you, dear reader, I’ll do my best for the setup here:

The difficulties of the 18-25 year old range have to do with what I call moving from Becoming to Being.  As a young person, most of your energy is put towards becoming a functioning member of society.  But once you get there, well, you’re there—and while it’s liberating, it’s a lot harder to maintain… mostly because it’s so liberating.

Things that used to be provided you must now seek out:

  • Cuing: There aren’t as many people who will tell you when you’re doing something wrong, or help you do the correct thing.  It’s simply no longer anyone’s job; a job usually coinciding with Mandated Reporter.  You’re less likely for someone to tell you “get a job”, “you’re eating what?” or “you should have a doctor look at that”. Even regarding social norms, you’re more likely to be fired, dumped, or not have your calls returned than be confronted about them.  And as time goes on, you’re less likely to have a diverse social network—social networks, unlike your high school, are self-selecting—who can clue you in. At least maybe until your own kids reach maturity—though at this point you’ll probably be living in such an echo chamber that you’ll think it’s them who need adjusting.

  • Paths: You have to make your own.  When I went to school, there was one path: college.  After that (and if not that) it all got a little fuzzy. And if you didn’t go to college—or were never planning on it— this struck you a whole lot earlier.  There isn’t anyone setting goals for you anymore: it’s up to you to figure out where you want to go, and how you want to get there.  There are a lot less options for filling in the blanks in personal and professional development too.  Compare the number of Adult Ed classes that are available to the number of Youth Extracurriculars—it’s depressing.

  • Reinvention:

Remember ever starting your first day at a new school? Planning what you’d wear, the stories you’d tell, the new persona you’d create so they’d think you’re cooler than you were before.  Not so easy anymore; it doesn’t come on a regular schedule of every 3-5 years.  There is a whole lot more baggage you’re carrying around that makes it that much harder to form as clean a slate as possible. That makes it a lot harder to put some distance between your boneheadedness then and your (slightly-) less boneheadness now.

Reading over those, I didn’t mean for them to be so depressing (and caricatured), but it’s something to be mindful of and work against: putting yourself out there, setting personal and professional goals (and revisiting them from time to time), keeping yourself as fluid as possible (as much as Wealth Bondage allows), and having a good mentor, therapist and/org priest with whom you can talk stuff through.

The (false) metaphor of the tube for communication

I love posting from The Tree of Knowledge.  This is what they have to say about tubes (emphasis mine):

Our discussion has led us to conclude that, biologically, there is no “transmitted information” in communication.  Communication takes place each time there is behaivioral coupling in a realm of structural coupling.

This conclusion is surprising only if we insist on not questioning the latest metaphor for communication which has become popular with the so-called communication media.  According to this metaphor of the tube, communication is something generated at a certain point.  It is carried by a conduit (or tube) and is delivered to the receiver at the other end.  hence, there is a something that is communicated, and what is communicated is an integral part of that which travels in the tube.  Thus, we usually speak of the “information” contained in a picture, an object or, more evidently, the printed word.

According to our analysis, this metaphor is basically false. It presupposes a unity that is not determined structurally, where interactions are instructive, as though what happens to a system in an interaction is not determined by the perturbing agent and not by its structural dynamics.  It is evident, however, in daily life, that such is not the case with communication: each person says what he says or hears what he hears according to his own structural determination;** saying does not ensure listening. From the perspective of an observer, there is always ambiguity in a communicative interaction. The phenomenon of communication depends on not what is transmitted, but on what happens to the person who receives it.** And this is a very different matter from “transmitting information.”

So that’s all a bit of a mouthful, but its an important aspect of communication—it’s not the creation or production of something_, it’s the making of an _affect or_ inducing an action_ upon someone.

The ambiguity of language is something that Bakhtin has touched on (and I have posted before):

[Bakhtin explores] the idea that language is indeed ambiguous, but whereas deconstruction would highlight this ambiguity as the inability of words to convey precise meaning, Bakhtin welcomes this vagueness of language as a means by which to create meaning dialogically.

This is a very positive and optimistic statement of embracing dialogue as the means to overcoming the biological and structural limits of our individualism.  And which, you can probably assume, I strongly agree with.

Mission and Promise: there is a difference

I was forwarded this from Angelina, who apparently read it on the side of her Starbucks cup (emphasis mine):

“There is a subtle difference between a mission and a promise. A mission is something you strive to accomplish – a promise is something you are compelled to keep. One is individual, the other is shared. When a mission and a promise are one and the same . . . that’s when mountains are moved and races are won.”

Hala Moddelmog, Pres. and CEO, Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

The last sentence is mostly pablum, but from yesterday’s post about dialogue and creating a shared community, I think it’s important to think about not only what your own committment is, but also the expectations you are committing to with others.  In other words, a mission is a statement, a promise is a contract.

Online Fundraising: please do it right

Of all things, tonight in my Institute for Nonprofit Management and Leadership class we were talking about Online Fundraising. I got a little frustrated since (a) I couldn’t get a word in and (b) they were really making a muck of it. What I was hearing was a confusion of the indicators of successful online fundraising with the methodology for creating successful online fundraising; saying things like “have a taste-maker blogger promote it” and “get people to post it on their friend’s Facebook wall”. To take a line from Joe Breiteneicher’s Quest: they were identifying with the money, not the purpose. So allow me some catharsis…

Online fundraising is no different than offline fundraising—heck, people of my generation don’t even recognize that there is a difference between on- and offline. What people want when they give is no different no matter where they give or where they are. The only difference is efficiency. Everything you can do online, you can do off-, except the reason you didn’t do it before was that it was so inefficient that no one expected you to. And now that the online sphere makes it so cheap and easy (well, if you’re doing it right), people demand it.

So what are people demanding: Community. Donors want to be linked with clients, linked with providers, linked with other organizations through you. If they don’t, it’s because they don’t realize yet that they can be—just like Britain didn’t have good food because no one demanded it because no one supplied it because no one demanded it (yes, that’s Krugman). I’m not saying that everyone will be an A-type personality—a healthy community is diverse both in participants and modes of participation—but people want the opportunity for participation.

So how do you build a successful community? What do people really want that will lead to a healthy community? I’ll just quote my notes from a conference session I attended called What Freud and Buddha Understood (and We’re Forgetting) about Online Outreach:

  • Need 1: To be SEEN and HEARD
  • Need 2: To be CONNECTED to someone or something
  • Need 3: To be part of something GREATER THAN THEMSELVES
  • Need 4: To have HOPE for the future
  • Need 5: The security of TRUST
  • Need 6: To be of SERVICE
  • Need 7: To want HAPPINESS for self and others

When you build a campaign—whether on- or offline— that includes these components, it has the best chance of being successful. This will cause the taste-makers to stop staring at their navels and the Facebook crowd to stop poking eachother (or throwing sheep)—and start talking about you. And possibly create something else that you didn’t realize would happen in the first place… that will bring in the money.

As an ending thought, think about why churches are so successful with fundraising. They link purpose with practice with people—and do such a good job that you may not realize when you are serving the church, serving the community or when they are serving you. If a church can do that because of a shared moral calling, think about what you can do with a shared ethical and social calling. Think about it!

Self, Language and Consciousness

The Tree of Knowledge is a goldmine of concepts and ideas.  The most interesting parts are at the end—in discussions of society, communications and language.

What biology shows us is that the uniqueness of being human lies exclusively in a social structural coupling that occurs through languaging, generating (a) the regularities proper to the human social dynamics, for example, individual identity and self-consciousness, and (b) the recursive social dynamics that entails a reflection enabling us to see that as human beings we have only the world which we create with others—whether we like them or not.

What I like most is the circular nature of the self-conception of individuals being tied to their use of language; the strength and ability of that language is tied to the richness and diversity of their interactions with others; those interactions are communication—strongly defined as activities triggering a change in the recipient; that change affects the individual’s own self-conception and consciousness.  It’s a little heady, so I made up a graphic:

Self, Language and Communication

All of the components are core to our human reality.  And, recursively, we cannot describe this reality without them.

On the practical side, I think the tidyness in which language and communication are linked and allowed to dynamically affect one another is astounding. Language—not just as words, but as a means of communicating and affecting change in others—is a continuous development.  Our individual ability to language is a function of the richness of our interactions with others, continuously enriching itself as we add new experience to it, and use it to create descriptions of descriptions (and so forth) of those experiences.  And, that the effectiveness of our language is the measure of our ability to communicate—effecting change—with others.

This calls to mind (well, it does for me) the thoughts of the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin who advanced the idea of the dialogic within literature, stating things along the lines that “a dialogic work carries on a continual dialogue with other works of literature and other authors. It does not merely answer, correct, silence, or extend a previous work, but informs and is continually informed by the previous work.” Expanding this:

For Bakhtin, all language - indeed, all thought - appeared dialogic. This means that everything anybody ever says always exists in response to things that have been said before and in anticipation of things that will be said in response. We never, in other words, speak in a vacuum. As a result, all language (and the ideas which language contains and communicates) is dynamic, relational and engaged in a process of endless redescriptions of the world. [from Wikipedia, though you can read much more advanced dissertation on Bakhtin]

The unbroken linearity of consciousness is interesting enough. Once we have experienced something, we cannot go back and un-experience it.  I have participated in many conversations of “What album do you wish you could listen to for the first time again?” (for me it’s The Clash, The Clash). Jorge Luis Borges explores it within the short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”:

Those who have insinuated that Menard devoted his life to writing a contemporary Quixote besmirch his illustirous memory.  Pierre Menard did not want to compose annother Quixote, which surely is easy enough—he wanted to compose the Quixote.  Nor, surely, need one be obliged to note that his goal was never a mechanical transcription of the original; he had no intention of copying it. His admirable ambition was to produce a number of pages which coincided—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes.