Outside the model

“The most important assumptions of a model are not in the equations, but what’s not in them; not in the documentation, but unstated; not in the variables on the computer screen, but in the blank spaces around them.”

-John Sterman
(as quoted in Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics)


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Rule Number 6

“Two prime ministers are sitting in a room discussing affairs of state. Suddenly a man bursts in, apoplectic with fury, shouting and stamping and banging his fist on the desk. The resident prime minister admonishes him: ‘Peter,’ he says, ‘kindly remember Rule Number 6,’ whereupon Peter is instantly restored to complete calm, apologizes, and withdraws.”

After a number of similar scenes occur, “the visiting prime minister addresses his colleague: ‘My dear friend, I’ve seen many things in my life, but never anything as remarkable as this. Would you be willing to share with me the secret of Rule Number 6?’ ‘Very simple,’ replies the resident prime minister. ‘Rule Number 6 is ‘Don’t take yourself so damn seriously.’ ‘Ah,’ says his visitor, ‘that is a fine rule.’ After a moment of pondering, he inquires, ‘And what, may I ask, are the other rules?'”

“‘There aren’t any.'”

-Rosamund and Benjamin Zander,
The Art of Possibility (2000, p.79)

Is it number 6 to emphasize that as one rule among many, it doesn’t take itself so seriously? (Meta-Rule Number 6.)

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“It’s easier to armor ourselves than to step out of our armor. … Staying present with your shame takes far more courage than riding it into aggression. Staying present with your shame, neither indulging in it nor avoiding it, furthers the authentic warrior in you, the one who can sit in the fire of deep challenge and difficulty, and remain present without numbing himself or disconnecting from others. Remaining present with your shame takes guts. Doing so deepens your capacity for vulnerability, and therefore also your capacity for being in truly intimate relationship.”

“If men want an arena that calls forth their full heroism, this is it: to heed the call to face our planetary disasters and disaster-making with huge resolve and stamina and compassion. Imagine all the energy that goes into armoring and overprotecting ourselves (overbudgeting for defense) instead of going into truly facing and cleaning up the mess we’ve made of our home—and our own inner terrain.”

“Remember that emotion and reason work best when they work together.”

-Robert Augustus Masters, To Be A Man
(p. 38-39, 127-128, 282)

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Scenarios vs. predictions

“Dynamic systems studies usually are not designed to predict what will happen. Rather, they’re designed to explore what would happen, if a number of driving factors unfold in a range of different ways.”

-Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems (p. 46)

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Time and Money

“The argument against great design is always cost and speed. The discussion about cost and speed is not really about cost and speed. It is an agenda that declares that human experience is a low priority. […] Don’t ever take the argument about no funds and no time at face value. Our stance about cost and speed is simply a measure of our commitment.”

“There is more than enough time and just enough money.”

-Peter Block (Community: The Structure of Belonging p.162)

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The Paradox of Control

“The deep challenge here is… letting go of our comforting illusion of control, the illusion that we’ve done our job as leaders: we’ve done all the analysis, we’ve got the plan, things are going to go according to plan. Paradoxically, it’s only when we give up the illusion of control that we get the real thing, by shifting to sense-and-respond.”

-Frederic Laloux, Reinventing Organizations
(illustrated version, p. 118)

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Uncertain predictions

In 2009, a researcher surveyed 35 quantitative analysts who build forecast models across a variety of industries and government. Out of those, “just one respondent stated he had ever attempted to check actual outcomes against original forecasts.” In other words, almost no one actually checked to see whether their predictions came true. Even the one respondent who did say he checked didn’t keep any hard data about the level of accuracy.

The inevitable consequence is that “fundamentally flawed models that don’t even come close to matching the eventual observations may be used without question indefinitely.”

It’s easy to imagine why model builders may not proactively want to check their past predictions. For one thing, if the results are poor enough, it could make it hard to justify hiring the model builder in the future.

But why don’t businesspeople who use the model forecasts in their decision-making specifically request such retrospective analysis?

It’s possible that some model users do that tracking themselves, so it didn’t show up in the survey of model builders described above.

But I also suspect it has a lot to do with the discomfort we feel around uncertainty. Mainstream business culture is oriented around the concepts of “measure, predict, control”. So the less accurately it turns out we can predict, the more that entire world view is undermined. If you are committed to the world view, if indeed your entire career and belief system is predicated on the world view, you will tend to do whatever you can to avoid potential disconfirming evidence.

Fortunately, next-stage organizations are beginning to appear, with an entirely different world view characterized by “sense and respond”. Prediction is far less critical, and uncertainty is far less problematic. This indeed makes quantitative models themselves less important (but by no means irrelevant). In situations where these models continue to be used, I hope to see more acceptance not just of retrospective analysis, but of other indicators of uncertainty such as confidence intervals and statistical significance.

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“Have to”

“I suggested that [a teacher in one of my workshops] translate her statement ‘I have to give grades because it’s district policy’ to ‘I choose to give grades because I want…’ She answered without hesitation, “I choose to give grades because I want to keep my job,” while hastening to add, “But I don’t like saying it that way. It makes me feel so responsible for what I’m doing.”

“‘That’s why I want you to do it that way,’ I replied.”

-Marshall B. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication (p. 21)

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“To cut through illusion, we have to get disillusioned — the more thoroughly the better — so long as we do so at a pace that allows for proper digestion of the shifts we’re making.

“A crucial challenge is to stop treating disillusionment as a problem or something negative, and use it as an awakening force. To be disillusioned is to see through illusion, in conjunction with releasing its hold on us. We thus become disenchanted, no longer spellbound.”

-Robert Augustus Masters, To Be A Man (p. 61)

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The mind-body connection is no joke

A remarkable thing happened to me about a year ago. The simple act of reading a book healed the intermittent back pain that I had lived with for almost ten years — pain that had resisted multiple rounds of physical therapy, massage therapy, yoga, stretching, standing desks, and ergonomic chairs.

Again: I merely read a book, and the pain was gone within about a month. Moreover, this was not “all in my head”: my physical therapist and massage therapist both found significant changes in my physical muscle tissue during that period.

I know it sounds ridiculous, because it sounded ridiculous to me when a friend of a family member relayed her own similar story. But as I read the book she recommended — Healing Back Pain: The mind-body connection by Dr. John E. Sarno (and there are other similar books) — I began to understand the emerging science of mind-body interactions and it all started to make a lot of sense.

Megan summarized the findings this way: “Most recurrent or long-term pain in the neck, shoulder, back, and buttocks is caused by your autonomic (unconscious) nervous system restricting oxygen flow to these regions, and this oxygen deprivation causes pain. Your autonomous brain does this to distract you or relieve you from having to deal with difficult emotions, such as anger, sadness, and fear, especially when these emotions are not deemed acceptable by you and/or your society (e.g., it’s not ok to be angry).”

It turns out that the unconscious nervous system controls a vast array of body systems, including the regulation of blood flow, digestion, healing, immune system activity, and many more, so there are plenty of plausible pathways for the mind to create physical pain and discomfort. Meanwhile, our cultures have a tremendous number of ways of encouraging us to repress and numb our emotions. So the ingredients are all there, bountifully. It turns out that this isn’t pseudo-science — nor ridiculous at all.

Yet the idea of psychologically caused pain is still so foreign to the Western world that no doctor or physical therapist in ten years ever said anything to me about this area of study. I’m not here to vilify them — on the contrary, I had some wonderful physical therapists who taught me exercises that I still practice for general strength and health. But I do feel a responsibility to spread the word, because so many others also experience chronic back, neck, shoulder, stomach, and other types of pain and related conditions.

Unfortunately, I can’t summarize in a short blog post the core of the cure — namely, learning to face the emotional difficulties that are the true cause of most chronic pain. But Dr. Sarno says that the material covered in his book was sufficient to help the vast majority of his patients. I count myself among them.



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Crossing the Atlantic

“When [Jewish immigrants fled their villages in Eastern Europe in the period 1881-1918], they moved to the most advanced industrial cities in Europe and America, but also away from an atmosphere of medieval [living conditions]. They found a world where many of the ideas they had brought with them could not stand up to scrutiny. In the Old World, women had learned to accept that only half their children would survive. A serious illness was a physical catastrophe whose cure, as everyone knew, lay in God’s will. […] Even the astonishing physical combination of lights, steam, and power that drove them across the Atlantic in ten days could hardly prepare them for the new Industrial Age of elevated railways, street lights, sewage disposal, safe drinking water available at the turn of a tap. In crossing the Atlantic they had made a leap of centuries in time.” (p. 118-119)

“All my friends came from identical immigrant families, [so] I was prepared for all kinds of revelations [the first time I visited] a non-Jewish family. The first surprise that awaited me was how the parents treated their children. Their style was something that I did not know — good-tempered, considerate, gentle. One day the mother observed that one of the little girls was not looking well. She had no fever, but did not seem to be her usual self — somewhat subdued and limp. Her mother suggested that she would make up a bed on the sofa where her daughter could lie and read and be comfortable. The little girl agreed, and snuggled down on the sofa under a paisley shawl with a sigh of relief and contentment. I watched all this closely and, I must confess, with a pang of longing for the quiet attentiveness I had never experienced.

“Here, the child was regarded as someone who had wishes and thoughts and desires — all of which were legitimate and to be considered in any dispositions made concerning that child. As to the child’s sickness, the mother was responding by taking a simple first precautionary step. But what impressed me was that she was thinking about the child. When I considered the world in which I had grown up, I saw a remarkable contrast.

“When I was sick, my parents responded first to the sickness — and always with alarm. They then took measures to allay their fears, but they were too frightened, paradoxically enough, to think about me. They watched the thermometer to see whether the fever was going up or down. But they did not ask me how I felt. My mother would wander white-lipped through the house, wringing her hands and murmuring in alliterative Yiddish, ‘Dear God frighten me, but do not punish me.’ On such occasions, my parents did not trouble to make fine distinctions between a fever brought on by a chest cold or by diphtheria; the response to illness was always to declare a state of emergency. Even as children, my friends and I perceived the disproportion between our common ailments and the storm of concern that they aroused. We mistook this intensity for love.” (p. 9-10)

-Ruth Gay, Unfinished People (1996)

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“We want desperately to take uncertainty out of the future. But when we take uncertainty out, it is no longer the future. It is the present projected forward. Nothing new can come from the desire for a predictable tomorrow. The only way to make tomorrow predictable is to make it just like today. In fact, what distinguishes the future is its unpredictability and mystery.”

-Peter Block (Community: The Structure of Belonging p.105)

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Speed vs. Wholeness

Holacracy has always made me a bit uneasy, and I’ve had difficulty pinpointing why.

My first take looked at the contradictions inherent in a CEO commanding that their company adopt a system which itself does not condone managers or commanding. That article was more about the process of adopting self-management than about any particular self-management structure. But I think Holacracy is an enabler (even if unintentionally) of quick adoptions that are more likely to have these contradictory properties.

Inspired by Chris Clark’s article about potentially moving beyond Holacracy, it occurred to me that there is perhaps a fundamental tradeoff at work here. A central goal of Holacracy is to make it easier and faster for organizations to adopt self-management (in part by providing “off the shelf” solutions). The part of me that wants to encourage the world to move beyond traditional power structures loves the idea of speeding up that process. And yet I think this approach contradicts a core truth: that how things are done is often far more important than what is done or how quickly it is done. For example, the ownership and responsibility generated in the process of co-creation is often more impactful than the objective merits of the solution itself. (See: Peter Block)

So by shortcutting its way to a solution, Holacracy bypasses some of the vital ownership-, growth-, and community-building functions that a slower, more imperfect process of creating a solution together would have supported. This seems to be a fundamental downside of any technique to speed up or short-cut growth. That is, the tradeoff for getting something more quickly is that it’s less robust, less integrated, and less whole.

This is not an argument that Holacracy is “bad” — these are legitimate tradeoffs, and different contexts will call for different approaches. But that’s also part of the point. Truly understanding your context takes more time than adopting an off-the-shelf solution.

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Shadow work

“The ‘shadow’ is a term representing the personal unconscious, or the psychological material that we repress, deny, dissociate, or disown. Unfortunately, denying this material doesn’t make it go away; on the contrary, it returns to plague us with painful neurotic symptoms, obsessions, fears, and anxieties. […] One of the lessons that we learned the very hard way … is that if you don’t do shadow work, [all your other efforts] can get sabotaged by your own unconscious. […] Your shadow can accompany you all the way to enlightenment and back.”

-Ken Wilber (The Integral Vision)

So true, and yet it’s still unclear to me how this fits into Ken Wilber’s model of life, the universe, and everything.

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Some truths I’ve learned about truths:

  • The truth changes, sometimes frequently.
  • Truths that seem contradictory can both be true.
  • The only definitive truth is subjective experience in the present.

Do these truths also apply to themselves? (Metametatruths?)

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Fabric of society

“White segregationists said, ‘We can’t have integrated schools because black and white children might get to know each other and might marry each other and have babies.’ The Civil Rights Movement said, ‘This is not about marriage.’ But the white segregationists were right. You bring people together, they will actually learn to love each other. Some of them will marry and have children. It will actually change the fabric of society. When people worry that having gays in our community will change what marriage really means, actually, they’re right. When people worry that having a lot of Latinos in the United States will change the United States, they are right. We’re constantly making each other. … We’re going to create a bigger ‘we’, a different ‘we’.”

-John Powell (via Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise, p. 119)

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“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. It’s not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Marianne Williamson (via Ryan Schoenbeck)

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“When you are ready to learn, a teacher will appear.”

-Zen proverb (via David Holzer)

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Small groups

“All [meaningful] change begins with a small group, for the small group is the unit of change. Even a large [gathering] uses small groups to create connection and move the action forward. The small group is the structure that allows every voice to be heard. [It’s irrelevant whether] everything has been said [unless] everyone has said it. ”

-Peter Block (Civic Engagement and the Restoration of Community)

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“A gathering is hosted; it is the product of an act of hospitality. [In contrast], meetings are called or scheduled. They are intended for production rather than hospitality. They are mostly designed to take the past and will it into the future. So they become one more version of the past. They either review the past or embody the belief that better planning, better managing or more measurement and prediction can create an alternative future.”

-Peter Block (Civic Engagement and the Restoration of Community)

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Voting behavior

It is too difficult and time-consuming to make a “fully rational” voting decision, so we use heuristics (“rules of thumb”). In particular, we use:

The nature of the times heuristic: When times are good, you vote for continuity. When times are bad, you vote for change.

The identification heuristic: You are more likely to vote for people you identify emotionally with, with people who, you sense, “get you.”

Francisco Toro (via Evangeline White)

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Afraid to Think

“I’ve worked with students who could barely let themselves think, they were so scared of thinking the wrong thing.”

-Eula Biss (via On Being)

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Racism as squandered alliance

“I strongly believe that for all the ways white people benefit materially from racism, that we’re very damaged by it. [Many] poor white people see themselves as white before they understand themselves as poor. There’s a potentially very powerful alliance between poor whites and poor blacks in our country, and that alliance has been undermined. And ultimately, I think, who it benefits is a tiny, tiny little segment of the society — this is another way of talking about the one percent.”

-Eula Biss (via On Being)

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I’m starting to understand how the whole concept of willpower is a sham.

It’s sort of funny because I took an entire college course on the psychology of willpower. All sorts of experiments have been conducted on people’s ability to do things like “delaying gratification” (such as looking at but not eating a bowl of cookies) and voluntarily withstanding various types of pain (how long will you immerse your hand in ice water?). There are mathematical models describing how willpower is depleted and renewed and how it relates to the immediacy (or lack thereof) of the anticipated reward.

The first signs of brewing trouble came (for me) in the form of studies showing that diets, exercise programs, and other regimes of “do it because it’s good for you” (including some religious doctrines) generally speaking do not work. They often work in the short term, but in the long term are more likely to leave participants worse off than they were before they started.

Then I began to see that the whole concept of willpower is antithetical to mindfulness, wholeheartedness, integral psychology, Zen, etc. These approaches first and foremost teach us to get out of our heads and tune into the sensations and experience of the body in the present moment. We work to fully experience our feelings, our body’s needs like hunger and movement, and our spiritual needs like connection and compassion. We then try to proceed in life honoring those needs without overriding them with preconceived notions about what’s “right” or “proper” or “civil” or the way to fulfill some other role that we are used to occupying (student, parent, spouse, employee, caretaker, and on and on).

Willpower is forcing oneself to overcome one’s own instincts and needs. Mindfulness is compassionately accepting and integrating our whole self, as it is, right now. These are polar opposites.

Ironically, the creators of the diets and workouts — and the prophets who headline our major religions — most likely were enlightened. That is, in a compassionate and mindful way they discovered methods by which they achieved health and happiness. Then they wrote those methods down for the benefit of the rest of us. And then, the rest of us started trying to force ourselves and each other to do those things.

Clearly there is no intrinsic problem with eating healthy and getting exercise and being honest and treating your neighbor as you would like to be treated. The problem comes when we try to do those things by force of will rather than out of compassion and mindfulness for what our whole self wants and needs.

I say this as someone who has been more or less stuck in my head for my entire adult life and who is at the present moment deeply hungry but putting off getting food because my mind wants to write this article and is afraid of pausing even for a few minutes because the rest of my body might realize that there are other, more pressing needs.

If that’s willpower, I no longer want it.


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Good and Bad

One of the ideas that stuck with me after reading Nonviolent Communication (Rosenberg, 3rd ed. 2015), is that words such as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘better’, ‘worse’, ‘right’, and ‘wrong’ can often be problematic. For example:

In expressing our feelings, it helps to use words that refer to specific emotions, rather than words that are vague or general. For example, if we say, ‘I feel good about that,’ the word good could mean happy, excited, relieved, or a number of other emotions. Words such as good and bad prevent the listener from connecting easily with what we might actually be feeling. (p. 43)

Notice how Rosenberg very intentionally did not say that using vague words is bad or wrong — which would of course be a contradiction! Rather, he walked the talk and described a specific problem that can arise when such words are used. (Elsewhere in the book he describes all sorts of terrible problems that can arise from using judgmental language including “right” and “wrong”.)

Part of what’s poignant about this is how easy it is for my mind to jump to the simplified version: that using these words is bad or wrong. They appear frequently in conversation, social media, news, and books. So now every time I notice one, I have an opportunity — I can judge the wrongness/badness of the writer, or I can simply become curious and see if I can think up a more specific way to phrase what they may have meant (helping to improve my own communication skills). Sometimes my mind does both. Sometimes I end up liking the author’s word choice a lot.

In a way, the most remarkable thing about Nonviolent Communication is that it is a self-help book (which we would presume to contain some ideas about what sort of behavior is good or bad) written entirely without resorting to judgmental language like “good”, “right”, “should”, and “must”. Instead, everything is framed as techniques that can be employed to achieve certain goals or qualities.

If our objective is only to change people and their behavior or to get our way, then NVC is not an appropriate tool. The process is designed for those of us who would like others to change and respond, but only if they choose to do so willingly and compassionately. The objective of NVC is to establish a relationship based on honesty and empathy. (p. 81)

I think it is critically important to recognize that someone who does not practice nonviolent communication is not bad or wrong. They may be suffering unnecessarily, but they are doing their best.

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