Journeying to a New World
©Margaret Wheatley 2006
in Einstein's Business: Engaging Soul, Imagination, and Excellence in the Workplace. Santa Rosa, CA: Elite Books, Forthcoming.
Note: This is an adaptation of the Epilogue, Leadership and the New Science, Third Edition, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2006.
Across the valley, the last colors of this day warm the horizon. Two dimensions move across the land, removing all contours, smoothing purple mountains flat against a rose-radiant sky. Whenever natural forces of destruction are active anywhere in Asia, the skies of Utah light up. At every twilight, visiting dust shimmers red in the air, intensifying the colors of an always intense sky. I sit bathed in strange light, anchored by dark magenta mountains.
I move differently in the world these days since traveling in the realms of new science. The world has become a strange and puzzling place that keeps insisting I give up what I thought I knew. I don't expect to ever again feel secured by intellectual confidence. But I find life much more interesting now, living with not knowing, trying to stay curious rather than certain. In the process of playing with certain ideas for a number of years and then making the observations that have informed the core of my work, a few things about the journey stand out.
I was in this work a few years before I was able to identify its real nature. I realized that I and others weren't asking people simply to adopt some new approaches to leadership or to think about organizations in a few new ways. What we were really asking, and what was also being asked of us, was that we change our thinking at the most fundamental level, that of our world view. The dominant world view of Western culture the world as machine doesn't help us to live well in this world any longer. We have to see the world differently if we are to live in it more harmoniously.
Once I understood the nature of the work, it helped me relax and be more generous. I learned that people get frightened if asked to change their world view. And why wouldn't they? Of course people will get defensive; of course they might be intrigued by a new idea, but then turn away in fear. They are smart enough to realize how much they would have to change if they accepted that idea. I no longer worry that if I could just find the right worlds or techniques, I could instantly convince people. I no longer expect a new world view to be embraced quickly; I don't know if I'll see it take root in my lifetime. I also know that people are being influenced from sources far beyond anyone's control. I know many people who've been changed by events in their lives, not by words they read in a book.
These people have been changed by life's great creative force, chaos. One of the gifts offered by this new world view is a clearer description of life's cyclical nature. The mechanistic world view promised us lives of continual progress. Since we were in control and engineering it all, we could pull ourselves straight uphill, scarcely faltering. But life doesn't work that way, and this new world view confirms what most of us knew no rebirth is possible without moving through a dark passage. Dark times are normal to life; there's nothing wrong with us when we periodically plunge into the abyss.
Over the past years, nudged by the science, I have come to know personally that the journey of newness is filled with the black potholes of chaos. The science has restrained me from trying to negotiate my way out of dark times with a quick fix. But even though I know the role of chaos, I still don't like it. It's terrifying when the world I so carefully held together dissolves. I don't like feeling lost and emptied of meaning. I would prefer an easier path to transformation. But even as I experience their demands as unreasonable, I know I am in partnership with great creative forces. I know that chaos is a necessary place for me to dwell occasionally. So I have learned to sit with these dark moments confused, overwhelmed, only faintly trusting that new insights will appear. I know that this is my only route to new ways of being.
The more I contemplate these times, when we truly are giving birth to a new world view, the more I realize that our culture is presently journeying through chaos. The old ways are dissolving, and the new has not yet shown itself. If this is true, then we must engage with one another differently, as explorers and discoverers. I believe it will make the passage more fruitful if we can learn how to honor each other in these roles. We can realize that no single person or school of thought has the answer, because what's required is far beyond isolated answers. We can realize that we must inquire together to find the new. We can turn to one another as our best hope for inventing and discovering the worlds we are seeking.
In the past, exploration was easier. We could act as patrons and pay somebody to do it for us. They would set sail and bring back to us the answers and riches we coveted. We still want it to work this way; we still look to take what others have discovered and adopt it as our own. But we have all learned from experience that solutions don't transfer. These failures have been explained by quantum physics. In a quantum world, everything depends on context, on the unique relationships available in the moment. Since relationships are different from place to place and moment to moment, why would we expect that solutions developed in one context would work the same in another?
So we can no longer act as patrons, waiting expectantly for the right solution. We are each required to go down to the dock and begin our individual journeys. The seas need to be crowded with explorers, each of us looking for our answers. We do need to be sharing what we find, but not as models. From each other, we need to learn what's possible. Another's success encourages us to continue our own search for treasure.
This need to discover for ourselves is unnerving. I keep hoping I'm wrong and that someone, somewhere, really does have the answer. But I know we don't inhabit that universe any longer. In this new world, you and I have to make it up as we go along, not because we lack the expertise or planning skills, but because this is the nature of reality. Reality changes shape and meaning as we're in it. It is constantly new. We are required to be there, as active participants. It can't happen without us, and nobody can do it for us.
If we take seriously the role of explorer and inventor, we will realize that we can't do this alone. It's scary work, trying to find a new world, hoping we won't die in the process. We live in a time of chaos, as rich in the potential for disaster as for new possibilities. How will we navigate these times?
The answer is, together. We need each other differently now. We cannot hide behind our boundaries, or hold onto the belief that we can survive alone. We need each other to test out ideas, to share what we're learning, to help us see in new ways, to listen to our stories. We need each other to forgive us when we fail, to trust us with their dreams, to offer their hope when we've lost our own.
I crave companions, not competitors. I want people to sail with me through this puzzling and frightening world. I expect to fail at moments on this journey, to get lost how could I not? And I expect that you too will fail. Even our voyage is cyclical we can't help but move from old to new to old. We will vacillate, one day doing something bold and different, excited over the progress, the next day, back to old behaviors, confused about how to proceed. We need to expect that we will wander off course and not make straight progress to our destination. To stay the course, we need patience, compassion, and forgiveness. We should require this of one another. It will help us be bolder explorers: it might keep us from going mad.
This is a strange world, and it promises only to get stranger. Niels Bohr, who engaged with Heisenberg in those long, nighttime conversations that ended in despair, once said that great ideas, when they appear, seem muddled and strange. They are only half-understood by their discoverer and remain a mystery to everyone else. But if an idea does not appear bizarre, he counseled, there is no hope for it (in Wilber 1985, 20). So we must live with the strange and the bizarre, directed to unseen lands by faint glimmers of hope. Every moment of this journey requires that we be comfortable with uncertainty and appreciative of chaos' role. Every moment requires that we stay together. After all is said and done, we have the gift of each other. We have each other's curiosity, wisdom, and courage. And we have Life, whose great ordering powers, if we choose to work with them, will make us even more curious, wise and courageous.
Margaret Wheatley is a well-respected writer, speaker, and teacher for how we can accomplish our work, sustain our relationships, and willingly step forward to serve in this troubling time. She has written six books: Walk Out Walk On (with Deborah Frieze, 2011); Perseverance (2010); Leadership and the New Science; Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future; A Simpler Way (with Myron Rogers); and Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time. Each of her books has been translated into several languages; Leadership and the New Science appears in 18 languages. She is co-founder and President emerita of The Berkana Institute, which works in partnership with a rich diversity of people and communities around the world, especially in the Global South. These communities find their health and resilience by discovering the wisdom and wealth already present in their people, traditions and environment (www.berkana.org). Wheatley received her doctorate in Organizational Behavior and Change from Harvard University, and a Masters in Media Ecology from New York University. She's been an organizational consultant since 1973, a global citizen since her youth, a professor in two graduate business programs, a prolific writer, and a happy mother and grandmother. She has received numerous awards and honorary doctorates. You may read her complete bio at http://margaretwheatley.com/bio.html, and may download any of her many articles (free) at http://margaretwheatley.com/writing.html.
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