Friday, March 10, 2023


Our actions have consequences. When we're being careful, we choose our actions so they'll have the best possible consquences. Most commonly what this means is that we try to change the world so it satisfies our desires more. But our actions don't just change the world, they change our selves. We often divide our activities into two phases, e.g. rehearsal and performance. The purpose of rehearsal is to refine our capabilities. Performance is when apply those capabilities to create an aesthetic experience for an audience, for example. But this division is just a rough cut. All of our actions change who we are at the same time that they change the world.

This division of experience into self and world is problematic. An athlete might consider their own body to be a component of the world. One's actual self might be perhaps the rational component of mind, something constant underlying even one's shifting mental capabilities. One of the essential insights of the Buddhist tradition is that the search for this constant underlying component of the self is futile. And yet this framework of thinking, e.g. "I will do this," seems practically unavoidable. If we want to use a conceptual framework of self and world, how can we think about this without getting distracted by illusions?

Organizational behavior is a doorway to a different perspective. It is not just individual human beings who act. All kinds of organizations act: political, military, industrial, academic, religious, etc. At a planetary scale, all of humanity acts. A basic principle of systems theory is that analysis starts with a clear definition of the system to be analyzed: what is part of the system, and what is not. A complementary axiom is in easy reach: the self is what is not in the system. The key point here is that the division of experience into self and world is like establishing a coordinate system or a frame of reference. It has no ontological foundation but is a practical step to allow conceptual elaboration for solving specific problems.

In organizational situations, it is commonly understood that actions both change the world and also change the self, i.e. change the organization engaged in the action. Teams develop cohesion by working together.

That what we are is a dynamic pattern that is constantly being shaped by our actions and experiences, that an important factor in choosing our actions is how those choices will reshape who we are... this perspective seems easier to achieve when we feel safe and secure. When things are good, we are happy to train ourselves to make them even better. When things are difficult, our entire focuse is on fixing problems with the world so we have no desire or opportunity to train ourselves. People do train themselves to be able to respond to difficult situations, though mostly that is to make themselves more capable of making whatever necessary changes to the world. But sometimes people do understand that shaping the world to meet their desires is not going to go very far, and they need to shape their own expectations. Aging gracefully can include such adjustments. What an older person can do is not the same as what a younger person can do. There is a lot less frustration in playing the hand you've been dealt.

At the planetary scale, the growing human population and the growing levels of consumption are driving us up against ecological limits, mostly prominently due to climate change but many other problems are accelerating too, such as aquifer depletion and ocean desertification. The reflex response is to demand that the world change in order to let us preserve our way of life. But of course our way of life is always changing and will continue to change as a consequence of our actions. However one chooses to partition the situation, it is always a dance between self and world. Our habits change, our understandings change, our values change. This dynamism is both a challenge and an opportunity. If our response to our discomfort is to become ever more stubborn and insensitive, we can certainly ramp up the level of mutual frustration to a catastrophic breaking point. But if we can respond to discomfort with care and flexibility, then we can discover tender joys in the most suprising places.

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