The Answer to How Is Yes: Acting on What Matters

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Modern culture's worship of "how-to" pragmatism has turned us into instruments of efficiency and commerce-but we're doing more and more about things that mean less and less. We constantly ask "how? and still struggle to find purpose and act on what matters. Instead of acting on what we know to be of importance, we wait for bosses to change, we seek the latest fad, we invest in one more degree. Asking how keeps us safe-instead of being led by our hearts into uncharted territory, we keep our heads down and stick to the rules. But we are gaining the world and losing our souls. Peter Block puts the "how-to" craze in perspective and presents a guide to the difficult and life-granting journey of bringing what we know is of personal value into an indifferent or even hostile corporate and cultural landscape. He raises our awareness of the trade-offs we've made in the name of practicality and expediency, and offers hope for a way of life in which we're motivated not by what "works," but by the things that truly matter in life-idealism, intimacy, depth and engagement.

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1. How Is the Wrong Question

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how is the wrong question.         How? is not just one question, but a series of questions, a family of questions. It is the predominance of this family of questions that creates the context for much of what we do.

How? is most urgent whenever we look for a change, whenever we pursue a dream, a vision, or determine that the future needs to be different from the past. By invoking a How? question, we define the debate about the changes we have in mind and thereby create a set of boundaries on how we approach the task. This, in turn, influences how we approach the future and determines the kind of institutions we create and inhabit. I want to first identify six questions that are always reasonable, but when asked too soon and taken too literally may actually postpone the future and keep us encased in our present way of thinking.

This is the How? question in basic black, serviceable in most situations. It seems innocent enough, and in fact it is innocent, for when I ask this question, I take the position that others know, I don’t. I am the student, they are the teacher. The question carries the belief that what I want is right around the corner; all that prevents me from turning that corner is that I lack information or some methodology. What this question ignores is that most of the important questions we face are paradoxical in nature. A paradox is a question that has many right answers, and many of the answers seem to conflict with each other. For example, “How do we hold people accountable?” Well, real accountability must be chosen. But if we wait for people to choose accountability, and they refuse, don’t we then need to hold them accountable? If we set up oversight systems to ensure this, then what are we getting: accountability or compliance?

 

2. Yes Is the Right Question

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yes is the right question.         The alternative to asking How? is saying Yes—not literally, but as a symbol of our stance towards the possibility of more meaningful change. If the answers to How? have not fed us, then perhaps we ordered the wrong meal. The right questions are about values, purpose, aesthetics, human connection, and deeper philosophical inquiry. To experience the fullness of working and living, we need to be willing to address questions that we know have no answer. When we ask How? we limit ourselves to questions for which there is likely to be an answer, and this has major implications for all that we care about.

The goal is to balance a life that works with a life that counts. The challenge is to acknowledge that just because something works, it doesn’t mean that it matters. A life that matters is captured in the word yes. Yes is the answer—if not the antithesis—to How? Yes expresses our willingness to claim our freedom and use it to discover the real meaning of commitment, which is to say Yes to causes that make no clear offer of a return, to say Yes when we do not have the mastery, or the methodology, to know how to get where we want to go. Yes affirms the value of participation, of being a player instead of a spectator to our own experience. Yes affirms the existence of a destination beyond material gain, for organizations as well as individuals.

 

3. Defenses Against Acting

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defenses against acting.         Changing the focus from questions about practicality to questions about personal commitment entails more than simply a shift in agenda or a change in conversation. When we embrace the Yes questions, we are confronted with our freedom. Most of the messages of our culture deny our freedom and tell us that we are products of our environment, driven by rewards and self-interest, and that those in power hold our future in their hands. To truly act on our own values and pursue what matters means that we need to accept, at the level of bone marrow, that we are free and therefore responsible for the actions we choose, regardless of our environment and its messages.

The most difficult aspect of acting on what matters is to come face to face with our own humanity—our caution, our capacity to rationalize our willingness to fit into the culture rather than live on its margin. This is true in our neighborhood, among colleagues, and in the workplace. Fundamentally, to act fully on what matters means we are asked to claim our freedom and live with the consequences. The subtlety with which we deny our freedom warrants a lifetime of exploration, but what follows are some examples that are germane to this discussion.

 

4. Recapturing the Idealism of Youth

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recapturing the idealism of youth.         We are looking to balance our concern with what works with what matters. What is lost in a materialistic and pragmatic culture is our idealism. Idealism is a state of innocence that has the potential to bring together our larger purpose with our day-to-day doing. Idealism is required to reclaim our freedom, for at the end of it all, it is our freedom that gives us the possibility to more fully live our lives.

Idealism is the pursuit of the way we think things should be. Webster’s definition of an idealist is “one who follows their ideals, even to the point of impracticality.” This takes us right to the place we want to be, the place of practicality in the pursuit of our desires. It confronts us with the question of who decides what is possible and what is practical. Who draws the line, and do we perhaps yield too quickly on what others define as impractical?

There was a time in each of our lives when we were more idealistic than practical. A young child asks for the moon and expects it to be delivered. As we grow older and enter what is called the “real world,” our idealism is assaulted. Our idealism is thought of as weakness—a flaw in perception, an unwillingness or, worse, an incapacity to see the world as it really is. To be told you are idealistic and therefore unrealistic is a painful accusation. Idealism is the province of the child, a sign of immaturity. When are you going to grow up and get it?

 

5. Sustaining the Touch of Intimacy

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sustaining the touch of intimacy.         The second condition for acting on what matters is to choose intimacy in the face of an instrumental world. The challenge is to sustain our humanity when all around us is in the process of being automated. Intimacy is about the quality of contact we make: It values direct experience over electronic or virtual experience. It is immersion into the world of feelings, connection with the senses, and vulnerability—all of which, not incidentally, are considered liabilities in our institutions. In an instrumental world people are considered assets, resources to be leveraged; they are not valued as unique and highly variable human beings. Institutions are based on consistency and predictability, while intimacy relies on variation and surprise.

Instrumentality turns our bodies into tools—or, in the end, crops. My friend Peter Koestenbaum tells of conducting a Philosophy in Business seminar with an oil company. As he begins to speak, one of the participants interrupts and says, “We want you to know, professor, that we have brains made of cement.”

 

6. Enduring the Depth of Philosophy

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enduring the depth of philosophy.         If acting on what matters needs idealism and intimate contact, it also calls us to go deeper into ourselves and become more reflective towards what we most care about. This includes giving ourselves time and space to think independently and to value the inward journey. Without the willingness to go deeper, there is little chance for any authentic change.

We are out of the habit of thinking and questioning; we prefer action and answers. Our favorite clichés express our preference for doing and our ambivalence towards reflection and inwardness:

Intellectual pursuits are not popular in our modern culture. We have negative images of those who spend their lives trying to understand. We condemn thinking by demeaning the “ivory tower.” Anyone who values thought over action gets labeled with such terms such as pie-in-the-sky, dreamer, idealist, navel gazer. Serious thought, and the time and depth this requires, becomes a luxury, an impractical distraction.

 

7. Claiming Full Citizenship

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claiming full citizenship.         Our workplaces are major testing grounds for the expression of our values because they are not designed to affirm idealism, invite more intimacy, or encourage depth. In fact, they are breeding grounds for barter, virtual technology, and speed. If we want a shift from focusing on methodology to focusing on purpose, we will have to bring it to work.

Acting on what matters is the act of making change in the world through a set of personal values that define who we are. These values reside beneath the clothing of personality, style, vocation, and the myriad other features that are visible to others. The next few chapters offer ways of rethinking our relationship to our workplace, ways to step outside the patriarchal mindset that still characterizes most of our organizations, despite years of sincere efforts to change it.

The discussion applies to all of us—core workers, supervisors, and senior executives—because the struggle for our freedom does not get any easier as you move up the organizational ladder. Those at the top of the hierarchy are as constrained by it as those entering it today, perhaps more so. The belief that top management is free, and the middle and bottom are not, is pure fantasy. The top may be rich and powerful, but they struggle as much as anyone with finding their own voice, their own purpose, and their own value.

 

8. Home School Yourself

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home school yourself.         When we decide to exercise our freedom and come into our own as full citizens, we rightfully worry about doing it well. The argument for not asking How? is to acknowledge that our problem is not a lack of tools. We have more tools than we need, many of them we will never use, so why keep enlarging the workshop instead of producing something we are proud of?

Just because we stop buying tools doesn’t mean we stop learning. Instead of learning about more tools, we need to educate ourselves in a broader sense of the word. I need to become a well-educated person, as opposed to a well-trained person. This means reflecting upon and deepening my own ideas, and giving greater value to my own thinking. It may be that changing my mind is what will lead me to act more fully on what matters. We each have our own theories and models about the world and what it means to be human. We need to deepen our understanding of what we believe. We need a learning curriculum that we, alone, have designed. We need a self-designed course in the “humanities,” for we operate in human systems, regardless of how technical and automated they become.

 

9. Your Boss Doesn't Have What You Want

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your boss doesn’t have what you want.     On his death bed Machiavelli was asked by a priest if he would like to redeem himself by renouncing the devil and his evil ways. “No,” he replied. “This is no time to be making enemies.”

Let us start with a simple truth. I generally avoid the word truth except when it refers to the voice of God. It seems presumptuous to declare anything with such certainty. What is called truth is usually opinion. In this case, however, I am willing to call the following statement a truth:

You aren’t, but most people are. Now, you may not be afraid of your immediate boss, but move up the chain of command and each of us will find someone to worry about. If you don’t want to call it fear, then can you agree that we are very eager to please the boss? We care deeply what the boss thinks, plans, values, and wants. This truth is quite amazing.

Some moments of truth that stay with me:

One: I spent a morning at The Boeing Company with a work unit that was having a weekly team meeting. I had been invited to the meeting by Ralph, who said that he was implementing empowerment with his team and getting great results. Would I like to observe a meeting? Absolutely. So I sat in and was very impressed.

 

10. Oh, by the Way . .. You Have to Give Up Your Ambition

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oh, by the way . . . you have to give up your ambition.         Much of our discussion has been about the price we must pay to act on what matters. The price may seem high for what amounts to an adventure we had not planned on, but then we also pay a price for choosing safety. The safe roads of pragmatism and compliance do not come cheaply, although the promise of our culture is a little more optimistic. The culture offers a special deal on safety. It promises that if we have

. . . then these things will bring us safety in the form of membership, economic security, and a good life.

This promise fulfills the longing in each of us to be taken to a high lookout by our father and told, “Someday all this will be yours.” The only stipulation is that you be a good son or daughter.

We are enjoined to live by these beliefs from the moment we enter school, often from the moment of birth. We believe that these guidelines, or ones like them, provide the cohesion that makes modern society work. This, then, is the life held before us, whether we have a real shot at it or not. This is the blueprint for a consumer society. This is the fuel for our ambition.

 

11. Care for the Whole (Whether It Deserves It or Not)

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care for the whole (whether it deserves it or not).         Growing up and achieving our citizenship papers is marked by a commencement. We have been invited to give the commencement address at our own graduation, the beginning of saying Yes to our own freedom, our own readiness to assume full accountability. Our freedom begins with knowing our intentions, knowing what matters to us, knowing which values will guide our actions. The question, then, is what are we willing to commit to?

There was time when the workplace answered the question of commitment for us. At least it did for me. When I began work at Exxon I stepped quite naturally into a social contract. I made a commitment to the company and, in exchange, they made a commitment to my future. The contract was affirmed right in the beginning. In the recruiting interview they asked me predictable questions about how I saw my future and then they talked about how they saw it. If I worked hard, met their objectives, was open to learning, and adapted to their style and culture, the path was clear. In six months I would get a $35 monthly raise (this was a long time ago), in eighteen months I could expect a better job title, in two to two-and-a-half years, a promotion to supervisor. Section head title came after three to five years, but with my potential, it would more likely be three. I was introduced to managers who had moved along this path, role models, the works.

 

12. The Instrumental Imperative

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the instrumental imperative.        The moment we gain enough personal clarity about our intentions and decide to be accountable for bringing them into the world, we come face to face with a culture that is indifferent or even unfriendly towards the very idealism, intimacy, and depth that this requires. Modern culture is not organized to support our idealistic, intimate, and deeper desires. It is organized to reinforce instrumental behavior. But if we understand the nature of the culture, we gain some choice over it.

Culture is really a set of messages about how we should operate in the world. It imposes the political imperative upon each of us to get with the program, and the program requires that we become highly instrumental. The word instrumental captures the aspect of our lives, especially in our work, that values efficiency (the engineer) and barter, exchange, and the art of the deal (the economist). But we not only have to make the deal, we have to become the deal. Who we are gets defined as a currency according to the current rate of exchange in a marketplace. It is an accommodation we make with the world that can distract us, one degree at a time, from what matters most to us. It is the means by which the commercial version of what it means to be a person brings us under its spell.

 

13. The Archetypes of Instrumentality and Desire

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the archetypes of instrumentality and desire.         Carl Jung was a psychologist who had a profound influence on our thinking about personality and behavior. He developed the concept of the collective unconscious. He understood that our way of moving through life is affected as much by the common images held by a culture as it is by individual personality and personal and family history. Central to his thinking about what drives our behavior is the existence of certain archetypes.

An archetype is an inherited way of thinking, a mythic image that exists for all members of a culture. Within the image of an archetype is collected a whole series of possibilities and qualities that helps explain who we are and who we might become. I want to use this concept of archetypes to explore a range of possibilities and qualities that help us understand our place in today’s industrial-turned-information age. The instrumental aspect of the culture discussed in the last chapter is primarily given form through the archetypes of the engineer and economist.

 

14. The Role of the Social Architect

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the role of the social architect.         The work it takes to act on what matters is up to each of us as individuals. But as we do the work on ourselves, we also have to bring it into the world. My individual possibility also needs to be part of a collective possibility. One way to think of this collective aspect is through the concept of social architecture. If we can bring Christopher Alexander’s philosophy of architecture into the design and creation of an organization, a social system, we can conceptualize the role of a social architect. This is someone who is equipped to act on the aesthetics, values, or intuition of a situation in the manner of the artist, and also to act on the material or concrete aspects of a situation in the manner of the economist-engineer. Adding “social” to the title of “architect” builds on the sensibilities of the architect, as discussed in the previous chapter. Instead of being so concerned with bricks, mortar, glass, and steel, the social architect is also concerned with how people are brought together to get their work done and build organizations they want to inhabit.

 

15. It’s a Mystery to Me

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it’s a mystery to me.         Part of what drives the instrumental culture and keeps us entangled in practicality is our need for certainty. This is inevitably frustrated by the nature of human systems. Much of what we know about how people change or how organizations develop is based on anecdote and intuition. The social sciences are highly social with very little science. Much of the research in psychology has been done with college students, since they are the only subjects that are available and affordable. Research in living systems uses the term research in the broadest terms, since it is impossible to create controlled conditions in a human operating system. One of the tenets of science is that the research be replicable, which is impossible in a social system.

Trying to contain human endeavors within the realm of certainty or science or engineering is both futile and harmful. Try as we might, we are unable to remove the mystery from life. We are constantly confronted with the difficulty of acting on our idealism and pursuing an unreachable depth, and are left with little more than paradox: the idea that for every great idea, there is an opposite idea that is also true.

 

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