So Far from Home: Lost and Found in Our Brave New World

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Bestselling author Margaret Wheatley is a highly-respected though leader about how life, organizations, leadership, and our world work in a time of growing complexity, uncertainty, and confusion. This new book brings together Wheatley's powerful new observations and insights to help people everywhere understand and navigate today's challenging world.

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1 Seeing What Is

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I’m sitting on the banks of the Virgin River in Zion National Park, my favorite place on the planet. The river is confidently, casually flowing through this magnificent canyon that it has been carving out for about two million years.

The canyon has created one of Earth’s most sacred places. It has been a dry winter, so the river is low, ambling peacefully along. I’ve been here at other times when it’s fierce, flooding, destructive. Next time I’m back it will be different again.

I’ve learned a lot from rivers, starting with the teacher stream I wrote about in Leadership and the New Science. That lovely mountain stream taught me about process structures, things that have clear identity and intention yet constantly adapt to circumstances and conditions, changing their form as needed. Streams take many forms yet never lose their way, which is unerringly to the ocean. Along the way, they create magnificent canyons, wreak terrible destruction, provide sustenance to farms and communities, provide pleasure and pain to those who live along their banks. This is the pattern of life—changing, adapting, creating and destroying.

 

2 Do You Want to Save the World?

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I use this rather dramatic phrase of “saving the world” to get your attention and also to make a point.

You may not hold your work in such grandiose terms; you may be working hard to create change within one community, one organization, or for one cause. You haven’t been contemplating how to change the whole world, just working on the small piece in front of you. But many of us harbor the hope that if we do a good job and have evidence of our results, our work will spread and create change beyond our initial project or place. For me, such hope places you in the category of saving the world.

A few questions to see whether you fit in this category:

~ When you’ve discovered a process or project that works well, do you assume that others will be interested in how you achieved your success?

~ Do you present your good results, with supporting evidence, and assume that this will convince others to adopt your model?

~ Do you sometimes imagine how your good work could be taken up by enough other people that it goes to scale, creating change far beyond your own sphere of influence?

 

3 New Maps for Lost People

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For many years I’ve thought of myself as a kind of cartographer. This was the primary image in Leadership and the New Science, where I described the discoveries of new science as lands rich in possibility, dimly seen, awaiting our voyages of discovery.

I thought of us as brave explorers, eager to learn more about the world described by new science—a world of unending relationships, infinite creativity, and order for free.

When I drew those first maps in 1992, I assumed my job was quite straightforward. My task was to provide just enough detail of these lands of bright vision and possibility so that people would begin their own explorations. And a good number of people did; their explorations and experiments manifested in many forms, from new approaches to leadership, to healthy communities, to organization-wide transformations. And today, as the world becomes ever more chaotic, more people are becoming interested, if not desperate, to find ways to lead in this turbulence. But in spite of our courage, dedication, and very hard work, we’re now lost in a world where we don’t want to be. What happened to that bright new world that seemed so close at hand only a few years ago?

 

4 Everything Comes from Somewhere

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I’ve spent many years in a love affair with life. My passion has increased as I’ve explored the new sciences and worked out in the world for decades with a great variety of people.

How could I help but fall in love with the planet’s excessive, exuberant creativity and with people’s generosity and care for one another? I haven’t kept my love affair secret. In my writings and teachings, I’ve encouraged us to notice that life is a good partner, willingly offering us the capacities we need. Life gives us a world rich in potential, where every new relationship offers us new qualities and skills. Life gives us a world of “order for free,”8 capable of organizing itself, not from oppressive control but from inner coherence. Life gives us unending, incessant creativity, eager to create newness wherever it can, mostly to fill a need or adapt to changing conditions, but sometimes, I firmly believe, just for the fun of it (think of tropical fish).

As with all true loves, I also feel overwhelming sadness to see how we have rebuffed the planet, failing to notice or choosing to ignore what life so easily offers. Instead of partnering, we’ve taken over, arrogantly assuming that we know best, that we can force the planet to comply with our rules and needs. Of course this has failed; as ecologists often remind us, “Nature bats last.”

 

5 Emergence: Surprised by Newness

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This troubled, troubling world that we’ve been working so hard to change for all these years is a world that has emerged.

This is a seemingly innocuous statement, but it has profound implications for us and our work. This world did not materialize from plans, conspiracies, or randomness: it came from life’s process of creating new and more complex systems. Emergence is how change happens on this planet, but it is one of the most difficult things to comprehend for those of us trained to think of change as incremental. At least this has been my personal experience in teaching it for many years now. Emergence is where old and new science diverge absolutely, never to be reconciled. However, once we understand emergence, it gives us the capacity to see our world more clearly and to choose wisely where to invest our energy and heart.

Reductionist science still dominates our thinking. Any complex phenomenon is viewed as a machine built from many separate parts. Puzzles are a good way to explore the difference between reductionist and emergent thinking, and it is a common image in use these days. People say they’re searching for the missing piece of an organizational puzzle or have just found it. I’ve been to more than one conference where the name tags were in the shape of puzzle pieces, with the message that “Everyone has a piece of the puzzle.” (I think this was meant to be inspiring.)

 

6 Identity: The Logic of Change

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Several years ago, I received a card from a friend that reminded me how life works: “Change is just the way it is.” These days, we’re becoming more and more aware of this truth.

Think of the words we use to describe this time. Chaotic. Uncertain. Turbulent. Out of control. Relentless. Crazy. Weird. And random is now a common adjective—I often hear people say, “That’s so random.”

If change is just the way it is on this planet, what’s happening now that makes life feel so difficult, so filled with dread? Is it any different than in the past? Or have we just gotten soft, become whiners and complainers?

I believe that change today is profoundly different in volume, intensity and consequence. We have changed the experience of change because of global networks of communication. Never before have we been aware of what’s happening just about everywhere on the planet. And never before have we been engaged in instantaneous reactions with one another about everything from the trivial to the life changing. The instant messaging nature of communications has changed change, making it appear more random and irrational. We hear of something instantly: “Breaking news! This just in!” Immediately, we’re encouraged to blurt out a reaction through Facebook or texts that will be read on news shows. Even though most of us don’t understand “the crisis”—why it happened or its implications—instant reactions are often charged with hysteria, outrage, or grief. Everything becomes a big dramatic deal, but only briefly. The media enflame our reactions, then drop coverage. We may vaguely remember there was a crisis, or not. Often I find myself asking someone, “Whatever happened to the crisis in…?”

 

7 Relationships: Endlessly Entangled

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Albert Einstein described our feelings of separateness as “a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest to us.

Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening the circle of understanding and compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.”17

Yet Einstein struggled his entire life with the entangled nature of this universe, a world where separateness is indeed an illusion. Einstein could not accept what quantum scientists were discovering, a world where seemingly discrete, separate particles acted as one, even when distant from each other. In rejecting this new quantum reality, Einstein labeled it as “spooky action at a distance.” First proved in 1964 with Bell’s theorem and then in subsequent experiments that continue to this day, quantum reality has been well established. When two separate particles are correlated and then separated, they continue to act as one. If one changes, the other does so instantly, faster than the speed of light. Entanglement, the term used in physics, is now accepted as the defining characteristic of this universe, not just at the quantum level but at the macroscopic world that we inhabit.18 “The universe,” as astronomer Sir James Jeans noted, “begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine.”19

 

8 Are We Lost?

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Are we lost?
If we were, how would we know?
When people are lost in the wilderness, they move through predictable stages. The first reaction is to deny they are lost.

They know where they are, they just can’t find a familiar sign. They convince themselves that everything’s okay. They still know where they are going; the maps are still correct. But gradually, confronted with a growing number of strange and unfamiliar sights, anxiety seeps in. They speed up their activities, fueled by a sense of urgency, needing to verify as quickly as possible that they are not lost. Those lost on a mountain walk faster; those lost in a failing project work faster and harder. Yet in spite of these urgent actions, doubt and uncertainty creep in. People become angry and impatient, pushing aside any information that doesn’t confirm their map. They’re desperate to find any scrap of information that proves they know where they are. They reject all other information, even that which would help them get unlost.

There comes a point when people are overcome by fear and panic—they can no longer deny that they’re lost. Stressed and scared, their brains stop working. They can’t think straight, so every action they take is senseless, only creating more exhaustion. Confused and panicked, people search frantically for any little sign that’s familiar, any small shred of evidence that makes them feel unlost, that signals their maps are still correct. But they are lost, so this strategy fails and they continue to deteriorate.

 

9 All-Consuming Selves

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I want to understand how this culture of narcissism, polarization, and paranoia came to be; and how we became so fearful of one another, separating into categories and ethnicities just when we need to support and console one another and work together as strong communities.

So I’m undertaking to draw a map of the primary influences and dynamics that interacted to emerge as this fear-based culture. I believe this map will interest you if you’ve been working on nonviolence, civility, democracy, the media, consumerism, corporate power, environmentalism, community building. As you’ll see here, I found them to be all interconnected, feeding on one another in complex ways, acting at different times both as cause and effect.

The first challenge in developing a system’s map is to draw a boundary, just as new life forms do as their first act. This is essential in mapping a system because, without delineation, we would have to include the entire universe. Any one thing comes from everything else. As the American naturalist John Muir said: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”35

 

10 Distracted Beyond Recall

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For years I assumed that the Titanic tragedy was a result of human arrogance, a belief in the indestructibility of the newest, largest, fastest, fanciest ship of all time.

But, in fact, the Titanic went down because of distraction. It was sailing in iceberg-filled waters, and other ships had been warning them for many days prior. The captain changed course, but only slightly, and did nothing about speed. On the night of its sinking, two ships sent warnings of icebergs, but the radio operator never passed them on. When he received a call from a ship nearby surrounded by ice, less than an hour before the collision, he responded, “Shut up, shut up, I’m busy.” By the time lookouts spotted the iceberg ahead, it was too late to slow down the Titan-ic’s nearly full-speed momentum.42

The Titanic as a metaphor for our time, while overused, is frighteningly accurate. Distracted people don’t notice they are in danger. Ignorant of their vulnerability, they discount warnings or evidence that they are about to perish. My favorite quote from Rumi, the thirteenth-century Sufi mystic and poet, is “Sit down and be quiet. You are drunk and this is the edge of the roof.”

 

11 Controlling Complexity

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This map has been the most difficult one for me to write and I’ve worried that you might find it too dark to read. So I’d like to tell you a little about this map and its origins.

The world I know best is that of large organizations and governments; I’ve worked in many countries and at all levels, from CEOs and cabinet ministers to staff and hourly workers. I have direct and frequent experience with what I’ve written here; daily these dynamics severely impact those in large bureaucracies with whom I work.

As this map took shape, as I linked together so many destructive dynamics, it was impossible not to succumb to anger and despair. I have vowed not to add to the aggression and fear of this time, but I struggled to avoid doing this here. This analysis makes clear (at least to me) how much harm is being done to the good work of good people, how people with legislative authority exert that power in destructive and abusive ways, and how the future is being cast aside for private profit. We have to feel angry and outraged—these are legitimate and necessary reactions. But I also know that we can’t use these to motivate us, that we need to pause long enough for them to abate so that they open the way to clarity and insight.

 

12 A Prophecy of Warriors

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“There comes a time when all life on Earth is in danger. Great barbarian powers have arisen.

Although these powers spend their wealth in preparations to annihilate one another, they have much in common: weapons of unfathomable destructive power, and technologies that lay waste our world. In this era, when the future of sentient life hangs by the frailest of threads, the Shambhala warriors appear.”

The warriors have no home. They move on the terrain of the barbarian powers. Great courage is required, both moral and physical, for they must go into the heart of the barbarian powers to dismantle their weapons, into the places where the weapons are created, into the corridors of power where decisions are made.

The Shambhala warriors are armed only with the weapons of compassion and insight. Both are necessary. Compassion gives them the energy to move forward, not to be afraid of the pain of the world. Fueled by compassion, warriors engage with the world, step forward and act. But by itself compassion burns with too much passion and exhausts us, so the second weapon is needed—insight into the interdependence of all phenomena.

 

13 Choosing for the Human Spirit

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What is your experience with humans that would inspire you to choose to become a warrior for the human spirit? Are people really worth the struggle?

Chögyam Trungpa, the founder of Shambhala training, taught that dark times arise when people lose faith in one another. Absent that positive belief in others, there is no motivation to act courageously. People disappear into their private worlds, just as is happening now. If we choose to be warriors, we will find ourselves struggling day to day to be wise and compassionate as we work inside the collapsing corridors of power. We have to expect a life of constant challenge, rejection, invisibility, and loneliness. So it’s important to contemplate how much faith you have in people, because this is what gives you courage and the ability to persevere. What has been your direct experience with the best qualities of the human spirit, with human goodness?

Chögyam Trungpa also taught, “Something that is worthwhile, wholesome and healthy exists in all of us.”65 Have you discovered this in your life and work? Have you discovered that we truly are, all of us, bundles of potential, capable of manifesting new talents and skills? How many times have you been surprised by someone suddenly displaying new capacities, ones you never would have expected from them? How many times have you surprised yourself? And what’s been your experience with generosity and compassion? How often have you witnessed or benefited from others’ compassion generously offered, when they worked hard to help you or another person without concern for themselves? Certainly we witness this after every natural disaster, strangers rushing in to assist, people helping people with no thought for their own needs or safety.

 

14 Warriors at Work

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Warriors look like normal people.
Our true identity doesn’t get revealed by sudden costume changes.

To colleagues and family, it looks like we’re still the same; going to meetings, filing reports, applying for grants, complying with regulations, teaching, healing, researching, leading. But inside, we’ve changed radically. We now work from different maps and expectations. We no longer think like most other people. We’ve recognized how lost we are, that no matter how hard we try, this world cannot be saved. We know that things will not calm down, that crises will not diminish, that leaders will not behave rationally, that global problems will not be resolved. We see clearly that there is no way out of the life-destroying cycles set in motion many years ago.

Yet we are not oppressed by this clarity. We’ve opened to the world as it is and discovered gentleness, decency, and bravery. We’ve discovered that humans are worth struggling for and can even be delightful company. We were invited to contemplate a new role for ourselves and accepted the invitation. Perhaps it felt natural to think of ourselves as warriors for the human spirit, perhaps it felt like a stretch, but here we are, looking just the same on the outside, transformed on the inside.

 

15 No Hope No Fear

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Many years ago, I was introduced to a phrase that both intrigued and confused me. It is a familiar phrase in Buddhist texts: “the place beyond hope and fear,” a state of awareness that frees us from suffering.

In today’s global culture, where we’re incessantly told to strive for achievement and success, to be positive and hopeful, why would we ever want to give up hope? It seems incomprehensible that this would be a good thing. After all, Dante defined Hell by writing, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter herein.”

Nowadays, we live and breathe hope. It doesn’t matter what religion you were raised in, hope plays a central role, often being the very essence of the faith—hope for heaven, for redemption, for peace, for a good life, for something better than what we have now. The prophets in the Old Testament warned, “Without vision, the people perish.” And of course they’re right. People who lose hope lose their life energy and die, at least spiritually and emotionally. So why would we ever want to give up hope?

 

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