Positive Action on The Via Negativa

Or: How to prepare for the inevitable surprise.

For context, here are two thoughts on the “via negativa” or the Negative Way.

The via negativa is a concept from the Orthodox tradition of doing theology by talking about what God is not. It’s like Michelangelo carving away all the block of marble that is not David. It’s a subtractive-sculptural theological idea.

Extrapolating, Nassim Nicholas Taleb notes an heuristic or rule of thumb that if you need more than one reason to do something, that probably means you shouldn’t do it — you’re trying to convince yourself. You need a single, clear reason. Not a stack of them. Consider:

“We’ve each found a friend here; we’re in love,” versus “Well, she’s cute, and her parents like me, and they have money, and we grew up in the same town and we know the same people, and my parents think she’s from a respectable family, and besides all that, oops, now she’s pregnant and I’m 90% sure I’m the dad, and…”

Which of these people exploring marriage is headed for success?

I’ve been thinking about the ideas a close friend has been sharing with me. She notes a variety of indicators highlighted by various denizens of the Internet that point toward impending doom. Perhaps in the near future. For an example, what would happen if the oceans rise due to climate change. Now these denizens (such a cool word, denizens) suggest that a ninth planet or brown star that plays do-ce-do with our sun every 3600 years or so may be coming around for the first time since the Deluge of Noah.

If some of the denizens are correct this means that the ocean levels may rise rapidly, rather than gradually; in fact, causing the ice caps to melt so fast that before the end of the year the seas could rise 700 to 800 feet worldwide. Like, on September 23, 2017 or something. What percentage of the world’s population would be displaced? 90%? 95%?

I’m not here to mock these reports. I’ve taken a cursory look at some of the videos my informant has been watching, and it looks like there’s a possibility there’s this brown star (hard to see in telescopes, you need astrophysicists who can observe how the star’s gravitational pull is impacting visible bodies around them) is indeed approaching us with a heat wave unlike anything we can remember.

If that happens it would be what our friend Taleb calls a “black swan event”. I believe in this: Black Swan Events do happen. I take it at face value that they have happened and they will happen again. This is why I don’t mock the prophets. I’m open minded to the possibility that catastrophe could strike this year.

In any case, for those who believe, it raises the question: should we all move to the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, (where supposedly even those in the know re: sea levels at the US Navy is directing their retirees to go, sorry I don’t have links to all the videos and blogs that claim these sorts of things) stash some fresh water in bottles, and brace for the worst?

The thing about belief is that true belief spurs you to action, so when you’ve read and seen enough, you do have to ask yourself, what are you going to do about it? This is the case for any number of religious writings you might read, and it’s the case with doomsday prophecies, too. True believers act. Interested parties sit and observe.

Now let’s back off a bit and get back to the theory that goes beyond sea level and climate change issues. I’m not ready to move to Arkansas; I want to speak in more general terms about our attitudes toward action.

First, the problem with recognizing and even believing that Black Swan Events do and will happen, is that by definition there is no way to know how to prepare for them. But I have one suggestion I hope will help.

While it may look like the arrow on your compass is headed in the same direction, I think there’s immense value in the paradigm shift that we ought to move towards things in our lives we hope will be positive as a result of our newfound beliefs, rather than away from things that will be negative. They may seem to be one and the same. The problem with fleeing danger rather than running towards hope is that we end up looking over our shoulder. Like Lot’s Wife in Genesis, we end up a Pillar of Salt. We end up as a stalagmite casualty of focusing on the wrong thing. Now you might argue that Lot’s wife looked back not because she was afraid of what was following her, but because she desired to return to what was known. I’m not sure the story is clear on that point.

In any case, you can’t move towards the most positive thing unless you’re willing to give up what is known. In some ways that means moving towards the positive in spite of our fear of the unknown.

Fleeing danger which we suppose will come tomorrow or in September or early next year, is perhaps not a good enough single reason for doing something. I’m not saying you shouldn’t get out of the road when a  car is coming. You can see the car coming, so move. I’m also not saying you should make your bed in the roadway just because a car isn’t coming at the moment. Pitching a tent in the street because it’s 3 AM and nobody’s coming isn’t wise, because you haven’t headed towards a positive spot.

Whatever you believe about the world ending or God or the latest diet, move towards what’s healthy, it’s a much better way to think about where you’re going: say “I want to be healthy,” rather than staying away from sugar just because you’re afraid of diabetes coming to get you.

Here’s the really helpful bit: Practicing this in your life will also be the best way to prepare for a Black Swan Event, because when the Event arrives (and it will), your mentality will already be this:

“Where’s the opportunity in this unexpected chaos which is forming a new normal? Where is the one place where chaos is not?

You won’t be wishing you could just return to the old normal, because you only need the one reason to move ahead: “Where’s the opportunity?” You won’t try to make something like America “great again” implying that it was best some time ago. (The President and his followers haven’t gotten the picture. They want to run from the negative, hoping they can recapture a positive which has receded like a hairline back into bald history. Instead of seeking opportunities in renewable energy, let’s get those coal miners working, etc.)

By taking the positive approach, using the via negativa and finding opportunity where chaos is not, you’ll be trying to make things greater than they ever were. Even if if the oceans rise 800 feet.

(And if they do, our house could be oceanfront property, because our city is at 801 feet elevation! Sounds like opportunity knocking at my door — or lapping at my sidewalk. Positive action: stock some suntan lotion and a cotton candy machine, and get ready for a lot of campers.)

 

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New Release: Positive Cultural Impact

You’re leading a team: could be you and one child, or you and a sales team, or you and a massive corporation or nonprofit institution. In any case, you have a culture you want to build, values to instill. But how?

For the last few months I’ve been blogging less as I was working to refine a concept into a concise e-book which details my formula for making a positive cultural impact in the form of a cycle which I very creatively decided to call the Cultural Impact Cycle.

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Last Friday I published this e-book, reasonably priced at $2.99 USD. Here’s the link: How to Make a Positive Cultural Impact.

In a recent discussion with a random stranger, I told the stranger I am a life coach.

“What do you teach people?” he asked.

“Coaches don’t teach… but I’m also a writer,” I said, and proceeded to give him the elevator version of the cycle and the book.

“So, it’s the simple things,” he said.

Yes… it’s simple. The concepts here aren’t complicated. It’s implementation that may be difficult… perhaps even challenging enough you’ll want to work on them with a coach.

There’s more to come. Soon I’ll have a video course available for purchase that includes a workbook and an online forum. In the meantime, you can check out the book itself, it’s a short read at 8,300 words.

Enjoy!

–Adam G. Fleming

It’s the Little Things

I was talking with a random stranger the other day. He found out I was a coach and asked me what I teach, which is not what coaches do. But I am working on putting together a class on how to make a positive cultural impact, so I told him about that — what I think are the core things people need to do to operate at their peak performance, and what they need to do to bring greater empathy and creativity to the world.

I didn’t have long to lay it out there, but before he moved on, he thought for a second. Then he said, “So, it’s the little things?”

Yes. It’s the little things.

What that means, as I think about it more, is that we’re all very close to it. We only need to do the little things to go from living a normal life to an extraordinary life. Why is that? It doesn’t take a lot to get beyond the ordinary. It will take being intentional and consistent. There is some effort required. But the things themselves are little.

I’ll keep talking about them, because I intend to be consistent with this message.

Positive Cultural Impact (A Formula)

The following is an excerpt from a longer e-book I’m working on which should be published by the end of May, 2017:

If you are a leader who wants to make a positive cultural impact, you’ll need to manage your energy and focus your consumption so that you can leverage time differently. With the time you free up, you need to exercise your empathetic and creative muscles so that when the time comes to re-articulate values to your team or community, you’ll be able to do so with excellence. This is the formula for positive cultural impact.

For the sake of this blog post, I’m going to focus on why you need both empathy and creativity working in tandem, like iron and carbon coming together to form steel. The coming e-book will give people handles on how to do it.

Empathy without creativity results in a message that gets you less attention and lower retention. Think of this as sermonizing without excellence in storytelling. For example, a recent blog by Michele Perry in praise of the film “The Shack” notes that “…many Christian films miss the point of being films and are actually thinly veiled sermons that dismantle whatever creative effectiveness their story line might have had.” In context of my theme, Michele has pointed out that whatever empathy Christian filmmakers (previous to The Shack) may have had, (I have no doubt that their hearts ache for humans to find our Way,) has been compromised by poor storytelling, favoring empathy above creativity rather than melding the two. I have not yet gone to watch The Shack, perhaps because I’ve become wary of films branded as “Christian” for exactly the reason she pointed out. In fact, most of those films fail to get my attention. I won’t go see them. Fortunately for The Shack, reviews like Michele’s are going to buoy it along, and I’m now interested in seeing it.

Now let’s consider the flip side. What if your attempt to impact culture is heavily weighted toward creativity but has little sense of empathy? It’s no surprise to anyone that artists are interested in influencing culture; their motives may be rooted in empathy or something more self-serving, for example, fame or self-glorification. In the Modern Art movement, artists began speaking to an ever-narrowing, increasingly esoteric group of elites. Most of my friends scorned artists like Thomas Kinkade throughout our twenties, but as I’ve thought further about his work, I realize that his idea was to communicate to a much broader audience who wanted to look at something pleasant, welcoming, relaxing and inviting, images of cottages where they could imagine themselves at peace. And Kinkade cared about people who wanted that. Those same people never felt that Modern and Postmodern artists cared one whit about whether or not they “got it.” Kinkade’s commercial success was looked down upon by the elite postmodern highbrow gallery artists, but out of a certain empathy he spoke to a broader audience, using a great deal of creativity in the process, and earned both attention and a certain level of retention, too. Here’s a blog that’s a couple years old, but was published three years after his death at age 54, noting that his signed and numbered lithographs are likely to continue increasing in value. Long term, that remains to be seen, and monetary value is only one way of measuring retention. Another way to look at it is that if the monetary value is going up, that means people are keeping their lithographs — which means they’re either speculating, or they genuinely continue to appreciate his message and the values his work spoke about. Some might put his work in the same camp as those cheesy Christian movies which do a poor job of storytelling, but the truth is that Kinkade was a masterful painter whose technique may have been formulaic, but whose storytelling moved a generation of people to buy his paintings when other painters struggled to get any attention. (And when it comes to formulaic storytelling, Hollywood is all about that, so formulas are not a problem. Experimenters can search for new formulas, but there’s nothing wrong with using a recipe whether you’re baking chocolate-chip cookies or telling a story.)

I know, that’s a lot about art, and may mislead you to think that you will have to make a movie like The Shack or paint like Kinkade to make a positive cultural impact in your family, on your team at work, in your nonprofit organization. Not so. Use what you have, both exercising and building the muscles you have for empathy, and also those for creativity, so that your message will be driven by caring for others and delivered in a way they can appreciate, enjoy and remember for a long time.

Going back to the iron and carbon makes steel analogy, a good steel is both stronger and more flexible than either of its two main parts. The fusion of empathy and creativity will give your leadership both strength and flexibility, too.

Soon I’ll be releasing a how to course online, complete with a longer e-book, videos, a workbook, and a place for community.

Note — if you’re in the Goshen, Indiana area and would like to sit in on the live audience  video taping of the course instruction, that will be happening at Art House on April 18 at 7 PM, and is free for the public to attend.

Second note — if you’d like to get a copy of this e-book when it’s done, please email me at adam.fleming.lifecoach@gmail.com, reference this blog post, and I’ll put you on the email list for a FREE copy!

 

Shifting Cultural Tectonic Plates: Baseball

I’m passionate about culture. Peter Drucker said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast” and as a life coach one of my favorite places for curiosity during exploration mode with my clients revolves around the cultures they are navigating.

I’m also passionate about baseball, and it provides a lot of interesting insights into our national culture.

Baseball’s a slow game. I get that some people just don’t get why you’d want to watch a guy squint at another guy for ten seconds before deciding to play a game of catch with him. Frankly when it comes to watching sports on TV almost nothing is slower than football (though this accusation is seldom made), and soccer is faster than either baseball or football, while hockey is faster yet. What people say is slow really isn’t (soccer) and what people say is fast really isn’t (football) so it really just comes down to what you appreciate. I appreciate baseball, even if it doesn’t have the same breakneck action as hockey.

What’s happening now, the way the plates are shifting in the cultural geology, is that they’re trying to speed baseball up. MLB is discussing putting a man on 2nd base to begin any extra inning.

Here’s what I think: we have a culture where we’re always rushing to get one thing done asap so we can get to the next thing we have to do asap. Baseball has an opportunity to be a respite from that pace of life. Baseball never ends in a tie (that would be un-American!) but it doesn’t have a way to end the game after 13 innings, either. There’s no shoot-out like hockey and soccer have implemented after a regulation and over-time periods. There’s no “home run derby” to finish it off. You just keep playing. We all know that, of course. It’s not that I have a problem with specific rules changes like the no-pitch intentional walk  coming into play this year; in fact it’s not any specific rule change as such (Should the NL do away with pitchers batting?). My problem is with the shifting cultural assumption that we need this thing we call baseball to be faster.

As a culture we need some things to help us change up our pace (see what I did there?). The imbalance caused by taking in an activity, perhaps on a Sunday afternoon, when we don’t really know exactly when we’ll be home, is a healthy sort of imbalance. It allows us to break our normal routine of rushing, and sit back and enjoy what’s in front of us.

It’s very Taoist. It’s in the moment. The pitch comes, split second decision, swing or hold.

For everyone else, the past and future swirls around the players. It’s story-oriented; listen to the broadcasters talk about the way it used to be, remember the guy who used to sit behind the bullpen and eat six Chicago-style hot dogs every night? And of course the sports talk radio guys love to speculate about the future, who will trade for that guy before the deadline, who might win the division.

But the cultural aficionado understands that it’s about being in the moment. So it shouldn’t matter if the game is fast or slow, over in two hours or stretched out to seventeen innings.

We need to be aware of the way that our culture is shifting, in our business, or organization. If the culture shifts it’s because values are shifting, perhaps from the larger culture outside (as the larger culture is now influencing the micro-culture that baseball is.) And sometimes the push and pull that cultures outside the one you care about are exerting on your culture are worth resisting. So resist them! Culture eats strategy for breakfast — don’t assume that you don’t exert any control over what your culture looks like, or will become. If you need to be a purist for a certain value, stick to your guns.

 

Plow Creek Foss Memorial

I was at Plow Creek Farm last weekend; my old stomping grounds. Sunday morning I went down to the valley. I’m on my way to Thailand in a week, and the conference theme there is “crossing over”. So I’ve been thinking about how the Israelites “Crossed over” the Jordan, stacking stones as they did so, in memorial. I wanted to go down and make a cairn at Plow Creek to memorialize Rich Foss, who also “crossed over” last week. My favorite shot is above. You can’t tell how small the cairn is from that photo. Well, it’s all about perspective! Sometimes the things that were small seemed big. Sometimes the things that were big seem smaller later. Relationships aren’t about whether a person is big or small, just about whether you are close to them or far away. Intimate to them, or not. Your perspective on how big they are really comes from your proximity to their heart, and not at all to any measure of fame they have attained. There are, therefore, no big people. There’s no such thing as a big shot. Only humans who know how to be intimate, gentle, compassionate, and kind, to those they know well and live with, and friendly to everyone else they meet…  and there are humans who don’t. Rich knew.

Rich knew.

Rich Foss knew how to love people and so he will be a sorely missed influence in my life. Rich was a mentor to me, asked me to carry on the work of his nonprofit, Evergreen Leaders, and was a major influence in giving myself permission to call myself a writer, and to do the hard work of writing a novel. Rich wrote one novel in his life, Jonas and Sally. It’s beautiful, poetic prose, sold a fairly high number of copies, and it is out of print. I found a copy of it a few weeks ago in a used bookstore in Pennsylvania for $1 and bought it.  I often sell them alongside my own books, so I’m on the lookout for copies. I’m surprised to find that I’ve already written more books than he did… but I’m not surprised to feel that none of them are quite as good. Which is, of course, a matter of opinion. You might like my books better. Who knows?

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So many Plow Creek kids grew up being really great at hoops. I stunk. I don’t know how I can call myself a Hoosier and hold my head high. Indiana has this big thing about basketball but it’s huge in rural Illinois too. Several of the kids I grew up with ended up playing college basketball and winning state championships in high school. Rich Foss’ son played for Colgate University. I think he made it to the NCAA tournament one year. My guess is that if he wanted to he could still dunk on this rim. I could barely reach it with my camera, that’s how much ups I’ve got.

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Somebody beat me to the creek, post-ice storm. They must have thrown these three rocks on the ice to see if it was safe to cross over. When they did it, it was. By the time I got there Sunday, not so much. I didn’t try to get to the north bank. Even though Dave Stahnke loaned me a warm pair of boots, I didn’t want a soaking. While I was there I got to hear the ice; deep, groaning, creaking sounds of water, in solid state, splitting up. I watched as a huge section calved.

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I made this little cairn on the ice. The stones were smaller than I remembered, as everything at Plow Creek is, and there were few enough of them sticking out of the bank. I had to bang most of them out of the frozen ground with another rock. It was slow, and quickly became apparent that I wasn’t going to get to build a huge cairn, certainly not one that did justice to how big of a big shot Rich was. Everything seemed underwhelming when you stepped back, but taking a good angle I could still get some interesting shots. Something intimate, with stones, ice and brown grass.

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Here’s an interesting accidental shot. Sometimes what we think is the focus is really the background in life. Maybe for you what I’m talking about in this blog is painting the background for what you’re really dealing with. Or maybe there’s something coming into focus that I’m not even thinking about as I write it.

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From this view you can see the barn. We used to play in the loft. Behind the trees just beyond the barn is where the creek runs, so the other shots (above) were taken in the creek bed behind the barn that you can’t see, because it’s lower, obviously. To the left you can see the North Bluff, which has been gradually eroding into the creek for millions of years, since I was, like, five.

I thought it was interesting that this trailer claims Plow Creek Farm has delivered local berries, produce and beef since 1978. I asked some of the folks my parents’ age what they remembered about when Plow Creek began to sell produce. They reminisced about how the first gardens were planted in difficult soil, clay, on the top of the hill, and they located the garden there initially because “it was close to the house, and besides there was plenty of sun” rather than planting in good soil. They were suburban kids who had to teach themselves to farm while living communally. I knew they started the community in 72 or 73. It makes sense now that it took them 4-5 years to get to the point where people would come buy their produce. It’s hard to imagine my mom and dad and all these other folks who used to farm this land not knowing where to put a garden. I guess the beauty of our twenties is that we’re stupid, and we’re beginning to know it, but our kids don’t know it yet. We get a period of life where we can grow and learn without our kids holding it against us. To them, we are simply big shots.

I also heard a great story from my Dad I had never heard before. Once he shot a stray cat (sorry, animal lovers, on farms you sometimes have to keep the population down) and the neighbor came over a few days later, wondering if anyone had seen his cat. Dad said, yeah, I shot a stray, but it doesn’t fit your description so I don’t think it was yours. The neighbor came back a few days later and dug up the cat Dad shot. Well, it was his cat. I joked with dad that of course the cat he shot didn’t fit the same description; the neighbor’s description was of a lively, warm, purring cat, while the one Dad shot was lifeless, cold … Dad said he felt really bad and offered the neighbor his pick of a litter of kittens, but he didn’t want any of them. I guess sometimes you only want the cat you had.

Death is an unacceptable event. Any substitute offered in its aftermath is anathema to us for a time. Our desires for the good things we had are set in stone, cataloged rock by rock in our memory, cemented down as a pillar. We don’t want different good things. We want what we loved. We don’t want to develop new intimacies. It’s hard to break in a new pair of shoes. It’s a pain to learn a new operating system, language, code, code of ethics, culture, route to the grocery store, new flavor of food. We have to learn to communicate again in new ways, which takes energy we don’t have. Death is an unacceptable event.

What happens to us: one day, the ice breaks up, and even our cairns get washed away in the spring flood, all our memories of the old earth are gone, as clouds in new heavens come drifting along. The season will change, the water will be warm and pure, and we’ll all cross over to the north bank, climb the bluff, pick the blueberries and tell each other stories: perhaps with the old rhythms, but under brighter skies. Rich will be there too and I know exactly how he will be laughing.