Finding a Safe Harbor in Our Collective Storm

 

This last weekend, my sister was visiting from overseas. She shared a story with me (and about me) that I’d long since forgotten… perhaps for obvious reasons. When I was a child, I apparently had an affinity for sticking forks in electrical outlets. I remember my mother freaking out once when I once stuck a coat hanger in an electrical socket, but I had long since forgotten that electrocuting myself had been an ongoing habit. When my sister had asked the child me why I was sticking forks in electrical outlets I apparently responded, “Because I like how it feels.”

Today, I can hardly imagine ‘liking how it feels’ and yet trying to imagine it tells me so much about who I am today and who I should be tomorrow.

Some like to pretend that all humans share the same fundamental wiring. But for me, “understanding one another” is fundamentally difficult. We are very different, and our cultures and experiences often reinforce those differences. Heck, I can barely understand my 6-year-old self – although I can certainly understand how my 40-year-old mother would have felt at the time. The reality is that we live in silos. Some of those silos contain great swaths of humanity and some contain just us. In recent decades, with the ever-increasing rate of specialization, our silos have grown more numerous and much more individual. There is power in this specialization, there is a sense of belonging and mutual understanding that is supercharged by the silos we place ourselves in. It has become almost forbidden, in some circles, to try to cross silos. It is offensive, to some, to try to feel what others feel and to try to connect – on the most fundamental of levels – with their reality.

Perhaps I’m old-fashioned, but I’ve always lived my life contrary to this inclination. I believe there is tremendous value in crossing worlds – value that only grows with its rarity. The value is not just studying others – which many academics do – but trying to feel what they feel. As my mother put it, in relation to the religion of her grandfather: she could hear the music, she could understand the music, but she could not feel the music. For my part, raised as an Orthodox Jewish hillbilly Jew in a family deeply proud of its Ivy League educations, I have always wanted to feel the music of others.

Perhaps it is this idea that has propelled my own educational and professional story. I have a degree in Intellectual History – in studying how different people across time have engaged with the largest of questions. I’ve written books and stories from all sorts of perspectives. Those stories have reached across boundaries powerfully enough that they have even moved those who have lived within the realities they describe. Instead of #ownvoices, I write #allvoices.

Just as my writing tries to reach across human boundaries, my professional work tries to reach across intellectual boundaries.

In a way, I believe that ideas are like people. They have character. They can be elegant or comprehensive, strict or understanding, cold or empathetic. They have cultures of their own; realities in which they can thrive. Not only that, they develop a symbiosis with those who are experts in them. Just as a man will grow to resemble his dog, professionals will grow to resemble the ideas they work with and ideas will grow to resemble the professionals who work with them. Just as with people, ideas’ cultural silos are often a powerful thing. Those siloes enable that which exists within them to leverage what they share. They can see efficiencies and build on mutual understandings.

But, despite all of this, there can be great value in crossing over.

I’ve worked for close to 20 companies in almost a dozen different roles. My specialty, if you want to call it that, is crossing over. When you have a problem that defies the existing silos, or requires you to reach across them, I’m the guy you call.

When I work with these challenges, and when I work with the people through whom they are expressed, the cultural realities can be among the most important. You can conceive of an idea, of a solution, but it has to integrate with the ideas that came before. It also has to fit with the people who will work with it in the future. This last part is the most challenging: ideas that reach across boundaries are precisely those ideas that are hardest to internalize and adopt.

For an idea to succeed, it has to fit the character of those who will work with it. At one company, I failed to do this. Even though my central idea had economic and practical merit, it didn’t match the character of the organization that would have had to adopted it. Because of this, it could never have succeeded. For the same reason, when I write books that embrace other cultures, I don’t go all the way in my representations. The reader has to find a trace of their own culture and beliefs in what they are reading. They must have a bridge that they are capable of crossing.

Today, our global society is dealing with numerous challenges from the development of AI to world-conflicts to vast and fundamental social movements. Our population is rapidly aging at the same time that it is changing at a rate that even the young struggle to embrace. Entire specialties and entire cultures face the risk of simple obsolesce.

It can be hard to find and keep your footing.

Just before writing this, I listened to a short history of J.R.R. Tolkien. It opens by describing how he dealt with a world of constant and overwhelming change. Tolkien focused on the personal. He focused on character. On friendship, dedication and sacrifice.

As the world around us changes, we can embrace changes in the way things are done. We can embrace new ideas and new professions. But what we must hold on to, at all costs, is character. Although the world might try to pull us away from who we are, we must impose our character on even the most revolutionary of ideas and the most reality-bending of technologies. If we do this then those ideas and those technologies will be shaped by us – instead of us being redefined (and erased) by them.

If we maintain our character, then we can maintain our footing even as the world shifts beneath us.

What drove the 6-year-old me to routinely electrocute myself? However unpleasant it might have been, being electrocuted was a way of experiencing an alternative reality.

I wasn’t trying to escape. I wasn’t trying to hurt myself. I was trying to understand.

My character is fundamentally curious – curious about people and curious about ideas. It is what defines me, and it is what I will hold on to no matter what challenges I face.

So, what defines you?

What anchor will hold you as our collective future races towards us?

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There are 8 comments.

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  1. MikeMcCarthy Coolidge
    MikeMcCarthy
    @MikeMcCarthy

    My anchors are, my family, religion and, an apparently obsolete culture.

    I suspect that the future racing towards us will only be known after we’re gone, it isn’t preordained

     

    • #1
  2. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    JosephCox: I remember my mother freaking out once when I once stuck a coat hanger in an electrical socket, but I had long since forgotten that electrocuting myself had been an ongoing habit.

    You should be grateful that Edison lost the argument on direct current.

    • #2
  3. WillowSpring Member
    WillowSpring
    @WillowSpring

    EJHill (View Comment):

    JosephCox: I remember my mother freaking out once when I once stuck a coat hanger in an electrical socket, but I had long since forgotten that electrocuting myself had been an ongoing habit.

    You should be grateful that Edison lost the argument on direct current.

    Part of his winning was to propose the name “Westinghousing” for being executed by electrocution.

    • #3
  4. WillowSpring Member
    WillowSpring
    @WillowSpring

    For an idea to succeed, it has to fit the character of those who will work with it. At one company, I failed to do this. Even though my central idea had economic and practical merit, it didn’t match the character of the organization that would have had to adopted it. Because of this, it could never have succeeded.

    This reminds me of a quote by Gerald Weinberg in one of his books on software consulting:

    What ever else you think it is, it is a people problem.

     

    • #4
  5. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    A woman friend once said: understanding what someone else is thinking and feeling would be the ultimate adventure.

    A former girlfriend said she liked to lie on the run and look into her dog’s eyes and try to imagine what it was like to be him.

    • #5
  6. JosephCox Coolidge
    JosephCox
    @JosephCox

    David Foster (View Comment):

    A woman friend once said: understanding what someone else is thinking and feeling would be the ultimate adventure.

    A former girlfriend said she liked to lie on the run and look into her dog’s eyes and try to imagine what it was like to be him.

    When I write that way, it is an adventure. Although I’ve never tried to take the perspective of a dog!

    • #6
  7. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    JosephCox (View Comment):

    When I write that way, it is an adventure. Although I’ve never tried to take the perspective of a dog!

    For the real ultimate adventure:

    What is it like to be a bat?

     

    • #7
  8. Globalitarian Lower Order Misanthropist Coolidge
    Globalitarian Lower Order Misanthropist
    @Flicker

    David Foster (View Comment):

    JosephCox (View Comment):

    When I write that way, it is an adventure. Although I’ve never tried to take the perspective of a dog!

    For the real ultimate adventure:

    What is it like to be a bat?

    Fascinating, and it meshes perfectly what something that I have been musing upon recently: empathic “putting oneself into another’s shoes.”  

    • #8
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