By Herb Bowie
A few years ago, when I was teaching software development, I often invoked the image of a three-legged stool, with each leg representing one of the essential leadership roles: leave out any one of them, you see, and your project is liable to fall over.
The human mind is pretty good at understanding these sorts of visual analogies, and is also pretty good at working with short lists of important things: the three essentials, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, the Ten Commandments, and so forth.
This limited numeric range is, perhaps, unfortunate, because, as far as I can discern, there are no fewer than twenty-six essentials that modern humans must keep their eyes on in order for us to keep civilization as we know it moving forward on a reasonably even keel. Ignore or devalue any one of them, I maintain, and it is human society that starts to fall over.
Why twenty-six, you surely ask? It is, admittedly, an awkward number. It’s just that a few years ago, when I sat down to document my most basic beliefs and values, and then cull out any idiosyncrasies and redundancies, this is the number of discrete items I ended up with: one overall goal, thirteen principles and twelve values. You can see all twenty-six items listed on this single page.
I do not claim that these items are etched in stone, that they were brought down from a mountaintop, or that I channeled them from a supreme being whispering in my ear from some higher plane of existence. On the contrary, it was just me, as Yanis Varoufakis says, “…doing what I have always loved: seeking ways to disagree with myself in order to discover what my true thoughts are.”
Which is not to say that my thinking went unaided. Far from it. For a number of years now I have made it a habit to collect my favorite quotations from a wide range of authors, and a categorization of these snippets of wisdom went a long way towards establishing the twenty-six thoughts I eventually ended up with.
And the work isn’t done. I’m still reading, still adding to my collection, still categorizing my favorite expressions of essential truths, still looking for some new thought that will cause me to further refine my list.
For example, after reading this recent post from David Brooks, I went back through his piece a second time, cross-referencing his list of what he thought our generation had missed to my list of twenty-six. Caring about civic consequences? Check: see the mission, and the values of society and connection. A misplaced notion of the self? Check: see mission, the principle of individual action, and the value of connection. An inability to think institutionally? See the value placed on society and the principle of systems thinking. A misplaced idolization of diversity? See the value of balance, as well as the entire framework of twenty-six different items.
This piece by Brooks, though, seems to me a good example of both what is right and what is wrong with our our current public discourse: our current thought economy, if you will. For while Brooks makes some good points, he also exemplifies the problem with our continual reliance on the latest utterances from our favored pundits and politicians – the problem being just this: their ability to gain our attention, to profitably capture our eyeballs, seems forever dependent on the degree to which they can paint some new solution to our latest batch of societal problems. And their new solutions, I find, are generally some overly simplified subset from this list of twenty-six.
The result? The way we steer our society all too often looks like the manner in which a first-time helmsman steers their boat: not realizing the time lag between the turn of the wheel and the turn of the craft, they are constantly oversteering, at first moving closer to the desired true course, but then seeing the vessel continuing to turn, eventually ending up as far off-course to port as it previously was to starboard.
It doesn’t take long for someone piloting a boat to figure out what is going on, and to begin to smooth out their course. But then, of course, they only have the four points of the compass to worry about – not twenty-six different directions! – and can see the results of their actions play out in seconds, rather than decades.
No wonder, then, that we lurch from Obama to Trump, from left to right, from conservative to progressive, from the European Union to Brexit, from Khrushchev to Gorbachev to Putin, and then back again.
I certainly don’t claim any originality for the individual ideas on my list of twenty-six: all of these thoughts have been expressed before. No, if the list has any value for others, for our society in general, then that value derives from the list as a whole, as some more-or-less comprehensive check list of what we modern citizens need to keep our eyes on, if we want our society to chug along in a generally favorable direction.
Unfortunately it’s not easy to keep our eyes on a Mission, while maintaining an integral perspective on thirteen Principles, and balancing twelve different Values. A twenty-six legged stool is, admittedly, an awkward thing. But if we’re tempted to think it’s too much to handle, perhaps we would do well to remember Winston Churchill’s words from England’s darkest days of WW II:
It’s no use saying, ‘We are doing our best.’ You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.
And it’s necessary, I increasingly believe, for us humans to understand and respect all twenty-six pillars of The Practopian Way.
Published 2018 Aug 04