Just words: vote

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Vote is a four-letter word, but I never took Latin. So, no voting for me.

Hey, Friend,
Are you going to vote? I am sure there is an election coming soon. Have you cast your vote before? I have. A long time ago.

I grew up in East Germany before the Wall came down. Every couple of years, they had something one Sunday, which they called an election. You would walk to the polling station, show your ID, be given a ballot, take one step to the right, fold the ballot, and stick it in the ballot box. Done. You had just voted for one list of candidates. All of them. From different parties and associations. All on the one state-sanctioned list, which you approved towards the 99.9%. And if you did not, they would revisit you with the “flying” ballot box. Again. And again.

In the first election after demonstrations, civic movement, and round tables— remember 1989? — I registered my protest vote. I had done the math. After the counting and announcements, I revoked my right to vote for a couple of years, believing that only people who don’t mix up politics and math should vote. Protest voting is nonlinear.

The German word for vote is die Stimme. Most common backtranslation: the voice. When you have a voice, you vote — when you vote, you have a voice! I always thought the words vote and voice are related, and maybe they are. But I never took Latin.

In England, I voted in local elections. But neither John Major nor Tony Blair were my fault. They were not my success either. European immigrants only vote locally. And in Canada? Permanent residents can’t vote for anybody. I watched the news and kept quiet.

And now I am here. Southern California. Best climate I have ever been in. Geographically. I will keep quiet, hanging on to my Green Card.

How about your voice? Your Stimme. Your vote!

On the complexity of change: It’s time — now

Hey, Friend,

Time, doesn’t it fly … I have not been wasting any time. I had no time. There simply never was a time when I could sit down and write. Perhaps, it wasn’t the right time. A time to gather stones? A time to cast them them out?

Time!
Chris, I am always reading your comments immediately. In a timely manner, so to speak. And then I think, I should pick up on this, I should pick up on that. And then time goes by … In both my brief exploration of the word herd immunity and your comment to that post, we talked about our schedules. Yes, schedule, time management, the passing of time, the future, … have been on my mind for some time.

Time: Just now, I have learned that the word schedule is related to the German noun Zettel and the Spanish cédula, simply meaning a sheet of paper, a note sheet. How do I know, you ask. Well, I looked it up at https://www.etymonline.com/word/schedule. I learned that schedule only came to mean a sheet with a timetable in the nineteenth century. Does this mean only with the beginning industrialization schedules became more important? Are they important to you? How important is it to be on time? Is it important to you to do something in time?

Time? What is that anyway—time? Is it ambiguous?
We measure. Each hour has 60 minutes. Exactly. Each day—only 24 hours.
We plan: I will work on this blog post today. We will finish the project next week. School begins next month.
We experience: This took forever. That went by so quickly.
We remember: Has it really been five months that we have not been “at work”? That we sat in our offices, with door knocks and phone rings punctuating the day? That a mostly electronic leash propelled us from one place to the next, spending – too much? – time with different people? Waiting for a meeting to end, so that we could go somewhere and do something else?
We dream: What will happen in November? How will it be next year? When will the time come?

Time is all these. It crawls. It stands still. It passes. Time is nonlinear. What does that that even mean? I am not sure we know, even after millennia have gone by. We do know what time is not.

Time is not homogeneous. In good times and in bad. Everything changes all the time.

Time does not live in a clock nor in a calendar. Like light does not live in the kitchen fridge. The time comes and the time has gone.

Time is not periodical. There is no sinus curve, no going in circles. Not even around the clock.

Time does not have a schedule. It does not have an agenda. Time does not have to be anywhere. So, time can never be on time.

Time changes and is the same all the time.

Chris, I am sure you remember my writing on the Complexity of Change. Timely to pick it up, I thought. Don’t complex systems change over time? We often feel the times are changing. It looks like it, when watch the hands of a clock, hear the bells ringing, or turn a calendar leaf. But, hey!? The clock, the bell tones, and the calendar are changing. The time is not. The time is always now. It was now yesterday. It will be now tomorrow. What changes between yesterday and tomorrow, I believe, we can influence a little — now.

That’s all we do with a schedule: we write a little note on a, perhaps virtual, sheet for when the time comes to know a little better what to do — now. Time management sounds like one is managing time. You know, I have tried … and failed … miserably. So, I think I better do something – in my time, with my time. Now.

Time is up.

Just words: ambiguity

Hey, Friend,
Middle of a work day. I am using my lunch break to write. Thank you for your comment, Chris, on my previous post on the word herd immunity. Sitting about 150 miles away from your home, I can picture your schedule (I might pick up on this later) and imagine the conversation with your son. The marvels of reading and writing…

The post heading gives it away: what caught my eye was: “It boils down to a coping mechanism for a yawning lack of ambiguity tolerance among us humans.” Fancy word that. Let me bounce it around a little.

I believe you are right. We are always trying to cope with ambiguity. We like to know what this virus is—exactly. What does it do the body, to my body, should I get infected? When will we get back to normal? On November 11? Or on December 14? And what does normal mean, anyway? And why did you throw another Latin word into my immunity?

So, I looked it up: ambiguity. It’s old. It can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European, the reconstructed ancestor of all Indo-European languages, such as English, German, Latin, Spanish, Persian, Sanskrit, Urdu, … Linguists hypothesize that PIE was spoken in the third millennium BC, 5000 years ago.
*ambhi (around) and *ag (to drive, to move)
In Latin, the word referred to “double meaning” already.

So, I guess even 5000 years ago, the nomads had to deal with unsteady things, that kept moving, struggled with deriving one meaning from the many they saw, and encountered phenomena of a doubtful or uncertain nature. So much so that they probably had a word for it.

5000 years. And we are still struggling and coping with ambiguity. Why? It’s everywhere. As they say: Words have more than one meaning. (Linguists call this phenomenon polysemy. And yes, it is pretty much all words.) Most phenomena in nature and in society are complex; development and processes in general are often nonlinear; each one of us can take a different perspective, develop a different — often only partial — understanding. Ambiguous.

So, what are we going to do with our lack of ambiguity tolerance? Tolerate it more? Eliminate ambiguity as drastically as we can? Struggle with it from time to time over the next 5000 years?

Or is there another way? What do you think?

As always, hanging in there and thinking of you (plural … again!)

Mat

In eigener Sache

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It was bound to happen. You can take Mat out of Germany, but you can’t take Germany out of Mat.
Addressing two challenges—one linguistic and one very worldly.

Challenge #1

In eigener Sache. It is what it is, but it is difficult to translate into English. Literally: in one’s own matter. Often used in company announcements that pertain to the company itself. Please note … does not really capture it. We are happy to announce … does not fit the context I am thinking of. Any suggestions that go beyond the the discussions in the forum of the online dictionary leo.org?

Until you come up with something better, I will just call it About us, which is

Challenge #2

Life goes on. Work piles up. COVID-19 has been confusing people, making many sick, and killing far too many. Too many lost their livelihood, feel frustrated and excluded, and wonder when and how this will end. And many say: I can’t breathe. Not now and not before.

And that is just the context. For this blog. On May 2, more than two months ago, I wrote the last post. Silence. Busy processing. Busy with busy. Busy learning, trying to understand. To understand what’s going on.

Doesn’t writing help? To process? To understand? Yes, it does. For me, it does. Reading also helps, doesn’t it?

So, what’s the challenge then? Finding the time to write, before one is overtaken by events. Having the energy to key in thoughts. Being focused on writing about one when a trillion is happening all at once.

But that is not all. Writing when everybody is talking is hard. Is anybody listening? Am I listening? Enough?

On the complexity of change: The chaos of COVID-19

A fractal phenomenon of sacrifice and comfort, of loss and gain, of hope and fear. An experience of chaos. And a time of chance. And opportunity.

Below I will make use of the explanatory power of Complexity Theory to make more sense of my lived experience. Once we understand the complexity of the COVID-19 pandemic a little better, we can learn from it. We can grow. We can do things better now in the crisis. And we can certainly do things better after the crisis.
I believe, it would go a long way, if we did not just think about protecting ourselves and our loved ones from catching the virus. Given the numbers I will show below, I find it far more important that each of us thinks first about spreading the virus.
Feel healthy and fine and assume you have the virus. It is the safer assumption in this chaotic situation, where all of us know so little. Think of it as physical distancing. Don’t come close to people. Especially not your family in other houses and your friends. Don’t be an unknowing spreader. Be safe and be an unknowing non-spreader. Protect others in any way you can: don’t leave the house if you can do that, wear a mask if you have one, stay your distance to other people, if you can. I believe every little bit of comfort each of us is willing to give up will help all of us a lot. Disproportionately. It’s nonlinear, remember. And stay in touch socially more than ever before. Phone, message, chat, send pictures and jokes, write emails and letters. Do it often. Talk with many.
And the learning for after all this? The opportunities? A crisis makes it very easy to identify our collective and individual vulnerabilities, weaknesses, shortcomings. It also makes it very difficult to address them during a crisis, because it is more difficult to see our robustness, strengths, and achievements. Take note now and let’s remember what we learned about about the quality of our leadership, our societal institutions, our processes of and attitudes to health, education, and the environment. I am sure there are things we can do to at least mitigate the next crisis and perhaps even avoid it. To save lives and make all of our lives a little bit better all the time, not just in crisis.

Why am I only writing about this now?

My colleagues and I have been teleworking from home for the last three weeks. I did predict that I would have more time to read, to think, to write. It has been 25 days since the first post with my initial thoughts on COVID-19. The next came four days later. And then nothing until now. I had not predicted that I would dedicate longer hours and more effort to my day job, thinking that working from home meant saving work time, having time for other pursuits. I was wrong. And I have been very lucky. Not only my mortgage payments are still withdrawn on the first of the month, my salary comes in at roughly the same time. I have a job to go to and I don’t even have to go to do it. So, the least I can do is do my job well to keep our contractors in gainful employ as newly minted teleworking teachers. And I hope that some good is coming of sharing my thoughts on the COVID-19 pandemic through the rational lens of complexity. And chaos!

Really? Now also Complexity Theory has something to say about COVID-19?

In earlier posts I referenced the Cynefin framework of problem solving by Dave Snowden and his collaborators. I talked about simple and linear problems—which he calls complicated—and I slowly began a discussion of complex problems and complexity in general. Little did I know at the time that I would feel that now I have to dive right into a discussion of the societal and individual situation of COVID-19 as a chaotic problem and could not develop my thinking further about complexity and the solving of complex problems.

Why Complexity Theory after toilet paper, shelter-in-place, social distancing, self-isolation, unemployment, recession, …?
The quality of a theory can be gauged by its power. Many theories have predictive power. When we apply an appropriate powerful theory to a set of observations of a system, we have a chance to predict in what state the system will be next or some time in the future. For complex systems, this is very difficult and perhaps impossible. I would argue that Complexity Theory is often not applied for its predictive power—maybe it even has less of it. For me, its strength is its explanatory power.

Is this chaos?

When is a complex dynamic system—a global process such as the pandemic COVID-19—in chaos?
When we perceive it as such. When the many interacting agents, components, and variables produce stark contrasts of change rapidly. At times, it looks like this rapid change came out of nowhere. At times, a minute action—the ill-informed and ill-advised tweet or utterance of a prominent political actor; the well-intended intervention of a country doctor—impacts the system at an extraordinarily disproportionate scale. At times, a draconian measure—a shelter-in-place order in a whole state or country; the closing of a national border to all non-residents—has dramatic and unpredicted side effects. Especially, when a dynamic system grows nonlinearly and exponentially. This is when it becomes increasingly difficult if not impossible to ascertain the temporary relationship between two agents, between two components, between two variables, because the relationship of any one of these to other agents, components, or variables is blurred. This makes it difficult and nearly impossible to carefully consider the context of the two agents, components, or variables.

Exponential growth

What does nonlinear exponential growth mean? I am not a mathematician; I am simply a person who derives a lot of meaning and sense from numbers. They hardly ever tell the whole story, but they tell you often what to look for in a story. In the story of COVID-19, you might have heard a lot about the doubling rate. Let’s do a very sad and saddening thought experiment because we often remember them better: We have a country—let’s call in Drumland—with 200 million inhabitants. It’s doubling rate is three days. Every three days, twice as many people get sick of an infectious disease.
Day 1=one Day 3=two Day 6=four Day 9=eight
Day 12=16 Day 15=32 Day 18=64 Day 21=128.
After three weeks, more than 100 people are sick. Nobody really notices. People get sick all the time. Yet, these are in addition to the ones who normally get sick during these three weeks.
Day 24=256 Day 27=512 Day 30=1,024 Day 33=2,048
Day 36=4,096 Day 39=8,192 Day 42=16,384.
After six weeks, people begin to notice. Especially, if there are large clusters of sick people in a particular community or group. Some begin to worry. Some take action. It is difficult to understand what is going on. Some action works, some does not. But the infectious disease does not slow down.
In Week 7=65,536 after Week 8=524,288 Week 9=2 million
in Week 10=16 million in Week 11=67 million.
At this rate of exponential growth in this artificial thought experiment, all 200 million people of Drumland are sick after 12 weeks. If this exponential growth were homogeneous.

Nonlinear and not homogeneous

Any process—a complex dynamic system—in a community or society is, of course, not homogeneous. Each person in Drumland can help slow down or speed up the growth rate. Some will stay home and not spread the disease virus. Some are healthy enough to not only be immune soon but also not contagious any longer. Some will help the more vulnerable to be more protected. Some will help heal the sick.

So, we could ride it out? Theoretically, maybe. Some governments worldwide still seem to think so. As I said in a previous post, I have no background in medicine or public health at all. All I can do is look at the numbers and think of the people. If only 1 in 100 infected people dies, in Drumland, this will be 2,000,000. If the health system is fragile, many people did not have a good chance of living healthy beforehand, or measures introduced sped up the growth of the infection, it could be more. Every single person in Drumland who knows at least 100 people will in all likelihood know one other person who succumbed to the virus, to which no one was immune before it arrived.

So what?

So, does Complexity Theory predict doom and gloom? For me it does not. It explains the seriousness of the current situation worldwide. I realize that it is far more serious in some countries, far more threatening in some cities, far more frightening for some families. Yet, I believe that the numbers show clearly that it is not a national problem nor an individual problem. I believe a pandemic is a problem for whole societies, for the world. Individually, we can get through this by staying home and strengthening our immune system further, if we are lucky to have our livelihood secure. If we all assume our individual responsibility for our society as a whole, for our neighbors and the people we have never met, and the people in other corners of this world, what can we do, once we understand one small aspect of this chaotic complex system a little better?

And a verbatim repeat of the beginning:

Once we understand the complexity of the COVID-19 pandemic a little better, we can learn from it. We can grow. We can do things better now in the crisis. And we can certainly do things better after the crisis.
I believe, it would go a long way, if we did not just think about protecting ourselves and our loved ones from catching the virus. Given the numbers above, I find it far more important for each of us thinking about spreading the virus.
Feel healthy and fine and assume you have the virus. It is the safer assumption in this chaotic situation, where all of us know so little. Think of it as physical distancing. Don’t come in close proximity to people. Especially not your family in other houses and your friends. Don’t be an unknowing spreader. Be safe and be an unknowing non-spreader. Protect others in any way you can: don’t leave the house if you can do that, wear a mask if you have one, stay your distance to other people, if you can. I believe every little bit of comfort each of us is willing to give up will help all of us a lot. Disproportionately. It’s nonlinear, remember. And stay in touch socially more than ever before. Phone, message, chat, send pictures and jokes, write emails and letters. Do it often. Talk with many.

And the learning for after all this? The chances and opportunities?
A crisis makes it very easy to identify our collective and individual vulnerabilities, weaknesses, shortcomings. It also makes it very difficult to address them during a crisis, because it is more difficult to see our robustness, strengths, and achievements. Take note now and let’s remember what we learned about about the quality of our leadership, our societal institutions, our processes of and attitudes to health, education, and the environment. I am sure there are things we can do to at least mitigate the next crisis and perhaps even avoid it. To save lives and make all of our lives a little bit better all the time, not just in crisis.

On the complexity of change: Online—off-line in time of COVID-19

Set of the film “Good bye, Lenin” (Photo: DPA)
from https://www.thelocal.de/20190925/films-east-germany-legacy-east-germans-perceive-them

COVID-19: In many parts of the world, regions and institutions are in lock-down, venues of education, culture, and entertainment have been closed, people return to their homes and stay there, supermarkets have closed for a time because their shelves are empty, education administrators advocate the move from – what they call – face-to-face instruction to – what they call – virtual teaching online … I would like to talk a little about the latter two, calling them off-line and online:

This seems to be a good time to tell a story, one of my stories. So, why don’t you sit down comfortably, protect your back, don’t hunch over your reading device … this story might get a little longer. Because it is a story, I will give my best to refrain from weaving in scientific or theoretical references; I will leave the look through the theoretical lens for another time. Why can I do that? Our stories, interrelated narratives, anecdotes are not only complex in and of themselves, they are also a way to make sense of complexity (and sometimes chaos) around us or even in us.

Once upon a time in the last century, I was born in a tiny country that called herself Deutsche Demokratische Republik. Others called her East Germany or Soviet Occupation Zone. There was on-line and off-line even there and then.

Quite early on and also later, my mom would send me shopping with a list, which was off line on a small piece of paper. I would go and stand in line, ask the shop assistant for things from my list. My question never was: Could I have …? It was: Do you have …? And often the answer was: No.

My mom sent me shopping well before stuff was needed – so were many others or they went by themselves, when they were old enough. Mom seemed to know when and where yoghurt or toilet paper was in store. I would buy it then, so we had it at home when it was needed.

Signs on shelves often said: Take Only 2. And that was what I did – as did many others – I took 2, whether I had it on my list or not. It was cheap, and who knows what was to come, we might need it.

Shortages were frequent. One day, I was in a butcher’s. In stead of cold cuts and schnitzel, two small flower pots were on display. I asked whether there was anything behind the counter and was told that, no, everything was exported to make hard-currency cash for the COMECON economy. I did not buy a flower pot, because it was not for sale.

I had always thought that these were characteristics of a command economy with overwhelmed, partially educated, paranoid, underwhelming elderly men in government. The economy was not geared toward consumption; infrastructure and logistics were poorly funded and organized. Well more than 30 years later, I did not expect to see empty shelves in supermarkets …

Let’s move to the second part of my story. Let’s go online.

And then I went online. Occasionally. With the telephone. During my year abroad in Kaluga, Russia, I would go to the local post office. Waited in line. Was told to go into booth number 7. Picked up the receiver. And could talk to my mom in Germany. The line was neither stable nor clear, but we were both grateful about the marvels of technology – I was in the post office booth, she was at a neighbor’s house which actually had a landline telephone. We stayed in touch by whatever means available: telephone, letter (sometimes also given to somebody traveling back from Kaluga to East Germany), or small packages with treasured goodies, in my direction only.

In the early 1990s, I moved to England. Staying in touch with the family got easier. Phone bills were high, and connections were stable and from home to home.

And, I used Gopher and later Mosaic to go online with my office PC. The Internet had emerged, and I was showing students how to find a few German fairy tales or the odd Spiegel article (still hosted on a university main frame computer). In the computer language lab, we used a web page that I had written with a set of annotated links to all texts that I could find and that were in German, in addition to little programs stored on computer disks. Soon after, things came on CDs and had images and sound. Hypertext. The students and I still talked. A lot. We sat in front of the computer(s) and talked. We shared screens in one computer lab and talked. We put in floppy disks and talked. We all learned to type – even umlauts äöüßÄÖÜ – and talked in and about clear writing. We recorded ourselves on stand-alone PCs and listened to audio files and we talked.

In 2001, a few colleagues and I began to design an online course – one semester of learning German from scratch. And we used the telephone to exchange spoken texts and we talked. Students would pick up the phone, punch in a felt 273 different digits upon request, and speak their oral assignment into the phone. The sound file was magically streamed to the server, where I would see it seconds later, listen to it, take some notes, pick up the phone, punch in 273 digits, and record a response that was streamed to the student. I still remember the system’s name: VERA. Vera means hope and belief in a number of languages.

Since, my students and I have emailed, Skyped, built wikis, blogged, discussed and chatted by both writing and speaking, and Zoomed. And we talked both online and off-line. All the time. More than ever before.

Long story. And I have not told the half of it. But where is COVID-19? Apart from the two mentions at the very beginning? The pandemic, the precautions, and the social and individual reaction to the unfolding complex web of events have been here all along. It is the counterpoint and context to my story. And the story is the counterpoint to the complex and – at times – chaotic phenomena of the pandemic, as I am experiencing them here in Southern California, at work, and through the omnipresent media and public discourses. So, let me finish my story by talking about this week. And then I will spare you the theoretical lens. This time only; I will put it on for the next blog post.

I have watched the clip with Walter Ulbricht denying the plan to built the Berlin Wall, listened to rambling propaganda word assemblies of the East German swamp and establishment, heard Erich Honecker explain that green salad just needed to be washed and it would be radiation-free after the Chernobyl disaster, and saw and experienced empty shelves and the shortage of toilet paper in days long gone.
Until 2017, I had hoped that such ill-worded and ideologically biased government statements and speeches at such a low level were a thing of the past. Until this week, I was so sure that I would not see or stand in front of empty store and supermarket shelves, in the country where I live, again. Full disclosure: I have not been to a supermarket this week, but I could not avoid listening to friends and family who have and seeing pictures online.

Online, I have been researching and advocating the considered pedagogic use of digital technologies in education for the last thirty years. This week, it seems, everybody in education, abruptly asked to abandon their classroom, is talking about online learning, virtual teaching, blended, hybrid, asynchronous, … Why am I not relishing the moment? First, the words! A blend should only happen in a blender in the kitchen. It is bad enough, sometimes, if it is done to whisky or wine, inmho. It should not be done to people and with people, I believe. In the relevant literature, hybrid used to mean (until this week, it seems) having a course that was done partially face-to-face, partially online. How is that gonna work when all classes are moved off campus. And virtual teaching? Most professors believe they know what teaching means. Virtual means “being such in essence or effect though not formally recognized.” So, I am asked to teach – virtually – and won’t be recognized for it? By whom?
For many educators who deep down have always believed that computers, digital media, and remote communication are either evil or at least vastly inferior to a close encounter, this change to education not in the classroom, lecture hall, or lab has come too sudden and was enforced from the top or forced upon them by adverse and unusual external circumstances. And I have come to believe, after being a student at the time of the Peaceful Revolution, that change better be gradual and voluntarily embraced by many to be sustainable.

Today, I am hoping that soon we are all going to come out of COVID-19 healthy, being again able to travel to different places without any fear, coming together in families, in small and large groups, and, if you enjoy that sort of thing, in huge gatherings, to have fun and a feeling of community. I am also hoping that online – teaching, learning, and talking – will finally be seen by many as what it is. Just another way of getting in touch with people, learning from one another and about one another. A way to communicate that is neither worse nor better than writing somebody a beautiful letter or chatting with somebody sitting next to them on the sofa or teaching a group in a comfortable classroom. It has always been more important to me that we talk with one another and learn from one another than through what channel and by what means we do this. It is up to us to learn how to use new(er) technologies and other means better. There is a tool for everything, but not everything is a hammer.

Especially in times of crisis or a pandemic, it is important to keep talking to one another truthfully and to keep learning.

On the complexity of change: What is happening with COVID-19?

A colleague cancelled her trip to Italy. She knows the country well and is not afraid of going there. She is afraid of being quarantined, when coming back home to the US. The conference of the American Association for Applied Linguistics with 1,400 registrants in Denver, CO, at the end of March has been cancelled “in light of developments over the last few days” (AAAL, March 9, 2020). Schools are closed in some parts of the world; universities in the US are preparing to take all their courses online until the end of the semester.

Is there a way to make sense of this change, these changes, the angst? I believe there is.

If you have read previous posts or our Team page, then you know that I am neither a medical professional nor a specialist in public health. I watch the international news, care about my own health and that of others, also in other parts of the world, like traveling and (international) get-togethers. And generally, I prefer when I can follow through on a planned course of action. I had planned to buy tickets for the two trips my wife and I want to take in the summer months last week. I didn’t.

How can we make some sense of this complex phenomenon? From what I have read thus far, COVID-19 has not yet been traced back to its initial conditions yet. Why would this be good to know? Generally speaking, because these variables – however minute – are there from the beginning and are often influential at all iterations through which the complex process goes. Unfortunately, misunderstanding initial conditions can lead some people to make decisions that at least appear to be unnecessary. I read recently that the sales of Corona beer are down because of the “namesake” Corona virus; apparently fewer people feel like going to a Chinese restaurant in the US because of the belief that the virus was spread from China.

Not only because I had intended to write about nonlinearity – as an important characteristic of a complex adaptive system – in this post, I will say that understanding the complex global spread of a nasty virus as a nonlinear process is of utmost importance.

Quickly in a nutshell, what does that mean for each one of us?

  • Small changes are likely to have a disproportionately large effect. Washing my hands, avoiding to touch my face, and in general being very careful with hygiene, can and will have the effect that I am better protected from catching the virus and that, if more and more people follow such guidelines (and other measures are taken in concert), the spread of COVID-19 can be contained.
  • Consider the context, learn about the many components, facets, and variables of this complex phenomenon. How is the virus spreading and impacting people in different places of this world? What can its many nonlinear trajectories tell us about its nature? From the little I understand COVID-19 is a relative of the SARS and the MERS viruses. In 2003, I lived in a city close to Toronto, and Toronto was one of the metropolitan centers affected by SARS at the time. SARS had a lower spread worldwide than COVID-19 has already had until now. On the other hand, it had a higher fatality rate (of almost 10%). It passed in about six months. Even with my very limited expertise in things medical this gives me a more rational perspective. It gives me hope and it gives me compassion for other people, people with different fears, people quarantined on a large cruise ship, people with responsibility for large gatherings such as a university or an international conference.
  • Accept the complexity. This acceptance mainly leads me to NOT do something. I do not expect a linear change. Just because we do A – whatever A is – just because the government implements measure A – whatever A is – just because the WHO issues guideline A – whatever A is – I do not expect a direct – linear – outcome B. No single step, measure, cancellation, … will change the course of COVID-19 singlehandedly. All the measures by many different people, bodies, and institutions, our preparedness of making considered – often small – changes, and our mindfulness that continued observation and analysis of the system – of the development of COVID-19 worldwide – are and will be necessary.

Change has the best chance of being sustainable, if it is considered and iterative.

I realize that I quickly glossed over the intricacies of nonlinearity. Well, this gives me a chance to write another post on the topic in the near future and do a better job.

On the complexity of change: Initial conditions … … … do you like skiing?

I do. Like skiing. So, please bear with me for a minute. This is one of those strange texts where things are only revealed at the end.

First, we are going on a skiing hill. And because we are talking about initial conditions and the sensitivity complex (adaptive) systems have to them, this is a very special hill. For this thought experiment, the hill has been designed by a mathematician. The slope of the hill is homogeneous. The hill has moguls. These are of perfectly identical smooth shape, and they are spaced evenly, both horizontally and vertically. Let’s take the comfortable chair lift and go up. Not to worry, you can come; you won’t need to ski, a ski will do all the work. All we have to do is make predictions, observe, take notes, and then compare our observation notes with our predictions. This way we will know a little more about the nature of complex systems. We are on top of the hill. Take one ski, please. You can also use a snowboard, if you prefer. Place it flat on top of the slope, mark its position, and let it go downhill. We are observing its path, the trajectory of this process. We know exactly how it went down the slope. And we mark its exit position at the bottom of the hill. Just memorize it. Meanwhile, I will go back down and fetch the ski. I am sure you noticed that the one initial condition, to which we are paying particular attention in our thought experiment, is the entry position, where we let the ski go. The end state of this complex dynamic system is the ski’s exit position at the bottom of the hill. Alright, I am back up; let’s do this again. Find the first entry position. Move the ski or snowboard just slightly to the left or right, whichever way you are inclined. Mark the second entry position. Now is the time for predictions! The entry position is minutely different. What trajectory will we observe? Identical to the first one, because minute differences don’t matter because they are just noise in the system? Parallel, because the slope is homogeneous and the moguls are identically formed and evenly spaced, and all we changed a tiny wee bit is the starting position? Or just different in so many parts? How about the exit point? Is it going to be exactly the same distance between exit points 1 and 2 as there now is between the two entry points? Or are the two distances going to be different? Unless you really are on this skiing hill, you will have to believe me: The trajectories are different, and the distance between the two exit points is not the same as between the two entry points. We can let the ski go down time and again. The probability of both the trajectory and end state being different to any one of the earlier ski runs is significantly higher than the probability of trajectory and exit points – the end state – being the same.

Why is this so? Because complex systems have a high sensitivity to initial conditions. To show in our thought experiment that the sensitivity is high we only introduced a minute change to the initial condition, the entry position, and we assumed that nothing else changed. The weather and snow conditions remained the same, the force of letting the ski go is always the same, the ski did not carve into any mogul, … And still, trajectory and end state are different, and sometimes wildly different.

In Chaos Theory, this has also been called the Butterfly Effect. (When talking I am often prone to go off on an – interesting – tangent. Here I won’t do it and you will have to wait for a later post. Or you can look it up in Wikipedia.) It is a good example of how important initial conditions are, because the system is highly sensitive to them, even when many other variables – also of a larger magnitude – interact and change in the process. There is one main reason why this is so: These variables – the initial conditions – are the first ones to impact the process, even if only slightly. When we observe a complex dynamic system, a complex process, we can split it into time segments, iterations. And in one way or another, the variables of the initial conditions impact each iteration. Or as they say: Constant dripping wears away the stone.

Are initial conditions equally important when we want to understand complex social processes, such as work in a team, leading and managing a project, or an intimate relationship or marriage? I think we all know what the answer is, simply from experience: Yes, they are. Once we encounter a complex problem, we are well advised to look for and at the initial conditions of the underlying process(es). How we can figure out what the initial conditions were and how they influenced how events unfolded, we will have to leave for after the introduction of the characteristics of complex adaptive systems. What is important to take away from this brief excursion is that all complex systems are sensitive to their initial conditions. And (not only) because of this sensitivity to initial conditions, complex systems cannot easily be reversed to a prior state. No one steps in the same river twice. Complex adaptive systems have what we can call a history. This is strongly connected to the characteristic of nonlinearity. And that is the beginning of another post.

On the complexity of change: Complex and adaptive

Let’s forget about changing anything. Just for a little while. Let’s just think about complexity. Something complex. A complex process. Got it? Why is this process complex? What makes it complex?

First answers are simple: a process with more than one actor is more complex than a process with just one actor. But it is not just the participants. Many natural or industrial processes are complex, and they do not necessarily even have participants (humans) that act in them. So, there can also be many components. And if that were not enough, more often than not there are many variables. You remember these variables from math classes in school.

x + 7 = y

This is a nice linear equation – and thus not complex. For each x there is exactly one y, which can be calculated, if you know how do do this sort of thing.

Think about the complex process you have in mind. It does not just have one variable, one x, that changes or can be changed. Most processes in life, in society, in biology, in physics, in nature, … in most places where we care to look, have more than one variable. More than one (in)observable trait, characteristic, or feature that can change or that can be changed.

Now that’s OK, you say. We just have to look at a few more things. Right! Problems arise when there are very many, often too many, to always keep our eyes on, to look out for, to consider. And not only that. Each of these variables, each x, if you like, does not just have one dependent y. More than one variable can depend on each changing variable.

I am changing the period of time I use for exercise in the morning. I am changing time t. Time t influences my fitness level; I am increasing muscle mass and flexibility. Because of the increased muscle mass, my metabolism changes during the day. I feel better, I am more agile, I move more and quicker, burning more calories than on the days prior. And by increasing time t for exercise, I am reducing time r for reading … Twitter, my favorite book, a newspaper, or some emails. I am also reducing time c for cooking, so I will have to have my lunch prepared the evening before or will have to go to the cafeteria to buy something to eat.

You get the point.

A complex phenomenon does not just have many variables. Each of these variables potentially interacts – metaphorically speaking bounces off and changes – one or more other variables. Overstating just a little bit: each of the many variables changes all the time, in concert and against each other.

Did I say at the beginning: Let’s forget about change for a little while? Impossible. We quickly returned to the concept of change. Change is part of complexity and complexity is part of change. We cannot – and should not – consider one without the other. [Maybe just for a quick thought experiment, or if we are really tired in the evening.]

What are the consequences? Complex phenomena are in constant flux, change constantly. That’s why we often talk about complex dynamic systems. Variables interact with one another, components interact, actors (participants) interact. In these many continuous or iterative interactions, each variable, component, and actor are also prone to change. They co-adapt. Especially for social systems, we often use the label complex adaptive systems (CAS). And if we want to understand change better, be able to influence it a little bit, or just deal with it, it is useful to look at some of the characteristics of complex adaptive systems.

  • CAS are likely to be on a nonlinear trajectory, which means a change I put in does not necessarily result in a proportionate change to come out.
  • CAS are sensitive to initial conditions. The variables, however small they might be, that were there from the very beginning are most likely to have had a relatively large impact on the whole process, simply because they have been around for long enough.
  • CAS have attractor states – states they are more often and more likely in. They also have repeller states, states which they could reach theoretically but never or hardly ever reach.
  • CAS are likely to reach an equilibrium – like a standstill, change is very close to zero – if no new energy enters the system.

I am glad I got this out of the way. And maybe so are you. Remember that I said it is often useful to apply a theoretical lens to gain a better understanding of a problem? At some stage I had to introduce the lens. In subsequent posts, I will look at these characteristics of complex adaptive systems, one by one. And I will show for each one what role their understanding can play in solving personal problems, problems at work, in social interactions, or just around the house.

The neat thing with these CAS is that there has been a lot of research that tried to figure out how to get a better handle on the complexity. And I am as sure as one can be that what we learn about the ever-changing complexity will come in handy almost every day, when solving problems. Whether this is in your personal life, when making leadership decisions, or simply when you are trying to fix something that you believe needs fixing.

And to finish off, if you’d rather read the texts on the Complexity of Change in one possible order … a table of contents is emerging.

On the complexity of change: All these complications!

A good morning. I know what I want to do. I know I can do it. I am optimistic. I have sufficient energy. [Not as much as I used to have some years ago, but good enough.] All this makes me feel great. Then! I glance at my email inbox. I see the one email. Yes, that one. I read it again. It sinks in deeper. I sink deeper. I have seen “this” before. I have dealt with “this” before. I had fixed it. Was that not good enough? Really, “this” is coming up again? It obviously is. ∑√i†!!! I have to do “this” again and can’t do what I want to do. Again, there is no time to do what I want to do, what actually needs doing [or so I believed], because I have to go back. Again. And again. Really?!

Sitting here writing, I can see “this” as what it is: yet another one of my encounters with a complex problem. Why does it happen so often? Time to put on our theoretical lens to get both a little more clarity and some – also emotional – distance.

The four types of problems – simple, linear, complex, and chaotic – do not each arise with the same frequency. Simple problems arise far less often than linear problems. We encounter linear problems far less often than complex problems. [Since we all live in a good world at a good time, chaotic problems arise least frequently of them all. But that’s a topic for another day.] We often find complex problems complicated. We might even react with frustrated surprise. Normally, we are more familiar, more comfortable, and hence more successful (in solving the problem) when we have encountered something more frequently. Here the opposite seems to happen: the more often the problem occurs, the more complicated we find dealing with it. It gets more and more frustrating. Why is that?

Essentially, a problem is wanting to move a process from state A to state B, and there is a hurdle between the two states. Two states. This makes us think of “this” as a binary. It is either “this” or “that.” It is an If—Then; if I do this, then that will happen. Either “this” gets fixed now and will be in a “good” state, or “this” does not get fixed and will be in a “bad” state forever. [We as humans seem to have a preference to see the world in linear binaries: either—or, if—then, cause—effect, plus—minus, right—wrong, … female—male, black—white, we—other, native—foreign, … That is also a topic for another day.] In other words, we expect to encounter linear problems more often than linear problems do occur. And, complex problems, because of their complexity, are likely to look different every time they arise. And, they appear frustratingly similar at the same time, especially if one looks at their surface first and foremost.

How can we deal with a complex problem effectively? This problem type arises from us being one actor in a complex dynamic system, which is basically a process that has multiple interacting actors, components, and variables and that is (very) sensitive to its context. [In a later post, we will take a good look at complex dynamic systems.] Because of that, we – as the problem solver – have to be prepared to consider this emerging process thoroughly and comprehensively. We have to assume there is no best solution, as their is for both simple and linear problems. After careful consideration or analysis, there is a solution. It is unlikely – and it might actually be undesirable – that a solution will bring the whole process into a stable end state. This means, we implement a solution and need to be prepared and willing to keep observing the changing system, ready to repeat our work of consideration and analysis and to implement another solution. The complex process will change again. The change is unlikely to be proportionate to the solution. The reasons for that are in the complexity of the process. More on this also later. So, we will have to be prepared to observe the system, consider it and its context, and to implement another solution, as we did the first time and as we will be doing as long as we care. Although different facets of the system, the problem, and our solution are often self-similar, it is not the same over and over again.

No one steps in the same river twice.

Boundaries – Professional, Part 1 – The Office: How to get more out when you go in …

If you skipped over the video above and jumped directly to this text, I would encourage you to go back and watch it. Or go ahead and watch it again, even if you already did. As you view it, try to notice which professional boundary aspects are at play. Which ones are being damaged or broken? Are there also some that are being appropriately held? Just watch and jot down anything you notice that either holds or challenges a temporal, kinetic, cognitive, or interpersonal boundary. Perhaps also pay some attention your internal (or emotional) response to what you notice. What strikes you as “to be expected,” “amusing, but wrong,” or even “appropriate” or “deserved?”

Spoiler alert: Almost none of the behavior we can observe in “The Office” is really appropriate, except perhaps what we see from Toby or, on occasion, Pam, Jim, Darryl, or Oscar. Most of the time, the characters are either selling themselves short, undercutting the entire enterprise, or overtly sabotaging their colleagues. Yes, this very much includes the individual who holds the most positional authority, Scranton Branch Manager Michael Scott.

Unfortunately, many of these same things are taking place in your office, and at your desk, every single day as well. Just in less entertaining and, hopefully, less dramatic fashion.

As I did in the two entries on Personal Boundaries, I will outline a few key considerations for each aspect of Professional Boundaries, and offer some important questions and actions to consider to improve your practice in this domain. Before we dive in, however, I will start by acknowledging that your position in your workplace will very much color the way you understand and interpret what I have to say about professional boundaries in all four aspects. This is both, I believe, correct and very important to keep in mind, particularly for those of us who do not hold positional authority (i.e. we are not anyone’s “boss” or “supervisor”) in our professional lives. If this describes your situation, then my best advice would be that you consider the following points in light of yourself as your own “boss,” because, yes, you are your own boss, first and foremost. No one else determines your thoughts, attitudes, and actions more than, or before, you do.

Temporal Professional Boundaries can be easily found in a few high-frequency work situations: meetings, tasks/projects (whether done in a “team” or on one’s own), and so-called spontaneous interactions. With meetings, whether you are the one calling them or simply being called to them, it is important to have real clarity on your relationship to meetings and time.

If you are the one who sets meetings, do you set them to start, last, and end, with deliberate attention to questions of time? Do you set team/office meetings to start at a time that can work as well as possible for as many team members as possible? This is especially important as in-office schedules become increasingly fluid and flexible for more and more workers. Even more important, especially for bosses, do you start AND END work gatherings on time? If not, what excuse(s) are your favorite(s)? Keep in mind, if an excuse becomes the norm, it’s no longer much of an excuse.

If you are a meeting participant, do you get to meetings on time (in your seat and ready to engage at least one to two minutes before the appointed meeting time)? Do you linger chatting with co-workers, or even your supervisor/boss, even after the meeting has ended? Perhaps you only tend to hang back and talk further when there are obvious and important reasons to do so, but it’s worth asking whether this is always, or often, the case. If it is, it’s also worth wondering why. What work might you be avoiding by hanging around after the “real” meeting has dispersed?

Within meetings, as a meeting leader do you manage time well, or do you let discussion, and even digression, rule the day? Do you provide an agenda (with or without time blocks)? Is it realistic? Do you follow it? As a meeting participant, do you make timely contributions to group discussions or meeting leader questions? Do you pay attention to for how long you tend to talk and seek to limit yourself accordingly, or do you find that others often end up cutting you off? If your boss is the one who often cuts you off, this is possibly a sign that you need to reconsider your approach. Perhaps you should consider limiting yourself to what you can say with just one breath (meaning, if you have to stop to take a breath, it’s also time to stop talking) each time you go to make a contribution. If this technique doesn’t encourage you to think before you open your mouth, maybe it will at least get you back to the gym more often…

NOTE: I am not addressing emergency work meetings here. I understand that there are periods in most any workplace where outside events dictate when meetings must start, end, how they “should” be run, and how long they must last. Those just are what they are. But, when we are in the normal course of things, we often fall into a kind of automaticity with the way we behave in and around meetings that can create at least as many problems as it solves, if not more.

Kinetic Professional Boundaries are fairly straightforward. Pay attention to how you carry yourself physically in different situations (e.g. while sitting alone at your work station, while sitting in meetings, when entering your boss’s or another colleague’s work area). Do you pay attention to your posture? Sitting up straight, but still comfortably, not only creates a better impression of you in others’ eyes, it can also have a positive impact on your own energy and engagement levels. If you’re not convinced that simple body movements can effect internal changes, don’t just take my word for it: https://news.osu.edu/nodding-or-shaking-your-head-may-even-influence-your-own-thoughts-study-finds/

One other thing to pay attention to, especially if you hold positional authority at work, is whether or not you deliberately and consistently mirror other people’s body position and language. For example, if you approach an employee who is sitting down, do you look for an opportunity to also sit before you begin talking to them? If you are a subordinate, if your boss is sitting when you encounter him or her, look for an opportunity to be seated as well, asking “permission” if necessary. This is also effective, and almost certainly appreciated, when engaging with colleagues. The important thing to keep in mind is that you can, and often should, do things physically to increase connection and engagement on cognitive and affective levels.

Resource recommendations (I don’t necessarily 100% agree with everything in these additional readings, but only reading, or recommending, things with which we agree may not be a best practice after all…):

Tips for leaders to run better meetings: https://www.inc.com/partners-in-leadership/4-ways-to-run-better-meetings-and-transform-your-culture.html

Strategies and techniques for making more meaningful contributions: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/jan/04/how-to-get-heard-in-meetings-deep-breaths-superhero-poses-and-owning-bossy

Different meeting participant roles and functions: http://projectmanagementhacks.com/8-ways-to-contribute-to-meetings/

Come back later this week for part two on Professional Boundaries, the cognitive and interpersonal. Until then, check out Mat’s recent post on the complexity of problem solving and different problem “types.

On the complexity of change: What problem do you have?

It’s too difficult! Does this really have to be so hard? You are being complicated.

Have these thoughts crossed your mind? Every day? Each hour? Fleetingly? Or have they lingered, recurred? Made you swear or resign? Or you buckled down and tried harder? I know for me it has been all of the above. And more. I have to ask, though. All of these feelings and experiences are subjective. It depends on us whether or not and to what degree we perceive something – a task, a request, a plan, an experience, a process … – as hard and challenging or as easy and quick. Yet, many of the problems or challenges we face or see others tackling “contribute” in and of themselves to being more complicated than others. Why?

At first sight, the answer is trivial. Such processes are not only complicated, they are complex. Complex problems.

I believe it is useful to take a good look at their complexity. At bare minimum, we know better what we are dealing with; at best, we arrive at a path to a solution and—with a little bit of luck—get a feeling of ease and simplicity.

Let’s put on our theoretical lens. (Very helpful, remember?) What is a problem? And what makes many of them complex?

Let’s pretend you have not encountered the concept of problem before. Let’s take a fresh quasi-naïve look.

So, you stare at your very first problem … What is happening? The process you look at is in state A. You want to, have to, plan to have the process reach state B. There is a hurdle, an obstacle between state A and state B. It’s easy, right? Solving that problem involves overcoming the obstacle and getting the process from the current state A to the desired state B.

The management consultant and researcher David Snowden distinguishes four different types of problems. I will call them simple, linear, complex, and chaotic problems.

Simple. You get up in the morning. You want some coffee (desired state B). There is no coffee; the pot is empty (current state A). The obstacle is minimal: fresh coffee needs to be brewed. You have done it a thousand times. You know exactly what to do, without having to analyze the current state and its context, available tools and avenues, and possible solutions. This is a simple problem. It presents itself, you immediately recognize it, automatically know the details of the desired state B – a nice cup of dark roasted coffee, no milk or sugar because its acidity are low and neither is needed.

Linear. You have had your coffee. The day can start, but first you decide to immediately wash your cup. And! When you pour water in the sink, you realize the drain is blocked (current state A). (The desired state B is an unblocked sink drain, of course. The obstacle is the drain has to be unblocked.) You analyze the situation. You look and think, you poke around. What is blocking the drain? How stubborn is the blockage? You look at some contextual factors: how urgent is it? how much time do I have? what tools do I have at home? what am I able and willing to do? who could help? how much does it cost to call a plumber? and when are they gonna come? You do this analysis of state A and its context once. You know how to do it. You match the result of your analysis with an appropriate course of action, such as pouring hot water or drainage cleaner down the drain, removing the elbow underneath yourself and cleaning it, notifying the landlord or building manager, or calling a plumber … If this is indeed a linear problem, then this course of action will produce a result. With a bit of luck – and skill and effort – the drain is unblocked. And the cups of the future can be washed. A linear problem like this one requires analysis. Both the analysis and overcoming the obstacle require a skill set and some labor. Linear problems have a best solution, which is the one that most likely and most efficiently leads to the desired state B. You can consult an expert who will present, and often implement, the required solution to/for you.

Since the third type is called complex problems. You are assuming right: neither linear nor simple problems are complex. The general problem of problem-solving is, as David Snowden pointed out, that most problems we encounter in our daily lives, with our and other people’s’ health, at work, in relationships, in politics, with the environment, in history, … are neither simple nor linear.

I am going to hazard a guess: most problems you have encountered, witnessed, heard about are complex. So, in the next post—you have been reading for long enough—I will take a closer look at these omnipresent complex problems.

Boundaries – Personal, Part 2: Cognitive and Interpersonal

In part 1, we dug into the key questions and considerations that can aid us to better understand, establish, and enact Personal Boundaries in the Temporal and Kinetic aspects. In this post, we will continue in the same vein by exploring the essential points in the Cognitive and Interpersonal aspects of Personal Boundaries. Boundaries – Accountability – Support – Expectations are the four dimensions of BASE A model to improve any practice.

Cognitive Personal Boundaries entail how we engage with our thoughts, particularly as they relate to ourselves. In psychology, and in cognitive behavioral therapy in particular, it has come to light in recent years that we humans are prone to a phenomenon known as automatic negative thinking. As psychologist Daniel Kahneman outlines brilliantly in his 2011 book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” we have an almost overriding tendency to construct entire narratives around even the most minute pieces of information. If you want to check this, pay attention to the ways in which your mind can (over)react to the way you see someone dressed, or their apparent level of cleanliness, while making your way around in public. You see one piece of information, and you build an entire story about what it means. But, how often is this story trending in a negative direction? Now, consider how much you tend to turn this potentially tremendous source of harmful cognition back toward yourself and your own actions. Having a Personal Cognitive Boundary around this entails noticing your thoughts, particularly those that seem to emerge of their own volition, and challenging their veracity/applicability, especially when they turn things in a negative direction. 

If you read the prior paragraph and mostly thought “hey, good for me, my thought patterns are usually focused on positive things about myself (and others),” well, there is room to be more mindful there as well. Just as automatic negative thoughts can build corrosive, false narratives around otherwise innocuous pieces of information, automatic positive thinking, or APT, (also a recently en vogue psychological term that focuses on the benefits APT can offer) can also have its pitfalls. Do you know anyone who is able, almost without fail, to explain away and/or twist any of their thoughts or actions into part of some larger heroic/martyrized narrative about themselves and their place in the world? Have you ever done it yourself? (hint: we all have, at least once). Be very cautious of this type of thinking as well. When taken too far, it is a step down a path to something not dissimilar to malignant narcissism, which, to quote British psychoanalyst Herbert Rosenfeld, is “a disturbing form of narcissistic personality where grandiosity is built around aggression and the destructive aspects of the self become idealized.” Having an appropriate Personal Cognitive Boundary will also aid you in recognizing and mitigating automatic positive thinking that goes too far, too often. 

Lastly, we turn to Personal Boundaries in the interpersonal aspect. Quite simply, these Boundaries inform the way we interact with others. As you consider the interpersonal aspect of your Personal Boundaries, it may be helpful to better understand your extraversion/introversion balance. Although there are a number of trait dimensions that help define the differences between a more extraverted or introverted personality type, the simplest one for our purposes today has to do with whether you draw your renewal, strength, and energy from contact with other people, or from time spent with yourself. People often mistakenly associate extraversion as overtly skillful interactions with others, and introversion as objectively awkward, uncomfortable versions of the same. The problem with this is the attachment to what is openly observable, as I believe that extraversion and introversion are far and away more subjective, internal phenomena. Examine your own experience and begin to answer if you more frequently draw renewal, centeredness, and vitality from sustained contact with others, or from time alone. Perhaps your answer is that it varies and is most often a mix of the two things. Whatever the answer, it comes from inside you, not from some externalized set of definitions based on others’ observations of your experience. Knowing your answer on intro- and extraversion will be essential to setting your Interpersonal Boundaries. 

Another consideration for defining and holding your Interpersonal Boundaries is the way that input (also known as guidance or advice) functions in your life. How much do you either offer or seek out/accept input to or from others? How much of either, or both, is unsolicited? So many of us orient ourselves as either counsel givers or seekers. In either case, what can so frequently go unnoticed is whether or not this process is mutually consensual for all involved. No matter in which direction your preferred tendencies run, if you are not aware of your ego’s role in driving your input-giving or seeking actions, you will be largely powerless before this highly important life dynamic. 

One more contrast to consider when it comes to your Interpersonal Boundaries is as follows: is your purpose to be more interested, or interesting? Do you listen to others with a genuine sense of spontaneity and discovery, or are you simply waiting for the next opportunity to reassert your “self” and find the spotlight? This question is foundational to learning to do improvisational performance where, somewhat counterintuitively, being interested is far more effective than trying to be interesting. Consider your actions and motivations in this light, and see what personal understanding becomes available to you as a result. 

All of the above is in service of helping you better understand your own energy and flow as it relates to your Personal Boundaries. I invite you now to spend 5-10 minutes during at least four separate days over the coming week to further examine your Personal Boundaries in their Temporal, Kinetic, Cognitive, and Interpersonal aspects. For a different kind of reflective journaling experience, make a set of quadrants by drawing an intersecting vertical and horizontal axis on a blank piece of paper. Since there is no hierarchy among the four Personal Boundary aspects, it does not matter how you label the four quadrants, other than to put one aspect in each. Use hand-written text, sketch, clip-art, or whatever motivates and resonates to represent your understanding of your Personal Boundaries in each quadrant. 

Resource Recommendations:

“Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman – A wonderfully readable, yet scholarly book on the ways we think we think, and the ways our decisions show us that we actually think…

“Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman – A foundational primer on the basic concepts and perspective that comprise intelligence as an affective phenomenon and construct.

“The New Psychology of Leadership” Haslam, et al – One of the best among more recent works on how leadership and followers hip may actually function. Important insights for anyone who seeks not only to lead/influence others, but who also wants to understand why certain things work at some times, and then do not work at all at others.

“Finding Fred” by Carvell Wallace and iHeart Media – A touching and through-provoking podcast on the ways we can choose to be in the world, and the potential impact they can have on those around us, and beyond…

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/finding-fred/id1477279443

Until next week, when we will explore Professional Boundaries and continue to build on our self-understanding practice together. 

On the complexity of change: How did this all start?

Something changes, I change something. I experience this change or I don’t (really) notice it. I anticipate or plan this change, I am surprised or spontaneous. I feel joy or sorrow or both about it, in it, after it.

We are all the same and all different in how we bring about change, experience it, and handle it. Some of us—and I am surely one—find it easier to start and sustain change, to enjoy and tolerate it, and to (co-)adapt and vary the speed and direction of ever-present change, if and when we—I—understand it, its context, and its origin, at least to some extent. And when this specific change feels familiar. It even seems to be secondary whether this change is perceived—at that moment—as positive or negative.

How can one gain a better understanding and more familiarity of and with change? The very simple answer is: Through sustained and reflective learning: we notice a “gap” or a tension between us and our context—the people, things, and processes, within this context, or within ourselves. If one then does decide to act or react, we begin to gain a better understanding through – mainly – repeated reflected experience of this and similar phenomena of change often in the realm of emotions, through action engagement (basically by doing stuff about it), and through rational thought.

All three—emotional experience, relevant action, and rational thought—are reactions to change. They also can induce change, and can help us adapt to and influence change. Of the three, I will continue in subsequent blog posts with rational thought. And this is where complexity comes in.

Change is a complex process. It has multiple actors, components, facets. Quite obvious, right? What is often less obvious, especially when change is experienced as pressure, stress, and/or adversity (at that moment or for longer periods of time) is that the actors, components, and facets are changing too, repeatedly. They “have to” change because they are in continuous, repeated, intermittent interaction with one another.

I am well aware that I have invoked a number of theoretical concepts (change/dynamism, complexity) in this text already, and I am sure so are you. This is deliberate because I believe that I can reflect better, more productively, and more constructively, when my reflection is informed by an appropriate theory. Of course, complexity in and of itself is complex. So I find it helpful to use theory both as a crutch and—more importantly to me—as a lens.

Since I am hoping you find it useful both to think about change and to inform and influence your thinking systematically, I have picked a set of related theories—Chaos Theory, Complexity Theory, Dynamic Systems Theory—and will be writing about these by making them the servants of understanding change both theoretically and practically.

More on this in later posts. The titles of these posts (will) all start with “On the complexity of change.” If you find this or a later one interesting, I am hoping you will want to look at the others. So, why not follow this blog, if you are not doing so already.

Boundaries – Personal, Part 1: What are they, and (how) do we understand them?

As promised in last week’s post, this week I will begin to dig into the first of the four areas of Boundaries as I outlined them under the BASE model: Personal Boundaries. In keeping with what is often the natural emergence of things as we begin the conceptualization process, we will begin with ourselves. What are our Personal Boundaries, and how consistently do we recognize and adhere to them? As we consider this key question together, I will offer some guiding questions to help us along in the reflection/discovery process. In part 1, we will examine and interrogate the first two of four aspects of Personal Boundaries: Temporal and Kinetic. Later this week, in part 2, we will dig in to the Cognitive and Interpersonal aspects of Personal Boundaries. Toward the end of each part, I will close with an invitation to engage in some ongoing work over the course of the rest of the week, and also provide resource recommendations where I have them to offer. Without further preamble, let’s begin.

Temporal Personal Boundaries are concerned with how we organize and manage time for ourselves and those around us. Before we can properly understand this, however, it is necessary to better define our own relationship to time. We can begin by simply assessing our level of attunement to the passing of time. Consider your responses to the following questions in the context of not relying on a timepiece: How often are you confidently aware of what time of day it is? To what extent are you able to keep track of the duration of activities in which you engage? For instance, do you frequently feel misaligned, in terms of either mindset or activity/energy level, to the time of day in which you find yourself, whether late morning, mid-afternoon, or early evening? What about the passing of time? If you begin an activity, say sitting down to read a book or getting engrossed in preparing a meal, are you able to stop yourself in the midst of it and accurately assess for how long you have been engaged (in minutes or fractions of an hour, not seconds)? No particular answer is more or less valuable or important, but it is good to have a sense of this for yourself, as it can help you have a more faithful frame of how you personally interact and engage with time in your day to day life.

What about your sense of time as it relates to others? How often do you feel impatient when you are expected, or obliged, to passively observe and/or wait while someone else engages in an activity, whether it be thinking, talking, cooking, working, or getting ready to go out? How do your expectations vary between the time you can patiently allot yourself to do something versus what you can graciously offer to another? You don’t need to answer these questions with judgment. Just take a moment to reflect and see what arises for you in response, possibly jotting a thought or two down, or even taking a more full five to ten minutes to journal on it.

Kinetic Personal Boundaries have to do with our movements and physicality or, worded a simpler way, what activities we do and do not engage in. The central question here pertains to what and who determines the activities in which you do, and do not, engage? This may seem like a very simplistic question, to which the answer can only be some version of one of three major types:

“only I decide what I will do”

“I live to serve and match my actions accordingly”

“it depends.”

The relative valuation given to each of those response types will vary, of course, according to the cultural norms with which you were raised, those that are in place where you currently live, or those you have integrated into your personal worldview. In any case, what matters most is to be mindful and aware of what most often drives you to, or keeps you from, taking action and if those factors change under different circumstances (that do not rise to the level of the extreme – almost everyone’s motivations change in extreme situations).

The purpose here is to accept that we will struggle to reliably understand and evaluate, much less consciously moderate or modify, our own actions and tendencies unless we understand where they come from. Here you may find it helpful to reflect on things like your activity levels in terms of socializing, down/alone time, physical and mental wellbeing (nutrition, fitness, meditation, sleep, etc.), personal development (reading, journaling, ongoing education), and service to others. Of course, you also need to examine the activities you engage in that are the unhealthy opposites of the favorable ones I have just listed. What routines and/or patterns emerge when you ask these questions? Whatever your answers about the amount and/or quality of activity you engage in any and all of those domains, it is at least as important to understand whether the catalyst for your Kinetic Boundaries comes from within, without, or a mix of both. Spend enough time in honest dialogue with these questions, meditating and/or journaling according to what works best for you, and I am confident that you will have moments of surprise and discovery.

Resource recommendations:

Insight Timer – A freemium meditation and personal improvement app for iOS and Android. Plenty of great free content for beginning and building on meditation and mindfulness practices, and paid courses and additional content to boot!

7-minute workout – A great, free resource for getting your fitness fix, no matter your current fitness level or exercise habits! Shows how to perform all movements, requiring only body weight and some personal drive.

The Miracle Morning – A wonderful book, not free, with ample web resources, by Hal Elrod. This book will help you reconsider the extent to which a lack of time and energy are really what stand between you and pursuing your life goals.

That’s it for today! Be sure to check back for part 2, focusing on Personal Cognitive and Interpersonal Boundaries, in the next few days.

BASE: A Model for Improving Any Practice (but especially for leaders!)

When I started out as a new leader (read: supervisor/manager) in a private education business 15 years ago, I had what most people would have termed the “right” personality for being in charge. Meaning that I never shied away from an opportunity to assess and evaluate everything, and everyone, around me. Neither was I overly hypocritical in this. I applied my unrelenting standards even more to myself and actions than I did to anyone, or anything, else. Or so I steadfastly believed…

In any event, as I transitioned from that role (after being in it for three years of intensive mentoring and on-the-job learning) into another position of leadership, I believed I had the framework in place for how I would enact my managerial approach in any and every situation. I quickly learned that I was mistaken, as my new job required me to communicate and influence across multiple, unfamiliar cultural paradigms, and to negotiate several interconnected bureaucracies whose central priorities were often at odds with each other. I adapted quickly enough and did what I saw as necessary in order to achieve basic day-to-day functionality, but along the way I largely lost sight of my original framework and slipped into a mindset and approach that were merely pragmatic, much more focused on what needed to get done in order to keep the trains running on time (so to speak) than on what I believed was most uplifting and important. Raise your hand if this sounds or feels familiar to you.

In the intervening years, as I gained more knowledge and experience in this new role, and as I worked through a doctoral program in leadership studies, I benefitted from the additional mental space that both offered me and was able to articulate for myself the four aspects of my leadership practice that I saw as foundational to success: Boundaries, Accountability, Support, and Expectations. Or, if you like a good acronym as much as I do, BASE. Pause for just a moment now and interrogate those words in terms of yourself and in terms of your personal and professional practice (whether as a formalized leader, colleague, parent, or teacher). Are you clear on what each one means for you, both conceptually and practically? What about for those in whose lives you hold a degree of influence? If your response was a full-on or even partial *shrug,* for any and all of them, don’t be overly concerned. You are far from alone. The good news is you are also in the right place.

Over the next four months I will focus, each month, on one of these principles and how they can be meaningfully applied to both our personal philosophy and professional practice. I say “our” very intentionally as I am in a never-ending state of interacting and striving to grow myself through these principles as well. Along the way, I will provide thought-provoking anecdotes, questions, resource recommendations, and specific actions we can all engage with to begin and continue our development both as individuals and as part of our larger social and professional networks. For today, I will leave you with a basic definition (my own) of each principle, and a guiding question for you to reflect on as we wrap up the current year and prepare for the next:

Boundaries: The things in your life that are non-negotiable, both for yourself and for others. What are they, really, for you, and how consistently do you hold yourself, and others, to them?

Accountability: The structures and practices that hold your Boundaries in place, also providing a framework for the continued growth and development of yourself and those around you. Can you name three or more productive ways in which you consistently provide accountability for yourself and others? Are they working as intended?

Support: The resources from which you, and those with whom your life is intertwined, draw energy and renewal in service of sustained Accountability. What forms of support do you consistently provide for yourself and others?

Expectations: The goals and standards that you set and hold to for yourself and others, with a clear focus on what is most right rather than what is most accessible or easy. Can you list your personal/professional goals and standards, both for yourself and others, in a straightforward way? How consistently are you aligning your practices, and those of others over whom you exert influence, with these goals and standards?

Spend five to ten minutes reflecting on these questions via quiet thought and/or in writing over the next week, answering as honestly, yet lovingly, as you can. It is absolutely “ok” if the answers you come up with are incomplete or only lead to more questions. We are here to learn to engage with ourselves and our world in the most authentic way possible, so approach this exercise with a simple growth mindset, knowing that every part of it is simply a step for you along a path of development and improved self-understanding.

Until next year!

The danger of missed connections…

Anyone who has done some amount of air travel will be all too familiar with the destructive power of missed connections. Suddenly, a well-coordinated travel itinerary becomes a cascading, downhill disaster of cancelled reservations, revised schedules, and the best laid plans gone “aft agley.” But these examples are in the extreme, derived from the most compacted, intensive of situations. It should lead us to wonder if there aren’t other kinds of missed connections in our more mundane, everyday lives and interactions. If so, are the less salient, but still very real, consequences moment-to-moment missed connections diminishing the quality of our relationships and, by extension, of our shared existence? This is what I invite you to consider with me today.

In the world of improvisation, or improv as it is more colloquially known, there are a few simple rules that govern all interactions between players. The most well-known amongst these is the famous “yes, and.” In the simplest sense, this means that whatever a fellow improv artist does or says in a scene needs to always be greeted with the spirit and actions of “yes, and,” never “yes, but” or worse yet “no, but.” In order to prepare for performances, improv artists often practice energy exercises in pairs or in larger group circles. These exercises are predicated on each member recognizing, and then responding positively to the energy that their fellow players offer them. You offer unbridled joy? I recognize it and offer my best version of the same. You come with sober gravitas? Right back at you, but not in a serve-and-volley sense. Rather, in a “thank you, and yes, I’ll join you in that” fashion. The point is to connect and join with whatever your partner(s) offer up. Only in this way can true improvisational performance work for both the players and the audience.

What does this mean for us, as leaders, parents, teachers, colleagues, neighbors, and friends? Well, ask yourself this: how often do you meet the energy of those around you with a genuine spirit of “yes, and”? How often do you return eye contact and connection offered to you by a subordinate, a child, a co-worker, or the cashier at the supermarket? More to the point, can you think of times when, likely without the benefit of conscious thought, you averted your gaze before that connection could be made? I know I can, and it is not just because I tend toward introversion (though that is certainly part of the equation). No, I believe that it is because, especially in contemporary society, we are increasingly conditioned to forego these micro-connections and fleeting offers of shared energy. Why? Well, because they threaten to distract us from our preferred distractions, which is to say they stand to draw us back into a world that we increasingly strive to escape at every turn, through the ubiquity of our cloud-connected devices and the non-stop push alerts that dominate our every available neuron.

In his book “On Tyranny,” historian Timothy Snyder encourages us to “make eye contact and small talk” as one of his twenty lessons for the 20th century. So, what I invite us all to do today is really quite simple. I am not suggesting that we should prowl, stalker-like through our day, seeking to establish eye contact with every person who happens to wander within arm’s reach of us (or worse yet, with people minding their own business from across the room!). No, instead I am presenting us with the encouragement to set an intention; to accept those small invitations to connect, which we all too often simply miss, with our fellow humans. In doing so, we may be surprised at what we find, and all that it has to offer us in this ongoing improvisational performance called life…

Panta Rhei — what does that mean?

It is Greek, and not just to me. I am told the translation is: Everything Flows. The first one to say this was the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (c. 535 to c. 475 BC). He believed — as do we — that everything always changes, that we can understand ourselves and the world around us better, if we start with the premise of ever-present change. It is that change that we experience as development. Sometimes we are happy with it, sometimes — not so much. Sometimes we like the speed and direction of change, sometimes we don’t.

Heraclitus was known as the Obscure Philosopher. He apparently enjoyed playing with words, but more importantly, he believed in the unity of opposites and assumed there is some harmony in this world. Today, we capture the unity of opposites — things are plus and minus at the same time — as one part of a dialectic. [More on that in a later blog post.] It is difficult to understand and then express opposites at the same time. Helping somebody is both positive and negative simultaneously and subsequently: it is positive because the helped benefits from the help, it is negative because the help curtails, prevents, or even disables the potential for the helped to act for themselves. We are capable of self-determination — autonomy — and make our own choices; at the same time, we are always also other-determined — heteronymy: we choose to act on our want for a nice meal in a comfortable environment and might go to a restaurant. Quite determined, we hop into the car and drive off downtown. The restaurant owner might have decided to not serve dinner at 2am at night and went to bed already. Our eating habits are also determined by that and by many other decisions and choices many other people made.

So, in large part because of these tensions between opposites, because of different factors bouncing off off each other, changing, amplifying, and cancelling each other, and because of each of us determining to some extent how we are going to act at any given moment, something or other is always happening — everything always changes.

Heraclitus also said: No man ever steps in the same river twice. We use this sentence as the tag line for this site, by only changing one word: No one steps in the same river twice. In our experience and from our perspective, change from the “outside” does affect everybody the same and differently; everybody changes the same and differently—independent of our gender.
Why doesn’t anybody step in the same river twice? The river always flows; one way of looking at it is that it is not the same river water just a second later. And we also change. When we step into the same river (if this were possible), then we are not the same; we are a little older, maybe a little wiser, maybe just a little more hungry, or already wet …

Such constant change is complex in itself, and we often perceive it as such, and, when we are in the midst of it — and we often are — we find it complex and complicated to deal with this change.

We believe it is good to think about the complexity of change, to talk about it, understand it better. We don’t want to simplify change, belittle it, or reject it. Change is all around us and all within us; we might as well understand it better. In some way or another — based on the concepts in our blog post tags — we will always look at change, and not only in our blog writing.

What were you thinking? And what do the tags mean?

This is our initial set of tags. We implemented them on the site first to have a guideline for ourselves.

Change is not just the first word alphabetically. It is the central concept we are thinking about. It’s a cliché to say that change is the only constant. It certainly will make a frequent appearance in our writing. The topics and concepts will change; the tags might change; our approach will change. And all that is good. Some of the concepts from the social sciences – coadaptation, complex system, development, dialectic, dynamic system, nonlinearity, social dynamics – help us to understand change better, enable us to to talk – and write – about change, and facilitate living and working with change.

We have been working in Language Education for some years. Our linguistic training is helping us to make sense of many things in this world. Thought and language are inextricably linked. Everyone of us also uses language to construct our identity. We all mediate our social relationships with language. So, concepts such as cognition, common ground, communication, discourse, discourse analysis, discursive construction, language development, metacognition, negotiation of meaning, rhetoric, textual analysis, transcultural, word meaning, will be central to our pondering of life’s and work’s questions.

People work in teams, are part of a smaller or larger organization, and are members of communities and societies. Some of us find themselves in leadership positions. Especially at times of change – and change is the only constant 😉 – such social concepts gain in importance. We will involve the following: leadership, management, org behavior, org culture, org theory, social dynamics.

Although we both think of ourselves as predominantly rational and pragmatic, we are well aware that we would not have a full grasp of this world in all its beautiful facets and not a full picture of a fellow human, if we only relied on analysis and rational thought. Therefore, we will ponder questions of spiritualism, spirit, energy, and emotion.

Why are we conducting such discussions in a public blog? Both of us have been teaching and training different groups of adults (and to a lesser extent also teenagers and younger children). We hope to be able to put our knowledge, expertise, and experience – manifested in this emerging blog – to good use soon by holding workshops, training, teaching, consulting, and coaching.

But first we will explore individual concept tags in individual blog posts and see where this leads us in our thinking, and what feedback and questions we will receive from you.

This was an empty post

About a week ago, I took some time and built a little skeleton of blog posts to set up the functionality of our site. Chris and I began the Panta Rhei site for two reasons (I believe; he will correct me soon if I am wrong):

  • We believe that with our joint expertise, experience, and education, we have a couple of things to share, things that we hope others might find helpful.  We have always shared them with family, colleagues, students, friends, … at conferences, in the classroom, in meetings and informal conversations. We want to reach out more and do this more systematically.
  • At this stage, our thoughts are on different phenomena, challenges, fields, prospects, questions, … It is a whole complex – a bit like a nourishing, comforting stew – of ideas, insights, lived experiences, learned theorems. Difficult to digest and even more difficult to name the ingredients and teach the recipe. So initially, we will use this blog to bring clarity and system to our thoughts. To stay in the picture: we don’t expect anybody to want our stew exactly the way we have had it simmering for many years. We will use the stew as a solid base for a variety of soups, soups that are not only nourishing but also presentable and transparent. In other words, each blog entry will bring more clarity to one thought. And we decided to do this “live” and publish each blog post immediately or soon after writing.

We are hoping to get your reactions, your comments, your questions, …

This post has been tagged with all 36 tags we currently have for this blog to give you an idea what this is all gonna be about. A little more in this vein in the next post.

First blog post

Everything has a beginning. Has everything? Probably not. Something that has been here forever, did it have a beginning?

Well. This philosophical question doesn’t really matter at this time and in this case. Because this website and its blog have not been here forever. Chris and Mat decided to build this site about a week ago. It started off as an empty shell, a downloaded template … and a bag of ideas. Ideas about which we want to write and to talk, which we want to ponder and debate, and which — most important to us — we want to share with you. Yes, we believe we have some ideas that are worth sharing.

So we decided to just have this site emerge. We realize this requires work, a sustained effort, and consistent striving. We are ready. Are you? We will always appreciate your comments, your input, your support and counterpoints, your feedback, …

So, let’s get started.

If you arrived through this blog, you could go to our homepage or look at the whole Panta Rhei Blog, starting with the latest post and going back in time.