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Archive for June, 2016

Gentle reader, for the next posting or two I will be sharing with you some of the questions that have emerged into my consciousness these past decades.  I invite you to begin to emerge your own list of ‘Essential Life Questions’ and if any of the questions I have to offer you resonate with you or challenge you or ‘call to you’ then I invite you to spend some time reflecting upon them and perhaps writing down what emerges for you and perhaps engaging another person or two or three in a collective searching conversation.

Following are the first four categories of questions that I continue to hold; these continue to be ‘Essential Life Questions’ for me.

IDENTITY QUESTIONS

  • Who has influenced me such that I am ‘who I am’ at this time in my life?
  • Who am I at this time in my life?
  • Who am I choosing to become?
  • Why am I choosing this becoming?

PURPOSE QUESTIONS

  • Why am I here? At this time, what is my purpose in life?
  • Why do I choose to get up each morning?
  • How do I know if I am awake and aware to my life’s purpose? How do I know if I am asleep (i.e. Not Aware of my Life’s Purpose)?
  • How do I help others find/affirm their life’s purpose?

 MEANING QUESTIONS

  • What really matters?
  • How do I make meaning out of my life?
  • What do I choose to focus on at this time in my life? Why?
  • How do I help others find meaning?
  • How do I uncover my deepest assumptions (about people, life, the world, etc.)?
  • How do I know that I have ‘free will’?
  • What does ‘self-reflection’ mean? (Socrates prided himself for being one who know how little he knew; he gained this insight via self-reflection)

 MISSION QUESTIONS

  • What is my ‘call’? How do I know?
  • What is a need that exists in the/my world that my gifts, talents and abilities can help address?
  • How do I respond (have I responded) to this need?
  • To what extent am I purposefully engaged or just endlessly busy?
  • To what extent does my work challenge me in meaningful ways (versus just being stress-inducing)?
  • Is what I choose to do each day in, and of itself, meaningful?

 

 

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Essential = essence, basic, indispensable and inherent.        

Life = from birth to death            

Questions = there are three types of these: questions to respond to immediately, questions to respond to after a time, and questions to ‘hold,’ live into and, over time, perhaps a response will emerge.

I have been thinking about these types of questions for more than twenty-five years.  At one time I called them Fundamental Questions of Existence, now I experience them as Essential Life Questions.  These are questions to hold and live into – life questions; they are not questions that I seek to answer and then let go of; still, these are questions to address now and in the future (the future being a series of ‘nows’).  So, I offer these questions to hold, consider, ponder, respond to, and perhaps to live into.

Gentle Reader, I offer you some ideas to consider before I offer you the questions themselves:

  • It seems crucial for one to be awake to and aware of which part of ‘self’ is asking a particular question.  For example, which questions would I choose to ask from my heart and which from my head?  Which do I ask from my ‘public self’ and which do I ask from my ‘private self’?  Which do I ask from a deep place of ‘not-knowing’ (from my ‘unconscious-self’ and/or from a place of truly not-knowing).
  • Socrates advised us to know ourselves; given this: What assumptions do I hold that influence my asking a particular question; for example, do I hold an assumption that people are inherently good?
  • Robert K. Greenleaf, the Father of Servant-Leadership, noted that ‘to refuse to examine the assumptions one lives by is immoral’ and so what questions will help me discern and name some of my deep tacit assumptions?
  • Some of the categories are similar and perhaps could be combined.  I experience that each category stimulates different responses from within me so I have decided, for this iteration anyway, to keep all the categories.  If an individual finds that combining categories is helpful to him/her then I invite you to combine them.
  • Consider holding each question in the ‘now’ – literally, at this given moment, what is my response to each question.  I offer this because at any given moment I might well respond to each question differently and over time I might then discern a larger pattern.
  • Questions also connect us to choice:  What will I choose right now – love or resentment, compassion or judgment, forgiveness or revenge?  Perhaps a story would help with this question:

 Once upon a time there lived deep in the forest a family.  At night the grandfather would sit by the fire and his granddaughter would sit close by; as they sat in silence a question would emerge from the little girl.  This one night, however, the silence was broken by the grandfather.  He said, in his soft, quiet voice: ‘Do you know that I have two tigers living within me and they are fighting.  One tiger is full of anger, rage, spite, and resentment and the other is full of love, compassion, caring, and empathy.’  The little girl looked up intently at her grandfather and after some time of silence finally asked, ‘Grandfather, which one will win?’  Her grandfather looked lovingly at his granddaughter and responded: ‘The one I feed!’

  •   Some questions might require me to be intentional about my environment: As I know myself, what is the environment that will provide me a safe and quiet place for reflection?  How much time do I need to spend within this environment?  What would it take for me to create a ‘reflective-environment’? 
  • Consider that the following questions might help you see a deeper understanding rather than achieve a goal; it helps to hold this if I believe that who I am determines the actions that I choose.
  • As you sit with the questions you might also hold this question: Which question is so important at this time that it becomes difficult to think about anything else?

So, given all of this, gentle reader, next time I will share with you in a post or two some of the Questions that are Essential for my Life.

 

 

 

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In addition to being a Culture rooted in ‘Doing’ we are a Culture rooted in ‘Telling.’  We love to ‘tell’ others.  It appears to me that we take it for granted that in our Culture ‘telling’ is valued more than ‘asking;’ in many cases it ‘Trumps’ asking.  Oh, ‘asking the right questions’ is valued, but leading with inquiry rather than advocacy is our cultural norm.  We learn early on in our education that to ‘ask’ reveals, not your desire to learn, but your ignorance (and, in our culture, ignorance equates with weakness).

My good friend, Dr. Bob, was a professional engineer and when he was 38 years old he went to Medical School.  He drove folks crazy because he asked and asked and asked (in Medical School if you did not know you kept silent).  A few thousand years ago the Oracle at Delphi was asked, ‘Who is the wisest person in the world?’  The Oracle’s answer was ‘Socrates, because he is the only man who knows that he doesn’t know.’  Which, by the by, is the reason why Socrates asked so many disturbing questions – and gifted us with the Socratic Method.

In our Culture ‘knowing’ things is highly valued and telling people what we know affirms that we, indeed, do know stuff.  We become great ‘tellers’ when we are empowered by another’s question or when we are promoted into a designated role of supervisor, manager, executive, etc.  A few years ago I had the privilege of addressing a class of management students.  Among other questions, I asked them what it would mean to them once they were ‘promoted’ to the role of ‘manager.’  A common response was, ‘Now I can tell others what to do.’

‘I can now tell others what to do!’  There is an assumption, of course, contained within this simple statement (often it is a dangerous assumption).  The assumption: Once a person is promoted the person will actually know what to do!  The number of folks that have been promoted and that were sitting with me with eyes glazed over muttering to themselves, ‘Now what do I do?’ is legion.

Even today, the idea that a manager might come to someone who reports to him/her and say, ‘I am not sure what to do.  Will you help me figure it out?’ is still rare and still carries a stigma – an abdication of the role of manager; a failure to fulfill the role of manager.  A manager is supposed to know what to do – or at least be able to ‘fake it until he/she makes it.’

Telling also feels good (to the teller at least).  One main reason it feels good is that the teller believes he/she has actually helped another.  There are few things more satisfying than ‘telling’ and thereby demonstrating that we ‘know’ (one form of ‘telling’ that is immensely satisfying – to the ‘teller’ – is when the ‘teller’ gives advice).

‘Telling’ helps us (theoretically at least) ‘get to the point.’  We expect our conversations to reach some kind of conclusion – and conclusions are reached via telling, not asking.  Inquiry prolongs conversations and can drive folks to the brink of frustration (think of the four year old who is trapped in his or her ‘Why’ mode).  How many managers – steeped in frustration – have uttered: ‘How many times do I have to tell you?’

By ‘telling’ we hope to educate, to impress, to win (or at least score some points), to entertain, to direct, and perhaps to prove that we are ‘one-up.’  Given all of this I, at minimum, suspect that we engage in more ‘telling’ than is actually helpful; I know that I, too often, fall into this ‘Culture Trap.’  Perhaps I will write a blog entry that contains only questions – I might be able to tell you without telling you.

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In our ‘Individualistic Culture’ we find it a challenge to like and to trust groups.  For example, we believe (at times not without good reason) that committees and meetings are a waste of time and, more importantly, that group decisions diffuse accountability (the way many committees and meetings are structured is the main culprit here, but we seem to have an investment in ensuring that committees and meetings ‘fail’).

Organizations invest money and time on team building when it appears that it is pragmatically necessary to do so – and team building initiatives are one of the first initiatives to be cut when ‘cost’ becomes an issue.  Yet, organizations continue to tout teamwork and honor the winning team (values the organization espouses), but organizations don’t for a second (and that might be too long) believe that the team could have succeeded without the individual star (this is the deep tacit cultural assumption that is actually lived out).  By the by, the ‘star’ always gets more money and accolades than the team or its members receive.  Organizations would never consider paying all team members the same.

We also espouse the importance of relationship-building and emphasize, at the same time, winning out over ‘the other;’ we emphasize outdoing each other – in conversations, in discussions, in planning sessions, and in allocating resources.  Because we value competition (which is rooted in a scarcity model – there can only be one winner and many losers, for example), we are suspect of cooperative high achievement (which is rooted in an abundance model – many can be high achievers).

Our Culture, today more than ever before, breeds distrust of strangers AND we have not developed formulas for how to ‘test’ trust nor how to ‘build’ trust.  We do not seem to realize that our emphasis on the ‘freedom of the individual’ breeds ‘caution,’ if not ‘mistrust’ of others (how many of us, for example, ‘trust those currently seeking our votes’ during this election cycle).

When we, in our culture, deal with people in other cultures that consider relationships to be intrinsic to getting the job done by building trust first (for they are a ‘communal culture’ not an ‘individualistic culture’), we quickly become impatient – and judgmental.  ‘Why are we wasting so much time on relationship building – let’s make the deal, let’s get to work!’

I remember spending three to four hours with Mr. Hasagawa (visiting from Japan) in a ‘relationship-building conversation’ (‘work’ was never mentioned).  He then picked up my business card from the table (we had been sitting across from one another), smiled and said, ‘You have the soul of an Asian, let us work together.’  The deal was done without the deal being done.  I had a similar experience with the Minister of Education during my many years serving the wonderful people of Singapore.  For more than 44 years now, building a relationship with a potential client, first, is paramount for me.

 

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As far as we know, all cultures have rules about status and respect.  These are rooted in our deep tacit assumptions about what actually merits status and deserves our respect.  For example, the more authoritarian the culture, the greater the social distance between the upper and lower levels of status and, therefore, the more challenging it is for the ‘superior’ to be humble (‘being arrogant’ is the great hubris of the ‘superior’ folks) and to learn from others (these folks like to direct and advocate more than guide and inquire).  For example, in our country today, one of our ‘high status’ presumptive presidential candidates continuously demonstrates an inability to ‘be humble’ (to not be ego-centric) and to be open to being influenced by others.  This person is a product of our culture.

Consider, gentle reader, that our culture (the U.S. Culture) is individualistic, competitive, optimistic (mostly) and pragmatic (certainly).  ‘We Believe’ that the basic unit of society is not communal (as in some other cultures) but is over-the-top individualistic – the individual’s rights must be protected at all costs (our adulteration of the second amendment to our Constitution supports this – no matter how many folks are murdered by firearms there continues to be over-whelming resistance to even tweaking the law in order to protect the collective – these are, at best, weak tweaks).

We are also entrepreneurial and hence we admire individual accomplishment – even when it comes to professional ‘team sports’ we tend to focus not on the team but on individual all-stars.

We thrive on competition – one winner, many losers – rather than high achievement (many successes, few failures).  Optimism and pragmatism show up in the way we are oriented toward the short term (this short-term view also supports competition; high achievement is rooted in the long-term/view) and in our dislike of long-range planning.  We love to roll things out and fix them as we go along (Microsoft is our poster-child for this).  We believe we can fix anything – and, again, this supports short-range planning and thinking (think: Gulf War and its aftermath – which we are still dealing with decades later).

We are an impatient culture – and with the advent of the ‘Age of Technology’ our impatience has increased.  As an unintended consequence, we are addicted to ‘speed’ and suffer from what Kundera calls: ‘Hurry Sickness.’   An unintended consequence is that ‘burnout’ has become the norm, not the exception (suicide rates among physicians continues to increase each year).

Most important of all, some say, is that we value task accomplishment over relationship-building (which, of course takes time, energy, effort and commitment).  We are not aware of this bias – or perhaps we are aware of it and we just don’t care; we don’t want to be bothered by it for we are too busy to stop and consider it (stopping and reflecting upon it would take up more of our ‘valuable time’ and so this is certainly not an option for us busy-body folk).

Let’s see.  What else?

 

 

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For a number of reasons during these past months, I have been thinking about (what I call ‘noodling’) ‘Our Culture’ (our current political processes are one motivator for my taking the time to reflect upon ‘Our Culture’).  The ‘Our’ refers to the Culture of the United States of America.  I have decided to share some of what has been emerging for me during these months.  In order to explore ‘Our Culture’ it will be helpful to first define ‘Culture.’  Simply stated, culture is the garden nurtured and sustained by three major tap roots: ‘The Visible,’ ‘The Espoused,’ and ‘The Deep Tacit Assumptions.’

‘The Visible’ includes that which can easily be known by all (think: buildings, products, language, procedures, written policies/documents, etc.).  ‘The Espoused’ includes specific values, beliefs, principles, concepts, ideas, etc. (think: freedom, equality, opportunity, individual rights, etc.).  The ‘Visible’ and the ‘Espoused’ are observed for they are ‘lived out’ for all to see.  Because these are lived out by imperfect human beings there occurs, sometimes all too frequently, a ‘disconnect,’ for example, between what we espouse and what we actually live out.  The ‘disconnect’ can manifest itself as an ‘inconsistency’ or as a ‘gap’ (for example, we espouse ‘equality’ and yet some in our culture are not treated as equals).

These ‘disconnects’ (‘inconsistencies’ or ‘gaps’) signal to us that there is a deeper level to culture – simply stated, this level contains our ‘Deep Tacit Assumptions.’  At one time, these assumptions were conscious and we paid a great deal of attention to them.  As they were sustained over time they became ‘taken for granted’ and they ‘moved’ into our collective unconscious – they became ‘Deep’ (think: unconscious) and ‘Tacit’ (understood without being openly expressed) and they became ‘Assumptions’ (somethings taken for granted).  Our ‘Deep Tacit Assumptions’ powerfully influence and define what we choose to make ‘Visible’ and ‘Espouse.’  They are the ‘essence of culture’ – in this case, ‘Our Culture.’

A common example of ‘Our Culture’ in the United States is that we ‘claim to value teamwork (we espouse this in many ways).  Yet, there is a gap between what we espouse and what we live (the visible).  For example, our promotional systems and reward systems (publ

We espouse equality of opportunity but the visible (the lived) – poorer education and various forms of discrimination for ghetto minorities – suggest that there are other ‘deep tacit assumptions’ at play (by the by, two of these are ‘pragmatism’ and ‘rugged individualism’) and these determine our behavior.

To further complicate all of this, the ‘deep tacit assumptions’ that make up our culture may or may not be complementary or congruent with each other.  Thus, striving to emerge, name and understand our ‘deep tacit assumptions’ becomes crucial if we are going to understand ‘Our Culture.’  It is probably impossible for us to emerge and engage (think: confirm or disconfirm, retain or replace) all of the ‘deep tacit assumptions’ that define ‘Our Culture.’  Consider that there are three that might be helpful to us to emerge and explore: Authority, Relationships, and Trust.  These three are also crucial to the well-being of any culture.

 

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EVIDENCE of voting age adults exercising critical thought (not cynical criticism fueled by fear and anger) is one of the crucial things one needs to look for when assessing the health of a representative democratic republic (too often we in the United States forget – or haven’t learned – that we are not a ‘true democracy’ – we are not a society in which, ‘the person who ‘wins’ the popular vote ‘wins’).

Assessing the health of such a society means encouraging a challenging, questioning skepticism.  Engaging in this process – as history reminds us – often brings folks into conflict with established norms, laws, and institutions.  ‘Official’ definitions of social order, dominant values and normative behavior (think: National Culture) are, in our society, imposed and maintained by those in positions of power and authority (think: Elected Officials).  As many in our history have learned, to question the legitimacy of ‘official definitions’ (for example: ‘It is the duty of every citizen of a certain age to fight war whenever the government decrees this – even if “war” is not officially declared.’) is often interpreted by those in authority as an intrinsically subversive activity (talk with Viet Nam war protesters – both veterans and non-veterans for an insight into how this works).

In truth, the opposite is true.  At the heart of democratic processes, particularly in a representative democratic republic (think: Unite States of America), there MUST BE a willingness and an ability on the part of informed citizens to subject their elected representatives, the policies they enact, and the justification they provide for those policies to a continuous – not simply a one-off – deep and broad scrutiny.

For example: The ‘technological age’ has raised possible – and actual – governmental surveillance to an unprecedented level.  The power of elected representatives and security agencies can be held in check only by an informed citizenry watching their actions carefully.  The ‘Freedom of Information Act’ through which security and surveillance agency activities can be scrutinized and publicly challenged is an institutionalized form of critical thinking in our society.  How many citizens actually come together and make use of this powerful tool?  Thus far, history tells us, not many.

Among other things, thinking critically entails the habit and ability of asking awkward questions.  Questions such as ‘Why is a group of people challenging the government in one country labeled ‘freedom fighters’ while a group doing the same thing in another country is labeled ‘terrorists’ by our government?’  (Who has remembered that both Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro initially reached out to the West for help – and were denied it – and they then turned to Russia for help?  In both cases the West had an investment in supporting the tyrannical and corrupt dictators in place.)

Thinking critically also means being willing and able to question the accuracy of politicians’ justifications for what is just and what is necessary (think: Patriot Act – the number of congress folks who did not read a word of this ‘Act’ and yet voted for it was, for me, mindboggling and the number of citizens who challenged our elected officials was less than minuscule).

The health of our representative democratic republic requires that we become critical thinkers; this should be a fundamental concern for parents and educators (of all types).  Only if we develop our critical thinking skills and capacities – and sustain them by using them – will we become a truly healthy republic.  Given this, NOT to encourage the development of our critical capacities is inherently anti-democratic (our Founding Fathers noted, over and over again, that our democracy would survive only if the citizens were educated and were unconditionally response-able and responsible for its health).

Thinking critically DOES NOT imply a negative pessimism or disrespect for democratic processes; it does imply a disrespect for those who ignore such processes.

A readiness to ask ‘WHY?’ things are the way they are, an inbuilt skepticism (not cynicism) of the pronouncements and actions of those who are judged to be in positions of political and economic power – these are fundamental ways in which the processes of thinking critically can serve all of us well so that there is more health than dis-ease afoot in our republic.

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