My mentor and friend Bernie has been told by doctors that he has a year left to live. Thanks to Bernie, I’m now aware that I—like him—have a choice here. Each new day now, actually, I have this choice: will I choose Bitterness, Sweetness, or Bittersweetness as my companion today? Luckily, thanks to Bernie, I don’t have to face this choice alone anymore.
Bernie has been playing, studying play, learning about play, and writing about play since the 1960s (as an adult, that is—I’m sure kid-Bernie did more than his fair share of playing, he probably drove his folks nuts). It didn’t occur to me until just last week that I should search his ginormous and playful database of deep fun (Deepfun.com) for the word “bitterness.” But then I did. So I did. And I was stunned by what I learned. Which is this…
I learned that playing, studying play, talking about play, thinking about play, and writing about play and deep fun and all the ways in which they manifest themselves around the world is a damn fine way to spend your life. There is a Sweetness in Bernie’s life that shows up in my imagination as a small, slightly goofy, and often mischievous creature sitting just above his right, and sometimes left, shoulder. Sweetness is an angel and a devil combined, the dappled color of a turning fall leaf, and he whispers “Let’s play!” and “Oooo, let’s try that!” and “Come on, let’s go there!” into Bernie’s ear every day. How Bernie spends his time here—the playing and the studying and the talking and wondering and the writing—all these things do a remarkable job of keeping Bitterness from stepping into his life uninvited. All those decades of writing—writing practically every day, WOW—and it’s almost as if Bitterness was listening for places to enter, waiting for just the right moment, but very few Bitterness-warranting moments appeared. So he contentedly sat on his swing, swinging.
You see, in my imagination, Bitterness sits swinging on an old tire swing dangling down from a tree branch, watching Sweetness and Bernie race around the world, and Deepfun.com, like children playing tag at twilight. Bitterness is smiling, watching, patient, and waiting. Bitterness isn’t sinister: more like the introvert kid content and enjoying the solitary swing and happy to have the more rambunctious others just slightly farther away but still in plain view. Bitterness doesn’t need to step in much at all, because clearly Sweetness and Bernie have got this. Because Bernie listens to Sweetness most days, Bitterness knows that Bernie is ok. Bernie invites Sweetness in to play most days, or vice versa. So much so, that they’ve even started to look a little bit like each other. And some days now, I notice, it’s Bernie who is the dappled angel-devil creature sitting on Sweetness’ shoulder, not the other way around. (Bernie also married Rocky, who comes from strong Sweetness-embracing stock. Lucky, lucky Bernie.)
As I wade through his six decades of writing, I notice that Bitterness moved visibly onto the Deepfun.com playground just six times. Go and look and see. And wow. Each time Bitterness stepped in, it was to visibly demonstrate how to invite Bitterness in and how to play with Bitterness. Bitterness, I learned, wants to play too. He’s just different. He’s not Sweetness. Not so easy to play with. Here’s a summary of what I learned. To get the full demonstration, search for “bitterness” yourself on Deepfun.com:
October 13, 2003. In a post called “The Dancing Referee,” Bernie links to a video where we get to watch a man bring grace and exuberance to the difficult role/job/profession of sports (soccer, in this case) referee. Bernie notices “The officials are there, not to have fun, but to keep the way clear so that fun can be had by others. They allow the players to leave aside concerns about fairness and safety, so that they can focus everything, everything on the game. But refereeing is often a difficult role, one that leads to argument and bitterness, insult and injury. To find a space for joy in all this, to transform yourself from an official to a performer, requires courage and commitment and deep enjoyment. It kind of makes you think that anyone, regardless of role or position or function or job, can find fun, if fun is what that person is ready to find.” He ends by reflecting on a sport that doesn’t require referees (Ultimate Frisbee asks players to be their own referees) and on one that does, saying “To understand fun, we must find ways to celebrate both.” Celebrate both even though I’m not a fan of both? Hmmm. Deep fun, indeed.
May 13, 2008. In a short post called “Pangea Day,” Bernie shares a link to a movie in which people reimagined a border wall into a volleyball net. Hmm. So Bitterness and fun belong together? Even in the presence of the worst humanity has to offer? Hmmm.
June 28, 2008. In a post called “Sneaky Fun,” Bernie shares a link to a site designed primarily for people feeling bitter at work. People who work at computers, that is. The site transforms the Internet (a virtual place where people sneak away from tedious real-world work to explore and play) and makes the Internet look like a boring Word document on your monitor, so that you can sneak in a bit of fun under your bosses’ noses. Helping the Bitter at work be a bit naughty? I love it.
April 25, 2011. In a piece called “Backstory,” Bernie talks about getting overwhelmed by the world and its cruelty and messes. “I want to rant and rail, to make sounds of fury, to bite the bullet of bitterness and spit it in the face of stupidity, in the hands of brutality, in the eyes of cruelty and stuff.” Damn. Wish I’d written that. And he follows that with writing down his own purpose so he can more fully look at it—simultaneously giving the world something better to read about themselves: “I write these posts to help make things a little more fun. That’s exactly, precisely what I’m here for. Fun for me, for you, for anybody who isn’t finding enough light to delight in their days… For me, play is a political act. This is what I truly believe. Playing, celebrating everything with everybody, anybody. It’s as revolutionary as a protest song, as government changing as a rally. For me, fun is healing, is health made manifest. Body health, social health, mental health, soul health.” As he writes, I think to myself “Play is an act of revolution, and clearly I’m all in.” And suddenly the whole world, and Bernie, and I are so beautiful that it makes me cry. Dammit Bernie. When did Sweetness jump onto my shoulder?
October 20, 2015. In a post called “Elder Fun,” Bernie plays with a distant friend recovering from a stroke, demonstrating how to let go of old patterns of fun to embrace new patterns and deeper fun as we age. Fun and Bitter. Bitter and Fun. Hmmm.
May 8, 2017. At this point, Bernie and Sweetness are living with the reality that he has less than a year to live in this beautiful, beautiful world of ours. And so am I. After reading his essay, “Play a little, talk a little, play a little, talk a little, play, play, play, talk a lot, play a little more,” (Damn, dude, your headlines just keep getting better) in the comments following the post, a friend describes the piece as “Bittersweet.” After so many years of watching Bernie and Sweetness play together, Bitterness himself, it seems, has been transformed. Finally confident that he will be invited to play, he steps onto Bernie’s own page now, feeling mostly lucky and just a tad regretful, saying “Thank you, friends, you’ve changed me. I’d like to join you in the fun. But please, call me by my true name: Bittersweet.”
And so we welcome Bittersweet into our play—a rag-tag group we are, fond of fools and filled with accidental genius—playing tag and giggling again, as glorious and warm and present now as Twilight herself.
P.S. Speaking of swings and playgrounds, Bernie has gotten a lovely company to donate some really cool swings to his local park, but they need $4,500 for the installation. If you have a little extra money, consider donating it to this most playful of causes. Go here for more details: http://www.deepfun.com/gift-family-community/.
Reading a human mind across great distances is easy for some. I have friends who do it all the time.
As near as I can tell, we need just three things to do it: dear friends, silliness, and our true self. Pain also works, but I recommend silliness over pain when you can swing it, which you often can with dear friends, I’m learning.
At some point, friendship + silliness (or pain) + your true self = knowing each other’s hearts. And when we know each other’s hearts, and trust each other completely, it’s only a matter of time before unbelievably cool things begin to happen. Mind reading is just the tip of the iceberg.
So let me tell you about three dear friends of mine: Bernie, Natalie, and Bas. I love these humans. Writers all. Silly all. Perfect playmates for me all.
I haven’t met them in person yet. I’ve known all of them for roughly 1 1/2 years. None of them live close to me: Bernie, at 2,200 miles (~3,600 kms) away is the closest, while Bas, at 7,900 kilometers (~4,900 miles) lives the farthest away. They aren’t my only friends who read my mind recently, but they are the three who did so from the farthest distance, which makes them Olympics-level champions at mind reading. And they are all people with whom I feel 100% free to be myself. Not my day-job self (not that I have one of those anymore) but my whole, true, silly, fun, frustrating-at-times, wending, messy self.
I noticed this year that sometimes these people read my mind. Sometimes they appear to feel what I need—before I can recognize what I need—and they’ll share just what I need, just as I need it. All of them have anticipated a difficulty for me and taken steps that smoothed my way. They’ve all taught me what I needed to learn, just when I need to learn it. I am amazed by this ability and can’t say much about it (ha! yeah right) except that it very much appears to be more a function of heart than of head.
That, and it feels like magic. It makes me feel 6 years old again, back when I could believe in magic because I could feel it.
Let’s skip to the examples.
My beloved Bernie invited me to join a Google+ group this past month, saying “this group is a “little” “heady” – but I thought you might enjoy and perhaps give it some soul.”
That week, I’d begun quietly removing myself from many “heady” Facebook and Google+ groups—that is, groups in which the vast majority of what goes on is talking about, debating, and arguing about theories. “Too much head, and not enough heart and soul” had been in my mind as I decided which groups to leave, although I love Bernie’s shortening this thought of mine to “heady.” I didn’t tell Bernie that I was doing this. I didn’t tell anyone. And I haven’t pulled myself out of a single group that Bernie is part of, so he couldn’t have witnessed it. But there he was, telling me to improve a heady group by giving it a little time and bringing it the soul it needed. Wow. I joined the group he recommended and decided to stick with one of the groups I’d been about to leave a while longer. He’s right. They need me.
Then there’s Natalie.
As my heart was quietly breaking over the life-threatening illness of our dear dog Grady in mid December, she prompted her talented artist daughter, Frankie Blue, to make me this avatar.
I love it. And it came at such a perfect time I couldn’t quite believe it.
Later, near the end of December, in my own mind I made the decision that we would need to put Grady to sleep. He hadn’t eaten a meal of his own volition in almost 5 weeks. He’d dropped from 53 to 39 pounds, despite the fact that we were syringe feeding him more calories a day than he used to eat. He began to lose the ability to walk. Nobody knew of this painful thought in my head, not even my husband Daniel, because it was too hard to give voice to.
So I was feeling alone, beyond sad, and in a stunned, helpless place that meant I wanted to speak to no one and do almost nothing. I felt wretched. I knew I’d be saying goodbye to one of my dearest friends of the past 12 years in the coming week. I felt horrible for making the decision at all and also horrible for not making it sooner. On December 29th, beyond hanging out with Grady, I had energy for just one thing: I read Facebook to see what some of my favorite humans were up to.
And I found this list, created that day by Natalie, for me, apparently completely out of the blue.
This gave me the courage to talk to Daniel about Grady being ready to move on. Without words exchanged, and from the opposite corner of the country, Natalie’s heart knew that mine could really use this right that moment. Wow.
And then there’s Bas: my creative partner-in-crime who has rapidly become a new best friend this year.
From The Netherlands, Bas so often reads my mind and anticipates my needs that for me it now feels like a completely commonplace state of being for humans who live on different continents. He shares links to articles almost the moment I think to myself “Hmm, maybe I should read about that.” He uses new-to-me words that feel like they were just on the tip of my brain, waiting for me to say them out loud: this fall, words like theslow web and transplanetary storytelling. He shares ideas that I recognize as mine the moment I hear them: “Maybe we should call Different Office a creative co-op?” (I’d thought this weeks prior but failed to tell him about it before he thought it too.) This fall, when I was freaking out because roof patch repair folks accidentally trapped four baby squirrels in our attic (while Daniel was away on business, of course), Bas and Simone (his fantastic wife) worried across vast distances about stressed-out me and mama squirrel and her babies. They sent us music to sooth our souls. It worked. It took 18 hours–the last few of which we were all rocking out instead of stressing out–but we got all four babies reunited with mom.
So how do you read a mind across thousands of miles/kilometers?
I know it has everything to do with being dear friends, being silly together, sharing your pain, and sharing your self to the extent you possibly can. I know it has something to do with profound trusting of your friends, your self (at least for a moment), and the nature of the universe (again, at least for a moment)–a trust so profound that it lives beyond individual thoughts and the skeptism of grown-ups-ville. And I know we don’t control it in the traditional sense. We don’t think our way into it exactly. We believe in each other, we care for each other, we give our attention gladly to each other, and somehow we make and find space for the amazing to show up and happen.
I don’t think we learn how to do this at all. I think we wake up and remember that we can. We unlearn that we can’t. We remember the existence and the power and the sass and the amazingness of the 6-year-olds still within us, always within us. Turns out, those 6-year-olds are still holding hands.
For more perspectives on the subject, consult your own 6-year-old self and the people you are silly with. You could also maybe ask Bernie, Natalie, or Bas if the mood strikes. They may call me crazy, but from my perspective, they are all old hats at this.
My Grandma Kane, LaVina Kane to her friends, passed away this week, just one month before she turned 100. She lived on her farm into her 80s, in her own apartment until she was in her early 90s, and in the past 7 years she earned the nickname Speedy at her nursing home, because the staff had to constantly tell her “Slow down!” When she was a preteen, her mother decided to pull her out of school to help look after her brothers and sisters and the house. She snuck onto her father’s wagon as he was leaving home and convinced him to let her move in to the Catholic school, miles away from their rural South Dakota home, so she could keep learning. On the fly, she then convinced a group of priests and nuns to let her move into the attic of the dormitory, because all the dorm rooms were full. She went on to several years of college and then began teaching school (most years, all grades in a one-room school house) in her early 20s, and she taught many years before she married in her late 20s and became a farmer, large-scale gardener, mother, grandmother, and great grandmother.
Reaching 100 years seems more like reason for celebration than sadness, I keep telling my heart, but I’m sad anyway. I’ll miss her face. She is the reason I love to garden, love herbs, am fascinated by all plants really, and like to dig in the dirt. She’s the reason I believed in composting long before it was cool to do so and why I’ve been home canning food most of my adult life, a popular “trend” in Seattle now. Turns out, she made me a trendsetter by sticking with what she loved—and sharing that love with us—even when some people around her (in my 1970s childhood) thought she was crazy for doing many of the things she did. You know, crazy things, like exercising daily, recycling, making your own yogurt, minimizing the use of sugar, eating dried fruit instead of candy, and using aloe vera to sooth a burn.
I’m writing a book right now called Different Work, about people who deeply love their work. Part of the reason I’m doing this is because I deeply love my own work—and I almost always have—so these days people often take me out to coffee to pick my brain about taking a leap away from jobs they hate, work that drains their energy, or organizations that they’re no longer proud to be part of. I tell them my story, but I know that my story doesn’t work for everyone, so I thought it’d be cool to gather stories of people doing work they love, working beyond their own “I shoulds” about work, and changing what work looks and feels like for themselves and their families, communities, and organizations. And it is cool. As I’m meeting these people and co-writing these stories, I’m feeling emboldened, empowered, part of a community I didn’t know existed, hopeful for humanity as a whole, hopeful that I’ll be able to continue doing work I love, more certain that I’ll be able to support others in doing the same.
It occurred to me last night that my grandma Kane’s story could be in this book. Doing work you love brings a stillness to your soul—a peace that radiates out in all directions around you. She showed me this without ever speaking on the subject. She also showed me that staying on a path of doing work you love isn’t easy, either. It’s more like leaping, from stone to stone, across a river than it is like walking on a groomed trail. You’ll encounter people who have other plans for you, like her own mother had for her. You’ll find people who cannot imagine that what you’re doing will work and who may even think you’re crazy, like many of the other adults around her in the 1970s and 80s. She surrounded herself with co-workers who could co-imagine these “crazy ideas” working. For my grandma Kane, that included classroom students, friends, children, grandchildren, chickens, cats, herbs, peas, potatoes, carrots, beets, and strawberries.
So, for me, trendsetters aren’t people who have unusual skill at divining the future, uncommon access to data and money and power and resources, or an innate need to jump out ahead of everybody else. Trendsetters are people who stubbornly stick to being who they are and doing what they love and who surround themselves with others being and doing the same. People like LaVina Kane, who, I suspect, is co-organizing senior-citizen’s gardening and exercises classes in heaven as we speak.
3. A very visible collection of self-organizing groups right now. There are tons of videos and stories online. This one was shared with me by a community member who is occupying Vancouver (and inspiring everyone within earshot, including me):
How to leave a bank. Daniel and I are leaving our BIG BANK for one of our many local credit unions this week. Tired of the lack of human connection and the “Suprise!” fees, we’ve been planning to make this move for months but hadn’t found the few hours time to make the switch. A little push from the community this month was all we needed. In all things, who we spend our time with matters. Local credit union here we come! Will this small act change the world? It’ll change ours.
4. An emerging self-organizing work group:
My fabulous friend Bas and I have decided to write a series of books about different ways of working. We’re both fans of writing about what we ourselves are doing right now so that learning isn’t optional. Co-learning is exponentially more fun than individual experting! How do I know this?
Exhibit A: Bas ran out and spontaneously bought himself a huge white board to draw on, while at the same time—on the other side of the planet—I was out excitedly buying some rainbow-colored post-its for brainstorming.
Exhibit B: I can’t wait for our 11 p.m. (9 a.m. his time) Skype meeting later this week. Woo hoo!
Think we’re going to write our own stories and gather stories from people and groups who are co-creating different work for themselves and their communities. At the moment, “different” meaning (at least to me) working in ways other than your previous self’s definition of work and redefining what “successful work” looks and feels like for yourself/selves. Don’t hold me to this off-the-cuff definition. It’ll evolve as we learn.
Request: if you have lived a great story about a different way of working and redefining success in work for yourself and/or your community, or you know somebody who has, will you contact me and share it? We’d love to connect!
5. My cats partnering to scare a squirrel off the bird feeder (through the window glass). One cat can’t do it. Two cats can. Now we know.
I’ve noticed that my own self-organizing group members always ask the best, and most difficult, questions—questions that I am afraid to fully look at on my own, let alone answer. Here’s a great one. Thank you Neil!!
Neil, Doug, Lori, and Annie (photographer)
_____________________________________________ From: Neil Sent: Tuesday, July 19, 2011 8:02 AM To: Lori
Subject: re: article
When I started [the article The Foundational Metaphors and Theories of Relationship-Centered Administration, 2004, Suchman] a few weeks ago, I quit because it was so dense. However, I seem to be flowing through this time and find it quite interesting and even inspiring. I think its themes probably overlap a lot with self-organizing groups. I thought of you with the following quote:
If you decide to read it, let me know what you think. Also, have you seen “evil” self organizing groups?
Enjoy your day
_____________________________________________ From: Lori
Sent: Tuesday, July 19, 2011 5:46 PM To: Neil Subject: RE: article
Hi Neil, you rock star. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my perspective. Whether you mean to or not, both you and Doug are pushing me toward verbalizing a theory of self-organizing groups, as the flip side to documenting the experiences of self-organizing groups that is my true joy. Love you guys. Thought I was decades away from being ready to do this!
Regarding the Suchman, 2004 article, I’d say that my experience of self-organizing groups sounds more like this paragraph than anything else in it:
“And so we have arrived at the very essence of Relationship Centered Administration. It is about how we show up and what we bring to each moment: it is very personal. It is about openness and humility: understanding how much we depend upon the serendipity of self-organizing process that is perpetually outside our control. It is about paradox: to get the best outcomes, we have to forget about outcomes and focus instead on the quality of relational process. It is about expectations: transforming individuals and organizations by focusing attention on their best qualities, not their worst. The ultimate message of this chapter is just this: organizational change begins and ends with changing ourselves, how we think and act, what we pay attention to, what we expect of each other, and how we talk and relate to each other in every moment of every day. Gandhi said it best: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
This sentence in particular—organizational change begins and ends with changing ourselves, how we think and act, what we pay attention to, what we expect of each other, and how we talk and relate to each other in every moment of every day—sounds like my own writing. Always nice to find others doing similar work under different terminology and for different people! Go us! Thanks for sharing it with me.
Regarding this snippet you highlighted:
I’m not a physicist, chemist, complex systems scientist, biologist, or any of the other amazing folks you’ll find working to define the abstract terms (such as “complexity,” “self-organization,” or “self-organizing patterns”) mentioned in this snippet. I am a self-organizing groups researcher/determined learner. I document the experiences of self-organizing groups. In large part, I do this to ensure that I myself get to live and work as part of self-organizing groups the rest of my life.
This author is in very good company if he believes that self-organizing groups can be evil (is that what’s being said here?). At this point I think Doug would agree that the adjective “virtuous” or “good” should be added before “self-organizing groups” when I write and speak about the groups I study and am part of. So, I suspect, would several more of my heroes, including local legend Bill Grace. 🙂 Someone I suspect may lean a little more toward my perspective is Peter Block. Another is Meg Wheatley. If you’re interested, I can also forward you the draft e-Book Doug and I are writing, as it’s decided that it’s documenting an emerging self-organizing groups theory whether I want it to or not.
I’m exhausted today. We adopted one 12-week-old kitten and one 8-week-old kitten this weekend. They woke me up playing every hour on the hour last night. At 3 a.m., they collectively dive-bombed my head from a several-feet height and then attempted to nurse on my face. This was after the single-kitty approach to this same idea didn’t work the previous 4 hours in a row. Today, the younger one is throwing up regularly as he adjusts to new food, so I fear I may be off to the vet tomorrow if he can’t keep food down. Poor little guy. I’ll take a shot at explaining my perspective on self-org groups, but I’m working at about 10% energy/brain power today. Mostly what I’m thinking about today is my family friend who is raising two sets of twins. I’m convinced she must be surviving on some combination of health food, B-12 shots, and cocaine! But I digress. 🙂
When I started on my journey studying self-organizing groups, my goal was to learn enough that I could spend the rest of my life working this way. My experience working in a group at work was extraordinary, personally transformative, rewarding, fun (most days), and also by far the most difficult thing I’d ever done. Our division also evolved significantly as a result, and we got to watch ideas spread and blossom as self-organizing groups formed around us and fostered collective working far beyond what we’d imagined. We gained the ability to move within the organization as one: to know each other’s minds well enough that we could take individual actions that were either in sync from the start or that we could make appear to be in sync the moment we came together. With the confidence and passion this group gave me, I quit my job to pursue study of these groups full time, confident that the division I now loved was being left in 300+ amazing hands.
I first recognized what we were when I saw this graphic (in the book Small Groups as Complex Systems by Arrow, McGrath, and Berdahl, 2000). In it, planned means built by designers and emergent means appearing to arise spontaneously. External means created from outside the group itself and internal means created from within the group itself.
Forces in Group Formation (from Arrow et al, 2000)
I recognized us as a self-organizing group, because the group had moved me from thinking:
Mid 2004: “I’m fed up and exhausted working the way this division works. I hate it here. I should quit.” (concocted group) to
Early 2005: “I’m creating an amazing group that’s going to change the whole division!” (founded group) to
Early 2006: “I can’t believe how extraordinarily lucky I am to be part of this group and this division. I am utterly surrounded by amazing people and groups. What our group has been talking about and planning wasn’t even what mattered most! What matters most is that we are a diverse group of people, working across long-held division boundaries, and demonstrating that the division is capable of actually doing remarkable cross-boundary work despite our many flaws. It’s not what we’re saying that matters most. It’s not us as individuals. It’s who we are as a group!”
So I began looking for other groups that identified themselves as “more emergent than planned” and “more internally created than externally created.” I began with groups within organizations: teachers in a high school, employees in a tech company, several doctoral student groups and professor/student groups in higher education, for example. Changed, I then found consultant groups and other cross-organization groups to study. Changed, I then found groups outside of traditional organizations altogether, such as flash mobs. Changed, I began noticing and studying other self-organizing groups I was part of, such as my husband and I, my sister and I, my husband and best friend and I together, etc. Changed, I found large friendship groups to study. Changed, next up I’ll be studying an artist group and a church that fosters self-organizing groups as a regular practice—both even farther outside my comfort zones than I’ve gone before (plus several more flash mobs, because they’re just so much fun I can’t stay away).
I study groups I am part of and groups recommended or revealed to me by the groups I study. I only study groups connected to the groups I study and am part of. It’s only as the groups I’m studying and part of evolve (and I evolve) that we become capable of recognizing the next groups to study. There is ample evidence here that we draw only “good” or “virtuous” groups to us, and if that’s your perspective on me and my work that’s fine with me! 🙂 My own belief based on my experience is that every new self-org group changes me and allows me to see even more people and groups as “good” or “virtuous” and as part of myself. I believe there will come a day when these groups so change me that I become capable of noticing the good and virtuous in all people and groups from the moment I show up through whatever happens to the moment I leave. Some days, that’s already happened. Other days, I feel eons away. For example, last week I yelled at my dad (who was trying to help), my husband (who was trying to help), and at the wife (who was trying to help) of a plumber when the plumber failed to show up as expected, and without a plan, for the second time. Clearly I still have a very LONG way to go. 😉
This past winter, as I hit group #30, I could no longer ignore the most clear theme that emerged from across all the groups. Namely, that in these groups, people are surprised and delighted by what they become and do together. Same goes for the people close enough to them to see what they’re doing and consider themselves part of it at some point. Those who aren’t typically can’t see them as a group at all. I ignored this theme for a long time, because it’s a big deal. As an individual, it’s unbelievably scary to say this out loud. My definition for these groups appears to fly in the face of what many of my planet’s experts, including many of my own personal heroes, experience and believe. But I say it anyway. I can today, because I don’t only see myself as an individual anymore. I see my “self” as all the self-organizing groups I study and am part of. This is their experience, and mine, and I’m going to honor it. The groups themselves give me the chutzpah to stand by what I see! (not to mention the ability to use the word chutzpah, because one of my own groups right now is mostly Jewish, even though I’m not). 😉
So, in January, I evolved my definition of self-organizing groups into: a self-organizing group is a collective whose members are surprised and delighted by what they become and do together. This means I can no longer hide what I experience and see in these groups. For me, the “self” in self-organizing group means the group self. It means:
Group-level self-awareness as demonstrated by group members who can finish each other’s thoughts, share themselves without fear, naturally reflect together, tease each other, pull each other outside their comfort zones until they recognize new strengths in themselves that they could only see in the others before, and learn together faster than they could on their own.
Members so recognizing the value the group brings to themselves and those who matter most to them that they regularly reflect on and change their individual ideas and behavior. It means people who happily get together and will do so even when it means in the rain outside, late at night, during 15-minute breaks, on weekends, or driving and busing and walking and ferrying themselves great distances, if needed, to spend time together.
Groups that find themselves creating win-win-win-win-win-win situations and coming up with ideas unimaginable to every individual within them until they started working closely.
Groups saying “How the heck did we do that?!” and then figuring out the answer to their own questions together.
Groups born in diversity, because these groups can trace themselves back to two people (and several sets of two and three people) all thinking to themselves “I’d be a whole lot better off with that person, because they have _____ that I don’t.” or “He’s better at that than I am.” Or “She knows more about that than I do.” Or “They’re connecting with people I’d like to be connecting with.”
Groups that foster other self-organizing groups in all directions around them, because they demonstrate that flawed individuals working in flawed systems really can be and do amazing things when they’re together.
Groups that give individuals visible, tangible hope (including individuals within the group itself).
Groups that help members recognize when it’s time to let go (when what matters most to them has changed).
I recognize my own groups each moment in which I think “This group showed up to teach me what I needed to learn next.” The self-organizing groups I encounter are only those very close to me—my own groups and close others. As an individual, I can’t judge self-organizing groups at a distance. Closeness matters. Emotionally if not physically.
My definition will evolve continually to reflect what my groups and I (including you) know now. The evolution of the word interests me more these days than its stable definition. Because the moments it changes are the most interesting moments (and the change always has to include and honor all the groups studied to date)! From January 2011 onward, all groups I study define themselves up front as “surprised and delighted by what we become and do together.” Across seven years, and 14,000+ hours consciously studying self-organizing groups, I’ve come to trust this research far more than I imagined possible, because I completely trust the groups I study and am part of. Trust in my individual self is getting easier, most days, thanks to these groups.
You asked me “Also, have you seen “evil” self-organizing groups?” From my perspective, evil is a word that belongs in the hands of someone far, far wiser than me. I’m not qualified to use it to describe living beings. No living being I personally know fits that description. Self-org groups have taught me that it’s pointless to negatively judge distant others, because I’ll never have the full story. Today, for me, evil self-organizing groups don’t exist, because for me self-organizing groups are self-aware groups of people surprised and delighted by what they become and do together. For me, these groups are an “us” that we’re only just beginning to recognize.
FYI, my perspective on the subject was originally and continues to be strongly influenced by the work of Humberto Maturana. He’s one of my emotionally, not physically, close group members.
P.S. If it’s ok with you, I’d like to share this as a blog post at some point.
Some of the things I learned this week thanks to my self-organizing groups:
Chaos and order are both within us, and both ok. It’s in our nature to be chaotic, silly, ridiculous, and huge risk-takers. Within these groups, I can accept chaos as rewarding and even fun. Yet it’s also in our nature to appreciate order and structure and to minimize or avoid risk. Within these groups, I can accept order and structure as rewarding and even fun too. I have both within me, and both around me, and I’m ok with that. Honestly, I really like that. Both support creativity.
These groups change me as an individual. As I change, everything around me changes. My self-organizing groups are a doorway into seeing and learning more about who I really am and who we really are.The more I learn as and with these groups, the less fearful I become and the more perspectives I’m willing to accept about who I am and who we are.
“Us vs. them” is becoming less relevant for me, most days, thanks to these groups. These groups are teaching my individual self valuable lessons about my tendency to experience and think about things as “us versus them.”Myindividual self needs“us vs. them” as a way to decide who is safe (us) and who isn’t (them) in any given moment. My self-organizing groups pull more and more people into my “us” category. Today I believe that the more self-organizing groups I spend time with and reflect on, the more “us” I will discover as part of myself. Sometimes I shift to a place where I can see that there is no “them” at all. I shift back, as needed, to protect my individual self. Thank you individual self.
These groups unleash creativity in ways my individual self couldn’t even imagine. The very moment I recognize myself as my self-organizing group (valuing the group to the same extent as my individual self) all sorts of good things start to happen within me and around me.
Life is hard, yes. And aren’t we still so very lucky to be here?
Here are some of the pictures and stories from my life the past week that document my learning experiences…
A picture of my friend Julie and her friends and family in the lovely, chaotic Seattle solstice parade. Thanks for sharing the photo Julie. Go Julie! Go chaos!
A dung beetle float in the solstice parade (photo by my friend Josh—thanks Josh). Does this image capture order, chaos, both? You tell me. Regardless, from my perspective it’s a big rolling pile of awesome!
And here, in her YouTube debut, is my friend Annie demonstrating in one minute how to play the lifesize Jenga game at the Georgetown Street Fair: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ALtXiDyT63k. Listen to her self-organizing group members cheer her on. Yea! Go Annie!
Photo of the life-size Jenga game. Order and chaos working together. Go Georgetown! Go Annie’s friend Neils, co-creator of this work of art/game/life lesson!
Here’s a picture my dad sent me of his lake cabin garden this week. Check out those straight lines! Check out the thoughtful placement of vegetables by size, growth habit, and sunshine needs. Bee-attracting and wildlife-repelling flowers circling the vegetables and working hand-in-hand with fencing. Yea structure and order!
Here’s what wildlife in northeastern South Dakota face when attempting to eat my parents’ veggies! Experience and creativity combine to create a veritable vegetable Fort Knox. Beautiful. Go mom and dad!
Shifting gears. Here’s a brief demonstration of a transglobal self-organizing group creating an effective conflict-soothing meditation mantra instantaneously via Facebook. We are not proprietary about this just-developed technique. Feel free to use it and share it as you see fit.
Janice: Very very very annoyed with British Airways right now.
Lori: Here, try my breathing meditation: 1) Breathe deeply in for a count of 6, thinking “What can I learn right now?” Hold the breath in for a count of 8. 2) Breathe even more deeply out for a count of 6, thinking “Fracking idiots!” Hold for a count of 8. Repeat as needed.
Janice: They are winding me up over child vs. adult fares! Grrrr. I’ll sort it out eventually, but in the mean time I’ll focus on Lori’s recommendation part 2!
[A few hours later…]
Janice: They are making it up to me today with a free upgrade to business class, in the upper deck of the plane which I’ve always wanted to see!
Lastly, as a self-organizing group this past weekend, my friend Doug and I facilitated a workshop about self-organizing groups at the annual Organizational Systems Renewal conference on the Seattle University campus. After attendees identified their own self-organizing groups as individuals (the source of their learning and expertise on the subject from my perspective), they organized themselves around the questions that mattered most to them and then began working as small groups to answer their own questions. Before they presented their ideas to the larger group as a whole, the small groups were asked to co-draw a picture to represent what the words “self-organizing group” meant to them. Some of the comments (paraphrased) that I can recall hearing from the various groups as they moved into co-drawing pictures:
We need way more colors than just the four markers that are on our table. We need to get more colors! Who has more colors?
What color do you guys think should we use to represent life force?
We need modeling clay, not paper and pens. That would make this easier.
This flat flip chart paper doesn’t really work, does it? We need to represent the groups in 3-D. How do you think we should do that?
You know what would be cool to have? Water. I think water would do a better job than paper and pens to demonstrate what we mean.
I want to dance to represent these groups. Should we dance? We need to at least make sure the image includes dancers or dance steps.
Um, wow. Just wow. The creative force that emerges from within these groups gives me goose bumps and causes tears to well up in my eyes.