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A New Chamber of Wisdom: Dissonance-based Collaboration

Collaboration is a concept that gets talked about a lot in our society. Collaboration between music artists, collaborations between companies, collaborations in technology integrations. What is collaboration and why are people doing it?

I believe that inherently people collaborate for three reasons:

  1. They are inspired to work with someone else because they appreciate and respect what they do (Inspiration)
  2. They need the strengths of someone else to balance out their challenges or need to leverage the market position or relationships that someone else has developed (Leverage)
  3. They want an opportunity to extend beyond their natural boundaries by putting themselves in an uncomfortable place and therefore growing and learning from the experience (Knowledge/Growth)

I would contend that most collaborations happen in situations 1 and 2. Why is this? I believe that “sacred geometry” can provide us with an illustration.

The Vesica Piscis is an ancient symbol formed by two interlocking circles and is part of sacred geometry

These two circles represent our skills, interests, and ideas. When most people think of collaboration, they think about shared values, interests, or goals which are mutually beneficial. In many cases collaboration may be out of convenience or need in order to gain a market or process advantage.

In the case of a musical collaboration, even artists that might not seem to fit together well can root their collaboration in common aspects of their art, such as the collaboration between rapper Jay-Z and rock band Linkin Park called “Collision Course” in 2004. While the musicians may not have seemed to have much in common based on their music up to that point, they were able to mash up their existing songs in a way that truly was transformative and paved the way for many future unlikely music collaborations.

Another example of collaboration where each entity was leveraging the market of the other to gain a mutual success was the EDX (https://www.edx.org/) project which started as an initiative between Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The idea was to create a non-profit, open source initiative to share courses and educational content to help expand access to education, enhance teach and learning on campus and online, as well as to advance teaching and learning through research.

While the collaboration may have started as a response to free educational resources like Khan Academy what it ended up spawning was a platform for over 75 educational institutions, including some of the worlds leading universities to offer over 500 courses and subjects to a global audience for free. This collaboration likely offered them a mechanism to establish themselves as leaders in the world of what are called Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

While musical collaborations certainly are producing very interesting and innovative results and the educational collaboration has certainly provided more access to world-class education for those who otherwise may have never been able to afford it, is there another level to collaboration? Is there a level where collaboration becomes “enlightening” or “transformative?”

The Vesica Piscis shape above represents in part that collaboration requires a certain amount of common ground. That there must be some iota of a shared vision to be used as a basis for collaboration. Indeed, if there were no common ground or vision, why would there be a desire for a partnership in which each entity has to give up some level of control in order to maintain the relationship?

What if the goal of collaboration was not to focus on common ground but truly to focus on what we do not have in common?

Before we go further on that thought, let us consider that there is a great sickness that has permeated our society, especially in the United States. That sickness is intolerance and its symptoms are a lack of respect, indifference towards humanity, and a general believe that there is a “right” and “wrong” perspective to most things. Side effects may include piety, judgement, and rudeness. (It would be nice if a side effect of intolerance was diarrhea wouldn’t it? Although then someone would probably publish a study about how diarrhea was healthy to make themselves feel better)

This sickness has grown through our society and infected the highest levels of leadership, many communities, faith traditions, and media outlets. It has infected the values we teach our children, the way we write (or re-write) history and become so familiar that we almost don’t notice that it is happening. Our society has become the boiled frog, unaware of the pervasive viral existence that intolerance has in our culture.

We struggle to understand why we have more mass shootings than other countries or more incarcerated citizens. We theorize what can be done to help alleviate our racial chasms or economic disparity. All the while the sickness persists because we are trying to find solutions for the symptoms and not dealing with the sickness itself.

So what do we do now? I would contend that we need to admit to ourselves that the sickness of intolerance is caused by fear and therefore a general lack of value placed on radically opposing views.

We value sameness and even if we try to get outside our “comfort zone” we have to admit to ourselves that we aren’t really getting outside our comfort zones, we are just going far enough to dip our leg in the pool of discomfort while keeping most of ourselves in a refuge of sameness and safety.

Like the Vesica Piscis, our willingness to collaborate with others in simple and complex ways is predicated on the idea that we should find those spaces where we have commonality and not the space where no intersection exists.

So again I pose the question, “What if the goal of collaboration was not to focus on common ground but truly to focus on what we do not have in common?” Where would the power be in this? What would the purpose be?

The power would be in the fact that our greatest opportunities for growth, enlightenment, and learning are where no comfort exists. This is not a natural concept. We are programmed intentionally or inherently to hedge our bets, to “plan for the worst and hope for the best.”

“We should continually search for that uncomfortable place that makes us better.”— Othello Meadows III

Lets be honest, in order to even consider putting ourselves in a situation where we are as uncomfortable we need to adjust our mindset to one not driven by fear. We must adopt a mindset of courage, of being motivated to continue in spite of our fear.

So what would this look like, finding an opportunity to collaborate with someone based on what we do not have in common? It might look a little more like this:

A dissonance-based model of collaboration

The goal is to identify that which is not comfortable or might even unfathomable to us and dedicate ourselves to discussing and interacting with that idea, concept, or theory in a way that is open to the value, legitimacy, and virtue of it.

This is not a new concept. In fact the House of Wisdom, sometimes translated as “Chamber of Wisdom” was an intellectual center in during the Islamic Golden Age between the 8th and 13th Century where leading scholars were brought in by the Islamic leaders to share information, knowledge, and wisdom. The leaders who contributed to this research and educational institute were from across the known world and included Jewish and Christian scholars.

During this time astronomical observatories were established and and the institution was an unrivaled center for the study of humanities and for science in medieval Islam, including mathematics, astronomy, medicine, alchemy and chemistry, zoology, and geography and cartography.

The goal of the center was not to seek out wisdom that aligned and agreed with their commonly held beliefs, its purpose was greater. Its purpose was to adopt a philosophy of respectfully seeking knowledge without a presumption of where that wisdom might lie.

Now, to be fair, they weren’t just asking anyone to come to their House, they were seeking out the best and brightest minds of the time to collaborate and unlock new ideas, concepts, and advances in science. That’s right, the leading center for discoveries in science was based in an Islamic institution aided by Christian and Jewish scholars. Stop and think about that for a few seconds and let it sink in. There is much dissonance between that Islamic Middle East and the one we exist in today.

This look at the past completely challenges the idea that our society is the most advanced in history. Yes, we have plenty of technology and advanced forms of communication, but how do we compare in terms of intellectual and philosophical advancement? It seems to me that we are WAY behind where those wise and progressive Islamic scholars were.

Their philosophy was that of collaboration based in seeking out potential, not agreement. We have become a society so focused on agreement, on the existence of a universal “truth” to very complex issues that it has broken down our ability and desire to respectfully seek out that which is truly different. We have forgotten the art of dissonance based collaboration, the search for wisdom in earnest.

I would contend that if we can work to establish a new “Chamber of Wisdom” where we can create an atmosphere of sharing, learning, and embrace of that which is different, we could truly heal our wounds, build bridges over the chasms, and start to shrink the disparities that currently exist in our society and around the world.

What would that look like today? It would start by identifying those who are willing to give up comfort and sameness in order to really explore in a respectful way those values which seem to conflict, which seem to be far from similar. We must be willing to reject that there is a universal “truth” when it comes to the value of socialism, capitalism, religion, science, math, and language or societal approaches to mental illness, the war on drugs, sexual orientation and gender identity.

We have to be willing to let our individual and societal notions of what is “right” and “wrong” be superseded by a greater search for truth and meaning. We have to be willing to value each other as humans being instead of becoming defensive because of our differences. We must be willing to forget about our human-made geographic and cultural borders.

“The Search for Truth is a Search for Identity, that in finding Truth, we find Ourselves. “— Neil Sutton

This isn’t an easy task but something that I believe is worth achieving. It may be the hardest initiative that the world will undertake in the 21st century, but it may be the only way to save ourselves from destroying ourselves with intolerance.

I believe in the power of the search for a greater truth and I am willing to dedicate my remaining days on this earth to helping achieve and propagate this ancient concept to create a new “Chamber of Wisdom.”

Will you join me? Let me know what you think at ben.wallace@letsmake.space

Bio: Ben Wallace is the Founder and Executive Director of Making Space, Inc. He has more than 20 years of experience that include organizational leadership, volunteer management, executive sales, client relations, and community development. Ben is a recognized subject matter expert in youth and community organizing and leadership development. He is a Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) Certified Facilitator and a Dean for the Youth Midwest Leadership School of the MidAmerica Region of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Ben feels passionately that a self-discovery and finding one’s passions in life is an important and lifelong journey. Ben is a punster and enjoys bringing people together and making them laugh.