The Leap

From: Ten Meter Tower by Maximilien Van Aertryck which appeared on the New York Times site

A short film, called Ten Meter Tower, appeared on the New York Times site this week. It is SOOOOO great. It is one of the many reasons I am a happy paying subscriber to the NYT.

It reminds me of going to the Olympic stadium pool in Montreal, which, after the games, became a public facility. My brother, John, used to go diving there and I remember watching him climb that tower and dive from its 10 metre height; a feat I great admired. I envied and was in awe of his physical courage (and/or ability to work through the fear).

Montreal’s Olympic Stadium

I’ve been afraid of heights all my life and while it hasn’t kept me from doing too many things that were important to me, I do think that physical courage and strength (by which I mean the ability to confront and overcome fear: see the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear for reference) are analogous to other kinds of risk-taking.

For a long time I have talked about surfing and parkour as metaphors for innovative thinking and practice. Over time I came to the belief that they were not related by metaphor, but by analogy (largely due to Douglas Hofstadter’s powerful thinking about the role of analogy in cognition).

I have also used the analogy to skydiving or base jumping (may I HIGHLY recommend seeing all of this short film, Flight of the Frenchies) as the closest thing I can think of to the kind of courage required to face entrepreneurial risk.

Still from I Believe I Can Fly: Flight of the Frenchies

Finding the strength to persevere in the face of highly uncertain outcomes and feared consequences can lead not only to failure to execute, but to failures to even make an attempt at all. Some of the most poignant scenes in Ten Meter Tower are precisely those of folks who just can’t get themselves to make the leap.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last 15 years thinking and writing about physical practice and effort as analogies for mental/psychic practice or effort. I have been a skateboarder, and long fantasized about being a surfer, though I have probably thought most about yoga as a model for a a disciplined practice. It fascinates me that yoga can be represented as a pattern of poses, a kind of alphabet of posture and movement, while at the same time constituting entire cultures if not worlds of experience that become accessible through the practice.

Jumping 30 feet off a cliff and into a raging sea after he was late for a competition.

One of the enduring questions of my professional life has concerned how or whether we can teach people to be innovative. Central to this question is something I’ll call, The Leap. This idea is rooted in two familiar expressions or phrases that we use: we talk about “making a leap of faith” and also about “making a mental leap.” Much of my thinking about my own experience and that of many colleagues (many of them Overlappers) has led me, likewise to the belief that taking such leaps is not mere metaphor, but, again, that there is an analogous experience in making certain kinds of cognitive and practical leaps.

For a long time I did not think of my own practice, reading, writing, talking, conversation, thinking, teaching as a discipline. Crazy when you think about how many years of formal “training” I received in the practice.

In my head it doesn’t as easily respond to a name, as does yoga or surfing or skydiving. Of course, it has a name…philosophy…and a tradition, in fact, like yoga, it has many, and they are as ancient. But philosophy does not feel like a comfortable name for me. It connects to the past, but seems a funny and awkward container for my present, let alone my future.

St. Anselm: famously made the logical leap now referred to as the Ontological argument for the existence of God.

Scholar is an identity that I could only wear uncomfortably, again, it belongs to the monastic tradition, a part of which I honor and feel a kind of connection to, but much of which does not feel familiar to my much more worldly day to day, although, of course, monks had such mundaneness in their lives, too, no doubt. Anselm surely had to go to the crapper and might have liked a smoke after dinner, and who knows what other worldliness.

About 15 years ago I had an epiphany about the practice of philosophy. I said to a friend that it had finally occurred to me that the practice was precisely about making a controlled break with reality: in other words, a leap. But this break, cannot remain a thing of thinking alone, it must ultimately inform action.

One of the most enduring philosophical thoughts that I have carried around with me, ever since I first read Marx & Engels, Theses on Fuerbach, is from the 11th and final thesis:

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”
Karl Marx

Marx was here pointing, on the one hand, to the duty that thinkers have to act. At the same time, there is also in this simple sentence a suggestion that making change requires making a leap, leaving the comfort of the armchair in favor of the dangers of action.

This is what is so important about the idea of The Leap, the inescapability of the danger go making change, and the necessity of risking the dangers of uncertainty and our fear of the unknown if one wants to change things for the better. This kind of leap is certainly at the heart of the practice of innovators of all kinds.

The Leap may now also be vital to the future of our politics.

We must do more than simply interpret, analyze or complain about the state of the world we find ourselves in: the point is to change it.