How It Feels to be A Designer of Culture

To create cultural change, one must be the embodiment of paradox.

Have you ever felt calm in the midst of turmoil? Experienced a sense of knowing in the midst of great uncertainty? Pushed through fear and discovered a resolve in yourself that is best described as compassion toward yourself and others?

Then you have felt what it is like to be a culture designer.

In this article, I want to share what it feels like to be a designer of culture on the inside. What is happening in my body when I am working with emerging cultural patterns, how this shapes what emerges in my mind as insights and intuition for strategic action, and why it is so important to cultivate intimacy with these sensations in order to guide the birthing process of cultural change.

Many people say it is impossible to be a “designer” of culture. Humans are simply too messy, too unpredictable, and too complex — or so they say. The great secret is that it is this very messiness inherent to the human condition that makes it possible to design changes in culture.

This might make more sense with a real-life example.

I have given a lot of workshops about political thought and behavior for practitioners working on social change. In the early days, when I was still very much a novice as a trainer, I used to think that I needed to fully specify the activities for a training event. This meant many painstaking hours putting together presentation slides, careful thought about how to structure group activities, and a clear outline for how the agenda should progress throughout the workshop.

Yet for all this preparation, I discovered over and over again that the workshop participants would hijack the agenda when we came upon a topic that they felt strongly about. The materials about human psychology, neuroscience, sociology and linguistics are inherently powerful at evoking strong feelings — as they relate so deeply to our deepest fears and aspirations, get us thinking about intimate relationships with loved ones, and can even prompt reenactments of past trauma.

In those early days, I didn’t know how to listen to my body. As a participant brought up questions that weren’t on the agenda, I felt the stress of time pressure to keep us on schedule. And so I would respond quickly and try to keep us moving through the material.

As a result, the workshops often felt contrived. The topics I had prepared days or weeks in advance just weren’t relevant enough to what people were experiencing in the moment as our conversations evoked feelings in them. So I gradually made a shift in my approach — evolving toward an open agenda that would be co-created with the participants.

A typical workshop in this new model would go something like this:

Good morning, everyone. We gathered here today to talk about political thought and behavior so you can become more strategic about how to engage the ways people think and feel about topics you hope to address through your work.
I have intentionally avoided creating a fixed agenda because I couldn’t know ahead of time what you are going to care most about accomplishing today. So let’s go round the room and introduce ourselves. Please state your name, a sentence about the work you do, and share one thing you hope to get out of the workshop today…

As I became comfortable embracing emergence, I found my body becoming relaxed and responsive. I started to listen better. Hear and feel more deeply. Really pay attention to what was happening in the room. And then magic happened. I discovered that the participants had rich life experiences to draw upon, daily struggles they needed help clarifying, and strong intuitions about what would be most useful to them.

But here’s the thing — I had to learn how to experience these things in my own body moment by moment as the cultural patterns emerged in the room. It was a combination of analyzing and discerning, assessing and feeling into, then responding accordingly.

In the beginning I made a lot of mistakes, just like anyone who is learning a new craft. But over time I gained enough practice and skill that I could adeptly navigate and guide the emotions, thoughts, challenges, struggles, and enthusiastic leaps taken by participants.

We were creating culture together!

What is true in small group settings (my workshops might have ten participants up to a few hundred) is also true for large, complex societies… with proper caveats about working with the distinctions of those patterns as they arise through different combinations of processes and mechanisms.

At the larger scale, I have had the great pleasure of helping reframe entire discourses that span thousands of organizations involving millions of people. It really is possible to do this. Perhaps the most ambitious of these projects is what we are striving to do at TheRules.org where I have served as director of cultural research since 2012 when the organization came into being.

The primary mission of /TheRules is to reframe global poverty, inequality, and climate change. We are doing this by taking a multifaceted approach that is continually evolving as we learn and grow as a community. But one of the foundational pillars that remains constant is the use of linguistic analysis to reveal patterns of meaning in the ways people conceptualize the issues.

This is my primary responsibility — to conduct these studies and formulate strategies for guiding cultural evolution in the most strategic and effective manner we can think of for a small team with large aspirations. I have analyzed the words of Bill Gates to reveal covert agendas at the Gates Foundation; deconstructed the blind spots in thinking for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals; and tracked key words on Twitter to map out the metaphors people commonly use to make sense of what poverty is thought to be.

For the sake of this conversation, I will focus on one moment early on that really gives a flavor for what it feels like to do this kind of work. It was spring of 2012 and we were preparing to launch the first campaigns for our fledgling organization. We had a modest research budget that enabled me to hire a team of analysts — economic historians, communications experts, linguists, and anthropologists. Our task was to design the central strategy for reframing global poverty.

One of the analysts on our team was Anat Shenker who had previously led a study of the metaphors used to conceptualize inequality in the political discourse of the United States. She had been asked to conduct opposition research and look at the websites for organizations that seek to increase poverty and inequality (yes, there really are people who want this!). We were in the middle of a debrief when she blurted out “Argh! This is really a pet peeve of mine. It drives me crazy every time I see progressives use passive verbs when they talk about the issues!”

Having worked previously with the cognitive linguist, George Lakoff, I immediately recognized the importance of this. It was a body-knowing that vibrated through my physical being. I just knew it was important.

So I drafted the strategy brief around this theme: Craft a powerful story of poverty creation. The organizations working to end poverty kept saying things like “poverty levels rose by 10%” that (a) implicitly assume poverty is a natural background condition; and (b) obscure the agency and motivation of real people doing real things. Our mission would be to tell the story of poverty creation — exactly how it is created and by whom (through rigging of trade deals, wealth hoarding in tax havens, tax cuts that transfer money to the elite class, etc).

(Read the strategy brief here)

This insight was not part of the request to our analytics team. No one knew to look for it. But when it emerged, I felt its importance. It rang through my body like a thunderbolt. There was no way for me NOT to get it.

And this is the key to being a culture designer. Yes, you will need to become expert in the study of cultural patterns. It will be necessary for you to get training in complex systems to know how patterns arise in social settings. Things like this are the what of culture design. The how is cultivated in the body.

When I guide conversations about current events on my Facebook feed, through Twitter, or in writings like this one, I must practice honing my sensitivities into emotional states in my body, learn to recognize what they mean strategically for helping guide a cultural healing process, and become adept at knowing what to say in the moment as the patterns emerge in real time.

It can be very stressful. This week I have been hosting an inquiry into the pathologies of binary thinking that limit possibilities in the electoral process (millions of people are thinking exclusively in terms of Hillary vs Trump with a myopia that serves the status quo when deep structural changes are needed). There have been times when I felt love and kindness from those I dialogue with. Other times it is anger and judgment directed at me. From moment to moment, I must be like the dancing surfer who continuously adjusts her feet upon the board as the waves crash and gurgle below.

The feeling of a culture designer is one of vigilant introspection, a fortitude for empathy and compassion, and a suite of sensitivities into my own body states. If I stretch too far, I will cause emotional harm to myself. Yet if I am too rigid in my stance, I will not be agile enough to respond appropriately.

Do I ever make mistakes? Of course! That’s an essential part of the experience. We learn by doing. This means we have to face our fears (another bodily practice) and be willing to take risks. It also means we have to know our own limitations and find ways to collaborate with others who complement and nourish us.

It can be exhausting to stay tuned in to a culture — especially when the happenings involve significant amounts of pain and fear. But the rewards are incredible. Stick with it and you begin to see patterns ascending in the messes of dialogue and argument, outbursts and debate. Become adept at feeling into these patterns and, like the surfer, you can ride them to their completion while bringing nudges of your own intentions into the mix.

Pretty powerful stuff, eh?


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