The only thing that will redeem mankind is co-operation.
We live in an incredible era. We are facing the most complex set of problems imaginable; the interwoven issues of depression and anxiety, chronic post-industrials disease, environmental degradation, poverty, abuse and conflict. But we are also being empowered by technologies to collaborate and co-create solutions to them together. Digital and economic interconnectivity is transforming how we work, create, travel, buy and socialise through the emergence of new forms, such as holocracies, B Corps, social enterprises, peer-to-peer models and collaborative consumption. The web is slowly but surely rewiring the world, inviting us to stay in step with it and become more collaborative, networked, and co-creative.
Within our grasp — perhaps realistically for the first time in human history — is the tangible possibility of a just and equal society for all. Most of the technologies and resources needed to solve the majority of the world’s thorniest problems are available now. The only thing that is, perhaps, missing is the will to use them effectively in authentic, open-hearted, generous and risky collaboration to solve problems that really matter.
We are being offered a once-in-a-generation, perhaps once-in-a-species, chance to make our ideas and intentions count and co-create together the global peace, social equality and spiritual inter-connectivity so many of us long for. Yet this is far from a foregone conclusion, as can be seen in the failures of the Arab Spring and the commercialisation of social media (change of privacy terms anyone?). This has always been so. Technologies are agnostic and can be used for to encourage thriving or suffering. The first real computer, called MANIAC, which gave birth to the liberation and empowerment of the internet age, was used to generate the necessary calculations for the H bomb that destroyed thousands of human beings in Japan.
If we want to mobilise our collaborative potential we must first become collaborative in our emotional, psychological and spiritual core. Nothing could be harder for a species fed an addictive diet of ‘me’, ‘mine’ and ‘more’ from birth. After a decade of constant collaboration with many thought leaders on multiple projects, I have seen. time and time again, that it often begins to breakdown as we get start having to share our ‘property’ (whether intellectual or not); and therefore risk our livelihoods. As we fear loss of earnings, reputation or opportunity, we tend to back towards the habits learnt over a lifetime of looking out for Numero Uno.
It is not surprising that we default back to self-centred ways of being. Historians and archaeologists tell us that there are absolutely no precedents for the emerging ‘networked’ stage of our evolution. As our numbers have multiplied exponentially, so too have our needs, desires and demands. Our brains evolved to function well in small tribes, not the teaming masses of 1000+ Facebook friends. Rather than be brought up to be open-hearted collaborators, we are schooled, trained and incentivised at work to be competitive and individualistic.
As I explore in my essay The Inner Revolution, we have been hampered by an impoverished mechanistic narrative of the cosmos, which leads directly to Social Darwinism and the Selfish Gene. It thrusts us, fundamentally spontaneous, improvising, collaborative human beings into boxes labelled ‘rational decision-making machines focused on economic gain and gene survival’. The Communist dream was born to destroy this inherently selfish (Capitalist) system; but was in fact rooted in this same mistaken, mechanistic belief about human beings. Both robbed us all of the enlivening process of, moment-by-moment, co-creating a better world / organisation / family life with the people we are interconnected with because we want to, because it is natural to.
Collaborations of any kind will inevitably bring up issues for those involved. Letting go of control and managing our expectations of others are two key examples. These issues can quickly become touch points for anger and resentment. Left unexpressed and unresolved, they become blocks to the experience of group flow (what Brian Eno dubbed the genius of the scenius) - when everyone is working together in a symphony of creative activities and magic is the result.
Unsavoury as it may be to many, without clearing away emotional issues and baggage, the potential output of the collaboration, and its potential co-creativity, will be severely hampered. More often than not, it will be stopped dead in its tracks. As a teacher of collaborative leadership and facilitator of open innovation processes for large organisations, I have witnessed the majority of collaborations ending in dictatorship (one party takes over); dissipation (nobody does anything); or disintegration (the egoic forces in power play trigger a supernova).
All is not lost. Although most of us are profoundly ill-equipped psychologically and spiritually to collaborate, the latest behavioural research on humans and primates shows we are as hard-wired for compassion and collaboration as we are greed and graft. The circuits are there, waiting to be used. What we each mush shift are the entrenched patterns (HEART, HEAD & HANDS) that lock us in place (a detailed science-inspired, wisdom-wired process for breaking through any pattern can be found within my book Switch On). The more we shift our personal and cultural mindsets and metaphors away from separation and selfishness, to interconnection and heart-led habits, the more likely we are to set of the viral transformation that is palpably seeking to emerge.
Help is at hand. There is a beautiful Buddhist scripture, the ‘Flower Garland Sutra’, that contains an empowering metaphor that can help us navigate the waters of authentic collaboration. In the sutra is description of a net used by the King of the Hindu Gods, Indra. The net, draped over his palace on Mount Meru, goes on infinitely (he is the king of the Gods after all); and, hanging at each cross-point, is a jewel. If you look closely at one of the jewels, in its polished surface you can see all the other jewels reflected right up to infinity. Each jewel relies on the brightness and integrity of the others for its own luminosity. Each jewel contains an image every other jewel, just as any part of a hologram contains all the information of the entire image. In other words, in every mote of dust, the entirety of the universe resides.
Quantum physics also suggests that we live in such a participatory universe, where everything is co-created with, and interpenetrated by, everything else. Quarks, atoms, molecules are not discrete entities, islands unto themselves, but part of a ‘field’ of reality where everything is intertwined. Elementary particles burst in and out of existence, the quantum void. This has an analogue in the Buddhist concept of pratityasamutpada, or ‘dependent origination’. This is not something we should imagine happens in some far away cosmic landscape. Non-linear, quantum, interdependent causality is now almost certain to be occurring in the hot, wet reality of our neurones, something most scientists thought was impossible even 5 years ago!
There appears to be a fundamental inter-penetrability and interdependence of all things, both unfolded and enfolded; explicate and implicate; form and emptiness. Perhaps we are all part of a grand symphony, that is in a constantly dynamic point and counter point with itself. We are all manifestations of the same life force. Carl Sagan, a celebrated scientist and agnostic came to realise that this unity does not require us to believe in religious mumbo jumbo or an “outsized, light-skinned male with a long white beard”. Instead he considered the interdependent state of all things to be a “final expression of the material universe.” This network of things seems similar to the French philosopher, and enfant terrible of post-modern theory, Jacques Derrida’s ideas that books, films, political beliefs, policies and humble words are never fully ‘present’ in themselves — they always refer, infinitely, to other ‘texts’. Meaning emerges from this network when we as humans engaged in it.
So we might imagine Indra now has an InterNet, through which he reaches out to the other gods, to see if they want to co-create a social enterprise together, whilst he straddles Mount Meru. Technology is finally supporting us to thrive. As our post-industrial ills have proliferated, so too have the number and variety of electrifying and electrical opportunities for us to work together to heal them. In fact, the evolution of wikis and social media technology might well be nature’s way of healing the alienation that technology itself created. Like the dock leaf that grows near the nettle, ready with an antidote to the pain when we need it, digital technology is helping us heal the social and ecological wounds inflicted by the cotton gins and workhouses of the Industrial Age.
It is clear that neither the Capitalist nor Communist ideas of ‘Me-for-Me’ vs. ‘Me-for-We’ have created a world of harmony and prosperity for the majority of people. Binary oppositions rarely can. I believe it is the wisdom teachers job to expand their consciousness until the oppositions have been resolved in creative tension. The African philosophy of Ubuntu, which transformed my life during a year teaching science in rural Zimbabwe as a late teenager, offers up as solution to the Me / We conundrum. Archbishop Desmond Tutu explains:
Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality — Ubuntu — you are known for your generosity. A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.
So inspired and enabled by Indra’s InterNet and African Ubuntu, we can transform our family, business and social lives through an idea of ‘Me-through-We’ — my sense of being and strength comes through and from my voluntary and confident interplay with others. A simple metaphor for this is the jazz band — its performance depends on each individual being brilliant in themselves, for themselves; yet at-one-and-the-same-time, transcending their own egos and desires to make something magical happen as a group. This, I call interplay.
Interplay, enabled and encouraged by the rise of the ‘twitterverse’, is I believe the most rapid, secular and contemporary way to salve all our existential suffering with the balm of interdependent being, no matter whether we are ‘spiritual’ or not. If our emotional issues were born in collaboration with others when we were infants and children then it is logical to think that they will therefore be resolved — and our full fearless potential realised — in collaboration with others. Interplay can only grow from the soil of personal liberation of heart and mind. Then it comes down to the choices we make, day in, day out, about what kind of business, career, projects, families and communities we want to build.
Interplay is a life philosophy that the businessman and politician alike can harness to achieve a sense of inter-subjective peace. As we purposefully hone our Collaboration IQ by risking real-world collaboration — closer and closer to our livelihoods — we can all harness our unique intersubjective biology to play our full part in manifesting the potential power of the digital revolution; not just disruptive innovations and but the transformation of society towards inclusive economic and political systems.
Interplay — as a free choice, a personal priority, a new life philosophy — affords the human race the greatest chance of solving the complex issues standing in its path of survival whilst simultaneously offering the individual the most contemporary, rapid and non-esoteric path to full psychological and spiritual happiness through a complete transcendence of the ego (and all its fears, needs and pains).
Our future — as enlightened individuals and as a collaborative species — belongs to those of us who attempt the terrifying but enlivening experience of authentic collaboration: Seeking love, truth and creativity in interplay with others.
For one human being to love another, that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.
Rainer Maria Rilke
- Please forgive typos and errors. If you like the post, please clap AND remember that you can clap up to 50 times if you like it a lot :)!
- Join me on a 6 month Master Transformational Leadership program (live, virtual, immersive) culminating in systemic innovation and regenerative leadership.
I work at Switch On. Sign up to our email stay in the loop.