About this episode
For something a bit different, and very suitably at the beginning of the year, this episode is a compilation of recent guests on the Amplifying Cognition podcast talking about expanding possibilities and opportunities. You will hear powerful excerpts from Nora Bateson – Episode 20, Dave Gray – Episode 17, John Hagel – Episode 13, and April Rinne – Episode 8. A massive part of amplifying ourselves is in seeing opportunity and actively creating and seizing possibilities. Soak in the insights from these fabulous thinkers, they are all both inspiring and practical.
What you will learn
- Exploring systemic complexity, the power of warm data and nth order relationships by Nora Bateson (02:38)
- Revolutionizing perception, warm data, and trans contextual information in complex systems by Nora Bateson (04:02)
- The power of visual thinking and overcoming fear for creative growth by Dave Gray (09:08)
- The role of narrative in shaping individual and collective paths by John Hagel (15:09)
- Navigating the flux, embracing the complexity of change in our unpredictable world by April Rinne (21:36)
Thriving in a world of unending change and opportunity by April Rinne (25:05)
Ross: One of the beautiful phrases in your book is “I shall always act to increase possibility.” You’re describing some of the ways in which we are constrained in who we are and who we could be in our relationships. A very pointed question is, what are the things that we can do to increase possibilities?
Nora: I’m so glad you asked. When you’re trying to approach these processes that are taking place, not necessarily at the first order, at the first level, where you might point to a symptom and say, “Okay, there’s the issue, we have to solve that issue” but in the way we’re looking at nth order, so the relationships that make relationships that make relationships, the communication that makes communication that makes communication. As I was just saying, a lot of this stuff is tacit, it’s implied, it’s meta-communication, it’s living in a realm that’s very real, but very slippery, it’s gaseous, it’s hard to grab hold of it, and it’s not like changing the distributor cap in your pickup truck. Changing the possibility of communication means another thing. This, for me, is where warm data has been really exciting because after many years of working with various sorts of systems change, various kinds of modeling, and this-es and thats, and also coming from my history, which I guess we’ll get to in a minute.
Ross: Could you explain warm data as a concept?
Nora: Yes, Warm data as a concept, there are two ways of looking at it. Warm data as a thing is information. But it’s a way of recognizing information that’s taking place between multiple contexts, so it’s trans-contextual information. In that example of who is Ross, who is Ross in relationship to your microbiome, in relationship to the tax agency, in relationship to your lover, in relationship to children if you have any, or your dogs, or your childhood friends, or your professional relationships, or your parents, your ancestors, the grandchildren that are not here yet, the great-great-grandchildren to be—who are you? And in each one of those contexts, you are not the same, so who are you? There’s this way of recognizing that information moves in different contexts, and this is a necessary practice for perceiving complex systems.
Another way to describe warm data is that it’s information that’s alive. I could put you in a box and I could say, “Oh, Ross, he’s got a podcast.” But that would be a huge reductionism of who you are. It’s not that it’s untrue that you have a podcast, and I could study all your podcasts, but I would still know very little about you. I could deduct and I could make correlations, and I could do this and that, but I will not have a sense of your vitality from that. My suspicion is that because there’s basically so much information missing, that many of the responses that are attempted are responses to reductionist information, information that’s been decontextualized from its living processes and re-contextualized into a mechanistic, more industrialized set of understandings.
How do we respond to a living world if our information is not itself alive? And that’s at the core of what warm data as an idea is about. The Warm Data Lab is a process that I work with groups of people in practicing this perception. It’s a practice and a practice in which the trans-contextual perception, and cognition, you’re interested in cognition, is able to shift in ways that are not necessarily explicit. It’s recognizing that many of the things that are blocking us epistemologically are things that are habits that we don’t even know we’re doing, ghosts of industrial assumptions, that are so deeply lodged in our language, in the way we went to school, in our understanding of how you define something or strategize something or solve something or even identify a problem, that these capacities are infected with ghosts of industrial, eugenics, control, mechanistic ideas, colonial, notions, that these notions will justify exploitation, decontextualization, devitalization and take out the possibility. Okay, so where I’m saying “I want to always act to increase possibility” what I’m really saying is I want to be able to perceive those possibilities that the complexity in the process brings that may not be the ones I think I’m looking for. That’s the catch.
To round out, Dave, I’d like you to offer some distilled wisdom, some advice, some suggestions to people on how it is they can, I would say, think better, but whatever positive direction you can do. How do we think of the possible? How do we think better? How do we live better lives?
Dave: A couple of thoughts I think might be helpful. One is the idea of not necessarily limiting your thinking to what can be put into words, typed, or written on a page, and to explore the idea of visual thinking. I do have a free online class that I could share a link to you where people can go and watch, a few 5, 10 to 20-minute videos to explore that territory. That would be a good jumping-off point. Drawing is thinking just like writing is thinking. If it can’t be drawn, it can’t be done. It’s also a great way to explore and clarify possibilities when you’re still thinking about them. Just like Leonardo da Vinci was able to sketch a lot of ideas that weren’t able to be realized, even with the technology of his time, sketching is a way to start thinking about those things. Even if you’re not going to be designing a helicopter or an airplane 500 years before, it’s a fact, that you might still find that by sketching and scribbling. You come up with ideas and concepts that you wouldn’t ever come up with any other way. That’s one. Start scribbling.
Another one is the idea of fear. We’re wired to seek reward and avoid threat. Every organism in the universe is wired to seek reward and avoid threat. For good reasons, our wiring is biased a little bit towards the avoiding threat part. You’re not going to… A Possibilitarian that gets eaten by a dinosaur is not going to pass on their genes to the next generation. I think that’s why we’re emotionally and hormonally wired to be afraid, to cling to the status quo, the safe zone, and not to step into those more adventurous, or dangerous territories. But the one rule that has served me well over the course of my life is that, when I’m facing a dilemma, or decision, or choice about where to go in the future, and they seem roughly equal, but one feels safer, and the other feels scary, always go toward the fear. Because that’s where growth is, that’s where possibilities are, that’s where the opportunities are.
The fact that you’re even weighing it as a possibility means that it’s a realistic and possible scenario. The fact that you’re feeling fear is probably relative to your wiring, and your tendency to want to seek safety and avoid threat. The world can be a dangerous and scary place. But for the most part, you’re not taking your life into your hands when you take a chance in the business or the creative world. I encourage people to step into, lean into that fear, and take a few steps. You live near the ocean, and you go swimming every day, and you know there are sharks in the ocean. There’s always some danger, but you don’t have to dive into the deepest part of the ocean, you can step in, you can wade in, you can go partway, and you can go halfway. There are a lot of ways to trick yourself into stepping into uncomfortable situations that can be rewarding in terms of personal growth. I encourage people to, when in doubt, go towards the fear.
Ross: I think that following that advice will get people a very, very, very long way.
Dave: Yes, I agree.
Ross: Let’s come back to the fear and shifting of the passion of the Explorer. People would really have to read your book “The Journey Beyond Fear” to get the full story. But in a compact version, where people are in a place of fear, there’s the potential that limits their thinking, their ability to think better and act better. The potential is to get to the passion of the Explorer where they soak in anything which is useful to them to be able to shape their path. What’s the journey? How does one move from a place of fear to the passion of the Explorer, in three words or less?
John: Yes. I like to say if I could summarize my book, I wouldn’t have to write the book, it would just be a nice summary. I think it’s complicated. There are many different paths for the journey. It’s all based on where you come from as an individual. But a key element, again, this is based on research that I’ve been doing, is focusing initially on what I call your narrative. Again, it’s complicated because when I talk about narrative, most people think I’m talking about stories, and that stories and narrative are the same thing. No, I make the distinction that stories are self-contained, they have a beginning, a middle, and an end to them, the end, it’s over. The story is about me the storyteller, or it’s about some other people real or imagined. It’s not about you. In contrast, a narrative the way I define it, is open-ended. It’s about the future. The issue is there’s either a threat, a big threat, or a big opportunity in the future, not clear whether it’s going to be achieved or not. The resolution of the narrative hinges on you. It’s a call to action to say your choices, your actions are going to help determine how this narrative plays out.
Again, it’s complicated. You have to read the book, but I talk about narratives at many different levels. I start with the individual, personal narrative, and urging people to reflect what’s their view of the future. Is it primarily a threat or an opportunity? Do you have a call to action to others? Or is it all just on your shoulders and you have to figure it out? You’ll figure it out. In my experience more and more people when I do that, very few of them even articulate their narrative much less reflect on it, but most people when they start to think about it say, Oh my God, the future for me is pretty threatening. I’m not asking for a lot of help, because I can’t rely on other people. It starts with this notion of individual narratives. But then you can talk about corporate or organizational narratives. You can talk about regional or geographic narratives or movement narratives.
I’ll just give one quick example back to this notion of passion. I’ve been in Silicon Valley now for over 40 years. I always get the question, how do you explain the continued success of Silicon Valley over so many decades? Most people would talk about the universities, talk about venture capital firms, and the infrastructure, those are certainly not to be dismissed but to me, the real success of Silicon Valley has to do with a very inspiring geographic narrative, which is, we have digital technology that is exponentially improving, and can fundamentally change the world for the better but it’s not going to happen automatically. You need to come to Silicon Valley and help change the world. It’s an inspiring, exciting opportunity that has drawn people from all over the world. Most people don’t know that the majority of successful entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley were not born in the United States, much less than in Silicon Valley, they were drawn here from all over the world because of the excitement of an opportunity. It drew out this passion of the Explorer, they wanted to find ways to harness this exponential technology and really change the world.
Ross: If you hang out from San Francisco, you get the feeling there are lots of people who have drunk the Kool-Aid, which came from the Bay Area, the concept is what gave the Bay Area itself. You start to start to get inspired as well by, as you say, that narrative and that belief of the unlimited possibilities.
John: Yes. Again, I think one of the challenges we have in the world today is more and more, we’re being dominated by threat-based narratives. The movements that we talk about, climate change, the world’s coming to an end, we’re all going to die. It’s all about the threat in the future. I don’t want to dismiss that, again, there are threats. But on the other side, until and unless we can frame an exciting and inspiring opportunity, what would the world look like if we really address climate change? What kind of flourishing world could we create where we would all thrive? Not just humans, but plants, animals, everything would thrive? What would that look like? That would excite and inspire people versus Oh, I’m gonna die. It’s too overwhelming. I give up. Anyway, I think that we need to be very thoughtful about what narratives are driving our actions today and whether are they focused on threats in the future or opportunities in the future.
Ross: Just as you were talking, I was thinking there’s also a distinction between limited opportunity and unlimited opportunity. Seeing an opportunity as one part, you can say, Oh, I can see an opportunity to do this. But that’s still tangible as opposed to the unlimited opportunity which is when and where could we go beyond that?
John: It’s both the unlimited opportunity and the sense of continued expansion of opportunity. But it’s also this notion of win-win opportunities. If it’s just an opportunity for me, or my small group, it’s going to put me in competition with others so that we can capture that opportunity for ourselves versus this is an opportunity where the more people who join in, the bigger the opportunity is going to become. This is exciting. Let’s all come together.
Ross: Should we all be getting excited about change, is that where we want to get to?
April: No, and I love that you walked into where I wanted to take the conversation. Thank you for that, which is this word “change.” You’re spot on because I hear from people pretty much every day, someone will say, “Yeah, I’m struggling with changing X, Y, or Z.” I will also hear from people saying, “I love change, I thrive on change. I’m a change junkie, like, Bring it on.” In those cases, I always go, “Hold on a minute.” Because what we’re getting at is our knowledge of the word “change” and how we think about change. It’s one word. We often think about it like it’s one thing, it’s all the same. But the reality is that change is really messy, complicated, confusing, rich, and deep. The easiest way that I can summarize is that on the whole, and again, not to speak for others, but overall, humans love the change that we opt into, a change we have agency or control over, like a new job, a new relationship, a new trip, a new car, a new haircut. Those are all changes, right? We love those because we picked them.
The change what I’m talking about and really at the essence, the heart of Flux, those changes we don’t control. The changes that blindside you, that whipsaw you, that flip your expectations and plans upside down. The ones that change that you’re like, “I just wish that would go away, I wish it had never happened.” That’s the kind of change that frankly, I’m still looking for the human that’s like, “Bring it on, I want more of that.” You do find some people who are much better. They have the mindset that’s much more grooved to even a change that they didn’t want to happen. It happens, and I can make my way through it, I can see the upside, I can see the hidden opportunity, possibility, whatever.
Some people are further along on that spectrum. But on the whole, humans have a really hard time; we resist that kind of change. We wish it hadn’t happened. It creates fear, anxiety, and so forth. Just that simple point of change is much more than one thing. I’m not worried about the changes we pick; those are all upsides. It’s the changes and the uncertainty, and all of the changes that we don’t control have an element of uncertainty. For a lot of people, there’s this not-so-fun spiral downward that we can take ourselves on because we start to catastrophize, we start to second-guess, we start to worry, and so forth.
Ross: I think it’s pretty safe to say that in the 2020s, we have a pretty decent pace of change. It doesn’t seem to be reducing. Some people have been readier for this in terms of their mindset or way of framing things. Where are we today? 2023, we’re a third of the way through the decade, things don’t look like they’re slowing down. As leaders, what are those scripts or mental models or frames? How is that we need to be readying for? I think it’s going to get pretty wild from here.
April: Yes, let me zoom out real quick before we zoom in specifically to the pace of change. But the way I like to phrase this, I’ve been doing this work for nearly 25 years in a bunch of different ways. It’s not like I knew 25 years ago that I would write a book called Flux, that wasn’t it. But if I look back, and say, when did I begin pulling on these strings? What do we do when we don’t know what to do? Why do we behave as we do around uncertainty? Why is it so hard? It goes back quite a long way. I’ve been concerned, you could say, about this increasing pace of change, and how fast everyone felt like they needed to go for quite a long time. Then 2020 arrived, that notion of Flux, it was like, “Oh, right, yes, we could use some help with that.” I do feel like a lot of people have had a bit of a wake-up in the last three years of just how little we control and how much change is underway.
The framing I like to put on it, we’ll keep talking, you know that I’m fundamentally an optimist, not a naïve optimist, but I see a huge opportunity ahead. That said, I do have to frame it as the future looks more like the last three years than what came before it. I don’t mean a pandemic. I don’t mean war. I don’t mean inflation. I don’t mean any particular kind of change. But this sense of constant, relentless, by the time I’ve reacted to one thing, 10 other things have happened. There’s more of that ahead, not less. We’re not that prepared for it individually or collectively. Again, you can look at that as “Oh, no, now what?” or you can say, “Hmm, big opportunity for the people who can wrap their minds, their mindset, their business models, etc., around that new way of being, working, living, and showing up.”