Potential and Nodes
Journeys for the Well-Intentioned: Part 2
A note, with homage to Stephen King, to my Constant Reader: Struggle is essential to growth, and disruption precedes it. These journeys for the well-intentioned are not designed for passive consumption; they are invitations to question what you think you know and why you know it, to explore your own thinking and watch yourself along the way. The value is in the journey. Only you can decide which path to travel.
If you haven’t read Part 1, start there before coming back to this one.
Think back to your childhood and the first time someone asked you, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” What did you say? What is your earliest memory of what you wanted to become? Depending on how long ago that was, this next question might be harder to answer, but spend a moment to consider — why that choice? What was sourcing that aspiration all the way back when recess was exciting and naps were boring? Pause here to capture your thinking.
(Waiting is easy when you do the writing ahead of time. But thinking is hard, and it’s tempting to be quick about it instead of, well, thoughtful about it.)
For me, I wanted to be a nuclear physicist. More than anything, I just think the words sounded cool and futuristic and science-y. It felt exploratory. Over the next few years, it shifted to astrophysicist (space is cooler than atoms), then to astronomical engineer (engineers make a bigger impact), before settling on computer engineer (which I enjoyed and was good at it and could get paid well to do it).
Did your aspirations change, too, on what you wanted to be? And if you look back at those moments, did the question ever shift? Was there a moment when you were asked to consider not just what you wanted to be but who you wanted to be? It’s a qualitatively different question, isn’t it — who do you want to be. It touches a different aspect of you. What was (or is!) the effect on your being of pondering that question?
What’s hiding beneath both questions is a concept that the whole that you were then had potential1 to become more than it was. And, though this is often overlooked, that the whole that you are now has the potential to be more than it is. Potential applies to any living whole — to you, to me, to your family, to my school, to your business, to Earth itself. And yet among the well-intentioned, discussions of potential gravitate towards helping others reach their “full potential” — or worse — their “fullest potential”. What an insidious bit of language that is — outwardly positive and inclusive, secretly limiting and elitist. Why would I make such a claim? To begin, it puts a limit on potential. Once you’ve put a limit on something, you can quantify it. And once you quantify it, you can rank and order it relative to others. That’s bad enough, but now it can be wielded like a club of shame against you for not “living up” to your potential, because if potential is fixed, then attaining it is certainly possible if only you would make the effort.
And yet. The only thing that’s true is this — you — like every living whole — can actualize more of your potential if you choose to. It’s a choice you must make for yourself; no one can make it for you. Of course, this means you cannot “force” or “incentivize” anyone else to actualize their potential either. They must choose. For other living systems — families, schools, businesses, communities, Earth — to actualize more of their potential requires the work of the humans nested inside of them. The best way to do that work, however, is rarely obvious.
To get a sense of this, think back to the last time you were at a social gathering and meeting someone for the first time. After the hellos and the nice to meet yous, inevitably one of you asked, “So what do you do for a living?”. It’s effectively an adult version of our opening question. How did you respond? Maybe you answered with where you work. I work for Microsoft. Or maybe your role? I’m a software engineering manager. Maybe you replied with a true but cryptic response. I’m a professional e-mailer and meeting attender.
But what if I asked you to describe what you do in terms of the effects produced for your most immediate stakeholders? What would you say then? I develop the thinking capacity of my team to manage work of increasing complexity and value for our customers. What if I asked you to expand out again? I empower people to tell their stories to anyone, anyplace, anytime. And again? I enable people to continuously re-form communities through authentic storytelling. Whoa. That’s a completely different way of looking at things, isn’t it? By expanding in this way, by recalling the nestedness, we can see the larger system — the greater whole — that we seek to benefit and the effects that we might produce. When you view your own work through this lens, what shifts do you notice in the actions you might choose to take on?
(Pause here a moment to deeply consider this question. It’s so easy to remain stuck in our normal patterns of thinking, so I invite you to break free — for just a moment — and consider the greater wholes in your work.)
It’s required a somewhat circuitous route, but we come at last to nodes2 — the energetic points in a system where the right effort, by the right entity, at the right time can produce exponential effects. And as you just explored, finding nodes requires understanding how a system — a whole — is nested within other systems, how potential actualized by one whole can ripple out to actualize potential for the greater wholes that nest it. On its own, this way of thinking about potential and actualization may seem obvious. But, having achieved success in one system, the temptation among the well-intentioned to distill that success into “best practices” is nearly unavoidable.
But, as language does to knowing, best practices do to actualization. They fragment and fossilize a whole and living process that began with a specific entity in a specific context at a specific moment in time. They become dim echoes of a once vibrant sound, never capturing the same magic twice. Advocates of best practices want to “avoid mistakes others have made” or “avoid re-inventing the wheel”, but in so doing expose a worldview of systems as largely static, largely fungible. As with the humans nested inside of them, the systems — the greater wholes — in which humans work and live are neither of these. So how do you — how do we — achieve exponential actualization of potential again and again, within the same systems or with new systems? We must regenerate our thinking based on our growing capability to image the specific system we seek to serve, its nestedness with other systems, and their potential waiting to be actualized.
(It takes a bit more than that, but that’s our next journey.)
Of course, it’s easy to say, “just be amazing again and again” and much harder to do. And yet, that’s where our own actualization lies — taking on those challenges that are just beyond our capability, working magic again and again. If we are to commit ourselves to being change agents for the greater wholes that nest us, how can we not commit to ourselves to becoming more capable along the way?
(Ok, pause here, because we’ve arrived again at the moment of choosing.)
What did you notice in you as you joined me on this journey? What was stirred up? What did you react strongly to? What left no impression at all? Why do you think that was? Finally, consider the value of this short reflection. What has it produced? What is the greatest potential you see for yourself and for the greater wholes you find yourself nested within? From what source will you draw your direction? What life-evolving contribution might you offer that will require your own evolution to make it? How and where and to whom might that contribution ripple out?
If you made it this far, thank you. This was an invitation to continue our journey of knowing. Knowledge never quite gets it done. Leave a comment and let me know what this was like for you.
Continue the journey with Part 3: Essence and Fields.
Originally published on Medium.
Sanford, Carol. What is Regeneration? Part 4 — Nodal Interventions.