Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Unitary Theory

One of the major problems that physics has dealt with during the last hundred years is the search for a unitary principle or unitary theory. For a long time physics studied electricity and magnetism as 2 separate forces. Then came the discovery of electromagnetism as one of the elementary forces of the universe. Simple common sense saw space and time as 2 quite separate realities – until Einstein explained the space-time continuum. Many physicists now search for the single, unitary theory that will explain the interrelatedness of gravitation, the electromagnetic force, the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, and the Higgs field.

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In the field of management theory there is a similar quest for, if not a single principle, at least a single explanation, a single list of the elements that make for good management, good leadership. If only we can find it, if only we can figure out how to teach it to managers and leaders . . . .

As in the field of physics, there are many quite serious, profound thinkers contributing their efforts to the search. And, as in the field of physics, it may, ultimately, be an illusory quest.

What makes someone a good manager or leader?

Why do smart, successful executives fail? (It was Sydney Finkelstein’s presentation at the Human Resource Leadership Forum last Wednesday that got me thinking along these lines.)

What is the correct way to handle conflicts on a team?

What exactly is the proper distinction among vision, mission, goals and objectives?

What is the approach to follow: Six Sigma, Agile, Lean, Cog’s Ladder or any of the multiple other systems of performance and process improvement?

Each and every one of these questions, each and every answer represents a legitimate approach to organizing, systematizing our approach to nagging, ongoing human interaction issues that bedevil organizations such as businesses. We need order in our thinking. We need to have thought beforehand about the resources needed. We need to foresee likely consequences and “side effects” of our actions.

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Let’s just not collapse our thinking into a single (unitary) tunnel vision that robs us of our ability to think of alternatives to our own favorite ways of understanding the world. Let’s remember the Law of Large Numbers: “the average of the results obtained from a large number of trials should be close to the expected value, and will tend to become closer as more trials are performed.” (Wikipedia) Often we don’t have enough repeated experiences to make statistically valid generalizations about “the way things work.” We make flawed decisions based on the inadequate, limited information, insights and advice we have available to us.

And we fail. And we adapt.

Is that my “unitary theory”?

” . . . something special to give, but only if we don’t crush their spirits.”

In an e-mail exchange recently, Tony Toledo, one of the pillars of the New England storytelling community, shared this quote from Lynda Barry:

There are certain children who are told they are too sensitive, and there are certain adults who believe sensitivity is a problem that can be fixed in the way that crooked teeth can be fixed and made straight. And when these two come together you get a fairytale, a kind of story with hopelessness in it.
I believe there is something in these old stories that does what singing does to words. They have transformational capabilities, in the way melody can transform mood.
They can’t transform your actual situation, but they can transform your experience of it. We don’t create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay. I believe we have always done this, used images to stand and understand what otherwise would be intolerable.”
Lynda Barry,
What it Is

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Doria Hughes, another prominent storyteller in New England, had the following powerful reflection to add:

Lynda Barry’s quote had a very powerful resonance for me.  For the first 18 years of my life, I endured unceasing bullying at the hands of my peers; bullying which was compounded by the insensitivity and misunderstanding and sheer lack of imagination of many of the adults around me, who believed that the problem stemmed from an essential character flaw within me, the person targeted for bullying.  I was given to understand in no uncertain terms that my torment would cease if I could somehow learn to not be tormented.  To them, I was a honeypot of trouble, so no wonder that flies were attracted to me; it was up to me to fundamentally change what and who I was, not for the flies to stop buzzing.  My refusal or inability to change simply reinforced their belief that there was something wrong and bad about me.  At best I was lazy – “not trying hard enough to fix my part of the problem”; at worst, I was a truly bad person, who deserved the badness that was drawn to me.

When Barry uses the phrase “fairytale, a kind of story with hopelessness in it”, I guess you could say she was being metaphorical.  If I could be so bold as to translate her words for you, I believe that she is saying that there is a kind of sad and familiar narrative (what she calls a story or fairytale) being played out among children and adults, in schools and playgrounds.  She describes the narrative as a story/fairytale because that is shorthand for saying that it is a narrative which has been reenacted over and over and over, all over the world, throughout most of recorded time.  And she calls it “hopeless”, because we it continues to reenact itself even today, on school playgrounds and in classrooms and in homes everywhere.

In other words, we aren’t making the kind of progress we ought to be making to ease the psychic pain of children who are “different” from their peers.  We – the grownups – are failing to recognize that the “different” kids are just as worthy of love and praise and encouragement as their peers.  We are too focused on our besetting sin as humans – the desire to be similar, to fit in, and be the same – when our true virtue and our greatest strength is our differences, and our diversity.  

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The human race did not get where we are today by ensuring uniformity of thought and appearance.  We have made amazing technological and fashion breakthroughs precisely because certain individuals among us were different, and those individuals were able to fight their way through to maintaining their precious essential true selves so as to achieve a special destiny: discovering a new way of dressing, a new way of communicating, a new way to cure a disease.  The very qualities that cause some of us to be teased and scolded on the playground and in our classrooms are PRECISELY those qualities that lead to some people growing up to be Beethoven, Einstein, or Coco Chanel.  After all, what do you suppose those people were like as children?  DO you imagine that they conformed to the way all the other kids were acting, dutifully bent their head when the teacher taught them that 2 + 2 = 4?  Not when they knew that it sometimes equals 7.

Lynda Barry understands this narrative, has seen it play out in real life, and has made the connection between tales of real children to Stories and Fairytales in which imaginary children also suffer, and try to find their way.  She recognizes that Stories and Fairytales provide many of us with psychic roadmaps, or at the very least a little bit of human understanding.  They show us that we are not alone in our suffering, that other people have also been persecuted or driven away for being different.  And that sometimes those folks can have happy endings, if they persevere and have hope.  Have you heard of the “It Gets Better” project?  It’s an on-line film project where adults film themselves telling their stories about how badly they were teased and hurt in their youth for being gay, but how they have managed to survive to a happy or at least better adulthood.  Their mission is to give hope, in the form of stories, to gay youth who are facing the prospect of suicide as the only way to stop the misery of their current existence.

As Barry says in the quote which Tony posted, “[Stories and Fairytales] can’t transform your actual situation, but they can transform your experience of it.”

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I could continue to explicate Barry’s extraordinarily wise and very rich words, but I have to take my daughter to her bassoon lesson.  As a personal aside, I want to mention that she is the only child in her school who plays bassoon, an instrument that looks and sounds like a loudly farting bed post; in fact, she plays it in her Jazz Band, where she is the only girl in an otherwise all-male ensemble.  I am thankful every day that she embraces her own uniqueness, and fearlessly faces the world as a Jazz Bassoon-playing girl.  She knows that doing something which nobody else does is not something to be ashamed of, but something to celebrate, something which can bring joy to people around her.  It feels like a miracle to me that when she honked out her solo (her Jazz Band leader arranged Michael Jackson’s “Bad” for bassoon and Jazz ensemble; he is a man with fearless intelligence and imagination) last weekend in front of a gym-full of people, with the boys in her band playing backup, it never occurred to her that anyone would put her down for who she was and what she loved.

I am thankful for the grownups like Lynda Barry and my daughter’s Jazz Band leader, who understand the value of ALL children, not just the normal well-adjusted ones, but the strange and unusual ones.  All of those children have something special to give, but only if we don’t crush their spirits.  And yes, stories help.  I read stories and fairytales with hungry desperation throughout my childhood, and they were a kind of solace that, as Barry says, helped me to face the harsh reality of life in the “real” world.  “We don’t create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay.”  For those youth who have no one to turn to and cannot sustain a nurturing fantasy world in the face of intolerable cruelty, many choose not to stay with us, to our eternal loss.

– Doria