004 Chreods, Grotesques and other monsters

I got stuck on this bit
very stuck
stuck for a long time
months in fact
Somehow I just couldn’t find a way through
to what I wanted to say
Thinking about it
it all seemed to make sense
but when it came to putting something down
the pieces didn’t quite seem to fit together
I didn’t know where to begin
Now strictly speaking
my stuckness
is a private problem
It’s not part of this more public conversation
It’s something that should be of little interest to you
particularly since I largely ascribed it to
my idleness
my procrastination
my cluster of habits
that get in the way
of what I think I want
So why am I talking about it
what has it go to do with the one-sided conversation
we have been having
I haul it into this public conversation
because it is an example
of a little monster
an example of a failure to pay attention
to what is going on
a failure to learn from experience
I began the last chapter
thinking I was involved in an assault on process
and found
as wrote
that I had moved to quite a different place
As I said all those months ago
“The reality seems to be
that the world we live
and act in
is a world of processes”
And yet despite all that
I started trying to write this chapter
as another assault on some processes
I was calling
Chreods, Grotesques and other monsters
and wondered why
I couldn’t go on
Then one day
I suddenly recognised that
I had been trapped
in an old mode of thinking
that despite all the learning
the changes in perspective
that had come about
by working on the earlier chapter
when it came to working on this one
I had reverted to my previous mindset
What I had failed to realise
that what concerned me
were frameworks for processes
the processes themselves
What interest me
that over the months
of not writing this chapter
I had a number of insights
into what I was doing
changes of tack
And yet I kept on reverting
to the same old groove
Now some of this has been due
to the wider framework
I was operating in
I had other things to do
my focus was split
writing Purposive Drift
was not an immediate priority
Also lurking somewhere
was fear
I feel it now
Now the straightforward reaction
to fear
is to run away
(and I guess that is what I have been doing
since in this context
not writing
is running away)
But as I talked about in the previous chapter
emotions like fear
are a signal
that there is something we should pay attention to
The question here
is what needs attention?
On the face of it
there is nothing fearful about putting
words on a screen
In this case
there is no client
who might reject what I have written
No lover who might misunderstand
my intent
No friend who could be offended
by something I might say
In fact since
at the moment
this is an entirely private affair
just me
and the words I write
there would seem to be nothing to be afraid of
And yet I feel fear
Which leads me to the conclusion
it is this interaction
the words I write
which is where the fear lies
And this
I think
has something to do
the framework
that I have established
for the process
of writing these words
This book itself
is an illustration
purposive drift
a context for exploration
and improvisation
It has a form and structure
which has already changed
as a result
of what I have learnt
through the process of writing
The form and structure
are anchor points
to provide a framework
for drift
without getting totally lost
but they are provisional anchor points
(I hope)
to change
if the signals I get
that the content demands
a different frame
this open and safe place
I have created
to explore some ideas
I still run into getting stuck
feeling fear
I labour this point
this is a very concrete example
of how
even when we create
a framework for processes
that should allow for attention
and freedom of movement
within that space
we can still lose purpose
Now my purpose in this chapter
was to explore some of the things
that blocks us
from being
“… open enough
to devise plans and processes
that are sensitive
to the ebbs and flows
of the processes that surround us
so that we can recognise
when we need to give a little nudge
to shift us
into another pattern of processes
that for that moment
seems to make more sense”
When I first conceived the framework
for this book
this chapter looked as if
it was going to be one of the easier ones
I had been thinking about Chreods
for many years
And Grotesques
for nearly as long
What I hadn’t anticipated
was my experience of writing the last chapter
What I hadn’t expected
was a radical change of mind
Now this
of course
is part of the purpose
of purposive drift
It’s the point
It is what I have been going on about
But this long discussion
of my sense of being blocked
of my sense of fear
points to one of the difficulties
of purposive drift
It does mean
being prepared
to take the risk
of being
and feeling
uncertain where to go
That was what I was feeling
when I was writing the last chapter
clearly I didn’t want to go there again
block and fear
Are there any wider lessons from this experience?
Are there any strategies that spring to mind
to overcome this little monster?
it looks as if what we are dealing with here
is another version of what
I call a chreod
I stumbled across the concepts of chreods
many years ago
when I was doing some
theoretical research
about education
My particular interest
was to develop a basis
for designing
new art and design courses
What I found was
there was a lack of congruence
my experience of being in educational contexts
most of the theories and descriptions
of what that experience was about
What struck me was how difficult it was
to think outside
that frame
How there seemed to be a kind of force
dragging me back
to those perspectives
on educational action
my reason
and my feelings
telling me I should be looking
somewhere else
That was when I stumbled across
C.H.Waddington’s concept
of chreods
The term chreod is derived
from the Greek
and means
necessary path
who was a biologist and philosopher
had noticed
that many processes
particularly processes involving change
like the development of an embryo
developments in a society
are channelised
A chreod has a history
Take water running down a slope
At one point
predicting where the water would run
would have been difficult if not impossible
after a while
because the water wears away the slope
its path will
over time become channelised
So we can say that any process
that has the characteristics of
a chreod
will have a history
and that history is itself
a process of narrowing down possibilities
Different kinds of chreods
have a varying range of predictability
Waddington used the analogy of
rivers and valleys
In a valley with a narrow bottom
and steeps sides
the path of the river
will be relatively restricted
In a valley with a wide bottom
relatively small events
may change the course of the river
but still within the constraints
of the shape of the valley
Identifying and understanding
the nature of the chreods
we encounter
I now see
is an important part of practising
purposive drift
up until now
I had a very different take on chreods
and one
I don’t think that
Waddington discussed
What grabbed me
and what
up until now
I had focused on
was something very different
I guess they could be called
(a bit like Ellen Langer’s story of the family who cut chunks off the pot roast without knowing why)
I even coined a word
to describe the process
of trying to break these chreods
that had lost their relevance
but still exercised their power
over our thinking
and action
What I failed to notice
was that I was paying attention
to a very small subset
of chreods
and by doing so
missing their real significance
(This of course maybe another reason
I got so stuck
on this chapter)
if I had spent more time
about chreods
as a norm
rather than
as an aberration
I would have got a better handle
on how and why
some chreods
(the ones we have created)
can move into the position
of now longer being appropriate
but still influencing what we do
Reaching this point
I am reminded of Thomas Kuhn’s concept of paradigms
Now these days the word paradigm
is tossed around
in a very loose way
But Kuhn’s use of the term
seems very close to the idea of a chreod
For Kuhn a paradigm
was a framework
that channelised
the thinking and action
within a scientific discipline
One of the things he was interested in
was how and why these frameworks changed
From what I remember
His thinking was that paradigms shifted
when the anomalies
– the things that could not be explained within
that framework-
reached a critical mass
But interestingly
he suggested that paradigms
didn’t shift because people
changed their minds
They largely change
because the people who work
within a paradigm die
The new paradigm is largely established
by the young and by people on the fringes
of a discipline
In this sense
the process of paradigm shifts
can be seen
as a biological process
I fear he may be right
and hope he may be wrong
as I say
obsolete chreods seem to have
many of the characteristics
of paradigms
despite my earlier remarks
about my misunderstandings
of the nature of chreods
I think my fundamental instinct was right
We are dominated
by compelling ways of
and acting
in the world
that get in the way
of seeing what is actually going on
as opposed to what we think
is going on
We are strangers in the world we have created
Let me give you an example
For a long time
I shared the prejudices
of many people of my age and class
about mobile phones
I saw them as being rather stupid and vulgar
One day
I was out shopping with my nephew
He was buying food
for a meal he was preparing for a friend
who was coming round that evening
His friend had recently broken up
with his girlfriend
He was very distressed
While we were out
my nephew and his friend
who was driving
exchanged a number of calls
and decided that rather than waiting until the evening
they’d meet when we finished shopping
in a place nearby
It struck me then
that something very new and interesting was going on
The mobile phone
gave people the means
to manage and coordinate
their lives
in a more spontaneous way
that hadn’t been possible before
Suddenly all the things I had been snotty about
shifted their meaning
The person ringing their partner to say they were
on the train
The hapless man
staring at the supermarket shelves
to say that he couldn’t find any…
and what should he get instead
a whole range of small human behaviours
that I had dismissed
as being trivial
took on a new significance
I realised
it was I who had been stupid
not the people
using their mobiles
It all comes back to paying attention
and what
we pay attention to
A paradigm or chreod
can help us pay attention
to what we need
to focus on
It can also distract us
to the point of blindness
from paying attention
to what is new in our context
if you can bear the repetition
brings me back to
the question of
how we can be
“… open enough
to devise plans and processes
that are sensitive
to the ebbs and flows
of the processes that surround us
so that we can recognise
when we need to give a little nudge
to shift us
into another pattern of processes
that for that moment
seems to make more sense”
We need a feeling of purpose
if we are to get things done
I think
purpose implies a sense of certainty
a sense that we know what we are doing
that we understand the context we are doing it in
But somehow
that feeling of certainty
needs to be tempered
a sense of other possibilities
It seems to be a kind of tightrope walk
the certainty we need to get things done
an openness to other possibilities
so that we do not miss the opportunities
to do something better
that may be sitting there
under our nose
if only we could see them
I guess the biggest obstacle
to seeing what is actually there
is a strong sense of our own
rightness and virtue
particularly when it is founded
on a simple truism
EL Doctrow
gave an interesting speech
at Bradeis University
some years ago
during the first Bush years
He talk about the theory of grotesques
an idea he had borrowed from
Sherwood Anderson
As he says
“This is not a scientific theory but a historical poetic theory of what happens to people sometimes as they strive to give value and meaning to their lives.”
He goes on
“Here is the theory: that all about us in the world are many truths to live by, and they are all beautiful – the truth of passion and love, the truth of candour and thrift, the truth of patriotism, the truth of self-reliance, and so on. But as people come along and try to make something of themselves, they snatch up a truth and make it their own predominating truth to the exclusion of all others. And what happens, says Anderson, is that the moment a person does this – clutches one truth too tightly – the truth so embraced becomes a lie and the person turns into a grotesque.”
He goes on to give a number of examples
Thrift when you’re young and starting a career
can be a good thing
But when you’re established
and earning a good income
continuing to deny yourself
and others
to hoard money as an end in itself
becomes something
You become a miser
a grotesque
or more politically
and closer to the central theme
of his speech
a virtue underlying the policies
of the Reagan administration
As Doctrow says
can be a beautiful thing
but when a government
or scorns
other virtues
such as
our moral responsibility to others
the interdependence of all society’s citizens
you get the obscenity
of taking away from the poor
to give to the rich
As so often
I have taken
Anderson theory of the grotesque
and turned it into something else
similar in spirit
but more to do with processes
rather than people
In my notion
a grotesque
is a process
with a single dominating goal
Now of course
there are many little processes
that may have a single goal
and that’s OK
The problem comes
when you have a wider process
running a business
shaping your life
Here the single goal
can become
a distorting monster
For example
many of us would agree
that making a profit
is a legitimate goal
of a business
Indeed it corresponds to the biological truth
that an organism needs
to taken in
as much energy
as it expends
One way or another
any organisation
doing things in the world
needs to achieve
something like
making a profit
Where things go wrong
is where it becomes
the single
over-riding goal
Charles Hamden-Turner puts it well
“the notion that any one value or criterion of excellence pursued in isolation is almost bound to steer you into trouble, even catastrophe .”
And continues
“All values are relative, you may think, but the need to profit, that is the one pure truth beneath the shifting sands, that is the commercial equivalent of fundamentalist scripture. When all other values have been finely balance, virtuously circled and transformed into larger meaning, profit will remain ‘the bottom line’, the ultimate arbiter of the effectiveness of overall strategy. I fear this is just not so.”
He then outlines a number of reasons
holding profit
as the one measure of corporate health
can be misleading
In some industries
like the oil business
the profit you make today
may the result of decisions
taken thirty years ago
and give you give little useful information
about the quality of the decisions you take today
A company can put its future
at risk
by slashing research and development costs
losing its experienced people
by downsizing
by doing so
profitability may look good
in the short-term
even though future profitability
or even survival
may have been put at risk
But the central point
is not
as such
It is the pursuit of a single value or goal
in isolation
You could make the same case
for a company
that was obsessed
by market share
or creativity
It?s not the goal that’s the problem
it’s the fact
that it is a single goal
I am reminded of study
lucky people
Richard Wiseman
the University of Hertfordshire
In an interview in Fast Company magazine
he gave
what could be seen
as a very succinct argument
in favour of
purposive drift
“We are traditionally taught to be really focused, to be really driven, to try really hard at tasks. But in the real world, you’ve got opportunities all around you. And if you’re driven in one direction, you’re not going to spot the others. It’s about getting people to have various game plans running in their heads. Unlucky people, if they go to a party wanting to meet the love of their life, end up not meeting people who might become close friends or people who might help them in their careers. Being relaxed and open allows lucky people to see what’s around them and to maximize what’s around them.”
Perhaps that says it all
everything I have been struggling
to say
in what for me has been a difficult chapter
“in the real world, you’ve got opportunities all around you. And if you’re driven in one direction, you’re not going to spot the others.”
This may be because you are caught in a chreod
and the process is pushing you in a single direction
It may be that the pursuit of a single goal
has turned your process
into a grotesque
so that you are blind
to the other perils and opportunities
that lie around you
It may just be a little monster
like paying too much attention
to a single signal
that stops you seeing
better ways to go on