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Sum of the parts

October 22, 2014

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.
Albert Einstein

You may find yourself wondering about this one. It’s all about education. I promise. A bit of a walk around the barn, perhaps, but in the end, it may lead to one more, if only momentary, ‘aha-a-a!’ experience… and those are always happy places.
Tampa Preparatory School is a client of mine. Having recently completed a round of parent, student, and employee surveys for Tampa Prep, I can tell you that they’ve got their act together, all around!
The Head of School answers his phone with: “It’s a great day at Tampa Prep. This is Kevin Plummer. How can I help you?” If you have the chance to meet him, jump all over it. I’m sure you’ll love him as I do.
Here’s the thing. This School presents itself very pointedly with the tagline: “We are more than just a college preparatory school, we are a preparation for life with a higher purpose than self.” This says much to me, and I like what it says. No… I love what it says! In concert with other nagging cerebral itches, this tagline prompts me to further explore what follows, and nicely wraps it all up with a lovely ribbon… a higher purpose than self.
Now for that walk around the barn…
I’m not a terribly religious person, and am comfortable in the absence of any kind of terror in my life. Don’t get me wrong. A dear friend and spiritual support over the past 30 years has been one Fr. Vladimir, Russian Orthodox priest. He’s also an occasional golf buddy and has been known on more than one occasion to hook a hockey stick dangerously high between my legs, but that’s a terror story for another day. Hmmm…
Like any man-made institution, religion is subject to human error… and as a result, to human terror. Some of the greatest errors and terrors in history have been perpetrated in the convenient name of one God or another. As we witness, even today, the beat goes on.
But I digress even before getting started. Forgiveness, please. Today’s rambling is not about religion, but I mean to draw on the notion of human, or humanist if you prefer, spirit and its place in our very fragile, very human condition.
The religious metaphor of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost is a perfect reflection of this fragile human existence: the Intellectual, the Physical, and the Spiritual. To carry the parallel one step further, in an imaginary perfect world, these three components, the human trinity, are consubstantial, that is: different in aspect, but of one essence. My life journey, as I see it, consists of the repeated disengagement of these three consubstantial aspects, one from the other (a.k.a.: the Fall). The unending task for me, then, is to respond in an uphill battle to balance and re-fuse my intellectual, physical, and spiritual aspects into one essence.
This three-pronged journey is at the core of my life view. It’s also at the core of my evolving world view. They are one and the same… consubstantial, you might say. Regular reference to the human trinity: the intellectual; the physical; and the spiritual offers much insight as to how my life is on or off the track. The same is true for the state of the world.
Key to success in this journey is the pursuit of balance. Heightened development of my physical aspect, for example (not much risk of that, I should add), at the expense of the intellectual or spiritual, leaves me out of balance and not capable of achieving my highest potential. It is this interaction of balance with the notion of achieving potential that intrigues me as I work to better understand and articulate my life and world view.
My assignment for the day is to create a visual representation of my world view. I’d love to tell you that I’ve captured it all in a simple Cartesian graphic or stick-man drawing. I regret to report, however, that it cannot be done. As much as models crave simplicity, this one defies that requirement. Life as I view it is much like a golf swing – there are 101 variables and even if you’ve got 100 of them down, just one little mistake can leave you in a hazardous place.
With balance as a central factor and pivotal structure in my model, then, and with the human trinity as an ever-present overlay, I look to the child’s playground teeter-totter for my opening image of the world dynamic. In perfect balance on a teeter-totter, two small children find themselves in transcendence. Suspended in balance above the Earth for just a moment, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
If and when my three aspects ever find themselves in balance, I as an individual will be greater than the sum of my parts. In the same way, when my marriage finds itself in balance (a common but not perpetual state), my wife and I, together, are greater than the sum of our parts. Our family as a somewhat balanced unit, my relationships in business, the hockey team I play with every Friday night, our nation-state, and the world at large – in short, any collective in balance bears greater potential than the mere sum of its parts. Synergy thus defined, nice and simple. End of story, right? Not so fast. Identifying balance as key to my model is necessary, but not sufficient. To say that we need balance is like saying we need air to breathe. No value added to that conversation. The task at hand is to identify and isolate the key variables that come together to create balance, and to understand the dynamics among them so as to capture some vague understanding of how to achieve balance in life and in the world. Not so simple, and certainly beyond the scope of this submission.
To begin with, then, let’s identify what sits on either end of the teeter-totter. Not two small children. Not my wife and I. Not different parts of my hockey team. Not the U.S.A. and the former Soviet Union either, I should say. That is a limited and unfortunate sound-bite pundit’s view of life in a polarized world. Nice and simple, but no value added to the conversation. It may not be an altogether inaccurate description of the world we live in, but I’m looking for a new path, not a description of one that clearly isn’t taking us to where we want to be.
So… in this very simple image of a teeter-totter in balance, I place on one seat the Individual and on the other seat the Collective.
Think of the teeter-totter plank as a continuum ranging from one to a hundred. On one end, the rights of the individual supersede the rights of the collective 100:1. On the other end, the rights of the collective supersede those of the individual 100:1. In the middle, rights of the individual and of the collective are in balance at 50:50.
This is all about give and take. In any relationship, where any one party overpowers others entirely in favour of individual rights, the collective suffers and the whole fails to achieve its potential. Where one party voluntarily sacrifices itself entirely in favour of the collective, that party suffers as an individual, inevitably arriving in a position unable or unwilling to make an optimal contribution. Again, the whole fails to achieve its potential. Somewhere in between lives what my wife calls the Golden Middle … a delicate balance where the individual is served, the collective is served, and the mix of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Capacity to contribute to the whole is a function of the health of the individual. In turn, the health of the individual is promoted and protected in the strength of numbers – the collective. The popular concept of the individual versus the collective is flawed at its very heart. The individual and the collective are, in a balanced state, consubstantial… and transcendent. Works on a playground teeter-totter. Works in a marriage. Works in a hockey arena. Works anywhere when individuals are combined to create anything greater than the self. Works also, I would contend, in the dynamic between markets and regulatory bodies. I’m with Stiglitz who argues “the reason that the invisible hand often seems invisible is that it is often not there.” The notion that – when we each pursue our own self-interest without regard for others, the interest of the collective is well served – is the same as saying that, when wild dogs fight with each other over a deer carcass, all’s well in the world.
I have described this balance between the individual and the collective as delicate. Perhaps precarious would be a better word. From where I sit, this is so because whenever we achieve some semblance of balance, life intervenes. Life is that persistent force that teases us, or tempts us, or downright forces us out of balance. We take things (and people) for granted. We become complacent and arrogant. We fall victim to our successes. Success, I say, is one of the best predictors of failure. Our teeter-totter withstands just one more day of work, or one more hour of sleep, or one more twinkie or beer or bag of chips. Without even being aware of it, our transcendent state of balance is lost… and we find ourselves again scrambling to recover. And the beat goes on.
Here’s where things start to get a little complicated. I ask myself: What are the most critical factors that promote and protect balance in my life and in the world? How can we set ourselves up as individuals and as communities of communities for the greater good? How can we be both net contributors (leave more than you take) and beneficiaries at the same time?
Your answer depends much on your view of our natural state. In my view, we are not greedy, power-craving animals, devoid of compassion. Some of us may be. Some part of each of us may be, but I believe that the dominant state is one of interdependent co-opetition. While we do compete with one other, this competition, in a natural state, is not to the detriment of the collective. Our species has survived and thrived, not because we play King of the Hill, but because we cooperate and work together with a “higher purpose than self”. The natural state is not the challenge. The challenge is the aberrant exception – the anomalous individual who loses his way, ambitiously and selfishly scratching to the top of the hill, only to be taken down again by a disapproving collective. As I say, the beat goes on…
Our task, then, is to protect the structure of the whole and in doing so its chances of retaining (or recovering) balance. We do this in some part through the application of external regulation where self-regulation fails. Markets do not regulate themselves. That’s a myth promulgated by those who would control the markets, free of regulation.
The greatest task in the name of balance, I would contend, is found in education. To whatever extent we can convince our children that they can make a difference in the world, and that they have a responsibility to do so, there is hope. Pursuit of individual aspirations, without reference to the whole, is folly. We need leaders willing to step outside of a model that promotes the individual, irrespective of the collective. We need to develop and strengthen ourselves as individuals, not in answer to personal ambition, but in the service of others. From Albert Pine, “What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal.”
After much thought, and much discussion, I have concluded that happiness, for me, comes from knowing that I make a difference. We are individuals in need of personal reflection, but always as part of something larger than ourselves. Engagement in something larger than ourselves is key. I engage… therefore, I am.
Balance is also served by shared values, juxtaposed with diversity in thought. There must be some small set of values that are broadly shared for a community to be sustained (topic for another day). Grown too large, however, this set of shared values becomes monolithic, creating and promoting adversarial relationships with other communities. Make no mistake. We’ve got to stand for something. If we don’t stand for anything, we should just sit down. When we stand for everything, though, our narrowing definition of ‘normal’ becomes antagonistic and, at times, predatory. No balance in that.
The more I consider this model, the less satisfactory the teeter-totter becomes. It’s very two-dimensional, offering only a side view of what’s happening. With each new contributing factor I bring in, another dimension is added to the model. By tilting the side view of this teeter-totter up or down, I realize that it’s more like an oblong spinning plate, spinning true when my life or the world is in balance, wobbling when in need of adjustment. Pretty wobbly world we live in these days.
We tell our kids, “get engaged, be happy, and be a net contributor to society”. Sounds simple, but it’s not. They’ll be constantly pulled out of balance and find themselves without footing. That’s life. Life is not just what happens to us. Life is what we do about what happens to us. We’ve got to create ourselves and to find or create a place for ourselves within the whole. There is no other path. In the end, this is the most important lesson we must share in hopes of preparing our children.
Individuals, collectives, engagement, self-reflection, leadership, interdependence, shared values, diversity, structure and regulation, personal achievement and making a difference. Perhaps we’re talking here about multiple spinning plates … on a high wire above Niagara Falls… while texting a friend.
Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not.
Robert F. Kennedy
With respect,

Kevin Graham


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