Monday, February 11, 2013

The Essence of Mentoring

The following is the paper I presented at the UMM Mentoring Conference, October 2012

Questions Concerning the “Essence” of Mentoring:  From Goddess to Profession

Michael H. Shenkman, Ph.D.Arch of Leadership, Professional Leader Mentoring


As a practicing professional, I have seen how mentoring transforms people's lives.  Still, it seems we need to make a strong case for why, in certain situations, mentoring is called for, and we need to be able to distinguish what methods and outcomes are specific to mentoring, even when it is combined with other developmental methods.   
Philosophical inquiry is well suited to affirm the specific contribution mentoring offers and opens up promising ways to advance the practice. Philosophical questioning, as has historically been the case in Western science, can sharpen the thinking that determines criteria for professional excellence, specifies rationales for training and demarcates necessary subject matter for mastery.  
As a professional, non-academic, practicing philosopher, I interpret the “founding” story of Mentor, as found in Homer’s Odyssey. From this interpretation we can then ask:
Why has mentoring now risen to the fore? What are the situations in which mentoring alone suffices? What occurs only in that mentoring relationship? What does mentoring produce, bring forth into a person’s life, which is uniquely an effect of mentoring?
From this non-technical, participative inquiry we can begin to distinguish our field of study.  


          This essay explores the question, “what is the essence of mentoring?” I ask a philosophical question, in order to generate practical, professional questions.

It seems to me the notion of mentoring faces challenges that cannot be answered by shifting our perspectives on institutional practices or practical definitions; and, accordingly, another viewpoint needs to be summoned to the scene.  For instance, the word "mentoring" is now applied to all sorts of support services -- to everything from urging young people into careers to providing advisors for guiding employees through the thickets of corporate politics. “Mentoring” supposedly fills the gaps. Form another direction, other practices claim to cover any and all manner of "informal" (non-licensed, non-technical) support services, such as surrogate parenting, to coaching or student advising. We could be content with this state of affairs. And then, the subject of this conference is the question of how, where, why and whether mentoring fits in with other professional support and developmental services? 

I propose to show here that when we say we are “mentoring” we give voice to a special and singular set of intentions, one that is different from other intentions we have and other activities we perform and/or engage in. When a psychoanalyst is doing his or her work, it is conducted in a certain way, with particular models of development being employed and certain outcomes are expected and used as touchstones to determine the stage of movement toward those outcomes. Analogously, when we say we are mentoring we can be aware of very particular aspects of the mentee’s situation and speak to these aspects alone -- even in the midst of offering other kinds of services. When we are mentoring we are putting into play a certain model of what our “psyche” wants and how it operates. And then, when we are mentoring, we can be aware that it is only mentoring that is being done; and when we do them, we can expect certain results, and not others. 

In raising the question as to the “essence” of mentoring we turn our attention toward the factors that organizes our “awareness”.  It is not that we can ever get to say, “mentoring is this or that,” as though it were a thing we could pick up, examine and then go to work on. In examining the “essence” of mentoring we are guiding our awareness as it is employed in order to elicit a certain kind of relationship, conversation and outcomes. When we act according to the “essence” we are orienting our attention to a cluster of questions that delineates a particular path, just this path, and no other.  We are dedicating ourselves to an awareness that will, with some effort, guide us in an endeavor we intend to enact and fulfill.

I will begin with an interpretation of the "founding" story of the idea of the mentor from Homer's, The Odyssey. By highlighting how this account truly does introduce a very special kind of intervention in a life, we can answer the questions we asked above and take from this what we can refer to as being the "essence" of mentoring.[1]

The Story

In the meantime, Telemachus’s domain is under siege. Rumors have spread that Odysseus has died in the war, and thus a phalanx of suitors and hangers-on flock to the family’s estate to woo Penelope, his mother, Odysseus’s wife, and thus assume ownership and command of Odysseus’ kingdom. The scene is one of chaos, of the breakdown of order, of competition (conflicts, fights and deaths) among individual, testosterone-driven desires and ambitions. But it is one in which it is clear just what one must do with respect to it.  It is a scene that calls for action and remedy, to be sure; but it also calls for wisdom in deciding the right tack to take, the right kind, quality and amount of force and/or authority to wield.

State of Mind. Telemachus feels an absence; that is, where there should be a sense of purpose and energy, of vision, instead, there is a hole, emptiness and a deafening silence. Instead of a concrete voice and visage there is confusion and impotence. Telemachus feels something: he feels a longing that he has now set this in the shape of the bsence of his father.  But in the most anti-psychoanalytical way imaginable, Homer tells a story in which the father problem is a stand-in for Telemachus’ own longings. Telemachus feels a stirring, he experiences an absence; it might be the case that the absence he feels is something else, that he might be on the verge of something new, a new stage in his life; but at this moment he does not know what that “something” is.

The crisis Telemachus faces is that of being blocked, of feeling an inner urge and calling being thwarted. The immensity of the problem seems to put it beyond his reach, although he keeps getting called back to it. 

It is not that he lacks the will or know-how to take on the debauching suitors who are creating such chaos -- he has these qualities; it is not a matter of him not knowing how to perform certain skills, such as sword play or combat -- he does know how to do those things. His sense of self (such as the Greeks might have had it) is dwarfed in the face of this absence, and so, as long as he thinks this, he is immobilized. His sense of his own mission and calling are unclear; they are in too diffuse a state to respond to, too overwhelming in its chaotic, ambiguous, massive extent for him to engage; they are too new, in this growing and maturing young man, to identify, clarify, put in order and priority and so act upon.  With all this chaos around him — overwhelming him and his mother, and upsetting the kingdom over which his family presides — this absence (presumably, the absence of his father) burdens him, blocks him from acting in a way that accords with his nature. 

And then, her advice dispensed, when the message is received, and the plan is set in motion, she disappears from the scene. Her work is done.

The Essence of Mentoring

What does this scene tell us about the “essence of mentoring?” [2] Here I speak of “essence” as being a core of constancy to which we relate with the confidence that the continuity of our attention and what it elicits in us will persist through multiple engagements, through many diverse analyses and through all the permutations of conversations, dialogues and discussions. This awareness keeps us in a state of questioning about mentoring – opening an intended field such that mentoring, and mentoring alone, emerges to affect us and carry us forward into response, action, engagement and giving, as mentors do.[3]

The Scene. First, the scene itself brings to mind the questions, “Why was it that Mentor appeared, and not some other kind of intervention? Does this say anything to us about why mentoring has become important today?”  My suspicion on this subject is that mentoring rises to the fore in the context of precisely scenes such as this: when mentees feel that they are facing situations of immanent chaos, where values and processes are called into question.  Mentoring is needed when we might know what needs to be done, but we need to ask ourselves, am I the one to do those things? Even though I possess the skills, do I possess the will?  Is this the situation to which I want to devote my life, or this part of it? 
The nature of the chaos of the scene at Telemachus’s home goes right to the heart of this question: Why does a goddess, of the stature of Athena no less, have to appear to resolve the process?  She is required because a completely different kind of perspective, one that is completely outside of the tumult, is required to address this situation.  A mere mortal, even a heroic one, would simply attack the situation head on in order to prove worthiness by means of alpha status type invincibility. That approach would only repress and forestall the chaos for a time; it would not dispel it.  It also validates Telemachus’s crisis:  all the normal, adolescent and power-based approaches won’t suffice here.  What will suffice?  Does he have what it takes to address the situation?  How would he know whether or not he did (or didn’t)?

Today, we ask the question, “Why has mentoring risen to the fore now?”  I would say that it has done so because our way of life emulates to a tee exactly the quality of chaos depicted in Homer’s scene.  Our rationalized, prescribed behaviors create situations of competition-driven chaos.  It is just that now the sources of conflict are so diverse and numerous, navigating them is infinitely more difficult than what Telemachus faced. And so, even more pressing for us are the questions that beset Telemachus.  More than ever, we need some way to gain a perspective on the resources we can bring to bear such that we can make our respective ways.

Telemachus’s Issue: His Role. I think, in respect to the situation he faces, we can say that Telemachus is blocked, prevented by some internally generated reticence, and is so in a peculiar and specific way.  The sense of absence that he feels is cast in the image of his father, not of just a person, but in the mode of one who takes up a specific kind of relationship to him, who takes up a certain responsibility so that certain kinds of events, certain qualities of life, and that certain values can be nurtured and established. Thus the longing for the father can be considered a longing for being able to take up what, in his young, aspiring mind, is an appointed role:  just as his father personifies the assumed, mastered, masterly role, he is seeking such a role for himself.  But, this is not even as clear as that to Telemachus himself.  In view of the chaos around him, what kind of a role is suited to this chaotic situation?  Has this role ever been named?  Not to Telemachus’s mind.  He is on his own here, and that is a lonely place indeed.

The Goddess. Mentor is a goddess — one of the greats -- the goddess of wisdom and war.  To fully appreciate what we can glean from this scene, we need to appreciate that the gods in Homer’s time were not creators in the sense that the biblical Judeo-Christian God is. Homer’s gods enact what occurs and what takes place, in special relations with humans, on the earth, right then and there; but, not as would an earthly commander, but as imbued with a aura of destiny, futurity as a field of play, influence, and opened but constrained trajectory – in short, of possibility. Accordingly, Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war, enacts the irrepressible drive to comprehend a situation, to enable Telemachus to compose a mindset that is able to go right at the situation, head on, with vision and courage.  That is the wisdom side.  What about the war aspect?  War organizes forces of contestation against standing conventions and arrangements so as to stand up a different way, one that does not yet exist, but still holds sway as an engine of action. A goddess’ war is one that takes a stand for what is beyond the pale of mortal reductions and conventions, and so uplifts and transcends mortality and bends one’s will toward a greater, brighter light, and a wider sense of what living offers.[4] War, strange as it may seem to our modern ears, stands for striving, aspiration, and the contestation the thriving spirit requires. The war making then undertakes the steps necessary to overcome the incessant obstacles in order to accomplish this “vision.”[5] 

          Conversation. Athena does her work here by instigating a conversation, one from seemingly out of the blue, that will inspire Telemachus to undertake deeds that will literally transport him beyond his current state of being.  This is what the gods do in human affairs; they appear at the “right time,” when the subject is “ready.” The goddess signifies a power that must be prepared for in order to be received, one that transforms and shapes events as they are transpiring and so requires the readiness to engage, grow and comprehend the new.            It is not that the gods can see the future, but rather that they “get” the logic (the Greek Logos) of the whole that is in play in this particular arena of engagement– both in terms of the character of the people involved, as well as the dimensions of the situation in general.  That is, as a “logic,” what Mentor offers is the full force of what can be gathered into a “saying,” into a voiced, articulated, directed and destined “call” that can be heard, comprehended and taken up in a plan of action – the full force of wisdom and war. Thus, Athena/Mentor’s words, instructions, entreaties and demands form a sort of psychic bridge into new amplitudes, intensities and expanses of living. [6]     

          The Goddess’s Labor: Aspiration. In a word, we can say that the goddess dramatizes aspiration — the life beyond tasks, the spirit of expansiveness of possibility and encompassing of greater forces than those immediately in effect, the spirit opens futures beyond given strictures, and constantly generates open and unknown horizons that beckon.  And, the image of the goddess, arising on the scene, seemingly out of nowhere, signifies to us that all of this psychic uplift occurs in the midst of the here and now, the journey on the earth, over the seas, by the means available now.
Returning to our scene, Mentor appears, seemingly out of the blue, and urges Telemachus to take a long and dangerous voyage over vast seas in order to find a mere spec of a being -- one man, his father. This is the first step in altering Telemachus‘ view of his fixation on the missing father.  This way is also completely new and foreign to Telemachus, a way that has no guarantees, but places him in an act that is outrageous, but also seems in proportion to and is an appropriate and adequate response to the absence and yearning, and sense of crisis that Telemachus feels pressing upon him. Thus the second way the grip his fixation has on him is loosened and he is freed to decide what he will do next.

Outcome and Conclusion:  the Gift. And then, recall:  once Telemachus sets out on the voyage, Mentor/Athena disappears.  Once aspiration is voiced, envisioned (gathered and placed in the light) and undertaken, that aspiration belongs to that person alone – not to any goddess, or mentor. Her urging is offered pure a gift, [7] one that envisions no reciprocation or debt, that is given purely, as only a god (or a mentor) can give.  And even though Telemachus does not find his father, the “absence” is addressed none the less:  he now can assume full responsibility for the situation and take up a father’s role with respect to the chaos at hand.  That does not mean fix it, but instead means engage it, take it on has his mission, his mandate, his labor — his aspiration — to be the master of his domain.

The Essence, Its Differences and Consequences

So from all this, if Homer’s story is anything to go by, we can say that mentoring spurs and arouses the spirit to venture into the life of aspiration. Whatever a mentor does, the question that remains salient and outlines a sense of its “essence” is this:

Am I encouraging a person to gather his or her will, sprit and acumen in order act on his or her aspirations above all, against all obstacles, over and above all criticisms and judgments, and to strengthen and nurture those life competencies that will keep those aspirations alive? 
The key questions that will keep a mentor on that way are these?
1.  Is this person facing a chaotic scene in which values and priorities are under pressure and profoundly disturbed, murky?
2.  Is this a person who aspires: who is seeking a resolution in which the situation is not just for being fixed, but offers a pathway on which deep yearnings for something great to happen can be pursued?
4.  Is that person is blocked from pursuing that urge?
3.  Am I grasping the mentee’s aspiring mindset, and helping him or her to organize a life that generates such a path, comes on the scene?
4.  Am I conducting a conversation that enacts and embodies a gaze of wisdom and will, as the one who stands for the mentee’s life of aspiration?
5.  In each session, am I working toward validating the mentee’s aspiration and getting closer to envisioning practical steps that can be placed in service to that aspiration, while allowing other considerations that interfere, diminish or disparage that aspiration fall away? 
6.  When the mentee’s journey is underway, enacted in a mood of resolve, so as to fully adopt the life of aspiration do I fade out of the scene appropriately?

Questions Guiding Next Steps. In a most crucial way, we are still learning about mentoring.  In one way, of course, mentoring is the most natural, spontaneous, informal and personal way of supporting a person’s growth and development.  But if we are to be “professional” about mentoring and establish it as an independent component of developmental practices, we have to become more systematic about our approach – indeed as this conference and many academic departments are doing.  We then, might continue with our questions, asking:
·      Why has mentoring risen to the fore now? What are the situations today that require mentoring more than ever before?
·      How do we make it known that mentoring is indispensible at various points in people’s lives, and so both highlight those points, and have mentors be there to take up the task, to appear on the scene?
·      We are not goddesses, so how do we need to learn what mentoring entails?  What do we have to learn?  What kind of “persona” does a mentor adopt (in comparison to the remote psychoanalyst, or the “in your face” coach, for instance)?
·      What is a "mentoring" conversation: how does it proceed?  What constitutes its pacing, working assignments and methodology?
·      What does one have to learn about our subject matter, aspiration, in order to be a mentor?  Is there a special way to order our knowledge?  Is there an aspiring mindset that needs to be characterized outside of behavioral and cognitive psychological schemas?
·      How do we, do we want to, make mentoring be "professional?" 
·      When subjecting mentoring to institutional metrics, what compromises are we putting into effect?  How can we do so doing the least “harm” to the “essence” of mentoring?  Or can we convince institutions that mentoring’s value lies in the life stories it sets in motion? 

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F., (1983). Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press.
_________, (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press.
Derrida, Jacques, (1992). Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money. Chicago:  University of Chicago Press
Heidegger, Martin, Early Greek Thinking (1975). New York: Harper &Row.
_________, The End of Philosophy (2003). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
_________, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (1977). New York:  Harper Perennial
Shenkman, M., The Arch and the Path:  The Life of Leading Greatly (2005). SHM Press.
________, Leader Mentoring: Find, Cultivate and Inspire Great Leaders (2008). New York:  Career Press.

[1] To be sure this is an interpretive enterprise, as Homer had no operating notion of something akin to an “essence.”  This was a notion that only began to take shape in any kind of “functional,” that is “philosophical” form anywhere from 500 years to even 800 years after what are estimated as the time of Homer’s life (if, in fact, there is such a single person at all). 
[2] Philosophically speaking, one can make a career out of clarifying what this term means.  We can’t do that here.  But we can stake out a position on the legitimate (reasoned, reasonable, lawful) use of this term for our purposes. I emphasize the sense that Heidegger brings to this term, of an appearing that transpires so as to be complete, abiding and enduring in the light, and in such a way that nothing other than this appearing, and no other, could transpire.  Heidegger presents serial interpretations of “essence,” one after another, as he works through (the essence of) his thought.  See, for example, his discussion of Aristotle’s definition, in The End of Philosophy (Chicago; 1973); pp. 1ff.; and then for a more free-form rendering see The Question Concerning Technology and other Essays (New York; 1977); pp. 3ff.  Also see note #3 below.
[3] Heidegger constructively forms a bond between the notion of “essence” and questioning in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (New York; 1977). The notion of “essence” puts us on a way, ensconces us in a mindset in which certain occurrences, formations, sayings, and states (emotional, intellectual, cognitive, intentional) become active.  The “essence” gives us to question, (p. 1) to take up a mode, a way, such that, by questioning, we assure ourselves that we keep the in-forming presence (what we gather into a mode of standing before us, what we “enframe”; p. 24) in our attention and that it remains salient therein.  Questioning thus forms a “free relationship” to this act of in-forming, and so brings us, we bring ourselves, to a state of awareness in which that which is in-forming our attention emerges, out of all the clutter, clamor and noise in which it might otherwise be submerged.
[4] In the parlance of Deleuze and Guattari, a “war machine,” is a mode of engaging that underlies every organism’s impetus to take its place in its milieu.  See Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis, MN; 1987); Ch. 12.
[5] Athena founded cities.  Athens is the most famous of these, but there are others as well.  These cities are characterized by great energy, inventiveness and an expansive and, indeed, expansionist mindset. See Sallis, Chorology:  On Beginning in Plato’s Timeaus (Bloomington, IN; 1999); pp. 40ff.
[6] “…[The] enduring lighting lets gods and men come to presence in unconcealment in such a way that none of them could remain concealed; not because e is observed by someone, but because – and only because – each comes to presence…[The] gods are those who look into the lighting of what is present, which concerns mortals after their fashion, as they let what is present like before them in its presence and as they continue to take heed of it.”  Heidegger, Early Greek Thinking (op.cit.); p. 119.
[7] The mentor’s disappearance from the scene is not well accounted for in the current literature on mentoring, and yet it is an absolutely critical aspect of the process.  The mentor opens what cannot be given:  an unknown future, and one that remains so in each and every moment of its unfolding, to all concerned. According to the obscure logic of “the gift,” nothing, no existent factor, has passed between the parties. The mentor’s urging remains a gift because the outcome is completely incommensurable to anything that actually took place in the conversation.  Paradoxically, Mentor/Athena has proffered a gift precisely because Telemachus would fully internalize the outcome of the voyage as his own accomplishment.  Also, Mentor/Athena did not do anything in particular to engineer a specific outcome for which she could claim credit; and so what she gave, the urge into aspiration, remains in a state that does not command reciprocation, or enter into any exchange whatsoever.  C.f. Jacques Derrida, Given Time :I. Counterfeit Money (Chicago; 1992). 
In the most profound way, this disappearance signals a break with lines of causality and evokes notions of spontaneous emergence. This also makes it very difficult to “measure” the outcomes of mentoring, in its “essential” mode, especially in metrics-driven institutional settings. Metrics assume that one set of actions “caused” outcomes and the intent is to optimize these causing actions so as to increase the likelihood of the outcomes.  Mentoring specifically refuses the ascribing of cause, and the mentee takes up the urge according to his own will, proclivities and values.  

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Election: Way Worse

O.K. Time to talk about the election... sort of.  I wish I could say that the Romney/Ryan ticket is just not to my liking, since I am most definitely liberal-inclined.  However, my take on it is that it is worse than that, way worse.
Bringing me to that conclusion is an article by Jacques Derrida I read that really affected me, as his work is wont to do.

[The article is entitled, "No Apocalypse, Not Now," ( in Psyche:  The Inventions of the Other, V. I. -- a volume that contains several seminal essays of his that he wrote during his "mature" period, when he was beyond paying obeisance to the academic/philosophical establishment. ]

This article, was written in the mid-nineteen-eighties, in response to Reaganesque fantasies of Star Wars and winnable (prevailing through) nuclear wars. Derrida  makes the point (in his convoluted way) that "Nuclear War," is a fable.  It has never happened.  And so, all our policies and preparations are all done as matters of belief:  what we believe will happen;  what we believe people will do in dire situations;  what we believe our national powers can accomplish;  what we believe is important for our very humanity.

And so, for me it raises the question:  What is the state of "belief" today?  My answer, it is not good.

Here's the concern:  with the degeneration of belief in the world, or the de-coupling of belief from Reason, science, documented evidence, etc., what does that say about our vulnerability to nuclear war? It says we are more vulnerable than we ever have been.

The status of belief today is a shit pile of fundamentalism (including that of the Prime Minister of Israel, and the ayatollahs of Iran), fabulous promises of salvation (including those of Mormons), a raging denial of science as to the facts of everything from global climate change to basic female reproductive processes, to vicious, nasty, greedy and self-absorbed (Texas-style) egotism (culminating in an inability to ban assault weapons, for example, or the refusal to expand Medicaid).

My concern is that the Romney/Ryan ticket is completely held captive by those in the furthest backwaters and detritus of these vicious, nihilistic, cruel and atavistic beliefs, and they are even enthusiastic representatives of their own bizarre or failed belief systems: Mormonism and reactionary Catholicism ( and don't give me crap about freedom of religion, I am an atheist, decidedly lacking in the department of religion-based or institutionally dictated belief altogether, I am a philosopher, after all).

As far for the nuclear situation?  It merely dramatizes the stakes here across a range of issues that have expanded immensely since Derrida wrote that paper.  Economic debacles (based on the belief in the all-powerful marketplace), denial of climate change (based on utter ignorance fired by greedy corporate interests), famine or water shortages (used as political weapons by ideologues who subscribe to the beliefs we have indicated) could all accomplish disaster on a scale of nuclear cataclysm.

My concern is that people with beliefs that Eisenhower or George Kennan or JFK held are long gone. People with their beliefs -- that knowledge and a respect for human dignity were uppermost -- are being shifted to one of the two political parties; one of those parties, the Republican one, is nearly completely bereft of people with beliefs such as theirs, that ended wars, that kept us from nuclear ones; and, incredibly, the election is supposedly (I can't believe this), in a dead heat.

The Republican party is now filled with fundamentalists, birthers, climate change deniers, rape deniers, worshippers of the free market and utter disdain, if not down right hatred of people who need some help in our country or others (I can't help but feel that the austerity regimes imposed by the world's bankers and some nations, isn't part of the same resentment and hatred), and they claim the allegiance of half the country!!! Unbelievable.

What kind of a country is this?  If these are the beliefs that are represented by one major political force,  and we possess the power to unleash nuclear war and we contribute substantially and maybe decisively to the likelihood of other modes of disasters, how close are we to having these disasters actually become quite real and actually take place?

My answer:  When we consider how those beliefs, for instance, have stalled national legislation on climate change, and we see record temperatures being set all over the globe, it seems we are quite close.

Then, just to throw a little spice into the mix, in the most recent issue of Playboy, Richard Dawkins, the outspoken atheist, claims that the belief in an afterlife caused Sept 11.  How so?  He argues that people who believe that a better life awaits them in heaven -- 70 virgins or God's forgiveness, who cares -- are more likely to be more than obliging when asked to end their own lives for the "cause."  That seems plausible to me, and a stratagem applied by fanatical rulers to get people to die for them from time immemorial.

So, once again,  if Romney/Ryan is a viable electoral choice, how close are we to a cataclysm of the "fabulous" scale, the unimagined and so far unexperienced scale, of nuclear war?  Seriously, how close?

Derrida makes it striking clear:  Beliefs matter, and maybe matter more than facts, especially about things like nuclear war-level disasters.  My concern is that since we can combat and confront only when we have the beliefs that support measures that address and counter these dire trends, we are close to, or are actually in these disasters right now.  And so, it's way worse than I thought.

And no, I am not going to stop reading Derrida and go to the mall.  I am going to continue to advocate for the Breakout Creatives.  What does that mean?

 First, defeat Romney/Ryan and their Aikin-like, Tea Party fundamentalist deniers.  Then press the arguments on a more reasonable government to articulate a viable belief system through education and constant communication.  Then, press the beliefs that include new philosophy (including Derrida's "deconstruction"), science, fact, respect for humanity and the responsibility for enacting a viable future in every conversation -- don't take it anymore.  And then, hope for the best -- affirm the belief in a viable humanity and a livable earth still occupied by a rich variety of species.  After all, we did get "Curiosity" on Mars.  To do that people believed in something solid (science), workable (engineering and collaboration), worthwhile (aspiration) and inspring (a vision of the future) to do that.  So....???

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Against Ethics or Just Confused?

Comments Spurred by Reading Against Ethics, by John D. Caputo

I like John D. Caputo, I really do.  I like him the way he claims to "love" Levinas or Heidegger: he cites them, uses their work and then nimbly criticizes their excesses.  All to the good, with respect and gentleness.

I like John D. Caputo because he gets so much of what Deconstruction is about, and he wrote a really important book on Derrida (The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida) and also other really important and good books about being on the front (?) lines of philosophy as it attempts to cut a new regime of thinking into our discourse.  What could be a more difficult mission than that?

And so these comments, that claim my differences with John (he writes in a way that serves to minimize the propriety of a name, even his own name), are offered in the spirit of a fellow traveler who is out groping into the ....  well, that's the issue.

At issue in the contemporary scene, as I understand it, is what does a post-metaphysical engagement  entail, and what are the parameters (a what?  a how? a call or promise?) with, in and by means of which that engagement transpires?  And then, what does that engagement demand of us in terms of a disposition, a commitment, a construction of a world, and then, an ethic, and even a faculty or method?

John proclaims that our engagements occur in and with the abyssal.  In this vacuum, as I picture it, currents cross and mix and generate ephemeral events on which our sensibility can alight.  Those events, of themselves yield the flesh, which as a surging forth of this eventuation, obligates us to its dimensions, but prescribes nothing to us as to how to enact such an obligation.  "Love and do what you will," he proclaims. "Dilge  [from which the word "diligent" comes] and let events happen," he says. (p. 121)  "We are... all disasters, lost stars, lost in space," he says (p. 233).  And the flesh that obligates us is the eye that doesn't see, the tortured and diseased flesh of the ones who do not even rise to the law.  And then, "Beware of philosophers: they are too much occupied withy strong or healthy people, with autonomous agents and aggressive freedoms.  They miss the disasters." (p. 233-4).

To my ears this sounds like the atheist who clings to the powers of ego to get him through -- even if that ego offers the most ardent sympathy for and empathy with the weak and ill and despised among us.  We alone supply the love, we alone supply the notions and images that elucidate the obligations that rise up through the abyssal muck. It is a picture of the lone human in the dark and forbidding universe, the pre-established and spontaneously arisen creature of mind that conceives and constructs a habitat for himself.  And, yes, it is a very masculine image in my reading.  "Flesh clings to flesh in the anonymity of the night." (p. 247).  Say it ain't so, John.

So I, hardly a philosopher, but loving of the endeavor, offer this notion: The Breakout Creatives: what notion enshrines a greater strength than that?  They present experiments and venture new constellations into which we can follow.  What could be less dis-astrous than that?  So if I am a philosopher -- to beware of -- so be it.  I do not see that the human endeavor rises like a blister on the surface of a fleshed-over abyss.

I see it as a gathering, a singularization out of great and alive cosmic potencies (a la Schelling) that teem with energies that have been left in the wake of the great onwarding that expands the universe and opens new spaces, time/spaces that invites the singular, the events -- of all kinds, and everywhere -- to surge forth.  Some of them stick and organize;  some of these continue their own onwarding and insist on individuating, opening singularization to more expansive and more encompassing modes of engagement with that surging forth of occurrences into the expanses opened by pure cosmic onwarding.

Some of what occurs, as individuated moments -- reaching and groping in order to become more expansive and more encompassing -- are indeed of the flesh.  And this flesh is sometimes glorious and beautiful, and sensate and able to generate organization on scales never before imagined.  Yes, it is obligated flesh to flesh, but it is also response-able to response-able and so, thereby it promises to any occurrence that it will give way to what must needs occur for the event to unfold, for the happening to release and generate in an individuation of its own... and so forth.

Maybe John was in a mood inspired by a quantum vacuum or a Schrodingerian phase shift of superposition -- that was all the rage in the 90's when he wrote this book.  I suspect he has moved on, since he can write so clearly about a Derridian promise, which is anything but abyssally devastated flesh festered on a disaster.

But let me be clear:  the Breakout Creative Project envisions a universe teeming with self-organizing potencies and longings to individuate the spurts of singularities that bode forth in that great spatiation.  Our notion is an ethic, to be sure:  one of generativity, one that promises giving way for a "there" to arise, take and give affect, to rise as flesh and respond as the living boding forth.  Of this stuff, this great star dust, this great astral pleroma we are born and give way to what comes.  Yes, yes.

John, you must hear that by now.

Monday, December 05, 2011

The Philosopher's Prayer

I found this passage in Merleau-Ponty's The Visible and the Invisible (Evanston, IL; 1968), p. 125  I found it moving beyond compare. I offer it here, as the statement all philosophers would make to those who would decry their "incomprehensibility," but even more as an affirmation of the call of this great endeavor. To those of us who struggle in this morass of incomprehension and speechlessness, it is a reminder of the mission, and where its power resides and towards which it is directed:

"The philosopher speaks, but this is a weakness in him and an inexplicable weakness;  he should keep silent, coincide in silence and rejoin in Being a philosophy that is there ready-made.  But yet everything comes to pass as though he wished to put into words a certain silence he hearkens to within himself.  His entire 'work' is this absurd effort.  He wrote in order to state his contact with Being; he did not state it, and could not state it, since it is silence.  Then he recommences...
One has to believe, then, that language is not simply the contrary of the truth, of coincidence: that there is or could be a language -- and this is what he seeks.  It would be a language of which he would not be the organizer, words he would not assemble, that would combine through him by virtue of a natural intertwining of their meaning, through the occult trading of the metaphor -- where what counts is no longer the manifest meaning of each word and of each image, but the lateral relations, the kinships that are implicated in their transfers and their exchanges.... that operative language which has no need to be translated into significations and thoughts, that language-thin which counts as an arm, an action as offense and as seduction because it brings to the surface all the deep-rooted relations of the lived experience wherein it takes form, and which is the language of life and of action, but also that of literature and of poetry -- then this logos is an absolutely universal theme, it is the theme of philosophy.
... [Philosophy] is an operative language, that language that can be known only from within, through its exercise, is open upon the things called forth by the voices of silence and continues in an effort of articulation which is the Being of every being... "

...And so, we might say is the inexplicable weakness of Being itself.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Isaacson's "Steve Jobs," Skimmming, Skipping, not Seeing

This will not be a negative review of Isaacson's book. I promise. I offer staunch, if stingy, praise.  Steve Jobs is an able and well-mannered, well written and easily read accounting, a counting up, of Jobs' life.  It ably and fairly juxtaposes plusses and minuses, and properly ending up with the unavoidable conclusion:  who are we to judge someone who is so touched and has so touched us.  Unlike that moronic reductionist popularizer, Malcolm Gladwell, with his blinks and tipping points, Isaacson senses, honors and leaves in tact Jobs' fearsome love of what has to be created in order to be.  (I refer to Gladwell's article in the November 14, 2011 issue of The New Yorker, in which he called Jobs a "tweaker."  This is far closer to what Gladwell can comprehend than having anything to do with Jobs.)
Isaacson harkens back to certain themes like a stone skipping on the water's surface:  Jobs' anger and abuse of people;  his dogged search for simplicity;  his drive to build not just marvelous products, but a lasting, strong, unique and pathbreaking company.  His hippiness collides with building a corporate behemoth;  his creative drive is less harnessed than vaulted into a strange arena of corporate governance;  disdain for money lies fitfully beside the awareness of wealth's power.


I felt something pulsing here, and that is to Isaacson's credit; this rather journalistic work (any chapter could have been an article in the New Yorker or Vanity Fair, if not Fortune and certainly not Forbes) did not succumb to banality;  or that he is wise, loving and attentive enough to assure that "something" a "mystery" about Jobs shone, or murmured through the journalistic composure.
It comes down to this:  How are we to regard Jobs' seeming cruelty when it clearly yields such formidable performances?  Jobs himself says "A" players can take it, that they appreciate direct, frontal assaults on what they themselves know to be mediocre.  And Jobs is cited again and again as saying his dropping acid was a gateway for him;  and those who haven't done it just won't get it.  This is a clue, a guiding thread, as Heidegger might say.  I think this clue takes us into the deep ruminations of the (yes, French) philosophers, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.  Stay with me.
Why was Jobs so cruel, we ask again and again, right up to the very end?  Jobs is an artist, we might say, as an excuse.  And so it is.  But if we conceive of artists as temperamental and emotionally stunted decorators and artisans of prettyness, we miss our chance.  We have to "think different," as Jobs famously proclaimed. Artists capture, encircle and bring to us the barest wisps of what beckons and what is calling us to pay new and fresh attention.  Nothing less.


As Deleuze and Guattari say in What is Philosophy, "It is always a question of freeing life, wherever it is imprisoned, or of tempting it into an uncertain combat."  That description of the artist's mission contextualizes Jobs' ferocity to a tee. What artist's devote their lives to is akin to the mission of "The Dirty Dozen;"  a life-threatening feat of daring-do. These artist's evocations, which become works for our eyes and ears and touch, are but things of air when the artist is working.  How are these fantasms to break through if they are not propelled with explosive power?  How are they to survive this "combat" (with mediocrity) if they are not shielded with uncompromising protectiveness?  Would a mother meekly suggest that a bully might prefer to desist (like a distended Bartleby?);  or would she strike out like a lion against a predator?  How else is Jobs to assure these births he feels, sees, can touch and smell right THERE?  "The artist is a seer, a becomer," says Deleuze-Guatarri.
Isaacson is insightful enough to capture Jobs premonition of having a short life.  This soldiering for the fresh and new is an eviscerating exercise.  Jobs anger requires that he summon, to his own detriment as well, these overpowering, otherworldly energies.  Says Deleuze-Guattari, "What little health they possess is often too fragile, not because of their illness or neuroses, but because they have seen something in life that is too much for anyone, too much for themselves, and that has put on them the quiet mark of death."
Here we follow the clue to the end.  Jobs was furious, insulting, demoniacal for what had to be fought for, and with no less fury than this.
If you can't abide Jobs' offensiveness, take your leave.  But don't pander with kitsch and cuteness like a Gladwell.  Better to leave and let the sting linger (as do the women I described in my blog, Leader Pathways, ( last month).


One last thing:  Jobs craved simplicity, thinness, near invisiblity of technology and gadgetry so that a relation, and interaction can take place.  Again, Deleuze and Guattari, here quoting Virginia Woolf: "Saturate every atom, eliminate all  waste, deadness, superfluity...  It must include nonsense, fact, sordidty: but made transparent.... I want to put practically everything in;  yet to saturate."  A Cloud, perhaps?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Philosophy: Alive, Over the Rainbow

In the preface to his new book, The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking caused my jaw to drop: "Philosophy is dead," he declared.  He boldly, baldly  asserted that it was now "science" that was leading the way to discovery and philosophy was dead.

Well ensconced in his Anglo-American academic culture, I can certainly see how Hawking feels this way.  However, I would think that an astrophysicist would exhibit more caution, or at least modesty in making such comments.  After all, his sciences bloomed just as Lord Kelvin was pronouncing that all the problems of physics had been solved.  Except, that is, for a couple little nuisances, like Browning Motion and black box radiation.  These are the two problems that subsequently opened up to Einstein's theory of Special Relativity and then the quantum physics.  And these sciences have made Hawking's career possible.

But, that note aside, to a devotee of philosophy, the ignorance such a statement reveals is stunning.  Let me be clear:  philosophy is so far from dead, it is actively, competently, and most important, imaginatively, creatively and generatively taking up a role as momentous as that of its inaugural moments in ancient Greece -- from Thales through at least Plotinus.  At that time, philosophy inaugurated the formation of a new human mode of engagement with the world:  Reason.  Over the course of eons, Reason went from being a mythic demand for a new human way to a functioning faculty that could be comprehended, deployed and taught as a generalized, expected and standard-bearing capability.

Now, philosophy is mapping out the rudiments for a meta-capability:  the way of facultative development itself. The work that began with Hegel's noting of the procession of facultatively deployed life ways (shapes of consciousness), was developed in most explicit terms by Husserl, and then was taken up as a truly cosmic-level engagement of the human spirit by Heidegger, Levinas, Derrida, Deleuze, Blanchot, Nancy and their French brethren, this procession is now being studied as the very core of the human way.  Aided by notions of self-organization and ideas of "massively collective effects" in scientific discourses, philosophy finds itself indispensible, once again.

This new status may not be visible from the cloistered empircal/analytic caverns of some (especially Anglo-American) academic circles.  The work being done requires a suspension in acceptance of given formulations as being end states of reality;  it develops new languauge, words and grammar that pertain to states of generative cosmic life that may or may not even become "things" or "objects," and that hover on the fringes of becoming singular -- analogous to Hawking's own "event horizons" on the edges of black holes. The work of philosophy is not to make or render new objects, or prove their "existence."  Instead it is now at work in addressing the forming of the human psyche itself and framing new capabilities for encountering, enduring with and bringing forth what may or may not take a place in discourse.  It is now in a deep alliance with art (and the highest levels of theoretic mathematics as well), in plumbing that dynamics of that mode of "ownness," as Heidegger calls it, that rushes to singularization, in whatever form, and that may or may not make it through the vortex of becoming existent and standing among existents, as having its "being" come to be

This is a task worthy of philosophy.  Not justifying, analyzing or parsing the real, but probing what is wont to become real;  not demanding submission to logical gridlock, but teasing logic itself out to the most generative moments existents can endure.  Far from being dead, philosophy is instead taking its place in opposition to the dead, is taking up the task of being awake.  Its place, true enough, is at the edge of the horizon, where it may indeed fall off to obliteration;  but if this place is over the rainbow, it is what beckons.  If there is a "multiverse" it will take its place in our knowing capabilities, in our reasoning anticipations, because of where philosophy has dared to do its work.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Being Creative: A Disadvantage?

Why do we do this work with the breakout creatives?  At first glance it might seem that our most creative people are singled out for promotion and honors and increased esteem.
We mentor on the basis of our four figures:  mystic, artist, prophet and leader. While it is easily acknowledged that the first three figures are often viewed with suspicion, certainly leaders who are creative and "think out of the box" are valued.  This is what all the popular literature about leaders tells us;  this is what the great journals on management tell us.

And yet, we also mentor and support creative leaders.  What do these people need from us? Why would someone have to pay special attention to these people and offer mentoring?

Here's why:  In a study published recently by the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology the authors found that "expression of creative ideas may diminish judgments of leadership potential unless the charismatic leadership prototype is activated in the mind of social perceivers."  The authors of the study concluded, "organizations may face a bias against selecting the most creative individuals in favor of selecting leaders who would preserve the status quo by sticking with feasible but relatively unoriginal solutions."

Cry the beloved company, I say. Think of all the innovation, creativity and more expansive and more encompassing possibilities that are going to waste.

But, you might protest, most business cannot afford innovation or new ideas, they might fail, and there goes capital down the drain.  What will the shareholders think?

Why do we mentor these people?  Because they are in danger of having their spirits crushed by the managerial mindset that seeks compliance and proficiency.  We aren't in the business, even in our leader mentoring, of satisfying the hunger of shareholders for dividends.  We are there to help people find their voice and help them step into their aspirations with the firmness and resolve that any and all change requires.

This study confirms a suspicion I have been harboring for a while now:  no one wants leaders (or other creative figures for that matter).  Or, to be fair, only a few really do want creative energies unleashed in their lives or their companies.  As for leaders, people want others to do their dirty work for them, want others to fight the fights and move the people to do what they do not have the will to do themselves.  Managers in companies want compliance and they want a jazzy, spiffy and upbeat style (charisma?) to put a happy face on it and thereby "get the most" out of people so the hard stuff, that they want done gets done.

When I hear people say that leaders "get things done," I know they don't get it, and that they would be the first to fire or pass over "creative" people who offer a different vision.

Why do we mentor these people?  To keep their spirits alive and keep something alive, vital, vibrant and generative going in this life of ours.  Nothing less is at stake.Creative Leaders Rejected?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Paul Newman: From Money to Myth

It may seem to be a departure to be talking about Paul Newman in the context of Breakout Creatives.  But he was an artist, and one aspect of his art is what I want to consider for a moment.
My wife Carol and I have inaugurated our own Paul Newman film festival recently.  We are watching the older films:  Hud, The Hustler, The Long Hot Summer, The Color of Money.  Butch Cassidy and The Sting are in the wings, but since we know practically every line of these movies, we are hold off on including these right now.
Just a note:  I am really struck by the oustandingly POOR quality of DVD collections of Paul Newman's oeuvre.
Back to the idea.  Many of Newman's films were about money: what it takes to get it, the status it confers, the game that builds around it.  And then the movies portray a character that goes through that gauntlet and comes out the other side, not reduced to some naive morality, the Jimmy Steward line, but a far more complex picture.  He comes out at a mythic level of life, where morality is not transcended, but it is of less consequence than taking on a life that is being fully lived, expanding to the fullest range of engagement, freedom and self-generated vitality that our mortal way has to offer.  Even it that means taking on the Bolivian Army in order to make way to the next adventure.
Newman portrayed money as a gateway to a transition that some will elect to pass through, and others will simply not venture.  Staying in the money world alone corrodes the spirit into resentment and cynicism while transcending it may mean death, but it means also stepping into freely chosen mortal vitality.
Did he personally see life and his art in that way?
I don't know, of course.  But I think so.
Remember this: The profits from his line of good quality foods go to support camps for kids with fatal diseases.  The profit from selling stuff helps kids, whose mortality is crushing them, to participate in life's self-generating care, joy and vitality to the full extent that they can.  He opened a path to that portal from money to myth  that all of us can pass through.  (If you own a Keurig coffee maker, try the Paul Newman Extra Bold brand!!!.)
Artists always found ways to help people migrate from the oppression of power, money and wealth to the liberating dimensions of living.  That was the original role of symbol, rite and eventually religion, a role created by the artist (until it was usurped by tyrants who donned the robes of liberation and created the priesthood, theocracy and modern monotheistic power-religions).
Newman portrays this great "arteous" passage in many guises:  as romantic release, as playful liberation, as tragic failure.
In whatever way it turns out, he portrays this passage. And, he makes the passage real for us:  the artist's touch at its best.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Outrageous, Inequality: An Autoimmune Disease

Below I repeat the opening lines to a blog entry I made on
I am repeating this in order to draw attention to this situation that stands to destroy our culture.
Breakout Creatives of all types have to step into the fray to end this rampant disease of mind, heart, individual, family and culture:

"Read this quote carefully.  I am going to break it up into discrete lines, like a poem, to make the impression that you must take away from it even more vivid.

It is taken from an article by Malcolm Gladwell (Blink and The Tipping Point) in The New Yorker Magazine (October 11, 2010).  It concerns Barry Bonds, who played for the San Francisco Giants (from 1993 - 2007), and who may be one of the greatest baseball players of all time -- whose career ended in disgrace because of the steroids scandal in baseball in 2006-9. After breaking Hank Aaron's all-time home run record, he was not offered a contract to return to the Giants and no other team offered him a contract.
He is the son of Bobby Bonds, who played for the same Giants from 1968 - 74.
That generational thing is important.  Here is the quote:

[Barry Bonds] ended up making more IN ONE YEAR
than ALL the members of his father's San Francisco Giants team made

People, this is not just a travesty (considering, for instance, how much we pay teachers), it is an auto-immune disease of our society.

Instead of attacking greed, our society now promotes and advances it.  Instead of greed being contained, it has become a worthy goal."

In the forthcoming issue of Leader Pathways I write about how leaders break the mold of zero-sum models of human interaction.  The crisis of income inequality I cite here and in the Abqseeker blog is one that leaders have a special contribution to make.  They exemplify what building communities and true national wealth is all about.  

Our politics have veered so dangerously off track -- giving voice as being legitimate -- to counterfeit and frightfully stupid notions and the idiot mouthpieces for it (Beck, Palin, Boehner, McConnell, et. al.) that such inequality is actually being fostered.  It is a sinking ship mentality -- and one not like the leader of the Chilean miners who insisted on coming up last -- but one where behavior that pushes other back on the sinking ship while they take all the lifeboats. 

As recent articles in the New Yorker Magazine have pointed out, the effort to attain this state of affairs has been going for decades now.  In the current issue, the breakthrough of the nut cases in the Republican party has finally occurred, in the form of Rove, Tea Parties, etc.  Libertarian voices only want government to protect their right to greed and the gains they make by devoting their lives to it.  

Breakout Creatives, step up and stem this disease.  
Artists, write, paint and compose (ala Springsteen) about the eclipse of hope such greed sets loose in people's lives.
Prophets, write and make clear the concepts of social viability that are being demolished here.
Mystics, pronounce your precepts that show the utter venality of this mentality.  Another way, maybe a whole other system has to be imagined, envisioned and articulated.
Leaders, create organizations that demonstrate how the greater good is only made possible when people give to something greater than their own private enrichment.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Check out the New Video Tutorial

Be sure to check out the new video tutorial on YouTube.  In it I say why the Breakout Creatives Project is important to you.  It's only 6 minutes and features a new tag at the end -- not to be missed.

See the New Video Tutorial

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Breakout Creatives: The Long Way to Difference

What's the "Difference"
What makes Breakout Creatives different from others?
 “Difference? ”Hmmmm. Very judgmental, isn’t it?  And who the hell am I, or you, or anyone to mark someone as different.  When it comes right down to it, all the ways we have of marking people as “different” really serve to make us feel good about ourselves:  “She may be smart, but I am the one making money,” for instance.  These ways of making differences usually is based on a quantity of something:  more intelligence, more money, more beauty, more athletic prowess than….; and then there usually follows some kind of reward for there being a quantitatively greater amount of something that is in play.
So, in that vein of thinking, are Breakout Creatives more…. of something, and so others, are less?
They have just the same amount of “stuff” – talent, energy, ambition, smarts, fears -- in various combinations as do others.  But what is different about them is their attitude toward their orientation.  An attitude doesn’t add any amount of quantitative capability to anything (although a positive attitude may engender something, and a negative attitude might detract, and in either case might result in quantifiable differences) and one’s orientation is not even a matter of one’s ego, but just how one takes up a position, place, a direction in one’s life.
So there is a difference.  But it is twice removed from what is quantifiable.

The Attitude: The Resolve to Aspire
What is different about Breakout Creatives:  Attitude.
It is their attitude toward their orientation to their lives, work and aspirations that is different.  
Their Attitude:  An openness and affirming resolve; their orientation: a look outward,toward the as yet not in “existence.”  And so they aspire to something that doesn't exist yet.
That difference makes absolutely no difference to anyone else, unless it inspires someone; and it is a difference that while positive, does not result in there being “more” of something that has a price tag, or is quantifiable.  Breakout Creatives are different in ways that don’t matter to others (or that at best irritate others for their strangeness, obtuse obscurities and non-participative refusals), unless they too feel a yearning, an aspiration that they too want to treat with resolve.

What is really most important to note in all this is that their attitude flies below the radar of the given world, and sets in motion the kinds of musings and wonderings that just might take hold and make a difference that does matter, down the road.  But this process does not take place in any of the ways we have been trained to recognize achievement or newness.  Instead, Breakout Creatives do what they do with complete innocence, seemingly oblivious to even the need for recognition – although they feel and often resent the righteous indignation that is thrown their way by our venerated guardians.
What I am saying here is that to appreciate what Breakout Creatives offer, we have to look at “difference” differently.
  Maybe, these people are really living in ways that, true, we don’t understand; and maybe, maybe most certainly, they don’t understand either.  But, what if affirming a different orientation to the way our living transpires and shapes itself offered something?  Or, think of it this way:  how else but in such an attitude toward strangeness does anything that affects the human endeavor come about?  But to ask that question is already far ahead of us.

Maligned 20-Somethings: An Evolutionary PHenomenon?
I think of an article in the August 21, 2010 issue of the New York Times Magazine about 20-somethings.  These people live at home longer, don’t form relational commitments until later in life – than people of preceding generations did.  The implication of the article is that these people require a longer gestation period for becoming adults like us, like what we think adults have always been and are supposed to be.  And so, one psychologist characterizes this period as “emerging adulthood.”
Now, for me, this all makes sense.  When I am in my “adult mode,” that is.  Maybe because these kids spend so much time with video games and texting, the “real world” of hard bodies, flesh, feelings and obligations takes longer to get comfortable with.  And because the brain isn’t fully formed, the emotions spurred by strangeness become fear, and fear locks one into passivity.  
But in my mode as a mentor to breakout creatives, I find this article and its premise appalling.  
I ask, why is it that we have to approach people who are "different," with the presumption that our way is the "right" way?  And what I mean is, why can't we at least ask whether or not something might be in the works with this generation that we ought to pay attention to, learn from, and examine for seeds of a new nuance to the human endeavor.  

My Own 20-Something Years.
I think of my life in those years.  According to the norms of those times (the 1960’s), I left home, went to college, the army, grad school, and so I was out on my own – and between you and me, my life was a mess every day.  But I didn’t retreat home, I slogged on getting jobs, getting fired, starting businesses, falling in and out of love and relationships.  It was ugly, but I was out there!!!
Now, here’s the trip-up question: What if I was wrong to embark out into the “world” this way?  What if my insistence of charging into the world was actually deadening and wounding of some other kind of life that my psychic/somatic being was being called to take up?  What if staying at home (I cringe at the thought, really) and allowing a slower gestation would have helped more (maybe if college was 6 years, and grad school was 10)? But then, I think there really was a “value” in going out into the world unformed:  into this chaotic soup of a psychic fog came lightening bolts of “reality” that formed ways that could be submitted to test, experiment, judgement (my own most of all).  Do the stay-at-home 20-somethings get that?  Does that matter?
 What I am saying is, what if it were the case that evolutionary possibilities now underway in the human fold require longer gestation to take shape and these young people are acting appropriately (albeit deviantly) for the sake of the emergence of a new capability?  What if all that testing and experimenting of mine really deflected, defeated and dissipated that impulse toward something outside the circle of certainties?  What would have happened in my work if I had been more patient, tolerant, heedful with regard to the very forces that resisted being conventionally molded, smoothed and rendered functional?

Evolutionary What?  ... Facultative Development.
"What? " you say. "These lazy, lost, disconnected, texting mutants are avatars of a new evolutionary development?  Are you kidding?  Is that a real thought?" 
Well, yes it is. 
Hear me out.
In the world of Breakout Creatives, we envision a process called “Facultative Development.”  We think it is possible that the development of new psycho/somatic capabilities for discerning, organizing, expressing and learning did not end either with the rising of language or the instituting of Reason (in the West especially).  But that new capabilities, that discern modes that actually generate what we take to be God or our given state of Nature.  Ways of engaging moments when great cosmic energies coalesce and constellate into more complex states, even to life.
So, what if we stepped back and wondered if whether this generation might be developing something new?  By orienting toward images, by cutting language loose from formality and books, by allowing strange and diffuse emotions to work around before getting pinned down into conventional forms – what if this heralded some new mode of discernment and marked the longer gestation of a more complex faculty? 
What if we didn’t enforce our standards on them?  What if, instead, with the possibility that Breakout Creative forces are alive and well, right in those messy bedrooms, we fostered an affirming attitude toward this orientation of theirs and helped them engender a formation of something new?  And what if we don’t know how to help foster this new way – being ensconced, as we are in our rationally economic-driven habits; and certainly these young people don’t know what is happening or is going to unfold from their forming beings.  What if we, and they, just have to wait, and admit that we just don’t know what, if anything is going on here; but maybe?
People who embrace breakout creativity challenge themselves with questions such as this.  Now that is different.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


"Read these poems to yourself in the middle of the night. turn on a singl lamp and read them while you're alone in an otherwise dark room or while someone else sleeps next to you. Read them when you're wide awake in the early morning, fully alert. Say them over to yourself in a place where silence reigns and the din of the culture... has momentarily stopped...."
Edward Hirsch, How to Read a Poem.
"Make up you own ritual for courting the muse or creating the right conditions for inspiration. Fix up a place in your home or office to be your creativ space. think about setting aside a certain time each day to create. You don't have to commit to it yet; just think about what wold be a good time for you. When during the day do you feel most creative?"
John Dillon, The 20-20 Creativity Solution
There are two main streams of parody of American Life now current. One is the decrepit male, boorish, ignorant, lazy, clueless, as sexually obsessed and vulgar as he is inept and sterile. The other is the harried careerist, chasing after some socially sanctioned dream job that really sucks the characters dry. Both ring true from my experience.
At a different level, but also disheartening, I recall my work at a top notch Silicon Valley company as a leader mentor. My mentees were mostly graduates of graduate programs at Stanford and MIT. Not one of these 30-somethings had read a major book, in any area, since leaving school. Their reading consisted of the newspaper, the web and technical/business books. And, for good reason. All had insanely demanding jobs, young families and 2-hr plus commutes. What chance does good reading have against those demands? Not much.
So, the Breakout Creatives Project faces a hurdle, right out of the box: it takes time, study, attention, discipline, a love of being vulnerable to new ways of envisioning one's world to even appreciate other breakout creatives' works, no less produce ones of one's own. In my leader mentoring, I have realized that people only have so much time, energy, attention span or even desire, to engage aspirations that involve developing skills of character and attentive responsibility. If it can't be done with a mental trick... maybe another day.
Yet, I sense a deep yearning out there, among all those deep-minded and large-hearted young leaders I have worked with. And I feel it elsewhere in conversations with those who would be artists, mystics and prophets. For all the screaming of the comedians, the outlandishness of performers, the rage of slam poets, the fake passion of pundits, there is an implicit message: something is trying to find its way into our lives that is now thwarted at every turn. These faux dramatizations intend to capture and deflect this undercurrent and turn it into cash. But, that current is there, beating like a heart, pumping what, if it does not nurture life becomes bile.
There is no other way, my friends. You have to turn off the machine, switch off the noise. My friend John's 20-20 solution -- 20 minutes in the morning, 20 at night, is a technique for beginning to do the generative work. Then, after that preparatory time, the work begins: the difficult poem, the dense and obscure tract of fiction or non-fiction, that challenge passage of music, that idea that can't seem to be pried loose and into language.
Where can you "find" the time? (The construction of that notion is preposterous when it is put into writing -- and so is the idea it expresses:  time/Where/find...??). You can't. It can't be "found," as though it was "there" waiting for you. The only question is John's : When are you most creative? And then claim it; take it; protect it; you --- give it life by activating with the most challenging work you can accommodate.
The Breakout Creative figures we study have given over their whole lives to these demands, and paid a price. Most of us compromise. Even the great American poet Wallace Stevens worked in an insurance company (as did Kafka). Part of the mentor's job in working with people like us, who struggle with this demand, is helping them reconstruct one's waking hours. Do you want some help?
But then, after the conversation, you, alone with your thoughts, immersed in the demands of your work and family, smothered by the cultural imperatives of an overly extroverted work ethic, all inundate you. Still, it's up to you.
The good new is that the writers, artists, thinkers, poets, musicians and actors we cite in our project are so superb, if you give yourself over to them, they will reward you. If you make appointments with them, regularly, and give them your deepest attention, they will give you strength to go onward into your breakout creatives work.
But, begin.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Aspiration and Mentoring: The Child's Wonder

“Childhood did not speak out, but it did possess; manhood does speak out, but it is missing something.” Max Kommerell (quoted by D.F. Krell in Death of Empedocles; p. 278.)

From this quote we muse on the theme of aspiration. What a strange thing aspiration is. Here is a longing and a yearning that burns so forcefully as to take command of one’s life, and yet it can promise no assured outcome, can announce no assured goal, and yields only the urge to sustain itself, a life of aspiring.

Sources of Aspiration

That is why I find this quote so intriguing. Looking at aspiration from this perspective we can think of aspiration as flowing from exactly this difference between the child and the adult. Aspiration we can say, has three sources: childhood and family dynamics; genetic formations of the psyche; and adult trauma. None of these factors necessarily give rise to the inception of aspiration. Instead, aspiration arises when a certain attitude and orientation toward those events is taken up. This is an attitude, of course that sees in these circumstances not reasons for giving up or excuses that justify self-justifying abuses, but opportunity; then this attitude ushers to the forefront a great wealth of energy to engage those opportunities.

Whence the individuality and uniqueness of one’s aspirations, however? That is where this quote strikes me as most telling. As a child grows, what was once a fluid and open psyche, full of wonder, concentrates into an ego, dominated by customs and rules. This concentrating of the child’s psyche can be thought of as a “contraction.” The great and flowing expanse of the child’s psyche contracts into a “smaller” but more capable “mind,” constructed of concepts, categories directed toward social and professional skills, moral actions and specified ambitions. The ego of the adult thus leaves behind a vacated “space.” Where once there was a realm filled with energy and activity, there remains only dust, ash and remnants of now diminished energy.

For most, that realm is so diminished that it exerts no force at all on the dominating adult psyche; however, for some, the dust is kept in circulation by a reserve of energy that does not so easily dissipate. So, for these people, there remains in effect an “aural” realm that surrounds the functioning ego (and super-ego) that still exerts a pull and affects the functionally focused ego state of the adult. This aural realm still comprises and emits the feel that wonder once elicited, the na├»ve, dynamic, fanciful and dramatic ways it seemed the world worked, and also reprises the sense of powers of one’s living that cannot not be daunted by alleged impossibility.

Aspiration arises when this aura is allowed some leeway to affect the adult, making transformation possible and even desirable. When the aura is allowed such sway, all the events that promote aspiration take shape. One’s biography of a troubled or challenging childhood (and difficult parental influences) can become a story of the simple joys of daydreams, wanderings, experimenting excursions and burgeoning interests. One’s supposed weaknesses and confusions and difficulties at resolving seemingly impenetrable ambiguities can become gateways to one’s creative powers. Traumas have a way of loosening the grip of generalized convention and send a person into a deep self-examination for different sources of strength, into a resolute search for new pathways.

The Mentoring Moment

Here’s where mentoring comes in. The aspiring adult feels the pull of a great conflict. On the one hand, lurking in this person’s being a call to something more expansive and more encompassing in his or her life. Yet, as an adult, this person is no longer amenable to the naively open wonder of the child, and instead demands competence and effectiveness in the functioning social, economic and historical world. The conflict stops movement in both directions: no longing, but no advancing of competence either. The person is stuck, in a quandary. To leave the aspiration behind seems to be a deep personal betrayal; but to act naively and precipitously seems irresponsible, if not down right idiotic.

The mentor forms a bridge between the two demands so that a person can commit to aspiration in a way that is both competent and effective. How does the mentor do this? Not by offering advice, counsel or coaching. The mentor listens. The mentor takes the time to hear the yearnings that call out from that aura and validate them for the mentee. Then the mentor helps the mentee to envision a way of living that can viably answer the call. The mentor does not help the mentee form a career path or consolidate skills that will be necessary. The mentor does not dispense “life advice.”

Instead, by listening, in a lively and engaged silence, the mentor helps the mentee appreciate the role and way, the shape of a life that once again embraces that aura, now being heard as the adult’s aspiration. Only the aspirations of the mentee’s own voice are heard, and so, for once, that fragile and barely alive aural realm can have its way.

Note, it is not “strengths” and talents that are emphasized by the mentor. Paradoxically, those very places, ways and states that are often decried as weaknesses or distractions from attaining one’s goals and ambitions become the places where aspiration can take hold. In the mentor’s eyes, it is exactly the pulsing aspirations from this great aural realm that has not allowed the adult psyche to harden into imperatives. This still beating pulse from the enlivening aura has stemmed the "mind's" progressive hardening; the welter of energies that flow in the mentee’s life still can have some affect.

These may cause confusion and make for a person's "weaknesses," but peel away the crust of the ego's hard shell, and the mentors finds aspiration's faint voice straining to be heard. What in the eyes of the society at large can appear as “weaknesses,” as faults that prevent “success” can, when channeled into a vision of aspiration, become a vast field of deep energies that offer vitality, if not validity to one’s decisions.

The Companion to Aspiration’s Call

Aspiration thus responds to a call that is at once mystifying and unsettling, and also irrepressible and irresistible. It cannot be denied because it emanates from one’s own decisions. It is not the “shadow” or “dark side” of one’s decisions that so speaks. It is instead, the affirming power that lingers in the wake of abandoned wonder. It is not even the “light” of a revelation or insight or realization of meaning or mandate. Instead it is a voice, random tones that instigate longing in the most specific and yet obscure of ways. Aspiration has to respond to what no longer speaks in an intelligible language, but what only can be answered by setting out on a lifeway, setting into motion a commitment to being a person who has a calling, after all.

The mentor is the companion to this commitment as it is forming. The result of the mentoring engagement is commitment. The mentor supplies a gaze, not quite a language, in which the new ways demanded by the call gather together into an intelligible and sustainable way. It is as much the silence of the mentor, emulating the voice of aspiration itself, which is offered. That is, the mentee once again takes possession of a great sense of the spirit of aspiration and wonder. Together, mentor and mentee bring out a person of aspiration, one who speaks out, possesses and competently brings forth a vision of a more expansive and more encompassing human endeavor.