Blog Day 2008

One of the wonderful qualities of the blogosphere is the number of different ways we are valuable to each other. Some bloggers give us great links to resources we find useful. Some embed delightful YouTube videos in their blog posts. Some get long series of comments that take the original post into fascinating, expanded territories. Others are especially good at getting me to think, which I love to do. Some are also inspirations for what I'm writing here.

Today is Blog Day 2008. I found that out just now because I got mentioned as one of the five on the blog: Maiers Educational Services. Thanks Angela! In keeping with her theme: Together We Are Smarter, I'm celebrating five bloggers who contributed to the launch of different themes I've explored this year.
Among so many continual learners, it's inevitable we are all learning. Among this variety of insightful thinkers, we are bound to think in new and fruitful ways. Among all this bounty of archived, searchable text, it's very likely we will find what we're looking for. Among all these contributors of creative outpourings, we're inclined to be generous with our own freedoms. Blogging rocks my world!

Blog Day 2008

Appreciating degrees of freedom

The more freedom we see without envy, the more freedom we will find in our own experience. We will find ourselves in a state of mind where the ideas and motivations will come that take us in the direction of more freedom. This means we are powerful enough to create more freedom by simply choosing to see all the freedom in our present circumstances.

Freedom of choice: A pencils and soda straws are free to roll off a table when pushed perpendicular to their length. They cannot stand up or roll end over end when moved. Each has one degree of freedom that allows it to roll forwards or backwards in one direction only. We are experiencing one degree of freedom when we've got a choice between staying or leaving, doing something or not, and persisting or dropping it. When we're limited to one degree of freedom, we can see it, appreciate it and use it. We can also devalue it for not being two or three degrees of freedom and even feel like we've got no freedom at all.

Freedom of grounded movement: Pedestrians, bicycles and cars are free to move in any direction on the ground. They cannot fly or go underground. Each has two degrees of freedom that allows free movement on an inclined or horizontal plane. We are experiencing two degrees of freedom when we play by the rules of the game, explore new territories with our physical senses or use tangible tools to get things done. We can appreciate these two degrees of freedom or seek sympathy for not having a 3rd degree of freedom to experience.

Freedom of flight: Kites, airplanes or hot air balloons are free to move vertically as well as in every horizontal direction. Each has three degrees of freedom that allows it to soar above the ground. Insects, birds and seeds also show us this freedom that defies gravity and the usual need for surface traction. We experience three degrees of freedom when we change the rules of the game, revise our strategy for exploring new territory, or formulate a plan for using the tools to get things done. We transcend the level of task, progress and productivity to be more resourceful, clever or efficient. It can feel like flying when we get above the problem like that. We can treasure this much freedom or wish we had more.

Freedom to disappear: Fog, clouds and rainbows are free to vanish. They do not need to "exit stage right" or leave by moving within the volume of space. They exhibit four degrees of freedom that allows them to wink out in an instant or fade out of sight slowly. We experience four degrees of freedom when we feeling like all is possible in this moment. We may transcend our physical and historical limitations to seem to be everywhere all the time. We can become one with everything here as if now is the only time that is real. We may extend our consciousness beyond this space-time reality construct to a fifth dimension of experience. When we experience four degrees of freedom, we are not only here in this world of appearances and not entirely eternal either.


Freedom via creating it

What if freedom is a work of art? Then we would need to ask lots of other "what-if" questions to break out of the box and get creative.

What if the freedom we can create is actually a side effect of freedom already in the creative process? Then the more free spirited we are at imagining our next experience of freedom, the more freedom we will create.

What if freedom is an experience found in enjoying any creative output? Then we are creating experiences of enjoyment when we have it in mind to create freedom for ourselves and others.

What if freedom comes about by mixing things like painters mix colors and musicians mix sounds? Then freedom might get discovered by trying out different combinations of effort and inspiration, seriousness and playfulness, or pragmatism and flights of imagination.

What if freedom is a solution to a design problem? Then freedom could be provoked by the constraints that appear to limit and oppose freedom until they reveal their possibilities for inspired expression.

What if freedom is what we embody when we're clear of fear? Then freedom can abound when we do our thing regardless of what people think while caring deeply for our art, materials and message.

What if freedom is an artistic expression of our true nature? Then we will naturally create freedom when we disrupt our mistaken identities and be ourselves for what it's worth.


Freedom via flowing

In every moment, there is something to say "Yes!" to and take the next step. Right now things can go from good to better or from bad to worse. All we have to do is find the good and go from there to experiences of freedom. It's that easy and also extremely difficult for most of us.

Our left brain cognitive strategies dwell on negatives. They identify the rocks in the way, not the way to flow between or around the obstacles. These left brain strategies find what's wrong in order to fix it. They identify problems to solve regardless of how that keeps them around. They define what's unacceptable to complain about it as if resisting it has nothing to do with persisting it. They focus on what's inferior, less adequate or revolting to feel better in a weird way.

When we rely on this kind of thinking, we cannot find the flow or go with it. We create our own captivity in a nightmarish world. We have no idea how there could be something to right now to say "Yes, bring it on, more please" and really mean it. We become increasingly convinced that flow is for the lucky ones in very different situations than this one. Meanwhile things are going from bad to worse and it seems necessary to dwell on the negatives.

When these same left brain cognitive strategies try to find something positive, the results are usually laughable:
  • the sky is not falling (yet)
  • it not really reoccurred since last week
  • it could be worse or much worse than this
  • I'm not complaining, just observing the facts
  • it only sucks some of the time
When we are in the flow, our right brain serves up wonderful inspirations while things are going great on the outside. We're feeling fluid enough to drop one thing and get something else done in the meantime. We get ideas for better sequences for the tasks we're working on. We work around anything were we've gotten stuck, lost motivation or ended up frustrated. We then happen to come back to that when the time is right, a new approach has been hatched or inspirations are coming in a stream.

When I'm in the flow, I experience many more synchronicities (chance occurrences that are too perfect to be merely coincidental). I'll just happen to turn on the TV and catch something that I was wondering about. Something will catch my eye while driving or shopping that makes easy work of something I thought was going to be difficult. I had an inspiration out of the blue today to use a different tool to do a better job of pulling weeds out of lawn by the roots. There's nothing to trivial, insignificant or temporary to miss out on going from good to better with ease.

The flow gives us freedom from struggles, worries and frustrations. We feel guided, looked after and helped along on our journey. We are given what we need in each moment in the form of ideas to consider, motivations to take action, hesitations to do it later, and happenstance that fits in perfectly.


Freedom via mapmaking

Back in grade school, I loved to make maps of our part of town. I'd jump on my bicycle to check out an unfamiliar street and pedal home to update the map I was drawing. I thought it was so cool when I learned there was an age-old discipline called "cartography". I also thrilled when I was being shown maps by my grandfather or studying maps on my own. I took this passion up a level in college when I learned visual problem solving, diagramming and architectural drawing. I now view mapmaking as a road to freedom.

When we have something in mind, we can recall pieces without the sense of how they all tie together. When we listen to group conversations, panel discussions or meetings, our minds are full of varied viewpoints. When we've read a bunch of blogs in one sitting, our minds can be a jumble of ideas we want to consider more deeply. In all these instances, we're trapped by information overload, confusion or unresolved contradictions. We're looking for some freedom and meaning in this madness.

When we draw something, we invoke our right brain cognitive strategies. We're using our imagination to visualize something. Our integrative cognitive functions perceives patterns in data and connections between disparate elements. We say things like "I see your point", "I get the picture" or "I foresee these two things interrelating somehow". We connect the dots into a map where the connections mean as much as the nodes. We visualize how two ideas are aligned with each other or two people are close or far apart on an issue. We place abstractions in space to orient ourselves and draw new conclusions. We create charts and diagrams to capture the inter-relationships that are neither sequential or causal.

When we're in need of more mapping, we come across as very judgmental, intolerant and biased. We cannot see both sides of an issue or a use for opposing stances. We take positions against other approaches that end up shooting ourselves in the foot. We devote ourselves to left brain cognitive strategies as if we're locked into some kind of danger. We trust our logical reasoning that confines our understanding to lists and causal sequences. We unwittingly make things worse and trap ourselves in our own confining outlook.

The quality of our thinking improves when we've mapped out our understanding. We formulate better alternatives and make better decisions with multiple maps in mind. We see how conflicts go in circles and problems perpetuate themselves. We sense how to get into energizing virtuous cycles with more panoramic awareness. We relate to both sides of an issue from a third vantage point. We see the good in the bad and some harm in the good. We transcend dilemmas by embracing inarticulate paradoxes. We perceive freedom to explore where others see obstacles, limitations and enemies.


Freedom via messing around

Don't tell me that!
I can't handle that being the truth!
Those cannot be the real facts!
Stop shattering my comforting illusions!

We learn early on to stop messing around with reality. When we're in denial, we're told to face the facts. When we're delusional, we're supposed to do a reality check. When we're hysterical, we simmer down and deal with what's actually happened. We get the idea that messing around is a bad thing. We become realistic and say things like "it is what it is". We take pride in being objective and factual.

When we stop messing around with reality, we've gone from the frying pan to the fire. We've stereotyped messing around as only a bad thing. We're missing out on all the freedom that is available by messing around with reality. We've dealt ourselves a prison term until we start messing around for our own good.

There's a good way to mess around with reality that's different from denials, delusions and hysteria. We own our "selective perceptions and attributions" of "consensually validated evidence". We accept the facts but play around with the meaning. We deal separately with our objectivity while we explore our own subjectivity. We observe what is as well as what we make of it.

When we find this freedom in messing around, We change the definitions of problems. We revise our diagnosis of what appears to be going wrong. We reframe what we see in light of what it could become and what it's showing us to change, combine or balance. We tell a different story about what happened and what we're going to do about it. We change our mind about what we see before the world looks any different to our eyes.

Here are some the freedoms that are easy to find by messing around with reality:
  • I know this looks dangerous, but it appears to me as an opportunity to stretch myself and explore new territory
  • It obviously appears as a setback, but for me it's a wake up call about what I was overlooking and ignoring
  • You could say it's a failure of mine, but I see it as a successful experiment to discover what I really want
  • I agree it looks like a useless problem, but it also provides some secret satisfaction to keep the problem going
  • It definitely looks impossible, but appearances can deceive us and mislead us away from following our heart's desire
  • I know that's the logical solution, but some clever deviance will get the job done sooner and better than following procedures
  • I agree it has to be done, but not when or how or why it has to be done -- while there are so many different approaches to this


Freedom via letting go

Most of our memories of letting go are painful. We recall agonizing losses where we missed someone/something terribly. We don't want that to happen again -- so we cling to things (and people we treat like our possessions). We also avoid feeling that bad again, so we are highly motivated to hang on to what we've got. We become hard wired to NOT let go. "Finding freedom via letting go" seems absurd and inconceivable.

Knowing how yucky it feels to let go, we implicitly understand when others desperately want to take us prisoner. We relate to their clinging, neediness and dependency on us that seems to necessary to feel good about themselves. We play the martyr -- making a noble sacrifice of our needs. We give buckets of attention and get droplets in return. We go without getting understood, asked about, and really related to -- in order to avoid those dreadful feelings of abandonment, loss and emptiness. We accept these prison terms of engagement even though it feels like being confined, trapped or taken hostage. Inside these entanglements, we cannot feel our true feelings or know what we really think. We're kidding ourselves to keep from breaking out of our consensual captivity. We keep things fake and superficial to not disrupt the dance of desperation. We don't admit to ourselves what we really want to: give to relationships, change from our present arrangements and get in return for our giving.

In the context of all this captivity, there's lots of freedom to be found by letting go. We find our deeper feelings and feel real for a change. We discover the truth of what we want and how free we've become to go for it. We realize the sacrifice we made and our new freedom to stop paying the price. We uncover hidden choices we did not know we had or ever considered before. We let go of "who we think we are" and "what happened to us". We even begin to see familiar situations with a new pair of eyes, vantage point and frame of reference.

After we let go, we're empty in a good way. It's not a hollow feeling of getting eviscerated or left behind. We're free of preconceptions that limit our possibilities. We are open to unexpected changes. We don't know what things mean at first. We watch life unfold with lots more fascination. We live more freely than we ever imagined was possible when clinging was our thing.


Freedom via generosity

There are many freedoms in our lives that we've lost track of in our conscious minds. We take them for granted because they don't change from day to day. These freedoms don't "make news of a difference" as Gregory Bateson would say. We no longer have the immediate, tangible experience of being free in these ways.

We cannot make ourselves be grateful for forgotten freedoms without those attempts at the gratitude feeling fake, contrived and manipulative. We naturally appreciate whatever increases, improves and changes for the better. We're inclined to pay attention to whatever moves us and makes constant things same different to us. We're grateful for genuine experiences of freedom.

Whenever we share freedoms we've already got, we get that we have them to give. We become conscious of them indirectly. When we give others experiences of freedom that we are able to create, it comes back around as immediate, tangible, experiences we're grateful for. When we make a difference in others' lives, we experience that difference as freedom in our own lives. It pays to be generous with our taken-for-granted freedoms. Here's some of the ways we do that easily:
  • freedom by access: I'll take you there, get you inside, go there with you, show you the way to get there, walk you through the paces
  • freedom by understanding: I'll clear that up for you, save you some confusion, tie it into some familiar things, give you some examples you can relate to
  • freedom by expertise: I'll get that done for you, solve those problems, handle those issues, produce those results for you
  • freedom by economic surplus: I'll pay for that, put it on my tab, absorb the cost, cover those expenses for you
  • freedom by capability: I'll use my tools, get what we need from my inventory, call upon my support system, handle the logistics from my end for you
  • freedom by savvy: I'll steer you clear of the pitfalls, forewarn you of deceptions, alert you to scams, safeguard you from rip-offs
  • freedom by compatibility: I'll work with you on this, collaborate with your intentions, help you sort this out, provide a sounding board for you
When we're generous in these ways with our freedoms, our beneficiaries experience many other freedoms. They feel liberated from their worries, hassles, confusion, apprehension, despair, obstacles and limitations. They find freedom in our relating to, caring for, supporting and serving them. As we let in their experiences of freedom, we get reminded of our own freedoms that made it possible.


Freedom via sincere fascination

When we can see the larger pattern in our experiences of getting mismanaged, we're on the brink of finding authentic freedom in the situation. The next step is to realize that "mismanagement" is a label that comes from a judgmental place. We're putting down those who put us down. We're in a vicious cycle of reacting to reactions, doing unto others as they do unto us. The escape from the perpetual conflict requires some forgiveness, humility and sincere fascination.

Seeing how the bullying is fallout from managers getting hammered by schooling, we can take the pain we're feeling less personally. We can understand how these managers have been driven to acts of desperation. We can see how they are mismanaging us by flying on unconscious "autopilot" rather than more perceptive intentions. We can allow that we may have some experiences in common where we've been devastated by mistakes we've made. As we seek freedom in this, we find we can forgive their transgressions and let go of our past experiences with them. We can start over.

When we've achieved some respectable competencies, it's natural to be full of ourselves. Our accomplishment sets us above those who have not achieved equal stature. We take pride in what we worked to know, practice and produce. Unfortunately, this makes us both hard to live with and easily misunderstood. Our condition calls for a slice of humble pie or a face plant so we bite the dust. Our comeuppance needs a come down. When we get off our high horse, we can see eye to eye with others who we've perceived as mismanaging us. We create a level playing field. We join together in creating freedom from the past misery.

Once we're free of resentment and superiority, we can be filled with sincere fascination. We can wonder about the manager's perceptions. We can show respect before expecting to get respected. We can seek to understand before getting understood. We can give a gift of freedom before cashing in on the one we want to receive. One way to show sincere fascination is by inquiring into the manager's understanding of some unfortunate occurrence:
  1. What's the history that led up to this as you see it? Help me through the timeline of events that ended up this way. What previous incidents now appear as forewarnings to you as we look back in hindsight?
  2. What's your theory about why this happened? How do you make sense of the evidence that this setback was not prevented, mitigated or forestalled? What explanation do you favor for understanding how it could occur at all, to this extent or at this time?
  3. What's your forecast of what will happen if nothing changes? What kind of troubles are we headed for if we do nothing to prevent a reoccurrence? What's the price you foresee being paid if we simply let this go and see what comes of it on its own?
  4. What's your recommendation for taking action? What do you think needs to be done about this right now? How do you anticipate getting a different outcome the next time around? What do you have in mind to change the situation for the better?
I've taught these four lines of inquiry to many students. They have come back to tell me their sincere inquiries transformed the managers who exhibited patterns of bullying them. Combined with forgiveness and humility, getting fascinated about these inquiries is a ticket to freedom from mismanagement. Have fun with them!


Hammered by schooling

Yesterday, I explored how the dynamics of contagious fears produce chronic mismanagement. With that in mind, it's possible to become free of the ways we torment ourselves when we feeling mistreated. Mismanagement appears meaningful to us, instead of senseless, wicked or inept. Another pattern that plays into chronic mismanagement emerges from the side effects of schooling. Here's some features of that pattern:
  1. Managers assume they are still in school, as if schooling prepared them for life and both situations play by the same rules. They're making the grade at work.
  2. These managers are cannot catch their own mistakes anymore than they could grade their own homework papers. They need others in positions of authority to tell them when they have done the right thing or fallen short of expectations. They "manage up" as if their livelihood depends on it. They cannot "manage down" effectively because they look condescendingly on those beneath them.
  3. They are afraid to make mistakes or admit they made an error. They imagine they will get: marked down, bad grades or held back from advancements -- if they make mistakes that get caught. When they make an error, they're devastated, as if they are mistaken to try and succeed in this line of work. If it's a stupid mistake, they're convinced they are really stupid. They cannot earn other's respect because they lack self-respect. They run an image campaign instead of exposing their need to learn more on the job.
  4. These managers live in fear of getting exposed for their incompetence, insecurities, ignorance and inferiority. They stick to their own kind and avoid comparisons to "the smart kids". The collusion among these equally-frightened managers provides false reassurances that they are good enough to "pass the test". They avoid pushing each other's hot buttons or exposing each others shortcomings.
  5. They cannot learn from what happens as a result of their efforts, from feedback from colleagues or from their own mistakes. Their minds have been closed after receiving so much criticism, such frequent invalidation, so many performance expectations and relentless pressures to meet with others' approval. They have been hammered into a piece of sculpture that never changes.
  6. When a subordinate appears smarter, more competent or faster at learning from mistakes, there's a crisis of confidence among these managers. Alarm bells go off as if their hot buttons have been pushed and their dark secrets have been exposed. The obvious comparisons are devastating in their minds. The "low-life's" competence poses a serious threat that calls for retaliation.
  7. The managers are then filled with unconscious urges to "bully the smart kids". The managers can dish out abuse, but they cannot take it. They are over-compensating for their own insecurities. They go to great lengths to mishandle their competent underlings.
Advice to manage their subordinates more effectively falls on deaf ears. These managers equate "managerial effectiveness" with "loading your assassin's gun with bullets" or "shooting yourself in the foot". It makes no sense to show any kindness to those competent underlings "who get good grades without trying". It makes all the sense in the world to mismanage them.

The first step in finding freedom in these situations -- is to recognize this pattern established during schooling. Acting competent will backfire. Acting incompetent, clueless and inferior is no better. Freedom comes after more discoveries get made beyond this pattern (to be continued).


Meaningful mismanagement

Don't you want me to be productive?
Why don't you want to keep me employed by you?
What have you got against employee job satisfaction?
How can you desire high turnover and low morale?

I had these questions in mind whenever I have not been self-employed. Effective management practices appeared good for customers and the bottom line, as well as fellow employees. Getting mismanaged made no sense to me, especially since I was admired for my productivity, cooperation and initiative. As far as I could tell, I was not being singled out. Everyone I worked with was feeling the effects of mismanagement.

Later in my career, I was helping clients manage their staff more effectively. Again, I encountered senseless mismanagement. Even when professional advice from my colleagues and I was readily available, there was profound resistance to managing people effectively. After a decade of management consulting gigs, I was starved for meaning and freedom. At that time, I started reading two non-fiction books a week and have not stopped since. I found the meaning I was looking for and then the freedom. Mismanagement now makes tons of sense to me. I'm free of it upsetting me, puzzling me or disrupting me. It's something that happens for good reasons. Those reasons perpetuate themselves in spite of the obvious benefits of effective management processes.

Here's one of many patterns of mismanagement that take on a life of their own:
  1. The business gets into some kind of external danger: the brand is getting tarnished, a rival is gaining market share, the local economy takes a nosedive due to layoffs elsewhere, etc.
  2. The top executives imagine paranoid scenarios where things are going from bad to worse. Their minds rely on left-brain cognitive strategies. They're poised to take action in order to survive, yet diagnoses or decisions made in this frame of mind will backfire.
  3. It becomes clear to their dichotomous reasoning exactly who is a friend and foe, a team player or prima donna, and who is good for survival or a traitor in their midst. The top executives' fear becomes highly contagious as subordinates catch the drift of their paranoia, intolerance and anxiety level.
  4. Those perceived as internal enemies get treated as second class citizens, outsiders to the inner sanctum and troublemakers. Mistreating them seems justified to gain control of the external situation. Top-down directives are not to be questioned, challenged or contradicted. Messengers get be shot down as they attempt to minimize the harmful effects of mismanagement. Short sighted and misguided decisions undermine the quality of work, reputation, service levels, productivity, cost controls and morale.
  5. The most competent, talented and resourceful employees quit their jobs. The ability of the company to respond to the external challenge is crippled. The original fears of the top executives appear completely justified. The next time an external threat appears, top management will imagine things going from bad to worse and reenact the pattern.
In short, mismanagement becomes extremely prevalent when top management is running scared of external changes they cannot control. The dangers appear real. Their fears seem justified. Their reactions become necessitated by the dangers. The destructive and counter productive effects seem incidental in the context of the company's survival getting put in jeopardy.


Freedom on the job

My own employment experiences gave me lots or room to maneuver, choose my own approach and deliver results in the best way I saw fit. I found freedom on the job. In hindsight, this came easily to me because I was working in fields that involve a lot of creativity (architecture, management consulting, teaching problem solving). It also helped that situations made it necessary for my managers to take a hands-off approach to overseeing my work.

Freedom on the job is a contrast to getting mismanaged. Most satisfaction surveys show more than half the employees feel like they are doing time in paycheck prisons, handcuffed like slaves to a machine or resenting their indentured servitude. Freedom is nowhere in sight and inconceivable in those oppressive situations. Here's four ways that freedom contrasts with captivity and shows you whether more freedom can be found where you work:

Free to choose: When responsibility has been delegated to us with the necessary authority to fulfill the expectation, we feel free. We are trusted to get results without being told how to get it done. We may be in charge of a project, account or team. It's up to us to make decisions, learn from our mistakes and discover better ways to get things done. When we're deprived of this freedom, responsibilities have been dumped on us without the needed authority. Our hands are tied. We're not free to choose without the review and approval of higher-ups. We're getting micromanaged by control freaks who are cracking their whip and pulling our chains.

Free to relate: When we can reach out for help to coworkers and other departments, we've found freedom on the job. We extend our reach, use our influence and gain respect outside our circle. We find we can understand others and get understood by them by building bridges. Our conduct engenders increasing coordination, cooperation, communication and commitment. We feel others have got our back, scout the horizon and guard our flank as we take risks. When this freedom is obstructed, we cannot cross lines departmental lines or penetrate silos. We're careful to stay out of the cross fire of turf battles and character assassination attempts. We learn to feel safe inside bunkers, fortress mentalities and isolation chambers.

Free to be outspoken: When it's safe to tell it like it is, we feel free at work. We can speak our mind, call the shots and voice our opinions. We will discover if we get branded as a complainer or respected as a keen observer of what's unfolding. We can point out when the emperor's new clothes are vaporware or leadership is killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. When this freedom has left the building, we experience intense conformity pressures. Everyone appears to be buying into the propaganda and checking their brains at the door. Evidence of brainwashing suggests it's better to be silent and compliant than observant and outspoken.

Free to take ownership: When we feel good about taking initiative to follow-through and protect our investment, we've found freedom on the job. We discover it's rewarding to care about more than we're required to by the policy manual and job description. We can show interest beyond our scope of duties and benefit from stretching our comfort zone. We get a better sense of our strengths and weaknesses as we test our limits and take our game up a level. When freedom is a distant dream at work, we get punished for taking added responsibility. We hide behind our job description and volunteer for nothing. We learn lay low and stay out of the searchlight in the prison yard. We may be so overworked by mandatory overtime or the rework of others ineptitude, there's no time to take initiative. If fear is instilled by cleaning house, downsizing, or promoting the kiss-ups, the motivation to act like owners will vanish.

Sometimes freedom is there to be found and enjoyed on the job. In other situations, its nowhere to be seen and cannot be found. Considering these four ways to find freedom will help you decide if there's more freedom on your job to be discovered or not. You can then get confidence that you're seeing you job accurately. You can rest assured that you're not missing something, blinding yourself to the obvious or passing up opportunities.


What happened to you?

Life happens
Whatever, no worries
Take life as it comes
Don't sweat the small stuff
Let it be

These are outlooks on life that are free of getting defined by what happened to us. It's rare to be so free and vastly allowing. We typically identify with some of what happens in our lives. We find particular experiences so captivating that we declare "I am this thing that happened to me". We make a big deal out of it and get dealt with accordingly.

As we get better at finding freedom and meaning, we become "connoisseurs of captivity". We develop a refined taste for the different ways we can trap, limit and impede ourselves. We discern how limiting different identities are. We see how getting captivated can have harmful effects on our personal freedom. We fall for the trap we set by identifying with what happened to us. Here are some of the ways we define ourselves in limiting ways:
I'm a chip off the old block. I'm a carbon copy of one of my parents. It's in my genes to be this way. I can't be different without altering my chromosomes. I'm defined by what I inherited from by relatives.

I'm in recovery from past horrors. I'm a survivor of how I got abused. I'm damaged by what happened to me. I can't act like it didn't happen to me. I'm defined by how I've been previously mistreated.

I'm committed to get this accomplished. Count on me to do what I've done before. Consider me to be as reliable as a good tool. I'm defined by what I've done before. I am my job.

I'm going to fix things so it does not happened again. I'm opposed to more occurrences and the harm it does. I'm about confronting, fixing and battling the factors that maintain the problem. I'm defined by need to make a change.
Each of these ways we get captivated limit ourselves unnecessarily. They play into the perpetuation of problems and unintended consequences. They fall short of creating experiences of freedom and meaning. They necessitate further anxieties, reactions, entanglements and regrets. They fail to find balance between caring about something meaningful to us and feeling free of the captivation.

We can get into just as much trouble going to the opposite extreme. We can become indifferent, cynical, and alienated. We discern lots of insanity in our midst without finding any exits. We can take what happened to us to make sure that nothing happens to us again. We see how to not get caught up in meaningless escapades without ever finding new opportunities. We get sidelined by our awareness of a pervasive lack of freedom without creating significant experiences of liberation for ourselves.

When we successfully find freedom and meaning, we take what happened to us as a launch pad for our next adventure. We avoid a repeat of what happened while going for a refinement, renewal or inspired realization. We profit from the past while investing in the future. We start over with our valuable experiences in the bank.


Who do you think you are?

If you've come under the wrong impression, there will be no freedom for you until you solve your case of mistaken identity. We are not who most people think we are. Thinking is based on left brain cognitive strategies I explored in the series Use your brain. We feel judged by people who think about us in either/or terms. We put up a false front to protect ourselves from the danger they present to our self confidence, self image and self motivation. We pretend to be whatever will appease them, get them to back off or change their thinking about us. I've written about this previously in an exceptionally popular post titled: Initial self concepts.

I wonder if you've gotten the wrong idea about who you are and sacrificed your personal freedom in the process.
  • Are you thinking you are finished goods already shipped from the factory? Has it already been decided how you turned out after all? Are you stuck being this thing that you've been labeled, stereotyped or branded as?
  • Has your picture already been taken for us to get bored with? Are we seeing a snapshot of all there is see about you? Are all the puzzle pieces already in place? Is it completely obvious what you've got to give and what good you are?
  • Are you your resume, portfolio and scrapbook? Does the stuff you've done thus far define you? Has it already been decided what you can amount to by what's already happened to you? Is your past a clear indication of what to expect from your future?
  • Are you trying to be a reliable machine? Are your proud of your consistency, predictability and conformity? Are you staying out of trouble, maintaining a low profile and avoiding others' scrutiny? Are you doing your best to keep a lid on your moods, urges and unpredictable emotions?
We answer "yes" to any of these questions when we've come under the wrong impression about our identity. Our initial self concept is flawed and misleading. This usually happens when we've been extremely impressed by someone's abusive or ambitious temperament. We feel threatened by how mean they've been to us or how arrogantly they've flaunted their accomplishments in our faces. We see ourselves as deficient, vulnerable or defective. We feel judged, put down or invalidated. We think we cannot change what we do not have to begin with. We adopt an attitude of defeat, resignation and cynicism. It sucks to be us and there's nothing we can do about, as far as we can tell.

These appearances are very misleading. False impressions don't mean what they indicate when we take them literally. They mean we can change identities. The truth about ourselves can set us free. Freedom and meaning are a package deal. They come bundled together for our own good. When we got the wrong impression, that means it's time for a change in who we think we are. If we've been extremely impressed by others abusive or ambitious personalities, that means we can change what we believe about ourselves and make into our own deal. When we're being given a mistaken identity, we can set the record straight:
  • When someone thinks we're already finished goods, we know that's a lie. The truth is that we are a work in progress with many more upgrades on the way.
  • When people judge us by our appearances, we can see they are getting seriously mislead. We know we don't have all the puzzle pieces yet, much less how they all fit together.
  • When others assume we have been defined by our past history, that's an incorrect premise. We can accurately assume the future is a unfolding mystery full of unforeseen surprises.
  • When people reward us for acting like a machine, we can let them delude themselves. We're fascinated with being more like weather and the changing seasons.

When we change who we think we are like this, we've found some serious personal freedom.


Two kinds of freedom

There are two kinds of freedom to seek. Which kind are you looking for? Only one kind successfully gives us experiences of being free. The other kind is like an attractive bait that tempts us with the promise of freedom which is never delivered. Knowing the difference can be learned from forewarnings like this, or from experiences with falling for the fake kind of freedom.

Authentic freedom is found within situations. The constraints and limitations imposing on us get valued for providing the context to experience freedom. Too much freedom loses the sense of being free because there's no contrast to the create the experience. White shapes on a white background is illegible. White on non-white is recognizable and much appreciated.
Pseudo freedom is sought after by escaping from situations. Acts of defiance, rebellion, or retaliation offer an empty promise of freedom. Constraints and limitations appear obviously oppressive, confining and useless. There's no sense of a need for context and contrasting background. The need for freedom is urgent, desperate and senseless. There's no meaning for the freedom, only the pursuit of it for it's own sake. There's no escape after all. We remain haunted by what we we're avoiding, opposing or defying.

Authentic freedom is rich with significance. It means so much to us because the freedom ties into our uniqueness. We are free to be ourselves, to live our chosen lives, and to express our inner truths. The freedom we find is very telling about us. It's obvious in what we really care about deeply, commit to easily and create things on this basis.
Pseudo freedom is devoid of significance. It's pursued for cheap thrills, a change in moods, or a break from endurance contests. It breaks up the monotony, struggles or burdensome obligations. We're only as free as a dog on a leash, getting taken for a walk, where someone can always "pull our chain". We're not our own person or living the life we were meant to be exploring.

Authentic freedom is a free gift found within. It's a package deal to be opened when we're ready for more meaning in our lives. It comes with the body, mind, family of origin and personal history. Nothing of what you got needs to change. All it takes is a accepting the gift and doing something personally significant with it.
Pseudo freedom is hard earned. It usually takes big bucks to buy freedom from a system of oppression. It involves drawn out struggles and endless sacrifices. Yet we're still the same person in the same old meaningless life. There's no change of in the significance of what happens or tie-ins to our uniqueness. We do what's expected and rely on external structure to keep us in line. When we discover we've bought into pseudo freedom, we feel ripped off. We realize we fell for the shoddy bill of goods because the world made it easy to not look within past our irrational urges and negative emotions.

With this distinction in mind (between authentic and pseudo freedom), you can begin to:
  • catch yourself falling for the bait to settle for fake freedom
  • find meaning in your frustrations from escapes that don't really feel like freedom
  • appreciate authentic freedom when you either find it or create experiences of it
  • recognize patterns of devotion to pseudo freedom that call for a change of identity


Finding freedom and meaning

Some people want commiseration with their tales of woe. They appear to throw pity parties where they'll succeed at getting sympathy. Some people want to win at other's expense, beat people in competitions and gain command of the playing field. They appear to setup contests, comparisons and trophy cases where they'll succeed at getting admiration, envy and fame. Others, like myself, want freedom and meaning in our lives. We appear to take what happens as stories loaded with symbolic significance, suspenseful plots and conflicts which bring out different sides of each character.

No matter what we want, everyone succeeds. We set-up our lives in ways that accomplish our intentions. We believe in receiving the experiences we favor. We ask for the kind of trouble that gets us what we want. We name the game we're playing and routinely win.

Those seeking sympathy or superiority aren't interested in freedom and meaning. The search for meaning involves too much responsibility for one's own reactions to what happens. It disentangles freedom seekers from captivity by pity parties or power trippers. Freedom and meaning fail to get sympathy or superior recognition. Finding freedom and meaning only seems like a success to those who really want those experiences. They're not for everyone.

Today I'm launching a new series of posts on this blog, inspired by an email I received recently from a kindred spirit:
"I have many friends in creative, marketing, and still-in-search-of-meaning jobs who are not satisfied and seek freedom in so many ways... even from themselves. (Of course I'm one of them.)"
In my experience, finding meaning in our lives provides profound experiences of freedom from taking things literally, over-reacting to setbacks, or getting stuck resisting incidents that persist. Likewise, seeking freedom amidst misery, frustration or boredom yields new meaning, depth and significance to current situations. The combination of freedom and meaning takes shape slowly as personal changes in identity, intentions, projects and relationships. Knowing what to expect and which processes to trust -- is some of what I am about to explore here.

People with meaningful lives are inner directed. We've found within our minds a different identity from the contrived ones the world gave us. We've re-conceptualized who we are in larger contexts and why we're here right now. We take things in a different light than our fears or social obligations dictate. We've found what is intrinsically rewarding and pursue those particular avenues with tremendous self-motivation. Our setbacks then call for more meaning and awareness of previous hidden freedoms. Our accomplishments are neither superior or inferior - they are rewarding in their own right.

Succeeding at finding freedom and meaning calls for rethinking lots of assumptions used by successful seekers of sympathy or superiority. It calls for playing with the rules that others play by. The game of finding freedom and meaning goes for goals on the inside of you.


Actionable content can seem repulsive

Consuming junk food produces several negative side effects on our brains:
  • We get possessed by urges to consume more. We unconsciously decide that we cannot get enough of our favorite junk food. Our insatiable appetite overcomes any reasonable restraints.
  • We experience a change in what tastes good to us. Junk food makes nutritious food taste terrible. Our sense of how to avoid pain tells us to take flight from healthy nutrition.
  • We become creatures of immediate gratification. We react to hunger ASAP. We take a short-sighted approach to our appetites as if eating is an act of desperation amidst danger.
  • We regard packages of junk food as spell binding. We give totemic power to these trinkets that seem to enchant us. We indulge in magical thinking.
The manufacturers and distributors of junk food thrive on these side effects. Excessive consumption feeds their profitability and expansion. Insatiable demand for their products keeps them at full production. The revenue stream funds the massive advertising and elaborate packaging to keep the enchantments in the consumers' minds.

I see the same pattern in the why there is so little delivery of actionable content. It's too nutritious. It doesn't taste good to those on the receiving end. It doesn't make content delivery systems profitable. It requires an appetite that is very different from consuming junk content. It would take some kind of intervention to break the pattern of consumption and acquire a taste for actionable content.


The scuba diver and the water skier

There's a big lake with a boat dock for recreational enthusiasts. Most have been coming here for years and have not been deterred by the soaring petrol prices. Each has a different idea of how to make fun be actionable. Some work on their suntans as they lay out on the lake shore. Others work at catching fish by casting their line into the water off the bank or from a boat near a fishing hole. Others go for the thrill of being pulled around on skis by a high powered motor boat. Others go exploring the depths of the lake by scuba diving in wet suits with tanks.

One could say that scuba divers favor the depth of an experience while water skiers explore the surface. Divers delve into one place on the lake while skiers run around the entire body of water. Both are taking action while operating on different premises about how to have a fun and rewarding experience.

Divers go deep to get to the bottom of the lake bed. It's a good thing to get a sinking feeling. Falling below the surface of the water "poses fulfillment issues". Skiers go deep accidentally when they fall of their skis. Going deep seems like drowning that "poses survival issues". It's a bad thing to get a sinking feeling.

Divers favor the quality of what they find by going beneath the surface. Skiers value the quantity of adrenaline rushes they experience by keeping things superficial. For them, quality is boring. Delving beneath the surface lacks variety. Living the questions is a sign of not being smart enough or sufficiently educated to deserve others' respect.

Divers have the idea that scuba diving is actionable. There is so much to do within a single exploration, vantage point or place in time. Skiers know that skiing is actionable by how active they obviously are to others. Divers going deep does not appear to others as getting anything done. Divers go within where their fruitful experiences are invisible.


Living the questions

It occurred to me this morning that all content is actionable if we know how to question it. Rather than fix the educators or the instructional designs to be more actionable, we can all simply become more effective learners. Rather than finally "get it right", we can remain in process, continually exploring and living the questions. We can all "go with the flow" of other people playing different roles. Here's how I envision living the questions when I pretend that we could somehow articulate our unconscious thought processes.

When we're faced with someone acting like a content provider, we can question what were being given to read, hear, watch or look at:
  • How does this tie into things I already know to do, concepts I already understand and experiences I already have under my belt?
  • What does this mean to me within my particular frames of reference, past history and varied stages of my personal development?
  • How can I use this in my world where I'm solving problems, resolving conflicts and changing my mind?
  • What better questions does this give me to explore, reframe my own inquiries and challenge my own preconceptions?

When we're participating with someone playing the part of an activity director, we can question what we're doing and what comes of it:
  • What happens to my state of mind, body or feelings when I do this as required, differently from last time, or like someone else is acting?
  • How does this set-up make progress, function or take on a life of its own -- when I do my part?
  • What results do I get when I follow the instructions, make a deliberate effort or try to get a change to happen?
  • How can I improve my approach, try something different or build on what I've done so far?

When we're conversing with someone who's acting like a tutor, we can question what we're realizing during the process of talking things out:
  • How does what I'm hearing differ from what's important to me, how I see things and what difference this makes to me?
  • What am I being shown that I don't already see, that I'm assuming otherwise or that I rule out as inconceivable?
  • How am I feeling amidst this conversation about my own confidence, our common ground and my trust of the other person?
  • What does our discussion give me to contribute, tag on to, appreciate and question?

When we're observing another learner playing the part of a perpetual beginner, we can question the example being demonstrated:
  • What is this showing me about how to fuel my own curiosity, create a spirit of adventure and love the process of learning?
  • How can I be like this other person, follow this example and catch onto this contagious competence?
  • What premises am I being shown to come from the same place, live inside a similar story and look out from a common vantage point?
  • How can my own learning process benefit from all these questions, ways to deepen my own inquiries and hypotheses in need of further investigations?

When we're living the questions like this, every thing we take in is actionable.


Playing different roles

We're going to have great difficulty creating actionable content when we suffer from "role fixity". When we're thinking "I'm just doing my job", we're missing out on the playing all the parts where actionable content comes naturally to our minds and conversations. Marshal McLuhan suggested that we get hung up on jobs because printing presses do printing jobs and don't change roles like human labor before mechanization. We're embracing a factory mentality that delivers content and leaves it up to the customer to use it somehow. The labor involved in writing, editing, illustrating and publishing seems like all the activity we can handle. We are not limiting ourselves to providing content. We're doing our best with the full plate we've got in front of us. We cannot follow up with each receiver of the content to see that they put it to good use. That's not in our job description.

When we're looking after others' learning, there are many roles we can play. The more fluid we become in changing roles, the better we'll be at providing actionable content. If we think of ourselves as avatars in a game, we're in great shape to face this challenge. Here are four roles that capture our range of contributions I have in mind when others are learning from us.
  • When we're playing the part of a content provider, our role is to see that others are well informed. We make our message clear and easy to understand. We organize the material to make it easy to follow. We follow logical progressions to develop complex arguments in stages. What people do with the content we've provided is none of our business. We crank it out and hope they do something with it. If we're lucky, we'll encounter some reflective practitioners who chewed on what we provided and came up with ways to challenge themselves. More likely, we'll endure run-ins with couch potatoes who want to be told what to think, say and do by authority figures who wield power over them.
  • When we're playing the part of an activity director, we're setting others up to learn by what they do. We work on making it fun to learn, challenging to explore and practical in its applications. The learners practice what they've been taught, work with the ideas to get some result or play around with different possibilities to realize the consequences of each. Activities run the gamut from discussion groups, projects, lab work, field trips, remedial exercises and simulations. We're active keeping everyone on track and productive rather than presenting lots more content. We facilitate, coach, nurture and guide from the side. We take a very literal approach to providing actionable content and simply give others things to act upon.
  • When we play the part of a personal tutor, mentor or coach, we're engaging learners one-on-one. We rely on the dialogue between us to uncover misunderstandings, to talk through her/his confusion and to sort out the individual's line of reasoning. We ask a lot of questions, do a lot of listening and learn a lot about each person's ways of thinking. The ways we contribute makes it clear in others' minds what to do next, do differently or do for the first time that had not occurred to them on their own. The content provided seems actionable because it's individualized and focused on personal change.
  • When we play the part of the perpetual beginner, everything we offer is actionable. We provide an example of someone who is still learning and on equal footing with other learner's. We're acting as if questions continually drive our learning rather than wanting to appear like an expert or authority. We provide our current understanding as a hypothesis that is subject to further explorations and revisions. We act as if the act of learning is ongoing, fulfilling and self-perpetuating. It becomes obvious to others how to act on what we say, how we conduct our learning and what questions we're using to further our own understanding.
No matter what role we're playing, someone can always take what we're offering in an actionable way. We can make it easier and more likely by changing ourselves among these four roles. We keep the learners guessing where we'll come from next. We make the challenge of taking further action seem engaging.


What are you going to do about this?

Actionable content is doable. We expect learners to take action after comprehending the content. What they get told gives them things to accomplish, move forward or improve.

When we fail to provide actionable content, we drop the ball. We implicitly offer an ultimatum: "take it or leave it" and abdicate further responsibility. We pass up the opportunity to partner with the learner in getting past the talking stage. We expect the action to happen without our influence or example. We don't consider how the content could be revised to be actionable.

When we drop this ball, it feels to the learners like we have asked: "What are you going to do about this?" Content becomes actionable when we imply different questions for the learners to consider. We appear to be asking "Now that you have a feel for this idea, see some uses for the concept, or get what difference this distinction can make:
  • how can you be more selective the next time you're making a decision about this?
  • how can this idea help you come up with more alternatives to choose among before you make up your mind?
  • how does this concept help you see opportunities you can leverage in situations that appear unfavorable to you?
  • how can you apply this idea to troubleshooting what is not working as expected?
Questions like these imply that the content is actionable. The actions are not necessarily instrumental and physically active. The actions are certainly cognitive and considerate. They call for more reasoning, reflection and realizations. The actions in the mind come up with better decisions, designs, strategies, and diagnoses.


Defining actionable content

So far I've made it clear that actionable content is NOT inert, hypocritical, excessive, abstract, expert, trivial, or pseudo actionable. I've defined it negatively to shake up your preconceptions about how content always has to be conceived of and delivered free of confusion. We need to visualize a chasm between familiar forms of content and actionable content. With a sense of "we cannot get here from here", we can make the leap to a different set of preconceptions.

Here's the place we cannot get to when we're thinking about content in conventional terms. We've learned some actionable content whenever we can:
  1. get the job done and achieve the intended results. -- Like getting the new furniture completely assembled when you've only been provided with the printed instructions, web address, fasteners and tools.
  2. know what to do in an actual situation that is not the same as what you were taught -- Like knowing to learn from the students when you've only been shown to cover the material.
  3. do something on purpose and be clear about your intentions. -- Like giving other's the feeling of being accepted, validated and understood when you want to be trusted and respected.
  4. do something that needs to be done without being told to do it. -- Like taking the initiative to discover what's missing or misconstrued when people are acting like something is wrong.
  5. do something differently than you would have from following a bad example. -- Like solving problems creatively when you've been rewarded for thinking inside the box.
  6. make a better decision, trade-off or value judgment than those who react out of fear -- Like choosing to experiment with a different approach when everyone says our hare-brained scheme will never work.
  7. approach a situation with more insight and perspective than the superficial facts make evident . -- Like recognizing a growth process to trust as it goes through stages while others are upset with their discomfort.
Making the switch to actionable content is a second order change. It's not trying harder to get it right, it's trying smarter to make it right. It's not playing by the rules, it's playing with the rules.


Jack this knowledge

On the second day of a three-day seminar I attended on dream interpretation, I needed help interpreting one I had the night before. I dreamed I was a thief who had successfully stolen some goods and was "making out like a bandit". I learned that this symbolism meant I had taken what I had learned from the dream seminar and made off with it like I now owned it. That proved to be true years later. I had taken the Jungian framework and found it to be actionable. I was having lots of successes interpreting my own and other's dreams. I even realized O could read the symbolism in the character arcs and plot twists in films I watched. I had no further use for "dream dictionaries". I car jacked that seminar and drove off with it.

Actionable content is intended to be stolen. The learners "make off with it" like they own it and it will belong to them from now on. They realize they did the hard part of making it into something they can practice, put to use or do thoughtfully. Telling them about it was easy for the teacher. Listening was easy for the learner. The work began at the point the serial numbers on the knowledge were being rubbed out. The knowledge was getting a new paint job, license plates and upholstery. What was common knowledge became personal knowledge that ties into previous experiences, lingering issues and open ended questions. The knowledge found a new home.

Most students appear to turn in the keys to the new knowledge at the end of the course. They act like they had been driving a rental car that they are not allowed to own by hook or crook. It does not feel like something they would want to upkeep and use to get somewhere better. They think they are not qualified, smart enough or sufficiently conscientious to make good use of it. It appear too complicated, abstract, or useless. In short, the content was not actionable.

We make content actionable when we expect it to get jacked by the learners. We want the learners to rip it off and make it their own. We intend for it to be mutilated by their subjectivity, contexts of use and unique efforts to apply it in their worlds. We lose control of what it means to them while being thrilled they have taken it in to the depths of their experience and flights of their imagination.


Acquiring street cred

My preamble to most of the college courses I've taught addressed this issue of "actionable content". I treated the students as customers who needed to beware of "getting cloned by academia", as well as to appreciate "getting prepared for the real world". I framed the issue as the difference between receiving "book smarts" or "street smarts" from a college course. Here's four of the ways I've called attention to the shortage of actionable content in college.

A problem with inert content:
If you know what a computer printer is, what good are you? If you know what "Command P" does or how to "Print" from the pull down "File" menu, you're only helpful if the printer is already hooked up, turned on and in working order. If you know how to troubleshoot the printer set-up and respond to particular error messages, you're showing signs of having "street cred". If other people ask for your help when they are having printer problems, you know you've got 'street cred" that you taught yourself, learned by experience or picked up from somebody with the right stuff.
An example of hypocritical content
A new county extension agent was driving around to meet the farmers in his district. He noticed one, whom he had not met yet, on a tractor near the road. The extension agent parked his truck and waved to the farmer that he wanted to talk. The farmer put his tractor in neutral, climbed down and walked over to the fence. The county agent proceeded to tell the farmer about a new class being taught about crop rotation and reduction in soil erosion. The farmer responded "No thanks sonny. I don't farm half as well as I know how to already. Giving me more book learning won't help me act any smarter".
The limitations of trivial content
If you've been taught the parts of a frog, you can play Jeopardy when there's questions about frog parts for $400. You can pass tests that measure how well you recall frog parts to get a good grade. However you cannot help a frog in trouble, prevent doing harm to frogs or protect the habitat of frogs -- if all you know is the parts of a frog. Frogs have troubles with droughts and too many predators. They can run into short supply of what they like to eat and how they like to mate. They may get into difficulties with raising their tadpoles to full size. If you come along with your expertise in frog parts, you won't know what effect you're having on the frogs, what to do differently or what will alleviate the harm you're doing.
Abstract content makes for trouble
When you get a job after college, the people where you work won't care what the textbook said about their situation. They won't want to know how smart you were in some course you took or how good were the grades you got on this topic. Those people will want to know how much you see in what's happening, how much you can do something about it, and how well you judge the alternatives. If you only know how to get good grades, you probably know how to make a worse problem of the situation. You probably think that all it takes to solve problems is being knowledgeable like it did in school. People won't look to you for advice when you're not learning from them, their ways of seeing or their experiences with this kind of thing. You're too smart or your own good and suddenly finding out what that gets you. Not much.
Actionable content results in street cred. When we do something with new content, we discover what it's good for, how reliably it delivers results, what can go wrong with it and what remedies the situation if it creates problems. We don't imagine we can swallow the lesson whole. It's no good for us until we see what good it does. Once we can put the ideas into practice, we'll impress others and earn some street cred.


The need for actionable content

Teachers want to give their students actionable skills. Managers want their direct reports to formulate actionable objectives. Authors of self-help books want to give their readers actionable guidelines at the end of each chapter. Trainers want to give their attendees actionable takeaways at the close of the session. Making content actionable has become a very popular solution to a widespread problem. Typical content is something other than actionable.

Through the next several blog posts, I'll explore how this idea of "actionable content" serves a purpose, how that purpose is changing, why it's so difficult to formulate and different ways to create the desired effect. For starters, here are seven problems that beg for actionable content.

Inert content: Sometimes we deliver content that only applies to the content itself. We foster encyclopedic knowledge of a subject area that only pertains to further study of itself. We dish out what Alfred North Whitehead called "inert ideas".
In the history of education, the most striking phenomenon is that schools of learning, which one epoch are alive with a ferment of genius, in a succeeding generations exhibit mere pedantry and routine. The Aims of Education 1929
Hypocritical content: We tell people to do something that is the opposite of our conduct. We cannot walk our own talk or provide an example of our advice. We lose credibility because we are merely preachy. We are full of what to say and bereft of what to do differently, more effectively and toward particular results.

Excessive content: We can make a thing of becoming inundated with too much information. We end up twice as smart as we act and say to ourselves "I knew better than to do that". We get so preoccupied with knowing more, we disconnect what we know from how we act. We expect to change ingrained habits by being well informed and then fail to do anything differently.

Abstract content: We can give others content that is taken out of context. It seems unrelated to a context where it could be applied to problems, conflicts or opportunities. It's disconnected from contexts of meaning, relevance, significance. They say "we understand the words, but not what it has to do with anything".

Expert content: We can dwell on being authoritative and fail to hand off our expertise. We can make the right answer seem too demanding, complicated or out-of-reach for others to take ownership of it. We come across as self-righteous, ego maniacal or pompous. We inadvertently silence their voices and dismiss alternative perceptions. We impose modernism on subjective, post-modern sensibilities.

Trivial content: We can prepare others for quiz shows and board games like Trivial Pursuit. We celebrate knowing facts as accumulated possessions. We foster the materialistic acquisition of bigger inventories and abundant collections of information artifacts.

Pseudo-actionable content: We can give people things to do that do no good. We set up people for pointless exercises. We pretend it's valuable to go through the motions with no lasting effect. We take time to waste their time with mere busywork. We show people how to look productive while accomplishing nothing of significance.

What are you supposed to do with that information? Recognize where you're having any of these seven problems. Consider whether actionable content has the potential to solve any of these problems. Wonder why there's still a need for actionable content if it's already clear it would solve these problems.


Digitized current understandings

Over the weekend, I finished reading Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. While reading it, I kept thinking of how it applies to transforming educational systems into pro-learning ecologies. The way Shirky explained power law dynamics brought to mind two of my other favorite books: Linked and The Long Tail.

When people are getting paid to produce inside facilities that are being maintained, bell curves will capture most of what's occurring. Most of the activities will be close to average and extremes will be cutoff. For instance, all the employees who put in an eight hour day will be the norm. Those that are less committed because a very demanding home life will be less productive and far from the norm. Those that are very professionally active (networking, associations, conferences, etc) will also be less productive and far from the norm, but on the opposite end of a scale of commitment to the employer. This kind of production embodies large transaction costs which are minimized by creating organizational hierarchies.

When people are not getting paid to produce and no facilities are provided, the transaction costs are eliminated. Production is voluntary and dependent on personal initiatives. There will be a few exceptional heavyweight contributors and a vast majority who contribute rarely. In between will be a range from a few big contributors to several small contributors. These contributions can come together for free-- due to Web 2.0 tools and server space. Besides the amount of contribution, there are many other facets of this "production without an organization" that portray power law distributions. The size of the audience, subscribers or community members varies from a few gigantic ones to a majority of tiny ones. It's evident in open source software development, groups, Wikipedia edits and the staggering volume of content generators uploading to blogs, YouTube, Flickr and social networking sites. We are free to produce in ways that hierarchies can never be:
  1. Hierarchies must filter before publishing to avoid costly failures, dead ends and setbacks. We are free to publish first then filter, which nurtures each individual's contributions.
  2. Hierarchies achieve quality by controlling people and imposing rules. We are free to evolve quality by making errors, refining drafts and maintaining "works in progress".
  3. Hierarchies must limit the number of contributors due to the cost burden it involves. We are free to encourage an unlimited number of contributors.
  4. Hierarchies insist on a minimum amount of production to qualify for the paycheck and office space. We are free to produce within gift and reputation economies for intrinsic motivations.
All of this has me contemplating a delightful possibility for transforming factory schooling with "digitized current understandings":
  • What if each learner's current understanding of each current exploration was put online for others to contribute using the tools for digital portfolios to create digitized works-in-progress.
  • What if each leaner was in charge of what changes were made in that understanding and considered all the inputs, suggestions and support?
  • What if others made contributions to a digitized current understanding in the form of questions to be considered, personal experiences with "getting it", examples of how other's found the understanding to be useful or relevant to something else.
  • What if the" digitized current understanding" published an RSS feed that others could subscribe to in order to keep abreast of updates and consider additional contributions.
  • What if most understandings had very few contributors, but an occasional one had got a very big response?
  • What if all these contributions to each other's understanding followed power law dynamics which gave each learner those freedoms that hierarchies cannot provide.
Imagine that!


Switching brain strategies

Perhaps you're thinking your situation calls for taking action. If you're dealing with isolated things, go for it. If you can point fingers at the problem without anything coming back on you, taking action should work just fine. If what you're seeing has nothing to do with your way of seeing it, trust your objectivity and react with confidence.

Your situation might not be so clear cut and easy to fix. It's very possible that taking action will backfire on you. Unintended consequences of straightforward action are very likely if your situation involves:
  • human beings with their own feelings, outlooks, histories and intentions
  • relationships that get influenced by where you're coming from and how you interact with others, even if you cannot control things
  • problems that have taken on a life of their own and defy the interference of your good intentions, helpful advice or industrious efforts
  • reciprocating that goes round and round in vicious or virtuous cycles with no end in sight
  • contexts that put everyone under a similar impression about the kinds of danger and opportunities present
  • stories that go back in forth in the face of unresolved dilemmas, contradictions or conflicts
  • fears that continually manufacture more evidence, justification and anxieties about what is really necessary in the situation
In these situations, it's wise to switch from the cognitive strategies of the left brain to those of the right brain. Making this switch calls for a timeout to stop thinking so much and to become more receptive.
  1. categorical -> symbolic reasoning: The sign symbolizes something else in need of our attention. The thing is a metaphor for another thing that's useful. This thing showing up in this context says something significant. This occurrence indicates something else is brewing, changing or ready to happen.
  2. dichotomous -> inclusive reasoning: It's not either/or. It takes both. These are two sides of one coin that need to be kept in balance. The one is the other's way to keep from getting excessive and going to extremes. The two are the ends of a gradient with lots of in-between possibilities.
  3. compartmentalized -> systemic reasoning: This is the result of something else and plays into yet another condition. This ties into that and influences it indirectly. This has repercussions that reverberate through a chain of events. This is a side effect of what came before and leaves a legacy that will likely repeat itself ad infinitum. This is feedback indicating the larger dynamic is not functioning effectively.
  4. reductionistic -> holistic reasoning: It's more complicated than that in order to be self maintaining and self perpetuating. It's a combination of four components synergizing to produce the total effect. It's a virtuous cycle that keeps a lot of different things in balance and working together.
  5. empirical -> playful reasoning: What if we turn things around so the effect causes the cause? What difference does it make if we have proof when we can have an adventure? What's the sense of being careful when being spontaneous may uncover unforeseen avenues to explore? What if being a fool is wiser than being knowledgeable amidst so much uncertainty?
  6. superficial -> deep reasoning: This has an underlying purpose that calls us to take a more respectful and inquisitive approach. This is merely a symptom of complex underlying dynamics. This runs far deeper than it appears and suggests several long range possibilities. This reveals an ongoing process that can be trusted.
  7. convergent -> iterative reasoning: There's a time to be divergent followed by a time to be convergent. After exploring a range of possibilities, narrow the range to a short list. When overly focused on one right answer, generate a bunch of wrong answers that may prove to have some truth in them. Ask what-if then get what-is good about the answers to the question.
We cannot make these changes in cognitive strategies when we're convinced we're in danger. These appear to put us in peril when we're faced with a threat we cannot control and are trafficking in anxiety. It's only when we feel safe that these alternative ways to reason seem appealing.


Left for taking action

Those seven cognitive strategies I've used in the last two posts (Ready Fire Aim! and Incubating a Wise Decision) work superbly when we're taking action. Yet those very same strategies are not effective for diagnosing problems, resolving conflicts, relating to other viewpoints, and many other daily challenges we face. Here's a look at how each cognitive strategy is good for taking action and bad for something else.
  1. Categorical reasoning: To know if you're getting ahead, you've got to label some of your results "progress" and recognize other outcomes as "setbacks" or "getting nowhere". To make progress, you've got to identify some of your efforts "adequate" or "exceptional" and others as "tentative" or "lacking". If you fail to apply these labels, you may not make enough effort or make any progress. However, if you're trying to resolve an argument, labeling the other person, their viewpoint or their pattern of interacting with you (loser, troublemaker, nagging) -- will escalate the tensions and prolong the dispute.
  2. Dichotomous reasoning: Don't kid yourself: either you got it done or you didn't. It cannot get completed behind schedule and on time, it's one or the other. Either it succeeded as planned or something went wrong. Without clear cut dividing lines between polarized opposites, you won't get any satisfaction from accomplishments or an inclination to do better next time. However if you view people with dichotomies (winner/loser, ambitious/slacker, intelligent/stupid) you'll have a worse problem on you hands than when you tried to motivate them, teach them or give them advice.
  3. Compartmentalized reasoning: When you're fixing the gutter, that has nothing to do with fixing ice cream cones. When it's time to take a shower, it's not the time to read the newspaper. When we fail to isolate activities, they mess each other up and get neither done well. Yet if you're trying to solve a mysterious occurrence, compartmentalizing the problem will rule out the actual culprit, hidden connections and the unusual chain of events.
  4. Reductionistic reasoning: To make an omelet in your frying pan, scramble the eggs first in a separate bowl and break the egg shells before that. If you do that in the wrong order or wait for one of the steps to happen by itself, you won't get the omelet you wanted. Omelets are caused by people doing things in the right order without skipping a step. However, if you take a linear approach to a dying houseplant, you'll end up doing too much or too little of watering, fertilizing, transplanting or sunlight -- and then wish you could do something akin to unscrambling eggs.
  5. Empirical reasoning: When you're doing something for a reason, you need proof that the reason is served by your actions. You conduct experiments to see if it makes enough of a difference to take this action. You want to find out if you're doing this for "no reason after all" which can mean it's a waste of your time and resources. However, if you insist on proof of intentions, conduct or outcomes from people you care about, they will feel like you like you're interrogating them, losing trust in them and suspecting them of betrayals.
  6. Superficial reasoning: When you're hammering a steel flat head nail into a wall, the nail gets taken at face value. A nail is a nail, literally. Getting the nail hammered flush with the surface requires not second guessing yourself. You must fail to consider whether the steel nail is manufactured domestically, what trends the steel industry is facing, whether nails were the best choice for this job, and how much competition steel nails are facing from aluminum nails or steel screws. Yet taking another person's request of you at face value will miss what they're really asking between the lines and give you a reputation as insensitive, biased or arrogant for taking them literally.
  7. Convergent reasoning: When crossing a busy street on foot, it's essential to deal with the facts of the situation. Taking this action calls for focusing on the color of the crossing signal, the cars that should be stopped, the change in elevation at the curb and the amount of time before the light changes again. This is no time to ponder other possibilities, to ask what-if questions, or to play with situation as symbols in a dream. However, when you dwell on the immediate situation while encouraging others to make a change, you'll ride roughshod over their vivid fears, troubling past experiences and foresight about long term consequences of the change.
When I reflect on these seven cognitive strategies and how they can function both effectively or disastrously, I come to a conclusion. The left hemisphere of the neocortex deploys these strategies superbly for taking action. Those actions would not get completed effectively without these strategies. Yet the left hemisphere also blunders when overstepping its bounds into the realm where the right hemisphere's, polar-opposite, cognitive strategies get decisions made, issues resolved, relationships nurtured and innovations realized. When using our brains to take actions, the left brain does a better job.