“Should I stay or should I go?” Career insights from Seth Godin and The Clash

When should you hang in there, and when should you pursue an exit strategy? This question confronts a lot of people who feel stuck in frustrating or even toxic work situations. And given the realities of a tough job market, the dilemma of what to do becomes even more pronounced.

I have no easy answers, but perhaps these insights can help to sort out options:

Seth Godin: Dip, Cul-de-Sac, or Cliff?

In The Dip: A Little Book that Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick) (2007), Seth Godin identifies three stay vs. go scenarios regarding projects, jobs, and affiliations:

The Dip “is the long slog between starting and mastery” of something achievable and worthwhile. After an optimistic start, you encounter resistances, but they are surmountable, and the ends justify your perseverance.

The Cul-de-Sac is “a situation where you work and you work and you work and nothing much changes.” You invest tons of time, energy, intellect, and emotion into trying to change a status quo that is determined not to budge.

The Cliff is a thankfully rare, but addictive situation that can end badly, the work equivalent of taking drugs. Think the folks who mastermind Ponzi schemes and subprime housing deals.

Dips, says Godin, are worth fighting through. Cul-de-Sacs and Cliffs, however, call for escape.

The Clash: Always tease, tease, tease

Like a manipulative individual, a dysfunctional or exploitative organization can mess with your head. It may be especially adept at fooling you into thinking it is capable of significant change. (Oh, but s/he will change — just give him/her time and encouragement…) To borrow from The Clash’s hit single “Should I Stay or Should I Go” (1982):

Always tease tease tease
You’re happy when I’m on my knees
One day is fine, next day is black
So if you want me off your back
Well come on and let me know
Should I stay or should I go?

Bad organizations often are a tease. One day is fine, next day is black. They mislead you into mistaking a Godin-esque Cul-de-Sac or Cliff for a Dip.

Choices

Ultimately, three major choices emerge:

Stay and engage — Maybe the challenges you face are Dips. You can stick with it, push forward, and prevail — and feel very good upon doing so.

Stay and detach — When something better comes along, you’ll be happy to go. However, a difficult economy, a tough job market, and personal circumstances may counsel in favor of staying for the time being. But if staying and engaging is a recipe for insanity or mountains of stress, then staying and psychologically detaching may be the best coping mechanism.

Go — You’re stuck in the Cul-de-Sac or about to go over the Cliff, or you realize that the perpetually unfulfilled tease of change is too maddening. You assess the situation and once again hear The Clash: If you go there may be trouble, but if you stay it will be double.

If you go, you may experience a freeing sensation like that of an East German who made it over the Berlin Wall during the Cold War. And having made it over that wall, I hope a better opportunity beckons, or perhaps you will create one.

***

Related posts

Dealing with “gatekeepers” at work: Beware of Dr. No

Is emotional detachment an antidote for a nasty workplace?

Possibilities (resources for those considering the “Go” option)

 

Seth Godin on the bully-as-victim

Writer and entrepreneur Seth Godin reminds us of his ability to pack a lot into few words in this pithy blog post from today:

The bully-victim cycle

A bully acts up in a meeting or in an online forum. He gets called on it and chastised for his behavior.

The bully then calls out the person who cited their behavior in the first place. He twists their words, casts blame and becomes an aggrieved victim.

Often, members of the tribe then respond by backing off, by making amends, by giving the bully another chance.

And soon the cycle continues.

Brands do this, bosses do it and so do passers-by. Being a bully is a choice, and falling for this cycle, permitting it to continue, is a mistake.

It’s complicated, sometimes

As Godin’s post suggests, sorting out who is the bully and who is the target can be more difficult than first meets the eye. Some situations just aren’t clear cut.

In some instances, “bullying” may not be the apt term. Instead, what you have is an exchange of incivilities, ranging from a true personality conflict between relative equals, to an organizational culture rife with people in a nasty mood.

Real bullying constitutes a form of abuse intended to harm another, often involving the exploitation of an uneven power relationship. Getting to the root of these situations may require some sleuthing, but once the context and facts are known, the picture becomes a lot clearer.

In particular, look for repeat offenders. Many bullies are recidivists, using the same or similar techniques (blame-the-victim is a favorite) over and again, while having the ruthless smarts to avoid being held accountable.

***

Hat tip to Larry Loebig for the Godin post.

Seth Godin’s “Alternative MBA”: A model for training future entrepreneurs?

In late 2008, entrepreneur and author Seth Godin posted an online announcement, inviting applications for an “Alternative MBA” program that would involve spending six months in residence with him and a small cohort of fellow learners who would create and execute plans for new enterprises (link here).

The idea

In pitching the idea, Godin took issue with both the cost and substance of current MBA programs. His homebrewed, unaccredited MBA program would emphasize hands-on project work and would not charge tuition. The original proposal anticipated students providing help on some of his projects, an expectation that was dropped once the program got underway.

This is how he originally described it:

Here’s the program I’m interested in creating:
One hour a day of class/dialogue
Four hours a day of working on my projects
Three hours a day of working on your personal project
Five hours a day of living, noticing, doing and connecting

Results

Godin’s announcement generated a lot of interest, including this exchange on Business Week’s forum discussing whether it was a worthwhile undertaking for participants. Some 350 people applied, 27 were chosen as finalists, and ultimately 9 were selected.

Near the end of the program in 2009, Godin posted a report about what the group had accomplished (link here), sharing his delight with the results:

We’re almost done, and it has exceeded every expectation I had for it, and I think there are some broader lessons worth sharing.

Here are two projects that came out of the program (with excerpts from their websites):

Fear.less

fear.less is a free online magazine that empowers people through unique stories of overcoming fear. From entrepreneurs, business leaders, artists and scientists to survivors of extreme experiences, these stories demonstrate the hidden potential we have to confront our fears and come out victorious.

The 150 Project

The 150 Project believes that the future of marketing is utilizing online communities for sales, marketing, support and innovation. We help companies connect to their customers or “tribe” through social media and online community platforms. We lead with the problem and solution and not the technology. We work with everyone from best selling authors to enterprise public companies.

“Final Takeaways”

Godin listed four major lessons from the experience:

  1. If you have the resources and wherewithal to run a program like this, you should.
  2. If you’re stuck, getting unstuck is not only possible, it’s an obligation.
  3. Find some peers and push each other.
  4. Making friends for life is difficult to overrate. Every one of these people is an all-star and I’m glad that I got to know them.

What’s (very) old is new again

A millenium ago, many of the earliest universities were guild-like groups of scholars who offered instruction to small cohorts of students seeking their expertise and guidance. Later on, as universities began to assume their more modern forms, schools such as Cambridge and Oxford would adopt tutorial style teaching methods that emphasized one-to-one contact between instructor and student.

Against that historical backdrop, Godin’s “alternative” program bears strong similarities to the origins of higher education.

A model?

Does this mean we’ll see more such efforts from accomplished practitioners and academicians? I don’t see a groundswell yet, but the opportunity to do intensive work over an extended period of time with leaders in a field is an awfully attractive approach.

Furthermore, at least in the U.S., the costs of pursuing undergraduate and graduate degree programs have reached alarming levels, as I’ve written before (here on student loans; here on higher education generally; here on legal education). In the case of a budding entrepreneur, why spend upwards of $100,000 or more to get an MBA if Godin’s approach is a faster, cheaper, and more effective avenue towards creating a start-up?

More such initiatives could emerge, and perhaps proliferate, in niche contexts where people have specific reasons for participating and where the educational experience, networking opportunities, and affiliations will outweigh the lack of a formal degree. Given the price tag of higher education these days, a lot of folks might be happy to pursue that route.

Seth Godin: Who reacts, responds, or initiates?

In his 2008 book Tribes, Seth Godin identifies three things that organizations and individuals do: React, respond, and initiate.

Reacting to external events is “the easiest thing.”  It is “intuitive and instinctive and usually dangerous.”  Too many politicians and managers merely react to developments thrust upon them, and often badly.

Responding is “the second easiest thing.”  Responding to “external stimuli with thoughtful action” is “a much better alternative” to simply reacting. A response requires deliberation and planning.

Initiating is by far the most challenging of the three, but it is “what leaders do.”  They see a void or need and act upon it, thereby causing “events that others have to react to.”  They seize and create the agenda. They are the true change agents.

Simple but insightful

Godin captures, in one neat little commentary, the differences among so many organizations and managers.  Obviously circumstances may dictate when an entity or individual reacts, responds, or initiates. But think of your own world, whether it be a business, a community group, a school, or some other entity.  Who reacts?  Who responds?  Who initiates?  I’ll bet the answers to those questions reveal who are the change agents in that realm, hopefully leading society in positive directions.

***

Seth Godin’s website and accompanying blog (links here) offer an abundance of ideas and free materials for individuals and organizations.

Seth Godin: Seven keys to personal reinvention

Here’s a neat little freebie from Seth Godin, bestselling author of books on careers, work, and organizations: Brainwashed — seven ways to reinvent yourself.  Godin suggests that since we were children, we’ve been brainwashed into being average and compliant.  This has led us down the path to becoming cogs in a wheel, and that quality won’t help us survive or thrive in today’s difficult and volatile economy.

Instead, he urges us to “Do work that matters,” and he suggests “seven levers available for anyone (like you) in search of reinvention”:

1. Connect
2. Be generous
3. Make art
4. Acknowledge the lizard
5. Ship
6. Fail
7. Learn

I’ll leave it to your own curiosity to read this short piece and discover the meanings behind these concepts.  Like a lot of Godin’s writings, it’s up to the reader to contextualize the ideas in Brainwashed.  I believe his work is best appreciated as an invitation to imagine better possibilities.

Roundup on creativity, innovation, and making a difference

(image courtesy of clipartpanda.com)

Happy Monday, dear readers. Perhaps it’s procrastination directed at the pile of term papers sitting in front of me, but I thought I’d take a few minutes to gather ten past articles on creativity, innovation, and making a difference. 

Even Shakespeare had a writing circle (2017) — “Nevertheless, it sure helps to have friends and buddies who help to prod us along in that oft-lonesome task of putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Furthermore, if that process includes a mix of mutual encouragement, feedback, and suggestions, then the written products may be all the better for it. While the Shakespeares of the world may come around only once every thousand years or so, a supportive cohort can help to unearth the brilliance we do possess.”

What does it mean to be “onto something?” (2016) — “What does it mean to be ‘onto something’? Well, if you search ‘onto something meaning,’ you’ll get several similar explanations of the term. I like this one from Oxford Living DictionariesHave an idea or information that is likely to lead to an important discovery. . . . As I further acknowledged, it took me until my fifties to find that place. So if you want to be a difference maker, but you haven’t found your niche yet, try to be patient and remain open to messages and opportunities. Sooner or later, you’ll be onto something.”

Three great authors on writing to make a difference (2015) — “For fresh, inspiring outlooks on the uses of writing and scholarship to make a difference, I often listen to voices outside of mainstream academe. Here I happily gather together three individuals, Ronald Gross, Mary Pipher, and John Ohliger, whose names I have invoked previously on this blog.”

Work and solitude (2015) — “If some of the trendy gurus in work and office design are to be believed, teams and open spaces are the keys to spurring creativity and innovation. But hold on a minute, maybe this is going too far. While complete isolation and always closed doors are not advisable, the other end of the spectrum may not be such a great idea, either.”

The example of the Wright Brothers (2015) — “Their accomplishments were especially remarkable given that, as [historian David] McCullough writes, they had ‘no college education, no formal technical training, no experience working with anyone other than themselves, no friends in high places, no financial backers, no government subsidies, and little money of their own.'”

The daily routines of creative minds (2014) — “How do creative geniuses and brilliant intellectuals spend their typical workday? If you’ve ever wondered how great writers, artists, philosophers, scientists and other creators of art and knowledge greet their mornings and beyond, Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work (2013) is a pleasing, easy way to find out.”

Messiness and creativity (2013) — “As the photo above suggests, this may be among the most self-justifying of blog posts: A short write-up of a recent study indicating that messiness may nurture creativity.”

10 ways to make a difference: Advice for change agents (2013) — “Let’s say you’ve got a cause you care deeply about, and you want to move it forward. It may be an initiative at work, a political issue, a community concern, or something else that matters. You may be at the beginning, in the middle, or tantalizingly close to success. . . . What follows are hardly the first or last words about making a difference, but perhaps you’ll find them useful. In no particular order . . . .”

Do credibility and innovation mix? (2011) — “Is it possible to have both credibility with the Establishment and freedom to innovate? . . . [Seth Godin] summarizes the ‘paradox of success’: People with no credibility or resources rarely get the leverage they need to bring their ideas to the world. People with credibility and resources are so busy trying to hold onto them that they fail to bring their provocative ideas to the world.

Advice to Young and Not-So-Young Folks Who Want to Make a Difference (2009) — “Several years ago I was asked to present an award to a pioneering labor leader at the annual banquet of Americans for Democratic Action, on whose board I sit. I don’t know why I thought this, but as I started to research his background, I half expected to see a long list of jobs in different labor and political organizations. Instead, I learned that he had served in his current position for well over a decade. . . . Look around you: Most of the difference makers have staying power. They are driven by heartfelt commitment and a desire to do something meaningful.”

On being responsibly bold (and other advice for legal activists)

The short version is here

At the recent therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ) workshop hosted by Professor Carol Zeiner and the St. Thomas University School of Law in Miami, Florida, I urged us all to be “responsibly bold” in our research and advocacy for legal and policy change. The term resonated with a number of workshop participants, and that response has prompted me to gather three clusters of advice for legal activists who are working toward the greater good.

The advice is based primarily on two ongoing points of significant involvement:

  1. engaging in scholarship, legislative drafting and advocacy, and public education on workplace bullying and mobbing; and
  2. researching and proposing law reform measures concerning the widespread practice of unpaid internships.

It is also informed by the promise of our new organization, the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence, which is happily recruiting founding members.

I hope these thoughts will inspire your ideas about how to be effective in a legal activist mode.

Be responsibly bold

If it matters, write about it, even if no one else is doing so.

Take smart chances to be among the first, if not the first, to address a topic worthy of attention.

Furthermore, instead of merely analyzing the problem and providing broad parameters for a legal or policy response, offer a proposed solution with enough detail to lead the discussion on what should be done.

This may include outlining the specific strategy of a legal challenge or drafting a proposed statute or regulation.

As a law professor, I’ve noticed that some legal scholars opt not to take their analysis and writing this far. They critique a set of judicial decisions or an existing statute thoroughly and relentlessly, leaving nothing to pick over but the bones. However, when it comes to proposing a solution, they lapse into safer generalities. Rather than proposing, for example, specific language for a statutory amendment or a revised regulation, they morph into Impressionism and finish with erudite yet vague conclusions.

Instead, when recommending new or reformed public policies, the potential agenda setting approach is to write up the proposed statute or regulation. Greater specificity fuels the possibility of playing a more significant role in changing law and policy.

Be willing to write the first draft

Many years ago, Anthony Amsterdam, a New York University law professor and legendary civil rights lawyer, suggested to a group of new law instructors that if we are willing to be “the bottom name on the brief,” i.e., the person who does the grunt-level research and drafting even though others with fancier titles are listed above us on the pleading, then we can potentially enjoy the greatest influence over the shaping of the document.

Tony’s maxim taught me a lesson, and it has been verified in virtually every legal, political, policy, and bureaucratic setting to which I have been privy: Do a really good job on a first draft and the words continue to influence others. They may even help to frame a broader legal or policy agenda.

A quality brief or proposed statute becomes the template for others to borrow or tweak. A well-crafted set of talking points appears time and again in the remarks and speeches of others. A neatly worded resolution cuts through a lot of excess verbiage and half-baked thoughts in a meeting or conference.

Seek out partnerships and affiliations

A change agent should seek out partnerships and affiliations with organizations, associations, and agencies that can help to advance one’s work. Connections with the right groups and individuals can lead to a sharing of ideas, access, and resources. They can open doors that may appear to be closed when working solely on our own.

Considerations of partnerships and associations overlap strongly with writer and entrepreneur Seth Godin’s suggestion that in order to achieve desired change, those of like interests and commitments should gather together in “tribes.”

In his 2008 book, Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, Godin defines a tribe as “a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea,” adding that the two things a group needs to operate as tribe are “a shared interest and a way to communicate.”

He has further identified three types of tribes and individuals:

  • Those who react,
  • those who respond, and
  • those who initiate.

He suggests that while many simply react or respond to external stimuli, genuine leaders initiate by recognizing needs and opportunities that others miss, thereby playing a greater part in shaping change.

I am currently serving as the first board chairperson of the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence. For those interested in law reform that embraces well-being and psychological health, I hope that the ISTJ will serve as a nurturing, inclusive, and forward-looking tribe. One look at the overall state of the world should tell us that a TJ perspective is badly needed when it comes to informing our laws, legal systems, and legal institutions.

We’ve got our work cut out for us. Let us be among the change agents who offer responsibly bold and humane solutions that advance human dignity.

***

A slightly different version of this post was published by the Therapeutic Jurisprudence in the Mainstream blog. Portions of the above are adapted from my 2016 article, “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law” (Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice), which can be downloaded here without charge.  It’s a very personal piece, filled with reflections on my experiences with law reform activities. The roles of TJ and interdisciplinary connections figure prominently in my commentary.

Even Shakespeare had a writing circle

C’mon in, it’s free!

During a recent visit to the central branch of the Boston Public Library, I took a break to check out an exhibition, “Shakespeare Unauthorized,” on display through the end of the month. I’ve never been a big Shakespeare reader, watcher, or listener, but I readily recognize his brilliance and profound influence, and I’m a bit of an Anglophile to boot. Plus, I was procrastinating on reviewing student paper outlines and drafts.

It was an interesting exhibition, and here’s what specially caught my eye: Shakespeare was part of a writing circle — Elizabethan style! One of the panels told me so:

Whose turn is it to bring the coffee?

The motion picture “Shakespeare in Love” notwithstanding, I’ve thought of the Bard as this lone genius, writing away at his desk, lost in his plots and thoughts. After all, writing is mostly a solitary activity, right?

Nevertheless, it sure helps to have friends and buddies who help to prod us along in that oft-lonesome task of putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Furthermore, if that process includes a mix of mutual encouragement, feedback, and suggestions, then the written products may be all the better for it. While the Shakespeares of the world may come around only once every thousand years or so, a supportive cohort can help to unearth the brilliance we do possess.

In November 2015, I wrote a post about the importance of tribes, borrowing from the work of writer and entrepreneur Seth Godin:

Tribes give us a chance to be a part of something larger and more significant than our individual lives. This appeals to our desire for meaningful connection, to be able to work with others toward making a difference or having a stronger impact in a sphere of interest.

Shakespeare had his tribe! And quite a talented group they made. It may have been the writing circle of writing circles.

A Tale of Two Hamlets?

The other item grabbing my attention was the existence of at least two versions of Hamlet, significantly different in several major passages, including the iconic “To be, or not to be” soliloquy. Such literary detective stories are fascinating, but is nothing sacred? What’s next? Will a certain fast food chain now claim that in addition to “As You Like It,” there’s another version titled “Have It Your Way”?

Time to update the Cliffs Notes!

Weighing the exit option for a toxic job

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In “10 things I realized after I quit my job without a plan” (Business Insider), life coach and consultant Anna Lundberg shares her experience of walking away from a job and creating her own business:

In September 2013, I walked out of my office and into the unknown. . . . I emptied my apartment of seven years, put my boxes into storage, and moved into my parents’ guest room as I thought about my next move.

My intention since the start had been to create a more independent and flexible lifestyle.

. . . So far, so good! This time last year, I officially incorporated my own consulting business and I’ve been busy on great projects ever since, working with big-name clients, making new connections, and sharpening my skill set.

Drawing upon hindsight, she then offers ten points reflecting upon her experience:

1. “Life on the other side is not as scary as you think.”

2. “You have to stick to your guns.”

3. “There are more options than you ever thought possible.”

4. “You can easily live on less money than you think.”

5. “New opportunities will appear from nowhere.”

6. “It doesn’t have to be perfect from day one.”

7. “Nothing is forever.”

8. “You are not alone.”

9. “You’ll never have all the answers.”

10. “Not all who wander are lost.”

Lindbergh offers explanations for each statement, and it’s worth checking out her full piece to read them. She may inspire some folks to consider their own options and futures.

The escape route

Many people discover this blog because of their experiences with workplace bullying and abuse. Long-time readers know, however, that I resist touting one-size-fits-all fixes. Each work situation has its own individual dynamics, rendering easy advice dangerous, especially when issued from an online perch. That said, for some the exit option is the most viable one. It should be weighed carefully.

Back in 2011, I wrote about the “Should I stay or should I go?” question for folks in bad work environments:

When should you hang in there, and when should you pursue an exit strategy? This question confronts a lot of people who feel stuck in frustrating or even toxic work situations. And given the realities of a tough job market, the dilemma of what to do becomes even more pronounced.

In that post (link here), I offered insights inspired by entrepreneur Seth Godin and the rock band The Clash, as well as more concrete suggestions about thinking through one’s options. To these points, I add this one: One of the most recurring regrets that I hear from targets of severe workplace bullying is that they didn’t remove themselves quickly enough from bad work situations, even as the abusive behaviors kept mounting. Among the costs was that it became much harder to pick up the pieces afterward, including developing options for moving forward with their livelihoods and careers.

It doesn’t appear that Anna Lundberg walked away from a toxic job. Her decision seems to have been grounded in a desire to change the direction of her life in a more positive way. Thus, the more optimistic tone of her piece understandably may not resonate with someone who is feeling trapped in a terrible workplace. After all, it’s pretty damn hard to be sunny about your future when you’re being emotionally pummeled. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that walking away from one job for any reason will lead to something better.

But until more employers start to take abuse at work seriously and the law steps in to create stronger legal protections, leaving a bad job — voluntarily or otherwise — will remain the most common “resolution” of severe workplace bullying. Whenever possible, those who are experiencing toxic jobs should try to get ahead of the situation. It is not an easy thing to do — at first glance, it may feel downright impossible — but it’s much better than waiting for others to impose the choices.

Potential intermediate steps

But before making a final decision to leave a toxic job, there may be some intermediate steps worth considering. They include measures to take stock and assess options related to employment, health, legal rights, etc., while being physically removed from the unhealthy work environment:

  • Taking any earned/accumulated leave time (vacation, sick, personal days);
  • Taking advantage of any family and medical leave rights, which in some states and countries may include paid leave; and/or
  • Requesting a formal leave of absence, consistent with any employer-provided benefits.

Obviously financial considerations often figure heavily into such options and decisions. At this juncture, I will only say that it may be worth a short-term money squeeze in order to buy time to process your situation.

Additional resources

Those considering their exit options may want to review the Need Help page of this blog, which, among other things, collects a variety of blog posts that can help to clarify the decision making process.

***

This post was revised in December 2019.

Tribes for brewing ideas and engaging in positive change

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In his 2008 book Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us (2008), Seth Godin defines a tribe as “a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea.” Tribes and movements go together, he suggests, grounded in our desires for connection, growth, and positive change.

Tribes give us a chance to be a part of something larger and more significant than our individual lives. This appeals to our desire for meaningful connection, to be able to work with others toward making a difference or having a stronger impact in a sphere of interest.

Four books that I pulled from my library help to illustrate of how groups of smart, bold visionaries connected with each other and formed tribes in the days before digital technology made long-distance communication easy. Physical proximation had a lot to do with their success, sometimes as close as sharing meals, meetings, and informal get-togethers in the same location:

  • Christina Robb’s This Changes Everything: The Relational Revolution in Psychology (2006) tells the story of the pioneers of relational psychology, clustered in the Greater Boston area, including Carol Gilligan (gender and moral voices), Jean Baker Miller (psychology, women, and relational-cultural theory) , and Judith Lewis Herman (trauma theory and practice).
  • James Buchan’s Crowded with Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh’s Moment of the Mind (2003) recounts an extraordinary coalescence of leading intellectuals such as Adam Smith (economics and markets), James Boswell (biography), David Hume (philosophy), and Robert Burns (poetry) in 18th century Edinburgh.
  • Laura J. Snyder’s The Philosophical Breakfast Club (2011) shares how four men who first crossed paths at Cambridge University — Charles Babbage (mathematics and computing), John Herschel (astronomy and photography), William Whewell (multiple fields of science), and Richard Jones (economic science) — began meeting over Sunday morning breakfast to exchange ideas and plant the seeds of the modernization of science.
  • Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (2001) focuses on the lives and ideas of four remarkable members of a conversational club that met throughout 1872: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (law), Charles Sanders Pierce (philosophy), William James (philosophy and psychology), and John Dewey (education and philosophy).

Studying “genius clusters”

With a somewhat lighter touch than these weighty tomes, Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places, from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley (2016) engages in an entertaining historical travelogue of places where creative genius has flourished.

Notwithstanding his conversational prose, Weiner, too, begins on a more academic note, taking issue with claims that genius is purely hereditary and offering evidence to the contrary. He then cites as a frame for his journeys psychologist Dean Simonton’s (UC-Davis) work on genius clusters, i.e., those geographic areas that, during concentrated periods of time, fostered creative, scientific, and intellectual breakthroughs by multiple individuals.

The search for genius clusters sends Weiner to seven locations where such genius has flourished: Athens (philosophy), Hangzhou (science, technology), Florence (art), Edinburgh (economics, philosophy, and science, among others) , Calcutta (arts, literature, religion, and more), Vienna (music, psychiatry), and Silicon Valley (digital technology). It’s a fun and thought-provoking sojourn. (You can read a National Geographic interview with Weiner by clicking here.)

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Can geographically dispersed tribes foster genius?

Today, tribes may form and interact with members spread across the land. Physical proximity helps a lot, of course, especially in the form of periodic conferences and meetings. But the online world can be a way of sustaining and building those bonds too, especially when face-to-face interactions are less feasible. Godin plays up this angle in Tribes.

The next consideration is whether this blend of online connectivity and periodic face-to-face interaction can foster creativity, innovation, and collaborative magic in ways similar to geographically defined genius clusters. I raise this as an open question, not as a veiled doubt. I have been part of many online exchanges that have fueled insights and new ideas. I can’t speculate either way on whether the results would’ve been better developed had the respective conversations been face-to-face.

Although my preference is for small group face-to-face meetings, the bridging power of communications technologies helps to bring thinkers and doers together from many locations. I’ve seen this dynamic occur via numerous digital platforms. In fact, this blend of face-to-face and online communications is a key to the success of three sometimes overlapping tribes of which I’m a part, the workplace anti-bullying movement, the therapeutic jurisprudence network, and the global human dignity community. For members of these groups, digital options (c. 2019) such as email, Facebook, Skype, FaceTime, and Zoom join with old-fashioned phone calls and letters to offer an abundance of choices and modalities for communicating between distant locations.

With these technologies, I would like to think that tribes of smart, devoted, hardworking, and well-meaning people can overcome physical distance to make a positive difference together. We don’t necessarily have to qualify as “geniuses” on some measured scale or hang out with each other every day at a favorite coffeehouse. Rather, the sustained, interactive communication is the key.

Some questions

So, if you will indulge my closing with an educator’s homework questions:

  • What are your natural tribes? How can you contribute to the work of your favorite tribes? How can you form and lead a tribe to make a positive impact in a dimension that benefits from your presence?
  • How can we use communications technologies to foster the care and feeding of difference-making insights, understandings, ideas, and initiatives? How can we make the most of treasured opportunities for face-to-face gatherings?
  • What the heck is “genius” anyway? Is it mere analytical brainpower or something much more?

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This post was revised in July 2019.

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