Change in complexity: saving the world, one conversation at a time

Giving up on making a big difference can generate the freedom we need to create change in complexity. Tony Nicholls blogs about this year’s Meaning Conference.

I recently attended the annual Meaning conference in Brighton. People from all walks of life came together to listen to speakers and to meet like-minded people. They came hungry for new ideas on how they could do their bit to save the planet and make life on it that bit more meaningful.

Saving the planet and improving the meaning of life for its inhabitants: grand ambitions indeed. It was surprising then to hear one of the keynote speakers, Margaret Wheatley, smash any hope of us being able to achieve this anytime soon, if ever. This wasn’t a parent-child scolding about our ambitions being ridiculous. Neither was it a cynic’s rant about us all being pie-in-the-sky dreamers. This was actually a refreshingly grounded perspective. Wheatley spoke about the anxiety that can arise when we direct too much of our energy towards the hope of achieving change in any significantly complex, large-scale system.

Referring to Buddhist teachings, Wheatley commented on hope and fear being two sides of the same coin. In other words, to have hope is to simply invite the fear of failure. This is especially the case when that hope is attached to having an impact on something as complex as the whole planet or meaning-making amongst billions of individuals.

To support her assertions, Wheatley quoted Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and social activist (1915 – 1968):

“Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing…apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps opposite to what you expect.”

Wheatley interpreted ‘apostolic’ to mean work of great importance to the individual doing the work and of potentially transformational impact to the big-picture ‘thing’ being worked on. Luckily, for those in the audience now crest-fallen at the prospect of their life’s work being in utter vain, she also shared Merton’s advice on what to do instead of relying on hope.

“…start more and more to concentrate not on results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”

This perspective stuck a chord with me. It spoke to my experience of intervening in complex systems and the nature of reality.

I interpret Merton’s assertion as a recognition that the only thing we can ever hope to influence is what is in front of us. This tends to be an individual or a group of people. Another way of expressing this is to say we can only work with the relationship we currently find ourselves in.

Merton’s view that the work “gets much more real” speaks to the nature of reality being that which emerges in these relationships. I don’t believe he is stating we find an actual reality or universal truth, but that we do get closer to a shared reality as, with others, we explore our own individual perspectives.

The overall message I took away was that if we give up hope of making a difference on the grand scale, we, first of all, lose our fear of failure and avoid the inevitable feelings of despair when we don’t see things changing, or perhaps even getting worse. With this fear under control, we can then focus better on what is in front of us and start to make a difference, through relationship, one person at a time, one conversation at a time.