Years ago I had a seminar on “Greek Mathematical Thought and the Origins of Algebra“. While that topic may not fan the cockles of the average heart, I found it to be a fascinating study in how ontology (theory about the nature of being or the kinds of things that have existence) can shape our scientific tools.
To cut right to where I am going with this, consider the case of a child growing up right now. Whereas technology used to be the domain of wealthy adults, now it has become much more available to children and the middle class. Consider children growing up with a digital device such as an iPhone, tablet, books on the computer or digital learning games. It will be fascinating to see how their minds are shaped by these experiences approaching the problems of tomorrow. Issues such as virtual reality, digital privacy, and access to internet as a right rather than a privilege, are all potential situations where generations may have a different way to conceptualize truth simply due to the way their minds were exposed to technology while growing up. I am fascinated as to whether an ontological shift will occur over the coming centuries as the digital and physical continue to track towards each other in the future. I am not nearly informed enough as to whether we will see a collision between the two or if they will act as an asymptote drawing ever closer but forever distinct.
I would never declare any of what I have said unassailable truth, but I am continually ruminating on the idea that how we conceive of our world will allow us different glimpses of the truth that may underpin human understanding. Its an exciting and sobering idea that there may be ideas of which I could not conceive because the understanding of the world formed in me from my youth could be completely different from someone a mere twenty years younger than me.
Sonder is a neologism that has been most often defined as “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.” The word draws upon both German and French words meaning “set apart and unique” and also “to probe”. I have recently become a fan of this word because it describes something that almost seems foolish, but is 100% human. We know on a cursory level that every person on earth has a story of some kind. They were born, educated to an extent, work or fill their time in some way. Everyone has an iteration of a dream or goal in mind. People vacillate in terms of motivation or liveliness, but the rich experience we call being alive is poured out to some degree on all people. We know this yet we have all had the experience of treating others or being treated as though this were not the case.
I myself am guilty at times of focusing on the tasks at hand through the narrow lens of my own understanding and my own skills. A recent experience in feeling sonder caused me to think about this in my own life. I was struck by the thought that the person in their car next to me heading to work had a life just as complex and full as my own, if not more, and I will never participate in it at all. Sure you can make the case that just by having observed this person I have been a part of their life’s story, but I do not believe I made any tangible impact in his life.
This seems tangential to a business blog, but I can’t help feeling that building your network and seeking out diversity in your relationships can build a more complete team or company. If the human experience and the life I lived is vast and colorful, but really no more so than the life of a stranger on a train, there must be enormous potential for understanding the questions we face when we begin to hear the stories of others and draw upon their experiences as well as our own.
It seems pretty simple to say that more people with varied experiences make a more complete team, but I am thinking about this both philosophically and in terms of business. Shared experience is excellent, but similar to the dialectic of Plato, divergent understanding can help sharpen our pursuit of the truth. There are 7+ billion people on earth right now, and the richness of their lives can add great perspective to anyone willing to engage with them. That thought still blows my mind. If you were to take and add up all of the thoughts I have had in my lifetime, even the greatest thinkers would be less that the amount of thoughts had by all the people alive right now in less than one second.
Soren Kierkegaard, philosopher supreme, considered spiritlessness one of the key human illnesses of our time. The spiritless person is dominated by a disconnect from responsibility to higher values*. While clearly having religious import to Kierkegaard, the observation also has a powerful analogy in the business world. I would suggest that a dimension of the problems underlying the ‘disengaged’ workforce is captured in Kierkegaard’s spiritlessness. That is, a disconnect between an employee’s understanding of their responsibility and the values of the organization leads to subpar results.
A few examples of the sickness of spiritlessness in the workplace:
Innocent Ignorance- “I only do ‘X'” mindset, which involves a poor understanding of what ‘X’ is. This comes about when task is thought more important than the intended outcome. (e.g., I heard once of a saleswoman that locked away promotional materials when people came by… because it was only her job to make sure the sales office had a certain volume of pamphlets on hand.” There is an innocence in the ignorance of “I only do X’ers” that makes it easier to push them towards understanding the value behind the why. I would suspect we’ve all been here and will all be here at times in our lives.
Unfelt Responsibility- “I’m sorry, but we won’t help you” This comes about when standard process came up short and the employee/manager has authority to assist, but won’t. See Manlius’ Jigger of Common Sense for an example here. The employee/manager doesn’t feel a responsibility to help and so refuses, even when it really ought to be their responsibility as in Manlius’ case.
Fear of Responsibility- In these cases the need to dynamically evaluate a situation is shirked and easy answers are chosen. This spiritlessness is particularly insidious in management, because it pairs well with authority and is often a reaction to potential threats to authority.
Of course, the real purpose of this concept in Kierkegaard’s philosophy was for the individual to come to grips with the implications that these higher values had on their choices with no easy outs or quick fixes. Business is rarely so broad in it’s pursuits, but organizations would do well to consider the ways in which these implications go unnoticed or are treated as trite aphorisms with no power to compel responsible action.
*Financial, societal, or personal, these are the systems behind the why of decisions an organization or person makes. For the sake of brevity they can also be construed as outcomes in certain circumstances.