Forcing the Balance, Or How I Learned to Stop Worshiping Star Wars and Understand Myself


Episode IV: A New Hope

Believe it or not (and many who know me well will have no trouble believing it), I had plenty more than that to say when I was writing three years ago. But what I’ve presented here is the bulk of the important material, the points I was really trying to make, all of which became the bane of my existence as I wrestled with version after unsuccessful version.

With the essay shelved, I put it more or less out of mind, until the press started gearing up for the Spring 2005 release of

the final Star Wars film. I pondered the essay once again, though with no anxiety or pressure, just figuring that I’d pick it up once I saw the new movie. Indeed, when I saw it (on opening night again, of course), the final film not only redeemed the trilogy by bringing back solid storytelling, but it confirmed all I’d philosophized, evident from the fact that I referenced it above in relating those three-year-old ideas.

But between the time I put the essay away and the time the final film was released, my intention to return to the essay to make it say all that I wanted it to say was complicated. Something happened in the meantime.

From January 2000 when I turned in my masters thesis until June 2003, I’d worked consistently toward developing a general audience book based on my thesis. This, I thought, was the logical extension of my graduate work and would possibly be the most important thing I could do to contribute to the proliferation of the systemic worldview.

Then, in July 2003, I became a parent of Sophia Quinn Meritt. Parenting, while very rewarding in many ways, has proved inordinately more trying than I’d ever imagined it would be. Interestingly, this is mostly because my research led me to a way of parenting that is consistent with the systemic worldview and our understanding of human evolution. I’ve therefore been motivated to do it despite the fact that, in our culture, it is extremely difficult to do. The upshot has been that I’ve barely spent any time on my book ever since Sophie was born.

By Fall 2003, having gone through the first few months of inactivity on essentially all my personal projects, and despite knowing that this was a temporary and necessary phase of my life, I felt lost. Any hope of pursuing personal projects seemed to recede ever further into the distance. It therefore became paramount that any time I could eke out for personal pursuits be put toward the best possible pursuits, the most important and most meaningful. I’d always thought that was the book, yet I was finding myself unmotivated to sit alone in front of a computer for the years that it seemed it would now take to complete the book under these new circumstances.

Enter Bill Giruzzi once again. By now, Bill’s interest in our favored worldview had led him to develop a consulting business with his wife Lisa, in which they use an approach called Appreciative Inquiry. AI’s main tenet is that positive change is best created by framing a situation as an opportunity to discover and build upon what already works well. When he’d introduced me to it a few years earlier, I’d found it intellectually very valuable but didn’t embrace it in practice.

Now, hearing about the crisis I was in, Bill offered me some advice. His pursuit of AI had led him to the related approach of strengths-based management, itself building on the burgeoning field of positive psychology. The gist of all these related notions was that it’s important to honor what a person is naturally good at and try as much as possible to foster it, as opposed to making people work on their weaknesses to become well-rounded.

Through his coaching, it became clear that my whole approach to the book was hurting me. I’d imagined that I’d return to the arts only after completing this important project. But the arts were where my passions had always been, and, in particular, music was always the talent that came most naturally to me. I’d started playing piano as a toddler, was far beyond introductory piano lessons by the time I’d started taking them a few months after seeing Star Wars for the first time, and would eventually go on to compose many hours of music and to be able to play countless songs by ear in such a way that people would think I’d practiced them for years. Indeed, whenever I sit down at the piano and play, it’s like a direct line to the flow experience that is so representative of a person performing at their best. As good as I was at a number of other things, there was no doubt that this is what I was best at.

The upshot of his coaching was that I needed to give up the sense of obligation I had toward saving the world and, instead, first work on myself, becoming an example of the kind of person that I myself claimed was the most likely to contribute to saving the world. That meant pursuing the things that one loves and and is best at. I resolved to inject more music into my life.

Over the few months that followed, I had many ups and downs and questioned my priorities again and again. I felt pulled apart by the various things I wanted to pursue. Though I’m the kind of person who’s always had a million possible pursuits, it was abundantly clear to me that there were only three top contenders: music, which was the thing I felt I was best at, filmmaking, which was the thing I felt I was most interested in pursuing, and then there was the whole academic side of the systemic worldview, which was where I felt I could have the most important impact on the world.

Having read Daniel Quinn’s advice to others searching for “what they should do,” I felt I knew what he’d say — do the thing you do best, because this is how you’ll have the best chance of making an impact in the world. Despite feeling that his answer was a foregone conclusion, I sought his advice via email in February 2004. Rather than babble endlessly as I so often would with Dan and others, I posed a question to him with the economy I’ve often felt him to model. I left out the details and simply asked, “What if the thing I’m best at doing, the thing I’m most interested in doing, and the thing I could do that seems to have the most potential to impact the world are three separate things?”

In his reply, he said this: “It seems to me that you’re most likely to succeed by doing what you do best, and if you’re successful at that, you may eventually be in a position to do the other things you want to do… The point of my book Providence — though never stated explicitly — is that doing the best you can with what you’ve got (or you might call it ‘living in the hands of the gods’) leaves one open to the completely unforeseeable workings of providence. (If my boss hadn’t been betrayed at SVE by being denied the presidency he’d been promised and if a complete jerk hadn’t been brought in instead, I might well have stayed at SVE — and Ishmael might well never have been written.) I wish I had some blinding inspiration for you, but I’m afraid this is the best I can do.”

It had turned out that I was right about what his advice would be. It always seemed sensible enough to me, but I never really took it to heart. But this time, despite his thinking it otherwise, his advice was, in fact, blinding inspiration. Reading his response was a genuine epiphany.

Quinn had often distinguished the civilized and the tribal worldviews based on the stories they were enacting. Civilization, he says, takes the rule of the world from the hands of the gods into its own, and since we are incapable of doing the work of the gods, i.e., incapable of running the universe as well as the universe runs itself, we constantly subvert our own best intentions. In contrast, tribal cultures live in the hands of the gods, acknowledging themselves to be as much part of the universe as anything else, and granting that the universe has done well by them so far and will continue to do so as long as they live in a way that honors how the universe works.

Now, for the first time, Dan was connecting his “do what you’re best at” advice with one of the absolutely central tenets of his work. Far more than being simple, sensible advice, I immediately saw this advice as absolutely crucial to everything Quinn discusses. So many people ask him just what it would look like for someone to live in the hands of the gods, and now here was an answer so powerful that it had led Quinn himself to his own significant achievements and yet so simple that it had seemed too obvious for him to make explicit in his writings up until this point. Do the best you can with the best of what you’ve got, because this is the best of what the universe has given you, this is the best card in the hand you’ve been dealt. Whether you think you may prefer something else doesn’t matter. What you think are your goals doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you do what you do best, because your best chance at producing good results for yourself lies there. Further, as Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow shows, this is actually where you’re most likely to get the best possible experience and the greatest possible sense of accomplishment anyway, so any concern about doing what you do best instead of doing something you prefer evaporates as a non-issue.

Through these connections, I suddenly saw that this was, indeed, how everything in the universe lives in the hands of the gods. In every evolving, dynamic system, what works well is preserved and what doesn’t work well falls to the wayside.

No specks of cosmic dust ever struggled to become a planet — those that were poised in a particular way with respect to the other specks of cosmic dust and the stars in their vicinity simply became planets. It happened as a matter of course. They couldn’t help it. That’s how physics works.

No molecules ever tried hard to become life — those whose bonds were apt to link them to other molecules formed larger molecules, and those larger molecules that had more of a propensity toward self-organization and self-replication simply built on that propensity and eventually became alive. It happened as a matter of course. They couldn’t help it. That’s how chemistry works.

No organism ever gave it their all to evolve into a new species — all organisms simply used the traits they had, because there was never anything else for them to use, and those which had traits well adapted to their environments inevitably replaced those with less well adapted traits, and new species evolved. It happened as a matter of course. They couldn’t help it. That’s how biology works.

And for an individual person, what more is there to do than to foster what we’re best at, what is second nature, what most easily works well for us? Becoming aware of who we are as opposed to who we’re not, accepting it and acting on it — this is the very way for an individual to live in the hands of the gods, to generate a good life. As long as we don’t let other ideas get in the way, it happens as a matter of course. We can’t help it. That’s how the human brain works.

Not only did this understanding crystallize the entire systemic worldview in a practical, personal and simple bit of advice, but it was a bit of advice that would, I imagined, be not only palatable but useful to almost anybody, even those who’d otherwise be turned off by various other aspects of systemic view of the world. This seemed to be the key to everything.

So here I found myself with a new epiphany, and yet it had the most direct possible connection I could imagine to my previous one. I’d been sent down the road toward academia and away from my artistic pursuits while reading things that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi had to say about flow. Now, years of study about the systemic worldview led me right back to flow again, wrapped up tightly with Appreciative Inquiry, a strengths-based approach and positive psychology. And flow led me right back to the arts again. Astonishing.

Throughout the rest of that year, I had a number of talks with Dr. Howard Ditkoff, who I’d met through the community of Daniel Quinn fans. Having majored in psychology as an undergraduate and then completed medical school to become a psychiatrist, he eventually gave up the pursuit when it became clear to him that the prevailing treat-it-with-drugs mentality of contemporary psychiatry would make it hard for him to do the kind of fundamental, systemic good he wanted to bring about for people. Howard had come to work with me on the online magazine, and over time we’d had many additional conversations about our understanding of the systemic worldview. Having had these new revelations, I had finally come to see what had been least obvious, most internal — and I couldn’t help but see its importance. Howard’s focus on individual psychology within the systemic worldview made sense to me now as far more than an intellectual curiosity. I more deeply understood the connections between the big picture “out there” and the very personal, small picture “in here” — the parallels in what happens on both levels, and, most crucially, the causal links by which each level affects the other.

In November 2004, Howard came to New York for a gathering of Daniel Quinn fans. There, Bill and Lisa Giruzzi discussed and demonstrated Appreciative Inquiry. It was Howard’s first real exposure to it, and the two of us had much to discuss about it in the few days afterward. We came to see that the kind of coaching Bill had done with me, and the Appreciative Inquiry approach in general, had huge potential for bringing about the kinds of change we hoped to see in the world. It became clear to us that it could actually generate positive change for almost anyone — and could allow Howard to do for people what he’d originally hoped to do as a doctor. While we still saw great value in continuing to promote ideas and knowledge about the systemic worldview, we had to concede that this less theoretical, more applied approach had an enormous role to play.

Howard and I promptly embarked on an undertaking together, deciding to co-found Emergent Associates, a company that would apply whatever effective methods we could discover to both help people benefit from the systems worldview and to help promote understanding of the perspective itself. Through coaching and consulting, we’d help people and groups discover and engage in what they do best. Through trainings, publications and other projects, we’d help others learn about the theory and practice of the systemic worldview and how to create positive change. EA would fulfill my interest in the intellectual side of the systemic worldview but in a collaborative, practical way. Continually doing coaching on ourselves, Howard and I would help each other stay focused on and engaged in the things we do best, whether within EA or outside of it. One day, I hope EA will give me a solid platform from which to write that non-fiction book — and even to pursue artistic projects that serve its overall mission.

While there remain obstacles to surmount in pursuing what I do best, ever since that revelation about the practical meaning of living in the hands of the gods, I have not once questioned the understanding I’d come to. Any time I’ve pondered it, it has always made perfect sense to me, as perfect as it was in the moment that I’d read Dan’s email. Indeed, the more I continue to learn, it only continues to make more sense. Ever since then, there has been no doubt that doing what I’m best at is what I should be doing, because there has been no doubt in my mind that doing what one is best at and helping others to do so as well is what everyone should be doing.

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