The only thing that will redeem mankind is co-operation, and the first step towards co-operation lies in the hearts of individuals. –Bertrand Russell
We live in an incredible era. We are facing the most complex set of problems imaginable: the interwoven issues of depression and anxiety, chronic post-industrials disease, environmental degradation, poverty, abuse and conflict. But we are also being empowered by technologies to collaborate and co-create solutions. Digital and economic interconnectivity are transforming how we work, create, travel, buy and socialise through the emergence of new forms, such as holocracies, B Corps, social enterprises, peer-to-peer models and collaborative consumption. The web is slowly but surely rewiring the world, inviting us to stay in step with it and become more collaborative, networked, and co-creative.
Within our grasp — perhaps realistically for the first time in human history — is the tangible possibility of a just and equal society for all. Most of the technologies and resources needed to solve the majority of the world’s thorniest problems are available now. The only thing that is, perhaps, missing is the will to use them effectively in authentic, open-hearted, generous and risky collaboration to solve problems that really matter.
We are being offered a once-in-a-generation, perhaps once-in-a-species, chance to make our ideas and intentions count and create together the global peace, social equality and spiritual inter-connectivity so many of us long for. Yet this is far from a foregone conclusion, as can be seen in the failures of the Arab Spring and the commercialisation of social media (change of privacy terms anyone?). This has always been so. Technologies are agnostic and can be used to encourage thriving or suffering. The first real computer, called MANIAC, which gave birth to the liberation and empowerment of the internet age, was used to generate the necessary calculations for the H bomb.
If we want to mobilise our collaborative potential we must first become collaborative in our emotional, psychological and spiritual core. Nothing could be harder for a species fed an addictive diet of ‘me’, ‘mine’ and ‘more’ from birth. After a decade of constant collaboration with many thought leaders on multiple projects, I have seen, time and time again, that it often begins to breakdown as we start having to share our ‘property’ (whether intellectual or not), and therefore risk our livelihoods. As we fear loss of earnings, reputation or opportunity, we tend to back toward the habits learnt over a lifetime of looking out for Numero Uno.
It is not surprising that we default back to self-centred ways of being. Historians and archaeologists tell us that there are absolutely no precedents for the emerging ‘networked’ stage of our evolution. As our numbers have multiplied exponentially, so too have our needs, desires and demands. Our brains evolved to function well in small tribes, not the teeming masses of 1000+ Facebook friends. Rather than be brought up to be open-hearted collaborators, we are schooled, trained and incentivised at work to be competitive and individualistic.
As I explore in my book Switch On: Unleash Your Creativity & Thrive with The New Science & Spirit of Breakthrough, we have been hampered by an impoverished, mechanistic narrative of the cosmos, which leads directly to Social Darwinism and the Selfish Gene. It thrusts us fundamentally spontaneous, improvising, collaborative human beings into boxes labeled ‘rational decision-making machines focused on economic gain and gene survival’. The Communist dream was born to destroy this inherently selfish (and Capitalist) system; but it was, in fact, rooted in this same mistaken, mechanistic belief about human beings. Communism and Capitalism robbed us of the enlivening process of co-creating, moment-by-moment, a better world-organisation-family.
Collaborations of any kind will inevitably bring up issues for those involved. Letting go of control, risking our livelihood or reputation, and managing our expectations of others are three key examples. These issues can quickly become touch points for anger and resentment. Left unexpressed and unresolved, they become blocks to the experience of group flow (what Brian Eno dubbed the genius of the scenius) – when everyone is working together in a symphony of creative activities and magic is the result.
Unsavoury as it may be to many, without clearing away emotional baggage, the potential output of the collaboration, and its potential co-creativity, will be severely hampered. More often than not, it will be stopped dead in its tracks. As a teacher of collaborative leadership and facilitator of open innovation processes for many organisations, I have witnessed the majority of collaborations ending in dictatorship (one party takes over); dissipation (nobody does anything); or disintegration (the egoic forces in power play trigger a supernova). This has happened because the context people are working in has not been cleared of emotional baggage. To clear the hang-ups means becoming uber-switched on: conscious of our patterns and foibles and ready to surrender them for the good of the collective (without giving up on our intuitive need to fit in and be liked).
Although most of us are profoundly ill-equipped psychologically and spiritually to collaborate, the latest behavioural research on humans and primates shows we are as hard-wired for compassion and collaboration as we are for greed and graft. The circuits are there, waiting to be used. What we each must shift are the entrenched patterns (HEART, HEAD & HANDS) that lock us in place. The more we shift our personal and cultural mindsets and metaphors away from separation and selfishness and toward interconnection and heart-led being, the more likely we are to set off the viral transformation in our social and economic systems that is palpably seeking to emerge. A detailed science-inspired, wisdom-wired process for breaking through any pattern can be found within the book Switch On. For now, let’s look at some inspiration from the worlds of wisdom and science.
There is a beautiful Buddhist scripture, the ‘Flower Garland Sutra’, that contains an empowering metaphor that can help us navigate the waters of authentic collaboration. In the sutra is a description of a net used by the King of the Hindu Gods, Indra. The net, draped over his palace on Mount Meru, goes on infinitely (he is the king of the Gods after all); and hanging at each cross-point is a jewel. If you look closely at one of the jewels, in its polished surface you can see all the other jewels reflected right up to infinity. Each jewel relies on the brightness and integrity of the others for its own luminosity. Each jewel contains an image of every other jewel, just as any part of a hologram contains all the information of the entire image. In other words, in every mote of dust, the entirety of the universe resides.
Science too can inspire us. Quantum physics suggests that we live in a participatory universe, where everything is co-created with, and interpenetrated by, everything else. Quarks, atoms, and molecules are not discrete entities, islands unto themselves, but part of a ‘field’ of reality where everything is intertwined. Elementary particles burst in and out of existence, the quantum void. This has an analogue in the Buddhist concept of pratityasamutpada, or ‘dependent origination’. This is not something we should imagine happens in some far away cosmic landscape. Non-linear, quantum, interdependent causality is almost certain to be occurring in the hot, wet reality of our neurons, something most scientists thought was impossible even 5 years ago!
The wisdom traditions and modern science suggest that there appears to be a fundamental inter-penetrability and interdependence of all things, both unfolded and enfolded, explicate and implicate, form and emptiness. We are all part of a grand symphony that is in a constantly dynamic point and counterpoint with itself. We are all manifestations of the same life force.
Carl Sagan, a celebrated scientist and agnostic came to realise that this unity does not require us to believe in religious mumbo jumbo or an “outsized, light-skinned male with a long white beard.” Instead he considered the interdependent state of all things to be a “final expression of the material universe.” This network of things seems similar to the French philosopher and enfant terrible of post-modern theory Jacques Derrida’s ideas that books, films, political beliefs, policies and humble words are never fully ‘present’ in themselves — they always refer, infinitely, to other ‘texts’. Meaning emerges from this network when we humans engaged in it.
So we might imagine the God Indra now has the Internet, through which he reaches out to the other gods to see if they want to co-create a social enterprise or co-op together (whilst he kicks back on Mount Meru of our course). Digital, networked technology is finally supporting us to thrive. As our post-industrial ills have proliferated, so too have the number and variety of electrifying and electrical opportunities for us to work together to heal them. In fact, the evolution of wikis and social media technology might well be nature’s way of healing the alienation that technology created. Like the dock leaf that grows near the nettle, ready with an antidote to the pain when we need it, digital technology is helping us to heal the social and ecological wounds inflicted by the cotton gins and workhouses of the Industrial Age.
Politics, stuck in an old-fashioned divide between left and right, should take note of this networked interdependence. It is clear that neither the Capitalist nor Communist ideas of ‘Me-for-Me’ vs. ‘Me-for-We’ have created a world of harmony and thriving for the majority of people. Binary oppositions rarely can. I believe it is the wisdom teacher’s job to expand consciousness until oppositions have been resolved in creative tension. The African philosophy of Ubuntu, which transformed my life during a year teaching science in rural Zimbabwe as a teenager, offers up a solution to the Me / We conundrum of mechanistic politics. Archbishop Desmond Tutu explains:
Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality — Ubuntu — you are known for your generosity. A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.
Inspired and enabled by Indra’s Internet, quantum entanglement and African Ubuntu, we can transform our family, business and social lives through an idea of ‘Me-through-We’ — my sense of joy and strength comes through, and from, my voluntary, creative and confident interplay with others on projects that can bring more thriving to us all. A simple metaphor for this is the jazz band — its performance depends on the individuals being brilliant in themselves for themselves, yet at the same time transcending their individual egos and desires to make something magical happen as a group. This I call interplay.
Interplay, enabled and encouraged by the rise of the ‘twitterverse’ but guided and rooted in heightened consciousness, is a rapid and contemporary way to salve all our existential suffering with the balm of interdependent being, no matter whether we think we are ‘spiritual’ or not. If our emotional issues were born in collaboration with others when we were infants and children, then it is logical to think that they will therefore be resolved — and our full fearless potential realised — in collaboration with others.
Interplay can only grow from the soil of personal liberation of heart and mind that allows collective creativity, integrity and adaptability without old egoic drives and hang-ups getting in the way. It comes down to switching on to collaboration in the micro-moments where we feel the draw to act with competition, greed and self-protection instead of love, connection and compassion – as we engage in business, career, project, family and community-building with others.
Interplay is a life philosophy that anyone can harness to achieve a sense of inter-subjective peace. As we purposefully hone our Collaboration IQ by risking real-world collaboration — closer and closer to our livelihoods — we can all harness our unique intersubjective biology to play our full part in manifesting the potential power of the digital revolution; not just disruptive innovations but also the transformation of society toward inclusive economic and political systems.
Interplay — as a free choice, a personal priority, a life philosophy — affords the human race the greatest chance of solving the complex issues standing in its path of survival whilst simultaneously offering the individual the most contemporary, rapid and non-esoteric path to full psychological and spiritual happiness through a complete transcendence of the ego (and all its fears, needs and pains).
Our future — as switched on individuals and as a collaborative species — belongs to those of us who attempt the terrifying but enlivening experience of authentic collaboration: Seeking love, truth and creativity in interplay with others.
Indra image by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, courtesy of Creative Commons license.