From “What’s Wrong?” to “What’s Possible?”By Emma Pearson
May 28, 2023
Main Image by Leonardo Santamaria for NPR
22 September 2020
Confession: I have no idea where this piece of writing will go.
Another confession: That happens quite often with these blogposts, though for sure much of my writing comes from a specific incident that has stood out during my week. Other times I latch onto a song, a poem, a quote, a conversation, a photo, a film. The writing is invariably spur of the moment.
Today’s piece is prompted by a session I was on last night with Meg Wheatley, a “grande dame” and “elder” in the field that I like to play in professionally. Meg is actually indescribable from a career and roles point of view, for she is a writer, speaker, educator, consultant, large-scale systems thinker, climate/community/social/diversity/etc activist – and much more.
She started her session saying that, back in 1987, when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, people only had one boss, and leadership was relatively straightforward, another of our field’s elders, Marvin Weisbord, fundamentally shifted her approach to work when he said, “I have realised after all these years of consulting that I have been asking the wrong question. I used to ask, “What’s wrong, and how can I fix it?” And now I realise the better question is, “What is possible here, and who cares?”
Her talk was stark. Unadorned. Bold. Scary. Yes, the focus was on people who work in the field of complex change – be it focused on organisations, social justice, climate. But her pointers, her guideposts-not-answers, felt wholly appropriate to my life. To the messiness resulting from major losses and living a topsy-turvy life in a topsy-turvy world.
She bemoaned people’s compulsion to fix what looks broken, and urged us to stop trying to do that. She encouraged us instead to move towards a mindset of “What’s needed? What’s possible? And who do I need to be to support this life/world that is breaking down?”
Much better questions.
Questions that invite thoughtfulness, curiosity, compassion, creativity and connection.
Questions that relate to a system of one, and a system of billions.
Questions that relate to someone living within a world that has been shot to pieces.
Questions that relate to humanity living on a planet that is in pieces.
I can’t do the big question stuff. My life is too complex, my energy too low, my need to rein in my resources and focus on surviving each and every day still so great that I cannot do the big question stuff. Sometimes I feel ashamed, particularly when I hear of the grand works my colleagues and professional peers are engaged with. Most of the time though I know that I am doing what I can in the moment with the resources that I have in the moment, and don’t ask more of myself.
But that these questions relate so well at an individual level is comforting to me. That questions that relate to planetary survival and healing are the same as those that relate to an individual’s survival and healing is inspiring. The questions resonate. The need for curiosity, compassion, creativity and connection makes total sense to me.
Meg Wheatley also talked of the need to:
- Face reality – truly perceive what is going on. Not just thinking positively but being realistic about what is. (Mike is dead. Julia is dead. Edward is dead. Don is dead. I serve myself better if I stop hoping, wishing, that that were not the case, and that they might come back, or that I might get answers to my questions).
- Claim leadership – wake up to the fact that the world we want no longer exists (ditto – so how do I choose to live in these circumstances? What does leadership in my life look like?)
- Create conditions – so we can step forward and live, rather than retreat further into our cocoons (yes, I can be arrogant, but I truly believe I excel at knowing what brings me space, joy, room to breathe, ease; and what brings more tension, pain and stress. And I move towards the former and away from the latter as much as possible. Often without explanation, though I am getting better at articulating my tension before I make a speedy getaway. E.g., “Medjool – you know, I like your friends individually, but I don’t necessarily want to hang out with a group of them. So bye-bye, I am going home”. Knowing that I will be a better version of myself the next time I see him as a result of creating supportive conditions for myself.
- Create protected islands of sanity – where people who are creative, generous and kind can come together to build something for the common good (Joining Griefling communities, learning communities, doing good work with my clients to help them re-resource themselves, and being intentional about how I spend my time and energy)
- Talk about death, dying and collapse, and cycles coming to an end. Meg drew a parallel that I am very familiar with – end of life hospices – where there is no shying away from the truth, no pretending that the person will get better. Instead a tender and compassionate acceptance of what is, a celebration of valuing the person’s life for what it is, and an appreciation of every moment you/we/I have.
Meg ended her session with these stark words: “There is no contradictory evidence that we are not in collapse. So, then we need to ask, “What is my work within a collapsing world?”
My work in my collapsed world is on a pink post-it on the screen on my desk. It is a list of principles, or intentions, I wrote many months ago that still get me through each day:
It is my recipe for living. My work in a collapsing world. My answer to the question “What is possible?”
As it happens, it was pretty much my recipe for living pre-loss as well, but it works all the better post-loss.