October 2014 Archives

The Wrong Meaning of Fulfillment


happy baby

Today’s (October 24. 2014) NYTimes Sunday Review had an article about fulfillment by Emily Fox Gordon that might be a literary gem (She is a writer.), but didn’t ring true to me. Here is, as I read it, the story, entitled “The Meaning of Fulfillment,” in the first few lines:

AT 66, I find myself feeling fulfilled. I didn’t expect this, and don’t know quite what to make of it.…Fulfillment is a dubious gift because you receive it only when you’re approaching the end. You can’t consider your life fulfilled until you’re fairly sure of its temporal shape, and you can’t get a view of that until you’re well past its midpoint. The realization that one’s life has been fulfilled is a good thing, but freighted with the weight of many days and the apprehension of death. It’s also quite useless, truly a white elephant. It can never be exchanged or redeemed, because everything has been exchanged or redeemed to make its purchase possible.

I think she has been looking for the wrong signal to assess one’s life. What’s the point of waiting until one is on the wane? And does the assessment that one has been fulfilled mean that it is all right to stop living? I think the economic metaphor used in this paragraph is dreadful and simply a sign of how deep the economic model of human Being penetrates even one belonging to the creative, artistic domain. She appears to have been measuring her life in terms of “successes,” “achievement,” and “accomplishment.” Success is not enough, she writes, “Years are a requirement.”

She seems to have the idea that there is some void inside her body that needs to be filled up at considerable cost. Filled up with what is not clear, but I think she is talking about forms of public acknowledgment. She, like almost everyone in America, is valuing the worth of their life by the wrong measure. If it takes most of a normal lifespan to become fulfilled, does one have to be unfulfilled until that time. Later she asks is their any difference between fulfillment and happiness? Are we condemned to wait until we are old to find happiness? I suppose so if the author is right, but I disagree.

As I learn more and more about existentialism in its philosophic, literary, and pop formats, one can flourish at any time in his or her life. Life is a process bounded by birth and death. Surely we undergo very different and distinct phases as we make that journey, but it is possible to flourish at any time along the way. Flourishing is Being who who choose to be or until we are capable of making life choices fully expressing what self is evolving. Babies flourish because they simply do what all babies do. They are expressing the human potential latent in their genes. Adolescent children struggle with flourishing because they are loathe to make adult choices. One definition of a teenager is someone who cannot make choices about life.

Gordon is focused on life choices that are conventionally measured by public acknowledgments of success. For creative artists like her, it is usually some critical acclaim or economic milestone in terms of sales. For many MBAs and others, it is how much they earn or own. In her terms, could a carpenter be fulfilled? Not according to her thinking. Most human Beings live outside of the public limelight. Only they and a few close friends and family and satisfied clients/bosses and other that benefit from their life choices, that is, who they are, can recognize their “accomplishments.” I find too much inauthenticity here, to much of life coming from the outside.

In what I see as related, David Brooks wrote the other day:

In our meritocratic culture, satisfying and stretching work has become a psychological necessity. More than ever before, we are defined by what we do. If you are of prime age and you are not in the labor force, or engaged in some deeply stretching activity like parenting, then you will begin to feel drained inside. If you are in a dysfunctional workplace with bad personal relationships and no clear purpose, a core piece of you will begin to degrade. If you are not earning enough money so you can feel respected, and live without desperate stress, you will begin to lose confidence and élan. (emphasis added)

I think work that pays is an economic necessity in our market-based system, but to connect it to a psychological need is a grave error. Out-of work people certainly do not often flourish or lead positive lives by other measures, but that is largely due to the lack of resources or capabilities to take actions that would constitute their Being. Obviously you will feel “drained inside,” because you are drained inside.Their situation is an existential, not psychological, failure.

Gordon’s choice to be a writer is both existential and economic. One can flourish the moment such a choice is made. Flourishing is a sign of Being, the fulfillment of one’s human potential. Fulfillment here refers to a dynamic relationship with Being, that will continue as long as one maintains a commitment to Be their choices in actuality. Her fulfillment is an endpoint that fails to recognize that life is a continuous journey. Do you stop living once fulfilled? Do you suffer until you get there, wherever that is?

She throws in this about half way through the column:

At any rate, by now I’ve racked up enough achievements that I feel I can stop trying. Paradoxically, of course, I find I don’t want to stop. Now that not much is at stake, I’m more ambitious than ever, or at least more conscious of my ambition. Liberated from an anxiety I’ve struggled to suppress, I feel a new energy. What is fulfillment made of? Mostly relief.

She is dead wrong, maybe even dead existentially. Authentic life and the flourishing it brings is very much at stake. If she stops being the writer she has chosen to Be because the world has acknowledged her, she risks stopping Being the authentic self she has been. She may bask in the glory of her past successes but I suspect she will find her sense of fulfillment fading. There are points in everyone’s life when new choices are appropriate, but flourishing requires that some authentic choice be made right up to the day on one’s death. Coasting won’t work.

ps. I found this clear, clean definition of authenticity the other day. It’s from a book by Philip McGraw, better know as Dr. Phil. I think Emily Fox Gordon might have written a different column if she had read it. I like this except for his use of fulfilled.

The authentic self is the you that can be found at your absolute core. It is the part of you that is not defined by your job, or your function, or your role. It is the composite of all your unique gifts, skills, abilities, interests, talents, insights, and wisdom. It is all your strengths and values that are uniquely yours and need expression, versus what you have been programmed to believe that you are “supposed to be and do.” It is the you that flourished, unself-consciously, in those times of your life when you felt happiest and most fulfilled. (McGraw, P. C. (2001). Self Matters: Creating Your Life from the Inside. New York, Simon and Schuster, Inc. p. 30.)

Everyone A Philosopher?



The German philosopher, Johann Fichte, was a strong proponent of 19th century idealism, but wrote this in a letter to a colleague, “We philosophize out of need for our redemption.” Unlike the abstract nature of idealism, this one-liner of his might be taken as an early expression of existentialism. If one can put brackets around the religious sense of redemption, it would seem to make a strong argument that clear, reflective, systemic, critical thinking, that is, philosophy, is the way out of the broken modern cultures that, in the name of progress, are destroying the very system in which we exist. We must redeem ourselves from the modern way of thinking and the workings of the cultural institutions based on our foundational beliefs if we are to preserve that system in such a way as to enable it to create the possibility of flourishing. The way out is not being generated by science, and, to a significant degree, science is responsible for the paradoxical dilemma in which we find ourselves. The more we seek a path to flourishing through science and technology, the further away it becomes.

So, following Fichte, perhaps we can find the way out in philosophy, and, in particular, the utterances of existential philosophers. Existential philosophy grew out of a frustration with the abstract nature of much of philosophy ever since Plato and Aristotle. The abstract nature of science and much mainstream philosophy fails to capture the concreteness and complexity of reality as considered to be the world we can sense and describe. If our descriptions of it are incomplete, then our plans based on that knowledge will always potentially lead to outcomes we did not forecast and frequently do exactly that. The ideas of modernity, principally one that scientific knowledge will inexorably pull humanity forward to some state of perfection, are now stuttering and, in the sense that our health depends on that of the whole earth system, pushing us in the wrong direction.

Existentialism, while focused primarily on human existence, starts with a premise that we must seek to understand the concreteness, not the abstract qualities, of the world in which we act, particularly in which we act intentionally. Intentionality means that we have a consciousness of the passage of time and some kind of understanding about the consequences of our acts. If we are ever to understand what being human is all about, we have to examine the concreteness of existence, not some abstract theory about it. We must bridge the chasm between the working of our minds, our intelligence, and the experience of life itself. This should be the goal of philosophizing. Carrying this to the next obvious step, existential thinking always has a practical or pragmatic quality. Our understanding of human existence comes from questions raised by examining life itself, from both the wonders and the misery that everyone encounters from time to time. And, armed with such understanding, we can live our lives more fully and authentically as human beings, not merely as other living creatures. James Collins writes in The Existentialists, “The only way to pass from everyday, deceitful living to authentic human existence is become aware of man’s proper situation.” (p. 218)

Why existentialism, and not other philosophies? Yesterday I attended a lecture by Eric Chivian who received a Noble Peace Prize in 1985 for his role in co-founding Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War in 1980. Chivian, like many others including myself, believes that the deterioration to the natural world is caused by human activities, not as the result of natural variations. As for both the goods and ills of human societies, the ultimate cause is human actions by definition. Given many signs that human cultures are not working as we wish them to, it is clear that, if we intend (there’s that word again) to restore both the natural world and our cultural worlds to healthy, flourishing states, we must look to the human being as the ultimate causal agent. Existentialism, more or less alone among philosophical ways of thinking, deals with the concrete, the situated, the temporal-all those features that express the practical reality of existence-avoiding the abstract, context-free expression of the world that forms the basis for the way we design life in the modern era. If we are to do this, that is, begin to see the world through an existential lens, we will have to give up some of our ideas about how we get to know what that world is all about or at least array that knowledge alongside another body of understanding or maybe even down a rung on the ladder of beliefs.

Truth, the belief that there are foundational facts or beliefs about the world, including the humans that inhabit it, that are universal and appropriate on which to choose what we do, needs to be put into a box reserved for only a particular set of situations that fit the methods used to produce it. Shifts toward accepting existential beliefs will come slowly and with great resistance since such “truths” are the only acceptable, legitimate operands within our modernist structure. Boxing them up will cause much pain, anguish, and avoidance in virtually all societal institutions. But, as I have written, I believe it is imperative to start now to make the effort toward understanding a few foundational beliefs and working with them in everyday life.

I have discussed these existentially based concepts in my books and this blog at quite some length. I will continue to do so. Today I am trying to make the need for such thinking (philosophizing) clearer and compelling, not to go over the key ideas. If we can agree that human action, or in other words, human agency, is responsible for situations in the world we choose or intend to change by design, then we must go directly to the source, that is, understanding what human existence is all about, why we act the way we do. We must stop tinkering further up causal chains. We must go further than all our scientific and analytic philosophical inquires can take us. These inquiries are limited by the methodologies that require abstracting from what is always a constantly changing, complex, concrete world. Only then can we dream about a flourishing world for all life on it. Only then can we act in ways that have the possibility to get us there.

Back to Work



I have just returned from a conference/workshop titled, Flourish and Prosper. It is the third triennial Global Summit organized by the Fowler Center for Business as an Agent of World Benefit, a unit of the Weatherhead School of Management. The title is drawn from the recent publication, Flourishing Enterprise, the main product of a project there and is coauthored by myself and eight others. Over 600 people attended, coming fro business, both profit and non-profit, academia, and other places.

On the first day, I gave a workshop (twice) with my colleague and collaborator, Chris Laszlo. Titled, Dare to Flourish, it presented ideas from both Flourishing Enterprise and my book Flourishing. It was a chance to throw out ideas like Being, caring, flourishing, and get some feedback. From the comments after the class and later around the conference, people did resonate with them. The conference, itself, was organized around David Cooperrider’s Appreciative Inquiry (AI) model. For those unfamiliar with AI, here’s a short blurb from Amazon:

[Appreciative Inquiry is] an approach to organizational change based on the possibility of a more desirable future, experience with the whole system, and activities that signal “”something different is happening this time.”” That difference systematically taps the potential of human beings to make themselves, their organizations, and their communities more adaptive and more effective. AI, a theory of collaborative change, erases the winner/loser paradigm in favor of coordinated actions and closer relationships that lead to solutions at once simpler and more effective.

I chose a working session about creating consciousness of connectedness in the workplace. We were not one of the finalists presenting to the whole audience.

I found the experience extremely gratifying. Here were many of the ideas I have championed for a long time being showcased from the podium and in the hallways. I was recognized from the podium as “Mr. Flourishing.” Nice feeling to see both the emergence of the ideas and a recognition of my contributions. Flourishing showed up over and over again in the speakers and table conversations. Cooperrider used my mantra that reducing sustainability does not create flourishing (or sustainability) in his remarks. The sense that “sustainability” has played out its power and intent was palpable. People are really looking for a different path forward.

I saw many very longstanding friends that I haven’t seen for quite a while. I am not going to many such conferences these days. Another new kind of experience was meeting a student in person who I had gotten to know only through an online classroom. Much nicer in real life. This encounter reinforced my critique of technology. It does many wonderful things, but people do not show up in their fullness.

Just a short blog today to signal my return to these pages. I had taken a short break to care for a series of family matters that took all of my energy and focus.

Shades of [Alice in] Wonderland


mad hatter

David Brooks did me another favor today in writing a column so far off the mark that I could not pass by the opportunity to comment. I checked the several hundred comments already pouring in and saw that adding another there would be contribute very little that was not already said. But since the topic he presented, pragmatism, is one of my central themes I feel compelled to write something here.

He pulled a column written by Lewis Mumford for the out of the dustbin and treated it as if it were written yesterday. Here’s Brooks:

For example, The New Republic, which turns 100 this year, made a series of superficially contradictory demands on its readers. To be a well-rounded person, the magazine implied, it is necessary to be both practical and philosophical, both politically engaged and artistically cultivated. The magazine offered, and still offers, short practical articles on politics and policy in the front of the book and long literary essays on philosophy and culture in the back.

In 1940, the magazine published a stunning critique of those who refuse to embrace both kinds of knowledge. The essay, called “The Corruption of Liberalism,” was written by the unjustly forgotten writer Lewis Mumford. It’s been revived by the magazine’s current editor, Franklin Foer, in “Insurrections of the Mind,” a collection of essays from the magazine’s first century.

He makes several serious mistakes. First, he takes what Mumford wrote at face value. Mumford was condemning liberals for an overly passive response to totalitarianism, but the biggest liberal of all, FDR, was quietly pulling the nation into confronting this threat. I just finished watching the NPR series on the Roosevelt families (a must see). He also dissed the same group for lack of pragmatic action.

A core problem with pragmatists, Mumford argues, is that they [liberals] attach themselves so closely to science and social science that they have forgotten the modes of insight offered by theology and literature. This leads to a shallow, amputated worldview.

Roosevelt was pragmatic at heart, not relying on theory to drive his policies and programs. The usage of the term, liberal, has changed over time, but I believe Mumford meant about the same thing as we do in using liberal today. Both Brooks and Mumford have it upside down. If there is a dichotomy to be made, it is better to contrast theory and practice, rather than philosophy and practice. Every actor is at heart a philosopher without knowing it, most of the time. Every action that they are able to explain has a philosophical basis. If they say they are merely acting rationally, that can be traced back to the Greek philosophers’ notion of human nature. If they invoke scientific knowledge as the basis, they are merely recalling Descartes and his view of an objective reality out there. If they say they are acting out of the heart and cannot put it into some rational framework, they are merely resting on many philosophers who saw human nature as split between reason and passion or some other form of irrationalism. All of these argue that they access “truth” and that truth is what counts in legitimating action.

Pragmatism is unusual in that it conflates theory and practice. John Dewey who wove the philosophy of pragmatism into the political sphere argued that it was the best way to address complexity by leaving theory behind. Theory, no matter on what philosophical basis it rests, is always a reduction of the complexity and concreteness of the world out there to fit the bounds of the theory. Dewey claimed that the best way to proceed was to establish an action-intended inquiry, manned by a democratically organized group of concerned citizens. His form of pragmatism which was put forth in the same time as Mumford wrote presumed action as the end. It is implicit that those involved had some sort of moral imperative driving them. The polar opposite would have been a group of technocrats using scientifically based theories to underpin action. Hardly the foundation of Roosevelt’s New Deal. This runs opposite to Brooks cut:

Pragmatists also have trouble rousing themselves to action. They try to get rid of emotions when making decisions because emotions might lead them astray. But, in making themselves passionless, they always make themselves tepid and anesthetized. That leads to passivity. Everything is too little too late.

Today the call for science is the domain of the conservatives. In matters like climate change, complete clarity is impossible given the fundamentally complex nature of the situation. By demanding a certain outcome through science, conservatives hope to continue an eternal stalemate. Similar strategies have been employed for a long time in opposing regulations of all sorts. Committed pragmatists would seek the best path available after a careful inquiry and move. Pragmatism and action are married within the philosophy itself.

His next statement is almost ludicrous. Pragmatists eschew theory as a rule! That’s what makes them pragmatists in the first place. If they applied theories, they would be technocrats.

Pragmatists often fail because they try to apply economic remedies to noneconomic actors. Those who threaten civilization — Stalin then, Putin and ISIS now — are driven by moral zealotry and animal imperatives. Economic sanctions won’t work.

Pragmatists do often fail because even the most rigorous inquiry by the most morally dedicated group lacks the certain power to make the problem disappear. But dedicated pragmatists go back to work again with the additional understanding of the situation they lacked the first time around. Those who would have used some theory that failed now have to cast about to find a whole new theory and start all over. They lack the understanding that pragmatism adds through both failure and success.

Pragmatism involves a method, based on the philosophical belief that the real, concrete world is not reducible to abstract theories, certainly, in the messy situations that the leaders Brooks either mentions or implies face. Pragmatists explicitly strive to avoid what Whitehead calls the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Whenever a messy problem is reduced to fit some theory, Whitehead’s fallacy is at work. Most refractory problems are messy or as, Rittel and Webber called them, wicked.

In the last paragraph quoted above, Brooks seems to be criticizing Obama for combatting Putin’s encroachment in the Ukraine with mere economic sanctions. Sanctions are not aimed at the leaders, but at the people who arguably will take out their unhappiness by deposing or otherwise controlling the leaders. It’s much easier to write a column than stop a war.

Then he closes with an almost laughable depiction of pragmatists:

Pragmatists also have trouble rousing themselves to action. They try to get rid of emotions when making decisions because emotions might lead them astray. But, in making themselves passionless, they always make themselves tepid and anesthetized. That leads to passivity. Everything is too little too late.

Again, he is completely, not just a little, wrong. Pragmatists dive into the fray expressly because they care about the situation being faced. There is nothing in pragmatism that argues that those in the game should be or must be objective. They must be rigorous, or the understanding they seek may be fleeting. Again he should look at FDR. It is the technocrats that carry the flag of objectivity and moral neutrality, and they are spread among virtually all partisan flavors. It’s the ideologues who carry the banner of truth without recourse to any method at all.

I could go on and on here because he has done a great disservice to those who care about the state of the world, and those who believe that pragmatism is a far more effective “philosophy” to pursue than the mindless ideology so present in the political scene in the US today. Ideology of any sort gets in the way of finding truth in the world itself; and that’s always where the problems rest. What he did not say anything about is the difference between philosophy and theology. When the latter is the basis for political action as it is becoming, philosophy or pragmatism or any other system for seeking “truth” as a basis for action goes out of the front door. I would love a shot at countering this column in the same pages of the New York Times. I’ll see if I can slip an oped in.

(Image: Arthur Rackham illustration)