The way we view working life is influenced by the way we view the world. This view rests on the most fundamental assumptions we make about reality. In the present competitive view of the world, we often think that the most capable are those who are the most competitive, and accordingly that competition creates and secures long-term viability.
It is one of the simplistic explanations we use. We build simple systemic models and crude abstractions. As a result, both our sense making and our decisions are built on an inadequate appreciation of the complex, interdependent systems we are part of.
The most modern definition of work is an interactive exchange in which the participants benefit from the interaction. Interestingly, cooperation is also described as an interactive exchange in which the participants benefit from the interaction.
What if performance is incorrectly attributed to win-lose competition and is, in effect, more a result of diversity, self-organizing communication and non-competitive processes of creative cooperation?
The basic units of the industrial era were transacting entities enabled by market, price and coordination mechanisms. It was a world of separations, us and them, often turning into us versus them.
In terms of game theory, on a societal level, we are playing win-lose, them-against-us, games. That is strangely fundamental to our theory of life, although it is then essentially a zero-sum dynamic behind most of the things we do.
Every time we replace natural, complex systems with simplified us-versus-them, win-lose -cultures we gain in short-term productivity, but at the cost of long-term resilience and viability. Accordingly, many organizations are productive in the short term, but fragile in the long term. As long as the environment remains exactly the same, simplified systems are efficient, but they immediately become counterproductive when the environment changes even slightly. And it always will.
When you go from knives and spears to weapons of mass destruction and, even more dangerously, when you go from spades and shovels to tools of mass extraction, there is no such thing as winning any more. As our technologies are going through exponential development and exponential increases in power, their capacity to affect the world and their capacity to cause widespread damage has lead to a time when win-lose becomes lose-lose, as Daniel Schmachtenberger puts it.
This is because the tools we have today allow us to extract limited resources much faster than they can regenerate. Over-fishing the oceans is just one example. Win-lose attempts are becoming lose-lose, for everybody!
The games we play have been played under the assumption that the unit of survival is the player, meaning the individual, a company, or a country. However, today the reality is that the unit of survival is the player in the game being played.
Following Darwinian rhetoric, the unit of survival is the species in its interdependent environment. Who wins and who loses is of minor importance compared to the decay of the game itself as a result of the competition.
The divide between winners and losers is growing constantly. This is why, in the end, the winners have to pay the price of winning in one way or another. The bigger the divide, the bigger the price that has to be paid. The winners end up having to take care of the losers, or two totally different cultures are formed, as is happening in bigger cities today. Polarization then leads to radicalization. Psychologically, competitive games create shadow games of losers competing at losing.
We do need technological advances, but our humanity and our civilizing processes have to develop at the same speed as technology develops!
As our technological ability to impact the world is radically scaling up, our ethical choices as to how to implement that power have to scale up accordingly.
But the reality is that our humanity is today lagging behind our technology. This has been going on for a long time. Albert Einstein, whose theories lay behind the atom bomb, wrote in 1946:
The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.
This is one of the biggest reasons why we need a new focus in education, our modes of thinking. We need training of the mind as Buddhists call it, and not only training that leads to new cognitive skills to serve better the demands of the market economy.
This is because we need to recognize that the level at which we can affect each other, requires a totally new kind of awareness, respect and reflection. Perhaps even loving kindness.
We are already past the tipping point when it comes to externalizing harm, or to put it more kindly, when it comes to the unintended consequences of our actions, to other people in the form of increasing inequality, or to the planet, in the form of an excessive carbon footprint, waste, and excessive extraction of living resources.
These harms, or externalities, as they are called in economics, have been one of the reasons behind the present crises of democracy and the present climate crises.
Our values are codified in economic equations, in which many living things are worth something when they are dead, but not something when they are alive, and in which air and water are not worth that much because there seemed to be lots of both to use and to spoil.
In the future of economics, one of the key defining criteria has to be that the incentive of every agent in the living system, at least in theory, has to be aligned with the well-being of every other agent, every other person and every other living thing.
Accordingly, many of our frameworks of problem definitions and problem solving have to change: where there were local issues before, we now have to understand our fundamental global interdependence.
We have radically connected global issues such as the oceans dying, the deforestation of the Amazonas, and forest fires raging in Siberia. These are all topics that involve everybody on the planet.
When we’re influencing things at a global level, we have to learn to think at that level of interdependence and connection. The belief that there can be a local collapse of an ecosystem, or a local collapse of a civilization, as is happening in Syria or in Venezuela, and that we are unaffected by it, is an out-of-date, and extremely dangerous thought.
Charles Dickens wrote as he described the time of the French Revolution:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness.
Did he also describe our time? The time when everything is getting better and better and worse and worse, faster and faster, as Tom Atlee wrote.
The key dynamic is to move forward towards a more profound experience of ethics, and also aesthetics, in a way that increases our collective capacity to connect and solve the common problems on the existential level that we face.
The educational task is to learn, to train our mind, to have a more thoughtful worldview based on the fundamental interdependence of all species. It is a world in which things don’t have distinctive essences that set them apart from one another, unless we wrongly separate them.
It is time to challenge some of the fundamentals of our present thinking behind what performance is, and the metaphors behind our common way of life.
There can be a phase shift from lose-lose to win-win and from us-versus-them -thinking to a fundamental understanding of interdependence, and, the importance of loving kindness.