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9 May 2016

The complex need for laughter and lightness

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

Two weeks ago, we hosted our first Coaching in Complexity workshop as a little experiment to see who would come and what would be most helpful. We intentionally kept the group small but a few last minute cancellations meant that it was tiny instead—nine of us gathered in a circle at the Presentation Center, a small retreat center south of San Francisco. We talked about cynefin, and used it to really deeply understand the different ways someone could make sense of an issue (as Snowden always says, cynefin really is at is shining best as a sensemaking tool although the initial impulse is always to use it to categorize). We played with polarities. We listened in new ways, searching for linear causality in our thinking—and looking for ways to point that out that our clients would find helpful and opening. We made connections to our bodies, our spirits, our emotions, our cognition. We practiced mindfulness and watched our own conversation patterns and the system of our little group. We mapped systems of issues that were plaguing us and came up with experiments along the edges. We raised our deepest questions about complexity, development, leadership, coaching, and more. People said it was transformational, that they had learned new ways of thinking about the world and approaching their clients. Sounds like three days of hard work, right?

Oh my goodness how we laughed. There was something about this nine people in this circle in this beautiful but rumpled conference center that meant that laughter emerged from this system to such measure that we cannot talk about those days without talking about laughing. And while there were many many things we learned about complexity, one of the things we learned most about was about creating the conditions for the emergence of deep learning—and one of the most important pieces in the emergence of our culture was the range of emotion we had in the room, held by the high notes of laughter.

This brings me to a dual conclusion.

The first is that when we make things hard and heavy, it’s harder to learn. This we know, right? And yet when we set out to learn a thing like complexity, it just feels so darn Serious and Important. My weekend with the Complexity Nine has taught me that laughing isn’t a diversion from learning that we need to indulge in sparingly, but that laughing is a key lubricant of learning. We had fabulous and funny ah-ha moments when people saw themselves and their foibles laid out. “Wow, I say I know the world is filled with possibilities, but I really do seem to believe there is only this one choice!” and “I tell my clients they need to let go of their need for control but I watch how controlling I am,” and “I know that acting in the complex domain is characterized by experimentation and failure and learning but geez I HATE failing!” Each of those ideas could be said with a groan and a heavy sense of the hard work of it, the difficulty of it. Or it could be said with a gleam in the eye and a chuckle. We said them both ways in our workshop, but we were more often laughing than heavy about it, delighted in the pure humanity of it all. Which leads me to a second, perhaps more original insight.

In many ways, complexity is actually funny and delightful! Our inability to plan and control things is a serious drain on our resources sometimes, but it comes with the possibility of surprise and joyful serendipity. When we let down the heavy burden of believing that if we are good enough, our single desired outcome will occur, we have a sense of lightness and even good fortune. In fact, there’s a cool set of ideas from Bright Associates in Australia  (who are complexity career consultants, believe it or not) who have a luck readiness index. This index (which I have been thinking about so much lately) has seven elements:

  • Flexibility: How open are you to changes as they happen to you?
  • Optimism: How much do you believe that good things are coming in the future, and that even if this is a hard time, it will get better?
  • Risk: How big is your appetite for trying something that might not succeed?
  • Curiosity: How much are you engaged in trying to figure things out and how willing are you to learn from others?
  • Persistence: When you’re knocked back, how much will you try again?
  • Strategy: How much do you “plan to win in uncertain circumstances”?
  • Efficacy: How much do you believe that you really are a player in writing your own story—not the only player, but a key influencer of what happens next?
  • Luckiness: How much do you believe you are a lucky person and thus create the self-reinforcing cycle that means you look out for the next lucky possibility which you’re sure is coming?

Notice the lightness in these. It is not light in a pointless way, but light and agile and purposeful. It is not the luck of the shrug—whatever happens will happen—but the luck of those who know that life is an interplay between what happens to you and what you do with it. (It is not an “interwar” between what happens and what you do with it.)

So here’s to Cultivating Laughter and Lightness in complexity, and to all the ways we can find delight in the set of possibilities we can create by our open, curious, optimistic luckiness.

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