Focusing on Results Devalues Our Work

You have a right to your actions, but never to your actions’ fruits. Do your work, then step back[1]

Do not depend on the hope of results…you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no results at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.[2]

Having completed nearly seven decades of this human journey, I can recount hundreds of gatherings I have summoned into existence. I wonder what, if anything, has been accomplished. In a world heavily dependent on to-do lists and action items, people believe there is little hope of change unless a gathering concludes with a list of items to be accomplished, with attendant assignments and due dates. If, after six months or a year, we cannot identify and quantify how the world changed, the gathering was clearly a waste of time.

What if, we began to focus, instead on how people change simply as a result of connecting with others. Recall the work of Maturana and Verela who caution that healing living systems is synonymous with reconnecting it with more of itself. Could it be that who people are, and who they are becoming is far more important that what they accomplish? I have long believed that if you change the way a person thinks, they cannot help but act differently. What we can never know is how new thinking will evolve into new actions and ways of being in the world. They are unpredictable and unknowable. Further, since those who are truly inquisitive continually challenge their thinking, the new ways in which they show up and actions they take can never be understood as the result of any one interaction with the Universe.

Besides, the human brain is too inadequate, and the Universe too complex, to even begin to imagine the implications of the things we do. This world is a complex adaptive system; it will adapt to any change. The paradox is that we cannot know in which way it will change and adapt. The butterfly effect informs us that any small change in initial conditions will reverberate into the future with dramatic consequences. Small perturbations change the course of history over time and distance in ways that are unknowable and unpredictable. Dee Hock once said, “Every action we take has intended and unintended consequences. The intended ones sometimes happen, the unintended ones always happen!”

History is replete with short term successes that lead to longer term challenges. New roads aimed at reducing congestion, spur growth and greater congestion. New drugs reduce our suffering and leave us less confident in our ability to navigate the challenges of life without chemical supplements.

Recall also that Maturana and Verela showed us that living systems cannot be controlled, they can only be disturbed and observed. If our disturbing and observation has, as its intention, to learn how best to disturb in order to get the results we desire, we are once again deluding ourselves. Such complexity will always surprise us because our next disturbance will be animated in the midst of different initial conditions…with differing consequences.

Our very human desire to act and make the world better in some predictable way is just so much human folly. Albert Einstein reminded us that “problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them.” When we set out to change the world with well-worn thinking, the solutions will leave us wanting. Every time we “disturb” Pachamama, can we understand she is simply different, and that placing the moniker “better’ or “worse” is inappropriate?

[1] Bhagavad Gita: A new translation, by Stephen Mitchell, Three Rivers Press.

[2] Thomas Merton as quoted in So Far From Home by Margaret Wheatley, Barrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2012, page 124

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Roger speaks and writes extensively. He spoke at both TEDxIIT and TEDxQuincy, published a collection of his essay in his book “Questions That Matter.”

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Roger E Breisch

Roger E Breisch

Roger speaks and writes extensively. He spoke at both TEDxIIT and TEDxQuincy, published a collection of his essay in his book “Questions That Matter.”

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