Fighting the Dragons of Our Time — Can We Win?

Today’s true leaders are fighting the dragons of our time — mental health, social justice, climate change, among many others — but as a complexity consultant and teacher, I often ask: can we win?

YES, screams the optimist in me. But… really? Because a sober look at any one of these challenges shows the needle going in the wrong direction.

Just like in the old stories, the dragons we’re fighting will not be easy to defeat. So what is it really going to take?

It’s going to take an inner shift. Stay with me. A lot of people put their faith in technology, smarts, and human ingenuity. But what if all of those innovations — technical, social, political, financial — can’t actually touch the roots of the problems?

From a systems perspective, our severest challenges are the unintended consequences of beliefs, notions, and ideas put into motion decades or even centuries ago. To actually challenge those dragons, we have to reach their roots. And their roots have been passed from generation to generation — beliefs, traumas, assumptions, ideologies, habitual ways of being. They are in us.

All of us — until we consciously transform them, with knowledge and practice.

Put another way, doing something truly different and truly new doesn’t happen just because we’re good people. We don’t change culture, habit, and massive social patterns just by dint of who we are.

So what is the fundamentally human ability that enables us to change the roots of things and bring forth new realities? It’s creativity.

When we know exactly how creativity actually works, and how to strengthen it in ourselves, we have creativity competency.

Lots of people talk about creativity — but how does one actually develop it, once you’re an adult — especially if you’re fighting dragons?

One of the first steps is to embrace change. Creativity changes you — so if you’re perfectly satisfied and never want to grow as a person, well — just think of the mythical character Faust. It was his desire to never change that gave the devil access to his soul. Just saying.

Albrecht Duerer’s woodcut of the archangel Michael battling the dragon, one of his “Apocalypse” series. Circa 1500.

The next step is to embrace uncertainty. Creativity involves uncertainty. If you’re changing something, it will resist. It doesn’t do what you want; it pushes back. Better said, it throws you back on yourself. And it keeps throwing you back on yourself until you learn to have a dialogue with it, to partner with it. Only then can you do great things together. Learning to dialogue with the creative medium stretches you, because it forces you to acknowledge it, stop projecting on to it, stop believing you’re shit or fantastic or whatever it is. You have to work with reality, to get reality to transform — and that effort (and your initial failures) will push you back on yourself.

“Candle Painting” by Jeff Barnum. Oil on canvas glued to plywood.

This is why self-transformation and consciousness change (a.k.a. inner work) is at the beating heart of the creative process: the medium throws you back on yourself; you have to change and grow to learn its lessons. You have to become different in order to create something new.  This is why and how creative work teaches us profound lessons, life lessons even, in a really, really helpful and efficient way. It’s not “frustration free,” but it is very efficient, and if you stay with it, very effective.It’s very efficient because it cuts straight through your armor and identity and shows you the truth, like a mirror. Very efficient — if you can stand the heat.

It’s not easy. Every time anyone tries to create something amazing, there is always the question whether the work will pay off because remember, there are no rules, tools, or schools (until, of course, you start learning with us or others who teach what we teach). This is what it means to bring something new to life. So, challenges and upsets are highly likely. You’re forced to make choices without a menu. But the medium is wise; it can teach you — if you can learn. In this sense, creativity is a mental and spiritual training for life.

Creativity is like a paper tiger: it will show you exactly where you need to improve, but in a way that is gentler than those life-shattering events that every leader endures from time to time.  Creativity will show you in very exact, precise ways — if you can learn how to navigate it.

Sometimes, the chaotic or turbulent phase is really, really tough. Like one of those times your life turns upside down. But, and here’s the key — if you can learn to surf the chaos with creative competency, you can get through the chaos to outstanding results with minimal upset. You might not be able to defeat the dragons entirely, but you sure can put a spear in their mouths. You can prevent them from destroying you and what you care about.

If you’re up for it.

1 Comment

  1. Pascalina Bapuuroh on January 6, 2018 at 2:05 am

    Waoow this perfect for me I love the ideas shared

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