Winning at the Edge of Thought: Pragmatic Philosophical Dialogues // Today’s Dialogue: Only I Can Change the World I Created (Irvin D. Yalom)

For the past twenty years I have worked off and on with Peter Koestenbaum (pib.net). Peter is a noted philosopher, author, and educator whose goal in life is to integrate philosophy in business. For the last ten years I have used Peter’s ideas as the major framework in the Crisis Leadership Course I teach at the University of Chicago. As Peter enters his tenth decade, he is driven by the idea of sharing his concepts with the world. Starting in early 2018 Peter and I have talked about philosophy and leadership on almost a weekly basis. Most calls are about an hour and a half in length and I can honestly say that at the end of each call my head hurts. Not because the calls are painful, but because my brain is overworked by the many ideas that are stimulated during these calls.

My wife and partner Emily has often remarked, “Why are you doing this? Why are you spending so much time talking with Peter?” In the beginning of the year my response was, “I think there is something in these conversations. I don’t know what it is, but there is something that will make a difference.” My conversations with Peter do not involve the latest business best-seller leadership technique. Rather, we reflect on The Eternal in The Human Condition. The Eternal in The Human Condition is important to understand if you want to be an effective human being. I have decided that it is now time to share some of what I’ve learned with you. Thus, this blog series.

Irvin D. Yalom is an American existential psychiatrist who is professor emeritus of psychiatry at Stanford. His quote at the beginning of this blog is part of a larger statement that Peter shared with me: “Only I can change the world I created. There is no danger in change. To get what I really want, I must change. I have the power to change.” Since this is a blog, I will only explore the first sentence today and will explore the other three sentences in subsequent blogs.

“Only I can change the world I created” calls into question what is reality? No small question.

My question to Peter was, “Isn’t there an objective reality that everyone can agree upon?” His response was, “Reality is what you choose to believe.” I understood this to mean for example that if you believe the scientific data about climate change, then climate change is real. If you don’t believe what scientists are telling us about climate change, then climate change is not real. We experience the same phenomena, but our belief systems cause us to respond differently.

Whether you believe the climate change data is based in part on your experience with other scientific data and whether or not placing faith in that data has proved to be true. In other words, can you make reliable predictions about what will happen if you believe in the scientific method.

James Mattis’ recent resignation was due in part to President Trump and Secretary of Defense Mattis having two different beliefs about the “reality” the United States faces as it deals with nations that are adversaries and allies.

As you grow and develop, you learn to construct a predictable world. You know that if you push on your car’s brake pedal, your car will stop. You learn that certain behaviors, like lying, will most of the time get you into trouble. If you do high quality work, you most likely get rewarded. As a result you begin to trust your judgement and your predictions become reliable over time.

Periodically you have errors in judgement. What you expected to happen does not happen. Instead of the climate remaining stable, the climate gets warmer. The world you expected to remain unchanged is changing. The reality you have created is no longer accurate. When this happens do you adjust your reality or does your reality remain unchanged?

What does all this have to do with leadership? A leader’s job is to understand the reality they face and take action. Leaders interpret data all the time. They receive and make sense of quantitative data like surveys, financial reports, marketing surveys, etc. They receive and make sense of qualitative data such as interview results and conversations. Each data point provides you with information from which you construct your world. When you trust the data, then you construct your world consistent with that data. When you don’t trust the data, you construct a different world.

You choose to create a world based on the world as you experience it. Because this reality is of your making, only you can change it. The choice is yours.

Posted in Change Management.