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Eastern and Western Philosophies: It’s Different Strokes for Different Folks

October 11, 2018

So, I haven’t written in a while. Life, you see, and all of its complexities…

In the time since I last wrote a few months back we’ve had a bunch of new readers from all around the globe join us, and so to you new folk I say a big “Welcome!”. To those of you who have been in it the for the long-haul and continue to appreciate my writing, I say a big “Thank you!”. To those of you who no longer wish to partake I say a big “Good riddance!”.*

* Nah just kidding. I wish you all the best. You can unsubscribe here.

And to those of you who have forgotten why on earth you subscribed to my writing in the first place, I say a big “I write about all things complexity, network topologies and contrarian organisational transformation”.*

* With the occasional mountaineering yarn and/or metaphor thrown in for good measure.


And now to a piece on how different philosophical perspectives can help you in today’s complex world…

One of my favourite Nepali sayings from my time spent in the Himalayas is “Ke garne?”, which translates into english as “What to do?”

I distinctly remember the first time I heard it: my friend Lakpa Sherpa laughing off the annoyance of a recalcitrant snowstorm that was thwarting our plans to cross the Zatrwa La and enter the Hinku Valley one early spring morning in 2008.

Sunny days in the Khumbu. But 24 hours later a dumping of snow would have Lakpa saying “Ke garne?”.

Ke garne… what to do?”

In its essence, “Ke garne” is a wonderfully simple and yet resilient acknowledgement that there are many things in life that, well, you just really can’t control or do anything about. More often than not accompanied by a wry smile, and perhaps even a chuckle, it’s an incredibly humble approach which is somewhat anathemic to the more common western* approach of trying to understand and maintain control of any and every situation.

* This piece considers the differences between western and eastern philosophies, so best we get a clear understanding at the outset what I’m referring to here. In using the east/west dichotomy I’m referring to the very generalised cultural differentiation, not a literal geographical one.  

If you’re a regular reader of my writing, you’ll know about the almost existential angst I sometimes feel towards many facets of the western approach to the world, and, in particular, the western approach to the world of work. With its strong bias towards understanding, clarity, efficiency and measurement, the unintended consequences of this approach often manifest in the form of unnatural and inherently inhuman workplaces. Being somewhat unorthodox in viewpoint, and often being the annoying prick at the back of the room who is always asking “Yes, but why?”, I’ve always been intrigued and curious about contrarian ways of viewing the world. Given that all of my work these days is in the space of organisational transformation, it makes sense that I am want to look at transformation from different perspectives too.

Some time ago, this looking at organisational transformation from different perspectives led me to draw this conclusion about the typical western approach to change: transformation—remembering that as I wrote here, it is something that an overwhelming majority of organisations seem to be undergoing— is mistakenly seen as a transformation of process, a new way of doing, rather than as a transformation of identity, a new way of being. And although this differentiation might seem to be merely a matter of semantics, I suspect that it’s far more significant than that. What I think it means is that many things that are undertaken in the world of work as deliberately process-derived, things such as strategy, recruitment and innovation, must be radically reconsidered as being-derived*.

* If you’ve seen me speak over the past few years you would know that one of my favorite things to do is hang sh!t on the corporate world’s misunderstanding of innovation as a process (via innovation workshops and the like) rather than as an emergent outcome of a way of being (the greater the diversity of a complex system, the greater the evolutionary fitness of that system and the greater the potential for novel solutions to emerge).

What this ultimately means, I believe, is that many assumptions about what does and what does not constitute best-practice* in the world of organisational transformation must be challenged.

*Noting of course that best-practice, because of its retrospectivity, is best applied to the complicated domain, and not the complex.

And herein lieth the rub: the challenging of assumptions is not an easy thing to do, especially when the entity needing to challenge assumptions is that most wonderfully complex, confusing and flawed of all animal species, the homo sapien*.

*Not to be confused with this book of similar name, by Israeli academic Yuval Noah Harari, which is a must read.

Now, unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past five years—or perhaps mired in the complicated detail of your business’s five year plan—you’ll no doubt be aware of the increasing popularity of cognitive psychology and behavioural economics and it applications to the world of work. Through the work of Amos Tversky, Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler* et al., we have a much better understanding of the complexities of human cognition, and the multitude of cognitive biases that are at play in any given moment. And when it comes to the challenging of assumptions, especially the challenging of assumptions about business and work, biases such as the confirmation bias, the availability bias, and the sunk-cost fallacy make it an incredibly difficult thing to do.

*Not only did Thaler have an amusing cameo (alongside Selena Gomez) in the EPIC movie The Big Short explaining the complexities of financial derivatives and the key role they played in the financial crisis of 2008, he recently won the 2017 Nobel Prize for economics. Kahneman won it in 2002.

But challenge assumptions we must, because, as so many organisations are currently finding out, the traditional transformation approach—which I discussed here— no longer really works.

Which, in a roundabout kinda way, brings us back to the beautiful simplicity of “Ke garne” as a response to things that are outside of our control, and, which in turn, leads us to this important question:

How do we learn to challenge the assumptions we often make in the western world that—via the complicated approach—we can ensure predictable and desirable outcomes each and every time, and instead begin to understand that—via the complex approach—we can let go of our desire to always remain in control?

One of my preferred ways of doing this is to remind* folk that the western approach to viewing the world is not the only approach that exists: there are indeed other ways to view and approach the world.
*Actually, simply reminding folk is not enough—in fact it’s nowhere near enough—instead, the slow and sustainable development over the longer-term of an ability to view the world from multiple different perspectives is required.

And so in recent times I’ve been using the writings of Michael Puett as a useful starting point for executive folk who are about to embark on the long and arduous journey of contrarian transformation. A professor in ancient Chinese history, Puett’s class on Chinese philosophy has garnered attention for being the third most popular undergraduate class at Harvard University, behind only introductory economics and computer science. Building on that success, his recent book (co-written with journalist Christine Gross-Lee) examines the writings of ancient Chinese philosophers and presents a supposition that for most western readers will be outrageously counter-intuitive. Whilst the book has been criticised as being a simple pop-cultural synthesis on a topic that is far more complex, that criticism kinda misses the point—after all, simplicity and complexity go hand in hand—and at the very least Puett’s book is a great door-opener to a world that will be foreign to many readers*.

*And when it comes to learning about the challenging of assumptions, what better place to journey than a foreign world?

In introducing his book, Puett lays out the following basic argument:

A very narrow and contemporary western interpretation of human history has become conventional wisdom, and this narrow and contemporary interpretation and conventional wisdom precludes us from appreciating other narratives which may help us solve the myriad of problems we contend with today.

Using the aforementioned ancient Chinese philosophical texts, Puett poses questions of a number of traditionally unquestioned western assumptions, especially those which relate to the self and how people should relate with each other and the world around them. Ultimately, Puett assembles some ideologies that, whilst being somewhat wonderfully incoherent, will get you asking questions about your self and your place in the world.

Noting that the below is not an attempt to summate Puett’s work into three concise bullet points, let’s consider the basic premise of the following three thinkers:

  1. The Chinese philosopher Confucius, who lived from 551 to 479 BC. Rather than starting with great big philosophical questions such as What is the meaning of life?, he asks simply How are you living your life on a daily basis? Rather than planning and then introducing dramatic change into your life all at once, he suggests that it is through the conducting of simple rituals in your day-to-day life that transformation is best-suited to occur. And rather than believing that you have only one true self, he suggests you are a fragmented mixture of emotions, dispositions, desires and traits, all of which are contradictory and lead to a messy, malleable self. It is only from this messiness in the day-to-day context that continuous and lasting change can occur.
  2. The mysterious Chinese thinker Laozi, who may or may not have even been a real person. His work, known as both Laozi and the Dao de jing, appreciated that true power comes not from great strength, but rather from the connections between disparate things, situations and people. More colloquially known as “the Way”, the Dao is in favour of effecting change, but from much more subtle and nuanced ways than overt power and control. The more we see the world as differentiated, the more we move away from the Way. The more we see the world as interconnected, the closer we come to the Way: we form the Way by actively weaving together everything around us.
  3. The Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, who lived from the late fourth century BC. Zhuangzi also emphasised the Dao, but in a slightly different way. Whereas for Laozi the Way was something you could become, for Zhuangzi the Way was less about becoming and more embracing everything in its state of constant flux and transformation. Zhuangzi embraced the notion of everything spontaneously becoming part of everything else, a process of change and movement which is happening all of the time.

Let’s then consider these ideas in the context of contrarian transformation and new ways of working: Continuous and lasting change occurs via simple and innocuous rituals in the day-to-day messiness (rather than via organised strategy); True power comes from the connections between things (rather than from discrete powerful entities); Everything is always changing (rather than periods of stasis followed by enforced change).

Soon enough you’ll start to see how they relate* to the contrarian organisational transformation mantras of:

  1. Start from where you are
  2. Start with what you’ve got
  3. Start with minimal fuss
*You’ll also begin to appreciate the relationships between these Chinese philosophies and all things complexity and network science**.
**Indeed, both complexity and network sciences are often referred to as ‘new’, whereas I prefer to think of them as new ways of interpreting the old.

Now, I’m not suggesting in the slightest that simply a cursory glance at Puett’s work, nor any other counterintuitive philosophies for that matter, will have you instantaneously ready and intuitively able to work with the world’s ever-increasing complexity. Alas, that kind of instant fix and instant gratification has a limited place in today’s world. Rather, I’m simply suggesting that the considering of alternative philosophies can be a really useful way for one to start building the type of cognitive flexibility that will be of huge benefit in the years and indeed decades ahead* (regardless of whether or not you care for the world of organisational transformation).

*Not surprisingly, I’m of the belief consistent with the likes of folk such as AC Grayling that getting our kids to learn STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—is a questionable strategy, and, in fact just another ridiculous and ill-considered fad. Rather, teach our kids how to think, and you’ve taught them a skill that machines nor computers will not be able to obtain.

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