Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Path You Need Next



I built the joyful-life-decision tool Choice Compass partly because I was becoming more and more frustrated with the idea that we have to change ourselves to be better. That we don't have wisdom already inside of us, and that who we are isn't already enough.

This idea that we are not enough is prevalent in U.S. culture, and sadly has been transmitted around the world. It's a useful idea for people who want to sell things, in that if we feel we are not enough, we are likely to want to buy things to approach a feeling of completeness. My partner Brooks Palmer writes about this phenomenon in his Clutter Busting blog as well as his books, so I won't go on about it at length here. Suffice it to say that there is plenty of evidence that regardless of how many toys and trips people buy, feeling like you're complete is really an inside job.

At the same time as I say this, I want people to use Choice Compass (or, really, any tool that's useful) to help them figure out how to tap into their inner wisdom. The wisdom that's already there, but seldom accessed without a lot of analytical overlay. And, I charge for the tool. So how is this any different than the people my partner and I are decrying?

The difference is explained beautifully by Linda Stone, an elegant and original observer of technology and human potential. She points to the new "quantified self" movement, which has brought us Fit Bits and the like, and has asked -- do we need more information about how to improve ourselves? Or are we actually hungry for what she calls "Essential Self" technologies -- technologies that bring us closer to accepting and learning about who we are?

I had a conversation with Linda recently about these ideas, and we agreed that Essential Self tech is an under-represented idea that is starting to blossom. Maybe it's the "I'm OK, You're OK" of the 21st century, as it includes any method that brings us more in alignment with who we already are. However, it's not the most popular form of technology, to be sure.

In my conversation with Linda, I had an insight. There seems to be a clear difference between a forward-moving path for someone who has high status and lots of power in the world and a forward-moving path for someone who has low status and less power in the world. The person with lots of power will generally move forward in his or her life by learning how to relax, let go of control, and serve others.

But let's talk about the person with less power in the world. Relaxing can be useful for this person as well, to be sure. But letting go of control makes little sense when you don't have much control to start with. By the same token, people with less power are almost always serving others in our culture. So that's not a lesson that's necessary to be learned. What is necessary? When coming from little or no power, what is desperately necessary is to learn how to develop and use your voice. To listen to your inner wisdom. To accept your body, home, and possessions as they are. And to build boundaries and practices that allow your to develop more power and control in the world.

These are starkly different visions for what a personal growth path requires. The quantified self technologies really lean toward neither of them, as far as I can tell. Thus far, they seem to lean toward keeping track of your fitness and health numbers, and maybe helping helping you. For those aims, quantified self tools can be very useful, and can in some cases be life saving. But they don't really move people forward on their individual paths.


In my opinion, what is missing is twofold: 1) an acknowledgement that both of these paths exist and are completely valid for different people and for the same person at different times in life, and 2) new technologies that support either or both of these paths. These dual-path technologies would appeal to what is the best next step for someone, rounding out the distance between us. The more powerful of us would learn to make room for the outside world (taking Linda's cue, let's call these "Essential Other" technologies), and the less powerful would learn to locate and use their power inside (Essential Self technologies). In fact, in addition to Choice Compass, a few ideas loosely related to both things are starting to crop up, and some of them are also supported scientifically (for example, see the tools at happify.com).


I would like to see this dual-path movement grow. I'd like many voices to offer clear and explicit discussion of these differing and equally valid paths. And I'd like to see new tools for both inward and outward movement toward completeness, differentiated according to whichever path you need next.