Cowboy Proverbs: Wisdom from the Old West and THEE

Sometimes I wonder if life is endlessly difficult or if we just take it harder than we should.

Then I read in THEE, which is completely about doing things (hence the “Endeavour” in Taxonomy of Human Elements in Endeavour). I find this strangely discouraging in a way because I’m always doing things and sometimes I don’t want to do anything at all! Or is it that I don’t want to do anything that might be difficult?

I hear children, when asked to do something by their parents, whine: “But it’s too hard!” This is particularly infuriating for adults when what they are whining about is as simple as putting their toys away or riding their bicycle.

I have some attraction to the good ‘ole boy method of handling life’s relentless onslaughts. Maybe it’s my upbringing amidst the rugged mountains and dusty fields of Idaho where everywhere you turn, it’s clear that the American Old West is far from dead. Around here, if a child can’t swim, we throw them in the water and let them work it out while bellowing, “It’s just like life, kid. You sink or swim.” And we pat ourselves on the back for being so clever.

Luckily for my daughter, these tactics are only passing thoughts in my head. I’m actually a big softie when it comes to her. Plus, my wife would kill me! Still, the Old West, tough-old-codger way of thinking keeps me going sometimes. I’ll hear the echo of my grandfather’s voice when I’m tired: 

“Sleep? There’s plenty of time to sleep when you’re dead!”

Or discouraged:

“I had a bad day too once. It was called D-Day.” 

It makes me chuckle now, but at the time, I would think, “Geez, grandpa, let’s just calm down with all the tough guy stuff.”

I think he’s right, though. His words are just colloquialisms whose message transcends any culture, epoch or context. He and the weathered, leathery old cowboys I grew up around here in Idaho have their own, special way of instilling age-old concepts of handling life’s challenges. Like them, their wisdom is coarse and a little bit crass, but endearing.

THEE, simply being a map of life, has come to the same conclusions as these cowboys—the difference being the science behind it and, of course, the use of a more logical language. To understand a cowboy, you have to understand his context, and most cowboys, being rather proud and protective of their identity, will say you don’t. So, as an Idaho boy, born and bred, let me do some translating for you.

"A good horse is never a bad color."

I interpret this one as gratitude. A sense of entitlement is poisonous. In THEE, gratitude is connected to producing goodness in the world and is one of the methods for healing yourself and overcoming pain

“Shoot straight and speak the truth.”

I see this one as authenticity. It’s about having integrity and character. Be honest, do your best—you know, schoolyard stuff.

“Your belt buckle don’t shine in the dirt, get up.”

Ah yes, the old cowboy call for perseverance. “Get back on the horse” might be more recognizable, but I like the image of a big, cumbersome, shiny belt buckle and the slow, bowlegged gait that goes along with it.

Every group—cowboys, clowns or card players—have their own wisdom, expressed in their own way. Every culture and subculture passes lessons and encouragement down through the ages using turns of phrase or metaphors to which the next batch of members can relate. It’s even been the subject of much academic study.

So, is THEE simply lifting age-old wisdom from the great oral and written traditions of human history? Yes! (With the added benefit of a coherent, useful, validated structure to back it up.) THEE is life and these traditions came from people living life with awareness and commitment. People know how to live; they’ve been doing it for ages. Sometimes we just need encouragement and sometimes we just need to hear it in a new way.

The Necessity and Pitfall of Ideology

How important is ideology? How important are ideals? Did I just start a blog with questions?

I imagine many of you are thinking that these things are profoundly important—and you’re right. 

Societies and governance systems are so complex and big and daunting—and they impact our everyday lives. In an attempt to bring order to the perceived chaos, we attempt to systematize our approach. And if something isn’t working, we try to change it.

Ideals and ideologies have been instrumental in bringing about important, large-scale change since societies were first formed. Democracy arose in ancient Greece, then it arose again from the ashes of Europe’s fallen monarchs. Dictators mounted an ideological defense of fascism in the early 20th Century. In response, blood was shed in the name of democracy. The next great battle was between communism and capitalism.

The arc of history is marked by sea changes in ideological thinking.

We internalize our ideologies; make them a part of our identities. They emerge from the core of our humanity, those abstract ultimate values like freedom and justice and equality. “What is freedom?” we ask. The answer becomes an ideology, an ideology becomes a system of thought by which we hope to encourage our societies to become better, or even perfect.

There is much to be admired about the great social and political thinkers and their ideas. Anarchy beautifully puts faith in the goodness of humanity. Socialism admirably strives for fairness and equality. Libertarianism righteously guards personal and economic freedom. These are all good things.

However, problems arise in the ethical dimension. Does the application of an ideology really make a society better? So we often believe, and we will religiously defend our ideological positions in the face of facts, evidence, history and crises.

What is good for society cannot be contained within a single ideology. Let’s think of some examples: 

Private corporations exploit their workers. This is true in many cases (but not all). They pay people as little as they can get away with, extract as much productivity from them as they can get away with and charge as much for their products as they can get away with.

Is the answer to nationalize everything? The workers are being exploited! They are not free! Well, there’s not a lot of freedom in not being able to choose what you can and cannot buy, which is precisely what would happen in the event of a state monopoly of consumer goods.

So the answer must be lassaiz-faire capitalism or strict libertarianism, right?

Well, when it comes to health care, choosing between life and death because you can’t afford medication or surgery isn’t much of a choice is it? And adding a profit motive to prisons adds a profit motive to making people criminals. That can only go badly.

Ideology quickly gets mixed up with the messy realities of politics. And the role of politics is not to push ideals and ideologies—though that is often what politicians do. Politics is intertwined with ethics. Charged with managing the wealth and resources of an entire society, politics must grapple with how to do this so as to produce goodness for society.

Not a single politician in Washington D.C. or Brussels or New Delhi or Seoul or Ottawa or Canberra would ever say that they don’t believe in the ideals of democracy. They might, however, heatedly debate how to apply it—or even what that means. And it is the inflexible ideologues who inevitably fail themselves and their societies because their ideologies are more important than what is best for their societies. They argue and debate and journalists as well as citizens hang on every word, hoping for a triumph or affirmation of their own ideologies. In fact, if I get any comments on this blog, I expect they will be in defense of some ideology that is perceived to have been slighted. I will be told I don’t really understand socialism or that the free markets would work if we ever just let them be truly free. I get it; I have my opinions too.

But societies are as unique as the people within them. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to prosperity, freedom, equality or justice. Our societies and the political systems that oversee them must be allowed and encouraged to evolve, grow, to respond to the needs of the people, to anticipate change and react accordingly to problems. Every so often, new Enlightenments must emerge and being stuck on an ideology will hinder them from doing so. As Immanuel Kant said:

“Enlightenment is mankind’s leaving behind its self-imposed immaturity.”

It’s Society’s Fault!

I have this funky app I like to use on Twitter where I can track, in real time, hashtags and keywords. Currently on my list is “Society,” “Politics,” “Science,” “Social Science,” “21st Century Enlightenment” and “Philosophy.” How it works is that every time somebody tweets a message with one of these words, it pops up on my feed—courtesy of Hootsuite in case you were curious.

I’m starting to question my “Society” tag, though. It should be about as relevant to my work as anything, but most of what shows up in my feed is young people—teenagers and people in their early 20s—who are expressing a sort of conflict between themselves and “society.” Here are a couple of examples from this exact moment:

“Who can be real in society. i bet no one is real. but some are good at pretending to be so.” 

“Who wants to give up society and go live in a treehouse with me?” 

Quite revealing, isn’t it? We might all relate. Young adults are at the height of identity-development. Perhaps they’ve outgrown the family home or are taking their first, timid steps into society-at-large and finding it’s not quite what they suspected. They are simply acting out an age-old and natural process, leading and developing the gradual evolution of cultures and societies And the subtext of their pleas are important and relevant questions for all of us: What is “society” in this context? And what is this pressure it exerts on us? Where does it come from?

All societies, past and present, modern and primitive, contain natural moral institutions that decide what is right and good for society. They have always been there and will continue in some form or another for as long as humankind continues to exist.

The most obvious ones are government and religion, both topics I have written about extensively in this blog, (see Religion, Morality & New Atheism or Politics and Values for some examples).

Both of these institutions seem to float atop society like tectonic plates on oceans of magma. Their moral imperatives, in the service of stability and meaning respectively, filter down into society’s other moral institutions. Resisting religion—particularly in very spiritual societies is dangerous and resisting government pits individuals against the law as well as government’s many coercive powers. It can feel futile to even attempt resistance, but it happens and the moral outlook of these institutions can and does slowly evolve.

There are several more moral institutions whose existence and influence is much more subtle, though you certainly know they are there. For example, society dictates rules of etiquette, answering questions like: What are proper table manners? What is considered proper dress?

Society dictates the acceptable use of our bodies. Is alcohol socially accepted? What are the conventions regarding sexual activity?

We are socialized to feel a sense of loyalty to our social/cultural institutions. Germans take pride in their beer, thumbing their noses at the Belgians and Czechs. The French believe their wine to be superior and might bristle if anyone were to insinuate that the Italians do it better. Americans swell at the thought of their military superiority and even the most peaceful citizen would freely assert that, yes, we could beat the Russians if it came down to it.

We’re dictated as to how we handle our personal relationships. How do we treat strangers, friends, coworkers, husbands and wives, children, guests and hosts? How do we treat animals? How do we deal with people of different races, religions, genders, sexual orientations, etc.?

As a sum, it can seem incredibly complex, and transplants to new cultures and societies find themselves reeling at the interwoven layers of morality and convention they face. Youths, coming to grips with their own, unique identities, find their own ideas of how society should operate butting up against these institutions. They lash out, or “give up on society.”

Throughout history, rebels and revolutionaries find themselves at odds with one or many of these institutions. And when these particular people find themselves in positions of power, with the resources to attempt an abrupt change in how these institutions operate, the results have been disastrous. Consider Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution, or Lenin and Stalin’s attempts to rid Russia of religion, completely restructure the political/economic system and reboot Russians’ relationship to their own society.

It’s difficult for me, as someone who writes about psychosocial phenomena, to offer advice for those who dispute the value or relevance of their society’s moral institutions, but why write a blog about these things if there wasn’t some overall point? It would be much easier to leave it at information and nothing more but we here at the TOP project highly value individuality and authenticity—these are the lifeblood of creativity, ingenuity and fulfillment—and moral institutions are the source of much, if not most of social and personal conflict.

On one hand, there are obvious consequences to defying religion, government, etiquette, popular morality, ethical convention and one’s culture. On the other hand, it is good to be true to oneself. I’ll leave it with a quote by a very wise American—someone who I am proud to share my heritage with, Thomas Jefferson:

“If a law is unjust, a man is not only right to disobey it, he is obligated to do so.”

Family as Politics

The family appears to be an institution in crisis. Speculation abounds as to why divorce hovers around 50% in developed countries and something like two-thirds of women in the U.S. experience domestic abuse. Some blame Hollywood, the waning influence of religion, feminism, sexual deviance or a breakdown in “family values.” And that’s just the West. In many developing countries, women aren’t allowed to drive, get an education or even be seen—though that’s certainly nothing new. I’ll spare you my personal sentiments, but I will say that perhaps we aren’t quite viewing the family for what it really is—a political unit.

To accept that assertion, we’ll have to look at what features constitute “politics.” It’s safe to say that much about politics is power. Of course in families, power is expressed differently but the principles are similar enough.

Some examples: I imagine my little four year-old daughter as a Napoleon of sorts (because she’s quite short, naturally). She sweeps through with her endless appeals and limitless requests, leaving the landscapes and villages of our nerves in tatters. I’ve heard that the average toddler will appeal to their parents in some way or another somewhere in the vicinity of 400 times per day and I believe it. It works, too. We very often submit to her demands, offering a piece of candy or a half hour with her favorite TV show for tiny moments of peace.

My wife and often go to battle over resources. We compete and haggle for time: “I’ll give you Wednesday night with your friends for poker, but I need Saturday morning for a haircut.” My wife is a master of the filibuster. She’ll wear me down over some family initiative until I relent. I tend to handily appeal to ultimate values like fairness and equality, or I’ll make some backroom deal with our daughter, employing her considerable skills of persuasion to my benefit. Or, at last resort, I’ll invoke the ideals of democracy: “Two against one!”

It may seem like all in good fun, but just like in politics, things can become rather sticky in the family. Someone may feel slighted, overly dominated or taken advantage of. In the worst cases, this can result in the familial version of a coup d’etat: infidelity, domestic abuse or a complete breakdown.

How do we manage family power struggles?

They are, at once, easier and more difficult to manage than power struggles in society. For one, things are quite a bit more immediate. As opposed to addressing some grand social problem—which requires the will of many people and organizations, enormous sums of money, social movements, shifts in values and more—the family is right there in front of us and seemingly much more receptive to our efforts, yet obviously resistant to them at the same time. Furthermore, tensions and frustrations are also more immediate and often require our attention and care, even when we’re not prepared or in the mood for problems. (Who’s ever in the mood for problems, right? At least with politics, you can just switch off the TV or put the newspaper down.) Also realize that families are the most fundamental political unit dedicated to the survival of a group. There is enormous pressure to makes sure people’s vital needs are met and to maintain group cohesion. Disagreements quickly arise regarding how to go approach these endeavors.

Acknowledgement is the first step. Yes, there will be power struggles. Managing them is often a matter of proper communication, boundary setting and awareness. In a political setting, we would parallel this by communication with the power structures via voting, demonstrations, letter writing, proper journalism and rule of law. Every family is unique, but generally rules must be set for the children and spouses and children should reasonably know and honestly communicate each other’s wishes, needs, limits, thoughts and feelings. We don’t have to look far to see these methods failing in the political system, and if politicians were children, (far too accurate a comparison, by the way) they don’t know their limits, tell too many lies to cover their mistakes or simply hide their wrongdoings from us.

On every level, families and the individuals within them are faced with choices. Do we mow the lawn or slink off to the basement for a beer, knowing full well that a conflict will ensue? Do we express our concerns or seethe in secret until, when the wife commandeers the TV remote, we flip out? If someone disagrees with us or defies the family, do we fly into a rage, sulk or alienate them? Or, do we attempt to understand them and rationally choose to support them or leave them to their own devices? Change some of the wording and societies and their governments face similar questions. And in both cases, the paths we take have very real consequences. And in both cases, social and familial, all anyone wants is peace, love and acceptance.

A Different Kind of Technology: Tools for More Effective Living

Technology has been all the rage since the Pliocene epoch. Almost two million years later, it shows no signs of abating. What began as rocks tied to sticks has become space travel, artificial knees and supercomputers. It’s an interesting part of our history and as important to the evolution of mankind as anything biological, intellectual or linguistic.

Currently, the speed at which technology develops is dizzying. In previous eras, generations came and went without much in the way of technological development and when something big was developed—like steam power or the printing press—it resulted in a complete social reordering. These days, as soon as we buy a piece of technology, we can barely walk out of the store without some new development making our purchase obsolete.

We now find ourselves in the “technological era” –or- the “information age.” Rare is the person who isn’t attached to some sort of device, linked to the web and, by association, everyone else. It has begun to affect the way we think, our minds, lifestyles, ideologies, philosophies and societies. We’ve all but integrated technology into ourselves. What could possibly be the next step? 

We Are Primed and Ready 

Technology focuses ever inward, aiding movements like the “quantifiable self,” inspiring techno-centric cosmologies where God is replaced with the “Great Programmer” and machine-oriented ontologies like mechanistic materialism where the mind (among most other things) is viewed as a massive parallel-processing computer-like machine.

Given the greater role technology plays in our lives, its effects on the self and the ripples and waves it is creating through the greater social consciousness, perhaps society and the individual have reached a point where they are ready to adopt and use sophisticated intellectual technologies. This will require a slight adjustment in how we view technology, but I think we’re game.

This blog does not purport to introduce the general concept of intellectual technologies to the world. They are in use regularly, most often within organizations and in the service of management—have a look at Six Sigma or the “5 Whys Method” for examples. Rather, it aims to expose a vast collection of intellectual technologies with far-reaching applications to nearly every facet of personal and social life. 

What are Intellectual Technologies and What Can They Do? 

Using the metaphor that our brains are computers, an intellectual technology would be a software program, or an update. The computer on which you are reading this blog is a dynamic tool. It can do innumerable things. It probably came with a word processor and an Internet browser. It can also edit photos in Photoshop or record music in Pro Tools. But to do these things, you would obviously have to install these programs.

Your mind is similarly dynamic. It is capable of anything from communicating in everyday situations to engineering spacecraft. But it would take “installing” the “spacecraft engineering program” to do that. That’s why certain applications of your education are intellectual technologies. And this doesn’t only apply to hard sciences of engineering. If you studied journalism, for example, you probably learned about the reverse pyramid. If you were to write a standard newspaper article in that format, you would be using an intellectual technology.

These technologies enable us to operate beyond our base abilities, to exceed what socialization and education have instilled in us, to adapt our “software” to different situations and contexts. However, up until recently, they have gone un-acknowledged as technologies and largely unsophisticated as such. That’s where THEE (The Taxonomy of Human Elements in Endeavour) changes the landscape.

What About these Technologies for Personal and Social Life? 

THEE began as intellectual technologies for organizational consultants to use in their work with top managers. Over 30+ years, it has evolved to something much more. THEE, taken as a whole, is about fundamentals, and while fascinating, it must be significantly focused and adapted before parts of it are practical as technologies for your everyday use.

THEE has many intellectual technologies for organizations and managers, including strategies for marketing, making businesses profitable, how governments can effectively intervene in the economy, motivating employees, strengthening the management culture and more.

But where THEE gets really new and exciting is its intellectual technologies for individuals. We all struggle with and question our purpose, our role in society, how we should approach our career, how to handle our family life and numerous other personal and social challenges. More and more technologies are always emerging, being developed and in varying stages of completion, but currently individuals can benefit by learning how to use your autonomy creatively. They can explore their role and how to participate in society, how to interact with others for benefit, how to progress in their career, release their innate creativity and much more.

Much like software that is programmed to stealthily act upon the functions of a computer when needed or called upon, THEE intellectual technologies, once integrated, (and this takes some intensive reflection) wait in your mind for the appropriate context. They activate like knowledge that has become second nature. They are the technoligization of what it is to be a human being in action.

As enthusiastic as we are about physical technology, it only stands to reason that we would extend that enthusiasm to include ourselves, our minds and our endeavors. We’ve made everything faster, smarter, more effective and more efficient—except what is most important: ourselves with our political life, organizational life, and social life. Isn’t it about time?