Playing Big Starts With Exercising Our Agency


Let’s begin this conversation with a definition of agency so that you and I are clear about that which I am speaking:

In social science, agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. By contrast, structure is those factors of influence (such as social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, ability, customs, etc.) that determine or limit an agent and their decisions.

What’s the default? Playing small.  How does one play small?  I say it goes something like this:

  • Poor me what a difficult/helpless situation I find myself in;
  • It’s his/her/their fault that I am in this situation;
  • What I can I do? Nothing – there nothing I can do as I am insignificant/small compared to that which i am up against;
  • If only this/that, he/she, we/they, were to change;
  • I’ve just got to accept the situation and live with it as best as I can.

Notice, this way of showing up / operating in the world is to put all the power (agency) in the structure (gender, upbringing, social class, culture….) and exercise zero agency.  This is a sound way of showing up / operating if you/I are content with playing the victim: feeling sorry for oneself, and complaining about that which is so, and seeking to elicit sympathy for those willing to grant sympathy. If this is working for you as in giving you the kind of existence that you truly wish for then so be it. You can stop here.

If you truly want to play BIG then I say this: start this new year by exercising agency in whatever situation/circumstance you find yourself in.  What do I mean by exercising agency?  It’s this:

  1. Here I am in a situation that does not work for me as it is not in tune with who I say I am, and the kind of life I wish to live;
  2. If this situation is going to change for the better then I have to act – do something that will cause the change that I desire;
  3. What is it that I can do right now, no matter how small, that introduces a change (no matter how small) in the situation I find myself in?
  4. I do that which I can do, and I do this right now; and
  5. I go back to (1) above – taking a good look at the situation as it is after I have done that which I could do the last time around.

When one of my best friends found that he had terminal brain cancer he played BIG. Over the course of the 10 months, he went from being an able adult to a one that is helpless (at the mercy of others) lying in hospice bed awaiting death.  I’d catch up with him every week – by phone, and face to face on Saturdays.  No matter where he was on this journey of decline/death he focussed on the agency that was still left to him. He focussed on what he could do to effect/shape the situation he found himself in.

Does this mean that he was blind to his loss? No!  He was aware of his loss – the loss that he had already incurred, and the loss that was awaiting him.  Sure, he grieved for his losses like losing his independence – he could no longer drive, nor ride a bicycle, nor even go shopping as his left visual field had been knocked out so he simply did not see things.  No, he did not wallow in his helplessness.  He grieved – even cried now and then.  Then he got back to showing up and operating as the author of his life – exercising whatever agency remained to him in the here and now.

As always the choice lies with you and me.  Does one play small (play victim as in “Poor me…”) or does one choose to show up and operate as the author of one’s life – to exercise agency, to do something about that which matters?  Remember this:  you and I can have either the results that we desire, or settle for excuses and complaints.

I thank you for your listening and wish you the very best for this new year. Until the next time….

Playing Big Involves A Certain Kind of Relationship Towards Wrongdoing


A stone has a certain kind of being. What kind?  The being of a stone is stillness. A stone just sit there – it’s way of being has no capacity for acting in/on the world. It is indifferent to what is so and it cannot be otherwise for a stone.

The being of human being is very different.  The way of being of human beings is involvement in the world. And choice in the matter of what shape this involvement takes. Further, this involvement necessarily involves doing – taking action.

Yes, man can be indifferent to that which is but this indifference can never be the indifference of the stone.    The indifference of a human being is an active – chosen – indifference.  Man is implicated in his indifference and thus subject to moral judgement, the stone is not.

 

By nature of the being of human beings you and I are implicated in all that which is and which is not. If the world is not as you and I wish it to be then you and I are confronted with choice – how to be (including the actions we take or do not take) in the face of that which is and is not.  You and I can choose to resign ourselves to that which is, point the finger at others and leave it at that, or take responsibility for shaping the world to be more in line with which we wish it to be.

What has brought up this conversation today?  My confrontation with wrongdoing.

When faced with wrongdoing what do I do?  Do I pretend that it is not happening?  Do I join in with those doing wrong? Do I help those who are the subject of the wrongdoing?  Do I accept that wrongdoing is occurring and say it is not any of my business?  Do I merely go through the pretence of doing something whilst staying in the good books of the wrongdoer?  You get the idea.

When it comes to the matter of wrongdoing Martha C. Nussbaum has something to say:

… where the perpetrators are like General Dyer, human, the consequence of recognising wrongdoing … is clear: the witness must oppose such evil at great cost and denounce it to others...

In our contemporary world, in which it is a good assumption that most of the starvation and much of the other misery we witness is the result of culpable negligence by the powerful, metaphysical resignation would, again, be relatively good news, letting the powerful of the hook.

But the truthful new of Greek tragedy, for us, as for the Athenians, is far worse than that: for the bad news is that we are culpable as Zeus in the Trachiniai, and the Greek generals in The Trojan Women, and Odysseus in Philoctetes, and many other gods and mortals at many times and places – unless we throw off our laziness and selfish ambition and obtuseness and ask ourselves how the harms we witness might have been prevented.  

As Philoctetes knew, pity means action: intervention on behalf of the suffering, even if it is difficult and repellent. If you leave out the action, you are an ignoble coward, perhaps also a hypocrite and a liar. If you help you have done something fine. 

– Martha C. Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness

If you and I turn a blind eye to the wrongdoing then let’s be clear we are playing small.  Playing BIG necessarily involves doing that which Martha says: taking action, opposing evil, helping those subjected to wrongdoing/evil.

Further, I invite you and me to consider that where we are being obtuse, lazy, and selfishly ambitious it is most likely that we are playing small.  Given this recognition you and I have the choice to stop this and play BIG.

I thank you for your listening. Until the next time…

If You Wish To Play Big Then Show Up And Travel In This Manner


It occurs to me that almost all of us, for almost all the time, live as slaves and/or victims.  What are we slaves of? Of reward and punishment. Of praise and blame.

We are slaves of  appreciation, of validation, of praise, of inclusion, of reward.  These leave us feeling good (and BIG) about ourselves and our place-role the world.  They can and often do elevate us from the ‘hell to heaven’.

We are also slaves of blame, criticism, ridicule, exclusion and punishment. These leaves us feeling bad (and SMALL) about ourselves and our place-role in the world. They can and usually do ‘snatch us from heaven and leave us in hell’ sometimes for long periods of time.

As I said you/i/we live as victims. Victims of whom/what? Victims of the people who around us whose opinions matter. Victims of the prevailing conventions and standards around what constitutes a normal-good-successful person.  Let me be clear, the ‘gate-less gate’ (to use a Buddhist expression) will never open for you/i if you/i continue to choose to live like slaves and victims.

It occurs to me that those of who choose to play BIG in life are asked to show up and travel in life in a particular manner. What kind of manner?  I leave you with a quote that points at that which I speak of:

I remember days of difficult labour in a spiritual school where we were encouraged to keep a balanced attention through all kinds of situations. I was given the task of grooming a horse.

From mane to tail, from hooves right up, I worked for hours.

Then the teacher came and after a brief inspection said, “Very poor job, superficial and sloppy.” He and I watched as my heart sank.

But then something rebounded: I knew I had done my best; I knew that I could not be a slave to reward or blame. In that moment, I saw the twinkle in his eye as he turned and left. 

– Kabir Edmund Helminski, Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness & The Essential Self

I say that you/i grant ourselves the space to play BIG in life as soon as (and for as long as) you/i show up and travel in this world in a manner that calls to us, walk on the paths that calls us, travel towards destinations/outcomes that call us. And irrespective of what others say and how they treat us, we ask ourselves the following question: “Am I showing up and travelling in life in a manner where in my being-doing I am giving it my all? “

If the honest answer is “Yes!” then I say you/i can be at peace with whatever shows up: reward, punishment, praise, blame, inclusion, exclusion..

If the honest answer is “No” then I say this answer is an opportunity to look into what is missing the presence of which would allow you/i to say “Yes!”.  Is it that the path no longer calls you/me?  Is it that you/i are simply in need of some rest, some time out, to energise?  Is it that you/i need to get creative about generating a different way of travelling the path?

I ask you to play BIG!  I ask you to show and travel in a manner that calls to you. I ask you to be OK with doing your best. I ask the same of myself.

It occurs to me that there is more to say. So I invite you to consider the following as a place to show up and operate from:

  • Only the imperfect demand perfection of themselves in order to feel perfect; and
  • The access to perfection is being OK with your imperfection AND giving your living all the you have to give AND being OK with knowing that you did and are doing your best.

Nelson Mandela: A Master of Being?


I am not in a position to say anything about Nelson Mandela. Why? I didn’t know him at all, I simply know of him. What I notice is that a big deal is being made of his death. Why?

It occurs to me that Nelson Mandela embodied a certain way of being. A way of being that is uncommon in our age. What kind of being am I pointing at?   Being a stand for a possibility that speaks to many of us, a possibility that moves-touches-inspires many of us at the very deepest level:

“I think his main legacy will be instilling confidence among all people in South Africa, instilling the knowledge that people are equal, all people regardless of colour; that people can live in peace and harmony and love.”

-Fellow ANC political prisoner Ahmed Kathrada

Looking through is ‘work’ I find myself deeply touched by some of his saying. These I share with you for they may also call to you, touch you, and open up new possibilities and avenues. It occurs to me that if you and I are to generate value from these quotes then we have to live them not just read them.

There is no passion to be found playing small–in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

“The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”

“One of the things I learned when I was negotiating was that until I changed myself, I could not change others.

Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”

“If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy.”

“There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”

“It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.”

“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we led.

“There is a universal respect and even admiration for those who are humble and simple by nature, and who have absolute confidence in all human beings irrespective of their social status.”

One cannot be prepared for something while secretly believing it will not happen.

“There are few misfortunes in this world that you cannot turn into a personal triumph if you have the iron will and the necessary skill.”

A winner is a dreamer who never gives up

Powerful Sorcery Over Ourselves?


“You don’t need to be a sorcerer to cast a spell over yourself by saying, ‘This is how I am. I can do nothing about it.'”

– Alain, French philosopher

It occurs to me that Alain did not go far enough. The way to truly play small in life is to go one step further:

“You don’t need to be a sorcerer to cast a spell over yourself by saying, “This is how I am. This is how the world is. I can do nothing about it – myself and the world.'”

– Maz Iqbal

‘Whole-Complete-Perfect’: Is This The Most Fundamental and Powerful Choice?


When you and I came forth from this world we came forth naked.  Totally naked: without any and all labels.  No name, no gender, no nationality, no religion, no politics…

So how did you and I end up with such a strong identity?  An identity that grips us.  An identity that permeates us.  More accurately, identity that is us.  It simply happened didn’t it as we travelled through the years with people, from one place to another?  Would it be correct to say that the foundations of my identity, your identity, our identity was solidly in place before you and I were in a place to choose, to discriminate, to accept or decline the garments of identity thrust upon us by our parents, family, caregivers?

I ask you to take a good look at the core of your identity?  What do you see?  Do you see ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘American’, ‘Brit’, ‘christian’, ‘muslim’, ‘atheist’, ‘painter’, ‘mom’, ‘CEO’, ‘marketer’….?  Please go and look beyond that.  What do you see?

If you look deep enough and have the courage to see, to listen, I say that you are most likely to find that the core of your identity is that of ‘being defective’.  Is that not our common humanity at the most fundamental level?  You and I see ourselves as ‘defective’, as ‘not good enough’, as ‘something is wrong about me’. Right?  I get that my version of defective may be that ‘I am not good looking’ and that ‘my body is weak’ and that ‘stupid’. Your identity might be that  you are ‘too tall’, ‘too fat’, ‘too shy’, ‘not considerate enough’, ‘poor’…  Do you notice that the details differ and the bigger game is the same between us?  I am defective: I am not whole, I am not complete, I am not perfect.

You and I were born without identity, born naked of all labels, born naked full stop. Naked! So how did you go from no identity, and the lightness and freedom that goes with that, to carrying the huge burden that goes with operating from the stance ‘I am not whole, not complete, not perfect’?  We were programmed.  Why? So that we would fit in with the existing order.  So that we would better comply with the wishes of those more powerful than us. Right?

How is it working out?  Put differently, what is the experience of my life, your life, lived from the context of ‘not whole, not complete, not perfect’?  It is that of looking for all kinds of way to be whole, be complete, be perfect.  That is what all the self-help books are about, right?  That is what all the status brands and conspicuous consumption is about, right?  That is what all the pre tense of being perfect and having a perfect life is all about, right?

I say to me, to you, to us, what fools we are!  We can simply give up the game.  We can give it up right now, just like that.  How exactly?  Notice, that we were born naked, without labels, without identity.  Notice, that identity is a choice.  You and I can choose to live from another identity, another context.  Which one?  Where I declare myself as ‘whole-complete-perfect’,  and you declare yourself as ‘whole-complete-perfect’.  Let’s not stop there.  Let’s declare all of our fellow human beings ‘whole-complete-perfect’.

Imagine how life would show up if you and I did declare ourselves as ‘whole-complete-perfect’.  Imagine how life would be if you and I declared each and every human being as ‘whole-complete-perfect’.  Not as a truth but as an identity that we give ourselves. And as a stand from which we show up and operate from this world.  When we relate to ourselves and our fellow human beings as ‘whole-complete-perfect’ a totally new dimension of conversation and action shows up for us; you, me, everyone.  We stop being small! We are free to be BIG: to give wings to our dreams, to act on the world, to co-create a world that works, a world that is wonderful for us all.

Given that we come forth naked of identity, why is it that we have not been conditioned to believe and operate from stand-identity of being at our most fundamental level ‘whole-complete-perfect’?  If we had been conditioned that way, we would operate as ‘gods’ right?  What if those that condition don’t want ‘gods’ and instead want ‘slaves’ who do not know that they are enslaved?  Then giving us the identity of being ‘defective and weak’ would make perfect sense.  So I say choose: slave or god.

Still convinced that you know yourself?  Still convinced that you are defective, small, weak, and powerless? I invite you to watch the following video:

Christmas: a time to be of service and make a difference?


AldinePhotoChristmas2012

I dedicate this post to my wife, Aldine. For me, my wife is the embodiment of that which I want to share with you in this post.

Christmas can be just a ritual we go through or it can be a time to get present.  Present to  what?  Present to being of service and making difference.  Who to?  How about starting with the people who you/I are spending Christmas with.  And then allowing ourselves to ripple out from there to touch all the people whose lives touch our lives, however briefly and lightly.

What does it take to make a difference?

What does it take to make a difference in our lives, in the lives of our fellow human beings, in the world within which we dwell?  It takes courage. What kind of courage?  Let’s listen to a master of the human condition:

“All it takes to make a difference is the courage to stop proving I was right in being unable to make a difference… to stop assigning cause for my inability to the circumstances outside of myself …… and to see that the fear of being a failure is a lot less important than the unique opportunity I have to make a difference.” Werner Erhard

What does it take to make a difference to the people whose lives we touch?

Our ordinary, default, way of showing up in the world does not lend itself to generating great relationships and making a difference.  Why?  Because, if you are like me then you are great with people when they are being great. And not at all great with people when they are not being great.  Put differently and simply, if you are like me then you struggle to put up with people’s garbage – even at Christmas.  What am I pointing at?  I am pointing at the kind of stuff that people say and/or do that drives me up the wall.

Is there another way of showing up in the world that does allow us to be great with people, to generate great relationships, to make a difference.  There is. Here is how Werner Erhard puts it:

“My notion about service is that service is actually that kind of relationship in which you have a commitment to the person. What I mean, in fact, is that for me what service is about is being committed to the other being. To who the other person is.

To the degree that you are, in fact, committed to the other person, you are only as valuable as you can deal with the other person’s stuff, their evidence, their manifestation, and that’s what’s service is about. Service is about knowing who the other person is and being able to tolerate giving space to their garbage. What most people do is to give space to people’s quality and deal with their garbage. Actually, you should do it the other way around. Deal with who they are and give space to their garbage.

Keep interacting with them as if they were God. And every time you get garbage from them, give space to garbage and go back and interact with them as if they were God.”  

It occurs to me that over the last 20 years I have given my wife plenty of my garbage to deal with.  And the only reason that we are still together is that she has a commitment to me (as a ‘soul whose intentions are good’), to our marriage, and to our family.  Out of this commitment she gives space to my garbage and keeps reminding me of who I am.  And for that I am truly grateful!

And finally

I wish each and every one of you a great Christmas and the very best for the New Year. And I am clear that my wishes make no difference at all!  Who makes the difference?  You do!

How do you make the difference?  By getting present to being the authors of your lives.  By getting present to the fact that you matter in how you show up in the world.  By generating the courage to stop proving that you are small and unable to make a difference.  By being of service – the kind of service that Werner Erhard is pointing at.

Leadership always starts with leading oneself from the place of ‘victim’ to ‘author of one’s life’.  From showing up as unable to make a difference to being committed to making a difference.  From playing small to playing BIG!