The first principle of Personal Development that was outlined in an earlier post was “acknowledge, without judgement, things as they are.”
Although not in itself sufficient for PD, this is certainly a necessary pre-requisite mental attitude; a stance of genuine curiosity about (and a conceptual uncoupling from) things. It turns out that we are already in trouble when we assert that there such things as “things”, but until now we have had little choice because the English language tends to be steadfastly material in its assumptions of the world. The world of difference, however, is notable for being immaterial.
So the second principle of Personal Development is an invitation to understand and then actively look for ‘difference’. This idea is perhaps the most elemental in Gregory Bateson’s relational view of the world and one that I have blogged about several times over the years. However, as a very brief resume, in a world of almost limitless potential bits of information which our senses detect, a difference is that bit of information that makes a difference. In other words it is an “elemental idea” whereby we become aware of the boundaries between one thing and another thing. In noting difference we must make some of sort comparison, but our comparison literally carries no weight, occupies no space, and is non-dimensional. A difference, in short, is a no-thing. Crucially, it is also not a property of any of the things we are comparing. Bateson went on to note that differences travel in recursive circuits of cause and effect in systems, and that they are transformed successively over time and are at the heart of what make living systems different, so to speak, from non-living ones.
But what does this have to do with PD and what does it mean in practice?
1. Without the relationship between ‘that which is’ and ‘that which is not’ it would be impossible to have any notion of ”things as they are”, the first PD principle.
2. Meaning is achieved by the ever-present question ”compared to what?” (a question that is almost always an implicit or unconscious one).
3. Every notion implies its opposite, its negation.
4. Development implies learning, learning implies change of one sort or another, and change implies some sort of novelty which would be impossible if the world were a closed system.
An example, perhaps. I recently found out that I have had a development paper accepted to a management conference in September. The paper’s purpose is just to stimulate discussion, in contribution to a given subject area (in this case ‘knowledge and learning’) and partly in order to give me some developmental feedback in peer review. The acceptance process involved some blind peer reviews, which I got to see. Two of the reviews were largely positive and quite supportive, but the third was a lot more critical. My first reaction was to accept the compliments and look for comforting support from their gentle suggestions for improvement. I dismissed the less complimentary review as being irrelevant, its author too far from my position to be of any use to me. On reflection it may be that the reviewer I didn’t agree with that will help me understand my own thinking for what it is as it exposes it to its antithesis. My job is first to note that this is the situation (acknowledge it) and note too how I feel about it, and then get curious about how such a different view clarifies my thinking. To to that, I’d need to understand that alternative argument.
In summary, in their daily working lives managers constantly (if unknowingly) make sense of what’s going on by embracing or ignoring the concept of difference and the world is an open system which operates according to an underlying pattern (or law?), regardless of our awareness of this being the case. Incidentally, because it is a property of the relationship between things and not of things themselves, the nature of “difference” is a very curious one to explore. In short, the difference between one thing and another is at a higher logical level than either of the things themselves. Bateson spent much of his life playing with the consequence of this, i.e. that ideas operate in a pattern, a hierarchy of logical levels which are immanent in social structures and systems.