There’s an old story that is basically true: Ordinary Roman carts were constructed to match the width of ruts in the road that the war chariots had left. The chariots were sized to accommodate the width of two large horses. Roads throughout the vast Roman empire were all built to this spec. When Romans marched into Britain, roads were constructed at that width. When the English started building tramways and railways, the width stayed the same. British laborers built railways in the Americas using the dimensions they were accustomed to.
Fast forward to the space shuttle. The two large solid fuel rocket engines on the side of the launch shuttle were sent by railroad, and to be transported were designed to be the same width. A major design feature of what is arguably the world’s most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of two horses. More or less, this is an example of how knowledge can create constraints, gain momentum, and over time harden and become nearly unchangeable.*
Much of what we “know” we know because someone else told us it was so. Knowledge that’s handed down, inherited, is in one sense, “everybody else’s,” yet we often end up living within its parameters. We filter what we see through a somewhat distorting lens of past experience, language, tradition. Information that has the force of history or science behind it (or just the force of habit), but doesn’t fit with our existing frameworks, has a hard time being seen, heard, accepted. Add to that the notion that those frameworks have correlated frames, which further skew our view of things. What we reject and what we accept, in retrospect, often seems a bit odd. Something keeps us in these little areas of what we already know—we call it the three-part myth of “is, because, and I.”
- The first component of the myth is the notion of “is,” which implies that there is a “fixed” world out there with an existence independent of us (giving us the perspective of spectator vs. player in the game). We often take for granted that things are a particular way, solid, fixed, something we have to adjust to. We become constrained and limited to what that reality allows—things are just “the way they are.”
- “Because” is the second component. This one can keep us caught up in a “cause and effect” model (and thinking that’s the only model). However, our actions are not always caused by something, or an effect of something, rather they are correlated to—or in a dance with—the specific way the world shows up for us. Recognizing that takes us out of the cause-and-effect world and gives us an access to ourselves that is unavailable in the cause-and-effect loop.
- Lastly, there is the component of “I,” which refers to the who it is we consider ourselves to be (that we can get stuck with, because we mistake that for who we are). Who we consider ourselves to be is essentially arrived at by default. We put together these ways of being from a series of decisions and reactions (appropriate, perhaps, at one time)—but essentially built from a series of what we see (consciously or not) as failures to do or be something.
When our relationship with the world lives inside this three-part myth, we are left only with the after-the-fact realm of description, analysis, explanation—in other words, at the effect of something. Our options are only to fix, resist, change, etc., and we have no access to the full panoply available to us in being human—no power, no access to breakthroughs.
Before we can dismantle this myth, we have to recognize that it’s operative. If we stop and look (at how we’re being, what we’re saying, etc.), we can see that we’re coming from a particular place—one that gives us the set of outcomes we have. For example, if someone tells us something’s possible, and we say “we already tried that, and it wasn’t possible,” our framework is likely that whatever it is “doesn’t work, and isn’t going to work,” and all that that implies. Seeing our operative frameworks is a bit like seeing the backs of our eyeballs. In recognizing these frameworks, though, we can shift them. When Einstein realized, for example, that matter and energy, time and space were not separate entities, but all aspects of a whole, everything was transformed. Old knowledge took on new meaning. Breakthroughs happen not because of startling new facts, but because of a change in the overall way that the universe is seen. They require going beyond the figurable, beyond the reasonable, beyond the domain in which we “know.”
Szymborska, a poet and Nobel laureate, said, “Whatever possibility is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know.’ This is why I value that little phrase so highly. It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses. If Isaac Newton had never said to himself ‘I don’t know,’ the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones and at best he would have stooped to pick them up and gobble them with gusto. Had Madame Marie Curie never said to herself ‘I don’t know,’ she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some high school.”
How we hold things—our contexts, our frameworks—sets the values, limitations, and direction of our daily lives. They impose on the external world our version of reality. It can take a long time to shift our contexts—whether they’re personal or those involving our relationships, our established traditions, or the culture of an enterprise—not because it takes a long time to bring about change, but because we go about it at the level of “content.” In dealing with the content, we are extending the existing world rather than creating a new possibility in the world. We can’t muck around with context with the same set of equipment we use to deal with content. When things aren’t working or we want a breakthrough, it’s the context, not the content, that’s the game changer.
Dealing at a contextual level puts us entirely at another level of effectiveness and creativity, and requires a different set of tools. We have something to say about the contexts we come from. When we function at a level of context, old frames stop defining who we are. It’s not that we escape them—it is rather that we escape thinking automatically, reflexively. Once we’ve made the distinction between how we see things and who we are, what we see becomes a function of who we are. Nothing is more exciting than to see the world in a new way, because we don’t see one new thing—we see everything in a new way. The previously unimaginable becomes possible.
* Adapted from Kevin Kelly,”Temporary Becomes Permanent,” Kevin Kelly’s Lifestream, 8-13-08, http//kk.org/kk/2008/08/temporary-becomes-permanent.php and from Kevin Kelly, “Chosen, Inevitable, and Contingent,” The Technium, 7-10-09. www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2009/07/chosen_inevitab.php.