Sensing a shift in our modern day sense of ‘self’ and a declining faith in humanity and our institutions from government to businesses, we have to begin where our modern journey got its start - in classical Greece. Retracing the origins of our modern world view and following the journey that brought us here will help us to understand much more clearly what’s happening around us. So let’s embark together on a whirlwind trip through the centuries.
Until the classical Greek thinkers set us upon our current path, the ‘self’ was a social self, dependent upon the agrarian community and living within the order ordained by the gods. Plato and then his pupil Aristotle changed all that in the 300s BCE, and began us on a path of mastery, a path that led the western self to believe that it could discover and know most anything about both the physical realm (objects) and the metaphysical realm (ideas), albeit with some uncertainty and under the control of the gods. Here we made our first turn toward a confident independence.
Over a millennia later and in a waning Roman pantheon of gods and an emerging monotheistic Church, Augustine led us to another frontier - the inner self. For Augustine, the power of reflection was to lead to double knowledge – to know God and so to truly know myself. Generations of inquiry about the self were followed by self-discovery and self-awareness… and gradually the search for God within the self dwindled. But the second great turn towards our present day western self was accomplished; the inner journey had begun. Indeed, the ‘self’ was to be sought (and could be found) within. The foundation stones for self-reflection and its narcissistic cousin, self-absorption, were laid.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Enlightenment became the third great turn toward the modern ‘self.’ As it unfolded, it doubt (still asserted by Descartes) was slowly jettisoned as it was replaced by Locke and the great experiment in enlightenment thought, the United States. Rugged individualism thrived and a nation was forged from its loins. Two centuries of science and rationalism fostered a greater confidence in this Western self, and over time bolstered a belief in continual progress. At the same time, the scientific revolution seemed to retire the need for deity and with His decline in importance, so His institution (the Church) declined in practice. Two wars cemented the power of technology and the second created a massive industrial complex that looked for new demand as the mid-twentieth century was reached and peace had broken out the world over. Into this nursery of consumer opportunity, the empty-self was born.
A self that can only be satisfied by itself must either turn inwards toward reflection or turn outwards toward entertainment and consumption. The ‘Mad Men’ had a field day and positioned consumption as the pinnacle of satisfaction and the path toward self-realization, fueled even more by the rise of the celebrity. Together, these movements led to an era of consumerism and its silent partner, personal debt. The accountants and financiers had a field day as the Boomers lived more than half a century of massive consumption and then over-consumption. We leapt like drunken party-goers over the boundaries of affordability in a collusion of illusion with the financial services industry until it all started to go horribly wrong, and the music stopped rather abruptly.
Along the way, in the midst of a frenzied embrace of all things digital, consumers and employees had gained an unheralded advantage and took control of the message through their new megaphone - the internet and social media. The crash of 2007/8 and the non-recovery that followed have fostered a sobering reflection that is mediated into the sphere of enterprise governance through the power of social media. Now everyone feels the angst and uncertainty of the consumer.
As well, this era of unbridled consumption seems to have produced some unwanted companions in climate change, unsustainable personal and national debt and the stubborn absence of growth. Grappling with these unseemly companions, we expect them to fade as this economic winter will eventually give way to spring, but today we are not quite sure what to do as the freeze continues.
Meanwhile, like the lambs on my farm that huddle together, bleating for their evening meal, our enterprises wait for profitability and a return to “normalcy” that may be very slow to come, if it arrives at all. This will continue to be the case if growth and consumption are all we really know how to engage. Instead, something new is emerging, not focused on a return to consumption (and thus swelling profit for the producers), but instead on meaning and a hunger for something worthy and redemptive. How can companies respond? By gaining Telosity.