PostNormal Times: Growth Through Challenge
PostNormal Times is a podcast for our complex reality and unpredictable world—a world where the stakes are high and innovation is crucial. Andrew Vosko, PhD, associate provost and director of transdisciplinary studies at CGU, and his guests explore ideas that transcend traditional academic boundaries and address our most pressing needs. Get ready to challenge your assumptions.
In episode 2 of PostNormal Times, Andrew Vosko talks with Jeremy Hunter, associate professor and founding director of the Executive Mind Leadership Institute at the Peter F. Drucker Graduate School of Management. Hunter shares his thoughts on navigating complexity, the importance of generosity, and how the diagnosis of a terminal illness when he was 20 shaped his view of himself and the world. Listen to the full episode below and subscribe via Spotify, iTunes, or RSS.
ANDREW VOSKO: Welcome to PostNormal Times, a podcast for our complex reality and unpredictable world, where stakes are high and innovation is crucial. In this series, I get to sit down with some of my favorite minds to explore new ideas that transcend traditional academic boundaries and address our most pressing needs. I’m Andrew Vosko, associate provost and director of transdisciplinary studies at Claremont Graduate University. Welcome to the show.
I’m very excited to introduce our guest today, Professor Jeremy Hunter, who is an associate professor at Claremont Graduate University at the Drucker School of Management. He is also the executive director and founder of the Executive Mind Leadership Institute, and a good friend and colleague of mine that I’m very happy and excited to be reconnecting with. So, Jeremy, welcome to the show.
JEREMY HUNTER: Hi, Andy, it’s a pleasure to hang out with you.
ANDREW: I first met Jeremy back in, I think, 2017, when I had first gotten to CGU. I was giving a talk because I had a background in circadian and sleep medicine, for a Drucker alumni group on sleep. It was a pretty intimate group. There weren’t that many of us there, and suddenly a professor comes in and is taking notes, very assiduously—very, very rigorously—and pulled me aside and kind of struck up this great conversation. And I realized how many things we had in common and how we saw the world. You know when you find those people who are part of your group, you’re definitely one of them and so I was just so happy to do that.
Can I ask you to tell people about the kinds of stuff that you do at the Executive Mind Leadership Institute?
JEREMY: My current understanding of what I do is help leaders evolve in a world that is continually changing. A leader needs also to continually evolve and that is an ongoing practice. I think what I do is give the tools to help the leader do that. I think we all know the Joseph Campbell quote “follow your bliss,” but I prefer another Joseph Campbell quote, which is “vital people vitalize.” What I have found over and over and over again, and now after 20 plus years of teaching, is that when a leader understands and revitalizes themselves—moving from living and leading from a place of fear and defense to a place of growth, exploration, and adaptation—that their capacity to do that ennobles that capacity in the people around them. And it’s almost automatic. They become a kind of tuning fork for the people around them.
ANDREW: I did want to chime in and say there’s something very cool in the transdisciplinary world that relates to that and this concept of growth through challenge. You can deal with simple things in your life, then you have more complicated things, then we’ve got complex things, and we’ve got these chaotic things. But when you’re dealing with things that start to go into the complex territory, which is the stuff that matters—like well-being, the sustainability of this planet, your health, the health of people you care about, the health of the world—the point isn’t to solve a problem. That’s a really strange thing that we put on, that we’re these efficiency machines, that our point is to be productive and to help get something done. For simple things, that’s true. Making a list and checking it off is a simple thing to do. But living a good life should not be a simple thing to do.
So, when you approach complexity and things that require that kind of understanding that there’s so many ways to work through this, your goal is to grow, because you’re working through something that is bigger than you, and you’re doing this appropriate inventory of where am I as I’m approaching this, what did I learn from it? The reason why you’re doing that is to take on something complex next week, that will require you to have grown the previous week from what you’re doing, that makes you better at doing that, and your capacity to do better at that is even more efficacious.
JEREMY: You kind of struck right at the heart of why I do this work, which is this notion of growth through challenge. My challenge was at the age of 20 being suddenly diagnosed with incurable terminal illness and facing the reality that medical science didn’t know what to do. In fact, all their prescriptions were worse than the disease. I took it on as a spiritual challenge: OK, what do I need to transform inside myself because something wasn’t working? You know, I had turned into an achievement machine. While I achieved it, it was kind of like an empty victory. I was also destroying my body and that was the challenge: I needed to know; I needed to figure out a different way to live that wasn’t driven by fear or constant stress or an identity that meant my accomplishments were my value and I went on a journey.
The original diagnosis was a 90 percent chance of mortality within five years. And I ended up living another 17 after that. So, something worked. And I had to learn how to let go of a whole bunch of assumptions about who I was, and how the world was, and what was value, and what was good, and learn how to not live from a place of fear and anxiety. If you’re 20 years old and somebody says, “OK, look, you got five years to live,” it’s really easy to go to a dark, not good place. It’s easy to be in a self-destructive mode. And I think what I was fortunate enough to learn was how to direct my understanding, that what I put my attention on was what my life was going to be about. I made a deal with myself that I would put my attention in directions that were life-giving, or the simple way of saying it: What was interesting to me? What was what was I curious about? Because that’s what was enlivening. And I just moved in that direction. It was totally irrational. And that led from East Asian studies to public policy and urban planning, to human development and working with the University of Chicago, and then eventually we came here to Claremont in 1999.
Interestingly, I had read Peter Drucker in 1993, when my best friend’s dad said, “Hey, you should read Post-Capitalist Society,” when it came out. And I read it. I had no idea what it meant but I knew that it was important. (And I still have that book on my shelf.) But it was all a challenge to transform my mind in order to keep living. And it started with learning how to place my attention in areas that were nourishing, life-giving, and growth-oriented, rather than being sucked down by the rage, anxiety, and frustration of having a body that was self-destructing. And it worked. Somehow, it worked! And then all of that got formalized into my teaching.
It’s interesting we’re starting with this as the topic because I think this is now the challenge we all face: OK, we have these challenges that are unlike any challenge in human history, and that the only solution is that we have to grow our way out of it.
ANDREW: One of the things I appreciate that you articulated is that our job is to grow. If you think about the climate crisis, people who are trying to work in sustainability are trying to make all these kinds of cognitive jumps about how can you help get people to be onboard, and I think that you encapsulated something that is much more digestible by saying our job is to grow. This is something that people respect, and understand, and it’s in high demand. This is a big deal and you know, you’re not reading Tarot cards for people to tell them choices they should make. This is something that is transforming people’s lives in positions where people have a lot of power and a lot of influence and are making big decisions, and you’re doing it across students’ lives, you’re doing it across officials, government, non-government business leaders.
What has that reception been like? Because, what you’re talking about has a kind of—for lack of a better term—New Agey spin that you could go to a self-help section in Barnes & Noble. But you have an academic take on it and you have an ability to see the effectiveness in real time in a way that other people can’t. What is this reception like for you, for people who are really embracing this, who aren’t embracing this so much, and how do you get people to understand this in a way that doesn’t relegate you to a corner of a bookstore?
JEREMY: Well, No. 1 is to use language that isn’t off-putting. The other is asking people. So, yes the question of how do you get people to buy into this? And that part is actually kind of easy: When you ask people a question like, “Think about something you have done recently—maybe in a professional context, maybe at home—where you did or said something that in retrospect you kind of regret now. So where did you cause your own problem? What’s the cost of that problem?” The cost of the problem is almost always a broken relationship, loss of morale, loss of trust, loss of self-confidence, loss of self-worth, and it’s very visceral. Then I’ll ask a question, like, “OK, as you think about that situation, where do you feel that in your body? How are you actually experiencing that?”
So, it’s not like a conceptual thing. How do you actually live it? And it’ll be like, “I feel a pit it in my stomach, I feel tension and anxiety, I’m gritting my teeth, you know, I feel profound regret and there’s tightness in my chest.” So they start to see the visceral reality of, “I do this thing that caused a kind of destructive outcome and that my body starts to pay the price for it” and then I’ll ask, “If you hadn’t done that, what might have been better?” “The project would have moved forward, our morale would be higher, I don’t spend my nights gnashing my teeth over this thing that I did.” So, they get to see what’s the alternative reality had they better been able to manage that moment.
My class is not about stress reduction. It’s about looking at what the results your actions are generating, and is that what you wanted? And if it wasn’t what you wanted, then what else do you want to create? It’s all about what are you trying to create in the world. And then we learn how to manage what seem to be uncontrollable processes. But when you understand their logic, you can better work with it. So, at that level, it’s not New Agey at all. How do I just live the life that my values want to live? That’s one answer.
Then, the other is the kind of newer part of my work, which is helping people negotiate transition, which took me a painfully long time to realize. This is really about human evolution. In child development—my son is 7; his development is going to happen no matter what—all I have to do is not screw it up somehow. But in adults, that development isn’t automatic. It has to be something that’s consciously chosen. What it usually means is that a person is living their life with a certain kind of operating system in their head about how they act and achieve and accomplish things in the world.
And, what often happens is that their world becomes more complex than their operating system can deal with. They start to experience that loss of confidence, loss of effectiveness, anxiety, and depression oftentimes, and they think that there’s something wrong with them. What is actually happening is that their world has complexified beyond their capacity to deal with it effectively. And then that’s the beginning of the adventure. They go on to figure out how to let go of what’s not working.
Sometimes there are assumptions, like, “I have to do everything myself,” they “have to be perfect” or “I can’t rely on other people.” It’s like all the achievement stories of an overachieving teenager suddenly don’t work in your early 30s. So, they have to go on an adventure to look at ‘What do I need to let go of?” What emotional resentments or unhealed traumas or pains from childhood are you carrying that are forming that worldview? And how do you metabolize and digest them and let them go so that create the fuel for your next iteration, your next stage of your development?
From a transdisciplinary point of view, this capacity for self-evolution, I think, is a core skill we all need to have, especially in a time of intense, punctuated change like the one we’re living in. Because there’s part of us that wants to go back to the good old days. It’s like the Bruce Springsteen song: “I just want to go back to the glory days when I was a high school student. I had a varsity jacket and a ring” or whatever. That’s such a powerful temptation: to make America great again, to go back to the good old days when everything was great. But that never has happened, and it never will happen. So, that’s a trap. What I have learned is that’s a trap, going back to the golden age is a trap. And the only way forward is to figure out how you evolve into the reality that’s actually here. And that’s a skill you can learn.
I used to be terrified of change, and now I see it as growth through challenge. OK, what is this situation asking me to do? And inevitably, I have to let go of something. I have to let go of a comfort. I have to let go of an idea, a belief, or an emotional reaction. And that letting-go process creates space for something else to come in and happen. As you said, you can’t control it, you don’t know where the journey’s going to go, you just have to go on it. And I think that is where we all are right now.
At some level, humanity as a species is stuck. We know this is not working; something is profoundly not working. My answer to that is not more technology or more stuff or more whatever. It’s more internal capacity for me to deal with the complexity of the world right now.
ANDREW: You frame something so interesting, that I’d never thought about before explicitly, and that’s bringing in this developmental perspective: when we’re younger how we do things versus when we’re older, that ability to evolve from childhood, because it happens almost as an auto program.
And that is so interesting because I’m thinking about this in terms of neural development, what that program looks like, and how that program changes after you hit about 20 years old. When you do go through—from fetal development all the way through adolescence—you have such a high degree of plasticity inside your brain that it rewires like mad.
A very typical story is if somebody were to have a lobectomy, you can take out one of the hemispheres of your brain, of the neocortex on one side in a kid at a young enough age, and they can recover and you won’t know that they’re missing one of their hemispheres (not the subcortical things but the neocortical things). To a certain extent, you’d be like, I didn’t know that that happened. If you do that in an adult, you know what happens when someone has a stroke and it’s in this cortical, then they might be forever paralyzed in that way because we don’t have the capacity to be so highly plastic. This massive amount of adjustment and rewiring of growth that always happens when we’re young, we don’t have to try it, it’s what happens. But then at a certain age, when this kind of stops (it slows down until we’re in our 20s) you have to use the capacity-building tool that was embedded in our brains of intentionality to do the same thing. It does it automatically beforehand, but then you have to use that kind of neocortical drive to help that plasticity happen. We don’t have the resources to do it on autopilot anymore.
And that’s something that makes so much more sense as to why you don’t have to have these conversations with kids when they don’t want to do something that makes their tummy hurt, they’re not going to do it. And if it does make their tummy hurt, eventually they’re going to figure out a way around it and out of it, and their body figures out a way around it and out of it most of the time. The idea of just keep doing it until you outgrow it—you’re not doing them any favors—but a lot of times our systems adapt to those kinds of things (unless you have some terrible, terrible allergy or something intractable). But as an adult, we get used to these luxuries we had in our developmental pathways that we didn’t have to be intentional about anything; it was figured out on autopilot and now to keep it going so that we can be adaptive, we’ve got to be intentional.
Where did you learn that skill? I’m curious about when that crossed your mind and what kind of reactions you get to people now that you can bring up something very familiar, like, “When did you mess up?” and “When did you feel the pain in your stomach?” and “What would have happened otherwise?” So you introduce this intentionality, what is the journey like for people that you see when you start to introduce this new paradigm of adding a kind of microphone to the diminished capacity that we have internally for plasticity, such that between the two of them we can make up for that capacity and now make it more effective again
JEREMY: So just to be clear, intention is one way that drives neuroplasticity. So, you can rewire your brain by clarifying your intention and how you use your attention. And one part of that is asking people, what’s the world they want to create. What’s the life they want to create? And oftentimes, when I ask people, “What do you want?” they just go blank because nobody’s ever asked them what they want. They’ve lived a life that is totally reactive to the wants of the agendas around them: their parents’ agenda, the professors’ agenda, the boss’ agenda. So first, “What do you want?” “What do you want to create?” Then, with that, the person could see “OK, here’s my regret moment, here’s the situation I created, and had it turned out differently, this is what the world would have been like?” Then it’s important to create a vision. What I think about, like an anchor in the future, and that anchor is kind of a guidepost to home in on as you’re kind of making your way through the world.
So, let me give you a really concrete example: Before my son was born, I thought about what kind of relationship did I want to have with him. One vision I thought about was, when my son is 21 years old, he still calls dad and still willingly wants to hang out with his old man. You know, “Hey dad, let’s take a trip together”, or something like that, you know, that there is a warm and healthy relationship between the two of us. That’s the anchor in the future. That’s the world I wanted to create. So, inevitably, when your 3-year-old son does something that 3-year-olds do, and then I get irritated or angry, I ask myself, “Is what am about to do or say going to move me closer to that relationship 18 years from now or is it going to move farther away from that?” That question, having that anchor, has saved my hide so many times.
And so, it’s tapping into people’s capacity to create their world, which we don’t teach people. I was forced to learn how to do that, and I think that’s something that we all need to know.
ANDREW: The transdisciplinary folks really stressed teaching people how to identify their ontological space, and their axiological, and their epistemological space. And creating your world is exactly that, the ontological space: What is real to me? The axiological is: What are my values? Then, the epistemological is: What is true? If you can identify those things, then you can also identify it in other people. And so, you realize—and this is one of these problem-solving things—when you’re talking across the aisle, and someone is not hearing you, then you have to ask yourself, “Are our realities different and I’m trying to speak in a place of truth?” Because, it doesn’t matter, because the truth in my reality isn’t the truth in their reality. So, do I need to connect the realities first? Are our values different but our reality is the same? Because then we can actually make some headway because we could still find common ground and lived experience and generate values from that.
And so, the thing that I love, what you’re talking about in world creation, is what I think the superpower of the human mind is, of the human being is: that no matter where we are, we will always have the capacity to create a world, and that world can have a porous nature to it so that it can incorporate other parts of other people’s worlds and share with it into other people’s worlds. And no matter what it is that we do, we can always create meaning. I’m a big fan of Man’s Search for Meaning, and the idea that Viktor Frankl had put forth that, if you can come up with a reason for being, then you can make it through anything. And to me, that’s world creation. And then there is Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, who very similarly says what we all have as human beings—what makes a human being—is our need to matter. … She said maybe we should be called “human matterings.” In what world do we identify as having some kind of central role, and how have we constructed that? And when we stop thinking that we have a central role in that world, or that we have some kind of agency in that world, is when we lose hope, and when we lose agency, and when we lose the capacity to get things done. I think that’s our superpower. I agree with some of these people, taking it into my own words, which may or may not be doing them justice.
So, I love what you’re saying because it also incorporates this transdisciplinary theme about—we call it applied philosophy tools. People were onto this thing when they were talking about it. It’s nice in analyzing a text, and it’s nice and analyzing very particular problems, but it’s a way of handling anything. If you can apply philosophy in these situations, and we actually have a term for it that we use at CGU for those of us in the program. We call it the metaphysics of dilemma, and that if you can frame what’s going on as an ontological, epistemological, axiological thing, then you understand the need to either construct or poke holes in a worldview, or whether or not you need to connect on points of evidence or if you need to reach across the aisle and understand what shared values or different values look like. And that is far more powerful than almost anything you can learn in an equation, or anything that you can learn in button-pressing kinds of things that are often really stressed as the kinds of knowledge that employers are working for. Because you work with executives all the time, and I want to know how many executives feel that the reason why their life is not as productive, or as effective, or the confidence crisis becomes more what they want it to be, is because they didn’t push enough buttons.
JEREMY: Well, OK, there’s so many things, as always, in what you say that are just beautiful things to build off of. For me, one of the core stances is one of generosity. Generosity, not reactivity. We have become very, very good at being reactive. Whether you’ve used the wrong word and now I’m going to punish you, or pouncing on people when they’ve had some kind of violation of the code, we’re so good at that now, to the point where defensiveness is the basic posture of conversation in the United States.
The counter to that, I think, is generosity. It’s a capacity to allow—maybe in your language—multiple worlds to exist simultaneously and to be curious about that world, rather than judgmental about it because you’re going to shut off a possibility. I had to learn that as a young faculty member. I had to learn not only to accept other worldviews but to open my heart, to willingly walk into them and acknowledge them as legitimate, which no graduate program did. But I had to do it. I couldn’t do my job well until I cultivated the generosity to allow this person to exist as they are, and give them that respect. So, I think that’s one thing. That’s the ground from which all of this, I think, needs to grow.
The second is, that you’re asking about the executives. I think the sophisticated ones know that they are often the generators of their own problem and that they have to grow their capacity to see the world in order to be affected. The really sophisticated ones willingly take on that process and put themselves through a regular developmental growth process. They see that growth is not a one-time affair but a continual process of refining and refining their relationship with themselves and their relationship with the world, which oftentimes means that the reality is that they have to come to terms with things they don’t want to feel. And almost 99 percent of the time, where a person is stuck because there’s something inside them that they do not want to feel. And because they don’t want to feel it, they’re going to do 5 million things to distract themselves from that feeling. And those 5 million distractions waste time, waste energy, and create oftentimes destructive dynamics in the relationship, simply because they don’t want to feel this thing that is uncomfortable.
Right now, I have a student whose father died, and she’s trying to cognize her way out of not feeling the mourning and loss of her beloved father. So, my job, of course, is to push her into that, gently, but it’s like, “Look, you are not going to get to the other side, you cannot wall off your emotions through your thinking. To get to the other side of this, you have to metabolize the profound sadness and grief you are experiencing, which is temporary. That experiencing of that sadness and grief is intense, and it’s unpleasant, and it is temporary.” And on the other side of that, you get a person who has far more capacity to deal with the emotional complexity of life because they’ve lived it, and they are no longer afraid of the emotions inside them.
It’s that lack of fear that actually, I think, propels the next stage of growth. And I think that from my point of view, in 20 years of teaching, that is the core process: to feel the things that you don’t want to feel, and that is the profound superpower you get from being willing to do that. The result of that is somebody who lives in this place of total vitality because all their efforts aren’t about trying to protect themselves from feeling something that’s uncomfortable. Now, all that energy can go into growth, exploration, creation, development, relation all of that. And so, it’s just a shifting of the energy.
ANDREW: That story is, I think, really effective. Another introduction of a transdisciplinary idea: is that the way that we prioritize knowledge comes from a very, very specific idea that the only knowledge that counts is that which exists in a textbook or that comes from a peer-reviewed article. I’m a fan of the peer review. I’m a fan of science for a lot of reasons. I come from that world and I would certainly not hope that that suddenly changes, but that’s a form of knowledge.
There’s a framework that one of the transdisciplinary scholars, Hans Dieleman, uses, and he talks about, look, you could talk about knowledge in a cognitive domain and that would be this kind of disciplinary classic knowledge that this student was trying to rationalize her way through something. But there are other kinds of knowledge. So, emotional knowledge is real, and it’s knowledge. It’s not an emotion, it’s knowledge encoded by emotion. And that’s something—because we don’t have the right words to describe what it is— the feeling is telling us something: It’s an opportunity to learn from, it can go into its own tome of understanding, but we view it as something that is this kind of a passing thing that we need to be bigger than.
While it’s true that our emotions can be tied to a rationale that can take us into very, very haywire directions—if we think that our anger is because of someone’s behavior and then we do something on the outside because of their behavior—there’s probably a 50 percent chance that that’s a correct conclusion. It could very well not be. And so, I can understand why we have to question, what does the emotion really mean?
But the emotion is doing something very appropriate, and I know that you’ve talked about this before at a neural level. That emotion is processing for us in a way that allows us to react very, very quickly and to help maintain our own survival. And it is usually telling us something important. It might not be telling us what to do, but is telling us that something important is happening, and we have to pay attention to that. That visceral response that you refer to is another level of knowledge of this kind of embodied idea, which is closely tied to the emotional. If you feel a bit in your stomach, there’s knowledge in that. While we might not articulate it in the same way, because we put so much prioritization on the knowledge that we can have, like, in this podcast conversation, that’s not the only knowledge.
And I very much can empathize with this student, because I’m the king of using rationale and logic to wall off those things that I don’t like to experience because it does create a nice buffer. But you better believe I grind my teeth at night, and you better believe, because there’s another knowledge in that. You can’t hide the knowledge from yourself, because it comes out in these different forms. So, if you recognize them all as knowledge, then you can also understand how growth can be easier if you incorporate it all. If you’re trying to ignore the teeth grinding as something that (admittedly I also wear a night guard) is that fixing the problem? It makes it so that something else is going to be triggered.
JEREMY: It’s like a balloon: you squeeze the balloon, it’s going to pop out somewhere else. I think about what are emotions. Dan Siegel, the great living developmental psychologist, talks about emotions as flows of information and energy. And if we ignore—as you’re saying—if you ignore the emotion, you’re also ignoring the information in it because it’s telling you something.
So, what is an emotion? An emotion is how the mind values something. And so, the emotional reaction is telling you what you are valuing. And, so, if you’re not attuned to that then you’re cut off from a whole set of, a whole flow of very valuable, powerful information that is telling you about your world and your relationship to it. And then, as you say, closely connected to that is your body, because your non-conscious mind is expressing itself through your physical reactions. And if you’re not connected to that, then it’s like driving down the road with increasingly smaller parts of the windshield to look out of.
What I think about incorporating emotional information and somatic information is that you’re making your windshield bigger; you’re taking the cardboard off the rear window, so you’ve got a greater awareness, situational awareness, of who you are and where you are in the world and where you’re headed and is that where you want to go.
So transdisciplinarity isn’t just—from what I hear you saying—isn’t just like more concepts across different domains of knowledge. It’s also more information embedded into your body that you have to cultivate a kind of systematic awareness of, so that you’re relating to the world in a healthier, more constructive way.
ANDREW: That’s 100 percent right. We don’t necessarily talk about it in terms of being healthier in your space or in your world, although that is one of the big things. It’s also making you more a part of the world that you’re a part of. You teach a class, the Art of Self-Management …
JEREMY HUNTER: I’ve called it now the Practice of Self-Mastery.
ANDREW: There is something that you mentioned that I didn’t glom onto before, but I’m going to now, is that there’s something very connective with Drucker, with what you do, and he had called it self-management, I think. Peter Drucker at the School of Management, not business, I think that’s an important distinction (although we do have businesspeople going through there with an MBA degree), his entire academic career is that of a transdisciplinarian. He’s one of the OG’s of this. He is a social ecologist by name, which is somebody who can see the world in systems. And he looked at it going from this microcosm outward.
If his idea was management that he was perpetuating, it was to look at management inside oneself, and then management outside oneself in their community, and then management at the societal level. These are all kind of like the nested relations, but he also viewed things in the systems. He also was able to see the interconnectivity of these things and what you’re speaking to about the healthy side—and I want to connect it to something that maybe those of you who aren’t in a place where you like doing these self-explorations—is that you can’t escape doing the self-exploration if you have relationships with the same kind of organizations in a community or in a social or in a societal level. It’s the same themes that you’re going to see in a macro and also a micro and they all represent a version of healthy, when we can apply some of these same principles.
And so, a transdisciplinarian could be the person who’s just very in tune with their body because they understand this different knowledge and they understand their growth. A transdisciplinarian can be a person who wants to integrate across the different constituencies in their city or in their country, and they know how to enter, and how to integrate those things. But they’re all variations on that theme and that’s one of the great things about it. We’re not that teleological, that you’re doing something for the sake of something. It’s more of a concept of how to be in times of complexity and change. And that could mean being effective in a business setting, which is where a lot of people will come to this because there is an output of, “I’d like to be more effective in my job,” and of course, we would, that makes sense, or “I’d like to be more effective in my personal relationships,” and of course, we would. But they’re all ways of navigating complexity and simplicity to some extent but just navigating change and growing through it.
JEREMY: Work is the ideal training ground for learning how to refine your mind. That you use the everyday challenges of your life as the place to develop your capacity to deal with life. So, whether it’s the dirty diaper, the difficult colleague, or the printer that doesn’t work that you want to smash with a sledgehammer, those are all moments that provide opportunities for you to make a choice about where am I going to go.
My original interest was the role of curiosity and interest in human development and that every person is born interested and is born curious, but not every person dies curious. And I wondered, why that was, because I was always curious about stuff. But even by high school, you saw how people just checked out from learning. And what I realized is that curiosity and interest are the drivers of growth and development. You’ve got to keep that alive. And I think that’s what’s inherent to transdisciplinarity: the curiosity of how does this work for somewhere else. Where are all things connected?
Architecture is one of my great, maniacal hobbies. Everything comes into architecture. Right? Ecology comes into architecture, structure comes into architecture, psychology, color, all of it, which is why I think it’s so interesting. If you can understand how something you’re interested in here is related to something over there, then that is naturally a kind of growth-oriented way of being in the world.
ANDREW: That architecture thing is so good because I’ve given a talk at a medical conference before, and it was on education of the basic sciences for medical students. And there’s this maxim in biology that form follows function. You’ve got to think about how everything is a shape in order for it to have some means to it. And I remember back from AP Bio, this is what everybody talks about: Form follows function. It’s probably not universally true, but it’s pretty close to universally applicable. You could always find examples of the form follows function in biology. And then I learned that it was actually a term coined by Louis Sullivan, the architect. Wait a minute! We never gave credit to architecture for this idea, that is—for lack of a better term—it’s a transdisciplinary idea.
When you talked about that, there’s not such a thing as a transdisciplinary discipline because therein lies the paradox.
JEREMY: But it’s an attitude toward the world, that’s how I see it. It’s an attitude toward the world. As we talked about earlier, nature doesn’t divide knowledge into disciplines, it’s just a flow of information.
ANDREW: We do. We’re trying to make sense of it and it helps us make sense of it. It allows us to do more structured inquiry: The world has problems and universities have departments.
There’s a reason why we have those things, but it’s actually not the same representation of what is real. And you don’t have to have an ivory tower kind of mentality that it’s us/them. But it is time for us to question whether or not we can do something about that ivory tower perception because that’s not healthy. We don’t want to be separated from the world. We’re an integral part of this world. That’s such a special space. We have to be transdisciplinary about an institution itself, because if we stay in our lane and think that what we’re trying to create is knowledge according to a set of rules that someone else tells her knowledge, then we’re not doing the job of integrating that knowledge or helping other people integrate that knowledge, then we missed a giant gap that that is going to further separate us from reality.
And we can see this in anti-intellectual movements across the globe right now. Especially, we’re seeing it in certain states in this country, where universities are being told that they’re ineffective, that they’re out of touch with reality. I’m making a criticism here that there are parts of us that are, I certainly don’t think it’s in the hands of special interests to tell universities that. That’s the exact wrong thing to do, but it is the job of universities to find our way back into that connection.
JEREMY: It’s the blowback from becoming too inward-turning. If you need to have a master’s degree to understand what the hell somebody’s talking about, then that’s going to alienate the vast majority of people out there.
ANDREW: But one of the great things about our community here is that there’s so many people who are these boundary crossers, these people who understand. I’ve been in a fair number of universities in my life. I’ve never seen this kind of conglomeration of people, this coalition of the willing. Not that everybody is coalesced; a lot of us are in our own space, doing our own thing, but there are so many people here that get it, that get that kind of, what we call “applied research” is one version, transdisciplinarian is another version, there are different kinds of scholar-practitioners, but there are people who understand that our job is to be in the world, to be part of it as well as to translate what we’re doing because knowledge takes so many forms. It’s really about being in the world and not being in the locked-up office.
JEREMY: Again, it’s a kind of quality of generosity. You acknowledge the right of that body of knowledge to exist and be valuable. You see it in organizations a lot where the marketing people hate the engineering people, but without the marketing the people, the engineers can’t sell their stuff. And so, how do you respect and honor this way of seeing the world because it’s also legitimate? And so, again, I think it’s having a base of generosity and not reactivity as your fundamental value because the reactivity will do nothing but just separate you.
ANDREW: My way of thinking about it is—because I don’t have the other version against reactivity, but I think in terms of escalation with the examples you were giving: That is because our unintentional version of dealing with conflict is escalation because we’re thinking of things in cause/effect kind of means, then when we’re dealing with a complex space, if you escalate, you’re doing more of the same old thing to make a change in the version of what’s going on now because it’s a power dynamic in your mind, then all you cause the opposite side to do is raise in voice. So, we see this a lot where we think power is one of our underlying troublemakers. That we go into escalation mode so quickly and it’s gotten pretty apparent in the last decade that escalation is the preferred means and we go straight to the big red button, now. We escalate so quickly that it’s like, ruin your life, ruin the lives of everybody around you, ruin this entire building, ruin this institution. It’s very destructive. And it’s self-destructive too. The person who pushes the button does not get out of this unscathed. I think that that’s one of these misunderstandings. I’d never thought about it in terms of generosity in that way as the other side. Do you really want—are we going to go on escalation, because there are probably 300 directions you can take given what just happened in front of you? Escalation is the easiest and yet it’s going to be the most problematic in the long run. I think that that’s the thing that I’m always trying to teach to people in a systems view: Escalation happens very naturally. The Cold War is a perfect example.
JEREMY: That’s what I think is a fundamental weakness of a critical orientation toward the world, quite frankly. Because being critical predisposes you to a destructive mindset. It’s far more useful and helpful to simply be curious, to be curious and generous, because I don’t understand how you see the world. It’s oftentimes why universities are such destructive places. And I think that’s why when people criticize what universities are good for, that’s one of the reasons. I’ve had people tell me, we are looking for a position, they’re trying to staff a position of an organization that wants to make a change in the world, and we’ll tell you the one place we don’t look for to hire are academics, because they don’t know, oftentimes, how to build a coalition, how to create, how to create a community, because the fundamental orientation is around destruction.
ANDREW: When you were talking about our capacity for deconstruction, which is the way that we’ve learned how to be, we’re coming from a very reductive kind of mindset. I was thinking, what’s the opposite of that, and I could see now where generosity was a word (and I was thinking generativity). If we are taught the capacity to be both generative and deconstructive at the same time, that’s what our brains are doing, That’s what plasticity really is: We’re getting rid of things that we need to get rid of, and we’re also creating things that we didn’t have before. It’s in balance with each other that we do this kind of generation and deconstruction.
I think we’re in a good community here to be able to provide that for students in a lot of ways, for leaders in a lot of ways, that balance of generativity and deconstruction, because it’s not one or the other. It’s not a zero-sum game. There is a balance between them that I do agree with you, historically, certainly in disciplinary spaces, our coin of the realm is who’s the best at critiquing someone else? Who can make that argument more clearly of why someone else is wrong and not as well about why there’s right in it?
JEREMY: It has absolutely limited use. And what I find is that people who are really good at that have pretty miserable lives, because they bring that mentality to everything. Because at the end of the day, what is management about? It’s about producing a result and, OK, well, what’s the result we want? And it’s inherently, ideally, when it works well, a really creative endeavor. That’s why entrepreneurship is so interesting. What do you want to create? And it doesn’t mean you sacrifice your ability to be a rigorous thinker. If the only thing you’ve got is that button that blows up buildings, then, good luck with that. What I had to learn in living with chronic illness was that I had to build something. I had to build a life. That meant figuring out how to make investments, creation, and vision, and, to the extent that I do, discipline to move forward.
And I think that’s what’s really needed, That’s why I think the whole notion of transdisciplinarity for me at least is based on a quality of generosity and kindness. Why the hell do we have to be so nasty to one another? It’s such a weird thing. That’s why academics are oftentimes incredibly ineffective.
ANDREW: But your point on rigor was really interesting and goes back to that privileging of knowledge. You could be rigorous in a cognitive disciplinary domain, but are you rigorous in an affective or an embodied domain? You have to be ethically rigorous as well. You have to be emotionally and socially rigorous in what you’re doing. And those kinds of things are the skills that we’re trying to convey: that rigor does not just exist because of a communing of three people who happen to have doctoral hoods that say that this is what rigor means to us. We have lots of versions of understanding what rigor is, but we haven’t put them out there to say, “You know what? We’re human beings capable of lots of kinds of rigor, and when we integrate those with each other then that’s when the magic happens and not just this other form.”
JEREMY: There’s emotional rigor: Do I know what I’m feeling right now? There’s somatic rigor: What is my body telling me right now? And those aren’t taught.
ANDREW: Thank you for today, Dr. Hunter. It was awesome. My conversations are always so generative with you, and they get me thinking about so many things. I hope that our audience has a chance to experience this the same way I do. It’s really a pleasure.
JEREMY: The pleasure is all mine, Andy. You’re just the greatest guy.
ANDREW: Thanks for listening to this episode of PostNormal Times. Thanks to our guests and thanks to our support from Claremont Graduate University. If you enjoyed boundary crossing with us and want to hear more, make sure you follow us. Spread the word and tune in to our next episode.
This podcast transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.