I am not a qualified cultural anthropologist, but I’m going out on a limb and suggesting that we live, perhaps more than ever, in a culture drunk on increasingly transient notions of celebrity. These days, star status goes well beyond the latest actor, musician, author or 7 second political Tweet repost-winner. It is also conferred on ideas. These “celebrity notions” begin as interesting and sometimes even tested and proven exercises in intelligent investigation or behavior. Then, as the populist amplifiers of social media, entertainment and good old word of mouth become engaged, they start to become generically labeled catch phrases that SEEM to have value and meaning but of which those using them may or may not have much understanding. In their terminal phases of stardom, these once valuable insights become what I call a “Thing”. As in: “Who knew that was even a THING?”
This really isn’t new of course, it just goes faster now. In the early 1980s for instance, somebody dug up the ide that the way we look at the world is filtered through our mental model-perceptions, opinions, beliefs, attitudes, etc. Some clever dude grabbed the very sexy word “paradigm” which, because I’m a reader and not a scholar, I mentally pronounced Pa-RAD-i-gym till I learned better in the first of HUNDREDS of hours of audio, video and workshops I was dragooned into. PARADIGMS, over night, became a THING. THING status confers almost magical power. “Paradigm Shifts” were the new answer for solving every kind of trouble from troubled relationships to flagging operating income. Soon the magical realism of THINGDOM allowed the label to overtake the actual thinking and practice and, like all celebrities, Paradigms and their rascally shifts simply became famous for being well known.
Fast-forwarding through the last 28 years or so, we can recount a few of the thousands of notions that have assumed Thinghood. Just in the tiny slice of the professional world we occupy, we’ve seen such noble and broad avenues of thoughtful art and science as Leadership, Trust, Performance, Creativity and hundreds of other complex topics, be thrust upon the stage of the Thing. Speaking of stages, perhaps no reactor yet invented has powered more rapid Thingification than TED-that grand diploma-mill and private club where the estimable crown of Certified Thought Leader is bestowed on Prophets of Things (and writers of books that sell in hardback for 29.99)
Now look, most of these lines of thinking and discourse, properly studied, applied with rigor and triaged across the almost unfathomable differences among humans, often result in true value. But Things scorn such diligence. Something as important as methods to reduce suffering and improve human happiness-what in our Buddhist tradition we call “mindfulness” (small ”m” intentional), is quickly becoming Mindfulness. The difference is in the advertising. With a small letter, the practice is like a legitimate fitness regime consisting of a program of physical training, proper diet, and an understanding of the metabolism consistently applied with discipline over time. With a capital M, its like one of those nutritional supplement ads that promise 20 pounds of new lean muscle in three weeks while eating all the gravy and pie you want.
Right now, we could go out there on the interwebs together and I’ll take a $10 bet that I can find over 100 places where Your Life Can Be Transformed by two Things. I’ll win too, because I know right where to look since these latest Things sit right in my wheelhouse. One is StoryTelling. The other is a particularly infectious Thing called Design-Thinking that purports to be both a specially endowed trait and something that requires expert help to even attempt.
Like all Things these two have, underneath their cosmetically altered faces and designer suits, deeply valuable core insights. What you’ll see if you look is a typical distribution inherent to Thnghood. There is a range of purveyors. On one side are sleazy opportunists churning out self- acclaimed dreck in piles of badly built amateur content. In the middle you’ll see the mountainous top of the bell-curve: well meant but unoriginal tautology-often with excellent design and great packaging. As always, even after Thingification, the other end of the spectrum will have a few jewels of real value-adding original thought born of hard work and practice in the field.
As with mindfulness practice, Zen and the qualities of human leadership, the truth of Things is that they are ordinary. Ordinary means usual, normal, standard, typical, common, customary. It also means :”exercising authority by virtue of office.” Want to know about the power of storytelling? Tell one. Listen to one told, preferably by a 10 year old. Do you have a deep desire to master the arcane wisdom of great design-thinking? Talk to a mother of small children. They are the living sages of it and use it in practice more times per hour than any of the success-peddlers out there do in a year or more-if at all.
So, caveat emptor friends. Go grab all the content you want and if that 18 minute TED talk moves you, go for it. Just remember that insight, wisdom and innovation are your built-in birthright. Your “virtuous office of the Ordinary.” Everything else is just extra and all of it is only valuable as a tool in your hand.