I want to change the world for good – in both senses of the word: for the better and in a lasting way. To do that you and I have to be moved – moved to tears, to laughter, to action. Moved from being stuck and stressed to being present and flowing in our genius.
You know that nauseating story about the starfish?
The one about the man walking on a beach awash with thousands of starfish dying in the scorching sun? The one where he sees a little girl bending down every so often, picking up one starfish at a time and tossing it back into the waves to be saved?
I hate that story. It makes me want to vomit. Let me tell you why.
If you don’t know the story, the man goes to the little girl and asks her: “There are thousands of dying starfish. You pick up one at a time and toss it back into the water. What difference can you possibly make?” This is where the little girl picks up another creature, looks at it lovingly and, as she sends it sailing into the surf her says: “For that one, it makes a difference.” And this is where the audience goes: “Aaah” clasping their hands to their chests in waves of gooey sentimentality. Yuck! It’s where I raise my eyebrows and go: Really? If you are going to make the effort to bend down, why not scoop up a handful? Heck! Why not bring a bucket to the beach with you? And how do we know she tosses them far enough? Won’t they just wash out on the beach again tomorrow?
I am not moved by this story, sorry.
“To this one it makes a difference” indeed. If I was going to make the effort, I want to change whole groups of people, whole societies, or at least impact the one damn starfish that will impact a community of starfish around him.
Let me hand out buckets, let me bring along some bulldozers and get a bunch of drivers to shove the whole lot into the water.
Of course, this depends on whether or not the starfish want to go back, or if it is good for the environment as a whole for them to go back. And here the metaphor breaks down. We work with people, not starfish. People don’t take to being bulldozed, bamboozled or otherwise manhandled or manipulated. They want to have a say, they want to debate the benefits and risks of going back into the water. They want to make sure they stay with their friends and families and that they get to the place they choose in the water, not the one they may end up thanks to the meddling of some old fool or well-meaning philanthropist.
I spent nine years working in organisation and leadership development playing saviour to the poor starved souls on the bleak beach of office work, monotonously tapping away at their computers in their cubicles yes-ing and no-ing to the poor soul in charge. All slowly trying to make it to the front where the waves are splashing. Until one day, six years later, I discovered with a shock: There I was thinking myself to be the saviour with the bucket, the hero, the enlightened guru — only to realise with a Copernican jolt that I was just another starfish gasping for a drop of damp. My time on the beach turned me into one of them. I watched wave after wave sloshing onto the beach nourishing the lucky buggers at the front while the rest of us starved. Once the industrious little star thrower nearly squashed me under her sneaker picking up the gal next to me. Another guy was not so lucky getting stuck to the underside of her shoe, turning into mince bit by bit with every step. I needed to get away from there!
I began to wiggle towards the water laboriously making my way a centimetre a day and just as I nearly made it, a wave picked me up and tossed me back up the bank.
When I lay gasping and scorching in the midday sun once more, delirious from the heat, I remembered something I saw as I was soaring through the sky: a small rock pool somewhere to my right. Slowly and with hardly any hope or energy left, I began moving.
Centimetre by eternal centimetre I made my way to the pool and six months later I passed out on the edge of the pool where helpful friendly arms pulled me into the cool life giving water.
This was a few years ago when I received a post-doctoral research grant from the University of the Witwatersrand. Going back to academia was a revival for me especially getting back into the field of applied performance. Applied performance is a young field that studies the methods and effects of drama, theatre and improvisation when used in contexts outside of the theatre to effect social transformation, to educate or to heal. Applied performance gave me the buckets and skills for handling the machinery that can bring about change for good: a canny integration of planning, story and action. What it did not provide was the survival skills I needed to run a business and thrive in the sun – predominantly the ability to comply to the rules of the beach. Now I live a dual life sharing the tools and skills with starfish (not people) who do know how to work the beach and thrive.
It is us starfish that must do the moving ourselves.
Four days of the week I work at Drama for Life, the applied performance department of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. Here I train facilitators in the techniques and skills needed for social transformation and healing and I co-ordinate the PhD programme wherein applied performance practitioners develop their thinking and their tools.
The fifth working day I spend here on this blog sharing my research, by questions, my inventions and my thoughts on changing the world for good with those of you who are working the beaches with a higher survival rate. I have combined the ideas of planning + stories + action into a model that I called Strategic Narrative Embodiment TM, or SNE. I developed this model over the nine years when I was an applied performance practitioner working as a consultant in organisation and leadership development. All the IP I developed during that time will now become available on this blog and in books, manuals and articles that I will systematically upload here.
If you are a coach, facilitator or other kind of grow guide, you may find tools, techniques and frameworks here to help you be moved to change the world for good too.