Stuck in a Rut


Friedman’s book is particularly dense with ideas, most of them new. Since he packs so much into each paragraph, it is difficult to summarize chapters of this book. If I had to chose the main theme of the Introduction, I would say it is this sentence:

“It is the thesis of this book that leadership in America is stuck in the rut of trying harder and harder without obtaining significantly new results. ”

In a lecture I heard Dr. Friedman give some 20 years ago, I heard him make an observation about the changes that had occurred during his lifetime.  He asserted that most, if not all the changes he could identify happened unintentionally. Furthermore, he observed that almost none of the changes intended by leaders in society had happened. This ought to be sobering to us as leaders. How could this be? Even if you disagree with the extremes of Friedman’s point, you can still ask the question, “Why is leadership not more effective than it is?” Even if you don’t agree that leadership is stuck, what is holding it back?

In support of his thesis in the Introduction of Failure of Nerve, Friedman identifies what he believes is the source of our stuckness – the Social Science Model of constructing our understanding of reality. What are the characteristics of this model?

I would identify the Social Science Model as having the following assumptions regarding the world and how things work:

1. Reductionism – everything can be understood by breaking up the whole into its parts. Once you understand the parts, you understand the whole. The key to understanding is familiarity with the smallest details.

2. Knowledge is Power – Knowledge is valued above all things, including wisdom and maturity. The goal is to control as much of life as possible. The ability to accomplish something is equivalent to the right and even the mandate to do it.

3. Emphasis on Data – If knowledge is power, more knowledge is more power.

4. Gaining Control – The purpose of knowledge is to control more of the uncertainties of life. This translates into the minimization of risk.

As I list these, they seem to make perfect sense to even me. And I have been working at questioning them for over 20 years. This model has become so much a part of our cultural fabric that, not only are they not questioned, they are not even noticed. They operate beneath the surface of our conscious life restricting our thinking and narrowing what is possible.

I can’t help but think of another important book that has become crucial for me in getting out of the cultural rut in which I often find myself; Ishamael, by Daniel Quinn. The Social Science construction of reality seems to stem from still larger cultural assumptions. As Quinn points out in his work, these assumptions are rooted in a cultural story (our cultural myth, if you will) that gained prominence around the time human life shifted from hunting and gathering to farming. Quinn calls this transition a move from a “Leaver story” to a “Taker story.”

The Taker story, has three core beliefs:

1. Man is the pinnacle of creation. The world was made for man.

2. Man’s destiny is to conquer nature, control it and rule over it. It is man’s destiny to create a paradise out of the world to meet his needs.

3. There is something fundamentally wrong with human nature that will frustrate our ability to successfully create paradise on earth. We don’t know on our own how to live. We need prophets (experts) to tell us how to live. If we are to truly fulfill our destiny, we are dependent upon experts who “know” how to live.

In looking at the Taker story, it is clear to me how the Social Science Model has become popular. It assumes we presently do not know enough. It advocates for the need to know increasingly more. It creates “experts” upon which we become increasingly dependent. It fits perfectly into the larger cultural myth.

With such a comfortable story that fits us so well, why should we question it? I will go into that in my next entry. Until then, I will just give you a hint as to why we should question the Social Science Model – it doesn’t work!



1 thought on “Stuck in a Rut”

  1. An interesting linkage – I would add one more to the social science model – an excessive expectation of control over fate/circumstance. That is, we tend to think we control far more of our lives and what happens to us and around us than is really true. Wealth, happiness, success, failure, all seem to me to be far more dependent upon circumstance and innate abilities than personal choice and effort.

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