Here’s an article I wrote for Kosmos Journal back in the autumn of 2008. It still seems topical.
This article gives a brief overview of what needs to happen if we— individually and collectively—are to wisely and effectively engage in shaping the future of our planet and our species. The community of evolutionary entrepreneurs has a rich toolkit of models, maps and approaches to work with, but they can be effective only if we deeply understand the habits of the living systems in which we use them. The guidelines set out below come from the distilled wisdom of the global community of ‘hosts of conversations that matter,’ as I understand them through the filters of my own experience as an evolutionary entrepreneur working inside the European Commission in Brussels.
As humanity awakens to an unprecedented collective awareness of the challenges and opportunities facing our species and our planet, the term ‘entrepreneur’ begs to be redefined. Entrepreneurship is typically associated with starting and running businesses. Most definitions of the term on the web refer to innovation, risk and business. But I think it goes deeper than that.
While some entrepreneurs are motivated by the prospect of personal gain, others are driven by a desire to make the world a better place. An evolutionary entrepreneur is someone who is willing to dedicate his or her life to fulfilling a collective need. But something essential that underlies the whole enterprise remains unspoken in all these definitions.
The word ‘entrepreneur’ comes from the French verb meaning ‘to undertake.’ A commitment to action is involved—a determination to manifest a vision and to bring something new to society in the broadest sense. When we think about entrepreneurship in this way, the concept can expand to embrace a much wider population—potentially every man, woman and child on the planet. This kind of entrepreneurship doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with business at all.
If we want to be evolutionary entrepreneurs who survive the acid test of natural selection—if we want our undertakings to take root in the world and thrive, to truly make the world a better place—then we need to understand what game we are playing, and the environment we are playing it in.
Entrepreneurship is about will. ‘Will’ is a word that doesn’t exist in science. Science sees our actions, but not what fuels them. Will is a phenomenon that we typically associate with the invisible interior of individuals and collectives. We cannot see it—only the outcomes of the actions driven by it. We could even see entrepreneurship as a driving force of evolution now that humanity is awakening into fuller consciousness of its own evolution.
At first sight, entrepreneurship is all about individuals. It is the individual will with a vision of change that starts the ball rolling. But the change can only happen if the will of the collective is engaged. How can we maximise our chance of making that happen?
Properties of Living Systems
We start by understanding that as members of the human race living on planet earth, we are embedded in multiple living systems. Any aspect of society or the economy that we care to engage with counts as a living system. As entrepreneurs, that’s what we have to deal with. Understanding the properties of living systems can inform us about what we must learn and what we must become if we are to succeed.
- A living system pays attention only to that which is meaningful to it, here and now.Just because we have a vision of new possibilities doesn’t mean the rest of the world ‘gets it’ or cares. As part of the living system, our first step is to become aware of what has meaning to that system. To achieve this, we learn to live with an open mind, an open heart and an open will.
- A living system accepts only its own solutions. If we wish to provide a solution to any of the world’s problems, then the parts of the system that are part of the problem (as sufferers or perpetrators) must be drawn into designing a solution that they will all be happy with. To achieve this, we must learn the art of participatory leadership—how to lead others into participating actively in their own future.
- In nature, a living system participates in its neighbour’s development. An isolated system is doomed. The bigger the context we can get our arms around, the greater our chances of creating sustainable improvements together. To achieve this, we must learn to collaborate.
- All of nature, including ourselves, is in constant change. Sometimes when we are trying to ‘change the system,’ we despair at how unchanging things seem to be. Perhaps we are looking through the wrong lens. Isn’t it just as valid to see the world in constant flux? When we do this, our work becomes lighter. To achieve this, we learn to let go of our habitual ways of seeing. We look at the way things are changing; instead of at the way they are not.
- Nature seeks diversity—new relations open up new possibilities. How easy it is to succumb to the temptation of working only with ‘like-minded’ people. This leads us into ‘us-and-them’ thinking and compounds our difficulties. Rather than closing down when confronted by those who oppose our ideas or who hold critical attitudes that trigger our defense mechanisms, we can instead think of them as our precious teachers and open up to what we have to learn from them. They help us see flaws in our ideas and help us to bring to conscious awareness our shadows—detrimental patterns that are hidden in the unconscious.
- Nature is not intent on finding perfect solutions.Even the best battle plan lasts
only until the first shot is fired. Then ‘life happens.’ We are learning to be available, moment-by-moment, to dance with what is arising now.
- Who we are together is always different and more than who we are alone. The next Buddha will be a collective. Evolution is marching on. Human consciousness is awakening to itself, to its own evolution, to its being an organic part of a larger whole, and finally to an embodied experience of this larger whole. As we enter this new stage of individual/collective awakening, we are being called to practice a new life-form composed of groups of mature and well-balanced individuals merging their collective intelligence as a circle being. Our practice as individuals is to deepen our self-knowledge, accept ourselves, accept the contribution we have to offer, and to fully and completely live who we are. The whole cannot be complete until the parts are fully individuated. We build ‘circle beings’ by sitting together in circle and sensing into the middle, by engaging in continuous collective inquiry about our shared purpose.
- Living systems cannot be steered or controlled – they can only be teased, nudged, titillated. I work inside a very large living system and every day I watch ‘management’ try to steer and control it. But the system just doesn’t want to play. Instead, everybody ends up feeling frustrated and disempowered. We can influence a system in a wise direction only if we are an acknowledged part of the system. If we try to work on the system from outside and don’t see ourselves as part of the system, then although we can provide environmental stimuli, we cannot determine how the system will respond. As entrepreneurs on the lookout for evolutionary opportunities in the system we learn how to tread the fine line between chaos and order—the space where living systems self-organise.
We first understand that we cannot work alone. When we identify a need that is sensed in the system, we seek out others who sense it too. Even when we come together with others to find a solution, until we find a clear sense of collective purpose, nothing will move. But regular meetings to explore the situation in search of solutions will deepen the relationships in the group and help us clarify the principles that will govern how we pursue our purpose. A cohesive group with strong trust and a clear sense of collective purpose can move mountains. This is where the collective will becomes engaged.
Once the purpose and principles are clear, new people will tend to be drawn into the group. The process experienced so far then needs another iteration. Each time new people come in, they need to go through the process of gaining clarity of purpose and buying into the principles (or adapting them). This helps understanding and engagement. We are building a living system that is creating its own solutions—concepts, organizational structures, products and even practices come later, almost as a by-product of the functioning living system. Living systems self-organise.
The stereotypical image of the entrepreneur as a rugged individualist, going it alone against all the odds, seems partial when seen from this perspective. Rather, in this densely enmeshed living system that is the planetary ecosystem, I see the Cosmic Will moving through the collective to the individual and then back to the collective . As evolutionary entrepreneurs, we are coming not from a place of unconscious ego activation but from a place of deeply open will. We are not implementing our own individual vision, as much as sensing into the whole. We are rooted in our individual perspective within the living system, that is also conscious of the larger system and sensing into how it can fulfil it’s highest potential, for the good of the yet greater whole of which it is itself a part. The life path of each of us, embedded in our own unique place in the collective and endowed with our own unique gifts, equips us to play a unique role. Being an evolutionary entrepreneur means stepping up and undertaking to play that role with our full commitment. It means being who we were born to be.
Mastery Comes through Practice
How do we learn the skills and ways of being in the world that will lead us to mastery of evolutionary entrepreneurship? Through practice. A wise teacher of mine recently said that the highest a human being can attain is to become a ‘practitioner’ of something. The purpose is to cultivate an attitude of mind and a way of being. Four helpful intentions for daily use on an individual or collective basis are: (1) Stillness, (2) Inspiration, (3) Service, (4) Devotion/Gratitude. In martial arts, the place of practice is called the ‘dojo’. As evolutionary entrepreneurs, I invite you to start up a dojo in your neighbourhood today.
Informed by these understandings of the properties of living systems in an evolving universe, we can increase our impact by joining with others to create communities of practice. As cohesive communities of practice, we can reach out to other communities of practitioners in other neighbouring fields. We can then form systems of influence in which evolutionary entrepreneurs become nodal points of integral consciousness that can join with other civil societies, public and private actors to hold the field for global transformation.
 I do not use the term ‘evolutionary’ here to mean development in any pre-determined direction. Rather, I use it as an epithet to describe ‘entrepreneurship’ in its broadest context as something that engages—directly, consciously and with intent—with the living system, for the good of the whole.
 I first came across this articulation of the properties of living systems in the writing of Margaret Wheatley.
 When I speak of Cosmic Will, I am not necessarily suggesting that there is such a thing ‘out there’ with an independent existence. Rather, it can just as easily be seen as something that we co-create together as we consciously engage in this participatory, collaborative dance, creating intricate and beautifully functioning feedback systems that then become a trait of the Grand Living Field that embraces all things.