Fit for Purpose
How we relate to one another stems from underlying motives of varying authenticity and enlightenment. Whether we transact finitely, or relate infinitely, depends on what part of ourselves we tap into, and externalize.
In life, there are neither truths nor falsehoods; no absolutes that explain, contravene or declaratively prove — with detached corroborative infallibility — one’s beliefs in what “is”.
There is only relativity, as Einstein theorized cosmically, but which applies equally, to the human condition.
Our time on Earth exists — in my view — for one reason above all others. It is to discover ourselves — our authentic nature — so that we may create a framework for living that flows from that self, and allows it to flourish, “fit for purpose.”
This nature — one’s truths — are as different as fingerprints or irises; unique to each of us.
In reality, it is not a stretch to say that we inhabit different universes. That is, how each of us sees the world and the people and events it hosts is unlike how anyone else perceives the same. The only way we have of sharing the experience is by bridging these massive divides.
As individual members of an innately social species, the “self” cannot exist without being understood in the context of others — of relationships, or relating.
Every step we take in life’s adventures — in which each of us is a lone traveler, met by fellow adventurers — holds the capacity, if we approach it with a certain mindset, to lead to a more authentic understanding of our own subjective truths, and in that mirror, of one another.
But even when it does, it is still no more than a bridge to even greater understanding.
To grow is, above all, an act of creative destruction.
It is the destruction of the self, in a manner of speaking, so that we may be reborn as a more enlightened version of ourselves.
If we each inhabit a different world of our own conception, then relationships are about finding areas of overlap, alignment and/or curiosity about one another’s particular versions of reality.
Every human construct, at least as it was initially conceived, has been an attempt to boost our understanding. Religion. Science. Philosophy. Organized labor. Political systems. Before each of these corrupted, they were pure exercises in sense-making.
For as long as the lines of inquiry within each sphere of activity have remained open, fed by an exploratory or growth mindset, we have enjoyed traveling through the unknown territory of our inner and outer landscapes, on the path to expanded awareness.
But. Once those open lines of inquiry have been corrupted, giving way to fear — of how others would perceive, label, quantify, negatively influence, obstruct or reject us, or challenge and judge our current or prevailing beliefs, power or wealth — we have quickly retreated into a defensive or fixed mindset mired in (self-)preservation and (self-)protection.
To affix what is fluid, lest it not hold.
These attitudes — exploratory vs. defensive — stand diametrically opposed to one another. Somehow, life has largely become a dance between the two mindsets, each of which deeply influences human behavior and relationships, in the process; leading to incompatible world views.
Much of how a relationship fares depends on this aspect of juxtaposed “realities”: whether the combination of our energies opens or closes doors; whether they move each or both of us forward in expansive inquiry, or affix us in place in judgment and dogmatism.
This climate of relating, in turn, is often influenced by whether the modus operandi of either party is in itself fixed, or open-ended. Is there a specific goal, or contract, to our association? Meaning, is it transactional? These are finite relationships. “As long as you succeed in providing me with ‘x’, I will provide you with ‘y’. But as soon as you fail to fulfill that obligation, all terms are null and void.” Exit stage left. Finite relationships are often (usually; always?) based on fear. They attempt to affix and bolster an existing position or world view, and as long as all parties continue fortifying it, then the “shared fiction” remains intact, as does the relationship.
Fixed relationships abhor growth, even while the fictions that underpin them might give lip service to the simulacrum of higher order relating. In for-profit businesses like the one I just departed after four years, stated esoteric values like “design excellence” or “sustainable leadership” bump up repeatedly against more deep-rooted, oft-unspoken “truths” like the profit motive that actually drive them. In businesses like these, then, stated values the likes of which pepper marketing materials and company-speak are, in a manner of speaking, a deceit.
The subtext here is that as long as all members of the commercial relationship understand and agree that the shared lexicon is in service of pursuing profit — a fixed goal — and as long as each member further advances that goal — the finite part — then the relationship will hold.
But when, for example, “design excellence” is well-served by an employee, but the profit motive isn’t, then the pretense of the relationship, like so many smoke screens, dissipates, revealing the true disconnect.
It’s game over.
Personal relationships are no different. The finite ones hold for as long as mutual benefit — dividends — are enjoyed by both parties, and one’s personal fictions are upheld; but the moment they are not, and the underlying truths that actually drive our choices are no longer bolstered or protected, then the ruse is quickly revealed, and the participants default to self-preservation, including the dissolution of the contract.
Finite relationships are fickle, and trade in (self-)deceit.
Another telltale sign of the finite relationship is that when it’s over, one or both parties feels the need to assign blame, in explanatory self-preservation, affixing it to the other party for “failing” to deliver on the contract.
Much rarer is the transactional relationship that ends in the far more truthful acknowledgment — publicly and privately — that there was simply a misalignment of purpose, or priority, between participants, and thus the relationship was determined not to be a “fit”.
Why is it so difficult to part ways without one or both parties feeling the need to assign blame for the act, then twisting postpartum forensics into a self-preserving knot? Can’t lack of fit alone be enough?
The truth is that those who feel the need to assign blame are gripped by fear, and thus attack preemptively, lest the precarious construction of their house of cards be revealed for what it is.
Like so many divorced couples who insist, out of what ultimately amounts to fear, that the other party was to blame, or that that same party failed, rather than admit that the relationship’s failure was a failure of aligned purpose, not of individual capacity, so, too, go companies.
And yet, self-preserving narratives, denigration and disparagement, legal attacks and destructive behaviors are more the rule in dissolved finite relationships of any kind than the exception.
In my view, this is a human tragedy borne out of the fixed mindset.
We are capable of far more than this.
Infinite relationships are based on the only things deeper than shared fictions. Rather than being transactional, they are aspirational, in the sense that they tap into our universally held desire for self-discovery, and for the meaningful interactions that help us clarify it. Infinite interactions harbor no prejudice regarding acts or outcomes. They are opening salvos meant to tease out what is unknown in the hopes of sharing in the delight of making it known.
Shared discovery leads to some of the tightest bonds of all, between people.
And one cannot discover anything without being vulnerable — or open to it.
That vulnerability is a mindset.
When members of a relationship are in a liminal — open, and therefore transitional — state, uprooted from a fixed conception while as-yet untethered to another, then shared experiences can lodge deep, well beneath those that feed superficial desires or transactional value sets. Liminal experiences are the wellspring of self-discovery, and bonding.
Infinite relationships are therefore pure, because they lack finite goals to connive, aim, judge and measure them.
Infinite businesses are as likely to be not-for-profit as otherwise. They are founded on missions that masquerade as commercial enterprises, using the latter to service the former.
Finite businesses do the opposite.
Infinite businesses are founded on missions that masquerade as commercial enterprises, using the latter to service the former. Finite businesses do the opposite.
An infinite business relationship is one that may begin by expressing a finite core objective, such as “repair the planet” or “solve homelessness”.
But here’s the funny thing. While “repair the planet” is in itself a finite goal, it is one whose true impetus is much larger: to “ensure the ultimate sustainability — in perpetuity — of Earth’s ecosystem”. And that is an infinite goal that the finite goal of repairing the planet helps to advance.
Infinite goals themselves have no end.
In fact, they exist in order to prevent endings.
Homelessness is no different. The deeper—infinite—goal behind “ending homelessness” is to “ensure the enduring wellbeing of all humans — of our species.” This attitude stands in stark contrast to capitalism’s inherently exclusive, resource-scarce (aka finite), competition-fueling narrative fictions, where terms are more often used to steal market share from a competitor than to truly serve their stated purpose, irrespective of profit.
The bonds formed between members of an infinite business relationship deepen as the underlying health of the whole improves.
An infinite personal relationship operates no differently. The goal of an infinite relationship is to continue feeding it that which helps it to sustain itself, as opposed to any single member of it.
The goal of an infinite relationship is to continue feeding it that which helps it to sustain itself.
The distinction between finite and infinite in where the focus lies. In the finite relationship, the individual member is the primary focus; whereas in the infinite one, it is the health of the whole.
I learned a few years ago that “what is good for my wife is good for me; and that what is good for us is good for me; but that what is good for me may or may not be good for our relationship, or for her.”
To feed that narrative takes an infinite mindset. And while the Dalai Lama — one of humanity’s most infinite brokers — may not get into an argument with another human being, no matter how fixed or finite their mindset may be, that is no guarantee that the relationship will hold, let alone flourish.
It takes two to tango.
That’s because the nature of any relationship depends wholly on our respective conceptions and mindsets, and more importantly, the specific alchemy that arises from their combination.
The breakdown of a relationship is a natural outcome of incompatible world views, while the flourishing of one is an inevitable outcome of compatible world views.
As long as either party to a relationship fixates on finite, transactional things, even if both members agree to the terms and conditions of the association, it will eventually fail, just as soon as either party fails to deliver on the contract, or the terms change.
But if the measure of a relationship’s success is… the success of the relationship itself… then there is no goal but to endow it with our energies, and no greater measure of success than the health of all individuals within it, and thus of the relationship itself.
Most parents know this, intuitively, whether or not we are able to convert that level of infinite relating to another human, or enterprise. Imagine a parent telling their child that they failed to deliver on their end of the bargain (cleaning their room; getting good grades; eating enough vegetables), then “ending the contract” and booting them onto the street.
But that happens all the time in businesses. They are transactional, and the relationships between parties are therefore built on finite illusions, not authentic, infinite values.
Stress tests are the best form of determining whether a relationship has the capacity to be merely finite, or stems from an infinite place, and value set. Does the shared trial weaken the bond, or strengthen it? If it weakens it, then the goal of the relationship lies outside of itself — say, to profit generation, or image-burnishing, or protecting institutional and/or emotional fragility. If, however, difficulties strengthen it, by drawing us closer together in the act of collaborative repair and deepening, then the goal of the relationship is the relationship itself, which makes it infinite.
Mondragon is one such infinite company. It is a remarkable undertaking—one I wrote about in depth, last year.
In the end, the “fitness” of a relationship can be measured in the alignment of its members’ shared fictions and/or goals, and the actions each takes in view of these things.
If we exist in a business relationship to make money, whether or not we pretend that it is in service of “larger” things like design excellence, sustainability and creative partnership, for example, then as long as we are making money together we will have a relationship. When the money stops flowing, no matter how well served these ersatz values actually are, then the pretense of the relationship dies with it, because it was never founded on anything deeper than veiled truths — aka deceits.
Similarly, if we are in a personal relationship to make others jealous (of our power, wealth, beauty, possessions, fame, titles…) or to amass these things for ourselves, then the same goes: for as long as these fictions remain primary drivers for both of us, we will abide by the terms of the contract.
These are all fitting relationships borne of convenience, in that they play by an agreed rulebook. But “fitting” is not to be confused for “fit”. “Fitting” means transactionally and hierarchically aligned. Most business relationships are comprised of members in temporary alignment. Usually, that alignment is a commercial one, and values are used in service of market differentiation. In my field, everyone markets design excellence and sustainability, in service of economic gain. Few firms — no more than a handful, out of thousands I know — actually derive their modus operandi from these things, from which they may, at some future point, derive a profit.
The key differentiator between these two mindsets is in which one of these things drives the other.
While “fitting relationships” are the norm in a highly transactional world, they are not the stuff of higher order relating.
Not so of relationships that are truly “fit”. These operate exclusively on authentic value drivers, behind which one can align oneself, and contribute to the larger whole.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs illustrates these concepts well. Finite relationships dominate the base of the pyramid. As we fulfill core needs and urges, the time we have to focus on higher order purpose — infinite relating, and relationships — increases. Every human needs safety and sustenance; but most of us spend too much time on these things, well beyond true “need”, chasing things that prevailing capitalist narratives would have us believe matter universally. Belongings! Success! Power! Fame! Riches! These are specious baubles, and prevent more of us from investing enough time in higher order relating.
The center of Maslow’s pyramid begins to scratch at our investment in infinite relationships. Love and intimacy are not measurable; they are elastic, and without end, unless the terms and conditions of an association is tied to its base—finite—layers of material possessions and wealth accumulation.
I’ve never been comfortable with the pyramid’s fourth layer. I wrote about this in a critique of Maslow’s constructs, published by Curious. Esteem, status and respect are all really fear-driven narcissisms. I know people who chase these things to great success, yet are emotionally and spiritually bankrupt. To look for strength from an external source of measure or validation is to reveal—for anyone self-aware enough to see it—that this thing is missing internally.
Which brings us to the top layer. For self-actualization to be authentic, it must be a natural outgrowth of authentic self-awareness. Some people misunderstand the term, and mistake it for condoning unbridled narcissism. Dr. Theodore Rubin addresses this in his book Compassion and Self-Hate. In it, he says that the “authentic self”—the one most of us take a lifetime to discover—is the only source from which healthy actions can spring. When we act in alignment with our authentic selves, we can only then begin to relate to others infinitely.
Thus, I’d argue, while most of us need shelter, food and security before we can free up the emotional bandwidth to feed higher-order relating and self-discovery, I would argue that most of us spend too much of our lives stuck somewhere in the lower half of the pyramid, when in fact if we had begun with building self-awareness in service of self-actualization, then we would be far better able to aim our energies toward finding and feeding infinite relationships, and tailoring our “distractions” on life’s basics to those that actually serve our needs, rather than getting caught up in finite games.
If we were to look at Maslow’s pyramid in what I’d propose is a more accurate way, we might turn it upside down. Again, that’s because self-actualization is — ironically — the foundational strength upon which all other pursuits in the material, transactional and relating world — like shelter, safety, intimacy, freedom and connection — should be made.
Maybe then we’d be better at all of it, and seek all of these things in service of infinite relating, and authenticity.
If we did, everything we do would become more meaningful, and of ultimate value, not only to us, but by extension of our authentic energies, to the broadest group possible.
In that way, everything finite could be made infinite.
You know — fit for purpose.