Losing the Way is the Way
The Art of Decalibration, Part 1
Wanna know a professional secret?
Innovation is dead simple. Simple and easy.
I don’t talk in a lot of detail about client work from my advisory career or the individuals who came through our M.A. in Leadership program and the things they brought into the world - but I will tell you that one of the consistent lessons we learned was this: the actual “do something completely new that has never been tried let alone succeeded” side of the work was pretty straight forward.
What took 2-3 years with people was the process of deep decalibration.
To set context for discussing decalibration, we first have to provide at least a short grounding in ‘calibration’ and ‘recalibration’.
External / Internal
Calibration: the identification and adoption of external standards that can guide progress towards a desirable and known outcome. For example, if I want to improve my aerobic capacity, I might look for a reliable, data-backed average of the time it takes for a male of my age to run a mile. This standard or calibration point is a basis upon which I might gauge my current level of aerobic fitness, and my progress over time.
Calibration is critical for the work of Training, the work of bringing a human being up to a preset standard of performance in a way that they can fully replicate what has been performed by others before them. If I train you to operate a cash register, I am relatively unconcerned about your subjective experience and most concerned about the objective standard for effective use of the cash register against which I am measuring your progress. This is a perfectly acceptable approach for Training activities designed to improve transactional tasks.
Recalibration: The general understanding of recalibration is something along the line of resetting one’s instrument back to an established norm. For example, retuning the first string of a guitar that has gone out of tune back to the standard of E. I might even use a calibration instrument, a tuner, to ensure I get perfectly back to that standard. Note that the recalibration is still in reference to some external standard (the E note’s specific vibrational frequency). In human and organizational development work, I think about “recalibration” slightly differently. If calibration is the setting of a standard based on objective, external criteria, recalibration is the setting of new standards that meet the requirements of the external standard and are modified by the subjective experiences gained in the process of working toward the original calibration point.
Recalibration (the way I’ve distinguished it above) is critical for the work of Development, the work of bringing out of a human being their unique skills, abilities, etc. In the broader process of supporting you to become a fully productive and satisfied employee in my organization, one of my obligations is to be constantly supporting a process of recalibration that allows you and the work environment to keep evolving to a point where it meets the objective standards/calibration points where absolutely necessary (ie., on critical transactions) while also meeting your subjective calibration points in the context of your role. This work done across groups/departments is the essence of developing thriving organizational environments.
‘Calibration’ is a machine function. And, there are areas of life where a machine analogy approach is quite useful. There are repetitive and transactional tasks and processes that are critical to my day-to-day life where I benefit from stable, external standards that I can gauge progress and performance against. Said another way, there are aspects of life where we are well served to be ‘effective and efficient machines’. These tend to be related to foundational / lower order human needs - issues of survival and basic fitness for existence: exercise, tending to your teeth, water intake, basic personal grooming, basic financial management, schedule management, etc. For me, these are things that I want in a state of highly machine-like efficiency, and I have no significant desire for self-expression in these areas. External standards / benchmarks / calibration points therefore become very useful. For you, one of these areas may be a place of self-expression and a purely calibration, or machine-function, approach would likely cause some form of psychological distress and you’d benefit from a recalibration approach in that area. But, I’ve found that some human beings create a state of low-grade but chronic stress in their lives because they’ve failed to bring into a state of machine-like reliability things that are a necessary part of their lives, and that they don’t have an internal connection to. On the occasions of my retreats there, one of the great benefits I find in monastery life is the clockwork nature of the transactional aspects of the day. Not because I am inclined toward order and predictability - those things are very much not natural expression for me. But, I’ve found that there is great value in terms of the amount of time in the day that opens up when I am operating in an environment that mechanizes the necessary routines of life. It was and is an ongoing reminder of the value of precise and efficient action relative to external standards.
And, there are things that I do not want in a state of machine-like stability. Things that are living parts of my life that I want to have evolve as I evolve and have a kind of flexibility to them that allows for the presence of Other.
‘Recalibration’ (the way that I’m presenting it here) is not a machine function, but a human psychological function. It is a means to tune our experience and environment to our own internal calibration points: our beliefs, values, needs, wants, goals, etc. Recalibration is a vital human capability and invites a dynamic and living relationship with one’s work, family, and community - if that recalibration is engaged with as an act of interdependence. In my experience however, few humans in this society seem to have mastered or even had opportunity to develop real competence in interdependent recalibration. Instead, there is a strong bias towards, and incentives for, recalibrating the environment solely based on one’s own internal calibration points. An ongoing search for control or dominance of the environment and/or others through the disguise of, on the one hand, “freedom” and “individual rights” and, on the other, “authenticity” and “self-actualization”.
This habitual approach in our society is inherently self-contradictory: I seek to maintain my own living expression by attempting to turn everything and everyone around me into a machine calibrated to my internal standards – and fail to see that the natural consequence of this is that I have turned my own living expression into a set of machine standards. Much of our common conception of business and economic exchange – and God help us, ‘thought leadership’ - are grounded in this highly dysfunctional and toxic expression of recalibration.
Instead, in human systems, recalibration is a work of co-creation: an on-going dance of slight shifts here and modifications there to find and maintain, even as each of us grows and changes, a place where our shared space allows for both of us to meet our internal calibration points, our individual and unique set of standards for psychological and emotional health.
As useful - critical! - as calibration (Training) and recalibration (Developmental) work are, neither is sufficient for transformation, for the work of bringing into the world that which has never existed - for the work of Art…and the work of Leadership. This is the work that has had my attention since I was a teenager, and for this work, we must engage with neither calibration nor recalibration, but decalibration.
Decalibration is the removal, or temporary suspension, of the points of external and internal calibration for a living system. It is the losing of a standard for gauging performance or progress in an area – including internal standards that the system or individual has.
In support of my Gen X desire to work as little as possible, I’m going to ask you to indulge me by watching a video that will cover at least some of the ground I would otherwise have to write out here. This is from one of my TEDx’s (a statement that would’ve been a flex in 2012, and that I fully acknowledge is a bit of a yawn in 2022) and was for a group of “next generation leaders” in D.C.
Calibration is a machine control function. Its value is in helping to ensure that the parts of life that benefit from machine-level control, predictability, and reliability (which I abbreviate as C/P/R in my work) are able to be maintained as efficiently as possible.
Recalibration is a psychological health function. Its value is in helping to ensure that the unique individuals engaged in a temporary or on-going set of interactions can maintain their personal sense of health and wellbeing as they continue to grow and evolve together.
Decalibration is an ontological transformation function. Its value is in removing the reference points that have a reality be experienced as Reality. Decalibration is a precursor to all truly creative acts. The degree to which I am working towards, or even aware of, external or internal standards is the degree to which I am constrained in my creating wholly original work – or living a wholly original experience of every moment of my time on the planet.
The work of a practitioner in these three domains is radically different
Calibration is the work of Experts. There is a premium on significant study and experience - credentials and resumes very much matter here. I want my family doctor, who is one of the central calibration points for the maintenance of my physical machine at a state of C/P/R, to be highly trained and I want that training to be objectively, third-party verified and credentialed. And I want that verification and credentialing to be updated regularly as new data emerges about best practices in maintaining my physical machine. So too my car mechanic. And the factory that makes the medicine I take. An Expert’s central value is to help us keep the trains on the tracks - i.e., maintain performance relative to a desirable, objective standard or calibration point - in the areas of our lives where derailment is unnecessarily dangerous and / or costly. Social media and the general “everyone’s opinion on everything maters” madness that has taken hold the past 10-15 years has done a great deal of damage to our proper valuing of Experts and expertise. See climate change and the COVID vaccination sideshow for solid, if obvious, manifestations and consequences of the devaluing of Experts and their work.
Recalibration is the work of Educators – teachers, therapists, coaches, human resource professionals, parents, etc. There is a premium for Educators on the ability to engage and develop trust with the humans with whom they work. It is not the case that expertise – and the accompanying credentials and experience – don’t matter in recalibration work. They very much matter, but they are not the primary concern. An Educator may not be an Expert in a particular area, but they must have at least a clear understanding of the external standards / calibration points that their client/student is attempting to align with. Their work however is not creating C/P/R relative to those external standards, but assisting their client/student in defining their internal standards and then navigating a way to meet both the internal and external standards. This individualized navigation, this helping to find the way to weave the objective and the subjective standards, is the essence of the value an Educator creates. I am fortunate to have a family doctor who serves for me as both Expert and as Educator. Over the 20 years I have worked with him, Dr. Flores has earned an enormous amount of trust with me and he is consistently able to balance the calibration points he has stewardship of in his role as medical Expert with my unique and personal physical experience and priorities.
Decalibration is the work of Artists. It is critical to note that by “Artist” I do not mean painters, musicians, writers, etc. I certainly include all of those in the concept of Artist but, for me, Artist – like Expert and Educator – is not a specific set of professions or mediums within which to work, but rather a way of engaging. I can engage with poetry as an Expert, as an Educator, or as an Artist. So too with biology, and cooking, and woodworking. In the work of Artists, i.e., in decalibration work, there is a premium on provocation. What is being provoked is expectation, the client / student / audience’s sense of “reality”. But, it must be done with elegance and in a way that isn’t experienced as psychologically violent - even though, by it’s nature, a decalibration is a kind of assault on one’s sense of psychological safety, one’s sense of ‘normal’.
Here’s an elegant, and yet intense, recent example. I very much encourage you to watch the full video (it’s only about 4 minutes).
Standup comedians are perhaps my favorite social decalibrators. Good comedy is funny. Good standup comedy is funny - and provocative. Bill Hicks, Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, Patrice O’Neal, George Carlin – all were incredibly funny...and incredibly dangerous to the accepted reality. What makes the work dangerous is that it plays with the accepted calibration points and underscores:
that all calibration is a choice and we can decalibrate any standard whenever we choose, and
that many social calibration points are specifically designed to serve the needs of institutionalized power – and that the institutionalization of that power further embeds the calibration point.
[Similarly, expertise has the effect of embedding calibration points in a way that further establishes the authority of that expertise – which then further embeds the calibration points that the expertise is grounded in. In other words, expertise and calibration points are mutually reinforcing and, over time, create the illusion of a fixed reality that becomes more and more difficult to decalibrate. When this happens, Artists’ work - decalibration - becomes ever more difficult..and ever more important. But this starts to get us into a whole different branch of the conversation so we’ll save it for Part 2 of this article. Which, if we’re being honest, I’ll likely never write.]
Which now brings us back to the beginning of this article:
Innovation itself is easy but the preparation, the work of decalibrating a human being who is carrying around a lifetime of internal calibration points – and external calibration points that have been internalized – is what takes time. That work is an artform. It requires something deeper than the trust required for Educators. It requires deep listening, a listening that goes beyond the bounds of any trust one can form through time and experience and transaction.
And it lends itself to the worst kinds of malpractice.
States of decalibration are incredibly vulnerable periods for human beings, ones in which they can be open to extreme manipulation. A cult can be thought of as nothing more than a group of individuals who have been fully decalibrated of previous standards and then calibrated to a single, uniform standard connected to a charismatic authority figure or ideology. It becomes critical then that decalibration / transformation work proceed from the deep psychological readiness of the recipient of the work and in no way from the inclinations of the practitioner. In fact, a responsible practitioner may repeatedly discourage or outright reject a candidate for this work as one of the means to gauge readiness.
Experts working on calibration, on Training performance to an external standard, require very minimal psychological readiness from the individuals they work with.
Educators working on recalibration, on Development of alignment between external and internal human calibration points, require some foundational level of psychological readiness from those they work with.
But Artists (in the way I’m using Artist in this article) working on decalibration, on the suspension of “reality” itself, must ensure that there is very deep readiness from the person or organization they are working with or they run the risk of inflicting psychological violence and/or creating “groupies”, individuals who calibrate themselves relative to the work of the Artist.
Which is where we are right now…
We are not in a ‘Great Resignation’, we are in a Great Decalibration. In almost every aspect of life, over the past 20 years most of the points of calibration that we have designed our lives against have collapsed, with the past 2 years being a very rapid acceleration of this experience of decalibration.
And I am concerned about the rise of large numbers of what amounts to cults in the coming decade.
The business cults driven by thought-leaders-in-waiting rushing into this period of decalibration to sell organizational and career security and certainty through a point-of-calibration model in their Forbes/Fast Company/HBR article and accompanying book and workshop series.
The political cults driven by dictators-in-waiting rushing into this period of decalibration to sell societal security and certainty through a point-of-calibration set of policies.
The money and tech cults driven by billionaires-in-waiting rushing into this period of decalibration to sell financial security and certainty through their point-of-calibration crypto-NFT-defi investment schemes and hustle-and-grind-and-grind-and-grind entrepreneur schemes.
All of this, and more, misses the nature of the space we are in and what it has to offer, and instead rushes into the construction of new certainties and associated calibration standards.
But to be decalibrated is to be freed of all points of reference, and thereby to glimpse the nature of existence absent external or internal standards. To see that…
Calibration to an external standard is only ever a ‘for now’ phenomena.
And Recalibration, while psychologically comforting, is ultimately a veil over the awareness that even your internal calibration points are, at best, only a ‘for this lifetime’ phenomena.
Perhaps you are not on a journey through life, which if you were, would imply the need for a clear destination and a reliable map and compass to navigate with.
Perhaps you are a unique, one-time journey that Life is on.
NOTE about the musical clip: The video in the second link of this article is of Headroom who, along with their sister band Mountain Movers, I can’t recommend highly enough. The clip is from a performance at The State House in 2019. Headroom’s bandcamp is HERE. Mountain Movers bandcamp is HERE. Buy their albums & merch and support independent music and independent artists and venues wherever and however you can!
Thank you. It touches me. I receive it in my beingness. Before reading "decalibration is the work of artists", what came to me was "decalibration is the work of creatives". many resonant touch points and what stays with me is (1) the clarity of naming those concepts (2) "decalibration - it must be done with elegance and in a way that isn’t experienced as psychologically violent" ... a powerful statement and nudge I receive myself in relation to "decalibrating" youth/young adults.
"the Great Decalibration" - Ah! Yes! the delicacy of these times.
ps: thank you A.M., Joan and Rebecca for choosing "ReCalibration" as the theme of February - it is very timely at both individual and collective levels.
thanks a.m. (+ ajar crew) for everything here that inspires me to think and grow…particularly for naming what I didn’t know I needed to hear…artist. despite my love for (social) science, I am a practitioner who has said “eh…it’s more art than science” more times than I can count…in my experience, when the trust is high, this is a powerful transitional point (a portal?) to getting somewhere more meaningful…alas, this artsy approach doesn’t lend itself to the tyranny of “best practices” or “work breakdown structures”…but I digress, happily 💭🙏🏻❤️✌🏻