No One Is An Island: We Are Companions, Not Competitors

No One Is An Island: We Are Companions, Not Competitors

The following article includes an interview with MARGARET J. WHEATLEY who is recognized on five continents as one of the foremost management consultants in the world today. When she talks about unraveling organizational complexity, leaders from institutions as diverse as the U.S. Army and the Girl Scouts, Fortune 100 corporations and monasteries, listen with rapt attention. There is intelligence and power in her words; they make sense in today's market economy. There is also compassion, for she deeply understands the apprehension and helplessness many of today's leaders feel as they battle the fiscal gods that gnaw at the soul of twenty-first century industry. With unwavering devotion to nothing less than transforming the archaic practices that govern modern commerce, she gently urges us to actively engage in conversations that restore our sense of hope, to both look within and collaborate with others to heal our professional lives.

As President of Berkana Institute, a charitable scientific, educational and research foundation, Meg currently travels the globe sharing her ideas on how organizations can successfully grow and sustain themselves. She began her career as a teacher and administrator in the public schools, served in the Peace Corps in Korea, then went on to earn an M.A. in Communications and Systems Thinking from New York University and a doctorate in Administrations Planning and Social Policy from Harvard. She has been on the faculty at the Marriott School of Management at Brigham Young University and at Cambridge College, Massachusetts, served as a fellow of the World Business Academy, and been an advisor to the Fetzer Institute's Fellows Program. She is also the mother of two teenage sons and five stepchildren, and grandmother of thirteen grandchildren.

Meg's current work is actually the outgrowth of her life-long fascination with science and history. In 1992, her award-winning book, Leadership and the New Science was published. The book outlined a groundbreaking approach to healing organizational chaos, one that evolved out of her study of quantum physics, evolutionary biology, organic chemistry, and chaos theory. Anchored in the fundamental universal principles that govern the development of all life, she sees organizations as dynamic, living systems that can be nurtured by meaning and connection. Her ideas have won her the praise and respect of colleagues, leading-edge executives and entrepreneurs in every field of professional endeavor.

Meg's study of the new science has also led her into a deeper understanding of Spirit, an understanding that animates every aspect of her life and work. She is an ardent spiritual seeker with a profound reverence for life. Though she now practices Tibetan Buddhism, her exposure to a variety of spiritual traditions has, she feels, led her to an appreciation of the unity and order that lies just beneath the complexities of the modern world.

I first heard about Margaret J. Wheatley through a friend who praised her work with near religious fervor and urged me to read her book. I was knee-deep in my research for this book at the time, so I passed on his recommendation. A few weeks later, over the course of one weekend, he and two other friends spoke so earnestly about Meg's ideas that, this time, I decided to pay attention. It was then that I realized that what the Powers That Be were telling me through my friends was that Meg would he a wonderful person to talk with for this book.

I began dialoguing with Sarah Eames, Meg's devoted assistant, the next day. As it turned out, Meg Wheatley, world traveler, would "coincidentally" be in San Diego -- in my own backyard -- at an international management conference in three months. Sarah set up a meeting for the end of the conference and graciously arranged for me to attend Meg's keynote address so I could, in her words, "see Meg in action." This emotional generosity characterized every contact I had with Meg and her organization.

Three months fly by. I read Meg's books and prepare a list of questions to seed our upcoming conversation. On the morning of the keynote address, I have the thought to bring my taping gear with me on the off chance she is free to meet me that day. I stow my equipment in the trunk of my car, drive to the hotel where the conference is being held, and make my way through its tony corridors to a large meeting room teeming with executives. I slide into an empty seat in the back of the room just as the opening speaker begins his remarks. An artist stands with her back to the audience on a corner of the stage making "pictorial notes," drawing her impressions of the speaker's message. Music plays as we take part in "games" specifically designed to demonstrate the efficacy of managing complexity with our whole brain. Everyone sits in near child-like wonder when all these creative elements are masterfully tied to the hard core realities of modern business.

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Meeting Meg (Margaret J. Wheatley)

A tall woman with esteemed credentials steps up to the platform and introduces Meg. She speaks of her not just as an international management consultant but as a poet and a spiritual force. A thunderous round of applause precedes her as she takes the stage, a woman of middle years who, in stature, reminds me of an oak tree; in mind and heart, a mountain stream. She walks back and forth across the stage as she talks, the hem of her long earth-colored skirt flowing behind her -- running, actually, to keep up with her. She speaks slowly, deliberately, with no notes. Her words move from behind her mind as effortlessly as her breath flows in and out of her body.

She talks about how, in the midst of chaos, our greatest challenge is to believe in our own goodness; how we are all afraid of change; how, when fear augers in, leaders must demonstrate patience, forgiveness and compassion; how we must approach chaos with humility rather than blame and negation. "Would it not be helpful to know that everyone in the room here today is as confused and anxious as you are?" she asks. "Could we not ease our individual pain if we entered into the darkness of organizational life together?"

Meg recites a Gary Snyder poem that urges us to "go light," then presents an exercise which demonstrates the healing power of listening -- really listening -- to others. She closes her keynote with another poem by Mary Oliver. For a moment, I forget that I'm at a management conference. The room is still, almost meditative.

After a few minutes, I weave my way through the tables of serene executives to the speakers platform and introduce myself to Meg. She smiles as I extend my hand, then tells me how she tried to reach me earlier that morning to see if we could change our meeting to that afternoon. Her smile deepens as I tell her how I followed a last-minute intuition to bring along my recording gear. Our mutual surprise and gratitude at how well things work out is the entrée into what becomes an easy connection. We arrange to meet later that day.

I grab some lunch, review my notes, then ride the elevator to the designated hotel suite and set up my recording gear. A flurry of meetings and several phone calls later, Meg joins me for our conversation -- for what, unbeknownst to either of us, will become our first conversation. Half-way through the taping, I notice a problem with my recording equipment. I replay a section of the tape; it seems fine, so we continue on. I plan to listen to the tape on my way home. If something is wrong, I think to myself, perhaps Meg would be willing to meet me the next day as we had originally planned. As I leave the hotel, I pick up my phone messages and find out that my aunt has passed away. Days later, when I remember to check the tape, I discover that it is, in fact, defective. By that time, Meg has returned home to Provo, Utah.

At first, I'm horrified, then I laugh. I must approach this chaos and complexity with, as Meg counsels, humility. So I relinquish my consternation, my fear and my pride, and email Sarah to tell her what happened. "Can we work together to find a way to redo the interview?" I ask. "I will go wherever Meg is, whenever she is free." We finally decide that the best course is to do the second interview by phone six weeks later when Meg is home for Christmas.

I'm glad I've had the opportunity to be with Meg, to see her in person, as that connection helps me place myself in her presence when we talk on the phone. By the end of our conversation, I am again aware that I do not have to be with someone in order to "keep company" with them. I begin with an apology for any inconvenience this has caused her, and express my appreciation at her willingness to talk with me again. She laughs and tells me she thinks this happened because the Universe wanted her to say something she didn't cover in our first conversation. With that in mind, we begin.

Something that really intrigued me about her book is her description of the universe as an invisible web of interconnected relationships that are rich with meaning and order. Her choice of words is not unlike the language theologians use to talk about the unity of God consciousness.

The Interconnectedness of All Life

I ask her for her thoughts on the relationship between science and religion.

"One of the maxims I frequently use -- although I don't know whether it comes from Heisenberg or Einstein -- is 'We will never be able to use science to prove the existence of God because the science will change on you.' And because the experience of Consciousness is so intimate and personal, it can't he replicated or statistically measured in a laboratory environment. I'm increasingly clear in my own mind that I don't really want science to be capable of explaining the Sacred. Actually, I think the ways we access spirit are exactly what we need to incorporate into the scientific method to gain a greater understanding of life. I think it's wonderful that the new science can explain the interconnectedness of all life. but the way I help people understand these theories is to put them in touch with their own intuition so they can feel a sense of the Sacred -- the things science can't explain -- within their organization and within themselves."

When she spoke at the conference, I noticed her ability to take concepts like intuition and compassion and made them must needs to an audience I thought would be impervious to such things. That she does this with ease says a lot about her skill as a speaker. It also says a lot about the receptivity of her audience. I ask her if she thinks that there are universals to the experience of Consciousness, enough commonalties to form the basis for a "language" we can all respond to despite our individualized perceptions and beliefs.

"Oh definitely. If you read the mystical literature of all the great traditions, you find similar words to describe the inexplicable experience of being 'all' yet also being 'one.' I believe Consciousness is a universal experience, but one that can only be explained through highly individual experiences."

Because we each have an intimate relationship with our God?

"Right." she says emphatically.

How would you define God?

"I think about God in terms of the feelings I have in the presence of what I consider sacred or holy. Those feelings include true happiness -- joy is the right word -- a feeling of expansion, a sense of mystery. Beyond that, I think I'm a pretty sloppy theologian." She laughs.

"I also have an eclectic set of beliefs that somehow fit into my perception of God: I believe there is an Intelligence or Mind at work in the universe beyond our own being that guides us. I deeply believe in karma. And I believe we each have particular gifts that we are responsible to give back to the whole. Maybe, over time, these concepts will all come together in some organized theology but, right now, this works for me. I realize some of these beliefs are contradictory, but for people like myself who love questioning, contradictions are fodder for my curiosity. Without contradictions, I think we can become rigid fundamentalists and stop questioning."

I've often thought about conflict as an impetus for growth -- but never contradiction. Contradiction is more subtle, like the grain of sand inside the oyster shell, the irritation that eventually gives rise to the pearl. Meg seems to hold her contradictions lightly. She is strong and sensitive, deeply curious yet utterly at ease with not knowing. I'm interested in knowing more about her background, how she got to this point. Was she raised in a spiritual environment?

"I was raised in a Jewish-Christian home. My mother was Jewish but converted to Christianity when she married my father. I had a wonderful Jewish grandmother who was an active Zionist on the world stage. She wrote books and ran for Congress, all to help create the state of Israel. My father was English, a pagan at heart, a Shintoist in the sense that he believed all of Nature was alive and filled with Spirit.

"As a young adult, I lived in Korea for two years and was very drawn to Confucianism and Buddhism when I was there. During the '60's and '70's I got involved with some radical theologians in the Christian tradition. Then I became a serious student of The Course in Miracles. Several years later, I married a Mormon and practiced that theology for a while. About four years ago I discovered Tibetan Buddhism, which has transformed me deeply. It's now my primary spiritual practice.

"All this searching led me to understand that no one faith, no one discipline, no one job title or political party, or any box we put ourselves in, is big enough to hold all of who we are -- or hold what needs to be happening in the world through each of us today. I believe we're each here to bring together, to mend, the different strands of thought in every field -- spiritual and academic."

Did your study of the new science influence your thinking?

"It actually led me back to spiritual tradition, to explore Buddhism as well as theologies like Creation Spirituality and other new forms of joyful expression of what Spirit is. I saw -- through the eyes of biologists and physicists in particular -- that there was a deeply ordered universe, a primacy of relationships and a great, unstoppable creativity that characterizes this universe. Each of these concepts has been well explained in the spiritual traditions for millenniums.

"The horrors of the twentieth century have also influenced my thinking; they revealed a great deal to me about the indomitability of the human spirit. The Holocaust -- any of the genocides in this century -- have pushed the human spirit to the limit. And we have survived!"

Zainab Salbi's story of the Rwandan woman who adopted five orphans after losing her children in a church massacre is still fresh in my mind, and I share it with Meg. We talk for a while about this woman and others who, in the midst of atrocity, do not lose touch with what's important to them.

"I often tell stories like that," Meg says. "They're so important, particularly in this country where we believe people are capable of extending themselves to others or asking spiritual questions only after their primary needs for shelter, food and security are met. I don't believe this is true. We are capable of greatness and nobility and generosity all the time -- even in the midst of our greatest suffering."

In Leadership and the New Science, you describe a healthy organization as one that is able to adapt to the demands of the moment, is resilient and fluid, has order, partners with others, is open to various kinds of information even information which may ultimately be disturbing -- and also has a stability that comes from an ever-deepening center. I'm intrigued by how similar your description of a healthy organization is to the description of the self-actualizing individual.

"Yes it is, but I prefer the phrase 'ever-deepening identity' rather than 'self-actualization' because I think it better explains what's going on from a spiritual perspective. What gives us power, what gives us the ability to go on to such horrific circumstances, is a deep centeredness. It doesn't matter if we're talking about an individual, an organization or a nation. If we have a sense of that place within us where we know and trust ourselves, a place that's clear about what we stand for and what's important to our life, where there's always a feeling of peace, then we can withstand the enormous shifts going on around us and know what action is appropriate to take. We're not reacting in the moment or feeling like a victim of circumstance.

"It would be nice if organizations as well as people had this deepening center. I have to say that, in the years since I wrote those words, organizations have less opportunity to even notice what they might like to stand for because our culture has shifted more of its attention to making money and going fast, not to thinking about centeredness. The capitalistic values we're organizing around right now make it possible to create a company whose only requirements are to return a lot of money to its shareholders and look good for the quarter. There's no thought about long-term development. The financial pressures are wreaking absolute havoc on any leader's ability to create an organization that thinks about its people."

Why People Are Miserable in their Jobs

Which may be why so many people are miserable in their jobs or leaving to create their own companies.

"Exactly. I do think that, from a higher level, what we're seeing in the world now is the end of a very destructive thought form: one that champions greed, competition. Individualism and the manipulation of the world or world resources for the advantage of the few. This is not how the world works! I also believe we're entering a period where we're questioning the ultimate value and meaning of this kind of behavior. People are asking themselves: 'What is this all for? "Why am I working longer and harder? "Why am I more stressed?' `Why can't I sleep at night? "Why are my children falling away from me? ''Why don't I even know my neighbors?' These concerns are starting to percolate in our consciousness. Destruction is painful, but questioning is good. We must question the old so the new can be born."

Do you think meaning arises out of pain?

"I think meaning comes from realizing that we're scrambling faster and faster for something that then reveals itself to be meaningless -- like sacrificing everything in order to give your children a high standard of living, then losing your marriage or your connection to your family because you don't have the time to talk to your partner or like realizing that no matter how you work for a company, they're just as likely to fire you as not. What's going on inside our largest organizations today is completely insane. I believe that meaning arises when we make time for relationships within our homes and organizations, when we develop community, when we treat others well and when we stay in touch with our own center."

How do you create meaning in your life?

"By doing work I feel is given to me by Spirit to do, by doing work that life has given me to do, work that has a deep spiritual rootedness, that can reverse the insanity in the world. My work is about rallying people around the globe so they can re-institute or recreate organizations that are sane and habitable, that make sense, that are organized around life-affirming values rather than profit.

"But having a spiritual practice nourishes me more than anything else I do. I've been meditating for many years. It keeps me grounded during the day. Now I can call forth the meditative state in meetings -- just sit back for a minute, and there I am. Daily meditation, working with mantras and repetitive prayers, practicing mindfulness in every waking hour -- these are the things that make it possible for me to feel peaceful in the midst of all this craziness."

She pauses for a moment, then says, "Like most human beings, even though I realize how much I gain from daily spiritual practice, there are times when I completely let it go. It's only when I begin to notice that I don't feel peaceful, that I get angry at silly things or 'lose it' more often, that I return to my daily practice. Sometimes it's hard to stay with it even when you know how wonderful it is. I once talked with some Buddhist monks about it and they told me that they experience the same thing. I think this ebb and flow is part of the spiritual journey."

You mentioned that you work with mantras and repetitive prayers. Do you have a favorite that helps you get back in touch when you feel that disconnect?

"They change depending on what I'm studying or working on. One of my consistent favorites is from The Course in Miracles: 'Teach only love, for that is what you are.' I have said this to myself many many times, especially when I'm in a difficult situation with another person. Another one that I've relied on for years is 'Please God, let me see this through Your eyes'. Even though I don't necessarily believe in a God that has a human form, saying this opens me up to a whole other perspective about the situation I'm facing, a much larger perspective. I've used these thoughts when I begin to feel myself getting angry with my kids as well as in the middle of a business meeting. Each takes only a few seconds to say, and each completely shifts the dynamics of the situation for me."

There are relationships I'm tending, where seeing through Divine eyes would serve me well. Like many women, relationships forge a huge reservoir of meaning in my life. How well we mother or partner or care for another -- or are cared for by others -- can have a powerful hold on our self-definition. Do you find this to be true?

"Yes, but I think it goes even deeper than that. One of the insights I've gained from studying quantum physics is that nothing exists as an independent entity, devoid of relationship with something or someone else. Relationship is not necessarily with another person. We can be 'in relationship' with an idea, a tree, with God, with anything. Whatever the relationship, it calls you out of yourself and, in some way, evokes more of what's inside you."

Because it mirrors some aspect of your self.

"Because being in relationship with the other demands that you contribute a part of yourself to create something entirely new. When two energies or elements combine, they form a new perception or entity. A rose is something we see as a consequence of every other element in the universe. If there weren't sunlight, if there weren't dirt or water or evolution, the rose wouldn't exist. If you take away any one element in that relational process, you destroy the possibility that there would ever be a rose. Everything exists because of everything else in the universe. Buddhism calls this 'dependent co-arising.'

So our relationship with everything in the universe contributes to who we are; we are what we are because everything else is what it is.

"Yes. This is one of the ways Buddhism explains the interconnectedness of all life. We really wouldn't be here except for the fact that everything else is here."

Then it follows that our relationships not only define who we are, they sustain us and are integral to our very existence.

"Yes. Once you start thinking about this," Meg explains "it makes perfect sense. When you contrast this understanding to the way we experience life -- particularly in America where we champion rugged individualists who don't need anybody else -- it's easy to see how insane our current cutthroat business practices are. None of us are truly self-sufficient. Even if you're a hermit living in a cave, you're still dependent on the elements, on the plants and the animals."

Relationship Quality Provinding Meaning in Our Lives

Is it the relationship or the quality of relationship that creates meaning in our lives?

"In every relationship, we have a choice: to choose love or separation, to choose for love or to choose for hate or fear. If we get into self-protectiveness and believe others are out to harm us, we flee from them or we erect a barrier between us and them because we think this will guarantee our survival. In truth, we are all diminished by these acts."

And enhanced by how receptive and loving we are.

"Absolutely," she says.

In the weeks to come. I revisit this idea of dependent co-arising frequently. It's food for thought. Haute cuisine, actually. It makes me feel like I'm part of something big, that I belong to the whole world. I understand my responsibility to others more deeply: to create quality relationships with everything in my environment so that more quality, more Love, is present in the world. What evolves from these kinds of relationships is a sort of Divine Reciprocity, a giving and receiving of the best and highest of one's Self and of others, an interrelationship that eventually becomes an expression of Omnipresence, an actual partnership with God.

Sitting there listening to Meg on the other end of the telephone, I make a different connection: I realize that relationship must also factor in to the answers to questions like: "Who am I?" "Why am I here?" "Who can show me the way?" I ask Meg how she would answer these questions.

"About ten years ago, I was making some notes for a speech, and I found myself writing three questions on a piece of paper. The first question was 'Who are we?' The second was 'Who is God?' And the third was 'How does the universe work?' I couldn't answer them then and I can't answer them now, but over the years, they keep presenting themselves to me as the questions I need to keep reflecting on as part of my spiritual journey.

"What I do know is that each of us is an eternal being. And that our natural expression is Love. Any other expression we find ourselves in is just a warp of our true identity. I believe in reincarnation, that we keep coming back until we 'wake up' to the awareness of who we really are. And that 'waking up' is enlightenment -- what I view to be the purpose of life."

She pauses for a moment, then says, "One of the great things I learned from Tibetan Buddhism is that we pursue enlightenment not for ourselves, but so we can help others wake up, help others move beyond their suffering and difficulty. This value is quite different than what we have here in our culture where we think mostly in terms of 'I'm better than you are' or 'I'm going to be enlightened before you are.'

It's that competitive thing.

"Yes. There's a great, great Buddhist practice of praying that others will wake up before you do. Boy! Does this ever change your relationship with the people who are bugging you! You begin to ask, 'What can I do that will help them?' It's a very powerful meditation.'

How would you answer the question "Who can show me the way?"

"Well, once you think about being here so that others might wake up, you realize that, through the ages, there have been great ones, awakened spiritual ones, who are here to help the rest of us wake up. These great beings are available as our teachers."

Great ones from all traditions?

"Yes. I believe that at their level, their teaching is one universally-rooted thought. I rely on teachers from many traditions, whether they're in form or in Consciousness."

Are they your mentors?

"Mentoring just doesn't capture it. I frame what I get from them more in terms of absolute guidance based on their experience achieving what they want all of us to achieve. They are my spiritual teachers. They can sometimes be quite harsh, tricksters who will pull the rug out from under you, but their motive is always to prod you a little, to help you grow. Once you understand this, you can tolerate their trickery."

Recently, your professional direction shifted and you've begun to focus more on conversation as a tool to help people discover what they really care about. What motivated the shift?

"I think people need more time to just think, to explore what's meaningful to us, to connect with others. It's really missing in our culture today and we're all so hungry for it! When I share my stories, something meaningful occurs for everyone involved. Closer relationships, new ideas, the courage to take action in the midst of challenge -- all this arises when we sit face to face with other human beings and talk as equals. I believe that conversation is a gift we can give each other."

You once wrote, "I crave companions, not competitors, who will sail with me through this puzzling and frightening world." With whom do you sail? With whom do you share your spiritual life?

"I once wanted to be part of a spiritual community, but I actually don't need that any longer. I have certain books I work with and rely on, books I can randomly open and find helpful guidance on the page before me. And I have a few very close friends I talk with. Whenever we talk, whatever we talk about, it's natural for us to put things into a spiritual perspective. We don't all have the same spiritual framework, but that's OK. Diversity is important. It's a lot more fun to explore issues from multiple perspectives. If I stay curious and disengage from my own certainty about what I think a friend should be doing, if I don't judge her, if I hold to the goal of not needing to know what's going on, if I just keep exploring the mystery with her and let that mystery unfold, I eventually get to a place where I see that there are a lot of different ways to look at any one situation."

The Challenge of Living in the Moment

Has it been a challenge for you to learn how to live like this, to participate in things as they unfold to live more "in the moment"?

"It's become less of a challenge and more of an adventure. It took a few years to feel comfortable with not knowing because our culture rewards us for what we know. It's so much more fun when I let go, when I'm willing to be surprised rather than needing to be confirmed in my preconceived ideas of what should be."

That sounds like a good definition of faith.

"That's part of it," she responds thoughtfully. "Another part is believing in Spirit -- and believing that part of the surprise is that Spirit doesn't always work the way you think It should."

The truth behind her words makes us both laugh.

I really like this idea, I say, of being willing to be surprised. The sense of adventure it engenders is a good way to diffuse the symptoms of approaching chaos: the mental blurring, the teeth gnashing and nail biting, the mix master that churns the gut. You once defined chaos as "a system standing at a cross-roads between death and transformation." It's a wonderful description of what's really going on, one that also sounds a lot like what's referred to in the mystical literature as a "dark night of the soul."

"Yes, it's exactly the same thing. One is science and the other is spiritual tradition."

Have you ever had this experience and, if so, how did you make it through?

"'Dark nights of the soul' are something I'm prepared for now because I realize that they are part of the process of my being born into a whole new way of looking at something, a new way of being in the world. I can't change, I can't transform in the ways I want to if I'm not willing to walk through those dark passages. Growth and newness are only available on the other side of chaos.

"We're living in a time, both in science and in spirituality, when the old ways simply can't give us what we need to live the rest of our lives. Things change, and part of change is that our obsolete ways of doing things must fall away. Not knowing what anything means, not remembering why you're even alive or why you thought you could accomplish something or why you thought something was of value is a terrible state to be in! You lose all touch with Spirit and feel devastated and alone. It's not that you're abandoned -- although you feel abandoned -- it's just that you're moving into a different relationship with the Sacred. As one of my spiritual counselors, a Benedictine nun, once said to me, 'The reason you can't see God when you're feeling like this is because God is standing very close to you.'

"I still experience these dark periods about every three or four months," Meg confides, "but instead of lasting for a month, they last a few days. When one occurs, I just let it happen. I don't try to figure my way out or drink my way out or talk my way out. I just sit with it; I let it move through me. I understand it's preparing me for what will come next -- and that 'next' is always more healthy and peaceful and grounded."

Is this what you referred to in your book as "the necessary heart of chaos"? Did you mean that chaos is loving and nurturing or that it's a core element of transformation?

She takes a few seconds to think about this. "I think I meant 'core,' but both interpretations are interesting. To see chaos as having a heart, as a loving process, is really foreign to our culture. It's a concept that's much more common to indigenous people who often go through rigorous initiation rites to die to the old and awaken to the new. In those instances, chaos is seen as being pivotal to the growth process. But when you're trying to control the world as we are here in the West, trying to use life for your own ends rather than participate in it, you end up thinking of chaos as your enemy.

"Chaos can release your creative power in the same way that necessity is the mother of invention. When things get extreme, when the old ways don't work, that's when you are your most inventive. If you want to grow, chaos is an indispensable part of the process. There's no way around that. As the world or your life changes, you have to give up the behaviors, habits, relationships and ideas that no longer help you make sense of the world around you. It's an enormous letting go.

"These days, everyone is scrambling to hold on to an old form of doing business based on hierarchy and prediction that no longer works in our rapidly changing world. If we spend our time trying to shore up institutional forms that aren't right for the future, we contribute to the creation of the meaninglessness we were talking about earlier. As soon as we identify that what's going on is a necessary precursor to new growth, that it's not anyone's fault, people actually relax because they realize they no longer have to figure out how to fix what's broken. They start to get engaged with thinking about what's next or what's new. This can be very creative and exciting for everyone."

That said, is there anything in your life you would have done differently?

"Well, I think my answer is no. Actually, I love my life right now. I would have handled my divorce a little differently, in terms of my children, although it was a very honorable, loving divorce. But I'm not in a state of regret about anything, and I certainly believe that whatever situation I'm in affords me the opportunity to learn a lot, no matter how messy it is. I don't believe learning is necessarily dependent on any one particular experience though. Learning is always available. We decide what the learning is, and the learning changes as we grow and change."

What do you think is your greatest accomplishment?

"I have a deep faith -- in human capacity, in life and life's processes and I have a very deep faith in God."

What advice would you give to others?

"I don't like to give nameless, faceless advice. I do ask people to notice what attracts their attention, what's meaningful to them, and recommend they stay with that, whatever it is. I believe that's one of the ways Spirit speaks to us. What gets your attention is different than what gets mine, but I have great faith that the things that get to each of us are ours, are what we're supposed to notice. If we pay attention to them, they will greatly assist us on our journey."

When all is said and done, how would you like to be remembered?

In a heartbeat, she says, "On a good day, like today, I have no need to be remembered."

Her words explode across the telephone like fireworks in a Fourth of July sky. All that comes out of my mouth is a resounding "Wow!" She laughs. She is as dazzled by her reply as I am. We each digest the import of her words in silence, then break the silence with laughter. My mind returns to her comment at the beginning of our conversation about how she thinks our second go-round occurred because the Universe wanted her to say something she didn't address in our first conversation. Perhaps, this was what the Universe was waiting for.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
In Sweet Company. ©2002. www.InSweetCompany

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In Sweet Company: Conversations with Extraordinary Women about Living a Spiritual Life
by Margaret Wolff.

In Sweet CompanyA compelling collection of intimate conversations with 14 remarkable women from diverse backgrounds and occupations, each with a spiritual life that nourishes them and serves as a dependable compass for their decision-making. Each chapter tells the story of one woman's inner development in her own words, and the social, emotional and professional fulfillment her spiritual commitment provides her.

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About the Authors

Margaret Wolff, M.A.

Margaret Wolff, M.A, is a journalist, storyteller and trainer whose work celebrates women's growth and development. She has degrees in Art Therapy, Psychosynthesis, and Leadership and Human Behavior. Her 25-year career includes writing for numerous national and international publications, and designing and facilitating over 250 workshops, retreats and education programs.

Margaret J. Wheatley (Meg Wheatley) Margaret J. Wheatley (Meg Wheatley) received her M.A. in systems thinking from New York University and her doctorate from Harvard University. During the 1960s, Wheatley served in the Peace Corps in Korea for two years while teaching high school English. Her practice as an organizational consultant and researcher began in 1973. She has worked on every inhabited continent in "virtually every type of organization" and considers herself a global citizen. Since then she has been Associate Professor of Management at the Marriott School of Management, Brigham Young University, and Cambridge College, Massachusetts, and served as a professor of management in two graduate programs. She is president of the Berkana Institute, a global charitable leadership foundation. Meg Wheatley has received many awards and honorary doctorates. The American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) has named her one of five living legends. In May 2003, ASTD awarded her their highest honor: "Distinguished Contribution to Workplace Learning and Performance." Visit her website at

Book by Margaret J. Wheatley:

Who Do We Choose To Be?: Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity
by Margaret J. Wheatley

Who Do We Choose To Be?: Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity by Margaret J. WheatleyThis book is born of my desire to summon us to be leaders for this time as things fall apart, to reclaim leadership as a noble profession that creates possibility and humaneness in the midst of increasing fear and turmoil. And I have studied enough history to know that such leaders always arise when they are most needed. Now it's our turn.

Info/Order this book on Amazon. Also available as a Kindle edition, an Audiobook, and an AudioCD.

More Books by Margaret J. Wheatley

Video: Margaret Wheatley l Islands of Sanity


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