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My writing drives some people crazy because I make big jumps from one topic to another. One minute I’m talking romance, the next I’m talking the origins of life. I aim to edit for smooth transitions but there’s a bigger problem than prose styling.

I’ve invested decades in research that trains my mind to follow abstract patterns. I’m doing what the anthropologist Gregory Bateson described as solving for patterns. The details become background; the abstract patterns become foreground. In this article for example, I’ll make a connection between love, unemployment, genetics and our changing attitudes about God. Some readers will think I’m comparing apples to oranges to shoelaces but there is method to my madness or at least my colleagues and I think so. You decide for yourself.

Abstraction has a bad reputation. I remember once early in this work I described it to a real estate developer friend. He said “sounds very abstract” and I assumed he was being critical. He said no, he meant it positively because “there’s nothing so practical as a good abstraction.”

Pursuit of practical abstractions has a long history. Take the 2,500 year old Tao Te Ching, which Alan Watts once described as an attempt “to know the patterns, structures, and trends of human and natural affairs so well that one uses the least amount of energy dealing with them.” In other words, if you recognize patterns with greater accuracy, you make fewer mistakes, which frees you to enjoy life more.

Solving for pattern is itself enjoyable. Familiarity with the abstract patterns can make your life more like art, a microcosm for the cosmic. Art exposes the abstract patterns that show up across arenas. Think of the way we savor the calligraphy of music or the metaphors in poetry and fiction. They satisfy a natural human desire for what I’ll call pattern sensuality.

As a pattern sensualist cultivating pattern fluency, I get to read my life like good fiction. No matter whether I’m winning or losing, hurting or happy, I’m always harvesting abstract insights into the patterns and structures of human and natural affairs.

A friend claims I saved her career once by drawing cosmic parallels. She’s an intellectual property lawyer and about ten years ago was thinking about quitting because the work was so dry and soulless. I laid out the ways her work addressed one of the meatiest toughest judgment calls in all of life, the question of when to be open. I drew parallels between her work and central themes in evolutionary biology, romance, politics, friendship and warfare. The conversation inspired her. She thanks me to this day.

Indeed, here’s a Christmas gift offer from me to you. If you find yourself feeling flat about your career, I’d do the same for you. Just respond here with a short description of your work and I’ll write you back something about its relevance to profound abstract patterns. I’ve long wanted to write a series of books on the meaning of life as revealed through different career paths. Accounting as a source of general wisdom–that sort of thing.

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup



Still, I don’t let my friend’s gratitude go to my head. That’s because of the pattern I want to talk about today. My cosmic re-description of her law work may have helped her stick with it for a few months at most, but I’ve watched her over the years and her commitment is less about the meaning of her work than the immediate incentive structure built into her daily interactions. People expect things of her that she succesfully delivers. She is like a reciprocating engine. She produces; clients demand more; she produces; clients demand more. She may occasionally wake up to doubts about her work, but by the time she gets to work, she’s just in it. As with all of us her self-motivation is less a product of cosmic patterns and purpose than of her inbox and outbox.

We’re creatures of habits–habits reinforced by what people expect of us and how they perceive us. Others’ expectations become the compelling do’s and don’ts that drive us. Our jobs may feel like straight jackets sometimes but they’re also the cylinders that make us effective pistons. They constrain us into specific focused vectors of motive force. Without them we go all floppy.

The paradox of self-motivation is that its largely externally generated. You might notice this on Christmas vacation. Many of us feel our self-image and self-motivation go a little floppy without the daily grind holding us in. We might love getting floppy for a few weeks, but not if the our external structure disappeared forever. Too much freedom can be a fearsome thing.

A few weeks ago I posted an article about unemployment and relationship breakups and their effects on self-motivation. A few weeks later I posted one connecting the first article to Lazy Gene Theory, an important concept in evolutionary biology. The abstract pattern in both was that what your environment does for you, you’ll tend to stop doing for yourself.

We used to have genes that enabled us to produce our own vitamin C. When we encountered fruit 35 million years ago, that gene was no longer necessary. No longer under selective pressure to be maintained, it went all floppy or “lazy,” becoming junk DNA and as a result we became dependent, in fact addicted to an external source of vitamin C (apples and oranges, but not shoelaces), without which we get scurvy.

Similarly, we may be able to motivate ourselves early on in our careers, but once our careers take off, the selective pressure of external expectations is motivation enough. Self-motivation can atrophe and we get addicted to the do’s and don’ts of the workaday world.

Today, across America, coffee shops are filled with unemployed people frantically checking their e-mail every few minutes. Sure they’re lonely but they’re also cold turkeying off the inbox and outbox reinforcement of people expecting things from them. They’re looking for both company and structure, and often don’t know what to do with themselves without it.

There’s a wild abstract parallel for you: from scurvy to email checking in coffee shops. In both cases it’s the effect of losing access to something external upon which one has come to depend. The parallel is even stronger than that. Vitamin C protects cells from degenerating. Employment protects minds from degenerating.

And now the connection to theology:

Mystery has supplied much of God’s credibility. There have been huge gaps in what humans could explain and God filled those gaps. If we didn’t understand how something happened we could say “God does it.” Since we knew Him primarily through mystery, He was mysterious. It was argued that he was beyond us to understand.

There have been a few mystical traditions (The Tao being one) that have left God mysterious, but religions, feeding human needs for external self-motivation have generally tended to ascribe to this omnipotent Being all sorts of opinions about what we should do. They’ve tended to say “He is and will always be a mystery. No one can tell you what He’s like…and now let me now tell you all about what He’s like, and in particular what He likes and doesn’t like.”

As a result God has become an external source of self-motivation. According to a 2005 poll, 85% of Americans who believe in heaven also believe they will be going there. In other words, these people believe that the God about which we can know so little nonetheless endorses what they’re are doing. God is the lord, our Master Employer.

The last few centuries have been very hard on this God of the gaps. The gaps are being filled with scientific explanations. As the gaps shrink it threatens not just God’s credibility but his mandate. It’s as though the Lord to which many of us have been employed, may not be able to fill our in-boxes or compensate us for our work. The existentialists saw this coming and most argued that we would have to just get over God and come up with our own do-it-yourself God-given mandates. But there are many fundamentalists today who understandably see a disappearing God of the Gaps as a major threat–a threat so great that they are willing to try to halt or co-opt science, or go to war to protect themselves from this loss.

The abstract patterns can also breed compassion. Though I don’t share the fundamentalist response, the impulse that motivates it is probably one we all share in common. We all need signs from God, either directly or through his minions–our employers and our beloveds–daily external expectations that keep us productive, self-motivated and regenerating. When we lose them, when God is declared dead, when our employers fire us, when our beloveds move on, we must scramble to keep from going all floppy.

There you have it: Lazy gene theory as an abstract pattern that connects Starbucks e-mail checking, with scurvy, with existentialist responses to the God of the shrinking gaps. I’ll end with quotes from a Chicago Tribune column this week by Suzanne Merkelson, an existential-sounding student from the class of 2009 talking about the shrinking gaps in the labor market:

“My classmates and I are told our job prospects are limited…but I don’t buy into this gloomy scenario. My generation actually is lucky, because we’ve had to let go of “supposed to find the amazing entry-level position on the career stairway to heaven.” We were supposed to be financially independent straight out of school. Instead we’re holding down three part-time jobs to make rent, and considering whether to volunteer with AmeriCorps, take up organic farming, or teach English in China. With no clear path before us, we “can get away with pretty much anything right now.” For us, the forbidding job market isn’t a dead end but an opportunity. “We’ll find our way out of this messy maze.”