Seeing Our Way to Thriving

The Critical Need for Embracing a Story of Aliveness

[Adapted from The Age of Thrivability: Vital Perspectives and Practices for a Better World]

We seem to be a planet on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Ecosystem degradation threatens the survival of our species (and extinguishes countless others on a daily basis). Poverty, violence and social tension persist tenaciously. And global economies are at their most vulnerable since the Great Depression.

The sustainability, corporate social responsibility and related movements have long been our best hope for pulling back from the brink and establishing new, vital practices and healthy patterns of living. And they do a tremendous amount of good. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that something more is needed. Too often mired in the incremental, those movements are not getting us where we need to go — not far enough, not fast enough. And they’re not satisfying a deep hunger that many of us harbor.

This is not to say that existing efforts need to be abandoned; they just need to be positioned within a larger context.

We need an expanded story to be able to see what else is possible beyond our current habits of thought and action.

The good news is that such an expanded story is readily available — and already spreading. In fact, there is abundant evidence that this emerging narrative is the natural and obvious next stage in human evolution.

At the heart of this story is an understanding of the core characteristics of thriving living systems — of what is needed for life to thrive. The story also recognizes those characteristics within our organizations, our communities, our economies — and, in fact, across all of human civilization. And with these insights, the expanded story ushers in a shift in the purpose of all our activities, toward what some are calling thrivability — the intention and practice of enabling life to thrive as fully as possible, at every level.

This emerging thrivability movement is more momentous than it may appear. Enabling life to thrive is not currently the explicit and primary intention in most spheres of human activity. Instead, we generally set our sights on lesser goals — and, as a result, we are getting something substantially less than thriving.

However, as we see how much “non-thriving” is happening in the world:

  • What if we explore what thriving would look like — and what it would require?
  • Given the rising popularity of organizational practices promising agility, resilience, emergence, self-organization — living systems concepts, all of them — what if we went to the root of these practices and deeply understood how living systems work? And what if that understanding were somehow simple and useful, opening up new insights and suggesting new ways forward?
  • As we recognize the patterns and characteristics of life within our organizations and communities, what if we made it our primary intention and goal to enable life to thrive within them as fully as possible?
  • Perhaps at the heart of it all, what if our most powerful role, both individually and collectively, is to act as stewards of life’s processes, actively cultivating the fertile conditions for life to thrive? And what if acting in accordance with this “prime directive” helped us achieve all of our other objectives more effectively?

These questions are at the heart of what some are calling “The Great Transition,” as humanity moves into a new worldview that is both more complete and more useful.

In fact, this so-called “new story” has always been available. After all, it’s the story of how life works — of how living systems create and sustain themselves. And if we know what to look for, we can find guidance from the simple set of patterns that’s common to every form of life, at any level of complexity. It’s present in sea sponges, ant colonies, rainforests and our bodies. It’s how our brains operate and how effective organizations function. It shapes our very consciousness. And it’s what has guided the evolution of our species over the ages. If a living system is to thrive, it must have a handful of characteristics described here and here and here. And if we are to be wise stewards, it is these conditions we must tend.

Even as this story is both simple and as old as life itself, though, our newfound awareness of it has the power to change everything, including what it means to be human, and alive, and at work in the world. This awareness can help us grasp a new logic that is at once radically revolutionary and timelessly true, bringing together people and planet into a single narrative, not in conflict with each other or even in awkward conciliation, but in natural alignment. It brings to light an ethos and a set of principles that — at long last — give us permission to do what really needs to be done, making it sensible to do what our hearts often know to be “the right thing” in our own lives, in our organizations, and in our communities.

When we truly acknowledge the life in and around us and our ability to create the conditions for life to thrive, new visions of reality become apparent: new possibilities, new goals, new priorities and new actions.

In embracing the perspectives this story of thrivability offers, we become more active and intentional participants in life’s process.

And along the way, we find a path to richer meaning, to greater compassion, to more effective collaboration, to healthy regeneration and renewal, and to more thriving, in all senses of the word.

Ultimately, if we are to navigate increasing complexity successfully… if we are to bridge the many fragmented approaches to sustainability and corporate social responsibility… if we are to solve the persistent problems of poverty, environmental degradation and conflict… and, indeed, if our species is to survive, it is precisely such an expanded lens and inspired approach that is needed.

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Michelle Holliday

Michelle Holliday

Maven, Guide, Strategist, Speaker. Author of The Age of Thrivability: Vital Perspectives & Practices for a Better World. www.michelleholliday.com