Presentation By Werner Erhard At The Eranos Conference 2006, Ascona, Switzerland
18 June 2006
"While I was asked to speak about individual and social transformation, I will start by talking about knowing.
Think of the circle I have drawn here as containing all knowledge. The circle is divided into three sections. The first section of all knowledge is called, “What I know that I know.” We all know what to do with what we know that we know – we put it to use. The next section of all knowledge is called, “What I know that I don’t know.” Again, we all know what to do with what we know that we don’t know – we learn. Finally, there is this vast remaining section of all knowledge called, “What I don’t know that I don’t know.” What to do about what we don’t know that we don’t know is something of a dilemma. And, what we don’t know that we don’t know about human beings is an important question when it comes to individual and social transformation.
I am reminded of a physics paper entitled “Chaos” that I read some years ago about the discovery of the chaotic nature of certain physical phenomena, where a small input could result in a very large scale output, while a large scale input could result in a very small output. As I read the article it occurred to me that chaos theory certainly applied to human beings. For example, with very little said, a person might get massively upset, while years of training have very little impact on some people. Chaos theory was followed by complexity theory where, to oversimplify somewhat, the whole was not merely the sum of the parts, but the sum of the parts plus the interaction between the parts. Again, complexity certainly applies to human beings.
What we don’t know that we don’t know about human beings makes developing interventions intended to produce a transformation virtually impossible without gaining some access to what we don’t know that we don’t know.
This combination of the chaotic and complex nature of human beings by itself makes individual transformation a daunting task. Moreover, if you put two human beings together, that is a lot of chaos and complexity, and if you put a bunch of human beings together, it becomes a massive amount of chaos and complexity. And, this makes group and social transformation even more daunting than individual transformation.
So let’s start our endeavor to learn something about individual and social transformation with the question, “What is a human being?” To echo the speakers before me, this question requires a multitude of perspectives if we are to have any chance of gaining access to what it is to be a human being.
To start this endeavor, I ask you to imagine a row of three circles. In the left-hand circle put the word Be. In the centre circle, put the word Do. And in the right-hand circle, put the word Have. What is in these three circles is a harmonic of the cycle of existence in our universe, namely, come into existence, change and maintain, go out of existence, or more simply, start, change, stop. Some would say that there is a larger circle that encompasses all three of these circles.
What interests me most is the being circle, that is, the being aspect of being human. I want to discuss this, and to introduce the idea of being a human being with a quote from Martin Heidegger’s “On Time and Being.” He says, “Nowhere among things do we find being. Every thing has its time. But being is not a thing, is not in time. Yet being as presencing remains determined as presence by time, by what is temporal.” So I want to talk about this temporality of being for human beings, and to do so. I am going to tell you a cosmic joke.
If I tell a joke where a duck walks into a bar and asks, “Do you serve duck in here?” – because it is a joke, you don’t say, “Ducks don’t talk.” In telling this joke, I am going to say things that are unbelievable, but as I said, it is a joke so you suspend disbelief and take what I say as being so. By the way, it’s a cosmic joke, so it’s not funny, but the punch line is important. Like all cosmic jokes, it’s very simple so it only has four lines.
The first line of this cosmic joke is: “The past has nothing to do with who you are and how you act in the present.”
Remember, this is a joke, so suspend your disbelief of the statement and for the moment just accept, for the purpose of the joke, that the past has nothing to do with who you are and how you act in the present.
The second line of the joke is: “Who you are and how you act in the present is given by the future into which you are living.”
The third line of the joke is a question: Werner, how could that possibly be true? When I wake up in the morning and walk into the bathroom, I look in the mirror and say, “Who is that?” I know who it is. It is me, the one that I saw the night before when I brushed my teeth. It is obvious that at least a great deal of who we are is given by the past. So how could those first two lines of the joke possibly be true?
In order to get the punch line, you actually have to be asking that question. You can’t just be listening to me.
One of my claims to fame is that for five or six years I had the great privilege of being in conversation maybe two to four times a year with Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist. We did not speak much about physics, because I am whatever is below amateur as a physicist. We spoke more about ideas. What was great about talking with Richard Feynman was he let absolutely nothing go by him. It had to make sense to him; he had to understand it.
I took notes over the five or six years in which we had these conversations – a lot of notes. He took only one note, but my claim to fame is that when he died, that one note was still on his blackboard. I am going to tell you what that one note was. “There are certain things you can only know by creating them for yourself.” So the things I am sharing with you are not things I simply can hand over to you, but I can open up something for you to create for yourself.
This joke is like that. You have to be really asking the question: How could it possibly be true that the past has nothing to do with my being and action in the present? How could it possibly be true that my being and action in the present is given by the future into which I am living? So you are not just listening to me saying it, you are asking the question yourself.
The punch line is: If it is true that the future into which you are living gives you being and action in the present, and if one puts the past into the future, it will appear as though who I am in the present is given by the past.
But it will only appear that way. It is as though there is a two-drawer filing cabinet, and the bottom drawer is the past, and the top drawer is the future. If you file what belongs in the bottom drawer into the top drawer, you get a future that looks a lot like the past, because you have filed the past in the future. That is how it could be true that who I am in the present is not given by my past, that who I am in the present is given by the future into which I live. And it only looks like I get my being and action in the present from the past, because I filed the past in the wrong drawer.
This is like going into a store to buy a jacket. What I am sharing with you is like a jacket for you to try on. You put the jacket on, if it doesn’t fit, you leave it behind and leave the store. If what I am asking you to try on does not fit, then you are free to leave it behind. But if it does fit for you, it was your jacket in the first place, and I simply provided it.
I am asking you to try on the idea that your being and action in the present is given by the future into which you are living rather than coming from the past. It looks like it comes from the past because we tend to put the past into the future.
Remember, I am just asking you to try this on. I don’t even know if it is true. I do know that people who have been willing to try it on gained some access to themselves that they otherwise might not have. This is the cosmic joke.
I want to tell you exactly the same thing, but in a different way. I was working with Father Basil Pennington, a Cistercian priest and monk. I was doing a programme with him designed for people from various faiths who minister to others. In those discussions, what came up for a Baptist minister was that he felt that sometimes his emotions got in the way of his being able to be authentic and being able to act with some wisdom when he was working with people.
This made me think about the question of emotions. I have emotions, but at least at that time, I thought I did not have much to say about my emotions. They just happened to me, without being something I caused. So I got very interested in that. And I thought, actors get up on the stage, and if they are acting on the stage they are no good as actors. They have got to be not acting, when they are on the stage.
I have a friend, Sandy Robbins, who heads a highly respected school of theatre in the United States. So I said, “Sandy, let’s get some actors together and find out what it is with these people that they can choose to be this or choose to be that.” Because somehow when they are really good at their craft, they really be it, they don’t just pretend it or act it. So Sandy and I worked together with some professional actors and acting coaches for three years, and I really learned something. The idiom is fabulous, as a metaphor for life.
John van Praag and the other classicists here tell us that the ancient Greeks started this all the way back in their time, not as an entertainment but as an access to self in life. One of the things that we do in the programme Sandy and I developed is ask people for three days, rather than being themselves, to be someone else.
So if I were in the programme, I would not be Werner, I would be an actor playing this character called Werner in a three-act play called “Werner’s Life.” Some very interesting things then happen. Each of us plays the script perfectly. We never make a mistake, not one moment. I played my past absolutely as the script was written. I was the best Werner you could possibly be; people even thought I was Werner. So, in this three-act play, the first act is one’s past. The second act is the current era of my life – we will talk more about that in a minute – and the third act is the future.
Now, we all agree that the script for the first act is over. You can’t change the script for the first act. There are lots of things you can do with the past, but you cannot change the script, nor can you change who you were in the past. You might do some analysis that gives you some insight into the script of the first act that you weren’t aware of while you were playing it. You might come up with some different interpretations, but you cannot change who you were.
Now let us talk about the script for the second act, the current era of my life. I like to think that I am writing the script as I go along. Some of it is automatic, but I can really decide who I am in the current era of my life, and I can decide how my life is going to go.
But I would like you to look at something with me. In a three-act play, the script for the second act absolutely must bridge between the first act and the third act. The script for the current year of my life cannot violate what happened in the first act of my life. It does not mean it has to be the same. There can be a transformation in the second act. But whatever happens in the current era of my life has to be a bridge between the first act and the third act.
I would like you to consider the possibility that, at least to some degree, the script for the current era of your life is already written, and it is already written in the sense that it has to get you to the third act. It has to make sense when the third act opens and unfolds. We’ll talk about the third act in a moment. I want to stay with the second act now. If you think about it, the second act is already written. That is, the current era of my life, the kind of life I lead, is already even more determined than simply having to be a bridge. It has got to make sense when the third act unfolds.
Think about it for yourself. If your third act is one of world recognition as an artist, there are certain things that are going to have to happen in the second act for that third act to be able to be played. The second act has to be consistent with that third act. I’ll give you the extreme example. If in the third act you are a world famous ballerina, there cannot be an accident in the second act in which you lose your legs. Whatever happens in the second act has to have made sense, given the third act, even if the third act is discontinuous. Remember the script for the third act is already written. The third act is the future into which you are living.
So now you and I will have to discuss the future a little bit. There are all kinds of futures. There is a hoped-for future, there is a feared future, there is a predictable future, and there is an unimagined future. But I am talking about the future into which you happen to be living. I don’t know what that is, but with a little introspection you could probably tell me. And that is the script for the third act, the future into which you are living.
I want us to consider that there may be a great deal less choice about the current era of life. The current era, the second act, may be more a product of the script for the third act. It may be that the script for the third act gives me being and action in the second act, in the current era of my life. Remember, I am not talking of getting any access to the second or third acts yet, that comes later.
So this is a three-act play called “Whatever your name is, my life.” You are not who you thought you were, you are actually an actor playing your part. You have done a brilliant job in the first act. That act is over, it is your past, and you are in the middle of the second act. So far you have done very well, but the script for the second act is to a large extent already written because it has to be a bridge between the first and the third act. The second act has to make sense, given the script for the third act, it has to be somehow consistent.
This is a three-act play unlike any other three-act play in that you never get to play the third act. It is always the second act. That is really great news, because it means that I get to write the script for the third act of my life. Most people think the third act is a goal or a place I am going to reach. No, that is more part of the second act. I will never get to the third act, but I can create the future into which I am living.
So let us think about this future into which I am living. As I said, there are many different kinds of futures. Hoped for, feared, to be avoided, fanatic about, a pipe-dream future – all kinds of futures. These have very little to do with shaping the third act of my life, but they do shape the script for the current era of my life, the one I am actually living. So whatever I can do to give myself access to the future into which I am living allows me access to rewrite that future.
Here is an example of a future that is already there. When I was a child, about 12 years old, I was not a natural athlete and my friend, Kenny Clark, was. I decided then that I was going to be smart to compensate for never being able to be a natural athlete. So I devoted my life to learning. I gave up opportunities to earn more money in order to work for men and women from whom I thought I could really learn something.
Not one bit of that ever nurtured me, because it was a compensation for something I could never be. And the problem with compensating is that the better the compensation, the more you have of whatever it is you are compensating for. As the writer Eric Hoffer said, “You can never get enough of what you do not really want.”
I have no scholastic background, but I do have a very large background of interactions with people – maybe 40,000 people with whom I have had intimate interactions about what they deeply and profoundly cared about. And one of the things that I am sure about is that every one of us, in the process of growing up, decides there is something we can never be. And then we decide what we are going to be to compensate for what we can never be.
Part of my transformation was to recognise that I knew nothing, after 30-odd years of really trying to learn things in order to compensate for something. I knew nothing for itself. Everything I knew, I knew in order to be better – be a better human being, make more money, whatever. So I got that past out of my future, which left a hole in my future, a place from which I could create something that would give me being and action in the present, something that was fulfilling and nurturing to myself and to others. I am still working on it, but I have had some successes.
So I just wanted to leave you with this idea about the future into which you might be living. Whatever that future is, to the degree that the past is in there, the future is limited to doing it better, or doing more of it, or to doing it differently. The problem with doing it differently is that different means something before and after. If something is different, it is different from whatever came before; it carries whatever came before with it. I can find those things in my future, and I can find the life sentences – sentences like “You cannot trust anybody,” or “They will abandon me,” or “They will take advantage of me.” They are whatever life sentences we make up as children in moments of what is – for a child – real stress or threat. If you do everything to get those life sentences out of your future, you can create something.
What I found about the future into which I’m living is that if I take a really honest look at it – the future of my relationship with my children, the future of my work life, the future of my health and wellbeing, the future of any contribution I might make – sometimes it has dim or bleak spots. But if I can confront the future into which I am currently living and get a real handle on it, what frees me from that future is the recognition that I will survive in that future.
How could I possibly know that I can survive in a future that has not happened yet? Because it looks like the past, and here I am. I already survived the past, so if the future is going to be like the past, obviously I’m going to survive. I mean it won’t be wonderful like it should be. It won’t be nurturing and full of life and contribution and making a difference. But here I am. I survived without that.
That recognition has left me at peace with that future. I am no longer resisting it, no longer trying to fix it, no longer trying to change it. And in letting it be, it lets me be. Like anything I can grant being to, it lets me be. And in that space of being allowed to be, I can create a future that gives me a current era that is full of life with the exact same circumstances. When I create a new future for myself, my circumstances don’t change at all. They are still the same old circumstances, but they now exist in a new light.
Finally, I will leave you with a joke. This is a joke that illustrates something about the future. A man was giving a lecture about longevity. His thesis was that the more sex you had in your life, the longer you would live. He could tell he was not getting across to his audience, so he said, “Well, I want to illustrate what I am saying. Those people who have sex at least three or four times a week, stand up.” And they stood up and were beaming and happy and full of life. He told them to sit down and said “People who have sex once a week, please stand up.” And they stood up, somewhat dour, no life in their faces. Thinking that he had made his point, he was about to go on, when he saw all the way in the back of the auditorium, there was a little fellow who had beams of light coming out of his face. And he said, “Yes, how often do you have sex?” and the little guy stood up and said, “Only once a year – but tonight is the night!”
So it is the future into which you are living that gives you being and action in the present, even with your current circumstances.
Thank you very much."