Sit down with Theo Edmonds of Imaginator Academy
Molineaux is the former co-publisher of The Fulcrum and president/CEO of the Bridge Alliance Education Fund.
In early September 2023, Debilyn attended a “Gathering at the Intersection of Wellbeing and Social Change” which hosted 150 social change agents from North America. It was a regional summit, part of a global transformational voyage that strengthens our individual and collective wellbeing – and ripples out into the world. This is the second in a series of interviews that originated at the Wellbeing Summit.
Debilyn Molineaux (DM): We met at the Wellbeing Summit, co-hosted by The Omega Institute and Harlem Wellness Center. When I heard you speak, my ears perked up when I heard you say that spending five minutes a day in awe and wonder about our future, that reality starts to unfold in that direction. I’m paraphrasing, obviously. As I share this, everyone wants to know more about that research.
Theo Edmonds (TE): That’s related to the research of Dr. Keltner and awe. There’s an article that outlines the research and links to it in Inc. It’s called Neuroscience Explains Why 5 Minutes of Awe Each Day Makes You a Better Leader; Awe can help you collaborate better, become more creative, and make better decisions.
DM: Thank you! Now, what is a culture futurist?
TE: A culture futurist locates the infinite in the present. What does that mean? Well there is a poetry definition, a scientific definition, even a business definition, etc. What we mean by that in poetry, informed by John Donohue, says several things that are meaningful to me. One is he talks about the in-between spaces. In-between notes in a song, in-between words in a poem. It is those in-between spaces that give resonance and meaning to the words or to the notes. Without those spaces, the same resonance is not there. So what is in those in-between spaces matters. In the western world, especially in the U.S., we reward people for confidence and solutions and those in-between open up a breath and scope, of problem construction, of interpretation, an expansion of thinking. So as we think about solving things in the future, these grand challenges, it is those spaces in-between that offer us an opportunity to navigate differently.
DM: Could you add a more pragmatic example?
TE: If you put this into the indigenous tradition of seven generations, what we are experiencing today was placed in motion three generations before. And we are responsible in the moment for our actions, that will benefit three generations after us. From a poetic standpoint, from a cultural anthropologist point of view, that’s what we are talking about by locating the infinite in the present. We have only constructed one version of ourselves, but that is not all we are. We should not let ourselves be trapped.
From a more scientific standpoint, creativity is something we talk about as a magical thing. Creativity has two components. Is an idea novel and does it have value? Creativity requires that you come up with a novel idea and also evaluate it in terms of how it creates value. If the idea doesn’t go on to live in the world and create with others, it has value only to the individual but not culture. We are social beings and it is in groups where our creativity and our genius is most valuable.
We equate genius as unique to an individual – but I like to think of it in terms of a group’s collective success of holding the creative tension that comes along with wonder, that allows them to get to a better question. In the western world, we don’t like that creative tension. We train people to identify strengths and play to them. We encourage tension-free environments. We’ve allowed ourselves to atrophy, creatively. We focus so much on problem solving, we don’t spend enough time on problem construction. And often, we solve for the tension instead of the problem itself, which leads to small solutions that don’t adequately address the grand challenges. Looking to the future, the World Economic Forum has identified the top five future skill sets. They are:
- Analytical thinking
- Creative thinking
- Self awareness
We (ed: the U.S.) keep defaulting to logic, because it’s a defined linear process and we don’t like all the “feels” (ed: emotions) that come into the process. We highlight STEM, but it’s incomplete because humans are not linear, logical beings.
DM: We have a lot of “feels” as humans.
TE: What makes us distinctly human, is our ability to wonder. We can wonder about things big or small, which is the spectrum between awe and curiosity. Awe is a broad awareness, like the starry night. Curiosity is very focused on a specific thing, like a bee on a flower. If we are too focused on awe, we get spacey or ungrounded. If we focus too much on one thing, we lose sight of the bigger picture in life.
DM: All my various training in coaching, leadership and Buddhism points to this need for us human beings to hold the tension between broad awareness of the big picture and yet still focus on the object or project right in front of us. At Omega, you said something about our imagination plus what earth provides us is how we build futures. Within the pro-democracy field, we spend a lot of time thinking about pro-democracy futures and how we get there. Do you have any advice for us?
TE: Context matters, so let me set the context for that comment. It is a sentiment from George Sparks, current Chair of the Denver Chamber of Commerce, and he is also the CEO of Denver Nature & Science Museum. At the Chamber meeting last year, I’ll paraphrase what he said. He told us a story about a brass plate with a number on it. It was George’s grandfather’s miner tag in West Virginia. The tags were placed on hooks when miners went into the mine, so if there was an accident, they would know who was missing. And yes, his grandfather was lost in a mining accident. Soon after he was lost, his grandmother was asked to move out of their home, as it was needed for the family of the newly hired replacement. He continued talking, telling our nation’s history over the subsequent 60 or so years, touching back to his family’s experience. So it was an expansive story, converging to the impact on his family. The expanse, the convergence. Towards the end of his talk he said, you know, everything that we know, as a company, as a nation, as a war, comes from two things. The things we have pulled from the earth, and human imagination. There is nothing else. Both of those things are stardust. It’s important to understand there’s a relationship between all things.
That talk set my mind on fire. Why are we so scared of human imagination? There’s a fear response that is happening on the imagination side. We don’t look at the earth's resource side as if we are related; in a way that is most beneficial to us. Beyond individual imagination, I believe as a nation, we are perilously close to losing our collective sense of wonder. Imagination is what has created our nation! For all of the good, the bad and the ugly, and there is a lot of that, we are a nation that is founded on wonder. If we move away from that, we move away from the thing that tethers us to our shared purpose. That’s a big deal to me.
DM: Me too.
TE: I spent time in radical awe in the labyrinth at Omega. Two things occurred to me. I could see the middle of the labyrinth as I walked in. I noticed a weed between the rocks, that small flower, the curiosity of why this rock or that flower. Then this idea hit me like a ton of bricks – when I felt like I was closer to the center, I was actually farther away than the paths on the outside. And I wondered why was I so focused on the middle of the circle as the goal?
DM: It’s our production-oriented brains.
TE: Bingo. So when I think about democracy, I think there’s a lot there to unpack. When we feel we are really close to it, we may actually be farther away. And when we think we are farther away, we may be closer to democracy than we realize, as we hold the creative tension. Our bodies are wired to pick up these signals. To paraphrase from the poet David Whyte, our bodies are wired to feel tension and it’s a sign of imminent revelation. We tend to tamp down our sensory input. The greatest opportunities to understand how to navigate the next decade boils down to creativity and social wellbeing, which we can measure. We need hope, trust, curiosity and compassion. We need oppositional courage; how willing are you to put your personal capital at risk with someone. This comes out of the LGBTQAI+ community.
DM: This sounds similar to the bridging community, where people of different ideologies are invited to learn more about each other, usually discovering they have a lot more in common than they expected.
TE: Cognitive flexibility is what that is – it’s a valued skill set. For a country in need of cognitive flexibility, the marginalized communities have learned how to navigate a culture that wasn’t designed for them. These folks are the engineers of bridging for cognitive flexibility that is generative instead of exclusionary.
It boils down a lot of research to storytelling and selling change to groups. There are four kinds of buckets that cause people to dig in their heels.
Bucket 1: Our brains are wired to continue the status quo, even when we know the status quo isn’t working. We don’t have to do anything, our brains do it for us.
Bucket 2: Any kind of change will involve physical, economic, and/or emotional exertion. We estimate the effort and decide if it is “worth it” for an uncertain outcome.
Bucket 3: Our brains are wired to resist being changed by other people. We don’t like being told what to do. (DM: Hello rugged individualism!)
Bucket 4: We all know there are unintended consequences to the best strategy. And if someone tells us there are no unintended consequences or it’s guaranteed, we think they haven’t done their research or else they are lying. (DM: in other words, we think they are dumb, deceptive or naive.)
TE: Our brains do all this for us. If we don’t focus our storytelling on those four areas, to navigate in a way to till the soil in a way that the new idea can be planted. If we ignore these four conditions, new ideas will fail to take root and they will die. Cultural readiness is the work we have ahead of us, right now.
Creativity is neither good nor bad. It depends on the use of it. I can make a solid argument that one of the most creative people in the last five years is Donald Trump. From a mechanism standpoint.
DM: I would add that Trump is a powerful storyteller.
TE: Acknowledging those four buckets or conditions - he uses them. I was reflecting on the TV shows I watched growing up. I loved The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman. “A woman barely alive, we can rebuild her, we have the technology. Faster, better, more.” It signaled to me that human creativity when augmented by technology becomes amazing! It opens up things that are possible in brand new ways. It is a very apt metaphor for where we are right now. If you know how AI works, it’s not sentient. If we were to lean into that, and lean into our training up and making our human imagination and creativity less scary, America has a great opportunity ahead. It’s our core DNA. We were a wonder-based experiment.
DM: With some can-do spirit behind it.TE: Absolutely!