The Parts And The Whole Relationship

Gregory Bateson, at home in Ben Lomond, California, 1975

Photo by Barry Schwartz

The best business advice I ever got had nothing to do with business.

When I was in my early twenties, anti-intellectual, hyper-kinetic, unfocused, and curious about everything, I became friends with a neighbor, a professional intellectual, scientist, writer, and anthropologist. Gregory Bateson was the stepfather of a friend, and once a week we sat in on the seminars Gregory held in his living room for his students. We were looking to meet women rather than gain knowledge, but the women never reciprocated our interest. My friend, already familiar with his stepfather’s work, faded away, but I was enraptured by what I heard, a synthesis of theories based on empirical observation and analysis.  It spoke to me, revealing and clarifying the profound and mundane experience of everyday life: my life.

Gregory, an Edwardian Englishman born in 1904, had first been trained as a scientist with rigorous habits of thinking totally unfamiliar to me. He was well-read in philosophy and literature and had a love of poetry, which along with his scientific training enabled him to explain to an uneducated lug such as myself how to begin to understand his work; for instance: in the same way that the relationship between a bee and a flower was critical for the survival of both, the relationship between the parts of any object (or idea) not only built the whole, but each part was in turn affected by the whole. Another example: how each member of a group contributes to the culture of the group – and that culture, in turn, affects each member.

In other words, there was a fundamental similarity between each part of a thing and the thing itself. I began, slowly, to understand how the world is built on relationships: of things to things, ideas to ideas, and things to ideas.

The road to developing the critical skills I’d need in order to get any kind of clarity on the world required that I learn how to pay close attention to what was around me – while at the same time keeping an open mind: to combine cold-eyed observation with imagination.

The short definition: to learn to think clearly I had to remember to be imaginative. Another kind of relationship.

No matter how cold-eyed I thought I was, I found it really hard to step back from the world in order to gain clarity, because that sort of thinking turned out to be kind of a lie: I couldn’t really step back from my world because I couldn’t separate myself from something I’m part of. It didn’t stop me from trying, of course. Imagination helped.

As I learned to be an entrepreneur, relationships took on meaning in a brand-new context. I learned the importance of paying attention to the processes I used to make my products, because quality equals worth, and time equals money. For someone in business, those are about as important as relationships get. The style and substance of my products were influenced by what I assumed my clients needed, but if I got that wrong – if I didn’t accurately understand what my clients needed – nothing mattered, because I would go out of business. In other words, it was all about relationships.

To survive, I had to develop an accurate sense of where my clients and myself fit into our world, look at the parts and at the whole, and see how they were one-and-the-same. I had to think critically. Imagination helps there, too.

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