Creative Tension

I will never forget the day that I was listening to Peter Senge, MIT’s senior lecturer and systems scientist and he taught our group about the benefit of creative tension in both our personal lives and our organizations.  He began his remarks reading excerpts from Martin Luther King’s “Letters from Birmingham Jail”.  He shared this quote:

“You may well ask: ‘Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?’ You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.

Those words struck me right between the eyes.  I had often recognized the “gap” between who I was and who I wanted to be and by extension I had felt that “gap” with teams and organizations that I have been a part of professionally.  Never before had I considered that “gap” as source of “constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth”.

And then Peter Senge “showed us” what it looks like and feels like.  He did this by pulling out a thick exercise resistance band and using his hands to stretch it tight vertically.  He explained that the distance between who we are (lower hand) and who we want to be (upper hand) creates a tension that is uncomfortable to the natural self.  He further taught that the self has an instinctive reaction to try to solve that tension and make it subside.  When that tension is perceived, we are all immediately tempted to do one of two things.  Either we lie about our current reality and tell ourselves that we are actually better than we are (raising the lower hand towards the upper hand and relieving the strain on the band) or we lower our vision of what is possible (lowering the upper hand and providing the same relief on the band).  He concluded the lesson by looking at each participant squarely and challenging us to avoid these two traps.  The “gap” that exists between what is and we want things to be is actually an empowering force that truly is necessary for growth.

Think about this lesson as it applies to your own life.  Do we acknowledge and feel the pressure or strain between our current reality and what we know we could be?  Jordan Peterson is right when he says, “You are not everything you could be and you know it.”  The question is what is what are we going to do about it.  Will we lie to ourselves, justify things in our head, and tell ourselves that all is well and that we are doing fine?  Just as damaging, will we lie about our capacity and lower our expectations for ourselves?  Or, will we embrace the constructive tension that exists in that gap and do the work necessary to improve.  As we take that option, our expectations will continue to increase and we will soon begin to realize that the only limits that truly exist are the ones that we place on ourselves.

Embrace the tension.  Point it in the direction that your dreams dare to take you and let it sling you to a new reality, one beyond what you thought was even possible.

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