All posts by pcostello

Re-interpreting Karl Marx’s Interpretation- Memo to Presidential Candidates

It is one of those quotable quotes- “that philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it.” It looks good on a T-shirt and a bumper sticker, and its too clever by half. The irony of course, is that this interpretation of philosophers interpreting the world is also an interpretation.

The sleight of hand is to make you think that changing the world is different from changing what the world means. Yet, what great minds like Marx or Freud or Darwin do is not that much in terms of  heroic action. Take a voyage to the Galapagos Islands  and come home and write a book- see women with various forms of hysteria and write a case study, study the economies of the industrializing world at the British Library, and write a few hefty tomes- Yes, Marx does change the world but he changes it by seeing it through a different lens, understanding it as a hidden process of consciousness and liberation, and therefore ripe for revolution. He did what any good philosopher does, reinterpret the world, and thereby he changed it. He makes his own saying into a lie.

Nothing helps change more than the story that we invent that tells us that we are on the brink of it, or that  it is urgent because things are broken and desperate. Sound familiar? Washington is broken. Wall Street is running the show. Government is corrupt and bloated. Its what narrative practitioners so enjoy about any election year- that the headlines of any or all of the candidates echo the cliches that are as old as Plato and as hackneyed as Jefferson and Hamilton. Imagine a candidate saying, “Nothing needs to change, that we are changing too much, that we need to get back to what we used to do in the 1950’s.”   Won’t happen.

To change the world is the reverse of what Marx said because it means changing how we interpret it, just as he did.  If we, like him, interpret it as  ripe for change, and we convince people that we are reading history right, we too can muster the masses to our cause.  

Finally, this might make a good memo to the Presidential Candidates for 2016- if you want to change the world, help us change the way we see it. Don’t pander to our lazy habits of mind that don’t want to think too hard about the hard issues. Stop feeding our messianic delusions  by promising that you and only you can save us from Mexicans, Martians and Marxists. You might not change our hearts, but why not at least try changing our minds.

From Walls to Windows- The Power of Stories

When combatants decide to share a personal story, one that comes out of the authority of their own experience, not parotting some tribal or religious orthodoxy, they begin to dismantle the wall of separation. They turn a wall into a window. Brick by brick, story by story, light comes through.
Underneath all the disagreements and bitterness, a shared human story gradually emerges.

The stories that feed war and fuel the military’s  propaganda machine can only work by stripping the “other” of their humanity.  For that reason, sharing a story from the heart becomes a profound act of resistance.

NSL’s goal is to create a Listening culture in the midst of a debate where people mostly shout past one another. At NSL, stories are treated as gifts, and where by modeling a narrative way, people can reclaim the capacity that war has stolen from them, the power to give people  back their humanity.

Go to Wall of Stories 

What if…. the future already happened, but we missed it?

What if…. the old story- that Israelis and Palestinians can never get along, that they will always hate and mistrust each other, that violence is in their DNA, gets contradicted every summer in a small and secret Washington DC human laboratory? Its not at the NIH, and its not a CIA plot. Its not even Los Alamos! Its a bit of a secret, of course, and its fragile. Sometimes it blows up, but sometimes, sometimes, it works.

Who knew? And what difference could it make?

What if…. a small group of intrepid activists commit to a 7 week experiment every year, one that might prove the past to be irrelevant when they realize the one thing that unites them as young people is their future.

Like their elders, they can’t even agree on the past, but unlike their elders, they inherited it. They did not live it, and so, they don’t have to keep on reliving it. The future is a different country,, if that is what they choose to make it. For the first time, they are confronted with a choice they never thought they had.

What if…. these pioneers do it hard, struggle to hear each other and argue and cry and disagree, but yet, remain committed, remain at the table. Over time, they realize that there is something they are creating that does not blunt their differences but shows them glimpses of another way, hints of another possibility. What if this could become the new story? What if they as leaders return home to translate this new story into reality. That is what NSL is all about.

Are you a pioneer? Do you want to test yourself in a human experiment about difference? Do you want to explore the distant future up close, then NSL might be for you.

If you are passionate, ready to argue and to listen, eager to engage the other side, prepared to be shocked and made feel uncomfortable, convinced of course that you are always right but ready to admit you may be totally wrong, then NSL might be the summer of a lifetime, something not to be missed.

On the other hand, If you want a relaxed, polite and comfortable summer, meeting new friends and having fun, go to Miami. NSL is like a boot camp for change makers. You come thinking you will change the world, and return understanding that first, the world has to change you. And that is never easy.

If you are ready? Go here.


Happy thanksgiving to All- someone mentioned recently that Gratitude has an effect on how we experience time- that it slows it down. partly because it means we look back and double down on moments and people whose contribution, by our thanks, we are revalidating And is has something of a pause about it, a deep breath, a sigh of the soul that instead of expressing our pain, it is more a lovers sigh, that life could be THIS good. Wow. As one bumper sticker says, Slow down to the speed of life, One is grateful to what gratitude does for us, even if for one day of the year.


A thought around my new mantra that says,

“we need to design for memory, rather than for experience,”

which says,

how can you remember what you never membered ( joined together )

how can you recollect what you never collected?

how can you revision what you never visioned?

The Mind is a time machine that will gladly go back to a different place and time if the place and time are composed into a pattern of significance. i keep hearing about the Experience Economy and Starbucks, but people dont say that the reason you go back to Starbucks- if you do- is because you remember the good time and the good coffee.

Experience that only stays experience doesn’t do any more work. Experience translated into memory is where the real pay off is.



Is it any wonder that Gandhi and Martin Luther King Junior decided early on that the battle for peace and justice was always primarily a soul battle, a spiritual conflict about conversion of heart, not about massing weapons or converging interests, designing road maps or negotiating concessions?

Those who want to map the path to peace as a set of techniques have been seduced into confusing means for ends- because tools by themselves don’t build a house or plough a field. The diplomats whose careers have spanned multiple attempts at agreement have the credentials and the experience- its not lack of know-how that gets in the way. its the lack of will. And not just political will. It has more to do with what others have called moral courage, a courage that summons us all to get back in touch with our core human values. It is a courage that asks- Is what we most value in life worth living for, worth striving for, even worth failing for, more than worth dying and killing for? Courage cuts to the core, gets to the “coeur” of things, the heart. You can’t fake it.

Expediency sets a different agenda. You are forever watching tomorrow’s poll numbers, worrying what issues are too risky to take a stand on, You play it safe and yet, that can lead to even greater danger. Playing it safe when the house is on fire means you huddle in a room hoping the smoke will abate and an angel will rescue you. Not smart. Where did playing it safe ever get you? No one is safe if everyone chooses safety first. No, our safety resides in a quality of audacity,

That firefighter who breaks the door down to get you out of the fiery room or the smoke-filled train, the whistle blower who risks her career to call out the injustices of the surveillance state, the teenage marcher at Selma who peacefully faces the dogs and the tear gas, or that lone figure facing the tanks in Tiananmen Square: It is courage that keeps us safe.

We might try to do radical change on the cheap, but history is not on our side. Can there ever be a shift from oppression to freedom or war to peace or cruelty to compassion without someone daring to say No, daring to put his body on the wheel of fortune to stop the killing machine?

Courage I believe is at the heart of every lasting human change, and while many think it is rare, it is not. Every commander in battle who has had to lead his troops through the barrage knows- Courage is even more infectious than fear.

Lets have a Conference about that.

“When you over-prescribe, you under-surprise.”

A principle that comes out of work where I tend to always see more possibilities and cant resist putting them into instructions before workshops, meaning that the participants will tend to worry about doing it right than giving themselves permission to dream, create, evoke,

When I anchor back to the core of storywise work, I remember not to go into too much goal-focus mode because if I ask people to tell me a story of an obstacle they overcame or their greatest success, then I get what I asked for- its the story I want. Is it the story they want?

If I ask, tell me a story that contains the burning issue for you, or the story that is dying to get a safe space to be told, or a story that you had never dreamed of sharing till now, ( under prescribed) you get surprise, from you as the coach and from the teller who gets even more interested in their own story. They often amaze themselves.

When you under- prescribe, you leave room for over-surprise.


How to map Life through the Territory of What Matters:

What % of our life fits into these quadrants-

It matters….. and I am doing it ……………..%
It matters…… and I am not doing it ……………%
It doesn’t matter…….and I am still doing it ………………%
It doesn’t matter……. and I am not doing it. ………………%

if sometimes our lives feel ungrounded or light weight,
perhaps we are doing too much of what doesn’t matter
and not doing enough of what does matter.

To live a life that matters,
make what matters matter.


The new book, all the rage is, Start with WHY, but Why? dare I ask?

I want to write a book in reply, titled, Dont start with WHY, start with WHERE. Because Why assumes there is a reason, whereas more times than not, WHY is a SITUATION, not a reason. Why are police in controversy? Why are young men from minorities being targeted? Why is America still so scared of terrorism? Don’t formulate some grand theory about racism or class, just go into those streets and meet those people and you understand that a thousand reasons wont do justice to the situation.

A why question implies that people have the luxury of an answer, as if the world must always conform to cause and effect logic, or that people always have the freedom to have reasons, rather than acting out of necessity. Most human complexities are compounded by answer-denying situations and once you give an answer, its immediately wrong because there is no one answer.

The answer is wrong because the question is wrong. Don’t ask WHY, ask WHERE and understand that WHY is a symptom of our infatuation with “Tidying up intolerably messy Truths.” WHY is not a doorway into the situation that will soon reveal the real geography of meaning, that “why you are” has everything to do with “where you are” and most of us are born there, which is a situation, not a reason.

where is the why?

Follow up thoughts, when you ask WHY about something in the past, you get an explanation or an excuse or an alibi, Why did you do this, Why did you walk away? etc, looking for an excuse, but when you ask WHY about the future, the idea of goals and ends come into play, which in a way is a different WHY altogether, you are not soliciting an alibi so much as a dream, a vision, an empowering purpose, and so perhaps that WHY needs to be called something different, the WHERE TO, Start with the WHERE TO, where do you want to take us, And WHERE FROM, where did this dream come from, which are locative questions, allowing people to put themselves in place.