Philosopher Sam Keen: Interviews with Thought Leaders in Innovation -Travellers Tales

The Innovation Race

Sam KeenAbout Sam Keen: An American author, professor, and philosopher who is best known for his exploration of questions regarding love, life, and religion in contemporary society. Sam Keen has been a professor of philosophy and religion, a contributing editor of Psychology Today for over 20 years, author, and a documentary producer. (Books include: Hymns to an unknown God. Faces of the Enemy. Your Mythic Journey, In the Absence of God)

GG: We introduce the concept of purpose-driven innovation in our book, with the idea that there should not be innovation for the sake of innovation or for the sake of unbounded growth; but rather that we need to be considering the impact of the values and beliefs behind innovations.
You discuss in your books how beliefs can become doctrines - how often do you think this happens in contemporary organisations?

SK: what makes us progress is recognising the deeper connections that bring us together. We are in this together. This is not pious happy talk; this is something we can document from quantum physics, from ecology, from theology. This is where the metaphor of innovation becomes a metaphor of doing what’s most meaningful. The most important thing now is to have a society that has a reverence for the sacred. Recognising the sacred allows us to preserve it.

I have led 5 treks into Bhutan, and I cannot imagine a place where you are more equipped to learn about the environment. The prayer flags are on the hills, the water wheels are turning the prayer wheels. Many of the windows in homes have been cut in the shape of a wheel. That has allowed them to create a society where 97% of the people own land, and the only place in the region where the forests haven’t been destroyed.

GG: What would you say “winning the race” means? If you had the chance to address a corporate company, how would you approach the issue?

SK: I have spoken to a lot of large companies, and one of those was Krispy Kreme. The head was enamoured with Joseph Campbell Hero’s Journey and my work. We wanted to use this as a metaphor to articulate what the company is all about. There is a place where the hero has to leave the consensus and go to a far world – needs to bring the vision back to society.

You have three kinds of corporations:

  • 1) The bottom line corporations – all about profit,
  • 2) About profit but also about creating a family, a community of people who are in this organisation. The company must give something to the society at large.
  • 3) Bringing something of value back to society, not just the product. What is the morality of the product you are creating?

Everyone in the south loved Krispy Kreme donuts, and the people in the organisation were top-notch, but they never asked the most important question. What is the morality of the product? This was at a time when there were too many sweets.

GG: In our latest book we use the popular phrase “the innovation race” as the title. What does this phrase mean to you?

SK: The most creative innovations are not about beating someone else or being number one, but about learning what your vocation is or what the world is asking of you, and creating in that arena. We have to create from our values.

The myth of progress of connectivity has been the dominant metaphor since the 20th century. This is too often about how the number one wins; the one with the most power and fastest wins. It doesn’t bring good connotations to me because for many, it means that when you talk about a race it’s about progress and it sets us against somebody else. If the innovation race means a weapons race, a nuclear race… then this is demonic.

In Bhutan the motto is national happiness. We can judge a nation by prosperity and happiness it brings to people. We are in a strange period of history where innovation has destroyed as much of the environment as it can stand. Our technology has come to a point of almost demonic control. Nobody is asking the questions of where this leads. What are the right innovations? What do we want to leave uncreated or unproduced? It’s as much what we choose not to do as we choose to do. We need to talk about leaving things alone, about silence.

GG: We also draw some parallels between belief systems and organisational culture:

  • How relevant do you think the ‘stages of faith’ are for organisations?
  • How important do you think ‘faith’ is for contemporary culture?

SK: The map is not the territory – we don’t really precede one to five. Most people are going to download the myth of their culture into their lives without questioning it. It’s only when we have a crisis that we question the myths, and realise it is one story, not the actual truth. You have to find your own story. That will lead you into the excitement of your own search. A lot of these higher stages of values – they get communicated by enthusiasm. A lot of time people think ‘I’ll have what he’s having!’ Developmental psychologist James Fowler and I had some dialogues in Houston and put it into a book called Life Maps based on 5 stages we all face:

  1. Child – bonding with mother
  2. Rebel – start asserting yourself
  3. Adult – picks a job, a role in society. Most people never get beyond the adult stage – all about competition or winning, about the person with the most toys
  4. Outlaw / Outlier – the myth of my society is not mine. What do I desire deeply? What is my autobiography?
  5. Lover – I am connected with everyone else. My basic dignity comes from how I relate to all over living beings, eg.

I was doing something for Rubber Maid, and we lined out a program for them to be more sensitive and develop a lot better values, and ten minutes before the end of the sessions the CEO said, ‘If I don’t do this what is going to happen to me?’ I replied, ‘You will lose your soul!’

GG: Do you see a relationship between optimism and innovation? Can you be creative when you’re feeling fatalistic, or do you need to start taking opportunities?

SK: I don’t use the concept of optimism (opposite of pessimism). I go to hope or despair. Pessimism is, ‘I see the world and it’s a not good. For the optimist, the world is a merry-go-round. This last mindset is seen as something that is seen as bad. Hope is a religious concept. I believe that reality at the bottom is benevolent.

I think fatalism runs in the same vein as pessimism; a very destructive attitude. Creation says reality is open, the final story has not been written. ‘I do not know, therefore I hope.’

AG: You say that language and the metaphors we use are critically important in shaping what we do?

SK: One of the things that I started more than thirty years ago, is that I said I’m not going to use the same concepts, I’m going to reconfigure my language.

I ask people to, ‘Write down the ten most important words you use all the time, and give me $10 every time you use those words.’ Politicians – all they do is say the same damn dumb things. What would happen if corporate companies couldn’t use their favourite words for a hundred days?