Did I Walk Out to Walk On?

A while back I received an email from my alma mater advising me that I had been nominated for a Distinguished Alumni Award.

While I know it was an incredible honour and I should have been excited, the truth was that I didn’t feel it was something I deserved.


I am aware that I work really hard, have taken risks, and have had some success. However, my track record with employers and sometimes painful climb up the corporate ladder left much to be desired. That, together with my lack of staying power, is reflected in a sketchy and eclectic employment history.

Although I’m now happily self-employed, I left a job with the City of Niagara Falls after seven years and, while I lasted 12 years at Niagara College, my work at Alberta Recreation and Parks Association ended after six. Prior to that I left both Bell Canada and the Investors Group. In each case it seemed it was time.

As I left each workplace, it seems there were some who weren’t at all surprised, whereas others left me with the distinct impression they were disappointed that I had bailed.

However, I’ve had cause to rethink and learn that perhaps my reasons for leaving were something else entirely. That “something else” was made clearer in a brilliant and enlightening Ted Talk I stumbled across by a woman named Deborah Frieze.

Frieze began her Ted Talk by bluntly stating, “The way we are trying to change the world is not going to work, and it’s never going to work.”

Instead, she offered a radical theory of change suggesting that you can’t fundamentally change big systems, you can only abandon them and start over or offer hospice to what’s dying.

By big systems she was referring to education, healthcare, government, business, or anything characterized by over-organization, standardization, regulation, and compliance. And, contrary to what the experts are saying, Frieze suggests we can’t undo, fix, reverse-engineer, redirect, or reassign these systems. This is due, she goes on to say, because “They’re not machines, they’re living systems…and the world is not causal, linear, and predictable Instead, any system involving humans is complex, emergent, and unpredictable.”

It’s no small wonder our systems are not responding to well-meaning change efforts.

The living system map Frieze provides - and the one responsible for helping me better understand my own checkered path - suggests all living systems rise, peak, and then decline. At the peak, signs of decline appear. It is at this point that alternatives to the dominant system appear.

Frieze calls these alternatives “walk outs”. And, as someone who turned her back on a number of dominant systems in order to experiment with something new, I definitely fit the category. Of course it’s not enough to walk out and risk feeling ignored, invisible, and lonely because, as she suggests, walkouts or trailblazers need to connect, exchange information, and learn from one another or risk being crushed by the dominant systems seeking self-preservation.

As local walkouts are connected and learn from one another, they are able to create new systems that have the potential to replace the old order.

In addition to the Walkouts or Trailblazers, Frieze also suggests there are three additional roles each of us can play.

The “hospice workers” are those who stay inside failing systems to provide thoughtful and compassionate care to what’s dying as the new system evolves. Their role is to help the dying focus on the transition and to guide us through.

The “illuminators” are the storytellers who shine a light on the trailblazing efforts to create something new. They are those able to patiently maintain grace in the face of resistance and criticism as they help others see new approaches for what they are, of what’s possible, of what our new world could be.

And lastly, there are those who have been successful in the dominant systems and have access to power and resources that can advance pioneering efforts. They are the dedicated and thoughtful revolutionaries who use their relationships and influence as “protectors” to create oasis where people can innovate.

There is no one best role that provides answers. Instead new systems require the trailblazers, hospice workers, illuminators, and protectors working together.

As a localist or, as I describe myself, a community builder, Frieze has made it clear we can’t rely on others to fix the systems. Instead each of us needs to take small local actions, alongside others who share our visions and dreams.

And while for sure it was never her intent, she also helped me understand that maybe, just maybe, my history of walking out, might just be a good thing. Perhaps it may have even been the impetus for the nomination. Regardless, I’m grateful to Deborah Frieze for her astute observations and theory of change.     


View the Ted Talk by Deborah Frieze at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2jTdZSPBRRE&t=245s

Posted on 02-01-18

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