Foreword to Deanne Duncombe’s What If Life Came With A User Guide?
By Alan Sieler
It is a great pleasure to introduce Deanne’s delightfully titled book. I regard this well-written book to be a very useful guide on how to cultivate living from a self-authoring mode of consciousness. What I find particularly appealing about this book is how the chapters are structured around important existential questions, some of which you may have been well aware of, others that you may have had peripheral awareness of, and others that you had not even considered.
I consider Deanne’s offering to be a valuable contribution to addressing two fundamental existential questions, which are:
• How am I to live?
• How can I live well?
In what seems like an increasingly volatile and uncertain world, these are questions that go to the heart of the quality of our existence. They are significant questions that are an integral part of being human, and although they may not be at the forefront of our thoughts and in our immediate awareness, they are nevertheless constantly present. The role of questions in the quality of our lives is worth expanding upon and will be returned to in the closing section of this foreword.
Being “thrown” into the world
When we emerged from the womb and eventually began to literally find our feet, nobody provided us with a handy guide on how to engage with and participate in life. Philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote that we are “thrown” into the world – not literally, of course – that we randomly find ourselves in the world, having no say in the family, society and historical life circumstances into which we were born and grew up.
As biological entities, we constantly seek to adapt to the environments in which we find ourselves, which are not only physical environments but also environments of meaning that consist of emotions, moods, language, conversations, customs and social practices. Our parents and other elders most likely tried to provide us with some sort of structure for how to live, which included taking responsibility for aspects of our physiology, what is appropriate to say in different situations, and how to conduct ourselves emotionally in different settings. We also experienced informal learning from our peers – in play and conversations.
From this multitude of experiences, we absorbed a wide range of learning and ‘life lessons’ that formed our interpretations about how to live and function adequately in different settings. Another philosopher, Edmund Husserl, wrote that we all live in a ‘life-world’, which is all the immediate experiences, activities and contacts that make up our individual world. For Husserl, ‘the ground of all knowledge is lived experience’.
As unique individuals, we did not all form the same meaning of life and how to live, continually creating interpretations that made sense to us at the time. Every decision we have made and how we have behaved has been our interpretation of how to live well in the circumstances that confronted us. Our learning from past experiences has provided an important orientation for the future, informing us how to engage with others, as well as make sense of and participate in the many different situations we will encounter.
Not having a blueprint for how we can live well means that we create life as we go, making it up ‘on the run’, and finding ways to navigate in a world that can, at times, be experienced as confusing and complex.
The challenge of developing a self-authoring mode of existence
Learning to live well can be thought of as a never-ending process of complex skill acquisition, with many life skills involving subtle learning, such as the appropriate distance to stand from someone in a conversation, how to compose an email or a text message to a particular person in a specific situation, or how to be socially appropriate in taking turns to speak in a conversation.
What is interesting is that learning a myriad of skills for how to live well is largely left to chance. As this book’s title indicates, there is no user guide to help us navigate the often puzzling and sometimes frustrating maze of life. While we can absorb important learning from our parents, teachers, other elders, and peers, we are not provided with a specific curriculum to guide us in the acquisition of appropriate life skills, let alone direct personal support and guidance to enable us to enact such skills.
Our developmental task as we grew up was to make appropriate meaning and develop the requisite skills for living well. In his book, In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life, Robert Kegan wrote that life is like a curriculum that places demands on us to respond successfully if we are to live well. He made a very important distinction between two fundamentally different levels or orders of adult consciousness that shape how we observe and navigate daily life. Levels of consciousness can be thought of as fundamental existential spaces that we live from that inform us how to perceive and act in the world.
Kegan called one of these levels of consciousness the ‘socialised mind’. This is a mode of observing and operating in the world in which we have successfully learned how to be responsible citizens who do not require supervision. In other words, we can participate in the various social practices and manners of engaging with each other that are acceptable. We have all been through a lengthy process, from early childhood to becoming an adult, to develop this level of consciousness.
However, Kegan’s thesis is that the socialised existential space is no longer sufficient for living well in our complex, rapidly changing pluralistic societies. He advocates the development of another level of consciousness for the wellbeing of individuals and society. He calls this level of consciousness the ‘self-authoring mind’. In this fundamental existential space, the requirements for being a responsible adult have been absorbed. However, the individual seeks to constructively critique some of the ‘lessons of life’ they have unquestioningly been living from in a socialised mind. We no longer unthinkingly act from what Kegan calls the ‘scripts’ of life that we learned as we grew up, which authored our life. In this different existential space, we constructively critique the scripts and rewrite some of them to become more self-authoring. This does not mean that we become anarchists or live from an ‘anything goes, I’m an individual’ mentality. We still remain responsible citizens but begin to find greater agency in how we can live without being trapped in the myriad of ‘have to’s’ and ‘should’s’ that accompany the socialised mind and enter into an existential space of having a broader perspective of life that contains more possibility and choice.
While Deanne refers to this book as a user guide, it is not a technical manual with specific steps to follow to successfully manage some life issue. Each chapter is an invitation to consider an important theme that relates to everyday life and offers a range of perspectives and skills that have been derived from the discipline of Ontological Coaching. Overall, this book is about how to engage with life from an ontological perspective.
Ontological Coaching uses the expression ‘Way of Being’ to understand the perceptual and behavioural patterns that we have learned to live from, many of which have become ingrained, taken for granted and out-of-awareness. An ontological approach to coaching offers a way of identifying and changing unhelpful patterns by making shifts in our Way of Being. Each of the chapters in this book provides an opportunity to make beneficial shifts in your Way of Being.
Part of the beauty of the ontological approach to better understanding ourselves and improving our life is that we don’t need to rely on a coach all the time. The coach can get us started, but once we learn key concepts and develop new skills, we can engage in what is called ‘generative learning’. This means that when we learn about important aspects of our Way of Being, we can continually self-generate change in our Way of Being.
Questions and thinking
Let us now bring the focus back to the importance of questions, including existential questions. One of the publications of the previously mentioned philosopher Martin Heidegger is a book titled What Is Called Thinking? For some readers, Heidegger’s perspective on what constituted thinking was somewhat controversial. He contended that thinking is not having thoughts. Indeed, he claimed that most of the time most of us don’t think.
Heidegger’s perspective is that genuine thinking involves the asking of unusual questions, which have the potential to stimulate novel thoughts and new paths of thinking.
For Heidegger, thinking is being thought-provoking. He urged us to inquire into those matters that normally remain unquestioned concerning our everyday existence and traditions. The word ‘provoke’ comes from the Latin word ‘provocare’, with ‘vocare’ meaning ‘to call’. According to Heidegger, that which is thought-provoking calls to us, inviting a response. That which is most thought-provoking calls us in the sense of calling-to-action; it calls us and invites us to engage in the possibility of taking different action to bring about a different outcome.
Thought-provoking questions can sometimes be considered as being unsettling, even upsetting at times. However, the potential power of questions is that they orient us to a different perspective, which has the potential to open up a different world of possibility and action. Some potentially thought-provoking existential questions are:
What questions are you ‘living in’ about the quality of your life and who and how you are as a person? The expression ‘living in’ means that which dwells within you that you are aware of and not aware of.
What questions are you not asking regarding how you live and how you can live well?
One of the risks of engaging with questions is that we can immediately seek an answer or a solution. However, existential questions do not always readily lend themselves to nicely packaged answers. A crucial part of thinking is being prepared to ‘stay with the question’ or ‘live with the question’. In other words, let the question sit and percolate in the background and be patient and open to an answer arising or ‘bubbling to the surface’.
I consider that Deanne has created a book for thinkers in the Heidegger mode of thinking. Reading and reflecting on the chapters may open up other existential questions for you. I believe there is much potential value in not only reading each chapter carefully but also in returning to specific chapters when you are confronted with challenging circumstances.
Director, Ontological Coaching Institute
Author of Volumes I, II, III and IV of Coaching to the Human Soul: Ontological Coaching and Deep Change
Titles of other books by Ontological Coaching graduates
Lyn Trail, Sizzling at Seventy.
Nicky Howe, Better Relationships With Those You Lead.
Ian Lees, Becoming a Leader of Leaders.
Paul Marshall, Listening Differently.
Bill Ash, Redesigning Conversations: A Guide to Communicating Effectively in the Family, Workplace, and Society.
_____ Redesigning Conversations Workbook: Self-Coaching Questions for Parents, Leaders, Teachers and Coaches.
Bernard Desmidt, Team Better Together: 5 disciplines of high performing teams.