carlo rovelli: things versus happenings

i’m listening to the carlo rovelli episode of on being and it’s one of the few that really stretches me. the way he talks about math and physics in some ways is really elegant and in other ways is just way over my head. that said, there are still some interesting takeaways.

one of the first from this episode is carlo’s ideas about things versus happenings.

A thing is something which remains equal to itself. A thing — a stone is a thing because I can ask where the stone is tomorrow, while a happening is something that is limited in space and time. I don’t know. A kiss is not a thing, because I cannot ask, “Where is a kiss tomorrow? Where’s this kiss tomorrow?” I mean, it’s just happened now…

And I think that we don’t understand the world as made by stones, by things. We understand a world made by kisses, or things like kisses, happenings. In other words, the elementary quantities or ingredients for describing the world are not things which remain through time. They are just limited in space and time. And I think which remain through time are processes that repeat themselves. A stone is just a common flickering of electrons and things and stuff, which remains together not even forever, of course, because it goes into powder for a long time, for a while. So, to better understand the world, I think we shouldn’t reduce it to things. We should reduce it to a happening, and the happenings are always between different systems, always relations.

of course, i go immediately to social change with this thought: what might this insight teach me about how to be a more effective change-maker? two quick points:

my friend, cyndi, is writing a book about or a book that includes lots of thinking about interactions. in her research, she’s found that entire systems can be analyzed accurately based on their interactions. this has big implications for what it is we’re working towards in movement spaces.

i basically think this means that that if the world is really best conceptualized as interactions, it means the things we’re “building” need to also focus on those interactions and not just their outcomes. outcomes matter for sure. but without solid thinking about interactions, even the best outputs will be overtaken in the long run by interactions that will erode those outcomes. this is a different take on the idea that culture eats strategy for breakfast.

at the scale of the individual, it’s how i can tell quickly in a coaching call how effective sometone’s personal system is from just a 90 minute phone call. on organizational scales, it’s why things like meetings can be such good predictors of how the organization works. and at societal scales, it’s why watching how people treat each other in public can tell you a lot about the soul of that society.

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