Living designally

Premise: If everyone conducted themselves as designers, not only at work, but all the time, most of our biggest interpersonal and social problems could be resolved.

For instance, my advice to designers I know who have been caught in conflicts, especially in political debates that have devolved into fights, is “stop thinking about politics politically, and instead think about politics designally.” —

Concretely, this might mean

  • Try interviewing the other person until you can think in their own logic.
  • Propose alternative accounts to compare, focusing on relative advantages and tradeoffs, not what which explanation is right or wrong.
  • Assure the other person that no solution will be good enough for you until it is also good enough for them.
  • Affirm to the other person that they matter far more to you than any idea or belief.


What if we began to think of design less as a skillset, or even as an approach to making, solving or resolving, and instead thought of it more as a spiritual discipline? A way to live, to exist, to be — a way that can be cultivated?


Much of traditional religion involves spiritual exercise, intended to cultivate a state of soul conducive to relationship to our transcendent ground. We learn to control ourselves, to accept ourselves, to accept our responsibility, to concentrate our minds, to notice what is within and without and the connections between, to open the hand of thought, to forgive and reconcile, to let down our guard, to feel gratitude for what is far too easy to take as given fact (as opposed to graciously accepting as given gift), to ask for the return of ourselves to ourselves, to feel an urgent hope for the wellbeing of others, to accept whatever happens with grace and strength, to love more readily, expansively, thoroughly — and far more than this.

Religion at its very best is supposed to be an intensive cultivation of self-toward-Allness, and one that does not attempt to exclude that most bothersome but important part of Allness, the people around us. If we cannot be religious with others, we may have spiritual experiences, but they are experiences, not that relationship with all-inclusive Allness that religion pursues so imperfectly but intently.

A great many people have been wounded by flawed religion, and by the antireligion fundamentalism that worships what it imagines to be an ultimate being of some kind, and hates every appearance of real Allness that contradicts it.

This is a weird kind of self-worship, imagination-worship, ideo-idolatry I call misapotheosis. It is a failure to distinguish the self’s imagination from what transcends imagination, and consequently to learn the difficult lesson that while all of us are of All, and in All, none of us are All. Our ideas about others are the furthest thing from other: our ideas about others are part of ourselves. Our ideas about God, about Reality, about History — these are only ourselves.

The religiously wounded cannot engage in religion as it has been presented to them, nor do they find it easy to engage in other religions without unconsciously engaging it as a good version of what hurt them so much in their earlier life. And when they do this, they accidentally inflict the same harm on others with their new true convictions. A great many of today’s most impassioned red-pilled or woke activists are little more than transcriptions of Christian fundamentalism doing the same old battle against Satan, only now it is the Satan of international conspiracy, or the Satan of Those Who Hate Our Freedoms, or the or the Satan of Those Who Oppress Our Identity, or the Satan of climate change, or the Satan of Whiteness, or the Satan of patriarchy, or the Satan of Libtards, or the Satan of Communism, or the Satan of Capitalism, or whatever evil they can agree on with others to hate.

Any Satan will do if you can’t find a credible All/God to love. If you can’t share a love, you’ll almost certainly share a hate. We humans cannot bear to be alone, and we will find whatever we can to feel together. Love is harder, so it is less common.


Somehow, though, design gives us a way out of this pattern. It gives us a manageably tiny mustard-seed of a problem to resolve together, along with the beautiful gift of no easy way to escape the necessity of really resolving it.

To succeed we must win the participation of those around us. To do that we must be deeply attuned to the who situation we are confronting, much of which transcends not only our knowledge, but even our logic. This includes not only the materials and the facts of the case at hand, but also the myriad ways others perceive the same situation, interpret it, construe what follows from it, imagines what out to be done.

In design, we must exist as ourselves toward who we are not and what we are not, with a full understanding of that strange relationship each of us has and an I toward All. The strangest part of this relationship is how inconceivable ideas can be learned from others, bringing into sudden existence, out of nothing, new possibilities in a flood of world-transfiguring inspiration.


Sure, we can describe it all in flat matter-of-fact language. We can make it no big deal. Yeah, yeah, we need to get aligned around a vision and a plan for getting there. Yep, maybe if we reframe the problem, we can find a solution people will get on board with. Let’s use empathy so we can find out what other people need and want.

Fact is, though, doing these things successfully requires a deep mindset shift. Everyone must make this shift for it to work. One belligerent debater or cynic in the room can break the dynamic. But if everyone makes the shift together something happens, and the productive output of the shift might not be nearly as important as the occurance of the shift itself.

As Rorty said, “Anything can be made to look good or bad, important or unimportant, useful or useless, by being redescribed.”

I want to redescribe this shift into this designerly mindset as essentially religious. (Or not!)

And I want to see if I can stay in this mindset all the time and make it essentially who I am.

3 thoughts on “Living designally

  1. I thought we were in rough agreement about religion, but now I’m not sure. In your “Cultivation of I-All” post, you described religion as “the cultivation on [sic] a finite I subsisting in an infinite All”. That I agree with. In this post, it feels like you go further: “Religion at its very best is supposed to be an intensive cultivation of self-toward-Allness”. You’ve added a evaluative aspect to a merely descriptive aspect. It seems like you’ve turned an is-statement into an ought-statement.

    I’m not sure I agree with this valuation of religion, since I’m not sure what you mean by “religion at its very best”. Let me use sports as an analogy. “Sports is the cultivation of a finite I engaging in physically competitive games.” That’s simply a description of sports without a judgment as to better or worse. “Sports at its very best is supposed to be an intensive cultivation of a finite I engaging in a physically competitive game.” This adds an evaluative aspect. I agree with the former, but perhaps not the latter.

    If you’re saying that everyone should strive to intensively cultivate their ability to play sports or engage in self-towards-allness, or even if you merely claim they should try to cultivate either, then I disagree. But if all your saying is, “For those who are into sports, examples of the most talented level of play (‘sports at its very best’) require intense cultivation”, then I wholeheartedly agree.

    But the latter is compatible with statements like, “That pick up game last week was recreational sports at its very best”. In other words wonderful and inspiring examples of sports doesn’t entail “intense cultivation”, it only entails the right actions and attitudes to exemplify sports–at any level of talent or intensity of cultivation.

    The same goes for religion. Not even religious leaders tell their followers that the best way for the followers to practice their religion is to “intensely cultivate” it. Priests don’t want every to strive to become monks or priests. Nor do they even want everyone to become devoutly religious to the most intensive degree possible.

    So I’m left a bit confused by the addition of “at its very best” and “intensive cultivation” in your apparently revised definition of religion.

    In addition, some relations of I-All don’t require intense cultivation at all. I relate to the Dao, as we’ve discussed. I acknowledge the Dao as the source of perpetual novelty. That’s about the extent of my relationship. I don’t feel the need to cultivate any deeper understanding of it at this point. I certainly don’t feel the need to intensively study Daoism.

    Looking forward to further discussions on the I-All relationship!

    1. Does it change anything if I say that religion at its best often happens outside places of worship, for instance in laboratories, classrooms and studios when people encounter other people and things in their full alterity and attempt to form relationships with them?

      1. It is too often assumed that a religious person must push aside the profane each-and-every particulars in order to commune with the divine All, but this is not the only way, nor in my judgment, for me, the best way. But I’m a post-Jesus Jew who sees finitude — our neighbors, our immediate surroundings and most frustrating, perplexing local problems — to our best access to more omissions from All.

        With finite substances, purity is a matter of removal of impurities. With infinity, any removal of any finite being is an impurity. By this logic to welcome, involve, consider, incorporate or affirm something or someone excluded, ignored, disregarded, ostracized or condemned is to form a purer relationship with All.

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