Which circle do you serve?

ArtsEmerson’s David Dower had a bit of a Jerry Maguire moment recently when learning new stuff about negotiation and influence. And no, I don’t mean a “You complete me” moment, nor a “Show me the money” moment (although, kind of). I mean a crisis of conscience moment as appears in the opening scenes (remember?). 

Which circle do you serve?

cc flickr Thomas Hawk

For Dower, the epiphany wasn’t about serving fewer people better and with greater humanity. It was about becoming more expansive in the way we perceive and perform in the professional arts. Says he:

We approach the world of nonprofit theater as though we are in a zero-sum universe, where everything I have means one less thing that you can have. We compete for every opportunity like it is the last opportunity there will ever be, sharpening and wielding our competitive advantage like a scalpel, carving as much of the market as we can. Once we start to succeed at this competition we hoard, as though tomorrow we could be out in the cold. Whether it is in endowments or in grants and residencies or in over-booking ourselves with gigs, we take everything that comes our way out of fear nothing else ever will.

At the edges of this constructed reality, Dower senses another reality — one of abundance, generosity, and shared purpose. Read it, since he says it so well.

For me, Dower’s discovery is less about a false reality from which we must awaken (although I adore the Matrix metaphors), and more about concentric realities that all exist at once. He seems to be talking about the boundaries we construct around our work, and our perception of our work, and the need to reconceive those boundaries.

Scarcity, after all, is a concept constructed by boundaries. If I have something, then you don’t have it…but only if we perceive ourselves to be separate and we perceive the something as an independent ‘thing’. If we draw the circle around ‘you and I’ rather than ‘you’ and ‘I’, we can BOTH have the thing, because the boundary is inclusive. As we draw wider and wider circles around us, we become citizens of a larger system — comprising all of the resources, actions, and energies that larger system contains.

In the nonprofit arts, we can select many circles to serve — our individual selves, our immediate clique, our organizations, our geographic communities, our disciplines, our networks, our states, our nations, our world. We can even decide if ‘nonprofit’ is a useful circle for the larger goals we have in mind.

The point, as Dower makes it so beautifully, is to decide out loud, and to acknowledge that the boundaries that define our work are self-constructed, or socially constructed – that we are not subject to them, but that they are objects of our creative attention.

Whether you’re Keanu Reeves or Tom Cruise in this scenario (although you don’t need to be either), the point is to rethink your world in order to reshape your world.