John Stokvis

March 18, 2021

Starving on eating menus

Alan Watts was an American philosopher & popularizer of Buddhism and Taoism in the 1960s. I was really into him in my 20s and one thing he talked about that has stuck with me was this phrase:

“We’ve run into a cultural situation where we’ve confused the symbol with the physical reality; the money with the wealth; and the menu with the dinner. And we’re starving on eating menus.”

It happens a lot in religion, because religion is trying to describe everything. And you can't really point to everything directly. You need stand-ins, symbols. Seriously, try pointing directly to things like love, justice, nature, evil, loyalty, grace, etc.

Then people constantly fall into the trap of focusing on rituals or symbols instead of the  ephemeral idea or value they point to. We mistake the menu for the food, and wonder why it doesn't nourish us. Taken to its extreme, this trap is called dogma. When the symbol is the only thing that matters, there is no room for the idea that it was (supposedly) pointing to.

And it's not just religion - it can happen with any system of thought. And often that focus on the symbols inverts the values they are meant to point to. In tech there's a commonly used system that is meant to give people the flexibility and speed required to produce good software.

Appropriately, it's called "Agile."

However, there's lots of dogma that's built up around doing Agile. How to do it right. When to do the rituals. What meetings are (and aren't) for. Who should be doing what.

All that process doesn't make the team agile at all, it makes the team sclerotic. The team winds up spending so much time figuring out how to get things done, that nothing gets done.

The philosopher Alfred Korzybski once wrote: “A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.” 

It's an important reminder: A map is not the territory. If you're just navigating the map, you're not actually getting anywhere.

Look up from the map.