“There is a crack in everything, that’s where the light gets in” by Martin Sandbrook

When I came to the end of my MSc in Responsibility and Business Practice, I felt fully awake to the despair of the world. In common with others on the course, I felt both desperate and powerless in the face of what needs to be done. Helpfully, one of our number reminded us of Roosevelt’s suggestion when he was putting into place the New Deal to help the US recover from the Great Depression, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are”. For some time now I have tried to follow this idea, living also by this William James’ saying “I am done with great things and big plans, great institutions and big success. I am for those tiny, invisible loving human forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, …. which, if given time, will rend the hardest monuments of pride.”

But at some level in myself I wonder if this is an excuse for not doing enough. Perhaps I really could be doing so much more, with greater influence, involving many more people.

Sometimes a line of poetry can provide a much needed insight. Recently I fully understood a line from the chorus of a Leonard Cohen song: “There is a crack in everything, It’s where the light gets in”.

When I teach Action Experiment, I suggest people take small steps to start with, until they feel more confident, or more able to persuade others of what they are attempting. But what never ceases to delight me is that from these apparently small changes in behaviour, from what seem relatively minor actions, big shifts can occur – both inner and outer.

Judi Marshall, borrowing from Gregory Bateson, talks about ‘arcs of attention, inner and outer’. We are each an arc in any system of which we are a part. We may be a significant arc, or a small arc. The system we are engaged with, flows through us as we participate in it. If we change the behaviour of that arc, the system changes, perhaps a lot, perhaps not very much, but it changes, and we change with it. By opening up a crack, however small, we let some light get in.

And this reflects how creation works. All the wonders of our world have come into being via the process we call evolution. At the heart of this striving for perfection, there lies a simple paradox – to improve, there must first be error. The whole wondrous striving for perfection, is driven by making mistakes, by opening cracks to let in new light. The mistake might be one tiny error in the copying of the code of reproduction, but that tiny error can lead to something entirely new, something better able, or possibly less able, to experiment with survival.

So it is with systems. We experiment. We open the crack. The light gets in.

Martin Sandbrook is a Director of the Schumacher Institute and Programme Leader for Systems Thinking for Effective Action and Pale Blue Dot