Feature Article: Van der Horst’s Integral Law of Requisite Contrariety: Practical Paradoxes to Live By and Other Notes on the Illusion of Failure

Brian Van der Horst

Brian van der HorstThinking of going integral? Sure, there’s all this theory, but are you actually, concretely evolving? Are you walking your talk?

You may be entertaining limiting beliefs that form self-imposed, but invisible, unexamined barriers to becoming an integral human being. If you are one of those who still think you are flawed, incomplete, and unsatisfied by your lack of integration, I’ve got news for you. Much of what we consider to be our worst habits, faults, and failings are actually gold mines for personal evolution.

Consider this: Einstein flunked algebra. Marilyn Monroe never thought she was beautiful. Freud was uncomfortable looking people in the eye. So he had them lay on a couch. The “therapist of the century,” Carl Rogers could not stand being told what to do. Rogers originated “Person-Centered Therapy” which practically forbade giving advice to clients. Did family therapist Virgina Satir ever marry and have children? Fritz Perls, the father of Gestalt Psychotherapy advocated integrity and coherence and was often inconsistent and frazzled. Will Schutz got bored in seminars and invented the California Encounter Group. Consider the contradictions so often pointed out about the founders of the integral movement.

When the gods have important messages to deliver, it seems they often chose rather flawed messengers. Maybe it’s their way of trying to insure that we humans won’t confuse the message with the messenger. But what is more vexing than someone who does not practice what they preach? What is more fascinating than discovering a great person has feet of clay? What can make us less happy than confronting our own shortcomings?

Oh imperfect human, rejoice in your weaknesses! I think you have been misinformed. We all need our flaws, our incapacities, and our incertitude for a very specific function. I call it Van der Horst’s Integral Law of Requisite Contrariety.The Law of Requisite Variety is a rule in electronics and information science that states that the element in a system that has the most choices controls the rest of the system. It is the presupposition that choice is better than no choice.

I’m not the first person to remark that people teach what they would learn. What they need to learn. Who would be interested in teaching, researching or working in a domain which they had already mastered?

Consider the folk wisdom: “Those that know, do; those that can’t, teach.” This is a comment about modeling genius. How many geniuses are aware of how their own talents work? One of the greatest refrains of Expert Systems folklore is that a gifted person’s explanation of his talent has little to do with what he actually does— the structure of one’s own skills are frequently invisible to oneself and remain unexamined, transparent.

  • How many body therapists have lousy posture?
  • How many shrinks are crazy?
  • How many lawyers are criminals? Writers tongue-tied? Doctors sick? Leaders indecisive?
  • According to the Law of Requisite Contrariety, they would have to be.

Look at it this way: if you knew everything about a field, endeavor or interest, you would hardly know what you knew. It would be the context in which you live, like water to the fish and air to the fowl. There would be no motivation to learn. If you were perfectly balanced, you wouldn’t think about studying clinical psychology. If you could communicate perfectly, you would not consider studying how to communicate.

Somewhere in your life, you have judged yourself as having some defect, scarcity, insecurity, some impoverishment, lost opportunity, thwarted desire or unrequited love—wonderful! Cherish your foibles. These are the kind of experiences that point us in the direction of what we need to learn. Without these signposts, we would never have any orientation in our lives, no thirst to learn, or creativity.

The most creative periods in history were marked by gods who were all too human. The Greeks and Romans saw their makers as petty, vain, irascible, passionate and arbitrary. As soon as people began accepting an invisible, omniscient, omnipotent and impeccably moral god—Wham!—down came the Dark Ages. Periods of renaissance are characterized by the humanity of the people’s spirits. What makes a spirit human? His or her ability to fail. Imperfection. Error. Inability. The human touch is more a fumble than a grasp.

We’ve seen many great leaders bite the dust of moral defectiveness during the past two decades. Even our own fearless Constitutional founders have been impugned at one time or another for lacking moral or marital fiber. I’m not condoning any of the behavior of the afore-mentioned, and this is not an apology for abusiveness in any human relationship. I personally find violence intolerable, and I also sometimes lose my temper. I’m just addressing the human tendency to discredit and invalidate disciplines in toto because of a few wretched acts by imperfect beings.

One thing I’ve learned in life: you can find fault with anybody. There is probably someone right now in the world who thinks the Dalai Lama giggles too much and that Mother Teresa was a nag. Finding fault is not the job of being alive! Who was it that said, “Nobody on this planet is sufficiently intelligent to be 100% wrong”? Finding what is right, true, good, and beautiful in people or in a discipline seems to be the real task of living like a human being.

Many of us feel that we are failures in this task. Old therapy hands will recognize that failure is a singularly human invention. You never hear of a dog that is failure at being a dog. A cat would never consider failure possible. There is probably no single plant, protozoa or pachyderm that ever considers anything in its life as a failure. Certainly they perceive loss, blocked outcomes and frustration. But failure? I suspect that in nature, organisms naturally experience their world as a continuing feedback loop of information about what to do next. I think all our errors and shortcomings function for us in similar manner, but not only as information on what to do next, but where to go, what to study, and even what to do professionally.

Martin Heidegger, the existentialist philosopher, thought error, or what he called “breakdowns” was how reality originates. His theory of ontology suggested that things come into existence through “unreadiness at hand…a gift of disability…that renders opaque the transparent” in life, which breaks open reality and offers the opportunity for new breakthroughs.

Please notice that I am not trying to promote avoidance strategies. People should orient themselves toward their goals, toward what exists, rather than what does not exist. As longshoreman-philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote, “You can never get enough of what you really don’t want.” If your goal is to “not be poor,” you can have millions and still not have what you don’t want.

I am trying to promote a certain compassion and understanding for people who don’t always walk their talk. Including you. Certainly including me. We all judge ourselves too harshly. We could also use some compassion for our leaders. The Law of Requisite Contrariety (LRC) predicts that the most disorganized people end up running organizations.

I recently visited with Ken Wilber, and asked him why the Integral Institute had changed presidents so often in the past 8 years. He said that although many people could use the language of evolved beings—what is called “second-tier, yellow and turquoise memes” in Spiral Dynamics jargon, the actual behavior had a “green center of gravity” that generated the same narcissistic and uncritical pluralism that sabotaged so many new age organizations in the past 50 years. Of course, the LRC would predict that those who could not bootstrap themselves into a more integrated level would be attracted to trying to lead an integral movement. Those who were already integrated could care less.

The LRC applied to leadership could include the following tenets:

  • The Baby from Mars Syndrome. Leaders began life feeling like extra-terrestrial weir-children that hardly belonged to their families. But they were all right with this and started figuring out how these curious human beings worked.
  • Leaders follow best. They get results by allowing talented people to manage them.
  • Leaders are not stars. Jim Collins pointed out that charisma was negatively correlated with success in great companies—that great leaders were people-people, exhibiting a “compelling modesty”.
  • Leaders think locally and act globally. They apply their own particular personal experience to creating broad, universal outcomes.
  • Get their vision from others. They have relatively few original ideas, but are great listeners instead of talkers.
  • Personal mastery is optional. Come on, after what we’ve heard about the personal life of industry and political greats?

Ilya Prigogine, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist stated in his “Theory of Dissipative Systems” that all living (dissipating energy) systems tend to come to points of chaos, and almost break down before jumping to a new order of organization. There is an onerous corollary to the LRC. In spiritual traditions they say, “See it and be it.” Consciousness leaders Werner Erhard, Swami Muktananda, Zen master Richard Baker Roshi, were all attacked for sexual lapses, like some of our better presidents. What can give us more glee than detecting our own weaknesses in others?

If you see someone else behaving badly, watch out. Did you ever notice that when you criticize someone for doing something, you find yourself doing the same thing about 30 minutes later? This is physics: if you haven’t had a little experience with a given abomination, you can’t recognize it in another. It is literally incomprehensible. I’m not trying to moralize; I’m trying to suggest a new way to look at our individual “defects.” I myself don’t quite know how to apply the Law of Requisite Contrariety to organizations yet, but I have some idea about how in applies to Integral Theory.

For one thing, we can’t have ying without yang, Eros without Agape, Phobos without Thanatos, communion without agency, or integration without dissociation. That’s simply the way human existence works: a series of dichotomies and polarities that are really wholes, or holons as we would say in this journal. Wilber’s magnum opus was called “Sex, Ecology and Spirituality” perhaps because practically everybody on the planet starts with either a male or female orientation. Talk about contrarieties!

This started me thinking about how the LRC applies to more limited human endeavors, like relationships. Like falling in love. I humbly submit my first musings about how the LRC applies to intimate relationships. These examples should really make this concept alive for you.

#1 The Prime Security Indicator: How do you know when you have made it with someone else? How do you know if the person you are courting finds you acceptable? You know s/he feels secure when s/he tries to destroy or undermine exactly that quality in you which attracted him or her to you in the first place.

#2 The Nature of Behavioral Change: You will get the change you want from your beloved. They will actually learn to think, feel and act differently. Your love partner will produce exactly that behavioral change you have always wanted them to make—from stopping to pick their nose, to being interested in UFOs, to learning to do fantastic aerobatic kama-sutra numbers—for his or her next partner.

#3 The Rule of Behavioral Immunity. “They will never do that to me.” Sure they will. You picked her up at a party at which she ditched her date? That’s how she’ll leave you

#4 The Paradox of Attractional Imprints. You marry or mate with those that resemble your disliked mother or father. You probably act like them, too. And vice-versa with your significant other. My buddy Marie asked her boyfriend, “Did you have problems with your mother?” “Yes,” he told her, “And you are just like her!”

#5 The Law of Maximum Aversion. You produce exactly what you think you don’t ever want in someone else. You don’t want someone who yells at you. Guess what? You start asking “Could you speak a little louder?”

#6 The Continuum of Mutual Interests.Long after you have broken up with someone, you get interested in what you found boring in her or him. If s/he was an astrologer, in a few years you develop an interest in astrology; painting if s/he was a painter; existential philosophy, if she was an existentialist.

#7 The Karma Korrelative. When someone tells you they are really a bad person, believe them. Not that they are bad, but believe that they have unwanted behaviors that they will repeat again and again. They know themselves better than you do.

My negative friends tell me all the time, “I don’t want to have any negative thoughts.” There are a lot of people, especially Americans, whom I irritate grievously because they feel we should be doggedly optimistic about everything. They have beliefs that we should not dwell upon our flaws, errors and failures. My opinion is that we should and for very good reasons. Without being able to think about what does not exist, be it what we want to avoid, or what we can’t do, or what we are not, we could never have a future. Structurally you need the same kind of thinking to be able to distort all our past and present experience and transform it into a hallucination of the future—or mission, or vision, if you prefer—of what we want to do next.

Maybe this is just all as simple and yin and yang. You need the shadow to see the light. If everything is dark, you can’t see anything. If it’s all white light, there is no picture either. “Every picture has its shadow, every portrait has its point of light, “ as Joni Mitchell sings. Yes, I am talking finally about an aesthetic quality, something like that which the Japanese call ” wabi, “ which has been translated as “a flawed detail that creates an elegant whole.”

“To many people who see the world through modern sensibilities, beauty is represented by the kind of technological sleekness, smoothness, symmetry, and mass-produced perfection that is usually associated with a sports car or a skyscraper, “ wrote Howard Rheingold in his book, They Have A Word for It.

“A highly prized Japanese teacup, which might fetch tens of thousands of dollars from a collector, might be very simple, roughly fashioned, asymmetrical and plainly colored. It would not be uncommon to find a crack. The crack— the beautiful, distinctive, aesthetic flaw that distinguishes the spirit of the moment in which this object was created from all other moments in eternity—might indeed be the very feature that would cause a connoisseur to remark; ‘This pot has wabi.’”

Cherish your flaws, for each of us, I submit, hold great wabi.

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Brian Van der Horst has been an executive coach since 1977, and an NLP trainer since 1984 when he began to live and work in Europe, based in Paris where he founded Repère, an international NLP training institute, with two French consultants, designing and teaching practitioner and master practitioner certification programs to more than 10,000 people world-wide. In 1994, he founded a coaching school, and has certified around 300 coaches.

For the past few years, he has been an Program Development Director for Renaissance 2; and a founding member and Chief Facilitator, Europe, for Ken Wilber’s Integral Institute. Previously he was director of the Neuro-Linguistic Programming Center for Advanced Studies in San Francisco, and a consultant with Stanford Research Institute in the Values and Lifestyles Program of the Strategic Environments Group.

Van der Horst has taught at John F. Kennedy University in Orinda, California; The University of California in Sonoma; the University of Paris XIV, and XIII; and Apple University, France; and has given seminars in NLP and intercultural communication for MBA students at the Sorbonne, the International Management Institute , in Paris, and at the Institut d’Administration des Enterprises in Aix-en-Provence. He has also given leadership, team-building, and long-term management training seminars in Moscow, Sao Paulo, Hong Kong, and Indonesia; along with 10 countries in the European Community.

He has worked in journalism as an editor for New Realities, Practical Psychology, Playboy, and The Village Voice. The author of the books, Folk Music in America, Rock Music, and The Outcome Strategy; and over 1,000 magazine and newspaper articles, he has also been an acquisitions editor for J.P. Tarcher Books, Houghton-Mifflin, and hosted a television program in San Francisco. He currently writes for Intelligence, a newsletter on neuro-computing.

Before this time, Van der Horst was originally trained in marine biology, but shortly after attending Duke University, worked in the entertainment industry for 10 years, serving as Vice-President of the Cannon Group, and as Director of Advertising and Publicity for Atlantic Records. Van der Horst has been listed in Who’s Who in the World since 1994, and Who’s Who in America since 2007.