In 1915, mathematician Emmy Noether proved that every action within a physical system has an opposite and equal reaction.
This was anything but revelatory in the world of spirituality. The religions of our world are infused with the concepts of karma and equilibrium. Enlightenment is for the pure and the balanced.
The world of business, too, is premised on profitable relationships, and some degree of balance must be struck before contracts are signed. Every arc of human experience is counterbalanced by extremes; rich and poor, hot and cold, good and evil, light and dark, joy and sadness. From chaos, an elegant balance, order, is struck, and a relationship is formed.
Humanity is undeniably complex, and no experience occurs in a vacuum. Human endeavor seeks to chart paths between these absolutes and across mediums. Language, equations, computer code, painting, and poetry are all methods that seek to bring balance and agreement between potentially disparate quantities. Negatives can become positive, 1s and 0s can become dancing cats. These very tools can become concepts, then re-tooled as metaphor and deployed to fine-tune a poem or passage in a book. The end result of a stanza, a line of code or a law of physics is something greater than the sum of its parts.
Our hyperconnected modern era is uniquely poly-cultural, giving rise to an endless sea of data. Globalism has created links where none existed and prompted a continual reinvention and redefinition of the potentials and pitfalls of humanity.
It is no mistake that as humans our relationships bear more than a passing resemblance to alchemy, where mercury was often a key ingredient. We are mercurial creatures by nature. In the name of cultural protectionism, religious fervor, and racism, the United States once regarded Buddhism as a dangerous cult. Now, well over a century later, Buddhist teachings are revered by an active laity, general spiritualists and engaged business leaders alike
Our capacity for cultural alchemy and reinvention knows no bounds. Innovation is the engine that propels us ever faster into the future. It is ironic we view alchemy as more of a historical trinket and turn of phrase than the scientific precursor it truly was. Jabir ibn Hayyan, a 9th century polymath who counted alchemy among his many disciplines, is credited with being the grandfather of the Scientific Method. Before periodic tables, before atomic weights, before we even truly understood that Earth, Wind and Fire is more appropriate as a band moniker than governing elements of nature, we had Alchemy.
In its original incarnation, alchemy was a melange of science and spiritualism that revolved around the concept of the Philosopher’s Stone. While each alchemist tended to have their own method or belief structure surrounding the nature of the Stone, it’s widely understood that the pursuit of the Stone was an allegory for enlightenment.
A Philosopher’s Stone was believed to be the purest possible substance, capable of transmuting elements into gold or providing eternal life. Still others trusted that if the purest form of gold were reached, it would endlessly sprout seeds of wealth.
A perfect relationship is often just as mystical and transformative as the powers of the Philosopher’s Stone, and equally elusive. A lifelong partner breeds perpetual gold, and finding the pure balance within the relationship allows it to thrive in perpetuity. Being able to sort that ideal partner out from the billions of people on this planet requires an entirely new set of equations and tools.
A buzzworthy term that dominates business philosophy today is emotional intelligence. There’s a new article on the subject nearly every day, with whole capsule libraries devoted to the subject. Whereas a raw IQ score is based on logic and deductive abilities, emotional intelligence is based around empathy and mindfulness, another hot topic in business and beyond. The language of business is now more complex than it was even a decade ago. The subject isn’t new, but for business leadership seminars and reading lists, it’s now required coursework.
The changing perspective in business relationships is moving away from the zero-sum game of capitalistic profit to a more open barter system that seeks balance and longevity. Rather than milking resources as quickly and efficiently as possible, sustainability has risen to new prominence, and whole departments have sprouted up around the concept. While Human Resources has been a corporate fixture for decades, these resources are now viewed less as something to quickly mine and cast off and more of a garden to grow and nurture over time. Just in time for robots to replace us all, CEOs around the world are learning that it pays to be compassionate.
Many may view relationships as a game of tug-of-war, but emotional intelligence provides a sliver of a Philosopher’s Stone to the enlightened. For those that can see the connections between dollars, sense, and sensibilities, victory is fixed on a balanced center. Tipping the scales one way or the other literally brings the equation out of proportion. The stable equation establishes practical boundaries without encroaching on others. It is the tuning of an orchestra so that a symphony in all its harmonies and chords can blossom and swell.
In a New York Times obituary for Emmy Noether in 1935, Albert Einstein wrote,
“Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas. One seeks the most general ideas of operation which will bring together in simple, logical and unified form the largest possible circle of formal relationships. In this effort toward logical beauty spiritual formulas are discovered necessary for the deeper penetration into the laws of nature.”
Symmetry is more than an abstract concept. The laws of the physical world have their emotive counterpart, and for those that want to obtain the rare substance of a strong relationship, a great deal of effort is required. Corraling the elements in the slipstream of human relationships to form a more perfect union is difficult, to say the least.
It is impossible to actually transmute substances into gold, to obtain something from nothing. Our learned ancestors labored largely in vain in their alchemical enterprises, but there’s something to be said for the importance of disciplined vocation in the pursuit of balance.
The chaotic and lonely planet of strangers we share can yield acquaintances, friends, and life-long partners provided the appropriate words, thoughts and actions are invested. With the proper sequence, elegant threads of spun gold begin to tie us together, bringing us all that much closer to finding the Philosopher’s Stone.
Artwork by Costas Picadas