The Paradox of Connection

We are becoming more connected with each other and less connected with each other at the same time. The Big Shift that we’re experiencing on a global scale is full of paradox – this is just one of many, but a particularly important paradox to acknowledge and address. Let’s explore the forces that are shaping both dimensions of the paradox. More connection.

We’re seeing the exponential growth of a broad range of digital technologies that are connecting us globally at a speed and scale that would have been unimaginable a few decades ago. The foundation is a digital infrastructure that is exponentially improving in terms of processing power, storage capability and transmission speed. Wireless technology has made it possible for us to connect to this digital infrastructure (and to each other) regardless of where we are in the world with much less expense and effort.

Translation technologies are making it easier and easier for us to communicate with each other even if we don’t speak the same language. Tracking technologies can monitor our movements and activities and provide real-time updates regarding our whereabouts without requiring any effort on our part. And, of course, social media makes it possible for us to share news about ourselves to a large and growing number of friend, acquaintances and followers.

And it’s not just technology that’s expanding the ability to connect. There’s a global and accelerating movement of our population into densely settled cities. It’s far easier to connect with more people if you are in a city than if you are living in some small village in the countryside.

Less connection.

Many observers have commented that the exponentially expanding array of connections tends to become overwhelming. We find ourselves spread so thinly across so many connections that we can rapidly lose the ability to deepen our relationships with anyone.

And we don’t just have the ability to connect with more and more people, we also have the ability to connect with more information and resources through online networks. It used to be that if we had a question, we would have to find someone to ask. Now we can just go online and use a search tool to find the information on some website. That reduces our need to connect with others with urgent and pressing questions.

These factors are definitely in play, but I suspect that there’s something much more fundamental driving the erosion of connection. I suspect that fear is a growing factor in weakening our connections. I’ve written in an earlier post about the growth of fear around the world. Many forces feed the fear, but I believe there are two fundamental ones: mounting performance pressure and the accelerating pace of change. Either one of those alone would have the potential to generate fear but the combination of the two surely draws out this emotion.

So, what does fear have to do with connection? One might assume that growing fear would deepen connection as we are motivated to seek the support and comfort of others, but there are several barriers to deepening those connections. First, we live in institutions and societies where expressing fear is generally viewed as a sign of weakness. For this reason, we tend to try to hide and suppress our fear rather than expressing it and seeking the help of others. Instead, we try to maintain our distance so that few, if any, others will see our fear.

Fear also tends to erode trust. If I’m afraid, you may seem like a nice person, but I am less and less willing to trust my perceptions or to trust you. If I don’t trust you, I am even less willing to share emotions that might be perceived as a sign of weakness. This becomes a vicious cycle, because the less willing I am to share my emotions, the less willing others are to trust me and the less willing I will be to trust them in return.

As fear grows and trust erodes, there’s often a tendency to resort to narcissistic behavior. We see this a lot on social media, especially among the younger generations. They are prolific in posting pictures of the great meals they are eating, the wonderful places they are visiting and the large group of friends they are meeting. They want to assure everyone that they’re having a great time and that they are doing very well – they don’t want anyone to worry about them. In fact, they hope that everyone will envy them. Of course, this behavior further erodes trust because we all know that life is full of ups and downs. If we’re only sharing the ups, then we must be hiding the downs, and that makes us less trustworthy. Trust ultimately requires a willingness to express vulnerability, especially in times of mounting performance pressure and rapid change.

The net result of this is that our connections with others become thinner and more fragile. So, it’s not just about the challenge of juggling more connections; it’s about our willingness and ability to support deeper connections in an environment of growing fear and eroding trust. Until we address that, we’ll never be able to reap the benefits of more connections. What is to be done?

The first step is to acknowledge that we are living in a world of growing fear and eroding trust. Then the question becomes what to do about it? How do we help people to overcome their fear and rebuild trust in each other?

It won’t be easy, but I’ve come to believe that a specific form of narratives can play a key role. As many of you know, I’ve written extensively about narratives, including here and here. I draw a distinction between stories and narratives, even though most people use these two terms to mean the same thing. In short, the distinction I make is that stories are self-contained – they have a beginning, middle and end – something happens to end the story. Stories are also typically about the story-teller or about some other people, either real or fictional, but they’re not about you.

In contrast, narratives are open-ended. There is some big opportunity or threat out in the future and it’s not yet clear how the narrative will be resolved. And the resolution of the narrative hinges upon you, the listener – it is a call to action declaring that your choices and your actions will help to resolve the narrative.

And there’s a big distinction between threat-based narratives and opportunity-based narratives. Threat-based narratives tend to generate and strengthen fear – we’re under attack and we’re going to lose everything if we don’t mobilize now and resist. Opportunity-based narratives, in contrast, tend to generate hope and excitement – we can accomplish some amazing things that will benefit us all if we come together and act together.

Unfortunately, we live in a world that is increasingly dominated by threat-based narratives. What’s missing are opportunity-based narratives that could help us overcome our fear and build deeper trust in each other as we come together to address some inspiring opportunities. These opportunity-based narratives also have the power of pull because they attract people who are inspired by the opportunity, even though we had no prior connection with these people. Powerful network effects take hold as word of mouth spreads and more and more participants share their excitement with others they know. Narratives have the potential to drive a deep sense of connection across a growing number of participants that can reach thousands and even millions of people – they are all united by a shared desire to achieve an inspiring opportunity.

Appropriately framed, opportunity-based narratives can become a catalyst for drawing out the passion of the explorer among the participants. Again, I’ve written about this specific form of passion a lot, including here and here. In this context, passion of the explorer is particularly powerful because it motivates people to connect in a much deeper manner. People with this form of passion will readily ask for help from others because they are driven to achieve more and more impact in their chosen domains. They’re willing to express vulnerability and acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers and resources they need, which in turn helps to build trust. They’re driven to connect with many others because they are constantly searching for better and better ways to address the challenges they’re facing.

Opportunity based narratives and passion are valuable on multiple dimensions but, in the end, they help people to develop a sense of agency, cultivate a motivation to come together, and build deep, trust-based relationships with each other. Narratives and passion help people to overcome a sense of hopelessness and helplessness and they strengthen a sense that people can and should make a difference through action. They also underscore that, no matter how smart or accomplished a person is, they will be able to achieve far more impact if they come together and act together than if they act in isolation. Finally, they drive people to ask for help from each other in ways that build a deep sense of trust and strengthen the sense of connection.

The bottom line. We have the ability to connect with more and more people around the world, but our emotions are undermining our ability to make deeper and more fulfilling connections that can help all of us to achieve more of our potential. There’s a vicious cycle under way that continues to erode our ability to make connections that matter – the more fear we feel, the less likely we are to trust others and that leads to a growing sense of isolation which in turn feeds the fear, leading to even less trust and the cycle continues. While this emotion is understandable, it’s preventing us from harnessing the potential that’s created by the ability to connect with others more broadly and more deeply. We need to embrace opportunity-based narratives and the passion of the explorer to turn this around and, for the first time, discover the enormous power that comes from broader and deeper connections.

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