Five Styles of Conative Mastery

purple water lily with beeI’d forgotten conatus. A new interpretation of it (below) can make learning and action easier – for anybody mastering (or teaching) new skills and knowledge – or anybody interacting with other people to accomplish something, or creating characters in literature, or optimizing a relationship. It was such a surprise to my pride, that I hadn’t remembered the word, I’m excited to write about it as my New Year’s offering (before anybody reminds me it’s old news – since Spinoza‘s work has been around a while, and the Kolbe four-part structure has been talked about for a few years).

This four-faceted description of people’s action styles (conatus) adds another dimension to Gardner’s nine types of intelligence, the Enneagram, and Myers-Briggs, in discerning how a person lives and moves in the world. And, in the New Year spirit of launching new projects, it offers a way to re-sequence George Leonard’s classic Five Keys to Mastery in ways that fit the individual and the task.

Officially, conatus is the impulse to survive and thrive, from the root conor, to endeavor – originally used in pre-scientific physics (classical and theological philosophy), more recently in biology. It’s akin to lifeforce, which is so much the spirit of this blog.

The word arrived in an article about learning, citing a child- and self-development system that defines four (supposedly) instinctive styles for taking action, ways of approaching a new skill or task. It’s a third kind of deep personal orientation, underneath cognition and feeling.

Although I didn’t feel a resonance with the system’s shorthand animal symbols for the four styles, and I believe they’re more nurture than nature, the fundamental ideas seemed intuitively real. So, with thanks for the concept, and adapting the four-elements aspect, I developed my own language for the four styles of Doing, and added one for Being:

* Experiential  (water: just dive in and swim around, letting it all surround and move you)

* Experimental  (air: watch from on high to see what happens when you play with the pieces)

* Preparatory  (earth: acquire knowledge of the totality and details before beginning)

* Sequential  (fire: consume a logical path through the wilderness)

* (Ether is the Essential, the Beginner’s Mind consciousness watching conatus operate, a fifth “style,” which I added.)

Why does this matter? It’s easy to remember people insulting each other for having a different conative action style. Someone immersed in the experiential Water style might sneer at someone whose practice is preparatory Earth style, and say “Just do it,” which could be counterproductive. Someone at home in the experimental Air style could feel demoralized and tyrannized by being forced to follow a Sequential path. Conflict is possible in every combination, and it changes depending on who’s in charge and what the challenge requires. But if all players have insight into the value of each style, can even be open to trying out unfamiliar styles, rigid patterns can be transcended, misunderstandings avoided.

After the Aha entertainment of the article, the idea got more powerful: conatus popped up around the same time I was struggling (again) with George Leonard’s Five Keys to Mastery. It was touted on the web as a New Year’s how-to for new things people want to achieve and become, so I pulled out my yellowing 1992 paperback, to review. Something still didn’t fit. He had everything in the “wrong” order (starting with Instruction, proceeding through Practice and Surrender, only then getting around to Intention, before going to The Edge – surely “right” for Leonard, who’d applied his learning as a fighter-pilot instructor to his life as an aikido instructor).

The next day, the magical insights of four-part conatus commingled with the five keys (and with my own style, which has always put Intention first, and is now experimenting with Surrender-to-inspiration first). I wondered if my problem had been that Leonard’s keys were sequenced for a personal style and a type of task that didn’t fit me and my life – and maybe they could be re-sequenced for all the conative styles. Eureka.

Different key-sequences, different styles, could be chosen for different kinds of learning, depending on motivation and circumstances. Is this required schooling? Is physical training required? Is skill-set learning available outside formal instruction? How important is feedback? Is subtle inner development involved? Is autonomous creativity possible or desirable? What are the stakes of performance (rewards, risks, costs, responsibilities)? Is one learning/action style so ingrained that only activities amenable to it will be pleasurable and successful? Is access to the best teacher(s) possible or necessary? Is this a defining lifetime activity (ultimate mastery), or a quick superficial survival requirement (functional mastery)? Do I want/need to learn this only for myself, or do I need to have a broad-enough foundation to be able to teach others? Do I need certification?

There’s a new option: Flexible Mastery, which I just made up. Its foundation is recognizing the five styles – in oneself, in any endeavor or culture, and in other people – and being able to adapt the Five Keys for that moment. 

The shift itself can be the key. Two life-altering examples arose in my reading while I was imagining flexible mastery: George Leonard’s fool and Peter Levine’s tiger. Massive inner shifts occurred for these two in the moment Leonard discovered the creative genius in allowing himself to feel foolish (at The Edge) and in the moment Levine had a vision of his traumatized client escaping a tiger. In both cases, these authoritative pros were intensely moved by needing to be helpful to a stranger in an unfamiliar crisis, and all their usual action styles cracked apart, letting a higher/deeper wisdom enter and move them. Some might call this passion, since movement arose from a kind of woundedness. I prefer to conceive of it as the receptive quality of Essence, since the focus here is Mastery, organizing for action, creating an inner role as expressive choice-maker.

For example, for my writerly mastery, my learning means choosing different teachers for different aspects of the craft, depending on my depth response to their work. One of my current sci-fi guides is conceptually brilliant, poetically spoken, psychologically wise, and structurally engaging, but I lose connection during some of the dialogue. Another is hilarious and astute about characters, who speak in unique, touching, believable tones – and her story imagination and cultural exploration are off the charts – but sometimes I get disoriented in her structure. In mainstream lit, I found a book loaded with the sensory richness, cultural sophistication, and ingenious symbols that I want in my own work, even if her descriptions occasionally veer toward overload. There’s no way but Sequential to learn from them: reading their books. Yet the Preparatory spirit is present too, keeping in mind I’m honing my own voice (for screenplays as well as novels) by noticing my response to artistry of different kinds. 

So I’m happy to offer conatus to anybody who didn’t know about it before, to anybody who might find these newer interpretations useful. This is Nature, emergent, evolving, all elements interacting – the lifeforce moving, interlaced, as in the photo above, with lily, water, sunlight and bee – and the unseen pollen and honey, all of which we are, from the Essential perspective.

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