Driving south from Inverness, a roadside sign caught my attention. It declared:
‘Independence is normal’
The context is the campaign to separate Scotland from the UK. As someone who tends towards the solitary and self-sufficient, I truly recognise the value of autonomy and of taking responsibility for how I live. Yet, my thoughts quickly turned to The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which explores the relationship between dependence, independence and interdependence. In the book, independence is a milestone on a path from dependence to interdependence. The essence being, I think, that engaging with others as an equal requires confidence in our individual identity.
Whilst I support this notion, I’m concerned it implies a linear transition through the three states. Personally, I believe the relationship is more complex. While all three states are ‘normal’, in the sense of being ordinary and being typical aspects of living, interdependence is a given, a fundamental principle of life itself. In the natural world, this is clear in the interplay of soil, light, warmth, water and a seed as the latter germinates and grows. Or in the way plants decay, releasing nutrients back into the earth. Or in the interconnections between plants, insects, birds, fruits and seeds.
More mundane interdependencies are easier to overlook. For example, the oats I had for breakfast were grown and harvested by a farmer in Grampian, processed elsewhere, packaged and distributed by a wholesaler in Glasgow and sold by a small co-operative in Inverness. Delivery drivers, vehicles and roads were required along the way, none materialising out of nowhere. To make porridge, I added milk, water and salt, each also depending upon the efforts of many. The sheer number of interdependencies involved is vast – even before considering a pan, bowl and spoon.
So, much though I’d love to describe myself as thoroughly independent, I’m not. My life and work are made possible by myriads of people, goods, relationships and processes that I largely take for granted. I do have independent agency over some things, such as how I think and what I say – although even this is shaped and influenced by what I read and hear. For essentials such as the provision of clean water, the removal of waste and access to food and power supplies (to name but a few), I’m utterly dependent on others. Everything I rely on is generated by extensive networks of contingent relationships. Independence is illusory.
Sadly, we often forget or ignore this inconvenient fact, both as individuals and, particularly in this technological age, as societies and organisations. I wonder what would change if we fully acknowledged the reality of interdependence and put it at the heart of our conversations, choices and actions?
As a starting point, we might place more emphasis on genuine collaboration and on working constructively with difference. I don’t suggest this lightly – with a mixed track record of collaborating, I know it’s a challenging aspiration. While I’ve worked beautifully with some associates, I’ve suffered painful calamities with others. However, when I reflect on these varying experiences with honesty about my shortcomings, I conclude that my efforts at partnership foundered when I lacked the self-confidence to contribute as a peer. When I had a healthy sense of my identity and what I had to offer, I could play an equal part in a shared endeavour.
It seems to me that effective participation in a complex, interconnected world involves being independent within the fabric of interdependence, acknowledging that we’re a part of a greater whole. For organisations, states and other collective concerns, this stance invites each to understand their identity within a web of interrelationships and ask: how do we make this work? For example, the many interdependencies between the UK and European nations have to be navigated whether or not the UK is a member of the EU. Wider appreciation of this may have led to a smoother departure – or to a decision to stay.
We can all learn from this – everything we do at every level of society is thoroughly enmeshed in the activities of others. Being more transparent about this reality might prompt us to find better ways of working within it.
We might even declare: interdependence is normal!
- As you reflect on the many interdependencies in your life and work, which are most important? How can you nurture these?
- In what ways does your sense of self in different situations influence the way you engage with others?