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The Thermodynamics of Emotion

“This is my answer to the gap between ideas and action – I will write it out.” -Hortense Calisher

Last year I went to a conference with a provocative title called “The Thermodynamics of Emotion“. It was an intimate three day seminar style conference held at the Kennedy School in Portland, coordinated by Willem Larsen. It was one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended.

The thermodynamics of emotion is somewhat loosely based on the intersection of two theories. It takes the laws of thermodynamics as explained by Adrian Bejan and applies them to the theories of emotion as it applies to dogs as described by Kevin Behar. At this point, if you are thinking this is kind of esoteric stuff, you wouldn’t be wrong.

The conference was composed of a very small, eclectic, group of people who shared a common interest in a little known principle of Physics called the Constructal Law. I want to begin by saying that eclectic doesn’t even begin to properly describe the diversity of that small cohort of people. There was a physicist, dog trainers, a horse trainer, specialists in wilderness tracking, Chinese herbal medicine, software developers, and a few agile consultants. It was perhaps the most diverse set of roles and careers I have ever had the good fortune to share ideas with. As I mentioned, it was a small group of people who were passionate about their respective disciplines. This lead to an intense exchange of ideas and most importantly metaphors that were intensely valuable as we explored the Constructal Law together.

Basically, the idea is to take the models of thermodynamic theory (Bejan’s Constructal law) and apply them to other domains, like those of emotions (psychology). Before I go any further, I think it’s important to acknowledge that this kind of mixing of models can lead us into risky territory. To arbitrarily try to apply models from physics to topics like human emotion can lead to the worst kind of pop culture theory. Especially when it’s not based on any experimental evidence. From time to time, I found myself somewhat uncomfortable in some of the discussions. Often, I wasn’t able to paint a clear line between domains or subjects. For a consultant like me, who is accustomed to being one of the smart guys in the room, that’s kind of scary.

So, is it wrong to take theories and models from one domain and try to apply them to another? No, I don’t believe so. Is it risky? You bet! Does it feel uncomfortable? Absolutely! There we were, wrestling with ideas for which we had no common language, sharing them with domains that had no obvious overlap (wilderness trackers? Really?) What is a software process geek to do?

We were mixing metaphors with reckless abandon. For example, Do the concepts of the flow of Chi through the body, as described by Chinese medicine, reveal anything about how work flows through organizations? Sometimes these sorts of conversations could lead to what sounded like tantalizing hints of new ways of thinking. We were all on very uncertain ground with these ideas.

It was like panning for gold, we would scoop up a pan full of concepts, stir them around, and try to make some sense of them. All the while looking for the sparkle of a bright idea. I tried to manage the uncertainty by describing what I thought I saw in terms of what I knew – software organizations. For example, I would rephrase what I thought I heard the animal trackers say in terms of doing discovery when beginning a consulting engagement. After all, I’m also trying to find things when I start work with a new customer. As I talk, I find myself struggling for terms to map between tracking and consulting. Sometimes the words come easily, and other times they refuse to come at all.

Mixing ideas like this can be frustrating, awkward, and occasionally exhilarating work. It’s like having a word on the tip of your tongue. You know it’s right there waiting for you…if only you can just find it. It can be maddening. I went back recently and looked at the notes from that weekend. Each day there were periods where my notes randomly tracked from topic to topic, unable to draw any meaning or conclusions. Then, at three different points you can tell I’m having that “Eureka!” Moment. The ideas align, concepts click, and I have found something new that opens up a new way of thinking about the world of work.

I don’t think this is the kind of conference/seminar for everyone – it takes a very open mind, and a willingness to work to find a new idea. You have to bring your own ideas to the table too. It’s not like your typical mainstream conference with it’s predictable themes and topics. However, for some daring souls who don’t need the path laid down before them, this just may be where new ideas are born.

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