The developer funnel

If I ever chatted with you about developer experience in person, I’ve probably drawn the developer funnel for you on the whiteboard. For some reason, I always draw it as a funnel — but any power-law visualization can suffice. As an aside, I do miss the whiteboards. 

At the bottom of the funnel, there are a rare few who know how to speak to computers as directly as humans can. Their perspective on writing data to storage involves programming a controller. As we travel a bit higher, we’ll find a somewhat larger number peeps who write hardcore code (usually C/C++, and more recently, Rust)  that powers operating systems. Higher still, the power law kicks into high gear: there are significantly more people with each click. Developers who write system frameworks are vastly outnumbered by developers who consume them, and there are orders of magnitudes more of those who write Javascript. They are still entirely eclipsed by the number of those who create content.

With each leap in numbers, something else happens — the amount of power passed upward diminishes. Each new layer of abstraction aims to reduce the underlying complexity of computing and in doing so, also collapses the number of choices available to developers who work with that layer. Try to follow the rabbit trail of setting a cookie value, a one-liner in Javascript — and a massive amount of work in the browser that goes into that. Reducing complexity makes the overall mental model of computing simpler and easier to learn, which helps to explain the growing number of developers.

This funnel can be a helpful framing for a conversation about desired qualities of the API. Do we want to have rapid growth? Probably want to be aiming somewhere higher in the funnel, designing convenient, harder to mess up APIs. Want to introduce powerful APIs and not worry about the sharper edges? Expect only a small number of consumers who will understand how to use them effectively.

The Relationship Polarity

I’ve been feeling a little stuck in my progress with the Four Needs Framework, and one thing I am trying now is reframing my assumptions about the very basics of the framework. Here’s one such exploration. It comes from the recent thinking I’ve done around boundaries and relationships, a sort of continuation of the Puzzle Me metaphor. In part, the insight here comes from ideas in César Hidalgo’s Why Information Grows and Lisa Feldman Barrett’s How Emotions Are Made.

My conscious experience is akin to navigating a dense, messy network of concepts. I construct reality by creating and organizing these concepts. One way in which I organize concepts is by defining relationships between them and me. The nature of the relationship can be viewed as a continuum of judgements I can make about whether a concept is me or not me. For concepts that are closer to “me” in this continuum, I see my relationship with them more like a connection.

For concepts that are closer to “not me,” I judge the relationship with them as more like a boundary.

Sometimes the choice is clearly “me”, like my Self. Sometimes it’s nearly perfectly “me”, like my nose. Sometimes the choice is clearly not me. For example,  last time I touched a hot stove I suddenly became informed that it definitely was not me. Sometimes, the position is somewhere in the middle. My bike is not me, since it’s not actually my body part, but it can feel like an extension of me on a Sunday ride.

Think of this continuum of judgements as a continuum between boundary and connection. The more I feel that the concept is “me,” the closer it is to the “connection” end of the continuum. The more I feel that the concept is “not me,” the farther it sits toward the “boundary” end of the continuum.

In this framing, the choices I make about my relationship with concepts are points on this continuum. As I interact with concepts, I define my relationship with them by picking the spot on this continuum based on my interaction experiences.

This is where the next turn in this story comes. It seems that some concepts will naturally settle down into one spot and stay there. “Hot stove” will stick far toward the “boundary” end of the continuum. “My bike” will be closer to “connection.”  On the other hand, some concepts will resist this simple categorization. Depending on the interaction experience, they might appear as one of several points on the continuum. They might appear as a range, or maybe even a fuzzy cloud that covers part or the entire continuum.

The concepts that settle down into steady spots become part of my environment: they represent things that I assume to be there. They are my reference points. Things like ground, gravity, water, and so on take very little effort to acknowledge and rely on, because our brains evolved to operate on these concepts exceptionally efficiently.

The concepts whose position on the continuum is less settled are more expensive to the human brain to interact with. Because our brains are predictive devices, they will struggle to make accurate predictions. By expending extra energy, our brains will attempt to “make sense” of these concepts. A successful outcome of this sense-making process is the emergence of new concepts. Using the hot stove example from above, the brain might split the seemingly-binary concept of a “stove that sometimes hurts and sometimes doesn’t” into “hot stove” and “cold stove.” This new conceptual model is  more subtle and allows for better prediction. It is also interesting to note how concept-splitting retains transitive relationships (“hot stove” is still a “stove”) and seems to form a relational network for stable concepts.

There’s also a possibility of a stalemate in this seemingly mechanical game of concept-splitting: a relationship polarity. A relationship polarity occurs when the concept appears to resist being split into a connected network of more stable concepts. 

Sometimes I feel cranky, and sometimes I feel happy. Is it because I am hungry? Sometimes. Is it because of the weather? Sometimes. Relationship polarities are even more energy-consuming, because they produce this continuous churn within the relational network of concepts. My mind creates a model using one set of concepts, then the new experiences disconfirm it, the mind breaks it down, and creates another model, and so on. There’s something here around affect as well: this churn will likely feel uncomfortable as the interoceptive network issues warnings about energy depletion. In terms of emotions, this might manifest as concepts of “dread”, “stress”,  “anxiety”, etc.

What was most curious for me is how a relationship polarity arises naturally as a result of two parties interacting. The key insight here is in adaptation being a source of the seeming resistance. As both you and I attempt to construct conceptual models of each other, we adjust our future interactions according to our models. In doing so, we create more opportunities for disconfirming experiences to arise, spurring the concept churn. The two adaptive parties do not necessarily need to be distinct individuals. As I learn more about myself, I change how I model myself, and in doing so, change how I learn about myself.

Adult Development Primer

Over Thanksgiving break, I wrote another one of those flip-through decks. It’s been a labor of love and I hope you find it useful in your journey. This one attempts to tell one coherent story about Adult Development Theory, based on the work of a few folks whose contributions to the field I found valuable to me.

Here’s a short link for it:

The Tree of Self

Diving into the Internal Family Systems (IFS) concepts and methodology led to these four insights at the intersection of the Four Needs Framework (4NF), IFS, and Adult Development Theory (ADT). 

Shearing Forces Lead to Multiplicity

At the core of the first insight is that the ever-present tension of the Four Needs and the resulting maelstrom of Existential Anxieties acts a powerful shearing force. I have been wondering before about the effect of the tug and pull of the Anxieties, and how there seems to be this rapid switching of Anxieties from one polar opposite to another. The framing of the internal family of Self, surrounded by Protectors and Exiles offered by Richard Schwartz provided a clarifying perspective: this process of rapid switching can be viewed as different, distinct parts within me taking the seat of consciousness one at a time. This idea hints at the notion that somehow, there’s an entire population of parts within me that emerged from my life experience. 
This is where it clicked: these parts are the outcome of my mind’s attempts to do its best to resolve the tension. Unable to bring coherence, especially at the earlier stages of my development, a split develops, creating two distinct parts. Each part embodies the respective Anxieties within the tension. Whenever the pull of Existential Anxieties proves impossible to resolve, the split repeats. Over time, the number of parts grows, populating the Internal Family System. Thus, the Fundamental Needs act as the part-splitting force, leading to multiplicity of agents within the System of Self that I was vaguely sensing last year. Unlike my early guesses back then, Dr. Schwartz provided a clear path to explore these parts and show that their formation does not correspond one-to-one to each Existential Anxiety (née Fear), but rather forms a unique sub-personality.

Branches Form a Tree

Taking this part-splitting idea further, it is evident that the splits form branches. The sub-personalities live the same story (that is, share identical models and sense-making capacity) until the split, but continue separate developmental journeys thereafter. When I have a conversation with a part–especially an Exile!–it is often a younger version of me, stuck in some past traumatic event. Unlike the branch that developed into a trunk to grow further, this branch remained undeveloped.

This is where the second insight arrived: these parts, these sub-personalities, branch by branch, form a Tree of Self. Some branches stop growing. Some turn into trunks to sprout new branches. This tree is a whole that is both coherent and disjoint. It is coherent, because every two parts share the same beginning of their life story. It is disjoint, because at some point, the story unfolds differently for each of the two. 

In this way, the Tree of Self is not like a tribe or a family. A tribe comes together as separate people deciding to become whole. When a family is formed, an offspring does not share the story of their parents: the story is conveyed through words, but not lived experience. In the Tree of Self, all parts are rooted in the same life story.

This same-rootedness is why the IFS practice appears so effective: at the core, all my parts recognize themselves in each other. They are innately connected in the ultimate kinship, and want to be whole. Unlike a tribe or a family, there is no “before” where the parts existed separately. The story began with oneness, and the part-splitting is just the middle of their hero’s journey. The happy ending that every part yearns for is togetherness.

The Tree Evolves as it Grows

This tree-like arrangement led to the third insight. The Tree of Self grows across developmental stages. Continuing the tree metaphor, each transformation to the next stage is a material change. New growth becomes more capable of managing the shearing forces. At earlier stages, the strategy for managing these forces might be the part-splitting. The later stages bring more resilience, leading to fewer splits. I am picturing this as the tree growing upward through the layers of atmosphere, drawing on the idea of “vertical development.” Each layer represents a developmental stage, starting with the earlier stages closer to the ground and later stages stacking on top.

Some branches reach into the later stages, and some are stuck at the earlier. Since each branch represents a sub-personality, each may occupy the seat of consciousness. As a result, what I show up like may appear as a scattering of selves across multiple stages of development. The ADT phenomenon of fallback effect speaks to the idea that in some situations, the lower-to-the-ground branches are more likely to claim the seat. 

Self-work as the Journey toward Wholeness

Recognizing this multiplicity and diversity across stages has been very clarifying and produced the fourth insight. The aim of self-work might not be about learning how to reach the higher stages faster, willing my branches to reach higher and higher. This process of growth seems to happen regardless of whether I want it or not. Instead, self-work might be about nurturing the Tree of Self to wholeness. The Tree of Self is whole when each branch has been examined and given attention, support and room to grow. IFS session transcripts often talk about how a healed Exile rapidly matures, as if catching up. My guess is that moment and the feeling of closure and quiet satisfaction that accompanies is the increase in wholeness of the Tree of Self. The previously-shunned branch soars to join the rest of its kin. 

There’s something very peaceful about this framing. Self-work is revealed as gardening, an infinite game of nourishing all branches of the Tree of Self, and helping it become whole even as each branch continues to grow.

Transformational Learning

Building on the ideas in The Suffering of Expectations, I want to look more closely at the expectation gradients. These are predictions of future experiences, and they can have negative or positive values. Negative values indicate that I expect a future that is worse for me than it is now, and positive values are the opposite: I expect the future to be better than the present. The steeper the slope, the more dramatic the future outlook. Worse outcomes look catastrophic, and better outcomes promise pure bliss. The gentler slope leads to a slightly worse or slightly better future. The way I like to imagine it is gauging how quickly a murky lake gets deep as I wade into it.

Expectation gradients are shaped by my previous experiences. My mind subconsciously sifts all of my past experiences, finds–or synthesizes!–the best match and this match now becomes the expectation gradient. So, if I had a really terrible experience and the situation appears to match the beginning of that experience, I will feel a steep negative expectation gradient — whoa, that lake bed is dropping away fast! Conversely, if the present appears to match the start of a mild or pleasant experience, I will feel a gentle or upward-sloping gradient.

Sifting through all past experiences can be expensive, and I am not blessed with a source of infinite energy, so there’s an optimization process at play that relies on prediction errors. Each prediction is compared with the actual outcome, and a prediction error is computed. Prediction errors are a signal to organize my past experiences. Lower prediction errors reinforce the value of the experience used to make the prediction. Higher errors weaken that value.  This continuous process fine-tunes how my mind makes predictions. Higher-valued past experiences are looked at first, as they are more likely to repeat. The experiences with the lower value are gently pushed to the bottom. This process of ranking allows my mind to work more efficiently: skim the top hits, and ignore the rest. Energy saved! Another word for this optimization process is informational learning: every bit of new information is incorporated to improve my ability to make accurate predictions.

At this point, I want to introduce the concept of prediction confidence. I continue to have experiences, and they fuel the learning. Ideally, this process results in effective predictions: a clear winner of a prediction for every situation. A less comfortable situation happens when there does not seem to be a clear winner. Here, matching past experiences to the present produces not one, but multiple predictions that vary in their slope. Expanding the wading-into-lake analogy, it feels like even though I took the same exact path, the lake bed had a different shape at times. Most times, it had a nice and gentle slope, but every so often, the same exact bed somehow felt steeper. I swear, it’s like the lake bed had shifted! Now that’s a puzzler.

To reflect on the nature of prediction confidence, consider the framing of complexity of the environment. If the environment is simple, then my experiential journey quickly produces a perfect map of this environment and I am able to make exact, 100% confidence predictions. If this then that — bam! In a simple environment, the list of my experiences wading into the lake has only one item, because it repeats every time with clockwork precision.

The more complex the environment, the more fuzzy the prediction matching. If the environment is highly complex, I may find myself in a situation where I have near-zero confidence predictions: every situation might as well be brand new, because I can’t seem to find a match that isn’t the whole set of my experiences. Walking into the lake is a total surprise. Each time, I find a seemingly differently-shaped lake bed. What the heck is going on?

In such an environment, energy-saving optimizations no longer seem to work, and if anything, hinder the progress. It’s clear that something is amiss, but the existing machinery just keeps chugging away trying to build that stack rank — and failing. How can the stupid lake bed be so different… Every. Fricking. Time?!

This crisis of confidence is an indicator that it’s time for change, for another kind of learning. Unlike informational learning, which is all about improving my ability to make predictions within a situation, the process of transformational learning is about uncovering a different way to see the situation. The outcome of transformational learning is a profound reevaluation of how I perceive the environment. It is by definition mind-boggling. Transformational learning feels like discovering that all this time, when I was feeling the lake bed shift under my feet, I was actually only perceiving my own movement along one axis. I was assuming a two-dimensional space, unaware that there’s another dimension! Whoa. So the lake bed isn’t moving. Instead, I wasn’t accounting for my own movements across the shore. If I incorporate the “lake shore” axis, all of these past experiences suddenly snap into a static, three-dimensional map of a lake bed.

Transformational learning is a rearrangement of my past experiences into a new structure, a new way to organize them and produce a whole different set of predictions. Also necessarily, the letting go of the old way and the acceptance of the uncertainty that comes with that. A three-dimensional map of the lake bed represents the environment more usefully, but it is also more complex, allowing for more degrees of freedom and requiring more energy to operate. Another long journey of informational learning awaits to optimize my prediction-making machinery and turn this novel perspective into a familiar surrounding — until the next transformation time.

Whenever I get that sense of the shape-shifting lake bed, in these “what the heck just happened, this is wrong!” moments, I take comfort in the notion that transformational learning awaits. Though it might not offer immediate insight right then and there, this movement of the surface, a seemingly exogenous change is a signal. It tells me that I am approaching yet another edge of my current understanding of the environment, and a new perspective beckons to be revealed.


There is no past or future. There are only stories of the past and stories of the future, and both kinds are mutable. We resolve the pervasive ontological uncertainty by matching the story we know (beginning, middle, end) and placing its middle in the “now.” This allows us to imagine that we understand why the past happened in a way that led to the present, and what the future brings. As long as the present follows the arc of this story, we are content. We’re in control of the narrative.

When inevitably, the infinite complexity of the world manifests itself in bucking our chosen story, we encounter decoherence: our expectations of the past that was “now” just a moment ago no longer match what we experience–a prediction error!–and the future stops looking as certain, causing us to pattern-match to another story we know that might fit. Depending on the cache of stories we draw, these stories might be cataclysmic (aversion) or blissful (craving), guiding our expectation gradients. As we latch onto that new story, we repeat the cycle: the story’s beginning reshapes our past, the middle constructs the present, and the end predicts the future. This metamorphosis happens quite seamlessly and magically in our minds. The new story snaps into place in a way that neatly explains or just plain forgets the old one.

But in that moment of decoherence, in that struggle to regain control over the narrative, we experience suffering. Our sense-making revolts, unable to cope with the blood-curling contact with uncertainty, grasping to regain that elusive handle on the narrative. A global pandemic, an unthinkable tragedy, or even just an unexpected act of someone you care about. Each holds that decoherence potential, the hidden token of suffering.

So we strive to reduce this suffering. We escape, trying to hide in environments where only familiar stories could play out–or so we believe. We try to dial down that prediction error, denying the markers of decoherence, continuing to hold on to the chosen story for as long as we can. We rebel and rise up, hoping to shape the world into our stories. We accommodate, looking to find our places in the stories of others. We hone our sense-making to produce the most accurate predictions. We hoard stories lest we are faced with the one we don’t know.

And yet, we continue to suffer. Somehow, all of these efforts backfire, bringing more suffering, a sense of a vicious cycle at play. As we white-knuckle our way through life, exhausted and beaten down, the paradox of decoherence is revealed to us. Decoherence is the glimpse into the nature of reality. The richer our models, our attempts to capture the complexity of reality, the more they will look like decoherence. The ultimate insight of understanding is that there is no insight and the understanding itself is a neat trick that our minds invented to cope with that fact. The paradox of decoherence is that the most accurate, crystal clear representation of reality is just as incomprehensible as the reality itself. The race toward clarity is the race toward decoherence.

… And I catch myself trying to hold on, trying to come up with a bigger story that includes decoherence being part of something bigger, something spiritual, something God-like. I fall into the mysticism of the Unknowable, hoping that this would do as an okay-ish substitute for true letting go. But deep in my heart, I know that it won’t. Decoherence just is, and the bigger picture is decoherence.

Somatic Signals: How I use the Four Needs Framework

This post marks a second anniversary of my self-work journey. Wow. 2020 has been kind of impossible, and I am grateful to have held on to my self-work routine and even to have made more progress.

When I first started doing self-work, I had this idea of identifying and documenting somatic signals that I experienced. Throughout the day, I would try to capture the concrete physical sensations of that moment. Instead of narrating my state as “I am stressed out” or “I am elated,” I would try to focus on what my body was experiencing: “A knot in my upper shoulders,” or “Very tense muscles around my mouth,” or “Warm pressure, like sunshine, at the top of my head.”  My hope was that by cataloging these experiences, I could create a sort of a topographical map of emotions and be able to orient myself: “aha, I am experiencing <somatic signal>, therefore, I must be feeling <emotion>” I reasoned that once so oriented, I could step out of the context of the emotion onto the riverbank, and then somehow find my way to inner peace.

This exercise yielded surprising results. The somatic signal catalog did indeed produce a fairly stable set of signals that seemed to cluster into a few buckets. I also recognized that these signals are squishy: they tend to move around and not always be consistent or specific in their manifestation. Looking back, there appears to have been a progression in my understanding of what the heck the somatic signals were. First notes on the somatic signals sounded more like role descriptions–“A Silicon Valley Guy”, “Forgot-my-homework Guy”, etc. Then, I started classifying them more as behaviors: “relitigating conversations,” “fret-scanning”, etc. My next big shift was toward trying to generalize these signals as markers of emotions: shame, anxiety, depression, anger… Eventually, I settled down on the descriptions that you’ve seen above. These seemed to be the least context-dependent and most useful as topographical markers on my map of Self.

In parallel, I’ve made some progress on developing the Four Needs Framework. The framework started as notes on similarities and differences of mental models in various books, and my attempts to apply these mental models during Archaeology of Self. At some point late last year, I realized that the framework and somatic signals are pointing at the same thing: they are both telling the story of the tension of Existential Anxieties. This terminology and the narrative didn’t solidify until July, but it’s been on my mind most of this year. As an aside: I find it fascinating how the understanding of a concept comes so much earlier than my capacity to tell a story about it. 

Anyhow, I started recognizing that there’s a distinct cluster of signals that I experience for each Existential Anxiety. My catalog, full of disparate records at first, collapsed to four groupings. To describe these groupings, I’ll also use the typical Western culture emotions that I associated with the experiences.

Not-Belonging feels like a sense of shame, of not being enough. It’s the thing that Brené Brown talks about in her books. The strongest physical markers for me are the onrush of blood to my cheeks or ears, a heavy weight in the stomach.

Not-Agency feels like irritability or desire to be aloof. It comes with a weird feeling of suspended reality, like an out-of-body-experience, tense nostrils, tension in the upper part of the neck, which tends to lift the chin upward, sometimes a sense of cold around my face and heat concentrating in my chest.

Not-Safety feels like angsty worry, with the somatic signals of tension in the lower part of neck, around shoulders, jaws, chin, mouth, increased heart rate.

Not-Purpose feels like depression and existential dread, and the signals usually feel like a heavy pressure on my chest, loss of muscle tone on face and shoulders.

Viewed within the quadrants of the Four Needs Framework, the combinations of these markers create a rich canvas of emotions. For example, I recognized that the Not-Agency + Not-Safety quadrant of the coordinate space is occupied by anger, blame, defensiveness, and fuming. Whenever I say that I am “mad at someone,” the somatic signals help me identify that I am in that quadrant. I am now roughly able to place myself into a quadrant pretty quickly based on the somatic signals I perceive. In the moment, I imagine pressing the pause button to introspect. “Whoa, I am suddenly feeling very tense. What’s happening? This feels like Not-Safety. Where is this coming from?” Asking these questions–gently and without judgement–usually yields insights about my state of expectations, or specific injured identities.

What helps the most, however, is the exploration itself. This process of inquiry helps me sit with an Anxiety, embrace it and be next to it, rather than be ridden by it. By focusing on a somatic signal, I can go “aha, I hear you, Not-Purpose. Yep, I see the giant negative delta prediction error, and yep, it sucks. I can feel the face muscles forming into the frown … there they go. I hear you, Not-Purpose, and I feel you.” Somehow, and I am not yet sure how, the mere fact of just observing somatic signals and accepting them opens up this tiny space of serenity, where the next action is not another reaction, but something altogether different.

The Suffering of Expectations

I have been thinking about the relationship between expectations and suffering, and this framing popped out recently.

Let’s suppose that there’s a scale of experiences, spanning negative and positive. This scale is relative to the current moment, which we will consider the center of this scale. There’s some way in which we evaluate experiences and determine whether they are positive and negative. Adding the dimension of time, we get this continuum of experience.

Within this continuum, I can now frame our predictions of experiences and their outcomes as expectations. When we predict experiences to happen in a certain way, we create new expectations. When we look at the past and recall our experiences, we evaluate our prior expectations. My guess is that suffering is somehow related to encountering a difference–a delta–between our expectations of experiences and our actual experiences.

At every moment of time, we subconsciously evaluate two expectation deltas.

The first delta is the prediction error. It’s the difference between what I expected to happen now and what really happened. Let’s say that the prediction error value is positive when my expectations were exceeded–that is, when what really happened was better than what I expected to happen.

When my expectations were unmet–what happened was worse than what I expected to happen, let’s say that the prediction error value is negative.

The second delta is the expectation gradient, or the difference between what I expect to happen in the future and what is currently happening. Let’s say that the expectation gradient value is positive when I expect better things to happen in the future …

… and the value is negative when I expect the future to bring worse things.

There’s something about these negative deltas. The bigger they are, the more inaccurate the prediction, whether in the past or in the future. The less accurate the predictions, the stronger the signal about the inaccuracy of the model that was used to issue these predictions. I wonder if we humans interpret that signal as suffering. We are wired to reduce the strength of this signal, to reduce the suffering. And boy, do we try.

The Existential Anxieties

So far, I’ve talked about the general framework and the tensions between the needs. To explore how the character moves across the Four Needs coordinate space, let’s study how the character might experience the tensions between the needs. In this story, our character is largely unaware of the pairwise polarities of the four needs. Instead, the character senses the tension, and can only relate to needs in the context of experiencing this tension.

To put it differently, the character feels that something is tugging at it, something beyond the grasp of the character’s understanding. This framing reveals a set of counterfactuals. In relation to each need, the tug produces a question of potential absence. What would happen to me if a particular need went unsatisfied? What if I didn’t have Belonging? What if I didn’t have Agency? What if I didn’t have Safety? What if I didn’t have Purpose? These counterfactuals give rise to four Existential Anxieties, the fears of the unknown, the fears of the potentiality that a need may not be satisfied–or perhaps even satisfiable.

In the context of the need to Belong, the experience of the tension in the Agency+Belonging polarity is thus interpreted as the threat of not belonging, giving rise to the Anxiety of Not-Belonging. In the context of the need of Agency, the same tension manifests as the threat to one’s agency, giving rise to the Anxiety of Not-Agency. Similarly, the character develops the Anxiety of Not-Purpose and Anxiety of Not-Safety through its experience of the tension in the Purpose+Safety polarity.

When I constantly seek others’ approval, I crave Belonging, and that craving ultimately comes from the perception of a deficit of Belonging, my underlying Anxiety of Not-Belonging. When a company decides to centralize and streamline its operations, it’s seeking efficiency and predictability, which is a marker of Safety. Lurking underneath, there’s organizational Anxiety of Not-Safety.

Existential Anxieties predict deficits of needs. They turn tensions into conflicts, each unwilling to let go, leading to vicious cycles. They vie for our character’s attention, providing catastrophic prognoses of needs being unmet. They are what compels the character to shift their position in the coordinate space.

This is an important point, so I’d like to give it more consideration. When the character is not subject to Existential Anxieties, it rests at the center of the coordinate space. The tension across the needs holds it perfectly at peace. It is only when the question of overcompensating, when there’s anticipation of a dire outcome does the change in character’s coordinates happen. Only when the character believes that there is some yet-unseen force that might push it off center does it begin to crave toward or avert away from one Need or another. These beliefs are supplied by the Existential Anxieties, and thus the anxieties are the driving forces behind the character’s journey across the coordinate space.

Once the change of coordinates happens, the balance in the conflict of Existential Anxieties shifts with it: anxieties are allayed or aggrieved. Moving away from one Need flares up its respective anxiety. When, late for class, I decide to take a shortcut through a dodgy alley, my Anxiety of Not-Purpose, combined with Anxiety of Not-Belonging supply a convincing argument of upholding my identity of a “good student”, causing my character to shift to the Purpose+Belonging quadrant. Then, as I hear a strange noise behind me, the aggrieved Anxieties of Not-Safety and Not-Agency savagely pull my character into the Safety+Agency quadrant. Similarly, an organization might find itself stagnant and uninspiring after another round of streamlining driven by Anxiety of Not-Safety, yearning for something courageous and bold as the indignant Anxiety of Not-Purpose drags its character toward Purpose.

A peculiar quality that seems to be common to all characters I’ve encountered so far is the presence of delays. Perhaps because Anxieties compete for attention and attention is a serial device, or perhaps for other reasons, the predictions of catastrophic calamities that Anxieties provide tend not to be punctual. I may sit up awake in the middle of the night realizing what a terrible goof I’ve made at the last week’s meeting and how that would definitely ruin my career. It might take years for an organization to suddenly snap into a belief that it needs a different culture. And at the same time, who hasn’t felt the visceral, immediate emotional response to a seemingly innocent remark of another? Sometimes anxieties trigger instantaneously, and sometimes they take time. As a result, the character tends to travel in wild oscillations that are common to complex systems with delayed feedback loops: as Anxieties conflict with each other, they pull and push the character along a messy, chaotic trajectory.

The paradox here is that while the journey marked by this trajectory is taken under the auspice of going back to center, it is also pretty clear that the method of the journey is unlikely to result in such outcome. Yet at the same time, this journey is truly the destination: it is only through experiencing this journey that the character may be able to glimpse the nature of this journey, and perhaps transcend the Anxieties that fuel it.

Tension between Purpose and Safety

Now that I described the tension between agency and belonging, I’d like to look at how the tension between Purpose and Safety plays out.

Within the framing of the the Four Needs framework, there’s a story being told, and I find that looking at the story through the eyes of the character of the story is helpful to zero in on the definition of the needs.

The need for Safety is usually the easiest to spot. It’s the one that drives the character to seek stability and order, where it wants to make sure that things are “predictable”, “coherent”, “legible”, “stable”, “certain”, “well-defended”, “supportive”, “at home” and so on. It’s the need to self-protect, to endure, to continue being. It’s easy to spot because this need’s most powerful manifestation is the survival instinct, an embodied response to a threat of existence. Based on my understanding, this is the most basic and first-acquired way of making meaning about the surrounding environment: will I get hurt? People and organizations alike take steps to ensure that they can see another day, whether through thoughtful accounting, planning, following laws, diet, or hygiene.

When craving Safety, there’s a sense of wanting protection, having capacity to defend oneself, the desire to predict and react appropriately to any external circumstance. The aversion to Safety feels like judgements of inflexibility, decay, obsolescence, boredom, and resistance to change.

If the need for Safety aims to reduce the risk, the need for Purpose moves in the opposite direction. Through the lens of the Four Needs framework, it’s that sense of wanting to be more, to expand, to grow. Purpose is about wanting to matter.

When people talk about Purpose, they usually say words like “change”, “hope”, “revolution”, “achievement”, “delivering”, “growth”, “outreach”, “destiny”, “challenge”, and alike. Purpose sometimes feels aspirational, carrying the implicit hope of tapping into the character’s full potential. In such situations, high moral principles and ideals tend to be at the center of organizational discussions or individual reflections. The need for Purpose could also animate something entirely self-serving, as it sometimes happens with communities that merely want to expand and consume or destroy everything in their path, like malignant cancers. In itself, the Need for Purpose is neither positive nor negative. It’s just a fundamental need that lurks in questions like: “Why am I here?” or “Is this all there is?”

When craving Purpose, there’s a sense of dissatisfaction, impatience, restlessness, desire to do something, to change the circumstances. The aversion to Purpose feels like seeing something risky, unwise, not-well-thought-out, and just plain stupid.

In a weird way, both Safety and Purpose are trying to achieve the same thing: to continue character’s existence. The Need for Safety takes the approach of prolonging existence, and Need for Purpose wants to redefine what it means to exist. While Safety takes existence literally, Purpose seeks immortality. Be it the scores of thriving descendants, enduring memories or actual physical artifacts representing character’s glory, Purpose is about making a mark on the world that transcends physical existence.

This desire for leaving a mark comes at the expense of Safety, producing the tension. To change the world, our character must interact with the world, which means putting itself in situations where there’s risk, spurring the Need for Safety’s protests.

I found James Hollis’ formulation of the tension enlightening: “we need to remember that these twin agendas of progression versus regression war within us each day.” Here, James assigns a more optimistic, high-minded sense of “progression” to Purpose, and uses a somewhat negative word of “regression” to describe Safety. Notice also the hostile juxtaposition of the needs in their tension in the use of the “daily war” analogy.

Arthur Schopenhauer has a more dour take: “Life swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and boredom,” situated in the perspective of begrudgingly seeing Purpose as the animating force.

Organizations experience Schopenhauer’s pendulum as they cycle through the innovator dilemma’s S-curves: Purpose-driven disruptive innovation gives way to protecting the user base animated by Safety.

As our characters persevere through their struggles, swinging back and forth between Safety and Purpose, I can’t help but observe that one output of these undulations is suffering. As one need is sated, the other is aggrieved, setting up the next round. The unending tug-of-war is certain and present in every moment of our collective being. What if this is also how we learn to transcend it? What if every battle in that daily war is a small step toward learning to see this tension as a polarity to be managed, rather than a battle? What if the other output of these undulations is development of the character’s sense-making capacity?