acceptance, is, ought, and baby food

a few weeks ago we had a conversation about acceptance. one of the things we discussed there was this:

acceptance is about the past not the future …

a common trap that we fall into in our thinking is when we jump without reflection between what is and what should (ought) be. in philosophy, that has been referred to as the “is/ought” problem. just because i say that yes, teachers used to beat students, and yes, i used to smoke (the “is”) does not mean that teachers ought to beat students and people ought to smoke.

one of the commenters then wondered how we can move away from an unpleasant “is” to a better “ought”

we could use a situation like this:

i can walk 4 miles an hour [the “is”]. since i believe this to be true [i.e. i accept the “is”], how can i believe that i could walk 5 miles an hour? [i.e. moving to the “ought”]

interestingly enough, around the time that we had this conversation, i also wrote about solution focused brief therapy. the solution focused tradition has much in common with appreciative inquiry, which has something to offer here.

we work from what is there: it engages the whole system. data from the past is analysed for common themes (including data from the client’s conversations with selected colleagues).’ this establishes ‘what is’. the client then articulates ‘what will be’ and ideas are put into practice.


it is quite permissible to experiment with not talking about the problem at all as it is ‘irrelevant to the solution’ and the coach also has ‘no idea where the solution will come from’. as gregory bateson pointed out, the solution comes from a second, or higher, order of thinking.

let’s combine our previous conversations about acceptance with these words about AI and see what happens if we apply them to the above situation:

in the past, i walked 4 miles an hour.

this is the reality, this is what happened. there is no regret, and it is not labelled a problem; it’s just “what is”.

by next year, i will [or want to] walk 5 miles an hour.

note that there is no “ought” (“i should”).  it is a future-directed expression of faith (“i will”) or desire (“i want to”).

i can do this by hiring a trainer, buying those expensive runners, rewarding myself with a trip to the south pacific, going to the gym each day, reading biographies of famous walking athletes, getting a really fast dog, befriending a training buddy, or signing up with a walking group.

there is no discussion of how hard it is to walk 5 miles an hour, or how you’ve trained before but it didn’t work, or how you can’t get motivated because walking reminds you of your athletic girlfriend (which would be discussing the problem). the brainstorming that created the ideas comes from a different part of the brain than the problem.

in the conversation that follows, we might choose one possible solution as an experiment and look for “one lazy step to take away today that will take you towards your solution,” as carey glass, the coach mentioned in the link above, says. “spy on yourself and look for tiny things that are helping: think baby food and it turns out to be caviar!”

i have seen this magic work over and over again. for example, i routinely ask clients who are very shy about networking to make one super simple phone call. “call them and ask them for their fax number; that’s all!” once they manage to do that, sweaty hands and all, they often surprise me by telling me that they found the person on the other end of the phone so nice that they ended up chatting for 5 minutes.

what would be your baby food?

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *