Business, Let’s Get Metaphysical
The rush into the virtual world must be accompanied by a return to the natural, physical, and spiritual.
by Monika Jiang and Tim Leberecht
Our world is undergoing profound changes: global warming and loss of species, growing social division and far-right populism, toxic tech culture and looming cyberwars, the pandemic, a crisis of loneliness, The Great Resignation.
And business is changing fast, too.
Out: Old-school bosses, command-and-control, binaries, profit first, win-win, an obsession with data and optimization, over-efficiency and reduction, extractive business models, bottomless exponential growth.
In: People, planet, purpose; regenerative and circular business models; decentralization; equity; fluid identities; diverse, inclusive workplaces; sensitive, conscious leadership.
Some of the signals are still weak, others are strong. The message though is clear:
We want business that doesn’t reduce us to productivity and efficiency, to numbers and figures, to shareholder value and bottom line. We want business that makes meaning, that senses and makes sense, that generates and regenerates. Business that is always unfinished. Business that is not bigger, but greater, wider, deeper. Business that connects us to our heart, spirit, and body. To nature. Business that partners with nature. That is nature.
It’s time to remember the “unbusinesslike nature of business,” as philosopher Dr. Bayo Akomolafe puts it.
In response to The Great Reduction, we need The Great Expansion. We need business to lift its veneer and come all the way down, to look up and within, with its head in the cloud(s) and both feet underground — like a tower with a foundation as deep as its height. Hyper-aware, wholehearted, full-bodied. We need business that is woke and awake, yet has the ability to dream and to dream big, within our body, out-of-body, always firmly in the blur, a north star in the dark. Merging the mind (our ability to sense, think, and imagine) with matter (the substance of signs, acts, and movements) in a new foundation for business.
Welcome to the new paradigm: metaphysical.
Sounds abstract? Well, it is. And it isn’t. It’s time to realize that what seemed beyond reality yesterday will be mainstream tomorrow. And is already acutely relevant today.
Let’s unpack it and look at the four main attributes of metaphysical business:
First, meta, as in the metaverse.
Yes, this time it’s real. In a perfect storm of advances in computing power, commercial interests, science-fiction romance, and self-fulfilling prophecy, the metaverse has finally arrived on the scene in full force.
The Great Immersion comes with great responsibility. This is true whether you are a proponent of virtual supremacy or not. In his new book Reality X: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy, David J. Chalmers argues that virtual worlds will rival and ultimately surpass an increasingly unalluring physical reality. Following that line of thinking, we must make the metaverse worth living in. Otherwise, it will just become one gigantic shopping mall.
Venture capitalist Marc Andreesen goes a step further and calls for a new moral imperative:
“The vast majority of humanity lacks Reality Privilege — their online world is, or will be, immeasurably richer and more fulfilling…. Reality has had 5,000 years to get good, and is clearly still woefully lacking for most people…. We should build — and we are building online worlds that make life and work and love wonderful for everyone, no matter what level of reality deprivation they find themselves in.”
In his essay, The Dream of Virtual Reality, the philosopher L. M. Sacasas pushes back: “The claim that, even now, virtual realities can outstrip my experience of the world is increasingly plausible when I have lost the capacity to wonder at and delight in the gratuity and beauty of the world.” The real world isn’t going anywhere. In fact, research by ReD Associates suggests that younger generations in particular spend a big chunk of their time online to enable more meaningful social interactions (entertainment, romance, study) in the physical world.
So ask yourself what you and your organization can do not only to make the virtual world better per se, but to use it to make the real one better. How can the metaverse become an environment of learning through the kind of radical, deeper, and truthful exploration and experimentation that is not possible in the real world? “What if the virtual realities we created didn’t make us want to stay, but what if they inspired us to want to come back and build a better actual world?” Shannon Mullen O’Keefe, founder of The Museum of Ideas, wonders, “What if we visited our world as it might be if we cared for it?”
Secondly, metaphysical means physical.
We must balance our presence in the virtual world by becoming more aware of our bodies. Meta sana in corpore sano. Amid the rush to become ultra-efficient, fitness-tracker-optimized, Soylent-drinking machines, the pandemic reminded us that we’re all mortal. Our neglected bodies cry out for attention — for better sleep, for exercise, for us to reconnect with ancient wisdom that might tell us what we need to regenerate.
This is not just a personal effort but a political one. Social progress happens when our shared knowledge becomes sensuous, as the afro-feminist writer Minna Salami argues — when we become one body. So we need to get physical.
At the workplace, this begins with re-acknowledging that the bodiless bodies we bring to the workplace have deprived us for too long of too much of our knowledge. We perform better, make better decisions, are happier and more fulfilled at work if we show up with our full bodies. As leaders, we will only come alive and inspire others to come alive, if we mean what we say — or in other words, if we embody what we believe in.
This is why airlines have begun to incorporate yoga in their pilot training. This is why ballet dancers and choreographers teach CEOs what it means to step into the unknown and make creative choices. This is why teams start their meetings by singing together. Indeed, if a workforce formed a choir to sing the new company strategy every day, adoption rates would go through the roof.
Thirdly, metaphysical means natural.
The physicality of business implies a humbler notion of our relationship to nature. We need organizations that are as complex as nature, that are nature-like.
Nature-like organizations co-design with nature, beyond bionics, biomimicry, and synthetic biology, toward nature-like business models and organizational designs. They must not only be ecologically minded, but become ecologies, with seasonality, circularity, and fluidity as their core DNA, thereby becoming more resilient to ever-changing environments.
Nature-like organizations apply a regenerative approach to all their resources, humans included. As Giles Hutchins and Laura Storm suggest:
“Regenerative means to renew, replenish, heal, revitalize. Which, in practice, means to understand and work with the living-system dynamics of the organization and its wider ecosystem; to work in ways that allow the business to become life-affirming. Essentially, ‘regenerative’ is to attune with the way nature works.”
Nature-like goes even deeper and means immersion into what author Robert Macfarlane calls the “Underland,” a reunion with the mycelium and even microbes such as bacteria, fungi, algae, and viruses. Anab Jain, co-founder of speculative design firm Superflux, argues:
“Modernism’s methodologies of mapping, designing, planning, for controlling and changing deeply complex systems may not be the answer to the challenges we face. Maybe we need to go underground — working in networked, symbiotic companionships, like mycelial arrangements, to generate infinite micro-revolutions.”
Finally, metaphysical means spiritual.
Metaphysical business means moving beyond the human-centered. It honors our spiritual selves. It connects us to something that is greater than ourselves, cherishes the subconscious, and strives for a heightened consciousness. It plays with psychedelics and entangles with quantum thinking. Along with the theory of many worlds, quantum scientists like Erwin Schrödinger (yes, the one with the cat!) have explored the world as a superposition of states, a multiverse made up of a superposition of universes.
Metaphysical business is aware of these many worlds and modalities. It is constantly shape-shifting. It is confident enough to look to the stars to shape its strategy. It views astrology and astronomy as an invitation to humility. “For when we are nothing… It is then that we are gods,” as the poet John Lars Zwerenz wrote.
It is a business that knows its demons. And is not afraid to summon its angels when it needs them.
The future will be more virtual, physical, natural, and spiritual. To thrive in it, business must get metaphysical.