The Seventh Story: Extending Learning Organizations Far Beyond Business

We dream to wake to life! — Stephron Kaplan-Williams

Anyone who recognizes what is going on in the world and is not insecure is just not awake. — in a speech by a Fortune 500 CEO

In 1987 I had a powerful nighttime dream filled with metaphor representing aspects of our lives today. It went like this: A handsome, highly intelligent, impeccably dressed American corporate businessman is driving the car as we wend our way toward our destination. It is slow going and he is using extreme caution to avoid the throngs of people moving in the opposite direction. They seem frightened as they coax children along and clutch meager belongings.

“What’s going on?” I ask.

“It’s because of the fire,” he explains.

“Oh, I see,” though I didn’t see at all. I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. But, not wanting to appear any more ignorant than I already had, I didn’t ask, “What fire?”

As we approach the only tall building for miles around I recognize the familiar six-foot concrete wall topped with jagged-edged glass from broken bottles — a common form of security in many parts of the world. A mass of humanity envelops the outer perimeter of the wall. Though these people exude intense urgency, for the most part they appear settled, living on the streets and in makeshift homes constructed of what others have discarded.

The building is beautiful! Once we pass through the gate a sense of spaciousness, quiet, and ease embraces us. As we ascend to the top of the building, the seventh story, I mention how struck I am by the urgent, frenetic mood outside the gate.

“Yes,” my colleague responds. “But, lucky for us, it’s not something we have to worry about.”

The seventh story is one large room — an elegant yet conservative reception space. There are several people in the room when we arrive. Most are men between thirty-five and fifty-five who also appear to be highly successful executives like my colleague. There are only a few other women and no children or old people. The mood is upbeat — jovial, in fact. As I walk across the room, passing and greeting people along the way, I glance out the windows to the south. Across the entire horizon I see fire. In front of the fire there are no trees or animals, only dry savannah grass and people on the move. A pit forms in my stomach as I notice my feelings of shock and terror.

I turn and run from the room and down the stairs two at a time. I want to help. I want to offer my energy, my money, my intelligence — whatever. To save lives! But, what can I do? I find myself running haphazardly through the streets. I become just one more person among the teeming masses. I notice I am dissipating my resources without having the slightest positive impact.

With a heavy heart, I return to the building. On my way I glimpse many creative attempts to survive the fire. One especially stands out. Two boys have rigged up a teeter-totter/pulley system over a sewer. Thus, one boy comes up to breathe as the other is lowered into the vat of sewage to cool off.

After passing through the gate into the building’s interior garden, I climb the first flight of stairs I notice a small, young, dark-skinned woman descending. Her eyes are downcast and she holds a newborn baby in her arms. They are both soaked through so I know she somehow got permission to use the shower. I think to myself that this may be the last time either of them will be cool. For an instant I consider taking them upstairs with me. That, at least, would be something I could do.

As we meet, she looks directly and unabashedly into my eyes. I am stunned by the calm, the compassion, and the comprehension I see. I witness generations of ancient, timeless wisdom in her teenage face. Without a word she communicates that she knows I cannot take her and her child upstairs; that not only would they be refused entrance, but so would I. Tears fill my eyes as I receive her forgiveness and, at the same time, feel my despair and helplessness.

When I enter the room on the seventh story again, I notice that cases of beer and snacks have been set out. People are conversing, laughing, and dancing to the music of Bruce Springsteen. I see the fire moving closer. The smoke finds its way to the windows.

“Look!” I shout. “Please look! The fire is rapidly approaching. What are we going to do?”

My colleague smiles consolingly saying, “Don’t worry. It’s okay. You’ll be okay. We’ll all be okay as long as we stay up here.” He asks someone to pull the curtains to block out the unpleasant sight of the fire. “It might get hot in here for awhile. And it might become difficult to breathe. But we will survive. We are survivors, after all. When the fire has passed we will go back downstairs and begin to rebuild.”

“But,” I think to myself, “How can I ever again leave this room again?”

Transforming the Fire

Many images of my dream are daunting even when considered individually — the fire, the cavalier attitude of people of the seventh story, the absent children and old people, the lamentable circumstances of the boys with the teeter-totter and the teenager with the baby. Combine them and they become so overwhelming that it is possible to feel consumed by feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and despair.

Even more breathtaking is that the dream, while symbolic, is not unreal. It fairly represents one view of the world in which we live today.

Whether we can feel it or not, we are affected by what happens on the rest of our planet. And, most certainly, business is not exempt. Most people know this to be true. But the question is, “What can we do about it?”

The first response, often, is feeling afraid and helpless. This can lead to running down the stairs two at a time as I did in the dream. Many of us feel a true sense of urgency and a desire to positively affect the outcome. Responding out of urgency tends to lead us to finding a “cause” where we can make a contribution. The paradox is that most of the causes treat symptoms rather than establishing, understanding, and impacting the roots of systemic problems. Thus, it is critical to distinguish between the urgency of our plight — which leads to panic — and the necessity of taking responsibility for it — which leads to learning more about its nature.

Where there is deep and radical learning, transformation occurs. It occurs simultaneously at the most personal and the most global levels. Thus, to the extent that each individual and the system as a whole can learn, there is probability of transforming the fire.

A Daytime Dream

The nighttime dream has given me the opportunity to be more awake to what’s going on in our world at this time. It has allowed me to safely be with and face very difficult emotions. Most of all — because the dream is so vivid, so compelling, and so real for me — it has prompted me, stirred me, to balance it by developing an equally vivid and compelling counterpoint daytime dream — a vision.

My vision is that we devote ourselves to making the world of business, the seventh story, a living, learning, loving, and profitably thriving organism — a milieu that supports human evolution for eternity while accomplishing the goals of today. Given the power of business on one hand and the powerlessness of much of the rest of our world on the other, it’s likely none of us will survive if the global business infrastructure doesn’t succeed.

If we truly want a world in which we can do business, those of us on the seventh story will passionately assume more responsibility for the well being, integrity, and survival of our larger living system.

What does that mean — assume more responsibility? It means that “sound” business decisions are those which ensure the viability of a discrete business, to be sure. In addition, however, sound business decisions are those which take into account the implications of the course of business beyond itself — in both geographic space and linear time. Thus, the true learning organization extends beyond the boundaries of any one business. True learning organizations creatively incorporates — in balance — both present and the future, local and global, within and beyond business.

Around the time I had the dream I was at a decision point about whether to resume my corporate consulting practice or accept a three-year contract with the World Bank in Papua New Guinea. The dream made it crystal clear that, given the types of work I had been doing in Africa for the better part of the three preceding years, continuing my international relief and development work was akin for me to running through the streets dissipating my resources.

Thus, I made my choice. I would return full tilt to the seventh story and sometimes shout, sometimes whisper, “Look! Please look! The fire is approaching rapidly. What are we going to do?”

Since then the tone of my voice, the way I shout or whisper my warning has changed. My mission has become a very sacred task and I am less scared. Continuously awakening anew to the current predicament of our world and pushing through the hopelessness and despair, I experience hope and creativity.

And companionship. Over time, thank goodness, I have discovered others who share these awarenesses, these values, and a similar vision. And I have found them on the seventh story.

But, even though we may have a clear sense of purpose, even though we may have hope and a vision, does not mean we know what to do. It doesn’t mean we have answers. It does mean, however, that as much as we are able, we’re willing to live in the questions and engage in learning. It means we are willing to explore the edges of our consciousness — our minds, our hearts, our spirits.

Together We Will Be Learning

In Chinese the characters that represent crisis include both danger and opportunity. We currently live in crisis, in a state of emergency. It is essential that we navigate the emergency routes to new landscapes for it is often in times of emergency or crisis that we have major breakthroughs. That is where the hope and opportunity lie. In my vision, to get there we will have to work together in new ways. We will stretch ourselves beyond where we’ve ever been before and we will do it together.

Together we will:

*            delve into deep inquiry of the unanswerable questions and dilemmas of our times — and live with the discomfort of not having ready-made answers.

*            develop unified, resolute, ardent vision and engage in creation.

*            literally change and, thus, grow our minds.

*            draw from the deeper, less physical senses — and then trust more and more what we learn from them.

*            discover ways to transcend time.

Let’s look at each of these directions for our learning together.

Together we will delve into deep inquiry of the unanswerable questions and dilemmas of our times — and live with the discomfort of not having ready-made answers.

How can the seventh story more fully reflect the nature of the human family — whether literally or symbolically? How do we weave more of the generations of ancient, timeless wisdom into our lives? How can we more fully bring into the workplace the innocent child’s freedom for learning, creating, and making mistakes along with the experienced elder’s wisdom, long view, and reflection?

How do we face the challenges of disparity of resources and differences in cultures represented by the two sides of the concrete wall? How sturdy is the wall? How can we create safe harbors where we can rest, relax, restore, and restock ourselves without having the harbors be elite or exclusive?

How can we more fully learn from the creative, resourcefulness of the boys with the teeter-totter? How can we develop and express more of the calm, the compassion, the comprehension of the teenage mother?

How can the destructive fires be transformed into heat, energy, and passion that can serve all life?

Together we will develop unified, resolute, ardent vision and engage in creation.

Early in The Fifth Discipline, Senge distinguishes between “adaptive” and “generative” learning. Adaptive learning is learning that maintains survival. Generative learning is learning that leads to creating the future.

In our learning we will deeply scrutinize commonly held assumptions that set limitations on our ability to engage in generative learning. One assumption that limits, for example, is the recently popularized word meant to describe efforts toward creating a workable world. The word is “sustainability.” “Sustain” is not a word of hope or creation. It means “maintain,” “shore up,” “buttress.” An alternative, for example, is “viability.” Viable means “alive,” “vital,” “prospering.” Sustainability cannot truly engender deep images of thriving. It stops at notions of surviving because it implicitly calls for adaptive or survival learning rather than generative or creative learning!

In our quest to generate common vision, we will become clearer about our assumptions and values. From the vision, we must risk creating new forces, new forms, new systems, and new rituals.

While it is an essential tool, conventional, rational problem-solving, is insufficient. We will push ourselves much further. As far as we know, our creativity is a truly limitless resource.

Together we will literally change and, thus, grow our minds.

We will recognize that the mind has capacity for infinitely more than thinking — though thinking, of course, is part of the equation. We will also open ourselves to believing in possibilities until they are disproven, rather than waiting until they are proven.

We will recognize that individually and collectively, no matter what, we choose and create our future. Daily we will entertain the possibility that the folk saying, “Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it,” just might be true! We get what we put our attention on — whether loving or fearful. For example, it seems that the more resource we devote to the “wars” on crime, drugs, and poverty, the more murder, drug trade and use, and homelessness we seem to have!

On the other hand, ignoring the issues altogether does not make them go away. Denial is a choice that directly determines the future by not consciously creating it.

Together we will draw from the deeper, less physical senses — and then trust more and more what we learn from them.

Our five senses, while they keep us alive and well in the physical world, are inadequate to handle the tasks that face us. As with all of life, we are “in process.” We are evolving as a species. One locus of our evolution is the arena of our “sixth sense.” But it’s much more than a sixth sense — it is an entire cadre of senses. Call them what you will — inner knowing, intuition, psychic power, the small, quiet voice — we are coming to comprehend that there’s more going on and more available to us than what we can see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. We are also recognizing that this cadre of senses is available to all of us — not just to the religious, the specially endowed, or the weird few on the fringe.

Author Gary Zukav calls this “the emergence of multisensory humanity.” In an essay entitled Evolution and Business he writes, “The human species is now leaving behind the exploration of physical reality as its mode of evolution and, simultaneously, the limitations of the five senses. Five-sensory humans are becoming multisensory humans — humans that are not limited to the perception of the five senses.”

Together we will discover ways to transcend time.

We don’t have much time. But acting out of urgency alone doesn’t seem to produce the creative results we need. Nor does giving up.

Here, again, we have assumptions to challenge — like, “Things take time.” Some processes do take time. On the other hand, some processes can change direction in an instant or perform an unexpected quantum leap — especially in our minds when we’re learning and creating.

Given the force and momentum of our flailing and failing life support system on planet earth, we will push ourselves to create by moving beyond linear time. At a minimum we will bend time. Even better, we will learn more about how to “tesseract” Do you remember reading A Wrinkle in Time as a child or to your own children? For those who don’t know it, I’ll let Mrs. Whatsit explain it as she did to the children in the story.

“Explanations are not easy when they are about things for which your civilization still has no words. Traveling at the speed of light of course is the impractical, long way around. We have learned to take short cuts wherever possible.” Mrs. Whatsit looked over at Mrs. Who. “Take your skirt and show them.” Mrs. Who took a portion of her white robe in her hands and held it tight.

“You see,” Mrs. Whatsit said, “if a very small insect were to move from the section of skirt in Mrs. Who’s right hand to that in her left, it would be quite a long walk for him if he had to walk straight across.”

Swiftly Mrs. Who brought her hands, still holding the skirt, together. “Now, you see,” Mrs. Whatsit said, “he would be there, without taking that long trip. That’s how we travel. In other words, a straight line is not the shortest distance between two points.

Esoteric experiences like telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition are examples of learning that transcend time. But breakthrough ideas, spiritual conversions, choosing anew, and comprehending something for the first time are also examples. They are examples of common, everyday experiences that are not linear and that transcend time. They happen in an instant and can change everything about how “reality” appears as a result.


My nighttime dream ended but it did not have a conclusion. There is room to realize the daytime dream, the vision. The fires of destruction can be redirected — in my heart and soul, I’m sure of it — to become alchemical fires of transformation.

By living in the unanswerable questions of our lives and times, by exposing them to constant, continuous, and rigorous inquiry, we have probability of influencing our individual and collective futures toward as yet unimagined creative solutions. We can direct our journey away from the systemic global problems and toward our own evolution as a species and the evolution of all life on earth.


Referenced Bibliography

Kaplan-Williams, Strephon, “Purpose,” Dream Cards, Fireside, 1991, card #55.

L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time, Dell, 1962, pp. 73-75.

Loeb, Marshall, “Editor’s Desk,” Fortune, December 14, 1992, p. 4.

Senge, Peter M., The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization, Doubleday, 1990, p. 14.

Zukav, Gary, “Evolution and Business,” The New Paradigm in Business: Emerging Strategies for Leadership and Organizational Change, ed. by Ray and Rinzler, Tarcher/Perigee, 1993 p. 240.

Supporting Bibliography

Harman, Willis and John Hormann, Creative Work, Knowledge Systems, Inc., 1990.

Harman, Willis, Global Mind Change: The Promise of the Last Years of the Twentieth Century, Knowledge Systems, Inc., 1988.

Kaplan, Robert D., “The Coming Anarchy,” Atlantic Monthly, February 1994, pp. 44-76.

Korten, David C., Getting to the 21st Century: Voluntary Action and the Global Agenda, Kumarian Press, 1990.

Mander, Jerry, In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations, Sierra Club Books, 1991.

Mindell, Arnold, The Year I, Global Process Work: Community Creation from Global Problems, Tensions and Myths, Arcana, 1989.

Nahser, F. Byron and Susan E. Mehrtens, Executive Summary: What’s Really Going On?, Corporantes Business, 1993.

Ornstein, Robert and Paul Erlich, New World New Mind: Moving Toward Conscious Evolution, Doubleday, 1989.

Quinn, Daniel, Ishmael, Bantam/Turner, 1992.

Russell, Peter, The White Hole in Time: Our Future Evolution and the Meaning of Now, Harper, 1992.

White, Frank, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

First published in Learning Organizations:  Developing Cultures for Tomorrow’s Workplace, ed. by Bill DeFoore and John Renesch, New Leaders Press, 1996.

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