The Emergence Principle

In 18th century, a mathematician discovered that coin flips created a distribution that resembled a smooth curve. And the “bell curve” was born.

I have conducted a number of analyses in my scientific career. All those times, the sight of a perfect bell curve was a beauty to behold! It always reassured me that my work was on track.

But ever since my Corporate days, I detest that dumb distribution! I abhor the practice of Corporate America to try to fit everyone into a profile, a data point, an ID or a curve.

As a person you are more than the sum of your talents, skills and knowledge! How could anyone believe that you can be “quantified” through something that predicts the result of a coin toss? How can you be boiled down to a set of numbers or a statistical occurrence?

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Whether you are an employee, or an entrepreneur, refuse to succumb to this mindset! Believe that you are more than just a number on a curve.

Don’t take my word for it. In contrast to the bell curve, consider the Emergence principle.

You may have heard this saying, but you may not know that it is often misquoted (Kofka specifically chose other instead of greater).

The whole is other than the sum of it’s parts. ~ Kurt Kofka

The saying refers to the act of emergence, how a complex pattern is formed from simple elements. It is a process whereby larger entities arise through interactions among smaller entities that themselves do not exhibit such (complex) properties.

There is a plethora of examples illustrating the Emergence principle in the sciences and the arts. From the architecture of suburban neighborhoods to the complex neural pathways in our brain, emergence is prevalent in many adaptive systems. 

The phenomenon that we refer to as life or consciousness may itself be an emergent property, the inexplicable result of interactions between matter and energy.

It seems laughable that that very consciousness that we struggle to explain, we attempt to quantify in terms of IQ, performance rating, dress size, weight and net worth. Why are we humans so obsessed with measurements?

No philosophy explains Emergence better than Gestalt theory. The word “Gestalt” is of Germanic origin and loosely translates to “form or shape”.

Gestalt philosophy is evident in many aspects of everyday life from visual arts to music to design of user interfaces (on this very web browser)!

The Gestalt principle maintains that the operational principle of the human mind is holistic, parallel and analogous. Simply put, we perceive the entire figure and form before detecting the individual lines and curves, suggesting that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (or other if you want to be a stickler).

All experience and learning that has been fully assimilated and integrated builds up a person’s background… [This background] gives meaning to the emerging gestalten, and thus supports a certain way of living on the boundary with excitement. Whatever is not assimilated, either gets lost or remains a block in the ongoing development [or growth]. ~ Fritz Perls

Gestalt is comprised of a number of fascinating principles of perceptual organization, such as proximity, similarity, closure, continuity etc. These principles illustrate how we form perceptions and therefore how we create meaning based on our existing knowledge and experience.

For the purposes of this post, it is sufficient to explain Gestalt through an example.

The image below perfectly illustrates the Gestalt principle of Emergence. The picture contains both positive and negative spaces. Instead of perceiving the identifying parts (hair, eyes, nose), when looking at this image, you either see a face or the shadow of a man playing an instrument.


Image Credit: Gestalt Face, Foreground vs. Background,

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The Gestalt stance is most readily apparent in Coaching. Gestalt introduces a process approach to coaching, with process taking precedence over tools and techniques. (You all know how much I love the process based approach promoted by Agile!)

The Gestalt Coaching process follows the path of a self-regulating cycle of experience – sensation, awareness, mobilization, action, change and closure. The individual instinctually moves through these stages to (re)establish internal equilibrium. The process is rarely time-bound, the cycle may last a minute, an hour, a year, or even a lifetime.

The thoughts and feelings that surface during this process, echo the forms moving in and out of the foreground that is the conscious mind. When these thoughts or assumptions are questioned, the forms can be brought completely into awareness. When attention and awareness come together there is an experience of the now, which opens the individual up to more choices.

Just as the parts fail to explain the whole, so the past fails to explain the present or the present the future . . . at the present instant the future seems simply non-existent . . . ~ Murphy and Jensen

It pains me when anyone bases their identity on societal labels. If they have built a picture of their being solely through their work identity, they may only try to understand themselves through personality profiles such as MBTI, DISC or Personalysis. Not that these profiles are not useful, but they can hardly encapsulate the uniqueness of any person! These profiles are objective, while everything that you, my client or I, experience is highly subjective.

This is why Gestalt awareness uses powerful questions. These questions whether direct and guided or broad and open-ended create a space, a safe environment where the individual can surpass finding meaning in doing and connect with a real sense of being.

Here are a few Gestalt questions used to bring forth a heightened sense of awareness:

How do you perceive your world?

How can you think beyond your current circumstances to visualize your ideal life? 

What filter or lens can you apply to your issues to view them differently?

Who can you become through this experience or situation?

Who are you outside of your career (or your family)?

Ultimately, the purpose of understanding the Emergence principle is to develop a greater level of perceptual awareness in your life. This in turn transforms how you create meaning from your experiences. It helps you view events with an attitude of learned optimism.

Gestalt sometimes leads to a paradoxical view of change, awareness leads to acknowledgement and acceptance of reality rather than continual denial and rejection of reality. When you begin to accept what is, then fixed perceptions begin to dissolve and greater complexity starts to evolve.

Gestalt helps view change as not a linear or sequential approach but as a complex, interactive, and recursive process. It reinforces change as a systemic force, anything that affects one aspect of our life will sooner or later permeate all other aspects.

If what you need is a shift in reality, it can be accomplished by widening or deepening your thinking, by using different theories or references. These can reveal new or alternative ways of perceiving your reality.

As a precursor to shifting perspective, I recommend Connecting The Dots and building a complete picture of your reality. In future posts, I will share powerful exercises to help visualize your own holistic identity and cover other helpful theories that will provide different views on your being.

Once you internalize the implications of the Emergence principle, I hope you will awaken to the fact that far from being a quantifiable entity, your true nature is a dynamic continuum.

You have the potential to grow, and forever expand into the fullness of your being. The choice is yours and yours alone.

Emergence Gestalt Prayer

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