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The Ancient Philosophy That Can Help Us Thrive Through Constant Change

Yin and yang ground us in our full humanity, in equal measure.

Drazen Zigic/ Shutterstock
Drazen Zigic/ Shutterstock

Yin and yang are universal symbols of harmony. Their origin story comes from Chinese mythology: yin and yang were born from chaos when the universe was first created. When yin and yang are in balance, an organism, system, or the entire world can thrive. There are many variations on this theme of harmony: light and dark, joy and despair, peace and conflict . . . to name a few.

Yin and yang are complementary forces and energies. They root, ground, and direct you in complementary ways.

Every person has aspects of both yin and yangYang energy is considered bright, linear, active, sharp, and laser-focused. It is associated with male energy. Yin energy, on the other hand, is soft, holistic, round, and keenly aware of the many relationships in play. It is often called female energy. This doesn’t mean that all men are yang and all women are yin; instead, each of us has both energies, in different proportions.

Yang is about domination. Yin is about collaboration. Yang sees nature as something humanity controls. Yin sees nature as some­thing humanity serves.

To thrive, yin and yang energy must be in balance with each other. This principle holds for individuals, organizations, ecosys­tems, and society as a whole. And during periods of intense and constant change – what I call flux – we have an especially good opportunity to recalibrate this balance.

A world in flux did not magically show up one day. Change has been a universal constant since time immemorial. But our under­standing of it, and how we’ve been taught to deal with it (or not), has evolved over time, driven largely by cultural norms, expecta­tions, and available technologies.

Each and every one of us, for our entire lives, in some way has been following a script. There’s not one script, of course: there are myriad scripts, each unique to your own experience.

Your script may be shaped by being part of an immigrant fam­ily or a family that’s been in your hometown for generations. Your script may be shaped by immense privilege or by accidents of birth that are the opposite of privilege and set you up to have to work harder than other people. It may be shaped by chronic pain, or trauma, or perfect health. It may be shaped by a sense of belong­ing, or being chronically overlooked, or outright inequality. It may be shaped by living through war, times of peace, or an existential crisis.

For quite some time these old scripts held. They have been passed down so often that they are taken for granted.

And then.

And then, the way things worked flipped upside down. A world in flux arrived. Boom.

Some of this change has been creeping up for years, yet we’ve been (or pretended to be) blind to it. Some of it, like the pandemic, hit like a full-speed locomotive, an instantaneous body blow. Some of it may have been hard to grasp, even if your inner voice had long felt uneasy.

Whatever the case, the old scripts broke. Your script, my script, and many other people’s scripts are no longer fit for today’s world. But even so, they have a really long tail: Old ways of being and seeing the world tend to stick around long after they’ve lost their util­ity. They’re still in our consciousness, and we still make decisions according to outdated filters because we haven’t actually swapped them out yet.

And this is where Flux comes in. Individually and collectively, we are in the early stages of writing new scripts that are fit for a world in flux.

While the old script was written by others for you to follow, your new script is written by you, for you to become. Your new script contains what grounds you and orients you and makes you, you—even when everything else changes.

The old script oozed yang. It left yin out of the narrative. Today, we urgently need to yin our yang and get this harmony back.

Part of why we’re in such a mess today is because we’re suffering from a yang overdose. For too long, official yang leadership has been at the helm without the balance of yin. Consider that in busi­ness, only 7.4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women (in 2000, that figure was 0.4 percent). In politics, most countries have never had a female head of state, and the percentage of female political leaders today hovers around an all-time high of 10 percent. Only four countries (less than 2 percent) have at least 50 percent women in their national legislatures.

On any scale, these metrics are wildly imbalanced. Yang is run­ning the show.

Yet what we fail to realize is that a yang-led world cannot reach its full potential without sufficient yin. Moreover, this imbalance inflicts great harm: on people, relationships, the environment, and the future.

The new script is not another rant for more women in leader­ship roles, equal gender pay, and parental leave policies (though all of those things would help — a lot). The new script is a call to action at a more basic level: to realize that every single person—from commu­nity leaders to CEOs, parents, teachers, managers, you-name-it—who doesn’t address their yin-yang imbalance is selling themselves short and contributing to a less equitable, less productive, less vibrant society. The longer this imbalance persists, the more it festers and the more we remain stuck.

On the upside, humans are completely capable of recalibrat­ing. Getting “back to balance”—yinning your yang—is entirely within reach.

One of the most common concerns I hear is that yang leaders feel threatened about giving up their power. When one believes that control and domination are the only path forward, this is understandable—and ultimately destructive. But again, this is the case only if you adhere to the old script.

Anyone who believes that patriarchy (meaning a system governed by men and yang) is the opposite of matriarchy (a system governed by women and yin) does not understand how these systems work. In a patriarchal system, women are typically excluded because of its culture of inferiority, hierarchy, and exclusive power, all of which are consistent with yang. If a man believes that matriarchy is the oppo­site system, then naturally he would be fearful of it because it signals his own exclusion and loss of power. In other words, doom.

But this understanding is wholly off the mark. Matriarchies are not the mere opposite of patriarchy. Whereas patriarchy is hier­archical and exclusive, matriarchy is egalitarian and inclusive. Matriarchies are based on yin values: relationships and nurturing of all, women and men alike.

When women enter a patriarchal system, they are excluded. But when men enter a matriarchal system, they are included . . . because matriarchies reflect a culture of equality, shared power, and yin. Men have no reason to fear this. In reality, women and men alike have every reason to embrace it.

The new script understands this, and—regardless of gender—embraces it.

When men and women alike yin their yang, everyone can be more balanced and more fully human.

As Nilima Bhat, leadership expert and coauthor of Shakti Leadership: Embracing Feminine and Masculine Power in Business, says, “the only win is win-win.”

Yin and yang ground us in our full humanity, in equal measure. Both are essential to thrive in flux.

Adapted from FLUX: 8 Superpowers for Thriving in Constant Change by April Rinne (2021, Berrett-Koehler Publishing).

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