Douglas Cardinal and Profound Change
Henry and I have always been fascinated with change, specifically with the kind of change that is profound and transformational. In his book, The Dance of Change, Peter Senge defines profound change as “…literally moving toward the fundamental. In profound change there is learning. The organization doesn’t just do something new; it builds its capacity for doing things in a new way – indeed, it builds capacity for ongoing change. … It is not enough to change strategies, structures, and systems, unless the thinking that produced those strategies, structures, and systems also changes (p. 15).” By the late 1990s we had experienced just how hard it was to create the conditions for profound change to occur, and to hold those conditions in place so that the change could be sustained.
On November 6, 1999, we were facilitating an action learning seminar in Ottawa, and were delighted to hear that Douglas Cardinal, a famous Canadian architect, would be the guest speaker in the evening. We had just spent the day with leaders, showing them how action learning is a process that creates profound change, but requires discipline and rules or controls to work. That evening, to our surprise, Douglas Cardinal would support what we had said with his own experience in creating a form of architecture that was itself a profound change. But, it wouldn’t be until I had had two cancer diagnoses that I would reconnect in a much more personal way with what he told us that evening in Ottawa.
In the mid 1960s, Cardinal saw the future in architecture. It was the computer – specifically the computational power of computers. In order for him to continue using his organic curvilinear designs on a larger scale, he would need the help of software that was not yet invented, software that Cardinal himself would help to develop and then beta test, software called computer-aided drafting and design or CADD for short. Cardinal would need one more thing. He would need his architectural and engineering staff to embrace this new way of working.
But his staff did not easily accept this change. They were far too comfortable with their drafting tables and pencils. So, Cardinal removed all of the drafting tables from their offices and broke all their pencils. It was like Cortez burning all of his ships. There would be no way back to the way it was.
Within 10 months of each other, I was diagnosed with two advanced and incurable cancers, both totally unrelated to each other, and both so traumatizing that it would change absolutely everything. Like Cortez, these cancers would burn all of my ships, and like Cardinal they would break all of my pencils. Within days of the first diagnosis, the tumour would almost kill me. The treatment for this cancer would drop a nuclear bomb on my life, creating a landscape with little hope for recovery. The second cancer would nail the coffin shut on what my life used to be. My pencils were now well and truly broken. There was no way back to the way it was.
But like Cardinal’s staff, I would not easily accept my new situation. I would stubbornly hold on to everything I thought my life was supposed to be, including how it was supposed to be after cancer treatment. I would not be swayed from this expectation. I didn’t care that my pencils were broken. I would mend them and life would return to normal. I would get my old life back, and that was it. Even with the death threat of a second cancer diagnosis, I struggled to accept that my life had now changed forever. I knew that acceptance was my only way out of the nuclear wasteland that was now my life, but I just couldn’t go there. Acceptance would require a type of faith that only saints grapple with, and I was not a saint.
Like Cardinal, who never accepted his lot as an architect to build the same old boxes that every other architect seemed to build, I have never accepted myself as a cancer survivor. I don’t want to just survive cancer. I want much more, but what that more now means is still a mystery. Like Cardinal, wanting no boundaries to his dream of building impressive organic buildings, I want a life worth living, regardless of whether or not I survive either of these two diagnoses. And like Cardinal, the software of this new life has not been written yet. I would not only have to write this new software, I would also have to beta-test it, one day at a time.
Today, each day is a struggle to live without my drafting table and with broken pencils. I still wake each morning, believing, for just a moment, that during the night my broken pencils have been mended, and my life is as it was. But then the effort of getting out of bed reminds me that this is not so. Although I still live with my broken pencils, my new future is not about living amongst the wreckage. When cancer broke all of my pencils, surviving was all that I had left. Now I want a life. What that looks like is yet to unfold for me.