Most books that try to tell you how to live a better life deal with the surface of human problems. They urge you to have faith in yourself or in principles larger than yourself. They prescribe ways of dealing with specific problems by doing specific things. They hold up models in the form of stories about famous people, so you can get a feel for how they went about achieving happiness and success. Many people find such books inspirational and helpful. But in the very popularity of such books there is a hint that something is amiss.
If you are looking for a good place to eat, find one, and have a lovely lunch, what do you do next? Do you resume the search for another good place to eat, to have another lovely lunch? If you do, the obvious conclusion has to be that the lunch left you hungry. It's the same with reading books about solving human problems. People buy these books because they are looking for help with some difficulty in their lives, and while a lucky few do find what they are looking for and take up other interests, a great many come away unsatisfied. And they go back to the bookshelves looking for "the missing ingredient."
Perhaps Ed Ford hasn't written the last word on the subject of solving human problems, but he does approach the subject here in a way that supplies one of the missing ingredients, perhaps the most important one: understanding. We all know that to be happier and more successful we must behave better and more successfully. Most of us even have a pretty good idea of what needs changing in our lives. That's why so many books seem to help. We say, "Yes, that's it, that's how I need to be," but then we find ourselves doing exactly the opposite. That is hard to understand.
If we know what to do, why don't we do it? Answering that simple question would do most of us more good than a lifetime of reading about how we might act better and feel better. As you go through this book, you will realize that Ed Ford is trying to answer this question on nearly every page. This book is only partly about dealing with the difficulties of loving another person. Its main message addresses all aspects of life, especially the understanding of how human beings operate. It teaches a new concept of human nature.
Of course all people who offer help with human problems have some notion of how human beings operate. Nearly every therapist and every counselor comes from some background in which scientific theories of behavior played a part. But there's a strange fact about such various backgrounds, which a famous psychiatrist, Lawrence S. Kubie,, pointed out long ago after studying how various practitioners went about their business. While they all used language appropriate to their training, what they actually did and said in dealing with their clients was essentially the same. The more experience they had, the more their methods in the counseling session resembled one another and the less their theoretical backgrounds influenced what they did. A good therapist, it seems, is a good therapist and is helped very little by scientific theories of human nature.
From this we learn two things. First, if you are helped by a therapist it's because he or she has the knack of being a good therapist. Second, scientific theories of human nature don't seem to have had much to offer the therapist or the therapist's patients and clients.
You might suspect from these remarks, correctly, that the concept of human nature in the background of Ed Ford's writings is not like the theories of human nature that have gone before it. In fact, as one of the originators of that concept, I can assure you it is not like its predecessors.
Or perhaps the term should be "predecessor,'' singular. There has really been only one other theory of human (and animal) nature: the theory that behavior is caused externally. What any organism does, says this theory, is caused by what happens to that organism. This fundamental theory has spawned many schools of thought, but they differ mainly in their conjectures about how external events cause behavior, about how people or animals will behave under such-and-such circumstances. The underlying conception of cause and effect isn't even called a theory: it's taken to be a fundamental principle of science.
Suppose, however, that this basic picture of cause and effect were wrong. Suppose that instead of being helpless pawns of environmental forces, human beings were goal-seeking and purposeful, organized not to obey the commands of the external world but to control the effects of the external world on themselves, the effects that matter the most to them. Suppose, too, that this picture came not from a blind rejection of science based on wishes or resentment, but from a scientific analysis just as sound as any others that have been offered. You could guess that this new understanding might lead to some more effective approaches to human problems.
The new theory is called "control theory." It was invented nearly fifty years ago by electronic engineers. Nobody knew then that it had anything to say about human nature, even though it was invented because engineers wanted to build machines that behaved in some ways as human beings do. It was just a way of understanding and designing purposeful machinery. But just as World War II was ending, a mathematician named Norbert Wiener, a neurophysiologist named Arturo Rosenbleuth, and an engineer named Julian Bigelow got together to found cybernetics. They had noticed that these purposeful machines behaved as though they were alive, and they began to apply the theory behind those machines to understanding living systems. Five years later I became interested in these developments, and, with R. K. Clark and R. L. McFarland, began to build on the same ideas. Now, over thirty years later, this approach to understanding living organisms is attracting scientific attention at a rapidly increasing pace, even though the mainstream of science, as always, remains properly skeptical. Out of this interest has grown the Control System Group, or Control Theory Group, which includes psychologists, sociologists, economists, engineers, doctors, managers, linguists, educators and Ed Ford, a respected and valued charter member of this group even though he makes no claims to being a scientist.
Ed Ford could claim to be a talented interpreter. You will find no ponderous science in this book, but if you were knowledgeable about the details of control theory, you would realize that he has a deep understanding of it. Perhaps the clearest indication of this understanding will be seen as you come to grasp his explanations of how human behavior works; people he has taught often say, "But that's just common sense, isn't it?" He might answer that question with another: "Isn't that how you would expect a proper scientific conception of human nature to sound?" Most therapists and counselors who have taken up this approach say about the same thing: control theory supplies the explicit framework that explains what they have been doing intuitively when their work was going well. Ed Ford offers understanding in this book. I think you will gain understanding from itัand perhaps, even, "the missing ingredient" you have been looking for.
William T. Powers