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We live in a time of disintegration.
Here in the developed world, things are arguably better than they’ve ever been—and yet, so many of us seem sad, frustrated, and lost. Looking back, we were in a golden age, peaking around 2000 with the freest and most creative culture the world has ever seen. It produced a generation that believed the future was bright, progress was inevitable, and that they could all be whatever they wanted to be.
But the social and technological changes presented problems for us to solve. Relationships, belonging, communications, trust, institutions, values, purpose—all of these things have been tossed up in the air, leaving us searching for the je ne sais quoi that could return them, and ourselves, to an integrated state.
Here at Third Factor, we look for answers to three big questions. Two of the the three are these: What are we missing in this time of disintegration? How can we reclaim it and build what comes next?
What’s Public, and What’s Internal?
To find the answers to those questions, we need to know where to start looking. It seems to me that there are two realms an aspiring world-changer has to consider: the public and the private/internal.
As I’ve tried to get involved in the world, it’s struck me how much we struggle to sort out when an issue’s actually public and when it’s more about an individual’s private or internal realms. Sure, the personal can be political, but I’ve seen people try to change the world when, from an outside perspective, their problems seem to spring from their localized social environments—say, a family or school or workplace culture—or even from the mindsets or values that drive each of them as individuals.
It’s natural to get confused here. After all, we hear constantly about national-level political issues, but we’re otherwise quite disconnected, sharing little with those in our local communities and having few people around with whom we can talk about our personal challenges. The greater discourse is often all we have to give us a sense of belonging or purpose, and so that’s where our emotions get channeled, whether it’s actually helpful or not.
What’s more, in this stressful, confusing, often overwhelming time, many people will gravitate to the most confident. Then they can just go along with what that confident leader and his or her tribe says, taking care not to stir the pot.
Other people believe that stirring is necessary. They may have temperaments that won’t let them rest if they don’t, or they may simply see the consequences of failing to stir. They may not be confident themselves, but precisely because they know how little they know, they’re driven to ask questions. These people often have lots of ideas they want to explore, if only they had someone friendly and charitable to talk to. They typically want to have an impact on their communities, but they don’t know where to start. Or maybe they tried, but it didn’t work out so well, for reasons rooted in their local or internal environments—that is, their own weaknesses or errors, or the weaknesses and errors those around them.
And sometimes, in that sort of environment, asking questions only disrupts others’ confidence—and that means the questioner gets himself thrown out of his circle. And then he’s really lost.
Our Founder’s Story
It was for those people that I founded Third Factor.
I was lonely and isolated, having moved away from my hometown for a job. I was interested in social problems, so I tried to get to know people through activism. That, however, left me lonelier than ever. Those connections turned out to be built on the acceptance of pre-set ideas, not on a shared intellectual exploration of those ideas in pursuit of a better life.
So I went online to connect, but that wasn’t any better. There, too, I found echo chambers—some full of people who piled on me, others who would affirm whatever I felt. Very rarely did I find constructive conversation that could really address the issues and help me feel like I was engaged meaningfully in pursuit of the good and the true.
All that was before the fateful 2016 election. It happened before COVID ratcheted up our respective anxieties and exposed the dramatic erosion of social trust.
I wanted to do something—but what?
I knew that what I wanted was a place for honest, constructive conversation with well-adjusted but authentic people. I also knew what I wanted to get away from: dysregulated people who, struggling to live in a disintegrating age, were ready to burn everything down. Such people, with their extreme fragility, could never make social space for someone who was a little different from them. And hey, they weren’t the right people anyway; if you got too many of them in a group, they dragged everyone else down with them.
(And haven’t you noticed how clickbait and algorithms seem to magnify that sort of behavior?)
To find what I wanted, I realized that I faced another question—which is, of course the third of the three I mentioned earlier: What does it even mean to be “well adjusted?” Does that just mean ultimately adapting to everything? Resilience and strength are virtues for sure, but surely some of the things that were bringing us all down were properly problems to be solved, right? If this is an age of disintegration, there are probably things in our lives to which we shouldn’t “adjust,” but rather, that we should fix. That was what I wanted to “get involved” to do in the first place.
As I was thinking about these questions, I happened upon the work of Kazimierz Dabrowski. His work focused on a certain type of highly intellectually and emotionally excitable person who goes through a process of growth and development that he called positive disintegration. As part of this process, that excitable person’s questions and feelings put her into a state he called positive maladjustment.
And that, I realized, described the people I was seeing in the groups I tried to join, and what so many of us are going through in this age of upheavals. Frankly, I don’t know a lot of people who are, strictly speaking, well-adjusted, but there are people out there who are at least trying to figure out something constructive to do about their maladjustment.
That’s our audience.
At least, we hope that’s us. (How do we know our maladjustment is positive? Good question. We explored that in one of our core articles.)
Let me be clear, though: We don’t have the answers. What we offer is a space to ask the questions.
Rising from the Ashes
Our logo contains our motto, resurget cineribus, which is Latin for it will rise from the ashes. But what is “it?”
Our countries? Our communities? Our institutions? Our civilization? Our selves?
“It” can refer to all of the above. We’re interested in all of it—and we know its rise is up to us. The ultimate end of positive disintegration is reintegration in a state of positive adjustment, where we know what our values are and live by them, without needing others to bolster us. What’s more, we do so even when others push back.
I’m still working on that myself. To aid my own search—and, perhaps, that of my fellow questioners—I write and edit content here at Third Factor that I hope will truly encourage. It’s my goal to give your active intellects room to chase after the Good and the True and your deep emotions a chance to be felt and processed so you can go on to channel them constructively.
My volunteer editorial team and I publish grassroots memoirs and essays, interviews with experts ranging from psychologists to political scientists to entrepreneurs, and (coming soon) podcast conversations with people aiming upward out of our collective disintegration. We aim to cover many perspectives, as no side has a monopoly on wisdom.
Meanwhile, in our member community, we’re working to forge a culture where members who engage in good faith will find space to honestly explore what they think (or at least hope) might be positive maladjustment. There, we hope they will get useful feedback on what they can do about it, whether the issue is located in their inner sphere, their local environment, or the world at large.
In our work, we focus on these four planks:
Character means looking at yourself first and working to live up to your values. It means that, whatever your emotions insist must be done, you do it in line with your understanding of who you ought to be.
Critical thinking begins with asking questions and goes on to honestly consider what you find when you ask them, all from an intellectually rigorous, emotionally grounded space.
Creativity is about generating the new. It may be constructing something concrete, or it may be an openness to ideas and their implications. Sometimes it’s also a practice that helps with processing emotions.
Courage is about facing fears—not just once, but over and over until you’ve learned from those mistakes you inevitably made and paid those costs that you knew had to be paid, and through it all, earned confidence.
You don’t have to have mastered all of the above to join us here at Third Factor. They simply describe where we’re aiming.
If you’re aiming at these things, too, then we’d love to keep you company on your journey. I hope you will consider joining us.