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 two big questions: 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 address those questions, we also need to know where to look for the answers. 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 problem seems to spring from their localized social environment—say, a family or school or workplace culture—or even from the mindset or values that drive them. It’s an easy mistake to make. After all, we hear constantly about national-level politics, and we’re otherwise quite disconnected, with little we share with others around us, or people around to talk to about our personal challenges. The greater discourse is often all we have to connect us—and so that’s where our emotions get channeled, whether it’s helpful or not.
What’s more, in this stressful, confusing, often overwhelming time, many will gravitate to the most confident. They then keep their heads down and just go along with what that confident leader and his or her tribe say, taking care not to stir the pot.
Others, however, believe that stirring is necessary. They may even have temperaments that won’t let them rest if they don’t, though some may simply see the consequences of failing to stir. They may not be confident themselves, but knowing how little they know, they’re driven to ask questions. They may have lots of ideas they want to explore in an effort to understand the world, if only they had someone (or, perhaps, someone friendly and charitable) to talk to. They too often want to have an impact on their communities, but they don’t know where to start. Or maybe they tried and found it didn’t work out so well, for reasons they attribute to their local or internal environments—that is, their faults, or faults of others around them.
And sometimes, in that sort of environment, wanting to ask questions that disrupt others’ confidence gets themselves thrown out of their own circle. And then they’re 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—but that left me lonelier than ever. Those connections were built on the acceptance of 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.
And 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 what I wanted was a place for honest, constructive conversation with well-adjusted 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—and 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, 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: 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—and even when they 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 giving 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 cultivate a culture in which 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 higher values.
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 means generating and being open to ideas and their implications. It can also be a practice for processing emotions.
Courage is about facing fears—not once, but over and over, drilling yourself (at a sustainable pace) 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.