What is truly innate to human beings? How can we really know? What informs our culture?
So much of who we are is determined by our social conditioning and our environment. Is it even possible to separate out what is “natural” for us as humans and what is learned from our existence?
Questions like these have been occupying my mind. I delved into philosophy books in search of an answer.
Different schools of thought in psychology have debated nature vs. nurture for a long time. Some say that our behavior depends on our biology - what in our DNA has been inherited. Others disagree and say that all behavior is actually learned from the environment through conditioning. Many found a space in between; some behavior is inherited and some is acquired.
But how do we know which behaviors are inherited through genetics versus which are acquired through experience?
This question has been particularly relevant to me when I think about gender and culture. The experience of men has predominantly defined our social structures - from politics to philosophy.
So, if men have historically dominated our understanding of existence in most contexts, how can we understand the experience of women and non-gender conforming people through the lens of a learned behavior? Don’t most learned behaviors originate from the perspective of men? And since culture is made up of learned behaviors, it can be difficult for a non-male perspective to feel comfortable in that space.
As a woman in a male dominated electrical engineering program in college, I struggled with this. Most of my faculty were men and most of my peers were men. In the engineering culture, I found my feminine identity didn't fit in.
I struggled to find a place for myself in a world where my gender was underrepresented. I didn’t enjoy playing video-games, making crass jokes, or playing with nerf guns. Could I really be an engineer if I didn’t match the “culture fit”?
Being in this male dominated space constantly made me question the validity of my being. I remember constantly feeling that I didn’t belong. At the time, I couldn't quite articulate to myself or others why I was feeling this way. I later learned that my inability to articulate discomfort is more evidence that the culture wasn’t made for me.
I felt increasingly disconnected from my identity and I decided I wanted to leave the engineering world for a period of time.
I wanted to be outside and work with my hands, so I moved to work on a farm in Berkeley. I did a 3 month fellowship for young adults through an organization called Urban Adamah. I loved it.
I learned a lot from the plants - how they grow, what they need, and most importantly, how resilient they are.
The farm taught me that a healthy functioning ecosystem needs diversity. I remember doing a garden observation exercise where we were told to find a teacher plant on the farm. We sat by a plant of our choosing and spent some time learning what this plant can teach us. I chose the carrot. The carrot grows primarily in the ground and has light recognizable leaves sticking out. It is hard to know the growth of the carrot by sight because it is mostly underground.
Yet, I noticed that the kale grows quite differently from the carrot. The carrot grows downward into the ground while the kale grows upward into the sky. Unlike the carrot, the growth of the kale is totally visible to the viewer. Both the kale and carrot are delicious vegetables. Yet each has its own metric for success.
That experience of finding wisdom from the natural world deeply moved me. Observing how plants survive and thrive has given me insights to human growth. Just as each plant has its own metric for success, so to does every human being.
I realized we can learn how to shift our culture from the farm. I thought back to times of discomfort in engineering school.
I realized that actually we live in a dysfunctional cultural ecosystem. A system that often praises one type of growth model and rejects the others. A system that favors a singular narrative of success and discards the benefits of diverse perspectives. A system that is made for men and leaves the others to struggle to fit in it.
This dysfunctional cultural ecosystem that I live in was not allowing me to truly listen to my own self. It was imposing on me learned behaviors that did not consider my experience as a female. I discovered that what I needed to successfully grow was to listen to myself. I needed to learn how to respect my own needs, despite the inability of our culture to offer me the space for it.
With these new teachings, I launched my own company, pivot to bloom. pivot to bloom aims to shift culture and create a safer and more comfortable environment for people of all genders in tech companies. We use the perspective of an urban farm to guide our learning. The way the natural world grows can teach us a lot about human culture.
For example, if you put a plant that needs sunshine in the shade, it will most probably die. But there was nothing wrong with this plant. It only suffered because the environmental conditions for its success weren’t met.
Every seed is meant to bloom just as every human being is meant to thrive. Our work is to create the best conditions for growth in work environments. That is different for every human being, just like it is different for every plant.
So yes, the nature vs. nurture debate is still most certainly complicated. But the answer to this question cannot be reached merely through intellectual pursuits. We will know more deeply how we are who we are by learning to truly listen to our bodies and our needs.
Rather than treating our external surroundings as fixed, my work at pivot to bloom hopes to cultivate cultural conditions that will enable each one of us to tap into our source of being. When we are each connected to our true selves, we will flourish into a diverse thriving community.
So next time you think your needs might be misaligned with our culture, focus on getting to know your body. Our intellect can learn a lot from what our bodies are already capable of doing. We might not know how to intellectually understand why we act the way we do, but our bodies know the truth of our actions.