Emergence in nature isn’t just a poking up or individual venturing out. Emergence is the result of complex interactions that enable individuals to transcend their uniqueness to become something more than the sum of their parts. For example, no individual in an ant colony is in charge. The queen lays eggs and sends our reassuring metamessages to the colony (keep calm and carry on), but she’s not in charge. What governs the colony is shared information. All ants have a job. They begin with the simplest tasks: move food to storage; take out the trash. When there’s enough food they drop chemical messages along the path for each other that sends them to a different task. Ants stay in their lane; they observe the limitations around their role. They’re mentored and nurtured through a series of increasingly complex jobs and responsibilities. The most experienced ants forage for food, tend the young brood, and if necessary look for a new place to live. Since the colony’s survival depends on it, the most experienced have the most responsibility and the toughest jobs. 

This self-organizing ability is what enables a group of tiny ants to create a habitat that’s on the same scale as a major human city. The complex whole of the colony has a collective ability to organize, create, and carry forward that’s greater than that of any individual. When any collective achieves the ability to become more than the sum of its parts, it’s an example of emergence. Complexity, increased intelligence, a shift up occurs, and suddenly we’re in something together that we couldn’t even imagine before because it didn’t yet exist.

This has been true for human societies and civilizations. And it’s true among groups of people who figure out how to get past their own self-interests, illusions, and fears. It’s hard work to be in a group, to listen with a more generous part of yourself, to respect others who are different than yourself, and to choose love instead of anger or fear. In those moments though if we’re courageous enough to risk vulnerability, the reward can be the ability to become part of something larger than ones individual self. It sounds simple, and it is elegantly simple. It also requires great discipline—staying in your lane, your role, a set of limitations. Oddly, even paradoxically, choosing to keep within limitations is what enables you to transcend your limits and become part of something greater than yourself.