What a Tensegrity Structure Continues to Teach Me

A few weeks ago, I was taking some time to clear my head in between meetings and was reviewing a couple of the websites I regularly visit. I came across a video demonstrating an object that I had seen in passing before, but had never given much thought to. Seeing it again with fresh eyes, I was completely captivated by this thing that seemingly shouldn’t have made sense – it was like seeing an optical illusion that I couldn’t wrap my head around.

I learned that this object is called a “tensegrity structure”. What makes this structure so interesting is how its parts come together to make an object that at first seems impossible to exist. If you look at the photos & video below, you’ll see that in this example that I made, it is two wire shapes that are connected by threads at the corners. In this initial configuration, the object collapses into itself in a tangle of wire & string. But the magic happens when the central thread is put in place. Somehow, this object takes on a shape and seems to float and flout the rules of gravity.

The assembled tensegrity structure
The partially assembled object, without the central thread
The final assembled object

In making my own version, I came to understand how the structure actually works. The central thread creates a tension in the structure of the object. What I initially thought would cause the structure to collapse on itself instead causes the two separate pieces to push against each other. The tension is countered by the supporting threads at the corners that stabilize the entire structure.

Creating this object by hand using materials I found at home (a wire coat hanger and some thread) gave me sense of satisfaction at being able to visualize something and then make it, and it also was a mindful exercise for me. It allowed me to focus all of my attention and to be quiet and curious. I exercised patience in thinking about it, then designing it and building it. It was a bit fiddly putting it together and I had to pause several times so that I wouldn’t make myself frustrated and instead, I took the time to find a solution. And now I have a cool handmade desk toy that I keep near me during the day.

On reflection, I now also see how this structure can be a metaphor for my behaviour & values and how I can find ways to be resilient and support myself.

There’s an aspect of disbelief with an object like this. Any kind of illusion challenges you and requires that you suspend your disbelief to actually appreciate it. Initially it didn’t make sense to me how two pieces of wire that fell into a heap on the table were suddenly almost floating and standing against gravity. When we’re faced with challenging situations, we can also find it hard to believe in our success, in our ability to stand. I’ve experienced impostor syndrome on many occasions throughout my life. That coupled with insecurity and issues with worthiness can make it challenging to stand up.

What makes it possible for me to stand up tall is having a clear idea of my values and my beliefs – they serve as my core. They help me push back against challenges to be able to persevere and to be resilient when I stumble. Knowing that I have these values & beliefs at my core, I can be authentic and stand tall.

Helping me stay true to my values & beliefs, I came up with my “rudder words” a while ago and they still serve me – I have occasionally reviewed them to see if they need any alteration or refining but they seem to be completely appropriate for me right now. Choosing your own rudder words may be helpful for you.

Complementing your core values & beliefs are other things like behaviour and activities that provide support & stability. These are the threads at the corners of the structure that keep everything in check. Without these threads, the object would collapse. And without the central thread providing the tension, the object still collapses. They have to work in tandem to allow the object to stand.

I totally understand that it’s risky and somewhat contrived to try to make these ideas fit exactly with the analogy of the tensegrity structure. So that being said, try to not think that you must have only one core belief or value, or three supporting behaviours. Instead, I try to understand it conceptually as a set of values and behaviours that support each other, in various contexts.

For example, I care very much about my personal health. I understand that in order to be effective and the best that I can be, I must maintain my health. In order to do that, I’ll adopt behaviours and activities that support that mindset, like getting good sleep; eating well, maintaining a healthy outlook on stress, enjoying my relationships among other things.

In a business context, it’s important to me to know that I’m connecting with my colleagues. In order to do that effectively, I take the time & make the effort to listen; I remain curious, regardless of any things that may trigger me; and I let go of expectations, for myself and for my colleagues.

All of these things work together in balance. Individually, they may have some positive effect or perhaps might even be a bit detrimental if I were to solely focus on only one thing. So how are your beliefs, values and behaviours working together? If you’re feeling a little out of alignment, maybe taking the time to reflect on them will help you find some more effective approaches. You may even find some enjoyment in taking the time to make one of these structures – understanding how they work in spite of their appearance may inspire you in your own life. And failing that, at least you’ll have an interesting desk toy.