An interview with John Grinder and Carmen Bostic St Clair 1997

This is a second interview with Dr John Grinder (co-originator of Neuro-Linguistic Programming and co-developer of New Code NLP) and Carmen Bostic St Clair by Chris and Jules Collingwood of Inspiritive.

1. John what is your definition of “Personal Evolution”?


In the world of biology, evolution is a predicate which typically refers to the logical level of taxonomy – the biological unit – referred to as species. For, while it is individual organisms – the fundamental unit of survival – which exhibit individual differences which are associated with differential individual reproduction rates, we say that it is the species which evolves. These differential reproductive rates associated with the individual genetic differences followed over time form an image of what we usually see as evolution.

The term Personal Evolution, then, is intended as a challenge to this image. It is sometimes proposed that Darwin’s system proven appropriate and useful even illuminating for biological, genetically driven change while Lamarck’s proposal serves well for cultural change. Personal evolution is the art of living impeccably, pursuing change as a way of life – learning as its focus. The focus then is what are the patterns at the individual level which promote change – especially a sensitivity to redundancy at the personal level and its defeat. Imagine the game of chess with the ability of the pawns to learn from their experiences and thereby move beyond the rules of movement which presently bind them.


Personal evolution to be effective for the individual and the context within which the individual moves must give equal emphasis to co-operation as a principle of the same rank as competition in transmitting Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest, thereby achieving a balance between personal power and the larger ecological issues of the larger system. Constancy occurs in such systems only at the higher logical levels where one finds constancy in learning and the ability to wonder.

2. How did you come to choose Personal Evolution as an area of exploration? and what is its relationship to NLP as a field of endeavour?


What other game is there in town? The heart of the endeavour of living impeccably is sensitivity to patterning and a commitment to continuously shift the stability points around – to preserve the distinction between the hunter and the hunted.

The field of NLP was from its first moment for me in the way in which I perceived it originally the study and capturing of excellence in its many splendoured forms. Excellence can be interpreted as living at the extremes. Like surprises, exceptional experiences are the substance of such living.


Learning to identify the edges of all aspects of our lives – recognizing them and having the choice to travel to the edge as well as comfortably find the middle when the context suggests it is appropriate.

3. What is the context you perceive for creating the Personal Evolution seminar?


I will offer three responses to this question and leave it to you to select the one most useful for your purposes. They are:

  • Schizophrenia
  • I have no idea what you are talking about
  • The twinkle in Gregory Bateson’s eye.


A group of individuals who have the flexibility to dance with a cyclone as well as a gentle breeze.

4. The fact that you will be teaching a seminar called “Personal Evolution” suggests that:

a) we as individuals can evolve,

b) that this is in some way desirable,

c) that there are patterns involved.

Could you please elucidate?


Yes, to all three. When Europeans first began to explore the great Amazon basin, it wasn’t because the Amazon was in some sense better. Rather it was different. Or as Marcel Proust says the purpose of exploration is not to see new lands but to see those lands with new eyes. The practice of impeccable personal change as a way of life implies a personal discipline to ferret out the repetitive portions of our own behaviour and through the ecological patterns such as holding intention constant and varying behaviour or wanton capricious variation to move the assemblage point – the focusing of our attention on other aspects of the world around us. Thus it is not that any particular change we make in this practice is better than what we had previously but that the change itself at the higher logical level is desirable to avoid complacency or the falling into a routine which robs us of our appreciation of the unknown which surrounds us.

Of course, there are patterns involved – this is precisely the point. Such patterns are the web of redundancy through which we must pass. The mastery of personal patterning is the prerequisite to escaping its tyranny.


Different is not necessarily better but better is always different. The evolution of the person provides that person with choice not before available.

5. You draw on ideas from Gregory Bateson in your seminar Personal Evolution. How are Bateson’s ideas relevant to someone who wants to evolve themselves personally and professionally?

Bateson has made the opening move in a game which will continue as long as there are representatives of the species. Through his insistence that the laws which govern the short term and local interactions of biological systems are fundamentally different than the laws which govern non-organic physical systems, through his exploration and application of logical levels to the patterning of communication and learning and through his precise pointing at many of the phenomena which must be incorporated into a theory of mind, he lights some of the paths which we must travel to leave the valley of the blind.

6. I understand that Bateson was a mentor of yours. Would you like to talk about your experience of Bateson and his impact on your life and work?


I shall never succeed in appreciating the deep and inspiring ways in which he influenced me and my work in NLP. These experiences range from the time he borrowed a pair of socks from me on the occasion of finding himself without socks on his way to a University of California Regents’ meeting (he was a Jerry Brown appointee) – thereby teaching me the pitfalls of being a narrow band genius as opposed to a broad band genius – one who is a genius in all those areas of experience which impinge on his or her well-being. He demonstrated an utter lack of competency and willingness to learn group theory on the occasion of a disagreement we had over his use of the word formal, thereby pushing me to make a commitment to seek out my own monumental areas of incompetence and ignorance to face them squarely. But mostly, he continued to astonish me with the clear and swift shifts in perception in his ability to focus on the synthesis of ideas in very large systems driven by years of detailed and focused study of any number of fields ranging from classic evolutionary theory in biology through anthropology and animal studies to the balanced relationships in the plant communities in the redwood forests which surrounded us at the time of our connections. Perhaps most importantly, he paid me the ultimate compliment of presenting along with any number of awesome puzzles to which he had worked out answers, the puzzles to which he had no answers.

7. What is your definition of a pattern?


Imagine a description of some sequence of events, whether internal to you (intake of glucose with a subsequent shift in heart rate) or external to you (the shift in the type and frequency of the marine wildlife associated with the change in the temperature of the water in the ocean off Santa Cruz as a consequence of the seasonal up welling from the deep submarine canyon off Moss Landing in the center of Monterey Bay and connected with the Davis current) to all the astonishing mixtures of internal and external events.

Consider this description as a series of snapshots over time. Now, if you can place a slash mark “/” anywhere in that sequence of events such that you are able with better than random chance to predict what is on one side of the slash based solely on what is on the other side of the slash mark, you have a pattern. In this technical sense, pattern and redundancy are names for the same thing.

If I provide you with the sequence of consonants str… and tell you that they are part of a well formed word in English and then ask you what kind of creature will follow, you will after a moment’s reflection correctly tell me that the creature is a vowel.

I have done professional patterning in linguistics, mathematics and NLP. Each discipline has its own requirements for presentation and proof. In this latter field, I would propose that the author of a pattern has the responsibility to be explicit about certain aspects or is, in fact, doing something other than professional patterning. In NLP, I would propose that the author of a pattern must descriptively specify:

The internal structure of the pattern – what are the elements which define the pattern and in which specific order do they occur.
The consequences which will occur if the pattern is employed in a disciplined and congruent manner.
a set of contextual markers which indicate under which conditions its use is appropriate.
Please note I said descriptively specify – by this I am placing a gate through which would be patterns must pass – for example, more years ago than I care to count, on the occasion of spoofing patterns and to amuse myself and Richard, I created a set of pseudo-patterns now known as Meta Patterns. These are, in fact, not patterns at all but non-descriptive chunks of content which apparently people are unable to distinguish from actual patterns or forms. This exercise backfired on me in that people reverently go on teaching these strange things passing them off to the next generation as patterns when in fact I designed them to distinguish between actual patterns and content. Ask someone who fails to make this distinction what the difference is descriptively between moving in time and through time. Or to describe the difference between moving away from pain and towards pleasure in the case of a masochist or sadist. The third criterion – the specification of appropriate context is easily the most difficult requirement for patterning and the one which typically receives the least amount of attention – this was true in the original work classic NLP patterning as well as in more recent endeavours.


Patterns are a series of arcs. These arcs when linked in a series over time and in certain contexts create loops. Loops when linked in a series over time and in certain contexts become predictable segments of behavior.

8. How is enhancing one’s ability to detect patterns useful to an individual?


If you are unaware that you are in a box which you call your life, how will you ever liberate yourself?


Hamsters in a cage run in circles within a squeaky wheel.

9. How do you know when to look for a pattern?


Only before breakfast on odd days of the months which begin with the letter J. The art of living impeccably is in part the art of continuously extending your competency to detect patterns. The ones you don’t detect are the ones that will get you. Sensitize yourself to surprise, differences between what you are unconsciously anticipating and what happens and all auto pilot sequences. Seek the unpredictable. Is it possible to tickle yourself?


It is only important to ‘know’ when you haven’t been looking.

10. How do you know what to look for when seeking patterns?


You never do if you are actually in pursuit of a serious pattern. That’s what makes it an art form rather than a science, the pursuit of heuristics rather than algorithms.

Take any significant, let’s say, physical endeavour – any sport or dance form… How can you determine by observing a group of people engaging in this form who are ones who are experienced and adept and who are amateurs who have little experience. The rock climber who is hanging out over a 1500 foot exposure but who shows only tension in the fingers of the hand which is locked into a crack and nowhere else in her or his body is a pro. The accomplished and experienced sports person is the one who does less – the one who uses less effort and who is clearly ignoring large portions of the situation in which they are performing and focusing on only those portions of the situation they need access to perform.

The art of patterning is the art of ignoring most of what is happening and attending to only those few leverage points which allow the manipulation of the situation. In this sense, patterning is an exercise in the fixing of attention.

11. How do you know where to look for a pattern?


Since this is a continuation of the last questions I will continue with the answer …only before breakfast on odd days of the months which begin with the letter J and under rocks of a size larger than the ambition you have to become a patterner.

12. What are 2/3/4/n point patterns?


The numerals indicated simply refer to the number of points of attention described by the patterner in presenting the pattern. A 2 point pattern is one in which there are two events described, one on each side of the slash mark, a 3 point pattern is one in which there are three events described and distributed on different sides of the slash marks. Please note that the number of attention points will vary for the same pattern depending on the rigor of the description by the patterner. In other words, the chunking – how many points you fix in the pattern – is relatively arbitrary.

13. When dealing with nested patterns at different logical levels, how do you find out;

a. How many there are

b. Which ones are relevant

c. Which is the controlling pattern

d. If there is a controlling pattern


Well now, there’s one hell of a question! Let’s unpack it a bit. First of all you are going to want to distinguish between properly nested and improperly nested dependencies – the difference between

The house owned by the man who drove a car built by a woman who said that her son was hired by Alan Ginsberg to carry the suitcase which contained the manuscript that…

The horse the cow the dog the cat chased bit saw ran away

Both of these are technically grammatically well formed fragments of American English – the first one is an improperly nested dependency as well as being intelligible and the second one is a properly nested dependency which while technically well formed exceeds all short term memory processing abilities. I offer a build up to it more gently in the sequence below:

  • The horse ran away
  • The horse that the cow saw ran away
  • The horse that the cow that the dog bit saw ran away

and finally

  • The horse that the cow that the dog that the cat chased bit saw ran away

or deleting the relative clause markers (normally an option) we have

  • The horse the cow the dog the cat chased bit saw ran away

The terms properly nested and improperly nested, while a classification based entirely on the structure of the phrase has powerful consequences for processing.

I have already commented on the question of how many there are – how many depends on how you decide to count and in particular, what descriptive vocabulary you allow yourself. Every technical field is a demonstration that with finer and finer distinctions we invent a denser and denser vocabulary to create the shorthand we need to overcome some of the limitations of short term memory and facilitate our thinking and communication. The code system in a well organized Emergency Room (Casualty Department) or the pixel or superconductor are dense signals unique to a specific context and fully grounded in the sense defined in Precision. Clearly such terms embody a number of components which under normal circumstances we would distinguish as separate elements but which are rolled up into a single term by definition. Similarly with patterning, the development of an explicit well defined vocabulary will change the count.

I confess that I am at a loss as to what a controlling pattern would be in such a system.

14. What are the necessary and sufficient conditions which must be present to enable people to develop the ability to recognise previously unexperienced and unnoticed patterns?


OK, what are they?


The study of your successes and failures.

15. How does a working ability to detect patterns in our environment facilitate learning?


It doesn’t facilitate learning – it is learning.


I learned French in the university. I learned Spanish in the streets of Mexico. I speak Spanish a hell of a lot better at present than I speak French.

16. Is it necessary for pattern detection and utilisation skills to be available consciously, or is it sufficient to have these skills well developed at an unconscious level


The goal of all learning is to master the skill sets to the point that they become unconscious competencies. This clearing of conscious by pushing competencies down into the unconscious has a cost however and specifically in the art of pattern detection, one of the most useful tools is the ability to perceive context and its contents from multiple perceptual positions, including a conscious one as well.

17. What qualities and attributes would you recommend be present in a state that is designed specifically for detecting ‘new’ patterns?


Please review questions and answers 1 through 16.


Breathing is good.

18. What contextual markers would you use to attract the interest and application of people in a content oriented society to learning to detect and use patterns in their lives?


As always the most powerful contextual marker to attract the interest (if that is in fact what you want to do) of content oriented people is your personal competency. People are attracted to people who are remarkable. So be remarkable!


Go to university, read books and explore. Or explore, read books and go to university. Or…

19. How do you ensure that people in a content oriented society learn to make and keep the distinction between patterns, illustrative content examples of patterns and content?


Personally, I don’t. I just keep on discovering patterns and presenting some small portion of them to the interested world. I wish the rest of the world a good day.


A horse can be shown the location of water; the drinking has to be the horse’s choice.

20. When you detect a pattern at a given logical level, can you assume there will be a related pattern at a higher logical level?


No, please assume nothing and check everything of importance. Like the 2 cent ‘O’ ring at the connection between the air hose and the pressurized SCUBA tank, it’s a little thing and critical to your health and well being.

More sympathetically, the present of a pattern at one logical level is an invitation to search for an associated pattern at the logical levels above and below but no guarantee. The presence of a track of a large cat on the ground just outside of the window in front of me as I write this sentence here in Bonny Doon does not guarantee that the cat is still in the neighbourhood – he may have already faded into the mists surrounding us.


If you are successful today, can you ‘assume’? that you will be successful in 10 years?

Interested in comprehensive training in NLP? Find out about our postgraduate qualification, the 10970NAT Graduate Certificate in Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

© 1997 Chris and Jules Collingwood

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