Originising

Maybe this decade really will be different

The fourth generation

The North American Indians say that we are all the 4th Generation – shaped by the three behind us and shaping the three that follow us.

If that’s true, we are at a significant turning point, with an awesome responsibility.

Even allowing for more recently arrived generations, the three behind us were shaped by a society created by the consequences of the industrial revolutions and two major, conventional wars. The three in front of us are being shaped by the digital technology, globalisation, connectivity, increasingly extreme inequality, the hangover from two hundred years of abusive extraction of the natural wealth of the planet, and the unknowns that will be generated by “combinatorial explosion” – the things that happen when complexities meet up.

The threats we face, whilst not certain, are scientifically and statistically robust. It’s not about the conscious button pushing choice of the cold war, and mutually assured destruction, it’s the opposite – destruction through neglect, hubris and complacency.

The industrial age was characterised by growth, albeit it interspersed with recessions / depressions. It required managing the economic model, not changing it.

Where we are now means challenging these choices, from how and how often we travel, our definition of growth, and reconciling the selfish pursuit of more with the fact that there is enough GDP on the planet to give every single on of us over $11,000 a year in income.

Whilst a logistical and political nightmare, poverty has become a societal choice.

Where we are now calls for something altogether different. 

Originising

A made up word. Creating something original out of what’s available to us that we’re not using.

In the industrial era, and its immediate aftermath, we have grown economies through the brilliant application of scientific principles, initially to manufacture and latterly to services. We  have become excellent at efficiency, systems, and optimisation. We teach the “right way” to do things, we celebrate case studies, and we educate our children based on these principles. She who gets the most qualifications generally gets the most financial reward. 

Our success in process design and automation exact a cost. We no longer do mental arithmetic. We use GPS rather than maps. We no longer service our own cars. We don’t grow our own food. We’re in danger of forgetting important skills and automating ourselves out of our creativity.

Six Sigma thinking isolates outliers, and the pursuit of scale homogenises offerings. The average quality of what we make and do today has never been higher, nor the relative cost lower. It is really difficult to buy a bad new car, and equally difficult to spot meaningful differences between them. Cars, at anything other than an ego level, are a commodity. The same is true of most manufactured goods.

The commoditisation of services is taking longer, but is accelerating rapidly to catch up. There is no discernible difference between banks, insurance companies, energy companies and regrettably, political parties. We have already turned most MBA degrees into instructional based templates. We start assessing our children against obsolete criteria at age 2, at the same time that machine learning and AI is rapidly encroaching on the skills we are trying to teach them. We prize “solutions” over creativity, and safe conformity over radical experimentation.

We seem to be encouraging a race to the middle in pursuit of an unsustainable short term economic prize.

We need to step away for a moment.

Nature, which has after all been around a while, doesn’t do optimisation, or efficiency. It adapts, on a continual basis, with a simple goal. Survival.

Those who study his work insist that Darwin didn’t talk about the “survival of the fittest” (that was a convenient reinforcing translation for those who found themselves winning in impossibly short, temporary time frames), he talked those who fit best to the changing ecosystem. Those who fit best, rather than the fittest. Nature doesn’t stand still. It has different time horizons to us. Depending on which version you choose to take, there have been between 250,000 and 650,000 generations of human. Claiming success based on a handful of generations over the industrial era within our family, tribe or nation is probably a little premature.

Over that time however we have reached, or are getting pretty close to several peaks and a number of troughs. Peak extraction, Peak Population. Peak Stuff. A mental health trough, a sustainability trough, a social stability trough.

We are at a point of choice. We can continue to follow current orthodoxy, or we can recalibrate. Remember how to value those sources of insight and joy that link all generations. A work of art. Something beautifully made. The example of a life of purpose. The sense of peace to be found in an old building. A sense of place amongst the generations.

To be ourselves, not who others want us to be.

To Originise ourselves.

So far, so ideal. But how to start?

Start Small.

In a world characterised by scale, quick wins and short term wins it’s easy to end up adrift and almost out of sight of what’s important.

small is beautiful. Leverage the magic of compound interest. Small changes to important small things quickly add up, and when they link, things change.

Work in Increments.

Little things.  Turn and try swimming upstream, against the current for a while. Think independently, as only you can. Experiment. 

Remember Galileo

“you cannot teach a man (sic) anything, you can only enable him to learn from within himself”

Change some habits. 

All of us fall into habits that help us navigate our lives via the line of least resistance. They become almost invisible, but we know they are their. We are reluctant to change them, even though they bcome uncomfortable. We resist.

However, remember resistance is your friend, whether you’re working your body, mind, or business. Follow Steven Pressfield’s advice

Be yourself

In the words of Oscar Wilde.

“be yourself, everybody else is taken”. 

Good advice then, even better now. When we are encouraged to conform, to behave in ways convenient to others, we become unexceptional, or worse, exceptional in an area of little importance.  

We become increasingly undifferentiated in what we do from the technology that can (partially, but enough to matter) imitate us.

Each of us is a unique entity. There has never been one the same as us before, nor will there be in future. Each of us is a tiny part in a huge system, but with the possibility to make a difference – like the flap of a butterfly’s wing causing a hurricane. Most of us will not cause a hurricane, but we might cause a gust somewhere important.

Maybe this decade will be different.

We’re only a couple of months in, but even so I sense a difference. The power of scale, from politics to technology is faltering. With the drama of Brexit receding from theatre to uncomfortable reality, other issues are emerging, from dissent over post Brexit European budgets, to closure of borders due to corona virus, to disruption to supply chains, to a much belated start on meaningful local actions on climate change which will impact our accustomed habits such as travel, and food.

Scale and automation thrives on stability and continuity, and that is going to be in short supply for some time. Meaningful change seems much more likely to occur at local levels, driven by small groups in the context of their local needs.

If it’s true we become the verge of the five people we most associate with, now is a good time to choose.

Changing before we have to gives us more choice, and more time to practice.

If there’s a storm coming, remember when Noah built the Arc.

Before the rain.

Thinking in Bets

It seems that so many aspects of day to day personal and business life are changing so quickly, and so randomly, that it is easy to dismiss it as a period of chaos.

I don’t think it is. 

I think that, as Annie Duke would advise, we learn to think in bets

There’s a pattern to it. It’s complex, very challenging to the habits we have formed in dealing with our world for the last several decades, and is complicated by the fact that the change is moving faster than our understanding of it. Even when we’re putting in long hours of hard work at what we do today, it’s still leaving us behind. 

It doesn’t have to be that way, but to change it requires that we accept we have to make some fundamental changes to the way we live and work.

If we scratch beneath the surface, even a little, things begin to clear.

“Life as Usual”

Most of us, whether a “boomer” like me, or a new school leaver, have been brought up and educated within a system that assumes tomorrow will be much like today. That if we work hard, get good qualifications, and find a good employer, our lives will work out.

That no longer holds true, regardless of our age. 

The changes have been happening, in plain sight, but quietly. The financial crisis of 2008 has catalysed them, and we now have work environments that are fundamentally different to ten years ago.

Many approximations equate only marginally to what is needed to thrive in a much looser “gig” environment – whether you are a graduate delivering Pizza, working as an Intern, or long hours for little pay as a professional. Right now even architects are looking to unionise

Elsewhere, we know workplace engagement is low. Surveys seem to agree that around 70% are disengaged, some so fundamentally that they commit the equivalent of organisational self harm. This may be related to the types of job we are creating, many of which meet David Graeber’s conditions of “Bullshit Jobs”.

The changes have been happening gradually, but now suddenly, and we find ourselves on the edge of a situation where the nature of work is not compelling enough to hold society together. Populism, of one form or another, flourishes.

Climate

It’s over fifty years since Rachel Carson published “Silent Spring”, and we’re only now beginning to get it. Along the way, we’ve ridiculed those like James Lovelock and Gaia theory, and others, as marginal cranks.

Even now, despite overwhelming evidence that they are far more right than wrong, we still have those who find it convenient to deny it, as it messes up their business models. Right now, we’re looking at the biggest IPO ever from arguably the biggest single polluter ever.

Elsewhere, here in the UK we have business and councils declaring “Climate Emergencies” in response to the energy created by a variety of initiatives, not least Greta Thunberg’s climate strikes. 

And yet, if we look at the action plans for these “emergencies” they are more akin to finding out our house is on fire, and relaxing because we’ve order some fire extinguishers.

Technology

We’re moving very quickly now from what I think of as “Passive Technology” – the web, internet, the cloud, apps; to quasi sentient technology – Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence.

We seem to have an odd relationship with this change – on the one hand, alarmist but authoritative articles, and on the other, a more relaxed, almost anthropomorphic view of being assisted by friendly robots.

Generally, I find, many of those most likely to be affected have not engaged with what’s really happening – which is as exciting as it is threatening – or understood what it might mean. 

For generations, we have been educated and employed to process.

In the future, we need to think and create. That’s a big cultural and personal transition.

Equality

For me, this is possible the biggest, as it seems likely to act as a catalyst for all the others. The combination of capitalism, globalisation and technology has concentrated economic wealth in the hands of a tiny minority. It’s not that those who have accumulated are “bad” (although, I can think of exceptions) so much as they’ve been in the right place in the system to benefit.

If this systems remains, without question or adjustment, the benefits from the next phase of concentration will concentrate wealth even further – to those who provide the capital, rather than the knowledge, to enable machine learning and AI. 

David Graeber makes a powerful point. In 1930 Keynes argued that by 2000, we would only need to work 10-15 hours a week, as efficiency and technology would do the mundane work. Those who should benefit from the gains – those whose mundane work can be taken away to free them to do more worthwhile things – end up losing out. 

The level of equality we have is unsustainable, let alone that which might emerge unchecked. Those that have meanwhile, are likely to be willing to reduce their share – but unless we find a discourse that examines that, in a way that seems fair to all, we face the likelihood of a much more abrupt, and unpleasant adjustment.

And?

These trends – a sort of technological “four horsemen of the apocalypse” – require us to own the challenge – not deny it, or delegate it to someone else.

Individually, and collectively, we can question the work we do, and how we it benefits our collective good. 

We can address our individual carbon emissions of around 10 tonnes of CO2. Walk more, fly less, address diet. An aggregation of a lot of little actions won’t cure the problem, but might buy us time to work out how we do.

We can learn to be powerfully human, rather than efficient servants of a process. To create more than just redistribute. 

And we can learn to be humble. As countless studies have shown, our lace in the system, rich, poor or destitute, is largely a matter of luck, not effort or virtue.

We can all do something more than observe or comment. It’s time we did.

It will mean doing things we’re maybe uncomfortable with, or uncertain about, or even afraid of.

However, we’re all making a bet, one way ot the other. Whether we like it, or not.

Stories…..

Stories are the way we make sense of things, as well as commit them to memory. They are at the heart of our histories. Stories are fractal – every story has smaller stories within it, and is itself part of an ever developing larger story.

I’ve come to understand that stories are a good way to understand our relationship with our work. At any one point, both the organisation we work for and ourselves are at different points along our story line. We are founded, or born, and spend the rest our our time time working out who we are and want we want. It changes.

As we develop, sometimes the story of the organisation and the story of us align. We are good together, companions on a path that suits us both. We learn from each other, support each other, and enjoy the journey.

At other times, our stories diverge. Our needs become different. The organisation wants to settle down, but the individual wants to explore – or maybe the other way round. Either way, there comes a point where paths separate if each is to achieve what it wants from life.

The complication arises when separation needs to occur, but doesn’t. One becomes dependent on the other, or perhaps just takes it for granted. The pain comes when something unexpected happens, and a separation is forced upon the relationship. Business Failure, Headhunters, Circumstance.

When that happens, one or the other, or maybe neither is prepared. They’ve forgotten their story, and have to try and remember it; to pick it up where it trailed off.

It’s a salutary lesson. If we are not actively living our story, developing it, exploring it, the story goes into hibernation.

If we’re not aware, right now, of where we are in our story, either as individuals or organisations, and are making sure they are developing, we have a problem.