Reflections 2 May

On My Mind

In an economy built on values of scale and perpetual growth, the idea and nature of relationships have remained a constant background theme for me over the last few weeks.

How do we take the lessons that lockdown has taught us concerning the jobs that matter, the fragility of supply chains, the instant malleability of political dogma and the realisation that mean nationalism is never far from the surface, and harness them?

There are many keen to promote their vision of what might be from all parts of the political spectrum. The challenge is that there is a huge credibility gap. Many advertise their ideas without conviction on the one hand or absolute confidence on the other. There seems to be little appetite for dialogue with those they expect to do the work of the needed change.

If we ask people to make a significant change, relationships are at the heart of it, and there are five facets that we know make relationships work. Firstly and perhaps most obviously is one to one contact that demonstrates who they are to us, why they matter, and what we need from them. The other factors are less immediately apparent until we think about them, and then they are. In approximate order of magnitude, they are laughter, singing and dancing, eating together, storytelling and ritual. 

Laughter is incredibly powerful in bringing about change, Not the mean laughter of laughing at people, but the joyful release of laughing with them, that helpless laughter of seeing the ridiculous and defanging it of the type at which my favourite comedian ever, Billy Connolly, excels.

Singing and dancing with others aligns us and generates a shared sense of rhythm. A long, slow meal with others changes the mood. What might else be the food of argument becomes dialogue and discussion. 

I was surprised where storytelling ranked as it has become almost a marketing religion, until I considered that we only really listen to stories told by those with whom we have a relationship. Outside of that relationship, we recognise it for what it is, which is propaganda.

The last element, ritual, is also underrated. The institutions which powered the industrial revolution used the trappings of tradition to significant effect, from religion to class structure to patriarchal employers. From Sundays to Bank Holidays to Religious Festivals, those communal rituals have essentially given way to opportunities for retail, and we have nothing to replace them. 

The last fifty years have seen an acceleration of the fragmentation of society through technology, globalisation and an obsession with economic performance. We sacrificed those occasions when we got to really know each other, laugh, dance and eat together and tell stories that mattered inside social frameworks that enabled them. 

It is not nostalgia. It matters. If we are to make the changes that matter, we will do so as an orchestration of cohesive small groups that creates the difference at a scale that we want. 

We have to relate to what we want, not just describe it.

(If you want the source data for my reflections, see pages 140 – 170 of Robin Dunbar’s Friends)

This Week’s Books

The Enchiridion. Epictetus. A couple of millenia on, we have much to learn from the Stoics. The Enchiridion is a short collection of thoughts that apply as much today as they did then. It’s on my “go to” bookshelf.

Civilized to Death. Christopher Ryan. We are paying a social, emotional and physical price for the civilisation we have built. I think this is an important reflection on that, because we have a choice.

Quiet Disruptors. Sue Hetherington. Change does not have to be noisy. This is a great reflection on the idea that what can be powerful does not have to be shouted about.

Lessons from a small country. Jane Davidson. There are inspiring politicians out there. I just wish we had some of them in England. This account of how to bring younger generations into the decision making process, by the Minister for Environment, Sustainability and Housing in Wales is an object lesson in how politicians can inspire if they choose to.


Moore’s Law for Everything. Sam Altman. A discussion on the impact of AI on what is happening now. I don’t agree with chunks of the argument, which Is why I like it. Too much agreement makes us blind.

Climate Action and the role of Engineers. A thoughtful, powerful piece by Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland, a politician who understands the difference between leadership and rhetoric.

The 100 Most Infuential Business. A clue. They are not the big ones. The TIME100.

A quote

“This emphasis on flexibility is changing the very meaning of work, and so the words we use for it. “Career,” for instance, in its English origins meant a road for carriages, and as eventually applied to labor meant a lifelong channel for one’s economic pursuits. Flexible capitalism has blocked the straight roadway of career, diverting employees suddenly from one kind of work into another. The word “job” in English of the fourteenth century meant a lump or piece of something which could be carted around. Flexibility today brings back this arcane sense of the job, as people do lumps of labor, pieces of work, over the course of a lifetime.”

Richard Sennnett.

Lastly, to all my Friends in India. Stay safe. This will pass.

Have a great week. These are important times for us to make small differences.

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