Reflections 16th January

On my mind.

The great unravelling.

This has been a week that has seen the culture at the heart of the U.K Government made excruciatingly, embarrassingly clear; the Monarchy conducting damage limitation through the sacrifice of its own, another stand-off between a nation and the sports economy as the Djokovic visa affair follows on from scandals in Football, Cricket and Formula One. Elsewhere, Nation States are working to bring trying to bring companies and cross border capital flows under control as they undermine local economies. What used to be tidy is becoming increasingly untidy, and effective leadership scarce.

Our bureaucracies, organisational and business, were built on a presumption of a need to deal with complications more than complexity, and as complexity gets the upper hand, they no longer work.

When things are complicated, processes, protocols, and consultancy all work to an extent. They are rather like diets – episodic responses to a more fundamental problem behaviour. When things become complex, and borderline chaotic however, they no longer work. The source problem takes control. A quick look round LinkedIn is a clear demonstration – lots of people offering solutions to others for problems we don’t fully understand, rather than doing the difficult work of trying to solve their own.

Even as those at the top of these bureaucracies seek to allocate blame, or seek refuge in possible technicalities within reports, we all face a similar challenge. The organizations we have built no longer provide for us the way they used to. As the pressure mounts, we cannot outsource solutions. We must face them as who we are, and the communities we are part of. It is going to be difficult, but that is irrelevant. We are going to have to change the way we live, work, consume and relate to each other and the planet we are part of.

Which is where the promise is. When things are complex, there are no off the shelf solutions. We must experiment and try things, in the knowledge they may fail, and that if they do, learn from it and try something else, and just keep going. There is a definition of insanity along the lines of repeating what hasn’t worked in the hope that this time it might work, and it feels uncomfortably familiar right now. We will become, as Jim Rohn said, the average of the five people we most associate with. Technology has given us far more choice of who those five might be, and I think we need to use that advantage to good effect.

I think the place to start is with ourselves, from the inside. What are we hoping to do with the brief moment we are all given? How does what we are actually doing align with that? What do our senses tell us? Who is supporting us as we find out, and whom, in turn, are we supporting as they search? Consumtion as anaesthetic is wearing off, and meaning is asking us awkward questions.

It is, I think, a time for deeply inefficient, wandering, exploratory, joyous conversations with people we trust and respect for who they are more than what they do. We have all been trained and encouraged to fill defined spaces in those complicated hierarchies that are crumbling around us, and we need to identify something more than our titles and employers to map our next steps.

There is an artist in all of us – someone who can bring into being something inspiring that would not be without our unique effort. An idea, an artefact, an act of generosity – the scope of art is unlimited. The artist in us will, I believe become increasingly important as technology, and in particular artificial intelligence takes care of more and more of complicated.

AI loves complicated; it doesn’t get bored, or frustrated, it just crunches away and learns. I was reminded of this listening again to the third of the most recent Reith Lectures, on AI, by Stuart Russell (link below) which deals with work.

In short, most of the things our rigid, industry serving education curriculum is teaching our children will be redundant in their lifetime, whilst the things we don’t teach, or financially value – the humanities – will be at the heart of our relationships, and our wellbeing . We don’t know precisely what it will look like, but data based routines – consultancy, sales, marketing, accountancy, management, logistics, banking – all will be significantly affected. We are likely to see the fall of David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs, even whilst we remain unclear what will happen to the people for whom they have provided a spirit sapping livelihood.

For the last hundred years or so, there has been a steady progression as each generation (until now) became financially more prosperous than the previous one, even as they became spiritually poorer. A swift scan of what we read and talk about offers a guide. Between 2014 and 2019 the number of “self improvement” books published nearly tripled to just over 85,000 whilst the number of poetry books seems to have been around 10,000.

There’s also an interesting twist though – poetry sales are now increasing, partly because they are a great vehicle for social issues, and partly because poetry tends to be short and easily consumed. Perhaps we are seeing a trend to expressing what we think, as against seeking magic potions to successfully fit in? I would like to think so.

As we get going in 2022, in the very confused surroundings we find ourselves in, even as we head to what is likely to continuing confusion perhaps it’s time to trust who we are and what we see rather than spend time and money working to be what others, particularly those crumbling bureaucracies, would like us to be.

Complication favours centralisation – it makes better use of resources, and promotes scale. Complexity though favours decentralisation, as the distance between decision and action has to reduce to cope with uncertainty. In turn, decentralisation needs more capable decision makers and leaders more than managers. These are the times we are in.

We need more authentic self-expression and  greater self reliance, far more than the counterfeit self-improvement that seeks to find a place as a dependent in a bureaucracy. New Artisans more than Modern Labourers.

It’s a great time to be ourselves.

Provoking me this week

On Trees. A conversation with Peter Wohlleben. It will take AI more than a while to understand this, whilst it may make you smile in moments.

The Intelligence of Play. Another from Stuart Brown – from a while ago, but more relevant than ever on personal risk taking in an age of imminent and ubiquitous AI.

What do you make? I saw Taylor Mali deliver this in an International school in Brussels a few years ago. In the end, we’re all teachers.

The Reith Lectures. The link here is to the lecture on AI and work. All the lectures are valuable though, and food for thought as we consider what we are walking our children and grandchildren into.

A Return to Real Economics? Economics has its roots in a simple question – why do we get up in the morning? Somewhere along the way, it got captures by capitalism. Interesting article from Aeon Magazine that takes a different angle.

Put down the self-improvement book, and spend time with some poetry instead. A collection of poetry from Orion Magazine. Time to be yourself, everybody else is taken (Oscar Wilde)


“I notice that when all a man’s information is confined to the field in which he is working, the work is never as good as it ought to be. A man has to get a perspective, and he can get it from books or from people — preferably from both. This thing of sleeping and eating with your business can easily be overdone; it is all well enough—usually necessary—in times of trouble but as a steady diet it does not make for good business; a man ought now and then to get far enough away to have a look at himself and his affairs.”

— Harvey S. Firestone (written in 1926)

Have a great week.

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