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But where do stories come from?

“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”

Muriel Ruykeser

Muriel Ruykeser was a poet, a master storyteller and a political activist. Her words above capture, for me, a deep insight in just nine words. That’s real talent.

It also raises a question. Where do stories come from?

We are in a time when storytelling has become an industry, and manufactured stories a commodity, churned out to templates by marketing factories. They are easy to spot for two main reasons – firstly you can see the template underneath the story, often it seems created to a simplistic understanding of Campbell’s magnum opus “Hero’s Journey”, by those who have never gone to to the bother of reading it. Secondly is that the story has a clear intent. It points us not at a possible truth, but a product or service. The story has an agenda.

I think a story is an idea trying to find it’s way in the world.

I’ve always liked the idea I first read in Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Big Magic“; that we don’t have ideas, they are already out there looking for a host. They will visit us, and if we don’t do something with them, they’ll leave us and find somebody else. It’s a compelling image.

It strikes me though that there is another way of looking at it. What if we are an idea? The thought struck me over the last few weeks as we have a two year old in the house, who in that time has gone from single words to sentences as they try to make themselves understood. It is a humbling process as he wakes first thing in the morning, using his new found ability to explain the world to Mog the Cat, and Gethin the Dragon who are his overnight soft toy guardians. He then encounters the adult world, where the audience is often rather less receptive and rather more directive. Loris Malaguzzi, an Italian Freedom fighter in World War Two turned early years educator (and founder of the famous Reggio Emelia pedagogy) expressed it in a poem:

The Hundred Languages of Children

No way.
The hundred is there
The child is made of one hundred. 
The child has a hundred languages
a hundred hands, a hundred thoughts, a hundred ways of thinking, of playing, of speaking.
A hundred, always a hundred ways of listening of marveling, of loving, a hundred joys for singing and understanding, a hundred worlds to discover, a hundred worlds to invent, a hundred worlds to dream.
The child has a hundred languages (and a hundred hundred hundred more) but they steal ninety-nine.The school and the culture separate the head from the body. 
They tell the child to think without hands, to do without head, to listen and not to speak, to understand without joy, to love and to marvel only at Easter and Christmas.
They tell the child to discover the world already there and of the hundred they steal ninety-nine.They tell the child that work and play,reality and fantasy, science and imagination, sky and earth, reason and dream, are things that do not belong together. And thus they tell the child that the hundred is not there.
The child says “No way – The hundred is there.

Translated by Leila Gandini.

At the centre of his thinking was an “image of the child” as a fully formed human, learning their way into the world alongside adults doing the same further down the road, rather than an empty vessel to be instructed and trained. It is another compelling idea from an activist, and which makes something of a mockery of much of our approach to early years education. SATs anyone?

But back to the point. What if we considered people as ideas in search of vehicles of expression, and other ideas to partner with, rather than having to be sold somebody else’s story? When we submit to becoming a minor part in somebody (or worse, something) else’s story we are suppressing the idea that we are, and the world, I suggest, deserves that idea.

We might do well to sideline all that performance laden language of “potential” in service of another’s idea and replace it with something rather more personal and affirmative. A determination to keep company as far as possible only with those whose ideas resonate with ours in order to bring them to reality.

As we enter this slightly unreal and uncertain post Covid landscape, what is the idea you want to share and make real?


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The lessons of mental arithmetic….

There is a seductive power to automation. It takes things that can seem difficult, tedious or even pointless to do and give us an easy and apparently reliable way out.

There is however a catch; if we automate what we do not understand, we become unintentionally stupid.

I was reminded of this over the weekend as I observed a conversation thread about the way we use Google, and those who use it for “research”. The nature of algorithms and SEO makes Google a battleground for narrative warfare for those who want us to accept their version of the truth. The danger is that what we quote as research has dubious provenance.

When I was at school in Scotland, which is admittedly a considerable time ago, with a very unique ethos, I had to do an O level in arithmetic. I questionedthe logic of it – it seemed such a trivial thing at the time, but decades later I am ever thankful for it.

The O level was a timed test, no calculators of any sort, and no working paper – it was a test of mental acuity. The pass rate was 90%. Something like 120 questions over 90 minutes. Some challenging questions around cube roots and compound interest and the like, but I passed. (I also did an O level in marine navigation, involving tide tables and sextants, and conversion of compass reading to true readings. As I said, it was a distinctive curriculum). All seems a bit bizarre now when it is all automated, but I recognise a powerful legacy.

There is a danger in taking what a machine tells us if we don’t have a reference point. Even now, when doing calculations, even spread sheets, I have an internal sense checker, looking over my shoulder to see if what I am accepting seems reasonable. It’s the same with travelling – an internal auditor of the satnav. Provided the data entry is correct of course, machines are almost never wrong, but the sense checker is a gift for when we do get the data entry wrong. The little voice that says “go check!”

Google doesn’t offer us that. We can still only do that manually, and that requires time and effort. Even now when reading, I go to original source on those ideas and insights I get that I want to develop further. I really liked Dan Pink’s book “Drive”, but also know much of what he wrote was informed by Alfie Kohn’s book “Punished by Rewards’ which was in turn informed by the academic work of people like Teresa Amabile and Jerome Bruner, amongst many others. I like to know the company I am keeping. Mine is not an academic interest, I’m just happier when I understand the raw materials going into the work I value and am going to rely on. It takes time and effort, and fortunately I enjoy it.

Google is not your friend. Nor for that matter is anything that provides us with easy convenient answers. If it’s easy to access, we are passing trade for those giving us the information.

If what you are doing matters, to you and others, make sure there’s a little voice inside you that is protecting you by considering where the information you are about to rely on has its source.

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Reflections 11th April

It’s been an eventful week full of conversation around what I referred to last week as a sense of “quickening” – that as yet not well defined but quite tangible sense of things moving. Maybe Spring, maybe the anticipation of greater degrees of freedom and all added to by the death of a remarakable man who displayed such a remarkable and quiet sense of quiet duty. The end of an era?

Whatever it is, it has had a presence in the conversations, and a notion of “radical simplicity”. As things “quicken”, just what are we going to pay attention to?

We’ve discovered much of what we can really do without in the last year, as well as much of what we can’t and it seems the the things we can’t all have a thread of simplicity running through them. Relationships, animated conversation, laughter, a notion of what really matters. Despite that, the shallower things we haven’t been able to have that are beginning to jostle for attention, ably supported by lobbying and advertising by those whose narrower and shorter term interests are served by them.

If however we reflect on what we’ve learned, what do we really want “next” to look, feel and sound like? Personally, it’s a matter of foundations. There’s much I’ve valued during lockdown, including the quiet, more time to walk outside, varied, interesting conversations, profound conversations with people I have yet to meet in the flesh, and a chance to rethink my own personal “next”.

Which is where the idea of “radical simplicity” has come in. I read, write and think for a living, so what I produce is a function of what I allow in, and one of the things I wrote about earlier in the week was the idea of “content versus intent” – an appraisal of what was occupying my attention compared to the intent of those who generated it. Were they rewarding my attention or just consuming it in order to point me at what they wanted me to do? Far more of the latter than the former, so during the week I had a digital spring clean. Out went HBR, MIT and a host of other publications that in my view have gone stale over lockdown. Out has gone all social media (except LinkedIn, which is on probation). Out has gone travelling to routine meetings I can now do on Zoom. And my reading is changing. I am an avid reader, partly for pleasure and partly for professional fuel. Out has gone the “ten traits of” and “future trends” type of books as we increasingly understand there are no formulas for success and no real ability to predict beyond a few months. They were perhaps more relevant when things were more complicated than complex, but now, as complexity compounds, we are thrown far more into our own original thinking, and the company in which we do it. If we are so busy that we have to outsource our thinking, we have a real problem.

In the space created by the ejection of digital detritus is room for reflection and what Johnnie Moore terms “unhurried conversations”. Taking twice as long at half the intensity to accumulate four times the benefit of being able to listen, and be listened to. Giving the long term a much greater presence than frantic worrying over the uncertain short term. Reading for insight far more than content to feed those conversations, and choosing more carefully who I have those conversations with to generate greater challenge and prevent assumptions becoming easy truth.

For me, radical simplicity is a path. Difficult to do all at once, otherwise I’d write a “how to” book. It’s a little bit at a time, but often. Spring is as good a time as any to start your own cleaning.

This week’s books.

It’s been something of an Ori Brafman week. I find his work stimulating, in particular:

Radical Inclusion. A thought provoking piece, written with Martin Dempsey of the US Army, on how we can improve our understanding through who we listen to beyond out comfortable circle. Really important right now at atime of “quickenng”

The Starfish and the Spider. A few years old now, but still at the front of my “go to” bookshelf. A great look at the power of truly decentralised organisations when things are, well, like they are now.

Also, The Good Ancestor by Roman Krznaric. A public philospher on long term thinking in a short term society. A book I’m reading form insight more than content. Not as good as a conversation, but way better than another “how to”


Handshakes and Hugs. We’ve missed them, but should we return to them? (spoiler – I think absolutely. Staying alive by practicing being dead seems an exercise in futility)

Safety is Fatal. We need each other to be. An obsession with safety diminishes us.

A multidisciplinary approach to thinking. From the ever worth-it FS.Blog.

We’re animals. Embrace it. Great short article from Aeon Magazine.

A Podcast. There’s thousands around. I rather like these…….Thanks to Andrew Curwen.

And a video. Rod Beckstrom on Starfish organisations. Done back in 2007, I think it applies more today than it did then. I’ve put the longer version here, because I think its worth the time

A Quote

“It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things.”

Nicolo Macchiavelli

Have a wonderful week.