I have long preferred small brands with purpose, buying less of better, and the provenance of what I buy. I have been doing it long enough to see a distinct pattern emerging as these brands grow between scale and relationship.
Whether it has been the wine merchant sponsoring small wine growers who grew until they were acquired by a corporate, the razor manufacturer the same, or the jeans manufacturer who has been an inspiration, there is a clear path. They start of small, and clunky making products into which they pour their heart and soul, and grow to a point where they are confident, profitable and personable. Brands that are attractive and authentic and embody a relationship.
And then. Where they get acquired, the transition is smooth and fast. The products get optimised – razor blades that don’t last quite as long, and the marketing gets slick as the relationship turns into a data set, and the messages clearly designed by algorithms arrive in closer, carefully choregraphed formation. Where they grow, the process is slower and more painful – like a relationship that fades away.
I suspect that for us, whether as employees or freelancers, much the same is true. The more posting we accept, the more people we try to work with, the more impersonal the relationships become as we stretch ourselves ever thinner as we try to go further and faster.
Relationships are the heart of everything we do, and they carry responsibilities. I have a view that if, say, I am connected to someone on LinkedIn, I have a responsibility to pay attention to them, check their posts, take an interest. If I can’t, it’s not a relationship, it’s hanging around at a party hoping to get lucky, rather like those excruciating “networking events”.
We can make a very adequate living, doing something we love for people we know and like. As we stretch beyond that, everyone loses – we make more money, but lose meaning and real identity. We become mediocre and indistinguishable unless we spend huge amounts on the botox of mass marketing.
The road to mediocrity is short, fast and well signposted, but it’s a choice.
Enough is a good place to be, and knowing when we get there an art.
No matter where we direct it or what our intention is, money forms puddles. In those puddles, we find organisations where money gathers not by virtue but by design. The financial services industry, the banking sector, and those who enforce and protect them and the rules they play by from all manner of security to the politicians inextricably connected to them. In between the puddles are the areas from which the money drains into those puddles – public healthcare, education,and social services amongst them. No matter how much money we direct at them, it finds its way into the puddles.
It would be satisfying to say that those splashing around in the puddles are bad people. The trouble is, they’re not (well, the vast majority anyway – we can all think of exceptions that prove the rule). It struck me forcibly when I spent time with people from some of the puddles at play – real play, creative, generative, imaginative, absorbing, engaging play. They were using money but not flaunting it, with not a celebrity in sight. On the contrary, they were a pleasure to be with – funny, thoughtful, and generous of spirit.
So how, I wonder, have we created a system where money puddles rather than flows? Isolated pockets rather than a stream, where money grows rancid rather than nurturing life in the way a river does?
I suspect that the answer is that we have given money an identity we value more than life. As a result, we process life into money rather than money into life. We have institutionalised that ability into our values and embedded it into our legal frameworks for business. We treat inanimate businesses as people, with all the privileges but none of the responsibilities. Over two hundred years, what started as a sensible and creative approach to developing commerce has evolved into a breeding ground for psychopathic corporations. We have created a wetiko, the mythical beast that grows in proportion to what it consumes, such that it remains forever ravenous, consuming all it comes across.
Puddles don’t help anybody, and we need to resurface our society such that money flows where it needs to sustain life in all its forms. There are very few bad people, but there are many destructive behaviours we all indulge in encouraged by the systems we have created, from overconsumption to hoarding to disconnection from each other and the rest of life on the planet.
We don’t have an engineering problem; we have a connection problem, and we will not change the system until we start talking to each other openly about what we see, think, fear, hope and dream for our children’s future. We need to decide what we will each do in our small way to change things because small cumulative changes work far better than trying to put the Wetiko on a diet.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of identity this last week.
As businesses, groups and individuals. About how what is happening now is changing them and what that might mean. Identity gives us boundaries and defines what we see as “in-group” and “out-group” – the potentially dangerous “other.” Well constructed identities tend to rub along well; each knows its purpose and role, who’s a friend and who is foe, and a healthy system emerges.
So what happens, I wonder when we blow that system up?
For the last two hundred and fifty years here in the U.K, and much of the West, work has been an essential part of our identity. For many of us, it replaced the farm and the village as the centre of our community. Our identity became a function of who we work for, what we do there and how successful we are together. Work became the container in which we lived our lives, and whilst that model has been crumbling at an ever-increasing rate for the last couple of decades, it has taken the pandemic to administer a coup de grâce. I think it’s over, just like that.
So if work as an anchor for our identity is no more, what is?
There’s a persuasive argument that our relationships scale to a multiplier of around three-five close friends, fifteen good friends, fifty distant friends with a maximum number of genuine relationships of diminishing intensity up to one hundred and fifty people. That’s how it worked in tribes, in villages, and at work. We had a sense of place which anchored our relationships. The nomadic, global, digital nature of business has now hauled up that anchor, and many find themselves adrift. The anchor of the office, shop or factory we dutifully commuted to is now a myth of the past.
There is a flip side. A year ago, a number of us started weekly conversations to make sense of what was happening. None of us works together, have very different backgrounds, and whilst everybody knew somebody else in the group pre-pandemic, none of us knew the majority. Over the year, the initial small group has become ten groups of between five and ten, and each group has become an anchor for the people in it. We identify with others through shared values, ethics, trust and exploring what might be. We didn’t set out to do that; it just happened.
I suspect it’s happening in many places. We all need a place to belong, and businesses defined only by performance and profit, which have no soul, are not a community, just a temporary source of income.
Creativity, commitment and invention are a function of friendship, which is, in turn, a function of connection, laughter, play, celebration, storytelling and ritual. Places that provide them, physically and virtually, are anchors.
As we leave the pandemic behind, businesses have a hard decision to make. Be genuinely about more than money, become an anchor for a community, or become anonymous and homeless. (and a personal plea – expunge the cold, clinical, soulless word “engagement” forever from your vocabulary.)
This week’s books
Who do we choose to be? Margaret Wheatley. I love all of Meg’s work; they are all on my “go to” bookshelf, and good friends when I need a provocation. This one is I think perhaps her finest as she separates where we are and who we are. Powerful, provocative and inspring.
The Art of Peace. Ueshiba Morihei. Another re-read. The man who founded Aikido, and why, and along the way mapped a way to not so much change our identity as to bring our real identity into the open
How the World Thinks. Julian Baggini. A thoughtful walk around the history of philosophy, how it started, where it started and where it is. For something as ambitious as this, a very compelling read, and a good lens on how we see ourselves and our identity. Baggini has a real talent for this, for which I’m grateful.
Shaping tomorrow. Not an article, but a website I follow. Of all the “futurist” players I like this one for it’s combination of science and speculation. A good lens through which to consider what’s ahead. It will be mostly wrong of course, but that’s not the point – it’s what we see through the lens that they give us that is the real value.
Dunbar’s Number. The Conversation. A great summary by Robin Dunbar on his defence of “The Dubar Number”. I’ve referenced his book “Friends” a number of times, and am a big fan. This article summarises it well (but is a summary = the book has much more)