As we find ourselves variously in new ways of working, or a rush back to previous ways, I’m struck by the power of an old-fashioned notion of courtesy.
When we are rushing, trying to be efficient, courtesy seems such a quaint notion. In times of uncertainty and discontinuous change however, I think it is increasingly important. Courtesy sets the container in which our conversations take place.
I was sat in a well-known coffee shop, people watching. People rushing in to meet, a perfunctory “Hi” before logging on to the free Wi-Fi and talking to each other with the laptops or phones seemingly acting as some sort of digital intermediary. Straight to business, as quickly and efficiently as possible. Other meetings to go to, other calls to make.
I compared it with the nature of the common greeting ritual of the Zulu; The most common greeting in the Zulu tribe is “Sawubona”. It literally means “I see you, you are important to me and I value you”. It’s a way to make the other person visible and to accept them as they are with their virtues, nuances, and flaws. In response to this greeting, people usually respond with “Shiboka”, which means “I exist for you”. Altogether meatier than “Hi.”
When we run our regular weekly conversations at Originize we will often have a check in, either at the beginning (it is a regular group, and we know each other well) or at some point during it when we sense we need to. It’s not as elegant perhaps as the Sawubona / Shiboka ritual, although it serves the same purpose. Being present with another, exchanging via head, heart, and hands. Intellect, emotion, intuition, sensing. Full bandwidth conversation.
I was in the coffee shop in order to reflect on a book I read at the weekend – Adam Kahane’s Power and Love. In it he makes an observation that inspired me as much as it made me feel slightly dense. For the last two years I have been working with people with different default worldviews – scientific and spiritual – exploring how we harness both when it comes to conversation and found myself looking for “a language of the middle”. Kahane makes the point that it is not the middle we need to be, but in exchange between the polarities. He uses the examples of power (the drive to self-realisation) and love (the drive to unity.) He compares it to breathing in and breathing out more than being in the middle. It struck me powerfully that trying to be in the middle of breathing in and breathing out probably won’t end well. Exchange rather than compromise.
It requires a whole different set of disciplines, courage, confidence and humility, but aspiration is perhaps like that. First amongst those disciplines is courtesy – a willingness to see and be seen, to be heard and to listen.
A notion of the power of “de-monetisation” as a philosophy for these times. The arc of monetisation was well underway when I was born in the middle of the last century. Powered by the industrial revolution and amplified by two world wars, America and Europe had been transformed by governments and organisations turning natural resources into money. By the end of the century in which I was born, that trend was global, and the entire planet was being monetised.
In the two decades of this century, enabled by technology, we have monetised society. In a global workplace, the competition for jobs dissolved any idea of local economies. Anything that could be reduced to a process and a specification could be made anywhere where costs benefits existed – from cheap labour to automation to tax environments. The result has been threefold – a “race to the bottom” on costs, a concentration of wealth, and money as the absolute definition of wealth.
The last element – a notion of money as the sole arbiter of wealth has had a profound effect. It has shaped our education systems, put everybody into the workplace and expanded our appetite for debt to buy the badges of apparent prosperity. Debt, like gambling, is pernicious – easy to get into, difficult to get out of. As we have privatised everything from healthcare to funerals via early years education, care for the elderly, security and much else, we have dissolved the glue that holds a functioning society together. It has happened quickly but almost invisibly, a continual stream of small events catalysed by major rounds of deregulation until we find ourselves now with nothing left to privatise. Nowhere to go for growth except perhaps to find another planet……
We now find money is the default answer to any question. Not enough face to face doctor’s appointments? – money. Victims of failures of government? – money. Just about anything – money. Notions of relationships, responsibility, and reciprocity – all reduced to money.
So where, I’m wondering, do we go from here? It is difficult to see answers in mass protest – it harms the already harmed far more than the harmers. Conventional politics has become so enmeshed with business that it has lost its identity, homogenised by the the rotating door between the two. As national boundaries melt as rapidly as the permafrost, how do we rebuild community that means something?
Perhaps we can learn from chaos theory, or more precisely, those complexity scientists who have made it digestible for the rest of us. Dave Snowden created my favourite framework over twenty years ago, the Cynefin Framework, There is a great video here – about thirty minutes well spent – and the metaphor of the children’s party captures the current situation wonderfully. I’ve mentioned it before and make no apologies for doing so again.
When those we traditionally rely on to look after our interests prioritise their own, we have to rebuild our society from its smallest units, and at a time when traditional families, particularly in the West, have been dissolved and fragmented by monetisation, we need to create new building blocks.
That, in my view, means those around you right now – physically and increasingly virtually. Engaging in conversations that have nothing to do with money and everything to do with how we live, how we want to live, and how we will help each other do it when we know money is not the answer. Conversations involving questions, ideas, love, joy, sadness and letting go. Valuing people for who they are and their intent, not the car they drive or the holidays they take. Focusing on re-learning what our grandparents knew and paving the way for our grandchildren not to have to pick up the tab we, however unwittingly untiil recently, are leaving them.
I used this quotation a couple of weeks ago, and it still feels important.
Order arises out of chaos when particles form around strange attractors to create new structures. In my view, the particles are conversations, and even though we don’t know what the strange attractors are yet, we can be confident they are there and will emerge. All we have to do is be ready when they do. We can do that by weaving an ecology of conversations about things that matter way beyond money.
It’s a big ask, but if not us, who and if not now, when?
Things that are shaping my thinking right now.
Back to the office. Radiohead style. Thanks to Hiut Denim for spotting it.
If you look up professional in the main dictionaries they usually define it in relation to skills, training, and organisations. Interestingly, none of the ones I looked up defined it in terms of earning money. In today’s economy, I suggest the pursuit of money is one of the defining qualities of a modern professional.
By comparison, amateurs do it for the love of it. It is the root of the term. “amatore”. Latin for “Lover”
In between though is the Artisan. People who do it for love, and earn money from it. The main difference perhaps is that for the professional, money is the anchor of the relationship and time is money. Charge by the hour (or for lawyers and accountants, in six minute increments). Artisans create something they are proud of, and then hope to sell it. The ultimate payment by results, with the result being determined by the engagement of the customer. Joy and appreciation as much as functionality.
There is another difference. Professionals comply with standards defined by other people. By qualifications, regulations and behaviours set by professional bodies. They have to meet standards set by them, but no more than that. Artisans set their own standards. Picasso was not a qualified artist. Orville Wright never had a pilots license.
Some professionals of course are also artisans. They meet the standards set by professional bodies, but go way beyond them. The standards are a floor, not a door. Many though of course just do the job they qualified for. What I term buskers. Those who perform for money for passing strangers.
Which is why, right now so many professionals are fragile. It’s been easy to sell what they have learned – it’s been a limited market. Learn once, use many times. Consultants who fit client problems into previously designed expensive PowerPoint templates. Both learning and sales are case study driven. now however, beautiful case studies have lost their power.
The world around us is changing rapidly. The last pandemic of the scale we are in was in 1918. We have no working memory of it. Musicians are complaining the the Brexit deal doesn’t suit them (with some justification, although it’s industrial age thinking) And now, algorithms can do much of the heavy lifting when it comes the data analysis and document preparation professionals have relied on for income. Right now, we are in the realm of original and transrational thinking beyond the logic based approaches of highly trained professionals. They haven’t been here before, nor have they trained for it. They have little to fall back on. It makes them fragile.
Artisans are different. They start from scratch. For them, a pot is made from a lump of clay, not cast in a mould. A painting starts with a blank canvas and a sculpture with a lump of marble. A table starts as a tree. Artisans always start pretty much from scratch, whether its designing a spreadsheet rather than calling up a template, and starting with an open discussion not a presentation. They do not rely on history.
This is not a normal decade. Covid has kick started it, and we’re now where we might otherwise have been mid decade. What might otherwise have been gentle decay of old ways of working is now a collapse, and it’s a good thing. We can’t ignore it any more.
Whatever we do, we would do well to behave like an artisan:
Develop the skills that make you independent of an employer. It’s fine to work for someone else, but on your own terms. Don’t become dependent.
Whatever you do, learn more than you need to in order to do the job. Think like a craftswoman.
Find a virtual guild. People who can support, train and develop you as you train, support and develop others.
Turn up as an original human being, not a cloned functionary.
Treat debt, personal or business, with great respect. Until debts are settled, they own you, not the other way round.
Create more than process. The industrial revolution made much manufacturing a commodity. AI is doing the same for intellectual processes.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb has a real point in “Anti Fragile”
Beyond our reputation, our experience up to now counts for increasingly little. It’s who we are that matters now. Professionals are fragile, artisans are anti fragile.