What we see and how we see matters. It affects our mood, our thinking and the actions we take. It is a self-reinforcing loop that determines whether we progress, retreat or hide.
I was thinking about this as I listened to the news this morning and scanned the press headlines, and wondered, just how useful is this for me right now? Is my progress today going to be more effective because Peppa Pig has now become a government influencer?
As we go about our work today, we have things to do that will not wait. We must make decisions, and unfortunately, attend meetings that will result in very little. We know that what we do today will be forgotten by next week and change very little of importance for most of us and that our day to day reality is often spending our time keeping our managers entertained. The news we are fed will affect little of what we do, other than perhaps providing fodder for entertainment.
At the same time, we all have decisions to make that will fundamentally affect our futures. Many small decisions and a few bigger ones. Given what we now know, just how much will we fly and drive? Will we change our diet, and will we still go mad on Black Friday to buy things we do not need? Will we continue to spend our short lives in pursuit of something as shallow and ethereal as “profit” – mainly for someone else – to buy those things we do not need? What do we want our legacy to be, and for our great-grandchildren to think when they participate, a century hence, in some version of “Who do you think you are?”
In between these poles of survival and purpose lies the most difficult region of all, the risks of transition. What we stop doing, and start doing when we know that we cannot stay where we are with any sense of responsibility and that the steps we take, if they are to be effective, will be full of risk.
The news we consume is a good place to hide. It is a rich source of people to blame and indulge in some satisfying schadenfreude as we watch someone’s career unravel and expose ourselves to carefully targeted advertising for that stuff we do not need.
That liminal space, the space between what we keep ourselves busy with, and what we really want to happen, is a rich, fertile and risky place.
Three different perspectives – the anaesthetising busyness of today, the responsibility of the tomorrow we create, and the terrifying responsibility of the bit in between.
I am sensing a feeling in the air of the end of something similar to a “phoney war.” Like most real conflicts, the pandemic had been on the cards for some time but sidelined because it was so inconvenient. It was challenging to talk about when what was wanted was short periods of political popularity following an embarrassing self-inflicted injury in the form of Brexit and our political weapons of mass deception. Of course, on cue, it then erupted when we were least prepared.
We reacted by using the playbook we have used, in one form or another, over a century of genuine, rather than manufactured conflict. Instead of people, or ideologies we cast a non-sentient organism as a dastardly villain full of evil intent. It ignored the lessons of the previous two decades of the crassness of declaring war on an abstract noun, terror, and the demonising of the flawed but positive construct that is the EU. Of course, it has its faults, duplicitous politicians and grasping bureaucrats, but that was less the problem than the inability of our politicians to do the hard work of effective collaboration during a period of our changing status on the world stage.
Cue driving around in big loud machinery, uttering short three-word phrases straight out of propaganda theory and channelling previous leaders who took real personal risks in causes worth fighting for to look after animate friends rather than inanimate money. (If you detect more than a note of anger here, I do not apologise. We all make mistakes and are occasionally stupid, but it is an epic fail to turn it into party dogma. Our children will live with this failure.)
Even now, as Boris Johnson tells us that we will transition to net zero “without a hair shirt in sight,” the man leading our approach, Chris Stark, who I suspect understands it gives up red meat and the family car by way of setting an example and encourages us to consider similar small but meaningful actions.
I know I’m not the only one noticing tension in the air. We know there is a very high likelihood that “plan B” will be implemented in the next month as cases increase. Hospitals come under pressure, whilst the relentless hyperbole to go back to a normal that no longer exists continues. We know that for many working from home not only works but works better. We know that masks help. We know we need to reduce travelling, from commuting to holidays and that our extended, fragile supply chains are an issue. We can see that throwing money at systems and organisations with an infinite appetite for it doesn’t work. We need people who do things for reasons other than money, and we need people to lead them who have the credibility to do so.
Perhaps it is time for our business and government leaders to take off the virtual reality goggles they are wearing and notice what the rest of us are. We need them to lead quietly, behave differently, stop outsourcing difficult decisions to science, and blaming events we have precipitated.
We need calm conversations about consuming less, exploring how we manage a society from which old notions of work are disappearing, and putting money in its proper place, in service of society not controlling it.
These are huge, complex, debates that will take decades and uncover many issues we haven’t even thought of yet, but hoping it will somehow all blow over is not a strategy.
We are not doomed, and neither can we keep calm and carry on. We are in a new game, and it is time to take off the virtual reality goggles.
Inspiring and grounding me.
For me, a huge upside of the last two years has been the people I have met, and the conversations I have with them. Intelligent, funny, thoughtful people with whom I share ideas, dreams, hopes and fears and whose support puts them all into place and makes me optimistic for what we can do together.
Finding Space. When the energy is high, we all need quiet moments of respite. A valued friend sent me this music earlier this week. It works really well for me. I hope you enjoy it too.
A Big Small Farm. a great example of what can be done to change things in a small space. I have my own experience of what happens when inner city primary schools grow their own food. Magic happens. such a lot from something small.
Dangers of “Longtermism” From Aeon Magazine. There is a school of thought that in the long term, all will be well for a few, unsurprisingly, rich people. An thought provoking appraisal that provides food for thought for the rest of us.
What your mission statement says about you. Thoughtful article by Bartleby in the Economist. “We are a community company committed to maximum global impact. Our mission is to elevate the world’s consciousness.” WeWork. Really?
Are you too good at what you do? A wonderful short video by Psychologist Dan Ariely on the perils of craftmanship. A great provocation that many of the people I know will recognise…..
The Passing of an Icon. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi died this week. His work is a touchstone for those of involved in coaching and creativity. The link here is to a tribute by his son. I am grateful he spent time with us.
We are past the time when people educated to operate bureaucracies can solve the challenges and opportunities we face. The change is too complex, the bureaucracies too complicated and they are incompatible. The changes we need to make are far more local, more personal, more urgent and require us to have our own unique, small courage to do the things that matter, one small thing at a time, day after day.
One of the things I have learned to do over time is to read, listen and notice without focus. To allow what I am paying attention to form its unique shape, rather than force it into a container of context.
This morning, like most mornings, I was listening to “Farming Today” on Radio 4 at 5:45. It’s become a habit because I have developed enormous respect for farmers as exemplars of working with uncertainty and the sheer variety of approaches of managing within it. This morning those approaches varied from nurturing soil health naturally to the efficient and profitable management of “protein production units” (or to you and me, sentient animals.) In between were a range of other stories, each with their unique context, from the degree to which we might return to office-based working to the shortage of lorry drivers. I find it a productive exercise to consider what links them, some form of “lowest common denominator.” But, as is often the case, I did not need to look for it, as it found me in the form of a passing comment in another story.
Somewhere in the middle of “thought for the day”, the phrase “oscillating narrative” crept in and registered and connected to some reading I did a while ago and provided the link for me.
There are three types of narrative – the upward, around how things started badly and improved – the classic story of immigrants establishing themselves in a new and strange community. Then there is the downward narrative, a fall from grace when circumstances conspire to bring the successful and comfortable down to earth with a bump.
Joining them together is the oscillating narrative that recognises them both as part of a longer whole. Finite games that are part of an infinite game. All of us, if we trace our families back, will find an oscillating narrative.
It matters because it ground us in reality and that whatever is happening now is temporary, part of a bigger picture that precedes us and will outlast us. It makes sense of where we are and what we do. To be grateful for what we have at the same time as we plant trees we will never sit under the shade of.
Whatever we do today should be grounded in a sense of contribution to something important that is more than we are. Anything else is either hubris or defeatism, and we don’t have time for either.