On my Mind
This has felt like a tense week. Our Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness have all been assailed
(When considering tension, I find David Rock’s SCARF model, which seeks to cast light on the affect of on our perceptions, a useful framework.)
This week has seen all of those elements under attack. Our individual and collective status as our politicians flounder whilst they balance moral imperative with commercial reality and come down on the side of the commercial. An important election in France today looks like like being settled by the “nosepeg” brigade; holding their noses as they vote for their least worst option.
A huge lack of certainty as all the assumptions we made about how our world works seem to be dissolving along with our supply chains. Our autonomy under question as we struggle to make our voices heard on the issues that matter to us, and our relatedness with each other fragmenting under the pressure. Perhaps most of all a huge sense of unfairness as we watch those in power play by different rules with seeming impunity.
This is a challenging time.
I also find it encouraging. The way we have been living is unsustainable, and what we are facing is a system we have been abusing bringing us back into line. It will be more painful than if we tackled the issues when we began to really understand them a couple of decades ago, but less painful than if we carry on regardless. As the old Chinese saying goes, the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago; the next best time is now.
How do we do that?
I think first we have to stand back from it and try to understand it better. Tension is unreleased energy, caused by stretching something – often ourselves, and our society beyond its tolerance limits. Tension has been a constant feature of our society, and is almost always resolved through conflict, and here we are again.
This time though, it feels different.
The conflict that tension generates needs protagonists and antagonists. Over time, we have graduated from tribes to villages to cities, and from Nation States to Transnational Corporations, and within those entities we have had class systems and hierarchies to create additional complexity. As friction has increased and tension builds, those layers have often coalesced into identities so that the conflict can be articulated. It has given us external conflict between countries, and internal conflict within societies. Identities helped us pick sides.
And I suspect that is one of the reasons it feels different this time. Now, we belong to so many different groups, with very different identities. Our identity is a composite of country, belief, organisation, gender, cause, and affiliations spread across physical and virtual locations. We find ourselves fragmented. When it comes to deciding which of our identities will articulate the tension we feel into conflict, which identity do we choose?
On one side of my family, we go back a good five hundred years within seventy five miles of where I am writing this. On the other side it is only three generations before undocumented immigration takes it into obscurity. I was brought up English, but have spent significant time as an adult variously working and living in other countries, all of which I have learned from and value immensely.
Before setting up my own practice I worked in corporations that acquired businesses in other countries before themselves being acquired by companies in another country. Despite marketing, a very fluid identity.
The products I buy are branded in comforting but highly superficial “heritage” ways, cleverly masking a provenance that is a materials and manufacturing polyglot.
I spent more time this week speaking with groups in Australia, USA, South Africa and the EU than I did people in the U.K. but I have a Prime Minister who goes around burbling about “Global Britain” when it already is.
When it comes to identity, simple convenient labels stopped working long ago,and I feel entitled to feel just a little bewildered when asked to identify with labels that are meaningless constructs touted by opportunists.
If you feel as I sometimes do fragmented by circumstance, how do we bring things back together and find some sort of coherence?
I found the organisations I worked for couldn’t do it. Whatever the intent, the businesses were too fragile to provide a platform. Not only were the people in them transient, but so were the businesses as they sought, and provided, opportunties in the market. It provided experiential truth to the adage that when somebody leaves or joins a team, you cannot “integrate” people into the team that was; because there is a new team with a whole different set of dynamics. Trying to develop teams in this sort of environment tended to descend into lip service to keep up a self serving illusion.
The same was true of attempts to develop skills. They tended to come second to what was required in order to meet perceived market needs and internal KPI’s. In working for others, I ended up learning just enough to make what was good enough rather than something to be proud of.
I believe what I experienced has become more pronounced today as a drive towards efficiency and easy reliance on outsourcing and automation has increased the separation of work from meaning. The issues we see around engagement and wellness are symptomatic of of this.
I found it much more productive and satisfying to focus on people and purpose. Those I now recognise as New Artisans. They were there amongst the people I worked with, inside the businesses and outside in suppliers and advisers, and those relationships developed. People doing things that mattered that gave them an identity they were happy with. Eventually, an opportunity arose to work with such a circle of people pursuing similar personal and work goals. It came at a price – leaving behind the relatively easy regular money and bonuses, but provided a network of people, ideas, and projects that have made me smile for the last twenty years. I’m glad I did it.
Putting things back together
When something breaks, it is tempting but futile to be angry with it. Often, it is tempting and easy to throw it away and replace it with something similar and easily available.
As the pressures on processes and costs increase in cross currents of the pandemic and world affairs, those who cannot learn new ways of leading double down on old practices. Like P&O cost cutting what they have already cost cut, or those in Westminster attempting to force people working perfectly well from home back into the office.
We can learn from the Japanese art of Kintsugi, the craft of ceramic repair. Find ways to make something beautiful from something that has broken by giving it a new identity through the use of gold to bring the pieces back together. A form of “anti fragility” – beyond resilience to re-creation.
The gold, of course, is us and our work.
We all have the potential to do work that matters which fulfils us. The challenge is that it is increasingly difficult to do that for someone else because our agendas are different. Our stories may align for a short while, but inevitably part ways.
Changing that is down to us, and the route to it is to recognise our job, whatever it may be, for what it is, what it brings us, the gap it leaves in who we are, and making moves to address it.
Not through some “off the shelf” education scheme, (which are often designed and marketed to those who are causing the problem) but by finding places to explore options with others looking to do the same. Those looking to take what they already know how to do, but use it differently to do better work that means something as well as making money. Personal growth and discovery, more than “performance” measured by somebody else.
This is a good time not to “build back better”, but rather “create something different” from the pieces, to harness the tension that is around us. To find and contribute the gold we all have and make something altogether better.
Inspiring me this week
Wry animations expose the gap between anxious aspiration and real life
‘I work hard. I work very hard’: a female voice describes herself using language that seems to conform to societal expectations of what a modern person – and a modern woman especially – ought to be. As the narration unfolds without context, her words use stock phrases you might read on a resume or hear aloud as self-affirmations. But the shakiness of her voice accompanied by the wry animated sequences that unfold alongside – a man scaling a house of cards; a porcupine surrounded by balloons – expose the sentiments as hollow and at odds with the narrator’s true experience of life.
To Aki Sasamoto, life is like melted glass, exciting and impossible to control.
“When you don’t include people in the process, you’re making decisions based on assumptions and that can be dangerous.” A great article from “Matters” Journal.