Brittle

Of brick and scale, I can say

There are other unfathomable things
that speak to both moment and beyond.

Anne Coray, The Egyptians Had It All Wrong

We tend to think of success built in stone and steel. However, both of these substances can be brittle when it is time to flex. Long term success is about our ability to flex, to learn and to build new capability.

The last year has been a massive shock to the global economic system and our own personal experience of work and life. We are coping with a significant magnitude of adaptation in a compressed timeframe. The forces of those changes can reveal our capabilities and our organisations to be flexible or brittle.

Flexible enough?

If you have seen the cities of Asia, one of the extraordinary sites is the bamboo scaffolding around construction sites. That scaffolding of sections of bamboo tied together can reach many dozens of stories high. The material is cheap and plentiful. Tied together by expert teams it is also flexible enough to cover the needs of construction crews and survive moonsoons.

I live in a house that is over a hundred years old. It is a weatherboard. The foundations aren’t always great and much has been replaced over time. The walls shift and crack a little. However, while a house has been here for a hundred plus years it is not the same house. Over that time it has been renovated, renewed and changed in an ongoing way to suit the needs of its occupants and the wear and tear of use and weathering. The ability of the house to flex can be an advantage in storms, heatwaves and other sudden changes.

Our bodies too go through a process of renewal. I may not be as old as my house, but I know that every part of my body is adapting to changes, renewing itself, learning and growing. Luckily I haven’t broken bones but I know that it is a consequence of the body facing too much stress and being unable to flex. Something has to give.

I must renew my bones in your kingdom,
I must still uncloud my earthly duties.

Pablo Neruda, Still Another Day I

Built to Last?

Careers and lives need to flex and be renewed, but that isn’t always part of our discussions. We can tend to see careers as monoliths built stone by stone, reinforced by steel. This discussion can bring a brittleness to our experience of careers. We assume that the stone and steel is the outcome of successes, when much of the advancement in our careers follows failure. Our flexibility and our growth comes from these moments. Failure helps us adapt because we can become too settled and cease to keep adapting to what comes next. Small shocks help us correct cause before bigger shocks arrive.

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias

We have all met people who have risen quickly, one success on another. These careers like steep towers of stone can look impressive. Surprisingly many of these careers are not deeply planned. Success followed success and the stacking of stones inevitable. However, these people and their careers can be particularly brittle. Continuing that run of success can become central to a person’s identity. They chose to succeed, not the path. Pretence creeps in to cover gaps. Image overcomes the focus on listening, learning and adaptation. Fixed mindsets of the drivers of personal success don’t prepare people for the shocks that always come.

Success can also make our relationships brittle. Instead of a fluid two-way flow of information and authority, like in a wirearchy, we become increasingly fixed on power relationships and managing the flow of information. Building the capability of others which was once part of our success becomes a threat to our position. Without the flexibility and support of a network we are tied into a rigid structure of unforgiving relationships. Power increases the expectations and if not carefully managed can reduce our ability to flex and adapt.

All friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness

David Whyte, Consolations

Long term success is built on the flexibility of renewal. Lifelong learning is a key attribute of the ability to anticipate, to build capability and to recover from shocks, breaks and loss. None of us are born predestined for a path, a career or a life. We make that life in the living and by how we adapt and change to the circumstances as they arise.

What got us to this point is much less important than how we adapt to this moment. Success in our last role or career can provide a foundation but the work is how we build something suited to the challenges of now. The heart of this flexibility is asking ourselves “what do I need to do to succeed in this moment now and to prepare for what might come next?”

but when the spill
comes the brook will have
another heap
in its way, another
shambles to get
through or around; or
over: how much time does
a brook have: how much
time a brook has!

AR Ammons, The Brook Has Worked out the Bend

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