We have built a culture that idealises the individual. Our future depends on those who can collaborate and work in community.
We make it hard for ourselves. Our narratives are about going it alone. We tell stories about heroic single leaders and change agents. We measure and reward people for individual effort. We stress individual freedoms and individual potential. We are relentlessly encouraged to ‘go it alone’, ‘to look out for number 1’ and to ‘make our mark’
For much of my career I have ended up in isolated roles as a business developer, as a change agent or as a consultant. Sometimes by my choice and some times by consequence of the choices of others. Working alone takes broad shoulders to carry the burdens, determination to work through the challenges and a strong sense of passion to fight for what you need to achieve
It isn’t easy being alone. I make terrible company for myself. The rewards of my heroic solo efforts weren’t worth that much. The best things I achieved while in roles ‘on my own’ weren’t my own work but the outcome of collaborations, especially across silos or organisational boundaries. The disappointments were endless and entirely my own. It’s much less easy, much safer and much more rewarding to be part of a community or a team.
From Autarchy to Autonomy
Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose
Freedom can be a rush, but when it signals ‘nothing left to lose’ it is ultimately devastating. We often confuse freedom to shape our work and make choices with autarchy, working truly isolated economically independent of others. They are different things. Few people ever work as an island. Attempts to work as an autarchy are guaranteed to fail in organisations and in our economy, just ask North Korea. Autonomy demands that we have a say in the governance of our work. That can and should be a part of any community, any team and any work.
We have to stopped encouraging autarchy, stop designing for it and stop promoting it. Nobody works, lives or succeeds alone.
We can foster autonomy. It isn’t the anarchy that many in power expect. Autonomy is where our societies and our organisations began. Before modern communications technology and the modern factory all work was autonomous. Even the apprentice was expected to make decisions about their work on the path to mastery. We will be better for teams, organisations and communities taking responsibility for the work and lives and seeking to shape them in ways that make them better, more liveable and more productive.
I may be constrained by tight boundaries but constraints are a source of creativity. We have already seen so many people demonstrate extraordinary creativity in reinventing their work, their business model or their lives to suit the new circumstances. One can rail against boundaries, but these appear likely to be with us for some time to come. Let’s not let them define us and get creative in how we discover and rediscover ourselves.
Boundaries help us focus and explore what we have. I have found these last 6 months a period of a focus on capabilities, broadly defined. I have focused a great deal on making what I can from my circumstances and my resources. With time and attention, I have been surprised with how much can be done.
Turning back to rediscover my own world has led to all sort of new opportunities, many due to my privileged position as someone later in my career with resources, successes and networks already established. With commutes & travel abandoned and the pressures of lockdown, I have explored more deeply passions for poetry, baking and cooking. I have turned to all sorts of bits of digital detritus to support the needs of a busy home office. I have reshaped the way I deliver my work to make more progress and been totally surprised by how much progress I can make with colleagues and clients in these times. I have watched the organisations I am involved in make similar transformations and progress. Some of my capabilities and history have enabled me to make new and useful contributions to others. We are discovering and sometimes rediscovering ways of living and working.
The hardest and most challenging part of this process is rediscovery of myself. I have only made a small part of this progress, but what I have found is now precious to me. I value family, friends, colleagues and community more highly because that time now stands in starker relief. I have spent much more time seeking out social activity now that little comes by chance. I now ask myself harder questions about the value and role of purchases I make now that casual browsing and shopping as an activity is lost. I don’t miss travel for work, conferences or pleasure and I know it may be years before that experience returns to what it once was.
With the events of the last months, I am more aware of my circumstances of privilege and advantage. I don’t battle poverty, discrimination, disability or other forms of disadvantage. I blithely share my opinions when those options aren’t always available to or respected in others. I have much to learn and more that I can contribute to help others be heard and to make change happen. The stories of those making this change continue to inspire me to make a bigger difference.
There is more good in the world to find when I go looking beyond the dark headlines and shouty debates. People realising their potential still inspire and encourage me. I get down but I still hold hope and still believe we can make change. Life is light and shade. I am wiser for coming to a greater acceptance of both sides. Perhaps I am being more realistic in my expectations of the world but mostly of myself. I can stop. I can take a day off. I need to be mindful and relax some times. The world won’t end. All I can do is all I need do.
Ultimately, the last few months have been a reminder that if there’s no happiness inside you won’t find happiness out in the world. That’s a rediscovery worth much indeed.
Time and again in life we need to start again. The blank page of the restart is hard and disappointing, but every time we start again we do so with the knowledge, experience and networks of our previous attempts.
The Pandemic is forcing many people to start over again. Jobs are gone. Businesses are gone. Relationships have broken down. For many there is an ongoing health battle that will require a new start too. At the easiest end of this restart, my community of Melbourne is restarting lockdown in an effort to get on top of the virus’ spread in the community.
Starting over again always begins with a sense of disappointment. We ask ourselves the usual hard questions each a recrimination: why me? do I really have to do this again? can’t I get a pass? The answers always come back we have to do it all again. Major restarts are wrenching and dramatic but in reality so much of life is doing the same things again, just better. Those who have the greatest success accumulate the gradual improvement in each restart and each redo.
Especially in corporate life with its restructures, changes of strategy and changes of management. Doing over can be a regular phenomenon. The opportunity is to ensure that each time we restart we widen the circle of engagement, learn a little more and shift the opportunity to make progress. If it feels like it’s going in circles at least make the circle wider each time and perhaps gain some elevation.
Better This Time
Each restart is not a blank page. If you can recall back to the first time, you will remember you were gripped with fear, uncertainty and confusion. Starting out means new networks, new relationships and new activities. There is a lot of create and understand for those starting for the first time.
Restarting many of those elements are in place. There is less confusion and less uncertainty. The challenge this time is remaining focused and maintaining our motivation. I spent much of the first lockdown ensuring that my home office worked and working out new routines to support work, life and success. I start the second lockdown with that infrastructure in place and routines. I am not looking forward to the process, but I have far greater confidence that I can survive and succeed. I also know the things that I need to do differently to build and grow as this experience comes around again. After all, it is not yet clear that we won’t have more to come.
Importantly, a restart builds on the critical relationships that we have built before. Finding a new job or relationship or starting a new business or career, depends in many ways on our relationships. Networks underpin our success in life and business. Those restarting start on top of strong relationships developed through experience. Plan to use these relationships to support and enhance your efforts.
Restarting is mostly an experience of working day-by-day and step-by-step. However, it can also be an opportunity to make a new leap. We should challenge ourselves not to treat the restart as routine and look for the truly better ways to work and to live in the next go round. Some times the blank page of the restart enables you to see an entirely different path forward, one that will get you a lot further to your destination a lot faster. Maintaining our curiousity and our optimism is essential to finding and executing on these chances.
As difficult as starting over may be, it is a common part of many domains of our life. If we tackle the drudgery and challenges with an eye to the opportunity, we may just find some entirely new satisfaction.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.
Our working from home isolation poses a real challenge for the exchange of tacit knowledge. We will need to work harder than ever to ensure that new employees and colleagues can benefit and learn from this deep expertise.
The Challenges of Tacit Knowledge When Working From Home
Last night, I went to a socially distant cooking class. While the class was informative, it was a reminder that cooking is experiential and that there is much that is tacit knowledge in the process. Without the ability to get up close and hands on with the lesson, you were dependent on your ability to understand the recipies and the instruction from an experienced commercial chef. As someone who cooks a lot, I found that I could fill in the gaps in the narration and some of the chef’s terms and metaphors. For someone with less experience of the practice, there were mysteries that needed to be resolved with lots of careful questioning and additional explanation.
Skilled practitioners have lots of tacit knowledge and much of what they know is not and cannot be captured in their recipes. Knowing how much is enough in making a dough or whisking is a matter of practiced judgement, not exact procedures. This tacit knowledge is often the difference in perfomance between acceptable and excellence.
I have lots of complaints through our recent weeks of working from home around the limitation of the technology for learning from colleagues and peers. I have seen plenty of fierce differences in work due to the lack of the shared context and tacit knowledge that comes from greater proximity. What is obvious to someone experienced in a domain, will not be obvious to their distant colleagues. Junior lawyers who often rely on chance to be drawn into meetings to watch their colleagues translate the theory into practice. At home, they are less top of mind and missing the chance to learn and experience the follow-on practice that comes from being in the room. Peer learning is something that most schools need to continue to explore as part of their learning from home activities. It is our peers that can often unpick the tacit and the unsaid in the theory and practice that we are trying to learn.
Working Out Loud as a Solution
When asked to explain our tacit knowledge, by those who don’t yet have the insight we can do so. However, many times when working from home there isn’t the chance to ask, especially in front of clients and other situations where asking may not be psychologically safe.
Instituting a routine of debriefs and coaching discussions after meetings is an important way to help create these conversations. Having a regular and safe forum to share the insights behind strategies and practice and to ask the dumb questions makes a big difference for those who are new or learning. This is a step to making the tacit elements of knowledge and process visible out loud.
The next step is to create a culture of working out loud in the organisation. Combining openness, transparency and explicit narration, working out loud or showing your work helps to make tacit knowlege more visible and more capable of question. When we are not together, this sharing of deep context and often unconsidered judgments by those with expertise is critically important to the spread of knowledge and the pace of learning.
Much of what passes for judgement and intuition is founded in tacit knowledge and depth of experience. I had a recent negotiation where I chose not to ask an obvious question. A colleague asked me afterwards why I held back. I explained that in that moment there were only two answers to the question – the right answer and the wrong one. I didn’t know which one was the answer and I dislike asking questions that are a roll of the dice at a sensitive stage in the discussion. We didn’t yet have enough relationship to survive the wrong answer. While I really need to know the answer, knowing that there is a right time to get bad news and the signals that a relationship has arrived at the point for bad news to be recoverable is an important and hard learned skill.
Importantly, making tacit knowlege explicit also makes it capable of review. In times of change, habit founded on deep tacit knowlege can lead us astray. Just look at the many issues of systemic bias being surfaced in our organisations. We are far better off to surface the assumptions, the decisions and intuitions and make them subject to the sunlight. If they survive the questioning of that review it helps even the practiced exponent know that they have not inadvertently begun the slow journey of obsolesence.
In our social distant organisations, we can foster the practice of working out loud in multiple ways from encouraging use of enterprise social media to share status and narrate work, to peer coaching circles and even consistent brown bag lunches and other informal training sessions. The planning processes and retrospectives of Agile can also be useful forums if sufficiently open and searchable by others. The key is to create multiple ways that people can share their work in progress openly and also narrate the decisions and choices of that work. There is a burden in this but surfacing the hidden decisions and insights is a critical capability to the success of others and to reinforce and review that tacit knowledge for practitioners. We need to work hard to surface and share tactic knowledge in our current circumstances but the health and effectiveness of our organisation depends on that discovery and exchange.
…under historical conditions that yield an ambiguous mix of possibility and powerlessness, of desire and despair, of mass joblessness and hunger amidst the accumulation, by some, of great amounts of new wealth. These circumstances, added Gluckman presciently, do not elicit a “reversion to pagan ritual.” Just the opposite. “New situations,” he says, citing Evans-Pritchard, “demand new magic”
Jean and John Comaroff, Occult Economies and the Violence of Abstraction
Anger is also an understandable reaction to the uncertainty inherent in the pandemic and protests…We know that uncertainty as both a cognitive and emotional state is one that people want to resolve.
With all the pain, anguish and turmoil in the world at present, there is little surprise that we are dealing with anger, despair and confusion. Even the simplest challenges of working, shopping, exercising or drinking a coffee are now battles with a pandemic and raise ethical and environmental issues for those willing to consider them.
Taking nothing seriously and recognising our sensations as the only reality we have for certain, we take refuge there, exploring them like large unknown countries.
Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
We are faced with a real danger that we disappear inside our own heads as we grapple with this confusion. Dealing with algorithmic bubbles is one challenge, but a greater one is that in a digitally mediated world where casual interaction is restricted, we have far too much time alone with our thoughts or the media that portrays the thoughts of others as a new gospel.
What might have been and what has been Point to one end, which is always present. Footfalls echo in the memory Down the passage which we did not take Towards the door we never opened Into the rose-garden. My words echo Thus, in your mind.
T S Eliot, Burnt Norton
New Magic and New Rituals
We have added new rituals to our lives as gestures of preservation: the hand washing, the hand sanitising, the wave on a video call and the elbow with which we open doors. Some have gone further and begun to seek comfort or release in older and stranger magic.
Domestic violence is reportedly on the rise and alcohol sales are rising, given the strong correlation between these two and the pressures of the time, it does not bode well as a solution. Weird conspiracy theories are being propounded as people grapple for explanations. We may not believe in evil witches, but evil billionaires, mind-control vaccines, international agents and shadowy forces are widely discussed and studied earnestly. The advocates of these conspiracies have enough confidence to argue ‘do your own research’ because they know their messages will appeal to desperate minds against the facts.
There is only likely to be an ongoing increase is these strange corners of our digital world. The pressures of climate change will continue after the pandemic ceases. Ongoing economic transformation will continue to roil traditional powerhouses and weaken historical centres of employment. Authoritarians will combine populism with conspiracy to offer easy magical solutions and convenient rituals as the solution.
The Stored Magic of Poetry
The Washington Post article quoted above proposes one solution that at this moment feels almost magical: a focus on appreciation, affiliation and aspiration. Each of these offer us a magical way outside of our heads because they challenge us to look beyond now, beyond here and to find something better in others and the world around us. We need to find our own paths to the luminous.
For me in this time of crisis, I have found appreciation, affiliation and aspiration in poetry. Reading poetry is hardly a world-changing activity, but we each can find a place to begin and to start the journey of being drawn out of our own confused heads. We need to find glimmers that lead us out to the edges.
Poetry has been a way to escape the limits of my own thoughts, to search for insights and to appreciate something greater and richer of the human spirit. Importantly, poetry offers a way to reach for something beyond this time and place, Robert Graves intriguingly described its role in human culture as ‘stored magic’.
True poetic practice implies a mind so miraculously attuned and illuminated that it can form words, by a chain of more-than-coincidences, into a living entity—a poem that goes about on its own (for centuries after the author’s death, perhaps) affecting readers with its stored magic.
Robert Graves, White Goddess
Poetry also invites us to explore our human affiliation from the magic of love, to the mysteries of empathy and the warmth of compassion. We cannot read poems without inviting the rich diversity of humanity back into our lives. At a time of social isolation, there is comfort in this crowd that comes and goes at will.
The purpose of poetry is to remind us how difficult it is to remain just one person, for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors, and invisible guests come in and out at will.
Ultimately, the best way outside of the grip of our own heads is through creative action, ideally collective creative action. That action is the only true solution to our present crises.
If you came this way, Taking any route, starting from anywhere, At any time or at any season, It would always be the same: you would have to put off Sense and notion. You are not here to verify, Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity Or carry report.
Ultimately, the best way outside of the grip of our own heads is through creative action, ideally collective creative action. That action is the only true solution to our present crises.
We have seen in recent weeks the power of people coming together to make something anew, to struggle to make things even more perfect, despite the desperation of our circumstances. I have been inspired again and again with the human ingenuity in the face of crisis whether it is teenagers using 3D printers to make medical equipment in short supply or restauranteurs reinventing their business models to support customers, suppliers and survive. We have seen friends and family discover the magic of cooking, baking, solving technical challenges of isolation or coming together to support friends and community.
If anything is clear after the last few months it is that we need to create a better world. That will take much mundane work and a great deal of the magic of poetry to unite and inspire us. What is abundantly clear is that that better world lies outside of us in community and in the world. The future not to be found in our heads, no matter how passionate or certain our beliefs.
Poetry is knowledge, salvation, power abandonment An operation capable of changing the world poetic activity is revolutionary by nature; a spiritual exercise, it is a means of interior liberation. Poetry reveals this world; it creates another
Last week I realised that I was missing the casual serendipity of a busy city in our new found social isolation. Serendipity matters more than ever because innovation depends on boundary crossing, exploring edges and the value of weak ties. We need innovation to get ourselves to a better place, but we need to take care to avoid gimmicks.
Losing the Serendipity of Inspiration
The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed
Gibson’s quote is so often shared that it no longer prompts reflection. It has become a trite aphorism to be added to talks on innovation as received wisdom. Soon it will be attributed to Winston Churchill and Einstein by enthusiastic futurists and earnest thought leaders.
Fewer people have taken to heart its advice on the need for search and diffusion in innovation. Our lost serendipity matters, because unless we are exceptional change agents, we have lost the opportunity to encounter an insight or an innovation to be shared. We need to get out beyond our usual boundaries and explicitly look for new ideas and actions. Once we find one we can share it, but more productively we need to act to propogate it.
I stumbled into the phrase working out loud when my path intersected with the members of the E2.0 community. I discovered it was an idea with a long genesis, deep practice and many experts. My immediate sense was that it was an opportunity to address issues of permission, experimentation and psychological safety in people sharing their work. Through various efforts, including International Working Out Loud week, a community of advocates have worked to make it a concept that is widely considered in the future of work.
A solution to a problem that I had been struggling with already existed. I just needed to meet the people who were leading the way. Once I saw the potential of that light, I needed to foster it by joining the forces seeking to promote the solution.
We don’t meet these serendipitous discoveries in our algorithmic bubble. We need to reach out into the realm of weak ties. This distant land out in the edges of our networks is where the shining lights are to be found. Out in that distance there are different ideas, divergent insights, diverse disciplines and unique solutions at play. Our challenge is to navigate to these edges, explore them and add our talent and support to the feeble glimmers out there. The value of diversity is that it is an accelerator in adaptation. We need to embrace the discomfort out in these alien edges because that discomfort is the power of learning.
Exploring the Shining Light at the Edges
Some times a comment resonates deeply with your current circumstances. I discovered this definitions of crisis and catastrophe on the weekend.
The last months have demonstrated to us that we we need new and better solutions in public health, in politics and in business. Those solutions won’t be in the core of your discipline or a training manual. We need to go out to the boundaries to find them, crossing disciplines, organisations and even continents.
To find these solutions we need to look in new places in our organisations. We especially need to work with those employees who are interaction at the edges, in Customer care or who might not otherwise be engaged as part of the strategy process. In times of rapid change and reduced interaction, these edge keepers are essential part of an organisation’s sense making and strategy development.
We can now look beyond the edges of our organisation and sift for serendipity in the global flow of information. The balance is always to sift the shining lights from the dross. We can get distracted at the edges, especially by social media. In a recent book on gimmicks, Prof Sianne Ngai, highlighted these characteristics:
overrated devices that strike us as working too little (labor-saving tricks), but also as working too hard (strained efforts to get our attention)
Social media appears at first as a labour-saving trick. It seems to offer us the ability to bring research to us. However, that experience is challenging unless we keep on our guard. There is little labour saved when we must be working to control our own attention from the ever alluring demands of the algorithmic bubble.
The challenges of innovation are known. Boundary riding is never safe nor easy. The answer is not to give up. Surrender and apathy are old solutions. Our health, our businesses and our society depends on new solutions and new approaches. Six months ago we had never heard of ‘bending a curve’, now it is a common part of global health policy in response to the pandemic. Six months ago, governments around the world were reducing benefits, now they are expanding them in creative ways. The Overton window of acceptable solutions has become volatile and expanded in this crisis as people look out for better paths and it is time for some creativity in the policy solutions and business ideas to manage our circumstances. The next phase and the next phase has yet to be invented but is lurking somewhere waiting to be discovered in the edges. We have the crisis. Let’s go looking for new solutions.
You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before
It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but that you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The times may be dark, but we will see ourselves better through the luminous glow of relationships. When we can’t revel in the rays of the sun, at least we can bask in the shine of relationships and enhance that glow for others.
Wintry rainy days have surrounded us, changing the landscape and increasing our isolation. Our friends, family and connections have become a source of light in these times. I am still surprised how many new business meetings over a videoconference, begin with both parties sharing their experiences, light and dark of the recent months. In our struggles with the pressures of isolation, we have discovered the light that shines from others.
Everybody shines, just not in the way of the cheesy self-help books. The play of light is simple physics. Everybody reflects the light they receive. Without light reflecting off them to our eyes, we wouldn’t see them at all. Like bokeh to a camera lens, every single person is a amorphous and luminous glow in our landscape. The way we engage with others sharpens them into focus. Everyone has the potential to bring a moment of brightness into our day.
Fish in the sea are luminous so that they can recognise one another; might not men and women also exude some kind of speechless luminescence to those akin to them?
Not everyone does. Some people manage to defy the simple physical laws of reflection. Many people make a room, a call or a conversation darker than it was before. Like an anomalous event horizon they absorb light, happiness and energy and let none escape. This is not always aligned to the topics they discuss or their mood. There are those who make the place darker sharing their joy and good news. The light is trapped by the black holes inside them. Those blackholes are usually their self-centredness, self-interest and self-regard. The best we can do with these people is leave them to their own darkness.
We can instead move towards those who are luminous, making them brighter in our lives. We can take the feeble bokeh blur of our incipient relationships and reach out to these bright lights with questions. We can listen to their circumstances, experiences and emotions. In the growing understanding we will discover a growing light. We will bring their light into focus.
To me, life, for all its privations, is a luminous thing. You have to risk it.
We can find, foster and engage more with those who can shine brighter. We all know these people. Even in the distance or in a moment they bring a glow to a conversation, an interaction or a moment. This glow is not a consequence of status, power, charisma, topic or emotion, it comes from their energy and enthusiasm for others and for the world. It comes for their care, concern, and understanding of us and others. This is the light of engagement, empathy and compassion.
Many of those who glow brightest are grappling with sadness and challenges. Despite, or because of, their challenges, they still give their light to others, reaching out beyond their own circumstances. Our task is to help them to sustain the light that they share by repaying their illumination with our own care, concern and understanding. The light we share with our concern will be reflected many times again.
A muddled distant light can offer a destination in dark times. Only when we reach out with understanding will that light resolve into the luminous potential of a new and richer relationship.
We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.
“If I have caused offence, which was not my intent,…”
Every apology ever in the age of outrage
The law of torts has a concept of the eggshell skull, which means that if you carry out a tortious act you take your victim as you find them. You deal with the consequences of your actions whatever they may be. If it happens that your victim is unduly sensitive, then you must bear the consequences of your action. The guilty party doesn’t get to determine an acceptable level of damage.
Authors don’t get to prescribe the meaning of their texts. Whatever they might have meant, the text is open to interpretation by a wide and diverse community of readers who will read the lines, between the lines and through the lines. Readers will project their own experiences and interpretations into the text. The classics are often those that are most open to this projection and interpretation. Like a good constitution, their meaning evolves through the evolution of its community, their values and practice.
Angry people on social media will often seek to blame their audience for its lack of size, enthusiasm or understanding. They are failing to take their audience as they find them. Noboday is entitled to an audience. Nobody gets to project what an audience can think or feel.
Readers are not sheep, and not every pen tempts them
Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature
We commonly see this problem of projection when we fall in love. To choose to take another into our lives often involves first falling in love with our own projection of who that other person is. Great relationships navigate the projection to truly understand the other as they are. Many failed relationships have at their heart two people who never reconciled the difference between the projection and the other.
Our current focus on racism is a consequence of systemic forces that prescribe dangerous new meaning for people of colour. Running through a neighbourhood, shopping, working, interacting with police, protesting, living at home, and even birdwatching are experiences that can be situations where others begin to define them and trigger consequnces without any consideration of that individual, their intents or actions. We must remember this when we feel entitled to say ‘but I am not a racist’. We are projecting meaning. How is it ours to determine this?
Cinema is the ultimate pervert art. It doesn’t give you what you desire – it tells you how to desire
This desire to prescribe meaning is all around us. We see gurus prescribing what others should think about ideas, speech, work or lives. We see advocates projecting all manner of meaning and intent on others, sometimes genuinely and sometimes as tactics. We see politicians reducing complex situations to ambiguous catchphrases and dogwhistles. Like reader and author, failed lovers, or tortfeasor and victim, these prescriptions have real consequences even if in the most generous and neutral interpretation the outcomes are accidents of time and circumstances.
The commonest fight on social media is a fight to project meaning. Someone feels entitled to prescribe the meaning of an event, action or concept for others. Someone else wants a different meaning assigned. As their purposes are mutually inconsistent no constructive progress follows. There are two consistent barrier to progress.
“I never forget that a book is not an end in itself. Just like a newspaper or a magazine, a book is a means of communication, which is why I try to grab the reader by the throat and not let go to the end. I don’t always succeed, of course; readers tend to be elusive. Who is my reader?”
Isabel Allende, My Invented Country
To engage in these acts of projection takes two circumstances in every case:
the ability to treat the other as a blank screen on which to project meaning (or a stereotype): Projection takes a canvas that is capable of receiving our image. If we truly looked at others and sought to understand them, we would find projection far more difficult. True empathy and understanding differentiates an individual and requires us to treat them uniquely, with their own entitlements and actions.
the sense of entitlement to prescribe meaning for an other: I might want to tell you what to think to be a ‘right-thinking person’ like me. However, it is foolish for me to think that I have the entitlement to tell you what to think, believe or act. To go further and seek consequences for your failure to think, believe or act as I require is an act of violent subjugation.
Nobody is entitled to define matters for their audience. We need the empathy to see others as they are. Only when the projection stops do we step out of the movie in our head and back into life with others.
Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out
My eldest nephew graduates from high school in the US this year (though without the usual fanfare) and will be heading to college later in the year (at least virtually). He is going into a rapidly changing and uncertain world. It is hard at this juncture to promise that the world he will be entering as an independent adult is one that is full of opportunities, friendly to his ambitions and supportive of his success. Over the weekend, I sat down to write a note to go with a small gift to recognise his achievements.
The gift was a biography and core of my short note was the following advice:
I chose this book because it is one man’s effort to succeed, to learn all his life and to keep trying to improve. You can learn from other’s success but remember it worked for him but you will need to learn your own way to your own success. You will make your own rules and own principles to live, love and succeed. My only advice is keep learning, keep exploring and don’t give up.
We need to mark milestones, particularly moments of academic success, but the best learning is lifelong. Most of us at 18 barely know ourselves let alone what we want to do with our lives. We have to learn our way there. There are no shortcuts to success. As much as we would like to follow some thoughtleader’s 5 easy steps or see the miracles that flow from a 5am start, success is highly contextual, created anew and hard won. Always.
Anything that worked in the past cannot be guaranteed to work again now or any time in the future. There are no shortcuts to success. We must contine to respond to our changing circumstances, our growing capabilities and the needs of others. Testing, learning and growing is lifelong work.
To cope with this change, we must develop our networks to help us learn faster, to help us understand and learn more and win the support of others in our efforts and our success. Developing mentors, frienships, collaborators and personal learning networks is essential to support lifelong learning. Growing network is slow personal and methodical work. There are no shortcuts. Nobody succeeds alone. Nobody is an island.
The best learning is practice. Doing is where we stretch our skills, see the gaps and learn anew. Again there is no shortcuts to success. We have to put in the effort. We can use our whole lives to develop new skills through practice. So much of success is interpersonal skills that can be developed across all aspects of life. Hobbies and interests can develop into new opportunities so retaining and practising curiosity is essential.
The hardest thing to learn about success is that even when you have learned all the things and have all the elements to succeed you may not. Life is competitive. Life is not fair either. There are no shortcuts. You have to ‘plot, plan, strategise, organise and mobilise‘ just to stay in the game. Giving it your best shot is not turning up on the day skilled. It takes all you can do to turn up armed with support and the best plan to succeed. It also takes luck.
Last, but no means least is the importance of persistence. Learning is hard. We have to explore our weaknesses. We have to find new strengths. There are hours and hours of practice and we are guaranteed disappointments as our feeble skills strengthen, as we find new ways and as we learn more. Hardest of all learning means we need to change. We need to shed our comfortable old ways of thinking and acting and embrace the new ways that lead us to success. That can feel like grief, like disappointment, like embarrassment or like discomfort. There are no shortcuts. We need to change the hard way our whole lives long.
It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
We are familiar with the concept of willing suspension of belief from poetry, fiction, theatre and cinema. It is at least as old as the ancient greek philosophers, but many know Coleridge’s phrasing, if not his ‘poetic faith’. We lean back in our chair and accept the illusion offered so as to enjoy the narrative. However, the same ‘poetic faith’ is what we need to disrupt and find again in any major change we want to make in our lives, our work or our society. We need to suspend the disbelief to go to work and to live anew creating a new narrative and supporting systems, engaging for all.
The Comfortable Illusion
There has been much discomfort to be faced in these last few weeks. Much that we look at in disbelief. However, the smartphone video and global connectivity has helped focus our attention on the cracks in the bubbles of our comfortable illusions. It has helped us to begin to see much that is ugly, unjust and unfair.
We don’t see these things normally because we willingly suspend our disbelief to enable us to live with the comfortable narrative that our system is mostly working. The system, flawed as it is and brutal as it can be, is working exactly as intended. The prejudice, the injustice, the unfairness aren’t flaws. They are our outcomes. Most of us can’t live looking directly at the system’s outcomes. The illusion fits the comfort of our privilege. We have a reassuring heroic occasionally cinematic vision of societal progress to admire, if we ignore the occasional cracks and inconsistencies.
This desire for comfort reaches its apogee when we’d rather hear a leader’s words lip-synched by a talented comedian than focus on the reality, when brand put out empty statements unsupported by action and when empty black squares drown out the messages of those they purport to support. Clicktavism reigns supreme. The next moment of comfort is only a infinite scroll away.
The term “politics of prefiguration” has long been used to describe the idea that if you embody what you aspire to, you have already succeeded…This has been an important belief for activists who recognise that change happens as much by inspiration and catalyst as by imposition.
Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark
This is not a quick fix. We won’t find this hope in our comfortable bubbles or in the work of thought leadership. Sadly this new hope seems absent from our current politics that is focused on leverage of tribalism. The hope that leads us forward is not lying around nearby to pick up or going to arrive miraculously in a later act. We will need to do the hard and uncertain work together to bring it forth.
I don’t have answers but I do have questions. What we can do is the work of discourse in civil society. We can work ourselves in discussion from the raw to the cooked creating new shared meaning as we do so. We can listen to new voices and look for new stories to celebrate and amplify. We can look for understanding beyond the bounds of our current context. We can listen to the irrational, the yearnings and the lightness for inspiration too.
Respect that is conditional on narrow practices can easily be withheld. It is different, qualitatively, from the respect that is given and received between people who believe in the inherent worth and integrity of other human beings.
Teo You Yenn, This Is What Inequality Looks Like
We can’t rely on tokens or a narrow suite of practices. We know from bitter experience that these cannot sustain our desire for a new illusion. They are too easily swept away. We need to base our new comforting beliefs on the inherent worth and integrity of other human beings. We can celebrate the rich creative potential in every person and our collective ability to leverage this human potential for mutual gain. Surely if nothing else that can bring forth a vision that can inspire us all to better things.
In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard. We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.