Writing

Rope-a-dope

Sometimes you need to hang on long enough for things to turn in your favour. Wait until you can play to your strengths.

Photo by Mikhail Nilov on Pexels.com

Rope-a-dope

The phrase Rope-a-dope comes from the Muhammed Ali-George Foreman heavyweight title fight in Kinshasa, Zaire, in 1974, known as ‘The Rumble in the Jungle‘. A 32 year-old Muhammed Ali was the underdog against the young and powerful title holder George Foreman. While Ali was know for his speed and reflexes, but after the first round rather than engage the fearsome Foreman, Ali set to wear him down. Ali ducked and weaved but mostly just covered up on the ropes allowing Foreman to hit him repeatedly but also to tire himself out. As Foreman tired, Ali was able to regain the offensive and the fight was stopped in the 8th round with Ali the surprise winner.

If a boxing analogy is not to your taste, recognise that the same strategy has been applied in many other contexts. Sailors sheet their sails or even take shelter in port during a fierce storm to preserve their vessels. Animals hibernate to escape the harshest of the winter. Surviving is a strategy because those who are destroyed by a fierce foe don’t win.

Some times success demands that we change our tactics. More importantly, success can depend on our ability to wait for the timing to swing to our advantage. We may even have to take a lot of punishment while we wait for the right time.

The Right Time

Our always-on fast charging world has led us to believe that the right time is always now. That we must relentless seek to chase success and lead from the front. First-mover advantages are constantly touted, even if they are rarely real. Many people become dejected when success takes time, feeling that it has taken too long or they have missed their chance.

It is a common experience that most ‘overnight successes’ have taken seven to ten years of waiting for the capabilities, the opportunity and timing to be in place. Much luck is carefully constructed and more about time than anything else. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a whole book, Outliers, on the importance of timing in success.

Overlay the frustrations of a global pandemic and all its public safety measures and many people are dejected that ‘their time’ is being lost. If you can succeed in this environment, then congratulations and no doubt it is because of the work and capability you have put together to meet the needs of this time.

It is important to note though that faced with as virulent and strong a foe as a global pandemic, a rope-a-dope strategy is perfectly viable. Hunker down. Sheet the sails. Adapt. Stay present. Go step-by-step. Plan to come back stronger at a better time.

Recognise that this is a perfectly valid plan. Forgive yourself the feeling that you should be doing more. Plan to support yourself as you get buffeted on the rope. If you choose to wait out the storm of blows, you need to be able to survive to the end. Focus on that survival and you will be ready for the opportunities that come to win later. Remember that a time that you can show your strengths is the right time to succeed. If the timing is wrong, that’s not about you or your strengths.

Rope-a-dope is OK. It might even be the perfect strategy for now.

Nostalgia

The 1980s never looked this good – Photo by Ron Lach on Pexels.com

Nostalgia sells. We are therefore caught in its grip. What we don’t always perceive is how it is holding us back.

Hoping to live days of greater happiness, I forget that days of less happiness are passing by.

Elizabeth Bishop

Nostalgia is a ‘sentimental longing or wistful affection for a time in the past’. It is a yearning for things and times lost to the ages. Nostalgia provokes us to remember the great experiences of our past and to see them as long gone and distant. Nostalgia in this way is a barrier to us seeing that those moments have made us and are still with us. There are no ‘halcyon days’. The past had its awful moments, more than today, but we have edited out the negatives from our memories.

Like any emotional connection, it will be exploited by marketers, trend setters and culture creators. The waves of ’80s themed music, movies and other experiences is just an effort to leverage our nostalgia for commercial success. We can have fun and enjoy nostalgia but there is a real danger if we become stuck there.

In exploring the many arguments of the lockdown vs let it rip debates gripping Australia and other markets through this pandemic, I have been struck how both sides are in the grip of nostalgia. The ‘let it rip’ advocates often explicitly say they want to ‘get back to their lives’. More subtly the strongest advocates of remaining locked down argue that we need to remain so ‘until this passes (& we can get back to our lives).’ We see the same dynamics in many similar debates in this time – working from home vs returning to the office, how schooling should be conducted, what leadership is, how we communicate, and more. Instead of building our future from what was, we need to build a future around what we need and what works.

I love the nostalgia of the typewriter. I own a few. I don’t write on them. Photo by Dominika Roseclay on Pexels.com

Nostalgia is a barrier to constructive change when it provokes the emotions that make us look back to solutions that no longer suit our lives, our times or our place. Our politics is full of people on both sides evoking the past as a productive way forward when our challenges are new and our society has changed. If we make the past, the standard by which all solutions are judged, we will miss the solutions that promise real and effective change.

I love an 1980s dance tune as much as the next person who lived through that era. I don’t for a minute want to go back to my awkward teenage years. I learned what I learned from that time and I have lived a life since. The potential to use those life lessons is much more important to me that any longing for any particular time, place or era.

When things are gone, we can’t bring them back with wishing. We need to grieve and move on in the here and now. Nostalgia can be an enjoyable escape. It is a major barrier to the effective change we need in our lives, work and society.

As usual, I was thinking about the moments of the past,
letting my memory rush over them like water
rushing over the stones on the bottom of a stream.
I was even thinking a little about the future, that place
where people are doing a dance we cannot imagine,
a dance whose name we can only guess.

Billy Collins, Nostalgia

PS For the ultimate nostalgia blast, Abba have a new song, ‘I still have faith in you’

Relationships

The moment has been coming for some time. Transactions are great. We long for relationships.

Relationships are two-way. Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com

Digital transformation atomised much of our economic exchange. With global markets on global platforms, it became easy to ignore relationships and focus on the transaction. Outsourcing, fragile transactional supply chains, gig economy exploitation, and more atomisation of our work and markets followed.

As we start to consider the impact of the last two years of major global shocks, its not so clear that the low cost transaction route is always the best outcome. Transactions are fine if you are trading commodities of know quantity at a moment and are done. Despite our best efforts we can’t reduce every interaction to a point in time transaction. Risks are more flexibly and sustainably managed in relationships.

This transaction feels so much like a relationship. Photo by Kampus Production on Pexels.com

Supply chains are chains. They are formed of relationships in many cases. The value of optimising businesses for real-time just-in-time work means that the transactions flow in chains of relationships need to be finely tuned to perform. Disruption of those relationships because of a pandemic, Brexit or other trade wars, a shortage of drivers, weather or fire emergencies can cause massive business disruption. The global automobile industry is disrupted because we are lacking enough chips and chip manufacturing is not an on and off again supply of a commodity.

If your model is trustless, transactional and about self-interest, you can mimic features of relationship. However, you won’t create the value of enduring relationships. Users will be left to craft their own connections in and around your platform. On reason blockchain won’t ever fully replace the world of contracts is most contracts are relationships and not transactions. The clauses work to shape some but not all of the risk allocation. It is too costly, too time-consuming and usually nearly impossible to specify everything. The parts that aren’t self-executing are managed by trust and relationships.

We are also seeing a great deal of questioning of the transactional approach to these markets. In Melbourne, restaurant entrepreneurs got together to launch Providoor to strike a more equitable relationship with the delivery services that are trying to reshape fine food. Local bookstores, small scale craft providers and other specialist practitioners are pushing hard to build their customer relationships when the big and the bold and the extractive look as bland and as out of touch as ever. Many of the entrepreneurs in healthcare consistently fail because they try to turn specialist relationships of service into transactions that neither side of their platform value.

Relationships take investment, but they also deliver exceptional returns from trust, from alignment and from mutual interest. A win-win repeated over time will always outperform a single moment of extraction. Relationships are two-way experiences where we need to show as much care for the interest of others as we do for our own. No matter how hard transaction platforms work to imitate relationships they won’t deliver that enduring two-way engagement.

If we have learned anything from the last 24 months, it should be that we can’t win alone and that others in our lives and our community matter too.

Seeing Stars

We are all in the gutter, but some us are looking at the stars

Oscar Wilde, Lady Windemere’s Fan
Photo by Aviv Perets on Pexels.com

We have our present trials. That can’t be changed. What matters is the light of our hope. The stars that guide us inspire the work we do today on change.

We have no shortage of existential dread. We are in Wilde’s gutter together and it is most definitely raining. No amount of hand-wringing, blame-shifting or delusion is going to keep us dry.

The challenge for each of us is to find, to cling to and to fight for our hope, that glimmer of light in the distant stars. We need to ‘live right in it, under its roof’.

The very least you do in your life
is figure out what you hope for.

And the most you can do is live inside that hope.

Not admire it from a distance
but live right in it, under its roof.

Barbara Kingsolver

Living Kingsolver’s admonition involves finding a way each day to work towards that distant star. The progress may be minute but step by step we will get there.

Knowing that hope and navigating by its distant star, there will come progress. That hope will pick you up and carry you through the times when the gutter becomes a drain and the drain feels like a storm water carrying you out to sea. Keep working towards the star. Effort and time accumulate and can shift the centre of your challenges to suit you.

As long as you stay put year after year,
eventually you will find a world
beginning to revolve around you.

Ha Jin, A Center

When it feels darkest and most doubtful, remind yourself of what brings you hope. There is purpose, protection and comfort in working to that distant goal.

Romance

We live in a world that values the transactional. Never forget the romance of the relational.

Photo by Jasmine Carter on Pexels.com

Transactions

We do transactions better than ever. Inputs flow into output. Anywhere on the globe. We dispatch to you at a click of button. Immediate execution. Global marketplaces whizz products to meet needs. Once and done. Efficient, seamless, smooth and ultimately forgettable.

Our homes are full of the products. Our fridges are full of the food. Our phones are full of the opinions. Our feeds are full of the acquaintances. Yet our hearts are a little empty. What we gain too easily we can lose just as easily.

In our focus on transactional efficiency, our embrace of the market and our love of the machine metaphor, we might just have forgotten that there’s magic in inefficiency.

Relationships

Relationships deliver more than transactions. The barriers are lower. The trust is higher. The value is far greater. More importantly the experience is underpinned by the faintly frustrating ever-inefficient frisson of romance.

Romance is inherently inefficient to our transactional world. If you fit, be together, says the transactional view of the market. If not, don’t. Except that’s not how we see relationships, relationships are seen through the hope, the meet, the exploration, the struggle and all the work to sustain a relationship through the ups and downs of life. Much of this work is uncertain, costly and ongoing. The work of relationships isn’t over until you stop working to make them work.

Love at first sight is extraordinary but the romance comes from the difficulty of bringing together the star struck lovers. The meet-cute might appeal but the romance arrives after a lot more work and a lot more investment by all concerned. Relationships take work and that work is where the romance lies.

Most importantly, our transactional world makes things more efficient by fitting everything into standards, categories and averages. Nobody has a satisfying relationship with an Everyman. We want to be seen and loved for who we are, even with our own peculiar bundle of challenges, difficulties and outright flaws. The first romance of a relationship is seeing another distinct from the crowd and the hope that they might too see you. The grand romance is that a relationship continues despite its imperfections.

Customers are great. Fans are better. Acquaintances are pleasant. Friends are better. Advice is useful. An advisor is better. We place our trust, our hopes and the messy work of growth in the relationship choice.

As efficiently as modern digital platforms execute the transactions of our lives, they also highlight that transactions are not enough. We hunger for relationships because in their inefficiencies we are seen as unique and we find romance. That recognition and discovery is the human heart of our lives. No machine is recreating and sustaining that experience.

What relationships do you need to foster?

Freedom From Consequences

People yearn for freedom and talk about it a great deal at the moment. However, much of that discussion confuses what freedom means. Freedom means the ability to choose, not the freedom from consequences.

Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose

Kris Kristofferson, Me and Bobby McGee

In the sophisticated philosophy of Kris Kristofferson’s country music song, for those with nothing left consequences are irrelevant. Choices are unconstrained. As the song goes, ‘Nothin’ ain’t worth nothing, but it’s free’

A tree falls. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

However, most of us have something to lose. Our position isn’t that precarious. In that difference falls the obligation to look to the consequences and to look out for those who can’t make choices or can’t deal with consequences.

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Freedom is the ability to make choices and wear the consequences. Consequences are how we grow. Despite the many contrary views with respect to politics, speech or actions, this much vaunted ideal is not an absence of consequences. If you aren’t prepared to wear the consequences of your choices, then you aren’t exercising freedom. Freedom is not a luxury. It is a burden you work to sustain and that improves you in the process.

Consequences Fall

Freedom is not a reward or a decoration that you toast in champagne. On the contrary, it’s hard graft and a long-distance run, all alone, very exhausting. Alone in a dreary room, alone in the dock before the judges, and alone to make up your mind, before yourself and before the judgement of others. At the end of every freedom there is a sentence, which is why freedom is too heavy to bear.

Albert Camus, The Fall

As Camus highlights, choices have consequences. Words have consequences. Actions have consequences. Your choices will be judged. Someone bears the burden. Where that burden falls will depend on your community and your position in it.

Freedom is what you do with what is done to you

Jean-Paul Sartre

If you can’t see or don’t feel those consequences, you should ask yourself a hard question about what that means. Are you externalising the consequences of your action on others? Is your fame, prestige or privilege protecting you and exposing others whose position is more precarious or who have fewer choices? Or is it that you are in an authoritarian or paternalistic environment, and your freedom means someone else is calling the shots as to where the burdens fall? Because freedom from consequences may well be no freedom at all.

Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.

Thomas Paine

The modern freedoms we debate are relatively recent concepts in human affairs. They are hard won and sustained by the efforts of many across societies developed to support them. We are free because of our community, not in spite of it.

Coping Community

Tea as a Coping Strategy. Photo by Tatiana Syrikova on Pexels.com

We all have our different coping strategies. It is important to recognise that some making it easier for others to cope and some don’t. Let’s all make it easier for others to cope with the challenges of this world.

The Diversity of Coping

Sunday night, I was in a conversation about what I had on this week. As I started to list all the things I needed to do this week, I realised that I was a little overwhelmed by it all. One of my coping strategies is focusing on one thing at a time from the most important to the least. Pulling it all together in a long list made it harder not easier for me. I recognise for others the list is the greatest coping tool of all. On other occasions where the tasks have been more methodical & routine, I have made a list just for the dopamine hit of ticking them off.

We all cope in different ways at different times and for different challenges. Having a wide range of coping strategies matters because it offers us a tool bag that we can swap and change when things are not working. As challenges drag on and get deeper or more complicated, our initial coping strategies can cease working or become unhealthy. My caffeine addiction is much stronger now that making myself an espresso coffee is a regular part of by daily breaks.

Coping Community

We need a range of coping mechanisms because one person’s coping can be another person’s source of stress. We need to take account of others and make sure that our coping is constructive for the wider community around us.

Venting can be an effective way to manage stresses. Just expresses our frustrations aloud can diminish them. However, it is important to note that this can be a cause of stress to others, particularly when our venting exposes new issues, adds to uncertainty or can suggest that we are off-balance when others are counting on our support or stability. We need to vent in ways that are constructive and positive for the wider community around us. That includes on social media.

Many people have control as a coping mechanism. Being more controlling might provide psychological satisfaction in a time of uncertainty. However, it is likely to intensify and magnify the stress for those who experience our control. Losing autonomy over one’s work and circumstances is rarely a positive experience and it is worse in times of uncertainty. If control, is a coping strategy for you, ask yourself what is the minimum you need, what autonomy will you grant and how might you mitigate the worst excesses with transparency, measures and systems to reinforce trust.

When life is overwhelming, it can feel easiest to retreat. To withdraw into our own world and shield ourselves from all the buffeting. Retreat can be time for meditation and recovery. It can also be a time of abdication, abandonment, and depression. The further we are from the world the easier it is to lose context and to lose the path forward. An alternative is making choices on where we will re-engage the communities around us and ask for their help to manage through our challenges. Just one friendly ear or one helping hand can make a significant impact on our ease through challenging times. Being able to rely on a whole community can be transformative.

Not all coping is equal. Consider with care how your strategies enhance your outcomes and those of the community around you. We all need ways to better manage the challenges together.

Where am I going?

We are all not going anywhere. However, today’s stasis may just hide the beginnings of the journeys to come. The next journeys will be of community and change.

Storm brewing. Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

I don’t go anywhere. The study is my workplace. The local grocery stores are my only journeys. The next suburb seems like a wild & reckless adventure. Whether in lockdown or not, I don’t move as much and travel seems beyond conception. I have never been more located in place.

What I have lost is not the movement, I have lost the distraction of that travel. The frustration of the commute can be replaced with a walk around the block better understanding the neighbourhood after 20 years living here, discovering its secrets and coming to know those who are doing the same. All the early mornings, airport waiting, plane trips and transport, is now replaced with reflection, conversation and time to ponder the future. I am no longer distracting myself with rushing from A to B.

Reports suggest there may be waves of resignations to come as people consider anew what matters most to them in their work. Power imbalances at work have not shifted but labour markets have changed with the lack of international movement. There are other changes afoot as work attire is less formal, there is more personal discussion and we expose more of our lives. Back in 2020 I remember a commentator remarking that perhaps we better understand the Roaring Twenties now that we have had our own global pandemic to bring the importance of others and fragility of our lives to our attention. Our present time has its own real issues to address. Perhaps we will see our own Roaring Age to begin to address them. Our present stasis may be masking the real and enduring movements to come.

For now, I don’t move. I work and I talk and I find others who share an interest in change. My experience tells me that these conversations lead to communities and that communities lead to action. My world is changed more by those with whom I am meeting and working than by any journey up the Amazon or to the icy edges of the planet, however fragile those systems may be today. The work I need to do is not out there. It is here and with others.

The next journey is one of community and change.

Becoming

The hero is the champion of things becoming, not of thing become, because he is. He does not mistake apparent changelessness in time for the permanence of Being, not is he fearful of the next moment.

Joseph Campbell, The Hero’s Journey (gendered language in the original)
Photo by Micah Boerma on Pexels.com

Nobody is perfect. A desire for purity of anything is ultimately destructive, if not murderous. We need to recognise that being human is a process of becoming. We are every changing and perfecting ourselves a little more into the next moment.

With the rise of ideological and social conflicts in the last decade, we have seen the rise of a new standard of perfection. If you do not meet that standard you are to be reviled, excluded or forgotten. One only need look to the 20th century to see how standards of perfection become tests of purity, murderously so.

Demands for purity in any form is an ethos that is ultimately anti-human, however ideologically appealing it may be. Every human society, every human organisation, and every human is imperfect. Degrees of imperfection vary but nobody is perfect.

Capabilities are better than competencies because they are an open ended standard. Conversations are better than speeches because they allow of correction of errors, learning and evolution of the discussion. Hypotheses can fail. Practices can adapt. Decisions can be reversed and bettered. People surprise us with potential. We can get better.

Human Becoming

We are human becomings, to borrow a phrase. Our pasts are always inadequate for this moment, some times grossly and some times slightly. Purity brooks no difference. The test has been failed. You are and cannot become more. Only those who have held themselves out of the fray in some hermit existence or who are shaping the standards have a hope of going on.

What we are matters less than what we might become. We can forgive ourselves our inadequacies, only if we are in the continuous effort to improve. We need to take action. We can’t fear action because we might be imperfect. We need to take action because we are imperfect. The process of doing is how we learn, get feedback and do better.

We can’t excuse inaction or action because we are imperfect. Our imperfections aren’t an excuse to harm others. We need to build our plans to mitigate our flaws. We need to act with integrity, compassion and care. We can’t assume perfect execution. We need to get on with doing what we can, recognising that nobody is perfect, including us.

moments changing each instant
into the next change,
each change tied to the next.
To be human is to have
a sense of being within self.

Simon J Ortiz, Becoming Human

Only the past is changeless, immobile and gone. We must be ready and willing to do the work in the next moment. If we wait for us or for the moment to be perfect, then life will disappoint us. Worse we will disappoint others.

Look upward. Neither firm nor free,
Purposeless matter hovers in the dark.

Thom Gunn, The Annihilation of Nothing