Yes to what?

Many of us will say yes to anything.

If you observe closely for a while, you’ll discover that this is effectively a yes to nothing. Wrung out and over-extended, you find yourself in a half-hearted, resentful relationship with others and eventually with life itself. And although it might look to you like you’re only trying to help, it turns out that you’re serving your own sense of being needed more than really helping anyone.

The antidote to all of this is neither giving up nor retreating from the world. It’s finding a genuine, wholehearted yes which allows you to discriminate; a yes that goes beyond looking good, getting ahead, or feeling better about yourself; a yes which allows you to genuinely serve; a yes that at last allows some things to be more important than others.

Commit to a yes that comes from your deepest principles, your integrity, and your heartfelt longing to contribute to something bigger than yourself, and you’ll find that a new form of clarity emerges. Now it’s possible to respond with discernment, to say yes over and over again in a way that serves everything and everybody. To care for yourself and for others. And to say no, to what was never yours to do in the first place.

Screaming at a seed

It’s no use screaming at a seed to grow faster.

And it doesn’t help to nurse resentment or frustration, to say to the seed “how dare you do this, to me? How dare you keep me waiting?” All you can do is provide the care, water, light and support that will allow new shoots to appear. In the end, living things always take the time that they take.

People are not so different from this. It’s no use insisting that we align to your needs alone, that we change to meet the strength of your insistence, your urgency. Instead, how about listening and observing carefully so you can find out what we need to grow. And then being witness to the beauty of our unfolding?

If you orient this way to others, perhaps you’ll find that you unfold a little yourself.

Heaven and Earth

Two common errors that rob us of our freedom and our integrity.

The first is imprisoning ourselves with the facts of our lives.

I couldn’t possibly do that… I’m a teacher, a lawyer, a man, too old, shy, not funny, the vice-president of operations, a woman, embarrassed, a parent, unprepared, too important, not qualified, just following orders.

Live only from here, and we’re entirely defined by our history and circumstance, by the identity we’ve taken on or been handed by others. Held back from the freedom to step fully forward, we’re denied the opportunity to speak out, to surprise, and to shape new futures for ourselves and others.

The second error is imprisoning ourselves with what we can imagine.

I don’t have to face my responsibility. It’ll be ok… when I win the lottery; when I get promoted; when I become the next Steve Jobs; because I’m thinking positive thoughts (and the universe will answer me, just you wait).

Live only here, and life is forever suspended, awaiting the miraculous turn of events that will make everything alright. The wider culture we live in encourages this kind of magical thinking with its ceaseless search for novelty, its fixation on the lives of celebrities and millionaires and its obsession with quick-fixes.

To live fully, we need to be in both worlds: feet on the ground, mind in the heavens.

Our unique human capacity to transcend the facts of our situation allows us to imagine infinite possibilities for ourselves and for the people around us. But we abandon our responsibility when we forget that we inhabit the world through our physical bodies, in which we’re always in relationship with others and always in circumstances with very real constraints.

To be fully human is to be connected to both heaven and earth simultaneously: to imagine wild possibilities, and then pursue them with diligence, creativity, persistence, compassion and pragmatism.


Consider this, next time you feel alone, separate from others and from life:

The only element present in significant quantities when the universe began was hydrogen, the lightest and simplest of all. Every other atom ever produced was forged in the fury of a star or supernova. Which means every atom in you.

You, and everybody and everything you know, are quite literally stardust. When you understand this, how separate from anything and anyone can you ever really be?

Got your number

If I can treat you as an ‘it’, then I’ve got your number.

You’re a lawyer, a doctor, a teacher,
a nuisance, a blessing, a distraction,
always late, always good for a laugh, always boring,
infuriating, beautiful, unreliable.

It takes courage to treat you as a ‘you’,

because I might find out that you’re none of these, that you defy language or explanation. I might find out that you’re not who you were when I left this morning, that you’re not who I’m trying so desperately to have you be. I might have to allow myself to be bowled over by your vastness and your mystery. I might have to allow myself to feel your suffering. It takes courage, because when I find out how little of you I really know, I might find out that I also know only a little of myself.

And when I’m open enough to treat you as ‘you’, there’s a chance I might get to be ‘I’ in return.

On being lost

You’re not the only one who’s lost. Though it probably looks like it most of the time.

Most people would do anything to hide that they can’t find the way either.

So much energy expended, sustaining the myth that we have it all together; that we have a clue what life is about in this weird, mysterious existence in which everything is always shifting, always falling apart.

The liberating step is not finding your way but discovering that there is no way to be found. Then, at last, we can live fully and courageously with our confusion and not be so burdened by it. And we can reach out to others, to help them do the same.

A hard time with freedom

Most of us have a hard time taking up our freedom.

A fresh start, and we’re thrown into familiar habits and patterns. A cancelled commitment, quickly replaced with another. An opportunity to speak courageously from the heart, thwarted with platitudes or cliche. A moment of silence, crowded out by thoughts and plans. The chance to listen to another avoided by rehearsing what you want to say. The possibility of creating art dissipated by deflation or inner criticism.

In most instances when our freedom beckons we hug the cliff face, holding on more tightly to what we already know.

Because freedom makes us anxious. It opens up the possibility that we might surprise ourselves and others. And we wouldn’t want that, would we?

A good sleep

Three ingredients for a life well lived:

Good friends
Good work
Good sleep

We mostly ignore the third; as if our bodies are just there to carry our minds around; as if we’ll live forever. But sleep is the foundation on which the possibilities of waking life are built.

If we were to get real for a moment about the finite nature of our lives, we’d probably take more care. We’d remember what our tiredness has had us forget: that we’re not machines to be run into the ground, but vibrant living beings. And we’d live with this in mind more consciously and more responsibly.

Instead of sleep-walking through our days, clinging on as tight as we can, perhaps we’d open to the creativity, attention and wonder possible in even the most ordinary of activities. It might even allow us to wake up enough to turn our lives into works of art.

A sleep-deprived society or organisation can barely hope to address the challenges it faces. And a sleep-deprived person can barely hope to live a full life.

But, of course, there’s really no time for sleep. People need me. There’s always so much to do.

Maybe it’s time to find out that if you lie down for a while, the world keeps on turning.

[see data from the National Sleep Foundation, which found adults need 7-9 hours sleep per night to stay healthy and alert enough to engage fully with the world]

A catalogue of insincere yes’s

A field guide to ‘yes’s that are really ‘no’s:

“I’ll pencil you in” (then don’t confirm)
“Looks like a good plan – agreed” (then ignore it)
“I’ll come back to you” (and then don’t)
“I’ll be there” (cancel at the last minute)
“By next Tuesday? Sure” (knowing it’ll be days after that, if at all)
“We really must get together. I’ll call you.” (don’t call)
Stay silent (delete the email, or let it languish in your inbox)
“Why don’t you send me some dates?” (knowing there will be none)
The last minute excuse: “It was almost ready and then something urgent came up”

At the moment you say it, you may think that you actually mean yes. But check how it feels. The flatness or tight knot in your belly will show you your insincerity better than anything else.

Dressing up a no as a yes is a skilful way of avoiding the shame that can come when you say what you really want. Because, face it, the other person might not like your refusal. And if you’re not liked, who would you be?

It’s a strategy with short-term payoffs (you feel better for a moment) and long-term consequences (resentment and cynicism for everyone). It erodes trust. And it increases the likelihood that each of you become ‘it’ rather than ‘I’ to one another.

How about the radical move of just saying no? Clearly. Compassionately. Kindly. No excuses. No get-outs. The honest, heart-felt, clarifying, liberating truth of the matter. Because unless you can say no, how can we tell when you really mean yes?

Dust and ashes

“Everyone should have two pockets, each containing a piece of paper. On one should be written: I am but dust and ashes, and on the other: The world was created for me.

From time to time we must reach into one pocket, or the other. The secret of living comes from knowing when to reach into each.”

Rabbi Bunim of P’shiskha (1765-1827)

One moment, grandiosity:- I can do anything. I’m unstoppable.
The next, deflation:- I’ll be crushed by the world and the people around me.

Some people are more familiar with one than the other. But many of us bounce between them, thrown each way by circumstance: a stray thought, a memory, the look on someone’s face, another’s disapproval or approval, the weather, hitting a target, missing a deadline, lost keys, making a sale, an email subject line, a child’s cry.

Of course, neither of them are true, and the secret to living is knowing always how to remember this.

You are neither super-hero nor flea. You never were. You’re a human being – vast, contradictory, mysterious, talented, bounded, boundless and of inexplicable value.

The great chain that leads to you

In order for you to be here, every one of your ancestors had to survive long enough to reproduce. It’s true for your parents, your grand-parents, your great-grandparents and back and back, through countless generations to the moment that organisms capable of reproduction first appeared on this planet.

If any one link in this billions-long chain had been broken, the you that is reading this would not be with us. Is that not enough to inspire wonder and gratitude, even in the midst of the most everyday of activities?

Holding on for dear life

Anxiety and fear are not the same.

If you’re walking along a cliff-top path, fear is to do with what might happen if you slip and fall. It has to do with consequence.

Anxiety is what arises from our freedom. It comes from knowing that at any time we could choose to step over the edge. Sometimes knowing this feels too much to bear. Step far enough away from the edge, hug the cliff face, and the anxiety subsides. We’ve removed a possibility for ourselves that could lead us into danger and difficulty.

Turning away from anxiety radically reduces the degree of freedom available to us. From our place of safety, face pressed against the smooth rock, there’s no chance we’ll find ourselves leaping from the edge. But there’s also no possibility we’ll see the huge vista laid out below, the distant horizon with its forests and rivers and towering mountains. No possibility we’ll begin a journey towards them. The cliff-hugger has a vanishingly small world available to them.

Whole organisations, careers and lives have been dedicated to holding on to the cliff face. Any hint of anxiety and we hold tighter, inventing the rules, structures, measures, justifications and stories that will lash us into place, and everyone else with us.

But the very anxiety we’re trying so hard to avoid is what is calling us into an enormous world of freedom. Taking up its call is our particular human heritage, and our unique human responsibility.

The person who serves your coffee

I-it relating – when we treat someone as a means to an end, valuable to us only for what they do that addresses our interests.

I-you relating – when the person is an end in themselves.

Who gets to be an ‘it’ for you, and who an ‘I’?

The person who serves your coffee?
The person sweeping the street?
The person you spoke to in the call centre?
Your colleagues?
Your clients?
Your friends?
Your family?

The last one is important. Often, until we look closely, we don’t even know what kind of life we’re living.

Possibilities open up when we discover we’ve been in an I-It relationship with ourselves (and hence with all others and all of life) and make moves to address it.

Becoming an ‘I’ again requires giving up all the ways we ascribe worth to ourselves only because of what we produce, what we own, how clever we can be, how others approve of us, or the status we’ve been granted. It takes discovering the basic goodness that’s at the heart of everyone, and building a life around that. It takes courage, steadfastness, and great kindness.

“But I could never do that.”

What will be the outcome, over time, if you don’t?

Human Resources

Intelligence. Creativity. Love. Strength. Openness. Connection. Inspiration. Tenderness. Discipline. Rage. Courage. Artfulness. Curiosity. Compassion. Wisdom.

All of these are human resources.

What we’ve done by calling people ‘human resources’ obscures this. It forces us into a category that includes money, electricity, technology and fuel. This way we become objects rather than subjects, commodities rather than people, tools for production rather than living beings, ‘it’ rather than ‘I’. It’s an example of what in philosophy would be called a category error – a misunderstanding of the nature of things.

So is it any wonder that the systems and language we invent seriously limit the expression of our true resourcefulness?

Behaviours we expect people to follow – as if human beings had no interior world of discernment, meaning, and feeling from which their actions flow.

Values we expect others to take up uncritically as if they couldn’t determine for themselves what they’re deeply committed to.

Competency frameworks we design as if skillfulness, artistry and human ingenuity could be reduced to a set of bullet points.

Management that aims to reduce individuality, creativity and surprise, as if people were an irritant that gets in the way of the smooth running of the machine.

None of these do anything to amplify the real resources human beings have to bring to their lives and work.

And while we might think we’re only treating others in this way, we can’t help but diminish our own humanity each time we treat people as if they had little humanity of their own.

Staring at the sun

‘Memento Mori’: a reminder of something so easily forgotten, that one day each of us will die.

Staring into the inevitability of our end with courage and clarity can be like looking into the brightness of the sun – almost unbearable. But having the courage to look again and again can bring us fully, searingly, vibrantly to life. And it can teach us much about what’s actually important.

That project that’s strayed from the plan, the hundreds of emails in your inbox, the irritation you feel at someone who didn’t do exactly what you expected; all look different in this light.

Perhaps what seemed so unquestionably central wasn’t that significant, after all.

I and It – two directions for living and working

178px-Martin_Buber_portraitMartin Buber, a towering philosopher of the last century, points out that there are essentially two choices in our relationships with people.

In an I-You relationship, the other is a person to us. Mysterious, never completely knowable, and of infinite value simply because they are.

In an I-It relationship, the other person is a means to an end, of no more interest than an object or any other entity that could give me what I want. An ‘it’ is simply there:

to sell to
to do what I want them to do
to make me feel better
to show me how talented I am
to provide for me
to bolster my self-esteem
to be the target of my scorn
as an escape from something else
to idolise
to be dismissed
to get out of my way
to make me my coffee
to deliver the figures
to make me look good
to blame
to be manipulated
to take my mind off things
to make me happy
to ignore

An ‘it’ is anything but mysterious, simply of value to me as long as they perform according to my expectations.

We’ve built the world of work around turning people into ‘it’, because it looks like it makes things manageable. That people are mysterious and unpredictable is inconvenient. It makes us anxious. So as long as people are objects and can be understood, it seems we can have them do what we want, and we can organise and corral them on a grand scale. And because of this we’ve built our society and many of our relationships with others in the same way.

The tragedy in all of this for each of us is that we’re never separate from our relationship with others. Relate in an ‘I-It’ way to others and pretty quickly you start to become an ‘it’ yourself.

I-You relating starts by seeing the extraordinary, unfathomable human being that’s present with you in any conversation, in any interaction. You could start next time you buy a coffee, next time you reach the supermarket checkout, next time you speak with a colleague, or with your loved ones.

Being in the world with this way is not only the foundation of compassion, it’s the necessary step for freeing ourselves from all the ways we too have become objects, means-to-an-end rather than fully, courageously alive.

A yes isn’t a yes unless you can say no

Unless you’re willing to offer a genuine, clear ‘no’, we can never be sure that your ‘yes’ really means anything at all.

The burdens we make for ourselves and others by saying yes but meaning no cause endless difficulty. Agreements that everyone knows are insincere from the start. Commitments taken on with a heavy heart. Deferring, delaying, avoiding what’s important. And the institutionalisation of yes that isn’t really yes leads to relationships, organisations, perhaps even societies burdened by resentment and insincerity.

The saddest part of all of this is that people who say yes to everything are usually just trying to help. Say yes now, deal with the fallout later.

How about finding a way to say ‘no’ with courage, clarity and compassion so that we can free a ‘yes’ for what brings life and possibility to ourselves and others?

Nobody’s irreplaceable

“Nobody’s irreplaceable”, they say.

And one sense, of course, it’s true because we’ve made it that way. Most organisations are set up to minimise the differences between people. Job descriptions, competency frameworks, ‘behaviours’ all attempt to smooth out quirks, individuality, weirdness so that someone else can slot right in.

It’s (apparently) much easier to manage things that way. But how much it diminishes people, calls on them to hold back what only they can offer.

You, replaceable? People might say so. But it’s only really true if you’re showing up as part of the machine, a cog like any other, no rough edges, no surprises.

We’ve set up a world which obscures the unique contribution that each person has to make. A world that encourages you to avoid truly showing up because it’s unpredictable. But we need you. If you don’t bring what only you have to bring, it doesn’t get brought.

Here’s a wonderful poem by Mary Oliver that has another way of saying all this.

It begins at Olduvai

Olduvai Hand AxeThis is the Olduvai hand axe. It sits in a far corner of the British Museum, nestled among artifacts from earliest human history. It’s around 1.2 million years old. It’s strikingly beautiful. And it marks the beginning of the distinctively human practices of tool-making and art that lead directly to what you’ll find here.

Hand axes are among the first great inventions of humanity, and probably came into being at the dawn of the development of both language and culture. They made it possible for the first time for people to cut with skill and precision, and would have opened up the possibility of turning animal skins and wood into products that went far beyond the immediate need for food.

They mark the moment when we extended ourselves from living in the world as it is to actively and consciously shaping it, when we first began to create the complex web of tools, words, work and culture that – a million or so years later – could bring about the society of today.

Millions of hand axes have been discovered around the world, but what makes the Olduvai axe so striking is that it’s much bigger than can be comfortably held in the hand. Its size renders it unusable for most purposes. In all other respects it’s a perfect tool – beautifully balanced, sharp edged, symmetrical – the result of many hours of skilled and careful labour. But it’s also a work of art, with a purpose that is a much symbolic as practical, an expression of the artfulness of its maker. That it was made at all reflects the human concern for beauty, for creativity and ingenuity, and for expression. And it’s deeply entwined with the practical world of making and doing, the work of providing for a life well lived.

The industrial age of the 20th century taught us that efficiency and predictability were to be prized above all else. Big organisations, mass production, standardisation all became possible. But the rise in living standards this brought still left many people’s experience of life flat, mundane. When we’ve tired of climbing the ladder or pursuing status, we find that living fully, fiercely, artfully and courageously are needed to lift us beyond the ordinary into the life and work from which we can make our fullest contribution. The Olduvai hand axe, from the dawn of our history, is a reminder of this – and the inspiration for everything that follows.


I’m Justin Wise. I co-founded thirdspace coaching. The writing here grapples with what it is to live and work with courage, generosity and meaning in a world that’s changing rapidly, particularly for those of us who have dedicated our lives to work in an organisation or profession.

More here. And something on the Olduvai Hand Axe – the artifact that inspired all of this.