Hollow heart

That hollowness you feel.

Are you sure that running from it – into work, busyness, emails, surfing the web, eating – is such a good idea?

What you’re experiencing is at the heart of the human condition. Not an error, but an understanding. An insight that there really is nothing to stand on.

We’re thrown, without our permission, into a world that is bigger, more complex, and more mysterious than we can understand. And we have to find a way to live, knowing that we know so little, and that everything is shifting all the time. That at any moment it call all be taken away from us.

In that way hollowness is not a mistake, but is instead a sign of your deep sensing of the way of things. By fleeing from it again and again into shallow distractions, you’re deepening your suffering. You’re fleeing from life. And whole industries exist to help you to do this.

Today, perhaps, it’s time to turn fully, with courage and openness, into the hollow heart so it can give up its gifts.

Let it become your home.

Let it support you in standing, rather than fleeing, in the storms, uncertainty and huge possibility of a life that you did not ask for, but nevertheless have this one glorious opportunity to live.

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Speech Acts 7: Who’s listening to your requests?

The seventh post in a series exploring Speech Acts – the foundations of speaking and listening to make meaningful action possible. In this post we’ll look at the second of ten parts that make up requests, the foundation for conversations in which you want action to happen.

(2) all requests need a listener

This might seem as obvious as all requests needing a speaker. But it’s amazing how often we assume we can be heard while ignoring the capacity of others to listen to what we’re asking.

Some examples:

You made your request by email

If your recipient didn’t read it, didn’t see it, or is overwhelmed by emails and messages, as so many people are, you probably don’t have a listener, no matter how many times you insist that you’ve asked, or how sure you are that they should have read what you said.

You asked at a time when the other person could not pay attention

If they’re busy, anxious, fearful, or distracted then just because you’ve spoken, again, does not mean you have a listener. Even asking someone face to face who is distracted this way does not guarantee they have any capacity to hear you.

You assumed the other person should be interested in what you have to say simply because of who you are

Your seniority, fame, position of authority, sense of yourself as interesting or important are no guarantee anyone is listening. Neither is being a parent or the boss. Assuming you do is a route to many difficulties.

Can you think of times you might have asked when there’s no listener available, even if the request seems obvious to you? And if so, what might you do to make it possible for people to genuinely hear you?

You might need to think about timing, place, tone and the medium through which you make your request, as well as the mood of your request (sincerity, cynicism, frustration). All of these will have an impact on others’ capacity to listen.

If you find yourself thinking “I’ve asked them time and time again, but nothing ever seems to happen” you might well still be assuming you have a listener when you don’t.

And now you have a place where you can look to resolve your difficulty.

You can read more on ‘Speech Acts’ – conversations, requests and promises – here.

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Blaming someone else or calling them names is simply a way of discharging feelings you don’t want to experience: shame, resentment, anger, disgust, embarrassment, confusion.

It’s far more skilful, and more helpful to everyone, to be able to tell what you’re feeling and then ask yourself:

(1) what unmet need or unfulfilled longing is this feeling revealing to me?


(2) what’s my own part in addressing it?

Please, stop discharging by spraying accusations all over the place. And stop handing all the responsibility to someone else to sort it out for you.

And, please, catch your urge to blame before it blossoms, and use its energy as an invitation to step in, for the sake of all of us.

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Telling the truth

The more I look, the more it seems to me that among the most personally damaging acts each of us can take is that of turning away from truth.

I’m not talking grand universal truths here – the kind that people claim apply across time and space and across people. It’s quite easy to see that establishing truth in this way is fraught with difficulty.

No, I’m talking about something more basic and immediate: what’s true about this moment, this experience, from the place in which you stand.

If you pay attention, it’s not so difficult to tell when you’re turning away from truth in this way. The truth that you are sad, or joyful, or angry, or despondent, touched or numb, feeling whole or split apart. The truth that this is difficult or painful for you. Or the truth that this is bringing you to life.

The truth that these thoughts you are thinking, whatever they are, are what you are thinking. The truth that what you’re feeling in your body is what you’re feeling. The truth that this place is where you are, and that what you are doing is what you are doing.

When we deny these simple, basic truths to ourselves and others – when we speak of ourselves inwardly or publicly with deliberate inaccuracy – we assault our own integrity. And we cause ourselves tangible harm, in our minds and in our bodies, by putting ourselves at odds with ourselves, fuelling the inner battles that pull us apart.

And then being whole again requires a kind of return, a turning back to the part of ourselves that understands how things really are. A turning back to something simple, and straightforward, the heart of which we’ve known all along.

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Birth of a toothpick

“I once saw a cartoon,” he told me. “It was about a huge tree, cut down, stripped of its leaves and branches, and then fed into a factory which whittles it down and down until, at the end, out pops a single toothpick.”

“And I am that toothpick” he said, with sadness. “Once, I had wide-ranging interests, a full and varied life, but I’ve allowed myself to become narrowed and withered by my single-minded pursuit of my career, and it’s years since I’ve touched any of them. It’s not how I intended to live.”

You can see some stills from the cartoon, produced in 1939 by Walter Lanz of roadrunner fame, here, including the striking final frame where the toothpick is born.

It was a rare moment of vulnerability and truthfulness among a group of senior corporate leaders. And I had a strong sense of the opening that this could be for him and for the people around him to do something about the condition they, and their whole organisation, found themselves in. Because, as I’ve said in elsewhere on these pages, often we don’t get to see what our doing is doing to us and to those around us.

More of us have become toothpicks than we might care to admit, armouring ourselves against our deepest longing, living a divided life. And in doing so, we have other people become this way too. It exacts a huge cost from everyone.

As Giles Fraser argues this week, feeling and articulating our own essential human vulnerability in this way is the first real opportunity to have our most human needs met, because it’s the moment we admit – perhaps for the first time – that we have human needs at all, and so does everyone else around us.

It’s our first opportunity to put our lives back together. And no amount of hardening ourselves by denying, defending, posturing, or using status or seniority as a mask can do this for us.

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The good news

A good friend told me a few days ago she’d noticed what a corrosive effect listening to the news at the start of each day was having on her. Because of course ‘the news’ is just somebody’s interpretation of what is worth talking about. And the choices that draw in an audience, sell copy, and attract advertisers can quickly give us a distorted sense of the world because they leave so much out. The ‘news’ after all is not the world itself, but a predictably narrow slant on it. It may be worth listening to sometimes, but we harm ourselves and our sense of the world if we take it to be the whole story.

Which I why I think Thich Nhat Hanh‘s poem “The Good News” is of such importance

The good news is that you are alive,
that the linden tree is still there,
standing firm in the harsh winter.
The good news is that you have wonderful eyes
to touch the blue sky.

You can read the full poem here.

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Speech Acts 6: Don’t forget the speaker

The sixth post in a series exploring Speech Acts – the foundations of speaking and listening to make meaningful action possible.

A conversation for action is largely made up of requests (will you do something for me?) and promises (yes, I will, or no, I won’t), and developing skill in each of these can make all the difference in having what’s important actually happen.

Many of the difficulties we encounter are because we’re not paying enough attention to the completeness of our requests and promises. Or because we’re not responding effectively to the inevitable breakdowns in them that happen when people are speaking with one another.

So, let’s dive in and look at the first of ten parts that are needed in every request, and which are the source of many difficulties when not addressed.

(1) all requests need a speaker

This might seem obvious until you look at what happens when there isn’t one. If someone you know well says ‘please come to a meeting with me at 9am on Monday’ you’re able to tell a lot about the seriousness and reason for their request from what you know about them. And your decision about whether to set aside the time to join in, and your sincerity or cynicism if you turn up, will depend in large part upon this.

But a request without a clearly defined speaker is much more difficult to respond to. If you say ‘management ask that staff attend a meeting at 9am on Monday’ don’t be surprised if many people can’t decide whether to come. ‘Staff are asked to join a meeting’ is even harder to interpret. ‘Says who?’ might be a reasonable response.

All this is because every request is spoken by someone, a someone with a whole world of cares, commitments and history. When we respond to your request we’re responding to the you that you are for us as much as to what you asked. And we’re responding to the relationship we have with you – which is why a properly completed conversation for relationship leads so directly to more powerful requests.

Leaving out the speaker leaves us with a lot of room for doubt and confusion. And it does little to foster what we imagine you wanted – a sincere, wholehearted, genuine response to something that you really need doing.

You can read more on ‘Speech Acts’ – conversations, requests and promises – here.


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Change but…

To those leaders in the corporate world who say you want your organisation to change, but then demand:

a) to continue speaking and acting in exactly the way you’re used to, and

b) to avoid feeling discomfort, confusion, agitation, or anxiety

Has it not become clear to you yet that the change you say you want isn’t change of any kind at all?

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Highly rated in some circles. Especially if, like me, you live or grew up in England where it’s the considered the stuff of civilised human interaction.

And yet, the more I look, the more it seems that politeness and truth are very often at odds with one another, particularly when it comes to the ways we speak and work together in organisations.

And while truth might at times be sharp, unsettling and surprising, I can’t think of a more important principle around which to organise ourselves.

Because it’s not hard to figure out where the alternative – denial, or perhaps even lying – leads.

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Learning from Everything


It was the author Ursula Le Guin’s birthday this week.

In her novel A Wizard of Earthsea, the young wizard Ged, eager to become powerful and knowledgable, begins his apprenticeship with his first true teacher, the elderly Ogion.

For the first few months, they mostly accompany one another in silence. Ged sweeps the floor, tends to the goats, prepares food. They take long walks through the tall trees and groves of the nearby forest. It’s an immersion into the everyday. No talk of magic, no talk of spells, no talk of knowledge.

One afternoon, with growing frustration, Ged turns to his master. “When are you going to start teaching me?”. And Ogion, with great patience, turns to his student. “The lesson began long ago and all around you”, he tells him, “but you did not discover yet where to look for it.”

So many of us wear our cynicism and our world-weariness as a badge of sophistication, as if it’s a mark of our intelligence that nothing can touch us, no idea or possibility or hope move us, no idea illuminate our lives. We’ve seen it all, we tell ourselves. We know what’s what. And in doing so we separate ourselves from our lives.

But, like Ged, it might be possible even then to find out that everything and everyone can be our teacher, if we’ll only drop our defences and rigidity long enough to let the world in. We might discover, as Ged does, that genuine wisdom is cultivated by never setting oneself apart from life and from other living things.

And, as the years unfold, perhaps we get to learn as Ged does, “what can be learned, in silence, from the eyes of animals, the flight of birds, the great slow gestures of trees.”

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You say goodbye to her, perhaps at the doorway, perhaps with a hug, and you both say to one another ‘see you soon’.

But, as with every parting, you cannot know if that’s true.

So many possibilities. So many reasons why ‘see you again’ might not come to pass.

Does remembering that, occasionally, help to bring you back in touch with the living, breathing wonder that she is, and that you are too?

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All life

It’s easy to relate to life as if you’re separate from it. As if life is something that happens to you or as if it’s possible to reach out and manage life from a distance.

Isn’t that mostly how we experience ourselves?

But if you look for a while, you may discover that there’s no separation at all. That you are life, and life is you.

How could it be otherwise? The body we each take to be our own is made up of trillions of cells, each bequeathed to us by a history that stretches back through millennia to the first single-celled creatures. Its structure, from the microscopic to the organisation of bones, muscles, organs is shared with billions of others living alongside us, and tens of billions more share aspects of it – eyes, hearts, blood, nerves, brains, cellular processes, hormones, enzymes. And all of that arises from the elements available on the planet we all inhabit and from the energetic processes made possible by the light and warmth of the sun.

Where we each take ourselves to end – at the surface of our skin, perhaps – is not where life ends, at all.

Given all of this, how could you possibly be separate from life?

You are life or, put another way, the way that life is expressing itself right now.

Or, you’re the way life lives itself.

And, given this, perhaps you can give up fighting for a while, and instead wonder at a world in which we get to be all of this, without having to ask or do anything to earn it.

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If you’re tired of the ways fitting in has you bending yourself out of shape – particularly if you’re in one of those many environments in the world that talk about change while maintaining a dogged insistence on speaking, working, observing and practicing in long-standing, familiar ways – some words of support adapted from George Bernard Shaw:

Reasonable people change themselves to fit the world. Unreasonable people change the world to fit themselves.

Therefore all progress depends on unreasonable people.

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Speech Acts 5: Conversations for Action

The fifth post in a series exploring Speech Acts – the foundations of speaking and listening to make meaningful action possible.

If you’ve completed a satisfactory conversation for relationship (where you discovered shared concerns and commitments) and a conversation for possibility (where you identified possible paths to follow), you’re ready to begin a conversation for action, which is where action between you and others gets coordinated through making requests and promises.

Skilful requests and the promises that follow from them change the world for both speaker and listener, establishing new courses of action and freeing us to let others do what they’ve agreed to do.

But it’s easy to rush into this conversation too soon, before relationship is established, in which case you’ll probably find that the conversation has little traction. For requests and promises to mean something everyone has to have enough of a shared world for them to make sense, and if my cares and your cares don’t meet one another we hardly have anything to go on.

Perhaps you’ve already been part of a situation where this is the case. We murmur our agreement to another action plan or to-do list, but inside we know we don’t really care that much. Our spoken promises turn out to be vapour, and trust, enthusiasm, creativity and commitment drain away. Teams and projects can go on for a very long time in this enormously wasteful manner, because nobody has the language or the courage to call a stop the charade.

And if you rush in before completing a conversation for possibility, you may have established a shared sense of commitment, but to what exactly? It doesn’t take long to imagine all the breakdowns and difficulties that arise when in a single team of people have very different ideas of what’s being worked on because nobody has spoken about it or agreed clearly what to do. This malaise, and all the confusion and duplication of effort that result, can easily affect whole organisations.

The huge pitfall that people frequently fall into is trying to resolve the difficulties they’re having getting action underway by having more conversations for action: asking again, insisting more urgently, or running another away day or meeting that produces one more list that everyone apparently agrees to but results in nothing.

No, if you’re in trouble in your conversations for action your difficulty might well lie in a prior conversation that hasn’t been completed yet. So, slow down, and take the time to go back as far as you need – right back into a conversation for relationship if need be – so that you can lay some solid ground for your intentions to stand upon.

You can read more on ‘Speech Acts’ – conversations, requests and promises – here.


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Speech Acts 4: Conversations for Possibility

The fourth post in a series exploring Speech Acts – the foundations of speaking and listening to make meaningful action possible.

If you’ve taken the time to have a meaningful conversation for relationship with the people around you, you’ll have discovered whether you have any shared interests, commitments, or concerns – the basis for getting into action together.

Now it’s time for a conversation for possibility, where you’ll speak and listen to discover what you might actually get up to with each other.

A conversation for possibility is not a conversation for action. You’re not committing yet to do anything in particular, apart from finding out what could happen, what could open up, what new connections could be made, which paths could be followed.

Allow everyone the space to bring their ideas, keeping the mood open as possible. Saying “yes, but…” in this conversation will close things down before they’ve had the space to take wing. There’s no need to defend ideas, pull them apart, point out flaws, or decide how a plan will unfold. You’ll get to all of that later. Speak and listen with the intention of opening space so that something meaningful, creative, and significant can emerge.

Sometimes we try to have conversations for possibility without first establishing relationship. We think we can fake a genuine connection and sense of shared concern. This is very hard to pull off. There’s no energy for creating possibilities if we don’t care about much in common. But we try to do it anyway. Perhaps you’ve been in some of the endless meetings for possibility in the organisational world that take place without genuine relationship, and know how flat, dispiriting and confusing that can feel.

And some of us find conversations for possibility very difficult, because we’re so used to poking holes in other people’s ideas. You’ll need to spot this in yourself and set it aside if you want anything to flourish in this conversation.

One of the most common ways you can make conversations for possibility difficult is by failing to name them for what they are. If any of the people you’re with think they’re in a conversation for action, they’ll probably be thinking of all the practical implications of the ideas, and of all the difficulties they’ll have to resolve. Don’t be surprised if they become the objectors, the ones who try to close new ideas down before they’ve started.

By being clear about which conversation you’re intending to have, you’ll give yourselves all much more room to explore, to breathe, and to create something new. And you’ll create a space in which hopes, aspirations, and creativity can take wing.

You can read more on ‘Speech Acts’ – conversations, requests and promises – here.


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Speech Acts 3: Conversations for Relationship

The third post in a series exploring Speech Acts – the foundations of speaking and listening to make meaningful action possible.

If you want to get up to something meaningful and productive with other people, the first conversation you’re going to need is a conversation for relationship.

In this conversation we’re discovering the basis for our collaboration.

What we’re trying to establish, at minimum, is some sense of shared interest from which action can arise. A deeper, more powerful basis for relationship is shared concern about some issue or topic. And discovering shared commitment is more powerful still.

Finding that we are all interested in technology might give a loose basis for some future collaboration. Finding that we are concerned in particularly about energy efficiency would provide a more focused set of possibilities. But it’s only when we discover a shared commitment, such as a desire to produce a high-performance electric car to go to market next January, that we immediately open clear possibilities for focused coordinated action.

And all of that can only be accomplished by taking the time to talk.

Conversations for relationship require us to slow down, to do our best to understand one another, to suspend judgement, to get curious, and to listen – deeply. We allow our own world to be touched, opened, by the world of other people. Done well, we give our aspirations wings – the trust of others, the shared sense of being up to something that matters.

Perhaps you can immediately see the difficulties that arise if we dive into action without having this conversation. Yet it happens all the time. We declare ourselves ‘a team’ and think that will do the trick, when we haven’t even figured out whether we care about anything in common. And then we wonder why our experience of working together feels so listless and confusing. Or, because we can’t tolerate or talk about our feelings of anxiety and urgency we start to do things before we even know why we’re doing them, with all too predictable consequences.

In the world of organisations at the moment the pressure to move quickly away from conversations for relationship seems to be growing, as far as I can tell. It’s like leaving out the foundations because you’re in a hurry to get the house up.

We all know how that turns out.

You can read more on ‘Speech Acts’ – conversations, requests and promises – here.


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Speech Acts 2: Three Conversations

The second post in a series exploring Speech Acts – the foundations of speaking and listening to make meaningful action possible.

Three different kinds of conversation are required for acting together effectively. They’re like concentric circles – each provides the ground for the next. But we often miss one or more of them out. As each relies for its effectiveness on the one before, this can lead to all kinds of trouble.

The foundational conversation is a conversation for relationship, in which we’re understanding one another and finding out together whether we have any basis for action. Miss this and it’s extraordinarily hard for us to agree why we’re working together. It’s difficult to dive in wholeheartedly. And equally difficult to understand what is being asked of us by others.

On the shoulders of the conversation for relationship stands a conversation for possibility. Given the shared concerns, commitments and understanding from the conversation for relationship, what possibilities can we see? Are there any we care enough about on which to take action? And what are we ready to commit to, together? This is where hopes, aspirations, and creative responses take wing.

Just watch how the energy for a project can dissipate if you don’t explore possibilities fully. And if you haven’t had a full and frank conversation for possibility, you run the risk of launching into action that nobody feels committed to taking. See The Abilene Paradox for a wonderful explanation of this, just one example of the endless wastefulness of meetings and projects we take up that nobody really wanted.

And finally, a conversation for action in which requests, offers and promises are made. This conversation changes the world for each of us, because it’s where we make commitments to act in support of our own and others’ intentions. Done well, we coordinate our efforts so that our intentions are realised. Done poorly, we suffer duplication of effort, the frustration and confusion of promises that mean little, and the resignation and erosion of trust that comes from repeatedly being let down.

Over the next few days I’ll take up each of these conversations in turn.

Meanwhile, you could start to look at your own pattern of conversations with others.

Is there one of these conversations that you favour? One that you miss out repeatedly? What are the consequences?

Are there times when you’re in one of the conversations and the people you’re speaking with are in another? For example, what happens if you think you’re in a conversation for action and others are still in a conversation for relationship?

And when there’s a breakdown or difficulty, how do you try to resolve it? By pushing on further in the conversation you’re already in (for example, dealing with confusion or listlessness by coming up with more to do – a conversation for action – rather than exploring how committed everyone is to the current course – a conversation for possibility)?

Your answers to these questions might open up new insights and actions for you immediately, and will help you in exploring the three conversations further with me over the coming days.

You can read more on ‘Speech Acts’ – conversations, requests and promises – here.


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Speech Acts

One of the great contributions of the philosophers John Austin, in the mid-20th century, and John Searle, who is still active today, has been an important claim about language. While a large part of philosophy of language looked at how language describes the world, they became interested in how language changes the world.

All human action, they point out, is coordinated through language. Speaking is rarely just speaking about something. It’s more often an act through which we make it possible to do things in conjunction with others, taking up and putting down commitments so we can pursue the possibilities that are important to us.

This week’s writing here will be dedicated to this topic. We’ll start by exploring three different conversations that make action with others possible, and the many muddles and mistakes that can be avoided by knowing which is which, and which is called for in any moment.

And then we’ll explore conversations for action in more depth – in particular how requests and promises work and don’t work, and what we can do to improve our use of them.

There’s so much to discover by looking closely at all this, because many of the difficulties we face, and much of our wastefulness, can be tackled by developing skill in speaking and listening.

You could start to explore this topic by observing yourself closely over the next few days. Look for all the ways in which you run into difficulty in coordinating with other people. Look closely in particular at all the times what you asked of others didn’t happen, or at least not in the way you intended.

And look too at all those times when you brought your best effort and intentions to a project only to find that it wasn’t needed, wasn’t appreciated, or that what you’d been doing was not quite what other people had hoped.

And let’s see if, by studying this topic, we can improve things together.

You can read more on ‘Speech Acts’ – conversations, requests and promises – here.


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If you want to bring about change in any system – from your inner world to a whole organisation – one skill you can work on is naming.

When we have a name for something – table, chair, thought, mood, conversation, relationship, inner critic – we give ourselves a way of pointing to it, observing it, and talking about it in the world we share with others. We bring it into the light so that it can be seen, greatly increasing our capacity to observe, make choices, and act.

What’s important to see here is that our patterns of conversation tend to repeatedly draw attention to some things while leaving others unobserved. We keep this going by insisting on speaking in the same way, with the same language, and with the same people over and over. In this way our speaking becomes habitual, and loses its much of its power to reveal things to us. And what’s unobserved remains in the background, where whatever effect it is having remains silent and invisible.

We mostly have hardly a clue how much of human life is in the background at any moment, how much it is shaping us, and how little attention we’re paying to it.

So skilful naming has power. It’s no wonder that in ancient mythology names are understood to give great influence over people and situations and that the simple act of naming daemons, the silent shadowy forces of the underworld, immediately robs them of much of their potency.

And this is why you can open many possibilities by paying attention to patterns in your private, inner conversation and in your conversation with others, and by introducing names for what is currently unnamed. The more precise the naming, and the more you use it to bring forward those aspects of the background that are shaping things, the more powerful the possibilities.

And if you’re interested, you can do much to learn new words – distinctions – that you don’t yet have in order to do this. Study books, talks, people, poems, songs, movies. Attend courses.

And instead of staying in your own familiar world with its patterns and habits of language, spend time with people who live and work in very different situations to you. The distinctions that are central in their world, and that are right on the margins of your own, can be among the most powerful ones to discover.

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What our doing is doing

We often ask what’s next to do? how could we go faster? how can we get more done?

And we turn away from other questions such as how does this feel for each of us? how tired are we? how can we sustain ourselves? what actually matters?

But I think the biggest question we most often fail to address comes from an understanding that, as human beings, we are shaped deeply by that which we repeatedly do.

We ask what to do, but we don’t often ask ourselves “what is our doing doing?” – to us, to the people around us, and to the world we leave for those who come after us.

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A small milestone

Today marks six months since the beginning of this project – a commitment to write and publish each day on the hidden heart of living and working.

I had been thinking of writing for a long time before starting here, and one of the inspirations to begin was a wonderful book ‘The Icarus Deception‘ by Seth Godin.

It’s a book about the necessity of creating art:

  • art that makes us human
  • art that allows us to be ourselves fully
  • art that brings what’s new into the world
  • art that’s a contribution to others

It’s also a book about the background narratives that shape our lives invisibly, and in particular the industrial narrative that has us keep our heads down and fit into the shape that others (particularly in the world of work) have made for us. At its heart is an impassioned plea for courage – to step out of the endless cycle of ‘more and more’ and the sense of scarcity it inevitably brings, and instead to turn towards what brings us and the people around us fully to life.

For anyone who longs to make a contribution, but did not yet find the wherewithal to begin, I cannot recommend it too highly.

Watch upcoming posts here for news of a book study group I’m about to launch. By joining you’ll have the chance to read and talk about a book with others and explore how to bring it to life and work. The Icarus Deception will be the first book we’ll be taking up.

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It seems to me we could go a long way in work and in wider life we were to take aliveness more seriously.

Many organisations I come across seem to be in the middle of a constriction that’s going the other way. More processes, more rules, more plans, more meetings in which people wonder why they’re present, more measures, more hours, more rushing, more emails, more unexpressed panic, more overwhelm, more spinning in tight spirals, more quiet fearfulness.

Where does all this lead if we continue down this path?

And yet, if you look closely and quietly for a while, you get to see that most of what’s happening that’s of value take place in spite of these, not because of them. The new idea sparked in a conversation in the lift, a moment of genuine connection between members of a team that allows for new understanding and trust, the discovery of some inner resourcefulness that allows someone to speak up in a new way, a fiery exchange in which what’s important is expressed and heard: all are examples of this.

When we forget that organisations are alive we miss a huge opportunity. At the moment I think most of us have our heads turned in the other direction.

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Only when it’s safe

“I’d like to have courageous conversations, but I can’t tell the truth here”, he told me, “because they won’t make it safe for me to do so”. He – a senior leader in a global corporation. They – the handful of people more senior (in a positional sense) than him.

We talked for a while, and it became apparent that he was only willing to speak up about what he was seeing when it felt as if there was no risk to him. No risk to his position, of course, but also no risk of feeling embarrassed, ashamed, scared, confused. No risk of the gut-wrenching, stomach-churning body sensation that can come from speaking without knowing what will happen.

I think this is an ethical question. The decision to say only what’s important when it feels right withholds from others vital information which may not be available to them. More significantly, by staying silent in the face of what appears wrong or mistaken you condone, by your silence, what is happening.

How can you call a conversation ‘courageous’ if it only happens when you know everything will be just fine?

All of this is so important because your organisation, whatever size it is, is inescapably part of the society in which we all get to live.

We all have to live with the consequences of your silence.

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I sat outside for a while this morning, watching as trees slowly appeared from the lifting autumn-morning mist. This morning’s sky was steel-grey, breaking into streaks of red and pink as the sun caught the underside of the clouds. It was still, quiet and achingly beautiful.

A beginning of this sort happens many days of the year, yet many of us consistently miss any kind of genuine contact with the natural world of which we’re all inescapably part. We rush from home to office, travelling in sealed cars or trains, and spend our days in the glow of electric lighting and computer screens.

We wear our busyness and exhaustion as badges of pride and status, our inability to stop fully a sign of our importance or our earnestness. And in doing so we miss so much, not least an opportunity to return to a deep felt sense of our humanity and our place in the world that gave us life and which supports us.

What do you think we become, individually and collectively, through our living this way?

If you’d like to follow this topic further:

George Monbiot has written compellingly in the Guardian today about what happens when school children are given the chance to learn by being in the natural world, and what is lost when we lock them into an endless cycle of classroom study.

And Esther Sternberg, a leading neuro-immunologist, talks in this wonderful podcast about the science of healing places.

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Fitting in

Many of us are trying all the time to fit in, hoping that way we’ll eventually have the recognition, trust and security we long for.

But fitting in, rather than finding out who you are and bringing that, always involves some measure of contortion or self-abandonment. You discover eventually that what is recognised and trusted about you is precisely the distorted image you’ve been working to have others see. And it turns out not to feel safe or secure at all, because of the constant vigilance that maintaining such an image requires.

Fitting in keeps the world just as it is, because it involves giving up those very parts of you which stand out, and which have the possibility of bringing something new.

The alternative? Perhaps aiming towards this, beautifully expressed in the words of Rainer Maria Rilke:

“Again and again in history some people wake up. They have no ground in the crowd and they move to broader, deeper laws. They carry strange customs with them and demand room for bold and audacious action. The future speaks ruthlessly through them.

They change the world.”

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When you find yourself filled with judgements about other people, don’t be so sure that what you’re experiencing is really anything much to do with them.

It may well be a simple projection of the harsh judgments of your own inner critic.

The critic covers its tracks like that. Wily enough to disguise itself in many ways, it would love to have you believe that everyone else is out to get you or disappoint you. And it would rather you blame what’s outside you than turn your attention inwards, where you might discover its role in keeping your world so small and contained.

For this reason, the first place to look when you’re judgemental of others is towards yourself. You might just find it’s there that your difficulty with them can be most skilfully resolved.

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Today, I can think of nothing better than to simply share Howard Zinn‘s wonderful words on hope – a reminder for those days which seem dark, despairing, and robbed of possibility:

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness… And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future.

The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

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Overheard in a conversation with one of the most senior leaders of a huge international organisation:

“I have no time to do what I think is really important, because I have so many meetings to go to”.

When are we going to say no to this?

Somehow, we’ve committed millions of ourselves to a colossal waste of human time and ingenuity by allowing ourselves to think – even for a moment –  that this is an acceptable way to go about things in a world where so much urgently needs doing.

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Could you live there?

A question to those who are leaders or in positions of authority:

If your organisation was a town or city would you want to live there?

Could you tolerate what you’re apparently prepared to tolerate at work?

Could you live with neighbours who treat each other the way people at work treat each other?

Be such a neighbour yourself?

Could you?

And for those whose answer is ‘no’:

Can you see that your organisation is inescapably a part of society, shaping the world we all get to live in? That in this way it’s much more like a town than it appears? That you’re actively involved in creating it?

That you’re living there already?

Can you see that our world is affected when you allow or participate in manipulation and self-justification?… when you allow fear to stop people from telling the truth?… and when you don’t tell the truth yourself?… when you hold so much of yourself back?… and support others in doing the same?… when you treat people as resources rather than as human beings?… when you pretend everything is ok when it’s not?… when you fail to speak out about what you see?

Or have you convinced yourself that the way you lead your organisation has no consequence for your own life or for the rest of us?

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Growing up

We think that we’re grown up just because we’ve hit adulthood, or because we’ve taken on a position of leadership

But so many of us are still looking for parents who can save us from life’s difficulty, or who can tell us we’re doing ok.

As long as we’re looking for parents, we expect the leaders of our organisations to know what to do, to tell us what’s needed, and to rescue us. We hold back from speaking truth, because we’re scared they’ll judge us or reject us. When we don’t see change coming we blame them for sticking to their rigid parental ways. And, when things don’t turn out the way we want them, we blame them for failing us, instead of stepping up and taking action ourselves. We give up our capacity for independent action so we can keep ourselves in a dependent, child-like role.

All of this is happening even at the most senior levels of multi-national organisations, because – it turns out – being senior and being grown up are not the same thing. It explains much about why change can be so difficult, and why so many of us hold back from solving the problems we see around us.

And it makes the ongoing task of adult development so critical for each of us and our organisations. Because it’s the challenging work of growing up so that we can genuinely be adults in the world – without relying on a saviour – that allows us to take collective responsibility first for our institutions, and for our society as a whole.

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