Taking responsibility for our stories

Given that we are the only creatures (that we know of) that can tell stories about ourselves;

and given that we live totally, inescapably in the stories we tell;

and given that stories of any kind can be more or less truthful, more or less kind, more or less generous, more or less creative, more or less freeing of our enormous potential…

… given all of this, don’t we have a profound responsibility to question the stories we were handed? To not just take things ‘as they are’?

And to actively find – and consciously live by – the most truthful, kind, generous, creative, possibility-freeing stories about ourselves, about others, and about life that we can?

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On Automatic

We often feel that we’re exercising choice when it would be more accurate to say we’re on automatic.

So much that we do is invisibly shaped, far beyond our awareness,

by the culture in which we grew up (what ‘one does’ in this or that situation),
by the long trajectory of habit,
by the many untested assumptions that the world is this way or that way,
by our fear,
by our longing to be seen,
by the expectations of those close to us,
by the tension and shape of our bodies,
and by the stories we tell.

Our automatic reactions are how we mostly navigate the world. It has to be this way. How impossible would life be if we needed to exercise conscious deliberation for each of the many things with which we have to cope in an ordinary day?

But our automaticity is not, really, conscious choice.

Alongside our necessary capacity for automatic reaction, which we share with all other animals, human beings have a unique capacity for self-observation and reflection. We can get on to ourselves, and bring about change in the narratives from which we’re living, and in the actions and practices that keep them going. But choice comes only if we’re willing to pay attention, to slow down for a while, to stop and really look over time, to find out what we’re actually doing that might be quite distinct from the weary explanations upon which we so readily settle.

The more frantic we are, the more intent on throwing ourselves into endless action, the less we’re prepared to do all of this – to wake up from our reactivity, and take responsibility for our lives.

“I’m too busy to pay attention” we say, “I have too much to do.”

This is, at least, the plea made by even very senior people in many of the organisations in which I work.

Being busy this way keeps us feeling safe, comfortable… at least we appear to have a place in the world this way, at least we can feel needed.

But is a life lived on automatic, or an organisation run in this way, really an expression of responsibility? And is it really the life and work you’re intending?

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Please stay

You asked everyone to join you for a meeting at 4.30pm.

“It will only last half an hour”, you said.

But it’s now 5pm, and it’s quite clear that the report you wanted everyone to read and comment on needs more time than you’d anticipated.

Perhaps, somewhere, you knew half an hour was way too optimistic. And you were worried that if you were honest about the time it would take, nobody would come.

But now the meeting has gone on way beyond the time you’d promised.

What do you do to address this? Many people, it would seem, do nothing. The meeting’s not finished, nobody seems to have left, and in any case, you all chose to be there, didn’t you?

It’s embarrassing to own up to your miscalculation (or your deliberate manipulation). And so you save yourself from this by carrying on, as if nothing significant has happened.

But you can be sure of something: the unremarked passing of your deadline is significant. You have broken a promise. And many of your participants, as embarrassed as you are to bring up that this is not what they agreed to, have checked out, mentally and emotionally, already.

By continuing a meeting beyond its agreed time, and by keeping silent about it, you’re making an unspoken request of your co-participants. “Please stay” (a request without a speaker, which you can read more about here).

And because your request is unspoken, you’re making it much harder, perhaps deliberately, for them to say no. After all, if you don’t ask, you save yourself the possibility of finding out they had better things to do than stay around.

It’s a small benefit (you feel momentarily better) with a huge cost because you’re creating the ideal conditions for resentment and resignation to grow. And a roomful of people who can hardly be expected to be engaged now, or in the future, in what you said was urgent, important work.


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Holding back

Our attempts to hold back from the difficulty of our lives, paradoxically, bring us exactly what we are trying to avoid.

Why? Because suffering, confusion, feeling lost – as well as joy, and fulfilment, and meaning – are an inevitable part of any life. How could it be otherwise? Life promises only that it will bring us change. And it does this, even when we wish it were not so, endlessly.

Our attempts to deny our anxiety, fear and loss are attempts to control what cannot be controlled. They end up with us holding back life itself.

And in this way, perhaps we could learn to see our difficulties as an invitation to step deeper into our lives, rather than turn away.

I came across this, from Franz Kafka, recently, which says it beautifully:

“You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world. That is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature. But perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.”

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Living close by

We human beings have a unique ability to live in stories about ourselves and about life, rather than directly in life itself.

In this way we are unlike almost every other kind of entity we come across. Trees, stones, cats, and ants can each only be themselves. But we are always in the midst of a particular interpretation of life. We’re rarely just ourselves in some straightforward and unmediated way.

It is this capacity to interpret and to invent our own identity that has allowed the astonishing diversity and creativity of human life. We are not bound to live in a particular way, as ants or trees are, fixed by our physiology. We invent tools, clothes, technology, roles, structures for living together, buildings, and the stories and interpretations to make sense of them. We can inhabit remote and hostile environments as hunter-gatherers and as astronauts. We can be musicians and engineers, soldiers and artists, CEOs and scientists. We can take up roles and forms handed to us by others – how to parent, or work, or run a government – and invent radically new ones, so that the forms of human life available to us today are substantially different from those available even a century ago.

Interpreting ourselves is right at the centre of our lives. We can hardly be human without it. And because of this we can choose interpretations which are more or less expressive of our essential qualities: and hence lives that are more or less us-like.

We can choose to live close in to our lives, allowing what seems truest about ourselves its expression in the world. And we can choose to live far, far away from ourselves – denying, distorting, or distancing ourselves from what seems most essentially, fully us.

And making this choice – what kind of life to really live – is our unique human capacity too.

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Not like you

When you’re repeatedly irritated by someone – on your team, in your family – perhaps you could try to discover what you’re really judging them for.

It may not be quite what you think.

On close inspection perhaps you’ll see that you are irritated, not because they are irritating, but because they are not like you in the ways you wish them to be.

not as calm as you
not as lively as you
not as rational as you
not as emotional as you
not as logical as you
not as prepared as you
not as forceful as you
not as gentle as you
not as fast as you
not as timely as you
not as controlled as you
not as realistic as you
not as creative as you

Your irritation is a way you try to make them just the same as you are.

It can’t work out the way you’re hoping it will.

And so much becomes possible if you’ll entertain the possibility that what they need to be is not like you at all… but just like themselves.

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The history of ordinary lives

The sweep of history is often remembered through the grand acts – the wars, the revolutions, the public acts of despots, geniuses, and heroes.

But it is lived for the most part by so-called ordinary lives. The people who, perhaps like you and me, will be recalled only by a handful of people, and whose memory fades within a generation or two.

It’s easy to compare our lives with the famous ones, to imagine that a life well lived is one that will stand out across time, one that will be remembered. But what about the everyday dignity of caring for a home, loving people close by, bringing home a living, touching others with simplicity and genuineness?

I can’t think of a better book about this topic than John Williams’ novel Stoner, first published in 1965. Stoner, a university professor, lives an undistinguished life, charted with exquisite precision and compassion by Williams. We know from the start that he will hardly be remembered – by his colleagues, his students – and yet we come to see the beauty in his humanity: in his doubts and confusions, his suffering, the gifts he brings to others, the deep currents of meaning that bubble below the surface, and in the sheer extraordinary everydayness of his life.

Stoner is a fabulous reminder of the preciousness of even the most apparently mundane life, and the shining jewels that lie within. And it’s a beautiful read.

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How it begins

For the past few days, to mark the first anniversary of this project, I have been republishing favourite posts from the first year of On Living and Working.
To conclude this series, here the very first post, where it all began.

This 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.

Actually asking

This week, to mark the first anniversary of this project, I am republishing favourite posts from each month of the first year of On Living and Working.
This is from February 2014.

If your requests to others aren’t resulting in much in the way of action, you might like to look at whether you are actually asking anything at all.

“That office needs tidying”

“The rubbish is collected tomorrow”

“We’re spending more on travel than we should be”

“This is really difficult”

“It’s my birthday next Tuesday”

may sound to you like clear requests for help. But they quite possibly sound nothing of the sort to the people around you.

Indirect requests are a manipulation, a demand that others show they love or respect you by being able to work out what you really want. But when you don’t get what you were expecting the result is frustration and resentment. And confusion, for everyone else, when you’ve become annoyed, or angry, or withdrawn – and they don’t understand why.

Over time, such vague requests erode the foundation of your relationships even as you’re trying to get people to come in closer.

Please, if you want to enrol others in supporting you, ask them directly for what you want.

It creates so much more possibility and dignity for all of us.

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How trust happens

This week, to mark the first anniversary of this project, I am republishing favourite posts from each month of the first year of On Living and Working.
This is from January 2014.

Trust, in the end, is not built by waiting until the conditions are right – “I’ll be able to trust them when I feel confident and secure… when they’ve given me sufficient evidence that they are trustworthy”

Instead, trust is always engendered most by our first extending our trust to others – which requires us to be open enough and vulnerable enough to let others in.

And trust is deepened by exactly what we do when we experience breakdowns in trust. Closing down or backing off, declaring the relationship over or under threat, does nothing to build our capacity to trust others, nor they us, in the future.

No, trust is built precisely by turning towards one another when it breaks down and talking about what is now possible and required. We invite trust precisely by how we respond when our capacity to trust seems most under threat.

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Shaped by others

This week, to mark the first anniversary of this project, I am republishing favourite posts from each month of the first year of On Living and Working.
This is from December 2013.

Just as places shape us, calling us into particular ways of acting and relating, people we’re around do the same. Another way of saying this, using the language of my recent posts, is that people can be affordances too.

Stop and watch for a while and you’ll probably see what I mean.

Around some people we open up, bringing our troubles and difficulties and confusion into the light. And around others we close down. Nothing seems possible to say around them.

Some people bring out our hopeful optimism. Others evoke more of a sense of darkness, despair or resignation. And around some people we get to see and think clearly, perhaps in a way that isn’t possible for us when alone.

Over time, who we are with significantly shapes us, our preferences, our language and our everyday responses to the world.

Two consequences of this:

Firstly, the way other people are around you might have a lot to do with you.

Secondly, who you spend your time with matters, more than you might know.

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This week, to mark the first anniversary of this project, I am republishing favourite posts from each month of the first year of On Living and Working.
This is from November 2013.

Mostly the stories we’re living are invisible to us. They’re like the air we breathe, or the water we swim in.

If you’re someone who never rests, who keeps going even when you’re exhausted – as so many of us do – do any of these stories shed light on the way you’re living?

Are you taking yourself to be

An orphan? Carrying a huge burden given to you by others that cannot be put down. There’s nowhere to rest. Nobody who can really be relied on. Nowhere that’s safe. All you can do is to keep on carrying, carrying, carrying, knowing that life is ultimately exhausting and nobody can help you.

frantic hare? Always running to get to the finish line. The point of life is to hurry, hurry, hurry so that you can be there first. If you stop, even for a moment, you’ll lose the race. Because everyone else is apparently running too.

The emperor in new clothesTrying to look good or at least acceptable, but fearing that everyone else can secretly see that it’s all a façade. So you have to work hard all the time to keep up an image, and not let any cracks show, in case you get found out.

Atlas? Holding up the world for everyone with unceasing, superhuman effort. If you don’t do it, nobody else will, and then the sky will fall in and everything will come apart.

And if not one of these stories, is there another one you can find that will explain why you’re so sure you can never stop, never take care of yourself?

Where did you get your story from? From your family? From the wider culture into which you were born?

And what happens if you let go of your story, just a little, and find out that it can’t be completely true? Perhaps then you’ll find out that you’ll still be alive, and people will still be around, even if you lie down for a while.

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This week, to mark the first anniversary of this project, I am republishing favourite posts from each month of the first year of On Living and Working.
This is from October 2013.

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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Brighter than the sun

This week, to mark the first anniversary of this project, I am republishing favourite posts from each month of the first year of On Living and Working.
This is from September 2013.

Sometimes, in the midst of all our striving, longing, and reaching, our building of towers and the making of names for ourselves, it’s important to remember that one day we will, with certainty, lose it all.

Some of this will happen piece by piece. We’ll gradually say goodbye to people as they leave life. We’ll realise, perhaps suddenly, that their presence in the world touched our hearts and lit up our eyes. We’ll find out that their worth is beyond words.

And for all of us, the loss will also come entirely at once – maybe at a time when we least expect it, before we can even know it’s happening – when it is ‘I’ who is leaving and it is others who have to say goodbye.

Some of us take a long time to find all this out, holding our inner gifts back from the world until we’re sure the time is just right – a time that may never come.

But others seem to live with this understanding so fully in their hearts it’s as if nothing is withheld. They’ve discovered that the point of life is life itself, and that each of us is simply another expression of life’s beauty and wonder. And from this understanding flows their kindness, their generosity and their wisdom, so that they shine brighter than the sun.

For Christy

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Business and personal

This week, to mark the first anniversary of this project, I am republishing favourite posts from each month of the first year of On Living and Working.
This is from August 2013.

Many business difficulties are, at root, personal difficulties…

… conversations we’re not bold enough to have, motives we hide and dress up as reason, emotions we don’t know how to deal with, resentments we fuel, imagination constrained by blame and the fear of shame, judgements of people who are different from us, fear and anxiety we won’t name, scapegoating, saving face, projections of what’s in our shadow, self-pity, self-aggrandisement.

But we’ve convinced ourselves (since the start of the industrial age) that businesses are machines rather than collections of people. It conveniently leads us to try to engineer our way out of difficulty – a detached move that saves us from having to own up to our own part in what’s going on.

And so when faced with what seems unsolvable, we turn to

restructures (a recurring favourite)
competency frameworks
mergers and acquisitions
leadership frameworks
the latest update to company policy
changing what’s measured
charts of acceptable behaviours
training programmes

rather than do the apparently more difficult, more unpredictable, more messy work of turning to one another with sincerity and curiosity, and being truthful about what’s going on.

So many difficulties can be solved by talking about what’s happening, both within us and between us. But mostly we allow ourselves to take up the convenient story that this is irrelevant to business, out of place at work.

We even call it ‘soft’.

Addressing the personal, emotional, relational part of our business difficulties is anything but soft. It’s the hardest, most important, most rewarding and most practical problem solving arena of all.

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More more more

For the next few days I am republishing favourite posts from each month of the first year of On Living and Working. This is from July 2013.

We’ve built our culture on the premise that more is always better. That there’s no such thing as enough.

We think we’d be better off we had more time, more money, a bigger house, a nicer car, the latest fashion, the newest smartphone, a bigger job, more market share, more efficiency. We construct our lives around this premise and we construct our organisations, institutions, and politics around it too. It’s endemic.

We’ve even gone as far as to relabel ourselves in this fashion. We’re no longer people but consumers. Without acknowledging how demeaning it is to be understood as yawning open mouths sated only by the arrival of more stuff, companies and politicians refer to us in this way – and we take it. Once upon a time we used to be citizens, but you’ll have to listen hard to hear that in our public discourse these days.

All of this ‘more’ seems so obvious, and so unquestionable, we can’t see what it’s doing to us. We can’t see the way it has us relate to the whole of life as if there were not enough. Not enough time, not enough space, not enough shiny things, not enough holidays, not enough growth, not enough experiences. We can’t see how it has us hoard our possessions such that many of us have way more than we require, while others cannot meet their basic needs. We can’t see how it has us work like machines, ignoring our families, our loved ones, our friends, our relationship with nature, with art, with stillness, with beauty. We can’t see how our obsession with more fuels the degradation of the environment in which we live, and of the bodies that support us. We can’t see how our sense of lack, even when all our basic needs are more than fulfilled, eats away at our lives and our experience of living.

If you look closely at life, you’ll find that once you’ve satisfied your basic, most essential needs, acquiring more on its own rarely – if ever – produces the fulfilment and feeling of safety you’ve been longing for. Or if it does, it doesn’t last for very long, replaced as it is by a gnawing anxiety that what you now have still isn’t enough.

Only when you start to see the hollowness of the ‘more’ narrative we’re all living in can you also begin to see what’s genuinely satisfying. Deep, truthful, courageous relationships. Community. Seeing and being seen. Serving others wholeheartedly, and accepting the gifts of others’ service. Finding your voice, your unique contribution, and bringing it. Curiosity and wonder. Being part of a commitment bigger than yourself. Slowing down enough to be present in life rather than ever absent from it.

The best question to ask yourself when you are caught up in the spiral of more is ‘for the sake of what?’. If your only answer is ‘so I can have more’ or ‘because I want it’ you’d better ask again. Perhaps you’ll find a genuine, honest answer why more is necessary. But if you can’t find one perhaps it’s time to turn away from what you’re so sure you must have, and into life itself.

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So much to do

For the next few days I am republishing favourite posts from each month of the first year of On Living and Working. This is from June 2013.

When you’re overwhelmed it’s easy to blame how much you have to do on others. Yes, your boss, your colleagues, your customers and the state of the world all probably have something to do with it.

But maybe it’s time you started to look at your own part in your situation.

The first question to ask is whether you’re paying attention to what’s important or are trying to do everything. Developing your capacity to discriminate, to determine what actually makes a difference and what’s peripheral is foundational here. And it’s often not so easy to tell. So you may have to observe the effect of your actions over time and talk to people who are affected by the fruits of your work as you learn the discernment you need.

But, please, don’t stop there. Because the way you take on every possibility that comes your way is born of the story you have of what it is to be a person, and what it is to work. You might be working at being:

a noble hero: able to take on all difficulties, courageously keeping everything under control, ensuring everybody sees your unassailable strength, never letting on the difficulty you’re experiencing

the saviour: the only one who can do this. “I couldn’t possibly put anything down… they need me”

a martyr: trying to hold the burdens of the world, keeping everyone from harm, sacrificing yourself by scooping up all that needs to be done

Each of these identities will be doing something for you that you value. They can play a powerful role in generating self-esteem, giving you a place in an uncertain world, and defending you from shame and embarrassment. It may well be the case that your colleagues are playing similar roles too, or playing their part by working to have you to stay in yours.

But each of them makes the space for discrimination very small indeed, and the possibility of putting anything down smaller still, because they call on you to push harder, go faster, and for longer in the face of difficulty.

Each adds to your suffering by promising that resolution will come soon: that if you’re strong enough, persistent enough, fast enough, sacrifice enough then eventually the world will stop making demands of you.

Usually, it’s the opposite that’s the case. The world will not stop with its demands, and pushing on relentlessly until it does leads eventually to exhaustion and resentment.

It’s time you started catching on to the way the identity you have taken up is part of the very difficulty that’s breaking you. If you weren’t a hero or martyr or saviour, who else could you be?


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Not really my life

For the next few days I am republishing favourite posts from each month of the first year of On Living and Working. This is from May 2013.

“This is not really my life,” you say. “I’m just getting ready.”
You’ll be ready to live properly, you tell me, in earnest, only when

You get promoted
You find the perfect partner
You make some money
People appreciate you
You have it all worked out
The children leave home
You get discovered
You find happiness
You sell the company
You’re not so confused
You live in your dream house
You feel peaceful
You become famous
You find out what you’re meant to do

You’ve been taught to live this way by happy-ever-after fairy tales, celebrity fantasies and by believing that there’s some step which will take away your suffering, clear up your uncertainty, allow you to settle at last. So you’ve continually postponed fully inhabiting your life, because every goal reached reveals to you how lost you still are and how much further there is to go.

Living in a suspended state saves you from coming into contact with the fierceness and love and immediacy of living. You learn to settle with life lived at a distance, a perpetual watching and waiting for the answer that will free you.

What if you gave up the idea that anything or anyone can relieve you from your longing and from your confusion? What then? You’d have no choice but to throw yourself headlong, passionately into your life. Or maybe to allow life to sweep you off your feet. And who knows what might come from that?

Photograph by Justin Wise

Holding on for dear life


For the next few days I am republishing favourite posts from each month of the first year of On Living and Working. This is from April 2013.

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.

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1st Anniversary

On Living and Working is one year old today.

363 posts so far, one for almost every day of the year.

Writing daily since April 11th 2013 has been an illuminating, searching, and often joyful process – a practice in discovery, persistence, discipline, curiosity and self-kindness. And also, sometimes, a way in which I am finding a voice on behalf of much that seems very important to me.

That other people read, pass what I’ve written on, and often respond has been an additional gift.

So today, simply gratitude –

that the world, and current technology, makes this possible

to each of you who subscribe, follow my facebook and twitter feeds, or receive this from friends and colleagues

to those of you who have passed posts on to others you think will benefit

to the many people who have inspired me to write, and who have given me ideas either in person or through their own writing

and to all of you who have joined in by commenting or emailing me directly

Thank you.

There is much more to come.

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Making strange

Do you ever have an experience where a familiar word, like queue or other or word itself, suddenly loses its familiarity and becomes strange to you?

The experience can come by chance, though sometimes it’s possible to make it happen by staring for long enough.




What about with people? Moments when you turn towards those you know best, and who you love the most, and – for a moment – they are completely unfamiliar to you, suddenly – and inexplicably – strangers? How, we wonder, did you end up in my life?

So much of the world is this way to us – familiar in an easy, transparent manner, in which everything performs its function and nothing in particular stands out. And we go on in our ordinary way, responding to the world without having to pay much attention, without much by way of thought or connection.

But it’s when we’re prepared to make strange what is most obvious to us that the world, and people, in all their rarity, start to be apparent – present – to us.

And then all kinds of magic can happen.

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Not best practice

I wrote yesterday about the pitfalls of using process when what you’re really hoping for is relationship. It’s an example of a category error – trying to fix one kind of problem when what you’re dealing with is a problem in a whole different domain.

One reason why performance management processes can’t work on their own to support engagement and people’s own capacity to self-correct is that it’s in the conversation between people that everything important happens. And skill in conversation is not at all the same as skill in following process.

I find it interesting that in many organisations in which I’ve worked people say ‘we have a successful performance management system’ when they really mean ‘we’re successful in following the process’. Rarely does it mean that employees have a greater sense of enrolment, that there is deep systemic understanding of what’s making performance possible and what’s hindering it, or that anyone is able to self-observe and self-correct well enough to actually make a difference to anything. But at least everyone’s filling in their forms, scheduling performance meetings, and assigning ratings…

All of this is an example of why the idea of best practice can’t easily be applied to human organisation.

In a mechanical environment best practice makes sense: if we find that a certain cooling unit produces good results in my factory it’s very likely to do the same in your factory, assuming we have similar conditions and similar equipment. But in addressing a human system itself it’s often impossible to make such an assumption. The 5-point rating performance system I described yesterday, that might have worked so well somewhere else once before, may have very different effects here. Because here it’s us, not them. And here we have our own particular relationships, commitments, language, understanding, priorities, values, habits, discourse, concerns, interests, conversations, bodies, culture… which means that a process on its own could well, might well, produce a whole different constellation of meaning and effect when applied here – including having the very opposite effect from what’s intended.

How many performance management processes which are apparently ‘best practice’ produce nothing but busyness, hiding, disillusionment, manipulation, game-playing and secrecy simply because we took the idea of best practice far more seriously than we ought to have done? And because as a result, we failed to take seriously what was really needed to address our concerns?

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Let’s have a process for that…

What you really wanted

Honest, enrolling conversations with colleagues and staff about progress, about what’s important, about how they’re doing, about what could change, and about what might be needed next.

What you did

Foresaw all of the problems in doing this; felt your anxiety and the anxiety others would experience about being open in this way; and so invented a process instead:

“We’ll set specific, measurable goals at the start of the year” – which avoids the difficulty of talking about all that people do that’s uncertain, shifting, cannot be predicted, that which changes, that which is affected by the efforts of many and by the changing circumstances of the world.

“We’ll have meetings with each member of our team twice a year to review progress” – which frees you, for most of the year, from the difficulty of turning towards one another and talking about things as they happen.

“We’ll assign each person a performance rating from 1 to 5 so they know where they stand” – adding a measure makes it look like you’ve reached the truth of the situation. It gets you out of the difficulty of talking with nuance, of discovering together what’s really happening, of learning from your employees, of discovering how much you don’t know, and of finding out your own part in how things are going.

“We’re finding that people have difficulty giving low ratings to their teams when required, so we’ll have a forced distribution – a fixed quantity of 1s, 2s, 3s and 4s” – which saves you from any genuine conversation at all. By forcing the ratings you can simply say “I’m sorry, we really wanted to give you a 2 but there weren’t any left, so we’re giving you a 3”.

“We’ll pay people, or promote them, based on their rating” – which saves you from the trouble of genuine conversation about people’s future and the future of your organisation – you can blame the rating on people’s ability to move on.

Process can support you, yes. It may often be necessary.

But every step here, if implemented without also cultivating the ability to speak and listen, takes you further from your original intention of enrolling, engaging, and supporting people’s contribution. Every step makes all of you more machine like. Every step treats people more like a commodity and less like participants in a shared endeavour. And all because every step is being used to cover up anxiety – turning people away from the risky endeavour of skilful, genuine, nuanced, open conversation with each other.

In the end, when what’s required is talking with one another there’s no substitute, no substitute at all, for the difficult work of learning to talk well with one another.

And if you’re looking for process to do the heavy lifting, you’re looking in the wrong place.

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The secret mission

Many things become possible when you discover

perhaps for the first time

that the secret mission of your resentment

your anger, your frustration

and your judgements about your colleagues’ many misdeeds and failings

is to save you the difficult, liberating

and essential work

of looking at your own contribution –

your own part

in the troubles you’re experiencing.

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Not holding back

To those of us known for quietness, consideration, measured responses; and to those who speak up only when everyone else has said their piece:

What if, friends, we give up having it all together before we speak?

If we allow ourselves to say things when they’re half-formed, incomplete?

When we’re not sure?

If we let others in on our thinking?

What might we bring to those around us?

And how might we surprise ourselves, discovering the incomplete ideas we’re so used to holding back until they’re just-so are themselves seeds just waiting to grow in the imagination of others?

Keeping it going

When you’re in trouble do you have familiar, fixed, repetitive ways of responding?

Perhaps you depend on your thoughts – thinking it through until you have a solution. Or do you look for a system or process that will help – a tip, technique, tool, app or book that will address your concerns?

Maybe you rarely ask for help, depending upon yourself alone to sort things out.

Or perhaps you systematically discount your own strength and resourceful-ness, asking others in the hope that someone else will have the answer.

Is what you’re doing most often actually helping you?

Perhaps it’s time to turn towards other possibilities – starting with different choices from the list above.

Or take up an option that’s less familiar:

Shifting your body – running, walking, sitting quietly, meditating, dancing, writing, painting – to see what fresh perspectives arise

Paying attention to place – going somewhere that inspires you and which gives you new ways of seeing – a wood, a cathedral, a lake, a quiet place in your home, a museum, a gallery

Workplaces and organisations have preferences for all of this too. When there’s a problem we arrange a meeting, or have an away-day, or leave people to think it through by themselves. Sometimes resolving a difficulty successfully in a system with preferences requires stepping well outside of what’s considered ‘normal’ or ‘appropriate’ where you are.

Can you see how always trying to do more of what you’re already doing (more thinking, more asking people, more searching for a fix) might be exactly how you keep your problems going?

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Can you shift your orientation in life from what would be good for you to what would be good for the generation who’ll come after you, and the generation after that?

It’s not an easy question to address.

For a start, you own immediate needs are always right before you. And then there is the matter of your own likes and dislikes, the preferences you’ve built up over time which quietly influence your decisions, with you perhaps hardly noticing. And there’s the matter of prediction – you might hardly be able to tell how your actions are going to turn out in your own life over the next week or two let alone across decades.

So it’s far from a trivial matter to respond to a multi-generational responsibility towards your life or in your work.

But I think there are places you can start, and one of them is tracking the effect you have on the people around you who will, of course, go on to affect others. It’s one of the ways our own contribution, of whatever sort, ripples out across time.

Some questions you could take up in exploring this topic:

What kind of interactions did you have with each person you met – your colleagues, your customers, your friends, your family – today?

Did your speech, and how you made contact, have you and the other person feel more or less human? More or less dignified? More or less resourceful? More or less grateful? More or less generous? More or less alive?

How do you think the way you’ve left them will have them affect others they meet – straight after you, or later, when they go home?

Are you a force for dignity or diminishment in your interactions?

For the cultivation of life, or a chain of tiny deaths?

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Declaring yourself

Declaration: a part of speech where things change simply because something has been said.

You’re hired.

You’re fired.

You are now married.

Here’s our strategic plan.

Parliament is open.

are all declarations.

You’ll see already that who declares is a fundamental part of what gives a declaration its power. These days, only the Queen can declare the UK parliament open (try it out for yourself… not much will happen). And only people with sufficient authority in an organisation can declare you hired or fired.

But there are many declarations that require you to hold no position of power other than being you, because you are already the authority (the author) of your own experience and your own intentions:

I love you.

I never want to see you again.

I want to be happy.

I need to rest.

I’m done with this relationship.

I intend to work this problem out.

I want this to change. Now.

I’m interested / bored / angry / sad / grateful.

I don’t want to be part of this any more.

I’m sorry.

The declarations you are prepared to make play a significant role in establishing your identity. They lay out what you stand for, what matters to you. They make what you’re experiencing known. Other people are audience to them and, in a very real way, you are audience to them too.

Declaring changes you and how other people know you.

You might hold back from declaring because it always carries a measure of risk. Things will be different if you speak up, with who knows what outcome?

So the declarations you don’t make establish your identity too.

Declarations are powerful, potent, important.

And for this reason, some people – perhaps you? – hardly declare themselves at all.

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The purpose of moods

When you start to see how your moods are purposeful, rather than experiences that just happen to you, you can open up new worlds of possibility.

For example: can you tell what resentment does for you?

Or, better said, what are you doing for yourself when you keep resentment going?

This can be a fruitful exploration because, on the face of it, the poisonous part of resentment is much more obvious than its benefits. But look more closely for a while: when you are sure that you’ve been wronged, particularly if you don’t feel you have much direct possibility for redress, resentment is actually a quite effective way of maintaining your self-esteem. It casts you in a superior position to your opponent, and moves you (at least in your own experience) from powerless victim to vengeful justice-seeker.

Many moods have a similar purpose – maintaining self-esteem or protecting something that matters to you.

Take anger, which keeps what you most care about hot and fiery and central in your attention, making sure you and others do not forget it.

Or resignation, which has at its heart a conviction that what you want to happen cannot be made to come about, however hard you might try – perhaps a preferable story to the alternative in which your inability to change things is because of a fault or deficiency on your part.

When you see that every mood has its own intelligence, its own set of priorities, and a particular something that it’s working on bringing about, you can start to ask yourself

Is what this mood wants the same as what I want?
And – is maintaining this mood really the best way to make it happen?

Which gives you a new kind of choice – one that treating moods as just ‘something that happens’ can never bring about.

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Thinking my way out

I think a lot.

It’s usually what I do first when I’m in difficulty, frightened, or unsure.

Think think think think think.

But I’m discovering that so much of my thinking isn’t really thinking at all. At least, not the kind of thinking that can be trusted for its accuracy, or its insightfulness.

Here’s how it goes:

First, a feeling – often fear, perhaps shame.

Next, a thought. A whole stream of thoughts. And I’m testing each one, checking it out. Does it reduce or remove the feeling? Explain it away?

If it does, I can stop thinking for a while. I can rest. If not, I’ll need to carry on thinking, producing new explanations in the hope that something will help.

Thought after thought after thought.

Pretty quickly, the thoughts come to resemble one another. The list of thoughts that would save me becomes more like a chaotic cycle, repeating and repeating, round and around. Each one being tested not for its accuracy, or its explanatory power, but for its ability to settle what I’m feeling.

And even if I do settle on a thought that lessens the discomfort, pretty soon I’ve thought of a reason why that thought is incomplete and the feeling is back.

Round and around, turning and turning.

I can spend hours this way. And even minutes spent like this take me away from what’s happening right here – in my own body, in the world around me, in my relationship with others.

This is thinking as a spectacularly effective defence.

And a way of escaping the world.

My mistake is not just that I trust this chaotic thinking, but that I assume thinking will always save me. I’m misusing a familiar strength of mine in a way that’s inadequate for the difficulties I’m trying to address.

Round and around.

So what else to do?

I’m discovering that allowing myself to feel is a much more powerful way to go – turning towards exactly that which my thinking is trying to avoid. Trusting that feelings are meant to be felt, that they have something important to do, something important to say. Coming back to the bodily sensation of fear, or panic, or shame, or confusion and allowing it to do its thing.

Pretty soon, if I let myself fully feel what I’m feeling in this way, the feeling moves, becoming something.

And often I’m left changed, with the taste of a deeper insight or understanding than my wild turbulent rumination is ever likely to produce.

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