What’s the take away?

It’s common practice in many organisations for people to demand, with some force, a ‘take away’ from every learning experience, course, workshop or coaching session.

Perhaps it seems obvious, at least to start with, that this should be the case. After all aren’t we busy, productive, results-oriented people? Why would we do anything unless it obviously moves us forward, to the next step, the next project, the next success?

By insisting on this we’ve confused learning with other, more familiar, activities. And we’ve profoundly misunderstood the nature of any learning that’s really worth our while.

Firstly, the confusion. Learning is not like going to a meeting, finishing a project plan, coming to an agreement, or delivering a product. When we insist that learning be like every other activity in our working culture we’re not really engaging in learning at all. We’re confusing learning with deciding, or getting things done, both of which are worthwhile activities in themselves, but don’t change us much.

Secondly, we’ve misunderstood or wilfully redefined what learning can be. We’ve reduced it to knowing a fact, understanding a step-by-step process, or knowing about a clever technique. We want to learn with the minimum of our own involvement, in a trouble-free, predictable, and narrow way. We want it recognisable in form and structure. We do not wish to be too troubled. And all of this is insufficient for learning that really does something.

Unless we want our learning to keep us within our habitual, predictable boundaries (and I am arguing that this is not learning at all) we have to give up our demands that it be familiar. We have to allow it to confuse us as well as inspire us, to dissolve our existing categories and rigidity, and to confound our everyday understanding so it can show us something new. We have to allow it to render us unskilful for a while so that we can embody new skills that in turn open new worlds of possibility. And we have to allow ourselves to feel many things – elation, excitement, frustration, disappointment, wonder, surprise, boredom, joy – so that we can be affected by the experience and not just observe it in a detached way.

Good learning undoes us.

And for that reason the ‘take aways’ we demanded at the start may be quite different from what actually happens. And what lives on in us as a result may not appear at the moment we walk out of the room, but as the product, over time, of living with, practicing and inquiring into what we’ve only just begun to see.

By demanding we know what learning will do before we begin, we’re hardly learning at all.

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Hearing what’s said

Notice how attached you are to others speaking to you in a particular way.

That you’ll only really listen to what’s been said, or count it as true, when it fits just the form you wish.

Maybe for you it has to be concise and to the point for you to pay attention.

Or maybe complete, anticipating every angle.

Perhaps it has to be kind, without a shred of judgement or criticism before you’ll let it in.

Or maybe directuntainted by emotion or sentiment.

Perhaps it has to be clever, fresh, intellectually stimulating or else you’ll judge it as boring.

Or maybe you insist that it’s practical, worthless unless you can immediately tell what to do with what you’re hearing.

Perhaps you’ll only listen to what’s businesslike, and tune out of anything that’s personal.

Or maybe you’ll listen only when what’s being said is deep and poetic.

In every case you’re letting your preferences, and quite possibly your prejudices, deafen you to a world of possibility.

You’re purposefully keeping your world small, familiar.

Maybe it’s easier this way. At least you won’t have to really consider anything that’s too troubling.

The task for all of us? Letting go of all of this, so that we can hear more and more of what’s being said.

And so we can tune in – and respond – to ever wider categories of concern.

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An encounter with the inner critic

Sitting in a park, sheltering from the drizzle, I spot a cluster of beautiful, elegant thistles. And I’m immediately called away by a part of myself so familiar I can hardly see it. Knotted in my chest, this part clings, desperately, trying hard to get things right all the time. It is pained, caught up in harsh self-judgement. And it says to the rest of me, with some insistence,

“You are not entitled to this”.

“You are not entitled to stop and look in awe and wonder. You are supposed to be trying, doing, proving. You are supposed to be being hard on yourself.”

And on seeing it – perhaps on its feeling seen – it relaxes its grip a little. I am flooded with joy and gratitude at the beauty before me, and at being alive to witness it.

And, for a moment, I am here, at last.

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Welcoming everything

What if, instead of orienting yourself first towards fixing everything

fixing yourself
fixing others
fixing this situation
fixing how you’re feeling

you started by welcoming everything?

welcoming yourself
welcoming others
welcoming this situation
welcoming whatever you’re feeling

This is not an argument for passivity.

From an orientation of welcome – something so rarely experienced or practiced by many of us – a whole new set of responses becomes possible. And a world that is quite different from brought about by our permanent orientation away from ourselves, others, and the life in which we’re always in the midst.

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Lonely at the top

“It’s lonely at the top”

A common mantra as people take on leadership positions.

And in most cases self-fulfilling prophecy. A myth of our own making rather than a fixed way that things are.

As long as you mistake leadership with appearing heroic, invulnerable, infallible, all-knowing, flawless, you’re bound to feel alone. You’re complicit in bringing about the loneliness you complain about.

After all, who can you really confide in or talk with honestly, if you’re scared they might find out that you’re human? 

But how can you lead with genuine wisdom if you insist on pretending that you’re not?

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Cutting through

An experiment, particularly for the hardest, most frightening, most uncertain and doubtful times:

Spend a day with entirely opposite explanations to those you’re most used to.

For example –

She’s clearly out to get me becomes She’s doing her best to help.

Everything is falling apart becomes Things are just as they should be.

I’ll never be able to do this becomes It’s right within my grasp.

I’m such a fraud / loser / mess becomes I’m perfect as I am.

There’s no hope becomes Everything is right on track.

and also

We’re on to a winner becomes We’ve wildly misunderstood everything about success in this situation.

If you’ll do this seriously, you may find at least a couple of things. First, that what seemed so certain about yourself, others and  your situation is in large part simply something you concluded but which you cannot know for sure. Secondly, that there are many more options for action available to you than you had ever imagined.

So think the opposite for a while, and consider what actions and experiments might come from it. It can be a powerful way of cutting through the invisible stories that are binding you so tightly.

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What to do…

Don’t you think it would be good, sometimes, to drop all the seriousness, the earnestness, the effort to be business-like or professional, to have-it-all-together, to look ok, to be in control, to keep things tidy, to know it all…

… and see just how weird, absurd and unfathomable it all is in any case

… and just laugh?

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Something to remember

Something to remember.

Almost every difficulty in the human world (difficulties in relationship, misunderstanding, uncertainty, hurts, resentment and confusion) can be solved best by talking. And by listening.

Not by hiding from it. Nor by thinking it through, over and over. Nor by relying on a process or procedure. Nor, in organisations, by waiting – for annual reviews or a report or a meeting or a chance to assign a different performance grade.

And not so often by email.

No, by talking and by listening.

Easy to say. Easy to forget. And, without courage and practice, easy to keep, conveniently, out of our own reach.

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Love and loathing

It is work of the utmost importance that each of us become aware of, and then find ways of working with, our self-loathing.

Does that seem too strong a way to say it?

This is not an easy subject to write about or speak about. You may find that the merest suggestion that you experience self-loathing stirs up strong feelings that would have you stop reading right away. Anger, ridicule, judgement at what’s being proposed here – all of these have been my stirred within me as I’ve studied this subject, and my own relationship to it, in the past.

But many of us do walk around with an almost perpetual background of quite intense self-dislike. You might be familiar with its more accessible surface manifestation, self-judgement, or the inner-critic which I’ve written about here previously. If you’re prepared to examine further you might well discover that behind the critic lurks a much bigger and deeper phenomenon, a continual assessment that you’re out of place in the world, not welcome, and that it’s all deserved.

In my case it occurs most readily as a continual gnawing sense that I’ve done something wrong already that I don’t know about, but which everyone else does. It can lead readily to shame (even in the most innocuous of situations) and holding myself back, or sometimes an angry, resentful self-righteousness. I’m absolutely sure I’m not alone in this. I’ll wager, moreover, that most people live under the shadow of this for much of their adult lives.

Babies, when newborn, don’t have any kind of self-loathing as far as I can tell, and nor do very young children. Just watch as they express themselves freely without inhibition, far removed from any sense that they may be judged by others or that it is proper and fitting to judge themselves. But if you watch children you know and love acquire language and then start to make their first halting attempts to fit into the social world with its niceties and manners and particular-way-things-are-done you might spot its beginnings.

By the time we’re young adults we’ve mostly fully taken on, and applied to ourselves, the widely shared narrative of our culture, not often spoken about, that people are essentially faulty and need some kind of constant correction. Even if we can’t see it in ourselves we can maybe see it in our interactions with others. It’s present every time we find ourselves judging them for, in some essential way, falling short of our high expectations. We can be sure that the unreachable expectations we’re projecting on other people are really just a version of what some part of us is demanding of ourselves.

And while it may be unavoidable that we get some measure of self-loathing by growing up in the particular culture of these times, I think its continuation into adulthood is in a sense quite egotistical. We may not even know that we’re doing it, but our private insistence that we are in some way uniquely broken, uniquely in need of repair, uniquely suffering puts us in the centre of the world in a way that doesn’t at all match how things are. It has us feeling different, special, alone, separated from each other, in some kind of special privileged place of difficulty. And then it has us engage in all kinds of tactics to deal with how all of it feels – getting really busy, pushing ourselves and others very hard, trying to stay in control, becoming cynical, overextending ourselves to gain the love of other people, jumping from one project to another, martyring ourselves to causes (a corporation, tidiness, social recognition, a religion, fame) that we never chose for ourselves.

Our culture has been deeply influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud, who many have understood to say that at heart human beings really are broken, a roiling cauldron of barely repressible urges, and the most we can hope for is to find a way to get along with all that in play. This kind of interpretation of human beings would give self-loathing a home, telling us that we must first face it and then learn to live with it. Perhaps it’s the fear that this is all that’s available to us that has us deny its existence at all. We’d rather pretend we don’t feel this way than find out we’re stuck with it.

But I think there’s a different orientation available to us, one that’s hard to talk about without reverting to the imagery and symbolism of spiritual traditions. In Judaism, for example, there’s a strong commitment that human beings are made ‘in the image of the divine’, which is really the claim that at heart we’re not something broken at all but something sacred. In Tibetan Buddhism, there’s the notion of ‘basic goodness’ – the soft, tender centre of each of us that can respond with love and care to the suffering of others, and from which all right action flows.

Both traditions have a strong sense that it’s our responsibility is to find and cultivate our basic goodness, learn to trust it, and thereby bring something of value to the world. By abandoning such poetic and appreciative terms for human beings in our hyper-rational contemporary culture, we’ve made it very hard for ourselves to find ways to work with our self-loathing at all, which is why we’d rather pretend it’s not there, even while we’re suffering from its harshness and projecting it onto others.

But work on it we must, because it’s only when we’ve found a way of uprooting our constant comparisons and judgements of ourselves – and replacing them with love – that we have a chance of really addressing our own suffering. And a chance to make the full, true, and wholeheartedly generous contribution to life and other people that is so much needed from each of us.

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A long-standing plan, cancelled at the very last minute. Nothing in my diary for today.

And now I have to decide – how will I spend my time?

I notice how many internal forces are pulling upon me.

A long to-do list. Perhaps if I can just finish it, everything will be ok.

The lure of busy-work. I could noodle at emails, browse the web, and numb myself while feeling that I’m at least doing something.

A wish to do something that would be nurturing, self-caring, creative or expressive. And a nagging feeling of guilt and shame at choosing that over my obligations to others.

An embarrassment of possibilities (and embarrassment is exactly how it feels). Many choices I could make, and really no good way of discerning which will be most of value. Even choosing the criteria by which to choose is disorienting. What will be most productive? well-rewarded? enjoyable? fulfilling? time-efficient? revitalising? beautiful? What will make the biggest contribution?

I notice how charged my body feels. It’s difficult to settle. This terribly small dilemma – how to spend a day – is caught up with so many narratives and expectations, many of which I’m not sure are even really mine. I could easily spend the whole day in this state, caught between conflicting inner stories and inner longings.

I think this is angst, the mood about which I wrote yesterday. A moment when instead of being absorbed in the world, fully engaged simply in responding to whatever comes, the horizons of the world – its limits – become clear. And the groundlessness of any of the decisions I might make about this singular day become clear too.

And in that realisation is a path onwards. Because angst is reminding me, quite precisely, how things are. That the particular way I respond to this now-open day is just one of a million ways to be, each with its own rewards and its own limits. That there is no way of knowing.

And when I remember that, I can laugh a little at my seriousness and my conviction that I have to get it right. And I can remember that there’s boldness and aliveness simply in deciding, even when there’s no way of being sure that the decision is a good one, or having any real idea how it will turn out.

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On Angst

Perhaps uniquely among living creatures, we have the capacity to sense beyond the particular details of the situation in which we’re living. We can see its limits, and perhaps more importantly we can see our limits. We can understand that there’s a ceiling to our power and capacity, that our time is finite, that the future is unknowable, that our understanding is small, and that much of what we depend upon is way more fragile than we’ll ever admit.

There’s a special word for the feeling this evokes – angst.

We mostly experience angst as a feeling of absence, because in coming up against the limits of our world, and the limits of our understanding, we quickly conclude that something is missing and that we must be responsible for it. We feel that we ought to change things, make them better, fix them up. We feel our inadequacy in doing so.

And so we build cultures, organisations and lives in such a way as to shore us up against experiencing angst. We imagine that if we don’t have to feel this way – perhaps if we don’t feel too much at all – then we can assure ourselves that everything will be just fine.

Of course, in the end this doesn’t work out, because behind all our busy activity, our habitual routines, and our constant affirmations that we’re doing ok, angst is still making itself felt. In a way our efforts make it more apparent, because living in such a way as to avoid angst means making our world small and tightly sealed. The feeling that we’re deceiving ourselves and imprisoning ourselves and that there is some bigger way of living becomes even more present, even as we try to hide it.

Running away from angst, it turns out, amplifies it and robs it of its biggest possibilities.

The way through this?

Firstly, giving up the idealised notion of an angst-free future. Angst is, it seems, built in to the human condition and comes as a consequence of our capacity to see beyond ourselves. And so there can be no world in which angst is fully absent.

Secondly seeing angst not as a terrible something to be avoided, but as an invitation, a reminder of the truth of our situation, which is that the world is much bigger, more mysterious, and more possibility-filled than we can usually imagine. And that even though there’s really nothing to stand on, there’s much that we can trust.

Angst is then not a signal to hide away, but a reminder of the uniqueness of our human situation. And a call to step more fully into life.

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Forgetting how to learn

Tomorrow is grading day at my kickboxing dojo. I’m putting myself forward for orange belt. And so today is practice day. We go through the motions, each step and each combination practiced again and again and again until it’s deeply memorised, in the body. With enough practice the moves just flow out, gracefully, without the interruption of conscious thought. How much practice is enough? Days and weeks for sure. Years, to really master something.

And this is, in the end, how we learn any way of acting, whether boxing, dancing, relating, speaking or listening. Practice upon practice upon practice. Paying close attention to ourselves as we go. Each day discovering the further subtleties and discernment required. Each time finding out in our rigidity, or by falling over, what we haven’t yet embodied. Failing, and picking ourselves up again. And not knowing quite how, or when, it’s all going to come together.

There are no short cuts.

Except in our wider culture, particularly in the world of organisations, we’ve forgotten all of this. Or become wilfully blind to it.

We confuse becoming skilful with learning facts (a relatively simple act compared to learning how to do something well). We demand learning that does not disrupt our schedule (mostly what we’re not willing to disrupt is our busyness). We think we can leave out our bodies and just use our minds (hence endless courses with PowerPoint slides and rows of tables). We get frustrated when we find it takes longer than we think, and we blame the teacher (not good enough) or the subject (a waste of time) or ourselves, but keep on doing the same thing over and over and expecting it to work. We use our certainty that we know how to learn as a defence against our confusion, and against the discomfort of having to take it slow.

But none of that works, because although it’s a good way to cram facts, it’s not how human beings learn how to do anything.

And deep down, despite all our protestations, we know that too.

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If you really understood that it would all end

… you, your life, and all your relationships

… and the life of everyone around you

… every company you ever worked for, every project you put your hand to

… everything you leave behind

If you really understood this, would you lead or manage others the way you do? Work the way you do? Live the way you do?

And if not, how would you lead, work and live – in the full knowledge of endings – instead?

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Until you start to look for it, you may be unaware of your efforts to watch out, perhaps obsessively, in order to protect yourself from a certain something.

Some people are hyper-vigilant for lapses in fairness, rising in reaction any time someone says or does anything that seems unjust.

Others are hyper-vigilant for disorder, cleaning and clearing, sorting and organising the moment anything appears to be in disarray.

Some are hyper-vigilant for any threat to their sense of control, reacting before they know it to assert themselves if they ever feel even slightly out of the centre of things.

Others are hyper-vigilant for anger, shutting down and hiding away the moment it seems to be in the air.

And other people are hyper-vigilant for criticism, lashing out at once in defence when anybody seems to have a judgement or unwelcome opinion.

Your own hyper-vigilance might well be invisible to you, so habitual has it become. It may even seem that your particular version of it is not particular to you at all but a truth about the world. But if you observe for a while you might see how it arises in the form of a barely noticeable shift in feeling in your body. A tightening, a constriction, a sinking feeling taken as a signal to become alert, and then as signal to react, even when reacting might be the least helpful thing to do.

It’s a big deal for anyone who leads, or who has the reach to affect many people around them. Because your hyper-vigilance is most probably visible to everyone else even if it’s not visible to you. It will have people tip-toeing around you, withholding themselves, determined to avoid provoking your defensive reaction. Or it may throw you again and again into a predictable kind of difficulty.

The antidote to hyper-vigilance? Learning to become still enough, attentive enough, to catch the feeling before it turns into action. Slowing down instead of throwing yourself faster and harder into busy activity. Mindfulness practices can help a lot here.

And gradually cultivating a different story about the world, in which your primary project is not defending yourself but opening to everything that comes your way.

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Be like me

How much of the time, do you think, are you leading or managing others in a way that really just says ‘be like me’?

And how much of the way you act in your closest, most intimate relationships, is a form of ‘be like me’ too?

What about your relationships with your friends? Your children?

How easily do you fall into living in a way that understands in theory that other people are different from you, but repeatedly asserts that your way of being and doing is, really, the best?

And is this really the best way to be a leader, partner, parent or friend?

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Small things

So many things to worry about, or at least to pursue, in the future…

Projects, plans, budgets, launches, promotions, purchases, sales, changes, losses…

Each, whether you long for it or dread it, could well never come to pass. And each will surely one day come to an end.

Alongside all your effort why not, then, cultivate the practice and discipline of paying minute attention to what is? The sparkle in someone’s eye, the sound of pen moving across paper, the click of a keyboard, the weight of warm dishes in soapy water, the light streaming between half-open blinds, the feel of being with companions, colleagues.

You may find that there is pleasure, solace, and exquisite beauty in cultivating awareness of the everyday small things that, together, make up a life.

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Attuned to the world

I am particularly attuned to the disorder and messiness of the human world today. Driving along a busy high-street, my eye is drawn towards litter, towards unevenly parked cars, towards the jumble of shop fronts – wildly different designs crowding in upon one another. I feel a little despairing. It’s hard for me to see the coherence here, and all the effort and care that went into constructing this place.

For a colleague, it’s difficulty that’s coming forward most strongly. She’s pressed in upon by her trouble having projects turn out, by all the people who seem determined to confound her intentions, by her confusion about what to do next, by her worries about what might happen. She’s afraid. It’s hard for her to see the huge opportunities she’s right on the edge of.

Someone else I know has just become a father for the first time. He’s suddenly attuned in a new way to the brightness and crispness of the world, the sheer beautiful aliveness of everything, the sense of possibility inherent in each moment and in each person. He’s experiencing both love and life streaming towards him, and from him towards others. The despair of the world is, for a while, far away. The possibility of the world is in, very close.

Each of these different aspects of the world is always present, of course, even when we’re not attuned to them. The world is always in a state of disorder and flux, just as it is always filled with difficulty. It’s also, in so many ways, always bright and crisp, filled with love and possibility if we’ll dare to see it. Chaos and order, love and difficulty, confusion and clear seeing, light and dark, hope and despair, fear and opportunity. Which stand out most prominently for us most is less often a matter of how things are in some fixed sense than of our capacity for attunement, which itself is both a skill and a habit.

And that begs some questions.

Which aspects of the world is it your habit to pay attention to, and which do you ignore, dismiss, or simply not see? How invested are you in keeping this habit going? And what consequences do your habits of attunement or non-attunement to the world bring about: for you, for your work, and for everyone else who gets to be with you?

And can you find out that the world isn’t mostly a particular way, and consequently how many different ways there are of experiencing the self-same situation in which you find yourself?

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Human beings are radically social.

Which is another way of saying that we’re deeply affected by the people we’re around. Usually much more than we’re willing to admit.

Have ever stopped to observe this? Have you looked closely to find out how much your orientation to the world, your values, your openness, your sense of possibility, your moods even, are being shaped by the people you work with, socialise with, are in community with?

And in the light of what you find, are you willing to take the responsibility for yourself, and towards all of us, to choose your companions wisely?

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On being weird

Are you prepared to allow yourself to be weird?

Weird – different from everyone else around

Weird – saying what’s not immediately understood

Weird – having a quite different point of view

Weird – being prepared to confuse, be confused, in pursuit of some deeper understanding

Weird – turning what’s assumed on its head

Weird – showing people what’s in the background, unseen

Weird – pointing out what people think is ‘normal’ but is actually crazy

Being actually weird (as opposed to just being different or in opposition) is most difficult when we’re young, when we’re still trying to figure out how to fit in.

But as we grow, I think we can afford to start to let our weirdness come out. Because, behind all our protestations, we’re all much more weird than we’ll ever let on. And our determination to appear normal (which just means the same as everyone else) is a way of holding back much of what we have to bring, much of what we have to see, and much of what we could change for the better.

The roots of the word weird are associated with turning, and with becoming: with bringing out what’s already becoming the case.

So being weird is, in the end, being one who is prepared to bring what you actually see, and actually think, and actually feel, instead of the socially acceptable version that will keep everyone happy, or everyone numb.

And our organisations, institutions and society could certainly do with a lot more of that.

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How is it that we developed such a tolerance for mediocrity?

We’ll sit in endless meetings that, we suspect quietly, nobody wanted to join in the first place.

We’ll dedicate ourselves to hours of distraction, or chase after alluring but trivial goals (such as having an empty email inbox) instead of turning to someone else in truthful conversation, or inventing something new, or committing ourselves to changing a situation that matters.

We’ll satisfy ourselves with a flip-chart page filled with empty tasks that nobody intends to take on, and applaud how action-oriented we’ve been (all the while avoiding what really needs addressing).

We’ll say “it’s just the way things are”, when it’s clearly not.

We’ll avoid contact with ourselves and others by perpetuating the myth that ‘feelings have no place at work’, when feelings are exactly what connects us to what we most care about.

We’ll blame what ‘they’ do – they made me do it, they don’t understand, they will never change, they don’t listen.

In the end, we develop tolerance for this simply because we’re human.

It’s human to go to sleep to ourselves and our situation. It’s human for what we’re doing to fade into the background and be replaced by unquestioned habit. It’s human to be afraid of what others will think, and to be afraid of our fear. It’s human to fall back into the crowd. And it’s human to distract ourselves from what would most trouble us.

But it’s also human to make a commotion; to commit to something of worth; to risk ourselves in pursuit of what has meaning and integrity; to undo all of the stories we have about how things are and how things should be, and to write new ones.

It’s human to take a stand.

And consequently it’s human to be prepared to stand out on behalf of what really matters.


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What the world is calling for…

My secret project (see yesterday’s post) – being seen as good.

Yours? The way you secretly try to have people see you?

as having integrity?
as being lovable?
as successful?
as special?
as serious and super-intelligent?
as loyal and committed?
as playful, fun, lively?
as strong and in control?

And what happens when you don’t get seen the way you demand?

Do you collapse? Sulk? Rage? Get ashamed? Tune-out? Get distracted? Make judgements? Blame yourself? Blame them?

How does all of this effect the people around you? Your colleagues? Your family?

There’s enormous freedom in finding out that your project is well past its due-date. And that what the world is calling for is not your act but your humanity.

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Letting it crumble

What’s your secret project?

I mean the one you’re up to most of the time, even if you don’t know it yourself. The one you took up as a child, and have kept going ever since. The one that most of the people close to you would probably be able to name, if asked. But which, unless they’re braver or more skilful than most, they’ll probably keep to themselves.

Do you know what I’m asking about here?

Mine? Having people see me as good.

I’ve developed quite an armoury of skills in this regard. It doesn’t take much for me to portray myself as clever, intelligent, considered. Or to give others a strong sense that I know what I’m doing. Or that I’m acting with integrity. I can do what it takes to look kind, considerate, caring, attentive. I can calm down a conflict. I can be masterful at having you feel like I’m on your side…

… even when none of is true.

When I’m deeply enmeshed in the being-seen-as-good project you’ll probably not know how angry I am, or confused, or lost. You might not know how strongly I disagree with you, nor how bored or irritated I’m feeling. It might take a while for you to discover when I’m secretly taking care of my own needs and wishes at the expense of yours.

Like I said, I can be a master at looking good, even when it isn’t true.

But, if we’re lucky, it eventually starts to fall apart. Which, in my case, began about ten years ago. I found I could no longer successfully keep looking good while doing work from which my heart was so absent.

Lucky? Yes, because one cost of a project such as this – and we all have one that we take up right from when we’re very young – is that we can hardly be ourselves. We’re managing all the time, creating a facade. We’re manipulating others so that they’ll see us just the way we want to be seen, and no other. And so that we can see ourselves the way we want too.

Perhaps it begins when we gradually start to feel how desperate we are. How out of touch with ourselves and life. When we start to feel how distant we are from ourselves. And when we get so tired – tired of all the effort and hyper-attentiveness keeping up such a project entails.

And when our efforts fall apart, amidst all the confusion and uncertainty, the pain and bewilderment, we can begin to experience ourselves fully as human beings at last. Beautiful, contradictory, and flawed. And then, instead of bringing the world an act, a carefully constructed fiction, we can gradually begin to bring ourselves in a more honest, present, and generous way.

Like I said, if we’re lucky.

So what’s your secret project?

And are you prepared to begin to let it crumble?

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Exist to remedy

Today, just a quote from Confucius.

We seem to have such a high tolerance for mediocrity, and for letting things of importance pass. Confucius invites us to see the world afresh, to rediscover the urgency and depth needed to set things straight.

I wonder what kind of life and what kind of organisations we’d bring about if we took a vow like this seriously:

“Talent neglected or misguided, investigations into the nature of things not completed, what is right understood but not acted upon, and the lack of energy to rectify what is wrong – these are the things which pain my heart, which I exist to remedy.”

— K’ung Tzu (Confucius)

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Changing us

Two days ago I wrote about breakdowns: when something familiar and transparent to us stops working in the way we’re used to.

In every breakdown (or opening) there’s an opportunity to step in and discover a whole new way of relating to life if we’ll only take it. And there are endless openings, if we choose to treat them as such:

finding out we don’t understand something important
a change in a relationship
making a mistake
the death of someone we care about
the failure of a project
the end of a job
the departure of a colleague
becoming a parent
children leaving home
the success of our plans.

But so often, faced with a major opening, we hold back, clinging tightly to life as it was, held in place by our anxiety and by the force of our habits. We’re ashamed or afraid to know ourselves, and be known by others, in a new way.

Just look at the figures for lifestyle changes after heart attacks and strokes. You’ll see how many people don’t significantly change their way of living even when they’ve entered the biggest opening of all – an encounter with physical frailty and with death.

In order for breakdowns to become something, we have to give up our attempts to control life. And we have to give up our attempts to control the story we have about ourselves.

And in order to grow, we have to discover that it’s not our role to change life, but to allow life to change us.

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Admitting it

The last thing those of us who lead – and that’s most of us in one form or another – seem to want to do is to reveal our fear, our uncertainty, or what we don’t understand.

And it’s exactly what we all need most to do. Because it’s only when we do that we show up as human beings for others.

And it’s only when we’re human that we have a chance of leading at all.

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If you drive a modern, automatic car you can afford to be unaware of all the hidden inner workings that make it possible to move. You need know nothing about how fuel burns to create rapid expansion of hot gases, or how the resultant force is transferred into the turning of the wheels. You don’t have to know how the car shifts gears (or even, for most of the time, that there are gears at all). And you don’t need to know what a carburettor does, or even that such a thing exists.

You can assume, quite safely, that your car is straightforwardly a going-machine, that requires your guidance through wheels and pedals, and that’s about the sum of it.

All of this, of course, is rapidly called into question when you’re stranded on the side of the road with a breakdown. Many aspects of the car’s workings will be revealed to you, even if simply that you find out what it is that’s broken. And if you’re prepared to learn about what’s happened more deeply, you can open up whole worlds of possibility that were unavailable to you previously. Most notably you can give yourself the newfound capacity to get yourself moving again without waiting hours for an expert to assist you.

And, not surprisingly, most of life is like this.

In the face of a breakdown of some sort – an interruption to your plans or intentions, a disruption in the smooth, transparent workings of life – new aspects of the world are always revealed, if you’ll care to look. And new skills, which, if you took them up, would greatly expand your ability to take action. For some kinds of breakdown, whole new kinds of understanding of yourself and others appear.

But you can’t step into a breakdown if you pretend it isn’t happening, if you deny your anxiety, if you won’t admit that this difficulty is new and that you’re confused. Many of us, in fact, invest a lot of energy in avoiding the possibility that we’ll ever have to face a breakdown at all. Whole organisations orient themselves this way.

Of course, nobody can avoid breakdowns completely, no matter how hard we try. And it’s in them that our best opportunity to transform ourselves and our lives can be found.

If we can’t stay in the inevitable breakdowns life brings us, we greatly diminish our capacity to grow and to learn. As well as our capacity to respond wisely to all the difficulties that life, sooner or later, is bound to bring us.

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Values are not things

The values you’ve declared for your organisation are not things that you can put on your wall, or lock away in a safe. You don’t have them, and you can’t own them.

You can’t even, in all truthfulness, say ‘these are our values’. Because values are, more accurately, works-in-progress, ongoing commitments to something that can never be completed.

You don’t have fairness, dignity, compassion, justice, creativity, honesty or service. You bring them about, most importantly when they’re least in evidence, when they’re most challenged, when they’re most called most into question by the complexities and compromises of life. And in each moment of action they are already in the midst of disappearing again.

When you relate to values as things they become things. The objects of lip-service. Inert, lifeless, hardly practiced.

Remember instead that values are a state of affairs that you’re actively working to bring about. Then they’ll have a chance of remaining alive in your hands.

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That urge…

That feeling again. Perhaps you don’t even recognise it as a feeling. But, in response to whatever-it-is, there you are, reaching for your phone, for your computer, for whatever device will soothe you.

Email. Facebook. Twitter. The news headlines. Any of them will do it.

With this little fix done, the feeling subsides for a while and you get on with life. But it brings with it an odd feeling of shallowness; a disconnection from yourself and everything.

That feeling that might not even feel like a feeling is most probably some kind of anxiety. Anxiety at not being held by the world. Anxiety about not being safe. Anxiety about not being in control of everything. Anxiety at not being the centre of things. And the latest news, personal or impersonal and available to you at any moment, offers somehow a temporary relief.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you interrupted this habit (for habit it surely is), and dealt with the feeling a different way? Reached for a book – a novel, poems, science – something from which you could learn? Or for art? Or for pen and paper? Or for a person, with whom you could talk? Or just allowed yourself to feel it for a while?

Practiced over time, you might find yourself less drawn away from the world. And invited into your life in a new, more engaged and connected way.

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