Organisations, projects, and our capacity to forget our own humanity

You may know the story of the Tower of Babel. A whole generation of people, those who have grown up after a world-devastating flood, conspire together to build a sky-tower like none ever seen before and are punished and dispersed across the world for their hubris and arrogance.

Our hubris, problematic? Yes, when it dislocates us from the rich biological and social world of which we are an indivisible part, when we over-extend ourselves in pursuit of our wants with no heed to the consequence and impact.

But the story itself is problematic if taken as a caution against human boldness and creativity, because these are the very qualities we most need in order to bring about a world in which we can all live.

It is our capacity to imagine, to invent, and then to act in cooperation with others that have brought about medical, technological, social and political advances that have transformed the quality of life for billions. Confidence in our ability, acted upon with due consideration of the wider world, is no compromise of our humanity but a dignified and important expression of it.

In an imaginative retelling from the 1st century work of Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, there are no stones available to build the tower, and so thousands of people are marshalled to bake bricks until the construction is some miles high. Those with new bricks climb the tower on the eastern side, and those who descend go down on the western side.

Sometimes a person climbing up or down falls. When a person drops to their death, nobody notices. But when a person falls with a brick the workers sit down and weep, not for the life lost but because they do not know when another brick will come in its place.

In this interpretation the compromise to our humanity comes not through building itself, but through the way in which we build. Or, said another way, our projects can bring about great changes in the material world at the same time as they bring about great changes in our social and inner worlds. We are inevitably shaped both by what we do and by the manner in which we do it.

The danger here is not that we hope and dream and build and make and create. The danger that Eliezer is so keen to point out to us is that we easily do so without paying sufficient attention to the kind of people we are becoming through the doing. We become means-to-an-end, objects, ‘it’ instead of ‘I’, ‘it’ instead of ‘you’.

In this reading the story of Babel is a reminder of our endless capacity to forget ourselves and others as human beings even as we pursue our most human of goals.

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Turning away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On Play

I am on my way home from an evening of joyful, experimental playfulness. Ten people, mostly unknown to one another, gathered together by a friend and colleague for an evening of games inspired by the world of comedy improvisation.

We’ve laughed, talked, experimented, and experienced some moments of surprising light and tenderness. And now, done, we head off into the damp London night.

I’m struck by how little space genuine play has in many of our lives, and particularly how absent it is in most workplaces. Since the days of the industrial revolution we have largely thought of work as a place of utmost seriousness. We have play progressively schooled out of ourselves by an education system obsessed with predictability and measurement. We’ve relegated it to the margins, thought of it as a distraction, boxed it in to prescribed spaces and times – away days, workshops.

Our most productive, inventive, connected and generative moments come when we abandon our pretensions and tendency to over-think and allow ourselves to be playfully drawn out of ourselves by situations and by others. Such play has enormous restorative power, bringing us back to the aliveness of our bodies and the richness of our interactions with others.

It seems we’d rather ignore the signs of our own stiflement – boredom, tiredness, fogginess and stress – and plough on with our processes and structures even when they no longer serve us. Seriousness has become equated with professionalism, play with taking liberties.

And, yes, play is the taking of liberties – a necessary act of freeing ourselves from our rigidity so that something surprising and fresh and alive can happen.

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What ought to be

“It’s different. It’s not like it used to be.”


“She’s different. She’s not like she used to be.”

Perhaps so.

When you’re so sure that the world, groups you’re part of or people changed in ways you don’t like (or find difficult to make sense of) it’s tempting to want to fix them, to pus them back into a form that’s familiar. This is the way of complaint, of resentment, of dissatisfaction, of judgement.

And it locates all the responsibility far away from you.

But maybe what’s happened is you’re not like you used to be.

If you were prepared to entertain the possibility that you’re the one who’s different now – that you’ve developed or grown or shifted in some way, or maybe that you’ve momentarily lost touch with something that used to be important to you – what would it open up to you?

Maybe a new kind of curiosity. Perhaps a new kind of acceptance. And maybe some new ways of engaging with what is rather than an outdated idea of what ought to be.

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No to yourself

An early and necessary step in taking care of your own development is being able to say no to yourself, especially the part of you that acts unreflectively and habitually to soothe you, calm you, or keep things familiar.

No to snapping at others when you’re overstretched or feeling stressed
No to reaching for your email or phone when you’re anxious
No to saying ‘yes’ every time someone wants you to get involved
No to over-stretching yourself in your attempts to feel of use
No to keeping quiet when there’s something to be said
No to taking control the moment others wobble or make a mess
No to calming down all the conflicts so you can keep the peace
No to being right so that everyone else can be wrong
No to getting busy and busier when you’re feeling uncertain
No to ignoring your body’s demands that you rest or take care
No to the inflated, twisted, out-dated demands of the inner critic

Each of these habits acts to keep the world in a recognisable configuration. Each sustains an identity – a story about yourself that you come to rely upon and which you present to others. And each fixes the horizons of the world so that not too much can surprise you (least of all your own unrealised capacity to respond in fresh, creative and unforeseen ways).

And all of this is why, if you want to attend to your development, saying no to yourself is an early step, so that over time you’re able to reach for a more expansive and responsive yes.

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Who you work with matters

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 work with matters, more than you might know.

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New moon

It’s a new moon tonight.

Did you know?

Did you notice?

How much do you let the cycles of the natural world touch you, shape you?

Is there a cycle to your months? Your years?

Are you different in summer, autumn, winter?

Is your work different?

Do you do anything to respond to the changing energy of the seasons?

Do you demand that you, and maybe those around you, act as if constant, uniform: dependably busy, dependably productive, dependably dependable?

Or can you allow yourself the kindness – and the aliveness – to be someone with cycles and seasons of your own?

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To trust is to risk

Trust is easy to misunderstand.

The most common mistake is to say “I’ll only trust when I know you’re trustworthy”. But this is trust without risk. Trust without putting yourself on the line. Trust as a demand. Trust without trust.

Genuine trust does not come about this way. Instead, it’s brought into being by your courage, openness, and willingness to risk that things won’t work out the way you hoped. Genuine trust requires you to not know how things are going to go. It can never be a demand, but must be an invitation to act, and an invitation to keep talking when things don’t work out as you’d hoped. More than anything else, genuine trust is an invitation into a relationship that you’re committed to even when things go wrong.

When you offer trust, but only on condition that nothing is placed at risk, can you say that you’re really inviting trust at all?

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The difficulty of changing a culture

One of the reasons that culture change is often so difficult is that we see it as a change of behaviour without understanding that it always involves the capacity to change our habits. And this is itself no trivial matter.

The capacity to change habits requires more than a list of new behaviours to take up, a set of new processes, or even a compelling story about the change that’s needed and what it might bring about – although each of these can surely help.

We also have to learn:

  • how to loosen our grip on our familiar way of being, acting and speaking
  • how to tolerate anxiety (because this is how it almost always feels to let go of a way of being we’ve become familiar with)
  • how to deal with our own inner criticism and deflation when things don’t go the way we’re expecting
  • how to practice new skills, and stay dedicated to our practice over time
  • how to listen, speak, and make powerful requests (so that we can address interruptions and breakdowns to our intentions as they arise)

All of these are developmental tasks that support us in moving away from our habitual reactivity and into the kind of openness and responsiveness that’s required whenever we want to bring about a lasting change.

It’s time we helped ourselves by taking the developmental aspect of organisational change seriously. As long as we see it as just a shift in behaviour, and ignore the shift in our collective development and skilfulness that’s also required, we’re going to keep on adding difficulty to what’s quite difficult enough already.

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This evening I settle down to read, and then to sleep.

But my mind is restless, active, thoughts crashing in on one another. Everything is interrupting everything else. I’m whirling from one thing that needs doing to the next. Emails ignored demand attention. Projects unfinished. Shame arises, and harsh inner criticism. I’m caught by all the ways I’ve been inattentive, by everything that is still undone.

I cannot read. And I cannot sleep while I’m in the grip of this.

But there’s a pattern in all this chaos, and in seeing the pattern is part of its undoing. I’m longing. Longing for peace. Longing for everything to be ok. Longing to be free of imperfection, of incompleteness, of uncertainty. Longing to be home. 

And I have made an error – one which I imagine most of us make, often – in thinking that the way home is to get it all done, tie up all the loose ends, attend to everything and everyone. I am sure that I can be at home only when I have met all of the world’s demands, when I am perfect. And I should not be surprised my mind is so active, so frenetic, so critical, filled with so much confusion. It seems there is so far to go and, whatever I do, home feels just as far away as it was.

In this way, I keep myself far from myself, far from any sense of peace.

The antidote? Learning that I am home already, in every moment, in every place, no matter what still needs doing. That I do not need to pursue anything to be there. That home is not at the end of a list of tasks. Nor is home an empty email inbox. Home is not a finished project, or the recognition of others.

Being home does not require the completion or achievement of anything.

Home is always here.

Thich Nhat Hanh offers a simple practice to remind us of this. Breathing in, “I have arrived”. Breathing out, “I am at home”. In, “I have arrived”. Out, “I am at home”.

And perhaps, unsurprisingly, when I remember that I am home in every place and in every moment, when the world and life becomes my home, so much more becomes possible.

Including reading. And including sleep.

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Subtracting or adding to beauty

I have written before about the wonder that is Daniel Landinsky’s book A Year With Hafiz, 365 glorious, generous and searingly honest poems based on the 14th-century poet’s work.

In the poem for 19th October is this line…

“We subtract or add to our beauty with each movement and sound.”

… which has me wondering what it would be like to live and work with this in mind.

What possibilities would we bring into being if we took the beauty of everything seriously? If we paid careful and close attention in each moment to our addition to the sum total of beauty in the world, what creativity would we bring? What freedom? What dignity?

And in our blindness to this question (taking beauty to be the domain only of artists or designers rather than a project of everyday living and working) what beauty are we, without knowing it, subtracting from the world and from ourselves?

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The work of trust and understanding

Until you dedicate yourself sufficiently to conversations for relationship, your criticisms, judgements, suggestions and requests will have nowhere to land.

Without a background of sufficient relationship it does not matter how well-intentioned you are, how insightful, how right. What you have to say is likely to be at best meaningless, at worst experienced as an attack.

It’s extraordinary how, in many places, we have decided that we’re only working when we’re getting ourselves or others to do things, or when we’re setting each other straight.

We could do with remembering that we’re also working when we’re taking care of trust and understanding, both of which are the foundations upon which almost everything else becomes possible.

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Bad choices

A wonderful line from this week’s episode of Doctor Whowhich reminds me that the proper response to difficulty, confusion and anxiety is not to turn away, but to turn in:

“Sometimes there are only bad choices…

… But you still have to choose.”

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Relationship is action in the making

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We all know how that turns out.

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All the dead ends

All the dead ends, the missed opportunities, the failings, the distractions – yes, these could be proof of your inadequacy. Yes, you could be right that your judgement is poor, you’ve missed your moment, and that it’s time to accept you’ll never be somebody.

But perhaps you could allow yourself to consider another possibility – that the life you think you’re meant to be living is not your life at all. That the dead ends, the missed opportunities, the failings and the distractions were all what it took to get you exactly here, right where you’re supposed to be. That your definitions of what it is to be somebody are only your definitions, not an enduring truth about what it is to be of value. And that what you’re here to do is really not yours to decide, but to listen for.

The world is whispering its call to you always.

When will you give up your pursuit of somebody else’s life, the life that never was nor could be, and turn towards the life that only you have been given and that only you can live?

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On Action


I’ve been slowly reading Hannah Arendt’s remarkable book The Human Condition, an exploration of the possibilities of human action as relevant today as it was on publication some 50 years ago.

She was born on this day in 1906.

Of the many striking themes in the book (which itself is a complex, challenging and enormously thought-provoking read) is human freedom, about which I have been writing extensively here over the past 18 months.

For Arendt, freedom is the quintessential mark of humanity. Despite our tendency to fall into habitual and predictable routines, to constrain ourselves in our attempts to look good or follow the crowd, what is always available to us is the possibility of novel action. We can always, she tells us, initiate some new action that has never been tried before. Of course, we cannot ever really know its consequence – the endless chain of further actions that we will begin. But it is our human responsibility to act – to not go to sleep to ourselves – and then to act again in order to deal with the consequences of our acting in the first place.

And each of us brings in to the world our particular uniqueness – a way of acting that’s possible simply because we are here, and because although we are like every other human being we are simultaneously unlike any human being who has lived before.

Arendt’s work is a vital reminder of our responsibility, always present as human beings, to take responsibility for the condition of our lives, our work, our organisations, our society.

“The new always happens against the overwhelming odds of statistical laws and their probability, which for all practical, everyday purposes amounts to certainty; the new therefore always appears in the guise of a miracle. The fact that man is capable of action means, that the unexpected can be expected from him, that he is able to perform what is infinitely improbable. And this again is possible only because each man is unique, so that with each birth something uniquely new comes into the world.” — from The Human Condition


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How ambitious can you be?

I wrote recently about how our work is profoundly shaped by the telos or end-point towards which we point our practices. Teaching, parenting, leading, business, law, writing, art, coaching, politics – each have more or less appropriate end-points. The telos towards which we aim has much to do with whether we ever discover the rich seam of skilfulness, artistry, practicality and contribution that our practices and efforts make possible.

As well as the appropriateness of the telos for the practice concerned, you can also think about the ambition or scale towards which you’re aiming.

Teaching is one kind of activity if the telos is bringing about an enlightened, educated society; and a very different kind if the telos is looking good or being at the top of a performance chart.

Business is one kind of activity if the telos is serving others and making new ways of living or relating or work possible; and quite another if the telos is having a big bank balance.

It’s not that performance or money are unimportant here. But the ultimate end towards which you aim your practices can have a huge effect both on what’s possible and what kind of person you get to be in the midst of acting upon them.

One way of thinking about this is that you can aim your practices towards end-points of different size.

You could choose an end point that is primarily concerned just with you (looking good, having lots of money, being liked, making a name); or one that includes you but also adds people you care about (your family, your company, your community); one that includes both of these and adds the society in which you live; or one that in some way addresses all of these and adds the needs of the world as a whole.

And, ultimately, you can choose a telos for any practice that, if you wish, is aimed towards life itself, which necessarily includes all the previous categories.

And if we were prepared to be that ambitious in our businesses, organisations and personal lives, we’d take into account wholly new categories of concern about which we’re, mostly, hardly thinking right now.

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Sage advice for difficult times

When I’m in the midst of difficulties, it’s easy to come up with self-reinforcing justifications for my ongoing sadness, or fear, or despair – all of which are often a way of simply keeping the situation going.

It’s in times like these that I find these sage words from Merlin, in T.H.White’s The Once and Future King, such a powerful reminder that there are alternative, and much more life-giving, paths available to each of us:

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin… “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then – to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you.

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Tracking aliveness

How seriously do you take the aliveness of your conversations? Your meetings?

When you don’t pay attention to aliveness,you can easily find yourself in the midst of a conversation that’s long since dead. You go through the motions, doing what one does, nodding and agreeing or arguing and debating, long after aliveness left the room.

Perhaps you do this most of the time. Do you even know?

When you engage in dead conversations, you’re causing yourself trouble in all kinds of ways.

(1) It’s much more effort. Do you have any idea how much energy and force it takes to carry a person that’s become rigid and immobile? Conversations are like this too.

(2) You poison your own whole-heartedness and commitment. Trying to stay in a dead conversation brings about a toxic cycle of attrition in which you wear away your good intentions and capacity to contribute.

(3) You smother your ability to discern what’s important. Aliveness and mattering go hand in hand, and as you head deeper into dead conversations you’re strengthening your ability to keep on doing what doesn’t really matter.

Dead conversations can span minutes, weeks, or years.

And yet we seem to accept them as the norm in many situations.

Much can be freed up when we pay attention to this, when we track aliveness as we go, and call out to ourselves and others as soon as we notice that a conversation died so that we can find another path rather than ploughing on.

Because we’re so used to accepting dead conversations, particularly in work, this can take some courage.

But it’s necessary, because we all have important work to do.

And none of us can afford the cost of sleep-walking into the dead zone as often as we do.

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At some point we need to move beyond saying things the way we see them and learn to find words that other people can understand. There is an art – cultivated only through practice, sensitivity and careful observation – to finding words that can reach deeply into the worlds of others.

But it’s not enough to know what’s the right thing to say, though this is itself hard enough.

We also have to know when to say it.

Until we cultivate our skill and sensitivity in matters of timing we will repeatedly say the right thing at very much the wrong moment. Without good timing we speak when we cannot be heard or, worse, we insist on speaking at a moment when others will get hurt, when our words cause outrage or confusion, and when our well-meaning efforts hinder others.

Learning good timing is also an art cultivated through practice, sensitivity, and careful observation. We have to learn what actually happens when we speak might be quite different from the intent of our speaking or what we imagine happens.

It’s all to easy to console ourselves with ‘I was only trying to help’ while at the same time failing to spot that because of our timing we are not helping at all.

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Learning together

Every couple of months I teach a two-day foundation programme in integral coaching in London. The next one is coming up soon – 1st-2nd December 2015.

It’s such a joy to teach this programme, and people who attend often say how much practical value they gain from attending, as well as a deeper insight into themselves and what makes their own development possible.

I’ll look forward, perhaps, to meeting some of you there.

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We could do, once in a while, with remembering that all we’ve taken to be solid, and all we’ve used to shore ourselves up against the riskiness of life, is hardly as solid as it seems.

Our homes, so sturdy, can be swept away by earthquake or flood, war or uprising.

Our money, so secure, can disappear in financial turmoil or upheaval.

Our position in society, in an organisation, undone both by our actions and by the stories of others.

Our health, undone in an instant by a virus, a bacterium, a clot unmooring itself.

Perhaps if we do this, just once in a while, it will help us to see again as human all the millions and billions of others who have lost this kind of security themselves. Perhaps it will awaken us to compassion, knowing that each one of them is just another one of us.

Perhaps if we do this, just once in a while, it will help us to cling less tightly, to be more accepting of life’s twists and turns – that what is had can be lost, and what is lost can be gained, and that life is a never-ending process of change. And in doing this, perhaps we’ll be able to be a little less self-obsessed, and turn a little more genuinely and in deeper connection and care to all those around us.

Perhaps if we do this, just once in a while, we’ll have our eyes awakened to the miracle of whatever it is that we do have, whatever it is that we find we can truly rely on, and we’ll find a way of undoing our sense of entitlement and our sense of resentment at life’s unfairness.

Perhaps if we do this, just once in a while, we’ll have a better chance of living with a sense of gratitude for what is, and the possibility of dedicating ourselves to the welfare of everyone rather than desperately clinging on with only ourselves in mind.

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Our habits feel just like us

Our habits (which are our way of being automatic) feel very familiar to us – in our bodies, in our emotions.

Said another way, when we act habitually is also when we most often feel like ourselves.

Perhaps you know yourself as the irritable one, or the one who makes a joke out of things, as always just a little bit late, or as someone who can charm others. Maybe you know yourself as assertive and pushy, someone who’ll always get angry, or as the one who makes sure everyone is taken care of at the expense of what’s good for you. Each of them, whether helpful or not, is a habitual way of being that you keep going perhaps because it’s the way you’re able to feel like you.

So it should be no surprise your development – making the move away from habit towards responsiveness – means loosening your grip on what’s familiar and feeling some measure of confusion, disorientation, and anxiety.

And that this is what development always entails – allowing ourselves to feel unsure, a little shaky, to not know ourselves – so that we can do what’s called for, not just what feels familiar.

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What your judgements reflect

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

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

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

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

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When it’s your turn

I love Seth Godin’s work. In many ways it was reading first his blog, and later his books, that inspired my commitment to writing. The Icarus Deception has been particularly influential for me.

Seth’s work helps people make the contribution they’re here to make – making a noise, making trouble where it needs to be made, making a difference.

His latest book “What To Do When It’s Your Turn” is available for order now. I haven’t read it yet, but I think it’s likely to be fabulous.

I wanted to make sure you got a chance to hear about it. You can find out more about the project here.

What to Do When It’s Your Turn from Seth Godin on Vimeo.

Just One Day


What if for just one day

… you speak and listen, with singular attention, to the people closest to you.

… you reflect deeply on your life – what you’re aiming towards, what has you forget it, what brings you back to yourself.

… you pay attention to the finitude of your life – that it will, one day and who knows when, end.

… you begin a new practice that’s been important to you – learning something for the first time, writing, creating something that matters.

… you ask yourself the big questions you’ve been avoiding for so long.

… you put aside all your daily distractions and see what it’s like to fully inhabit your life.

What if, instead of living an endless stream of days with the same routine you took one day to do one of these?

What if it led to another, and in time, another?

What would it change, do you think, in your relationships, in your work, and in choices you make?

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The end point of what you’re doing


For Aristotle, the proper way to approach any practice or activity is to do so with its right end in mind. Every practice has its proper aims and goals, a telos or end-point towards which it is oriented.

So the telos for doctoring is to bring about the health of patients, and to relieve suffering.

The telos for teaching is the education of students, both in their capacity to know and their capacity to act wisely upon what they know.

The telos for parenting is the development of adults who can live fully in their lives, contribute and participate in wider society.

The telos for lawyering is the pursuit of justice.

Acting skilfully in the midst of any practice requires that we discover or locate for ourselves the right telos and point our activities in that direction.

All too often we stunt our own capacity to excel by pointing our practice towards a telos which is out of place, or too small, or much too self-centred. We point our businesses towards hitting this quarter’s targets rather than making an enduring contribution; we point our parenting towards behaviour that’s convenient for us rather than our children’s development; we teach in order to get the grades rather than helping others become learners; we lead others in a way that has them follow rules and procedures rather than taking responsibility. And we do this because because we’re afraid, or trying to look good, or because we’ve forgotten why we entered into a path in the first place.

All of this is both a matter of discernment (what’s called for here?) and remembering (because we forget ourselves and what we’re aimed at so quickly and so easily).

When we know deeply the particular end towards which we are aiming, we open up the possibility of acting with wisdom and discernment in the many complex, ambiguous situations we are bound to face. And our dilemmas and difficulties become the opportunity to ask ‘how could I act in a way that points towards the right end for this practice?’ – a clarifying question that is often difficult to answer well but gives us a path, each time, through our confusion and uncertainty, and towards the sustainable excellence for which we long.

This, in the end, is the single most importance difference between being practical (just getting things done) and exercising practical wisdom (getting things done in the right way).

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

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

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

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

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

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