What happens when you stop

Are you so busy because there’s so much to do?

Or are you busy because you can’t tolerate what you feel when you stop?

Yes. There’s a lot to do. There always is.

But there’s much to be said for cultivating your ability to feel your anxiety, longing, despair, sadness, and emptiness instead of launching into action all the time.

Because as long as the source of your action is running away or a means to fill a hole, it’s much harder than it needs to be do what genuinely matters. And – perhaps this might surprise you – it’s also much harder to feel the joy, satisfaction and fulfilment that comes with doing it.

So how about dedicating even a small amount of your time to letting things be? And to finding out what you’re running from?

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10 year celebration, 21st May, London

It’s ten years since I put down the tools of my former life (computer programming tools, mostly) to see what would become possible if I responded to an insistent, mysterious, and much more uncertain but genuine vocational call – attending to the possibility of human life more fully and genuinely lived through coaching, teaching, organisation development and writing.

And it was from this putting down and taking up that thirdspacethe organisation I founded, was born. For the past ten years we’ve committed ourselves to the development of others and, for the last seven, to teaching others to do, with as much integrity and skill as possible, the kind of work we love so deeply. It’s been a blessing to be surrounded by clients, teachers, colleagues, faculty and friends who embody such deep shared commitment to the repair of what’s broken in the world.

And to celebrate all of this we’re holding an evening workshop on Music and Vocation in London, at 7pm on 21st May, with the wonderful Dubravko Lapaine. Du was pursuing a PhD in mathematics when he heard and responded to a very different call. He’s now a highly talented and respected didgeridoo player. He’ll be with us for the evening, playing, in conversation, and exploring what it is to follow a vocational path of this kind.

As well as a celebration, and a chance to learn, it’s our first foray into the world of the arts. It’s been a long held ambition of mine to bring art, development, learning and music together.

Maybe some of you will join us.

I’d love that.

All the details are here.


Declaring Meaning

When we find out how much of the world is made up – by us – it’s tempting to pull everything apart. We pull apart institutions – because we see how groundless their authority is. We pull apart politics – because as we see more into the ordinary lives of our politicians we discover that they are ordinary and flawed like us, and we no longer have reason to simplistically trust either their intentions or their abilities. We pull apart relationships – because we don’t feel any reason to commit, beyond our moment-to-moment likes and dislikes. And we pull apart beliefs and practices that can bind us together.

This step – using reason to see through what we’d taken to be unquestionably true is in so many ways a necessary developmental step for each of us and for our society. Indeed, it’s the step that allowed us to discover science and its methods of rigorous, grounded inquiry. And it made it possible to undo the divine right of kings to rule over us, and to bring about democracy.

But it’s also so easily the route to nihilism: the move to render everything meaningless, everything pointless, everything disposable as we discover that the structures and stories and roles we used to trust were made up by other people. And, as the philosophers Kierkegaard and Nietzsche warned us, this ends up with us tearing meaning apart too, as we find out that what meaning we encountered in the world was only there because other people declared it anyway.

And so the next step important after undoing it all is to find out that it’s also within our power to put things back together, to declare meaning for ourselves. To find out that there are many kinds of truth, including those that take into account goodness and beauty as well as just reason. That out of the fragments of what we have taken apart, we can still choose practices, people, relationships, stories, commitments and vows to live by that invest life with purposefulness, care, and dignity.  And that this is possible, and necessary, in every sphere of life – in work, home, community and politics – specifically because we’ve found out that without it there is so little for us to stand on.

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Delight and relief this evening at earning my next kick-boxing belt – 5th grade, red-white.

For years I walked past the dojo at the end of my street, filled with unexamined judgements about the obviously aggressive, uncontained people who’d take up such a thoughtless and damaging sport. But over time I began to see how my criticisms arose mostly from a shadow part of myself about which I was in denial – a part that wants to rage, and act forcefully, that wants to express anger rather than hold it back, that does not want to be contained. A part of which I was afraid – both for its destructive power and for its capacity to upset the careful balance of my life so far.

And the more I saw this, the more I saw that kick-boxing could be a practice that would support me in undoing myself or, at least, undoing the very particular calm, held-together, gentle presence I’d cultivated both for public view and for myself. The immediate reaction of most people who are close to me – surprise, shock, and “that’s not like you” – showed me I was on to something. Because in all development, in all that we do to allow life to flow though us with less interruption, there’s quite some undoing to do, quite some getting out of the way.

And so it’s joyful to find myself in the midst of a regular practice that supports me in having the body of someone who can act with vigour, and with speed, and with power. A privilege to be subject to such rigorous standards so that earning a new belt stretches me, confronts me what I’m still struggling with, shows me with some surprise what I can do, and calls me onward. And a wonderful surprise to discover that far from being filled with thoughtlessness, this is a discipline taught by people who embody both great wisdom, and great love.

Deepening our difficulty

How much of the pain we cause others at work comes from our own unacknowledged pain?

How much do we wound others, because we feel wounded?

How much do we have others not be seen, because we do not feel seen ourselves?

And how much do we project our own harsh self-judgement so that we see others through a harsh lens rather than working to see ourselves, first, with more kindness?

Each time I’m told that work is not the place to address what’s personal, it seems clearer to me what a mistake this is. We have to learn to look at all this. And talk about it.

If treat work as if it isn’t a fully human affair, we deny ourselves the possibility of dealing skilfully with our difficulties. And if we use a shield of politeness and faux-civility to turn away from our own darkness, we shouldn’t be surprised that our workplaces continue to magnify and deepen our suffering. And nor should we be surprised how difficult it is to bring about the results, projects, and outcomes we wish for.

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People by numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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Pay attention

For all the current hype about mindfulness and meditation – the does-it work or doesn’t-it work, the neuroscience and the pseudoscience – at heart what’s at stake is our capacity to pay attention. What mindfulness practices show us most simply is quite how little attention most of us are paying to anything.

It’s our capacity to pay exquisite attention to thoughts and feelings that opens up the possibility of having them rather than being had by them. And this is the foundational difference between a certain kind of slavery and a certain kind of freedom.

Put another way, practicing paying attention purposefully and repeatedly over time (usually a long time) opens up the possibility of learning to respond to what you’re experiencing rather than reacting habitually to it.

And this is important because being stuck in repetitive habitual reactions is an enormous constraint on your capacity to engage – meaningfully, powerfully, purposefully, and compassionately – with the world.

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Over the past two weeks I’ve been involved in an exciting organisational listening project.

The set up: four groups of people from a single organisation, drawn from different teams and many levels of the organisational hierarchy, were given a full half day to just hear one another, in a very simple format inspired by Barry Oshry’s ‘Time Out of Time’ meetings.

Each person, regardless of status and regardless of role, had exactly the same amount of time to speak: eight minutes in our case. And they could say whatever they wanted, as long as it was true and as long as it was offered with sincerity. Politeness (saying what’s expected, what has us fit in and not trouble anything or anyone) was discouraged. And respect (doing others the honour of truthfully saying what you see so they can see it too) encouraged.

Everybody spoke, once. And everybody listened, many times.

As we did this, something very beautiful began to unfold. People told the story, some for the first time, of what it was really like for them to work where they do. Not the public story that’s been told a million times before. Not the official story. But the truer story of hopes and successes, friendships and support, genuine commitment to shared aims, and of many many difficulties. The frustration and overwhelm of emails and busyness. How little they often found themselves genuinely talking to one another. The hiding away and defensiveness. The fear of being judged or criticised. The assumptions and stories they had about each other’s failings, and about each other’s insincerity. The punishing shadow side of high aspirations that can rarely be fully realised.

And, as they talked, a new way of seeing began to emerge – a more systemic view, a more compassionate view, and a more accurate view in which the actions of one could be seen for their effect on the other.

It was a gift to be invited to participate in such a project, in an unusually courageous organisation that’s willing to invest time and resources in looking and talking in this way. In my experience of supporting many organisations over the past decade, such conversations are vanishingly rare.  So often, our wish to hurry on, to get busy, and to not have to encounter one another too deeply turns us away from the simplicity and power of such a conversation for relationship, in which we come to understand each others’ worlds enough to give us a chance to work skilfully together.

And yet conversations like these hold enormous power and possibility, because it’s only when we start to really understand our colleagues as human beings, with worlds of understanding and commitments different to our own, that we have a chance to move beyond simplistic judgements and rigidity into a more fluid, honest kind of relationship in which everyone has the chance to step forward and contribute.

All of that requires a particular kind of listening.

And it turns out that conversations for relationship are not some soft luxury, but the necessary background upon which our requests and promises come to mean something around which we can take coherent action.

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Declare it

When the Queen declares the UK parliament open, it’s open.

When your boss tells you you’re fired, or you’re hired, the declaration makes it so.

Although the power of a particular declaration depends upon who is speaking (just try declaring parliament open and see if anything happens…), we all have the capacity to declare. And while your declarations don’t have unlimited power they do have power.

I love you – a declaration of feeling, and of relationship.

This year I will… – a declaration of commitment.

I don’t want to do this any more… – a declaration of the end of a commitment.

I want… and I don’t want… – a declaration of preference.

I’m so sad – a declaration that reveals your inner state

Every declaration you make discloses your inner world to others, makes intentions and commitments known, and opens up or closes down possibilities. And, made sincerely, declarations have enormous potential to shape your engagement with the world.

And yet many people do not declare. We’d rather say ‘It’s important everyone is at the meeting on Tuesday’ (an assessment) than ‘I want you all to come to the meeting on Tuesday’ (which clearly declares our own part in what we’re saying). Or we’d rather hold back from saying ‘I love you’ or ‘I’m scared of what’s going to happen’ because we don’t know how others will react.

We hold back, because declaring puts us at risk.  And then we wonder why we seem to have so little sense of purchase on our lives.

By declaring you have to account for yourself, make yourself known. But if you want to participate, in any way, in authoring what happens in your life and in your work, starting to declare – clearly, often, with sincerity – is a vital step.

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Like and Dislike

Our preferences are formed from an early age. And it can be revelatory to find out how much they were formed by who and what was around us as we grew.

Our early family experiences, the time in history and culture into which we were born, who we had as friends, what happened to us at school – all of these were powerful shapers of what we each turned out to like and dislike.

Since our likes and dislikes manifest themselves most strongly and immediately as bodily sensations it quickly becomes invisible to us that we have preferences at all, and that they are just one way of relating to the world. One out of millions of others.

And all of this is a reason why it’s a necessary developmental step, for anyone who would lead or contribute in a profound way, to be able to move beyond doing things because we like them.

It’s our likes that keep us locked in busyness – because we can’t stand the feeling of not having anything to do. It’s our likes that have us pursuing more, more, more – because we can’t tolerate being with just what we have already. It’s our likes that hold us back from saying what’s true, because we don’t like what it feels like to stand out, or to risk, or to be disapproved of. It’s our likes that keep us at the centre of things – because we can’t stand not being needed. And it’s our likes that keep us defended against the world – demanding that we experience life in just the way we want it.

Stepping fully in and genuinely contributing to others requires that we take on a bigger possibility for ourselves. Which in turn means giving up engaging with the world as if what we liked and disliked were the primary way of deciding what’s worth doing.

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

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

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

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

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Perfect world

You want a perfect world.

You want a world in which you no longer have to experience longing or confusion. You want a world in which all your needs get met, all your desires.

You want a world in which you get to be peaceful, undisturbed – in which you don’t have to fight or disagree with others; or in which you know yourself always to be loved; a world in which you achieve unparalleled success and the recognition it affords; or a world in which your uniqueness is understood, treated always with respect and dignity.

You want a world that will teach you, in which you can pursue a topic uninterrupted to its very end; or a world in which you feel no fear, a world in which you can trust. You want a world which will allow you to do just what you want; or a world you can control.

All these wants, these hopes, the pursuit of which can carry you so far – and the pursuit of which can lock you in an unending cycle of desperation, resignation, comparison, cynicism and suspension (for, perhaps, you’ve decided that you cannot really live until you get what you want).

So perhaps as well as wanting to bring about a perfect world, you could also attend just as vigorously to learning how to live in the imperfect, messy, always incomplete world. A world where people won’t always show their love (but in which there is love, just the same). A world in which you will fail, repeatedly and painfully. A world which will not always seem to see you, and which cannot always reassure you. A world which will constrain you, and over which you cannot be in control. In short, a world just like the one in which we all live. And a world which, perhaps, alongside all your efforts to change or get away, you might find the possibility of loving, just as it is.

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We want our change to be public.

We want visions, new behaviours, stories, posters, internal PR strategies.

We want competency frameworks and snappy slogans – the three ‘C’s and the four ‘D’s.

We want our leaders to model it.

We want to cascade it, promote it, embed it, plan it.

We want buy-in, engagement, champions, fire-starters.

We want early wins. And charts of what is to come.

We want to overcome resistance.

We want change designed, predicted, and engineered.

We want to measure it, chart it, and progress it.

But sometimes – no, often – the change that turns out to matter to us is far from what we expected, and far from the world imagined by change managers and corporate roll-outs.

It happens quietly and gradually, through the living actions of many. It emerges and unfolds, like buds budding.

It comes about when we find new stories to tell one another or new people to talk with, new ways of listening and speaking, new ways of making sense, and new ways of practicing together.

And it cannot be planned in advance because it’s subversive – undoing our preconceptions and opening new worlds we could not imagine until they were upon us.

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2nd Birthday

Whether pride is considered to be a vice or a virtue has changed radically over time. Which it is depends largely on what you contrast it with.

In the middle ages, in Europe at least, the opposite of pride was humility. It was in this sense that it became known as a vice or a sin – an improper inflation of one’s self, a taking up of a position that was reserved only for God.

But in ancient Greece pride was held to be the opposite of shame. Pride, in its proper place, was a way of standing tall in one’s achievements, in appropriately valuing and honouring what it is that you have to bring to the world. Without pride, understood this way, we collapse into shadows of ourselves, holding back a contribution that, perhaps, nobody else will bring.

Today is the second birthday of this project, On Living and Working, and I am proud of what’s here so far. Writing these 655 posts has been illuminating, stretching, sometimes frustrating, and a daily practice of deep, heartfelt joy. And, it turns out, writing is a wonderful way to learn.

From those of you who have written back to me, or who I have met, I also get a sense of the meaning this work has had for others, and of its practical use in the world. I’m enormously grateful to the many hundreds of you read and who share what’s written here with people who are important to you.

It’s an enormous privilege to find that my voice in the world has an audience to whom it matters.

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Developing others – An opportunity to learn together in May

Change – in an individual life, in a work situation, in wider systems – can often be hard because, as I’ve argued previously, it usually requires a shift in both interpretation (the way we make sense of the situations we’re in) and practice (the recurrent actions we take that build familiarity and habit).

All too often, we find ourselves constrained by one or other of these and don’t know how to loosen them enough that we can step into bigger possibilities for ourselves. And, all too often, we’re called upon to help others and we don’t know what to bring them that will help.

But it is possible to learn to become skilful in all this. To become someone who can see into the situations of others with sufficient sensitivity, and who can bring fresh possibilities for interpretation and action with sufficient creativity, that something new can begin to open. A new freedom. A new way of making sense. A new kind of skilfulness in responding to the world.

This is the topic we’ll be taking up in May on the Coaching to Excellence foundation programme I teach a few times a year. We’ll be introducing integral coaching – a powerful approach for supporting the development of people in the ways that I’ve described above. And a topic that’s very close to my heart.

We’ll be in London on May 18-19, and there places still available.

All the details are here.

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Poetry to change your life

Can poetry change, or even save, your life?

More and more, I think it can, because poets – good ones at least – are doing something vital for us: finding a way of expressing in words that which is, ordinarily, almost impossible to express.

Good poetry can awaken us to parts of ourselves that we have long left dormant, or suppressed, or have forgotten. Poetry can give us language to welcome back those parts we deny, or of which we are afraid. And poetry can give us language with which to hope again, to have some kind of faith, especially when we lose our footing and see how shifting, transient, unpredictable, and shaky our lives can be.

If you’ve never encountered poetry this way (and many of us had poetry schooled out of us at school), a very good place to start is Roger Housden’s book Ten Poems to Change Your Life. Housden will guide you through poems by Pablo Neruda, Galway Kinnell and, my favourites, Mary Oliver and Derek Walcott. And along the way he’ll give you pointers about how to read, about how the poems can help you see your life and your work through new eyes, and about how you can use poetry to see others more fully and with a wider appreciation of the joys and pain of being human.

Images courtesy of Robert Montgomery

Five Books in Five Days (5) Seeing Systems

This week, five books that have the potential to profoundly change the way you understand yourself, others, and life.

I have mentioned Barry Oshry’s book Seeing Systems before, and I’m certain his work deserves a central place in the current Five Books in Five Days.

It’s rare to come across an account of the complexities, tangles, suffering and possibilities of organisational life that is written with such directness, wisdom and lightness of touch, and which offers such possibilities for finding a path through.

Seeing Systems asks us to look anew at our participation in organisational life. Most importantly, it asks us to see our difficulties – and in particular our difficultie with others – as a systemic rather than personal issue, and to respond in kind.

And, unlike many other approaches, Oshry does offer us skilful ways to respond. None of them are easy, and none of them are simple. He describes new ways of both interpreting and acting that can cut through our stuckness, resignation and cynicism.

And he outlines the possibility of working with others in ways that are more dignified and truthful than the blaming and self-aggrandising (or self-deprecating) positions we so easily take up.

“We humans are systems creatures.” he says. “Our consciousness – how we experience ourselves, others, our systems, and other systems – is shaped by the structure and processes of the systems we are in.”

“There is a tendency to resist this notion;” he continues. “We prefer seeing ourselves as captains of our own ships; we prefer the notion that we believe what we believe and think what we think because of who we are, not where we are. I will demonstrate how such thinking is the costly illusion of system blindness – an illusion that results in needless stress, destructive conflicts, broken relationships, missed opportunities, and diminished system effectiveness. And this blindness has its costs in all the systems of our lives – in our families, organisations, nations and ethnic groups.”

 I’d recommend it highly for anyone who leads (which, in one way or another, is all of us).

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Five Books in Five Days (4) The Three Marriages

 This week, five books that have the potential to profoundly change the way you understand yourself, others, and life.

There are three marriages in a human life, says David Whyte in his book of the same name. The first is a marriage – whether we call it marriage or not – to another person. The second is a marriage to a kind of work – whether we choose it, or it chooses us. And the third is the less visible, though no less important, marriage to the strange and shifting something we call our self. Each kind of marriage profoundly shapes us. And each can be a source of great dignity and meaning if we are willing to be patient and curious, and if we pay it the kind of exquisite attention it deserves.

The problem we most quickly get into, in the rush and bustle of our contemporary lives, is seeing each of these marriages as, in some way, at odds with the other. From this vantage point we must struggle always to get balance between competing forces – work is at the expense of the other, the other is at the expense of ourselves, attending to the self is at the expense of both work and relationship. And in this way we add to the sum of our suffering, because the only way out is to try to carve out more time for each, or to let one or more submerge beneath the demands of the other.

But there is another way, says Whyte. To separate the three marriages in order to balance them is to destroy the essence of all of them. Instead, we must lift our eyes to a bigger horizon and start to see how each informs the other.

“I especially want to look at the way that each of these marriages is, at its heart, nonnegotiable…” he says. We have to “start thinking of each marriage conversing with, questioning, or emboldening the other two… We can start to realign our understanding and our efforts away from trading and bartering parts of ourselves as if they were salable commodities and more toward finding a central conversation that can hold all of these three marriages together.”

By refusing to divorce work from relationship from self, Whyte describes a path that dignifies and ennobles all three. Filled with examples from his own life and from the life of artists, poets and novelists, Whyte’s book is beautiful and poetic from start to finish. And it has the power to radically shift the way each of us thinks about, and relates to, the foundational pillars of a human life.

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Five Books in Five Days (3) In Over Our Heads

This week, five books that have the potential to profoundly change the way you understand yourself, others, and life.

What does it mean to live in a world in which so much shifts and changes all the time? In which we’ve undone so many of the old certainties – the certainty of authority, the certainty of religion, the certainty of our family structures, the certainty of morality? For we have, over the past century or so taken many of these apart, in many cases for good reason.

This – the way in which we are, most of us, swimming in a sea of complexity to which we have little capacity to respond skilfully – is the starting question of Robert Kegan’s monumental book ‘In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life‘.

What does it mean that we live in a society in which we are, mostly, cognitively in ‘over our heads’? And how should we respond to the onslaught of advice – about parenting, education, management, work, good living – that comes our way in the midst of it?

Kegan, a professor of at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is one of the foremost contemporary thinkers about adult development, and it should be no surprise that his response in this book is strongly developmental. It is not enough, he says, to continue responding to the world from the same frame or stock of interpretations upon which we currently rely. Bigger, more inclusive, more complex interpretations are necessary, and these always require us to develop the complexity and nuance and reach of our thinking. All of which, he argues, is a developmental task.

Kegan lays out with clarity and precision the sequential developmental stages available to all of us, with many examples and much grounded, rigorous research. And he invites us into a bold project – living and working in a way that encourages us to deepen and broaden the complexity of our minds, our capacity to respond to uncertainty, and to paradox, and to the shifting, fluid nature of our times.

Mostly, he says, we’re not addressing this in our education system (which seems bent on teaching children how to pass tests but not how to learn, how to produce but not how to think or be creative), in our management and leadership education (which is fixated on behaviours rather than on developing complexity and responsiveness of thinking and action), in politics, and in how we parent. And, while he can offer no simple or easy path for addressing all this, he has much to show us that illuminates the possibility of cultivating a deeper, more skilful, more humane way of responding to the world.

A rigorous, stretching read, blending developmental psychology and philosophy, with acute observation about our society and what ails us, I think this book is essential reading for anyone who wants a more skilful, subtle response to the world than the latest fad or management-parenting-leadership technique. And vital for any of us who want to take more responsibility for the world in which we act, whether close in or in the leadership of bigger communities and organisations.

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Five Books in Five Days (2) The Great Work of Your Life

This week, five books that have the potential to profoundly change the way you understand yourself, others, and life.

‘Discover your true purpose’ they tell me, ‘and everything will be well. A life of effortless ease, happiness, and joy beckons.’

Some go further and include the promises of financial reward and security too.

I’ve long thought such promises to be rather empty and hollow. Yes, sometimes it works out this way for people. But often when we find something approximating a ‘purpose’ that moves us, we find it takes us away from any kind of easy certainty. It might have us give up possessions, relationships, and a tried and trusted sense of personal identity in order to respond to something new and alive.

More often, our attempts to work out what kind of purpose might fit us turn up little of note. We draw on the same old stock of possibilities handed to us by our families or education, and nothing seems to fit. In this case, we’re struggling because in a way we have it the wrong way around. We’re approaching ‘purpose’ as a way of getting what we want from life – an easy life, a happy life, a secure life – rather than asking what life wants from us. It’s when we turn towards life this way that it becomes possible, for the first time, to listen for a future that meets our uniqueness, responds in a more open and wholehearted way towards the world, and gives us a chance to contribute.

‘Purpose’, then, or ‘calling’, becomes an opportunity to discover what the world is asking for, and mustering a suitably creative and life-giving response.

Stephen Cope’s book ‘The Great Work of Your Life‘ is a practical guide to all of this, in particular to what it takes to create the conditions in life from which a calling or purpose can be heard and responded to. The conditions in which we can respond to our deep desires and fears. The conditions in which we learn, as Thomas Merton so eloquently put it, that holding back what is in us ultimately destroys us; and that bringing forth what is within us has the capacity to save, in many profound ways, our lives.

The book is filled with examples of both well-known and more ordinary people who found themselves called to do something beyond their original conception of life, and many suggestions for reflection and practice. And it’s well placed for anyone who is opening to the idea that there’s something profound and important worth doing with our lives, beyond the narrowly conventional ways we’ve defined ourselves.

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Five books in five days (1) How We Are

This week, five books that have the potential to profoundly change the way you understand yourself, others, and life.

“You keep saming when you ought to be changing”
Lee Hazlewood, ‘These Boots Are Made for Walkin’

We live our lives by treading beaten paths, hardly aware of how we are held the same by the bodily force of habit, the stories we tell about ourselves, the familiarity of our possessions and houses and workspaces, and the expectations of those near to us.

Vincent Deary’s wonderful book, How We Are, charts this territory with lucidity, clarity, and humour.

“We live in small worlds…” he says, “… and, usually, we prefer to maintain ourselves in the status quo, in comfort and predictable ease. It takes a lot to get us out of that – a compelling call, an overwhelming imperative. Or maybe we were pushed. But sometimes it happens.”

“We are creatures of habit,” he continues, “and we live in worlds small enough for us to come to know their ways and to establish familiar ways within them. Unless we are uneasy, unless something disturbs us from within or without, we tend to work to keep things the way they are.”

The first of a promised trilogy, How We Are charts the many ways in which we keep our lives within familiar constraints, and offers a path for opening and responding to the call of a bigger world.

It is enormously valuable reading for anyone who wants to understand themselves – and others – with increased insight and humanity. And a huge gift for any of us who want to chart a course into our own futures with more depth and responsiveness to life than offered by the slew of technique-oriented, brain-obsessed self-development books that fill the market.

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We deserve better

And so the skilful move is to find a way to meet what the world is calling for, and what the world is offering you, with interpretations that are big enough, and generous enough. It’s each of our responsibility to find narratives, and the practices that go with them, that allow us to step forward and contribute.

Anything less – stories about yourself that are too small, or too cynical – has you hold back what only you can bring.

The world, and the rest of us, deserve much better than that.

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The truth in our practices

Stepping into a new narrative for yourself – a new interpretation of events that can be more truthful and open a bigger space of possibility – requires, as I’ve written here and here in recent days, that you also take on practice.

It’s the combination of a story that has explanatory power and the skilfulness to enact it that brings about a new world to inhabit.

It can easily look as if the necessary first step is the new story – a new way of explaining things. But it’s equally the case that it’s the taking on of new practices that can open up a world and allow you to discover new kinds of truth within it.

As long as you’re sure that someone else won’t listen to you, you’re silent around them. But it may be your very remaining silent that’s giving you grounds for seeing things this way. How much chance does she have to listen while you, certain of your story, are not speaking up?

As long as you’re convinced that your work isn’t worth much, you hold back, speak hesitantly, make tentative offers to others that they, in turn, respond to without much enthusiasm. When you act this way, how much opportunity does the world have to respond to what you have to bring?

As long as you’re certain that the world is a dangerous, unforgiving place you triple lock your door and hide fearfully behind it. From behind your closed door you deny yourself the possibility of experiencing the world as it is. How can you possibly find out, with this set of practices, how different the world might be from the way you imagine it?

Our stories and interpretations are like that. It’s difficult to imagine our way out of them as long as we are actively sustaining them through the way we speak, listen, and act.

Often, then, the skilful move is to begin by taking on new practices that have the possibility of bringing a about a new and more truthful story. Start to experiment with speaking up. See what happens as you make bolder, more generous, more confident offers. Open the doors and begin to step outside to find out what the world is actually like.

As your skill in each of these deepens, your understanding of the world deepens too.

Find out the worlds that come into being as you practice speaking out, expressing yourself, participating in community, extending help to others, creating, being very still, listening, stretching, standing tall, offering, asking, declaring, exercising, dancing, thinking clearly, teaching, belonging…

In each case it’s the new practice that brings you into new encounter with the world. And it’s from here, if you’re prepared to keep going, that a whole new understanding can emerge.

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