Seth Godin, Rojan Rajiv, William Defoe

An inspiration for my nearly three years of writing On Living and Working has been Seth Godin, who has been publishing daily for over a decade and who is such an invitation to bring our creative possibilities to the world. It was Seth’s book, The Icarus Deception, which convinced me it was time to stop imagining myself as a writer, and instead start to write. I’m extraordinarily grateful to him for that.

It’s for this reason that I’m continually interested in the work of others who take the step to share their learning and experience with us in an ongoing way – those who are prepared to risk enough to be our teachers and our guides. 

Today I want to share two such people with you.

One is Rojan Rajiv, currently an MBA student at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Rojan’s Learning a Day blog is wide ranging and insightful, and I marvel at his optimism and his abundant curiosity about the world. Rojan’s commitment to teach us what he’s learning himself, and his clear, big-hearted writing, offer thought provoking, pragmatic, and often extremely useful insights. 

Another is William Defoe, whose work I’ve been following for many months now as he explores his struggles and ideas on identity, suffering, truth, sexuality, and the work of finding a home in the world when the public stories by which others know us differ profoundly from the private stories.

What William is doing, it seems to me, is an act of real generosity – describing from the inside the experience of discovering, anew, how to live. I found this recent post, on his deepening understanding of the inseparability of his mind and body, both moving and courageous, particularly when read in the light of earlier posts that recount the story of his awakening understanding of himself as a gay Catholic man inside a long-term marriage. I know there are many people in the world who’d be greatly supported by knowing that they’re not alone in the questions William is exploring.

As well as the writers above I’ve also been following educator Parker Palmer and musician Amanda Palmer (as far as I know they’re not related) who both have so much to say, in very different ways, about our tenuous, beautiful existence as human beings. 

There are of course many millions of other people doing the work of writing, exploring, and making themselves vulnerable and available – to all of our benefit – by teaching us through what and how they write. 

And as this year ends, I’m keenly aware of what a privilege it is to live in a time where it’s possible to write and share ideas and experience so freely and so widely.

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On the economic narrative, and its limits

Behind any life, and any society, are numerous background narratives that give us a sense of who we are, who other people are, and what’s possible for us. They tell us how we can live, what’s of value, and how to relate to one another. And they tell us what’s important to pay attention to, and what’s marginal.

Sometimes the background narratives are visible and explicit in a family or community, such as the way in which biblical narratives give a sense of belonging and orientation to people who are part of some religious communities. But most often – even when there are visible and explicit narratives available – the narratives we actually live by are invisible, and we see them clearly only as an outsider entering a society for the first time, or when the narrative runs into trouble and starts producing unintended consequences.

For the last century or so in the West, we’ve lived in a background narrative that’s directed our attention most strongly towards what’s measurable, particularly what’s financially measurable, and has discounted almost everything else. The bottom line, financial return on investment, this quarter’s results – all have been taken for what’s ‘real’.

And at the same time, we’ve considered what’s not measurable largely ‘unreal’ – the quality of our inner lives, our relationships with others, supportive and close-knit communities, the care we give and receive, our capacity to nurture and appreciate beauty. We can’t pay much attention to these, we say, because in the ‘real world’ there are tough business decisions to make. There are profits to be made.

I’m not arguing that profit is somehow unreal, while beauty and care are real. That would be an equally narrow way of looking at the world. But it’s becoming clearer and clearer how our narrowness – our failure to appreciate and include all dimensions of human life in our businesses, institutions, and in our public discourse – is wreaking havoc in our present and seriously limiting our capacity to respond to the complexity of the future we’re creating. The shocking rise of inequality in even the richest of the worlds societies, the shaking of our financial systems, our seeming inability to respond creatively to climate change – all ought to have ourselves asking whether what we take to be unquestionably true about how to live is, really, deeply questionable.

We urgently need to expand our horizons – to start to take seriously that which we’ve marginalised in the relentless colonisation of all aspects of human life by the narrative of economics.

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Hard, and essential

Relationships that fall apart because we won’t talk about what’s happening in them.

Business difficulties that intensify – at great personal and financial cost – because we’re afraid to look directly at them and have a conversation with the other people involved.

Learning, and teaching, undermined because we’re more committed to avoiding feeling uncomfortable.

Possibilities missed and progress denied because we insisted on speed at the expense of good conversation.

Patients subjected to unpleasant and hopeless treatments because we’re terrified of talking about dying.

Connection with others missed because we’re too afraid to be open with them.

How hard it can be, and yet how essential it is, to find out that almost everything in the human world is solved by, brought about by, and made more alive by talking and listening.

It’s hard, because we all have layers of defence against encountering our own vulnerability – our capacity to be wounded by our openness to others, and to be touched by it. And it’s essential because no process, procedure, technique or tool – no turning away from one another – can ever hope to make up for this most simple, most powerful, and most life giving of human acts.

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Longing, it seems to me, is one of the givens of a human life.

What we long for changes – somewhere else to live, a walk in the mountains, fulfilling work, a friend, or a lover, family, peace, the return of someone or something we lost, a place where we can be home. But longing itself is a constant, born of our capacity to imagine and dream better futures for ourselves and those around us.

It’s a mistake, then, to long for a life in which longing itself is absent. Better, instead, to live fully in the knowledge that longing and life are inseparable.

And although longing, and its tender sadness, is inescapable, it can be softened by gratitude – for the life we’ve been given, for the people around us, for the air we breathe, for the opportunity to think and talk and question and strive, for the possibility of longing itself.

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A calendar like a city

Today I’m in the midst of a new design project to address the inhale-exhale question. I am experimenting with the structure of my 2016 calendar so that it can be an affordance for both exhaling and inhaling.

Instead of my more familiar habit of fitting things into my schedule as they arise, I’m pre-designing deep grooves to follow – tracks and paths and roads written into time that guide me towards certain kinds of activity, much as the streets of a city guide us from place to place. There will be days to work and days to learn, days to exert myself fully and days to rest. There will be cycles of weeks and months that are dedicated to bringing about both breathing in and breathing out.

I intend to use the design as a scaffold – a way of determining what to say yes and no to which speaks to a bigger commitment than my more usual in-the-moment decision making can express.

Sometimes we need something big enough to hold us in this way if we want our lives to be an expression of what we care about.

And I simply have to do this. Without it, despite my best intentions, I easily find myself in the middle of periods of intensity, born of many projects reaching fruition simultaneously, that are simply beyond my physical capacity. I’m left ragged and depleted, unable to contribute in the way I wish.

The idea that a calendar could – like the layout of a city – be structured intentionally to guide me into a more vibrant engagement with my work and my wider life came to me when I took part in the RSA’s recent Street Wisdom project with this very question in mind. As I learned to look at London through new eyes, I came to see how the streets serve to bring us together or hold us apart, speed us up, slow us down, and guide us towards and away from destinations and experiences.

I saw how different buildings can be when built with care and patience or when thrown together ad-hoc, responding to changing needs as they arise. I found out that different streets have different moods, different paces. And I saw clearly how space frees by limiting. The enabling constraints of geography make it impossible to build too many buildings in one spot without creating a mess – a constraint that is much harder to see when planning our time.

And because of all of this I’m approaching my 2016 calendar as an experiment in the street architecture of time.

I’m excited. I’ve never seen time this way before.

I’ll let you know what happens.

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Exhale, Inhale

Exhale – put out into the world; create; teach; make; organise; ship; change things; get it done.

Inhale – draw in from the world; learn; rest; wonder; study; gather; change yourself; replenish.

What’s your balance of inhale to exhale?

Are you, like most of us, living a life where exhale is a given and inhale considered a luxury, self-indulgent?

What comes from a life in which breathing out smothers breathing in?

And what quality of exhale is even possible when we live this way?

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On being unstoppable

Today I want to share, in its entirety, a post from my colleague Jessica Minah, in which she writes beautifully about both the human condition and the kind of coaching to which we are both dedicated in our work.

With my sincere thanks to Jess for her permission to reproduce her work here. You can see more about her and what she’s up to in the world at Pronoia Coaching.

Last week, I visited the webpage of a coaching school someone I know is considering. On the school’s homepage, a graduate of the program boasted that the school’s methodology had enabled her to teach her clients to be “unstoppable.” And that stopped me, right in my tracks.

The nature of being human is that we are eminently stoppable. Our very biology gives us natural limits to how hard we can push. We need to breathe, to drink, eat, and sleep. We crave touch, the sun, fresh air, and communication. Our bodies are covered in a soft flesh–relatively defenseless with no claws or sharp teeth. We bleed and heal. Our reproductive cycle gives us utterly helpless young, demanding that we stop and take notice and care for these vulnerable creatures. And, of course, we die–the ultimate full stop. Death comes for us all with no regard for how hard we try to push it back. To be human is to be stoppable.

And yet we seek to be unstoppable.

Life should be able to stop us. If not for beauty, then for heartbreak. If not for the joy of seeing a tree’s stark branches waving against a gray winter sky, then for the horror of seeing people starving to death in our own rich cities or drowning to death on the shores of Europe. If not for the pleasure of a beloved piece of music, then for the despair of another mass shooting. If not for the happiness on the face of a dear friend or family member, then for the agony present  when they suffer or when we let them down. Let life be present to us. Let it stop us.

To be unstoppable is to be blind to what is happening all around us. To be unstoppable is to refuse to notice the effect that progress–at any cost–might have on our relationships, our bodies, and our spiritual life. To be unstoppable is to deny our own biology. To deny our hearts and the beautiful web of relationships that surround us.

Sometimes the world demands a response. And sometimes the only response is to pause. To be stricken. To be soft. To take a moment to laugh, or to cry, or to hold someone’s hand. A moment of noticing how angry we are, or how sad, or how–this is the really hard one–how numb we’ve become.  And cultivating the ability to be stopped takes deep work.

It requires relational sensitivity to know when our families, colleagues, and friends need us to downshift and approach them in a new, more attentive way. It requires somatic wisdom to be able to sense our energy status and get a clear reading on what our bodies need. It takes emotional awareness to stay present in strong emotions while also noticing the emotional states of others. And, finally, the ability to stop often takes great bravery as it will likely be questioned by those who would not dare question the cultural value of being unstoppable.

In my coaching practice, I do not seek to teach clients to be unstoppable because I believe it is deeply problematic, even dangerous. What happens when you teach your client to be unstoppable, and their family and friends need them to stop because they have been neglecting their relational responsibilities? What happens when you have an entire culture of unstoppable people, and the culture next door needs them to stop because they are encroaching on ancestral lands? What happens when you have an entire planet of unstoppable people, and the environment is begging them to stop because species are going extinct and the land is being polluted?

Can you see where being unstoppable can lead? Do you see where it has already led?

Instead, I believe that we must learn to listen to the call of the world, to our loved ones, and to our bodies–to stop. In the coaching relationship, mutual trust and mutual respect create a strong container wherein clients can examine their relied upon, habitual responses. Over time, they become better at recognizing the persistent ‘turning away’ that is pandemic in modern society and eventually they learn to cultivate a new response. This requires learning new skills and competencies: patience, compassion, resilience, discernment, and the ability to self-observe, to name a few. I’ve seen clients, over time, become more resilient and able to stand in deep witness to their own emotional experience; to be stopped by the world, and to be touched by it. They have the freedom to experience their own reactions without becoming overwhelmed. This, in turn, affords them the opportunity to make choices that were unavailable to them before.

Today, let a small part of yourself be broken by this heartbreaking and fragile world. What might happen if you opened yourself up enough for this to occur? What meaning might leak into your life if you dared? Find out.


A quiet and genuine joy

I remember the moment with gratitude, though it was tough at the time.

“You have no idea how self-judgemental you are”, Andy had said to me. And it had cut like a knife. But he was right. I was thirty-five years old and had over many years become seasoned to the harshness of the world.

I didn’t know it as harshness to be so filled with self-doubt and such worry about how I was doing all the time. It was just the way the world was. Unquestionable. Invisible. And I had no idea that it wasn’t so much the world that was harsh but my own inner experience.

Andy’s carefully timed observation was one of those moments when what had been in the background for so long came crashing into the foreground – when what I had been swimming in for so long was made apparent to me.

It was a doorway into a profoundly new world in which I began to see that most of what I thought others were thinking about me was actually what I was thinking about myself. And that I no longer had to believe everything I thought so completely.

Eleven years later, I’m still sometimes out-foxed by the shape-shifting cleverness of my inner critic. But I am more often, and more quickly, able to spot it and see through its ways of holding me back and of pulling me apart.

And, more and more, in the space that envelops me when it steps aside, I’m able to feel a quiet and genuine kind of joy.

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On the performance of others

I’ve been arguing here for a while that human beings are deeply affected by what we’re around, including by other people. We are far from the separate, solitary, unitary individuals that our contemporary understanding (or at least the understanding of the past 200-300 years) would have us be.

This has far-reaching consequences for much of the ‘common sense’ by which we think about ourselves.

In the world of organisations in particular, it’s considered good practice by many to give people enduring labels such as ‘high performer’, ‘low performer’, ‘star’ or ‘troublemaker’. Whole performance management systems are based upon the premise that this is a reasonable thing to do.

What such labelling always leaves out is any understanding that we have any affect upon one another.

Someone who you are sure is a troublemaker may, indeed, be a gift of possibility when around others. A ‘low performer’ can easily be someone who contributes enormously when they’re in different company.

Being so sure about others’ enduring qualities without looking at your own role in how they show up means you’re missing a huge opportunity to effect change in whatever organisation or system you’re involved.

How people ‘perform’ around you, will – in the end – have as much to do with you, as it ever did with them.

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Question 2 – What to commit to?

Question 2 of 2.

What if instead of asking what job you want to do (when you grow up) you ask what problem or difficulty in the world you want to solve?

What if we asked this of our children?

Perhaps this would be one way of teaching ourselves to look beyond our own wishes to acquire status or advantage or power over others.

And maybe this simple question would be one way we could help ourselves to address what the world really needs from us, rather than what we think we’re entitled to get from it.

With thanks to P who pointed me towards this question.

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Question 1 – If you had a minute?

Question 1 of 2.

I know, you’re stuck on a crowded bus, in a boring meeting, in a traffic jam, washing the dishes, doing your expenses, waiting for the cashier.

I know, from here, life seems pretty boring, mundane, lifeless even. I know, it seems like what matters is happening somewhere, to other people right now.

I know how often I am caught in seeing life that way.

But perhaps that’s mostly because we imagine, or at least feel like, we’re going to live forever.

But if you were dead, if you were no longer around, if you were offered just one minute more of life, and it had to be this moment in the queue, in the bus, in the meeting, with the dishes, would you take it?

I’m sure I would.

Then you might see this humdrum moment for the absolute wonder that it is – filled with enormous possibilities for curiosity, discovery, and purposeful action. Or for just looking in amazement. 

And if your answer was yes, is there any chance you might start seeing things this way, at least occasionally, in the life you already have?

With thanks to David Pearl, who brought up this question today as a way of explaining the origins of the Street Wisdom project. Thanks to their work I spent the afternoon walking the streets of central London, seeing them – and myself – through new eyes. More on this to follow.

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