Because Even the Word ‘Obstacle’ is an Obstacle

In this episode of ‘Turning Towards Life’ Lizzie and I talk about how our stories about what’s happening can get in the way of our bringing ourselves fully into life. We consider how the very way in which we make sense of ourselves as ‘having to get somewhere’ with obstacles in our path that need to be overcome can throw us into an interpretation of life that’s riddled with fear, resentment, and comparison. We wonder together what it would be to ‘swim past obstacles without grudges or memory’ and to understand life as an unfolding story that changes itself in each moment and with each action – and what new possibilities for freedom and contribution that can bring.

Our source is the poem ‘Because Even the World Obstacle is and Obstacle’ by Alison Luterman, reproduced with permission from the author. You can find out more about Alison at

“Because Even the Word Obstacle is an Obstacle” by Alison Luterman

Try to love everything that gets in your way:
The Chinese women in flowered bathing caps
murmuring together in Mandarin doing leg exercises in your lane
while you execute thirty-six furious laps,
one for every item on your to-do list.
The heavy-bellied man who goes thrashing through the water
like a horse with a harpoon stuck in its side and
whose breathless tsunamis rock you from your course.
Teachers all. Learn to be small
and swim past obstacles like a minnow,
without grudges or memory. Dart
toward your goal, sperm to egg. Thinking, Obstacle,
is another obstacle. Try to love the teenage girl
lounging against the ladder, showing off her new tattoo:
Cette vie est la mienne, This life is mine,
in thick blue-black letters on her ivory instep.
Be glad she’ll have that to look at the rest of her life, and
keep going. Swim by an uncle
in the lane next to yours who is teaching his nephew
how to hold his breath underwater,
even though kids aren’t supposed
to be in the pool at this hour. Someday,
years from now, this boy
who is kicking and flailing in the exact place
you want to touch and turn
may be a young man at a wedding on a boat,
raising his champagne glass in a toast
when a huge wave hits, washing everyone overboard.
He’ll come up coughing and spitting like he is now,
but he’ll come up like a cork,
alive. So your moment
of impatience must bow in service to the larger story,
because if something is in your way, it is
going your way, the way
of all beings: toward darkness, toward light.

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What to Do When You’re Stuck

This week’s ‘Turning Towards Life’ conversation is now available here, on YouTube and on the website. In this episode Lizzie and I talk together about stuckness – what it is, how our efforts to deny it or overcome it can end up being unhelpful, and the deep quality of welcome that’s required for stuckness to flower into whatever it is that it is an opening for. The source for our conversation, written by Lizzie, is below.

See you next week

Lizzie & Justin

We’re live every Sunday morning at 9am UK time. You can join our facebook group to watch live, view archives, and join in the growing community and conversation that’s happening around this project.


What to do when you’re feeling completely stuck.

In all of our lives there are times when we feel stuck, paralysed or unable to shift a pattern or move forward. You know when you’re stuck because:

Your thinking is circular and you convince yourself of how bad things are or how there’s no way out.
You feel frustrated and even bored with the same old issue, person, circumstance or pattern.
You feel tension in your body, a compression of some kind that is nagging and underlying.
You’re unable to do anything to change this, it really does feel like you’re stuck, physically immobilised around whatever it is you’re facing.

I’ve discovered that being stuck is actually a huge invitation. You know there’s something more, something in the future that you just can’t get to – that there has to be something better than this stuck feeling of nothing moving, of not going anywhere.

And that’s because you are being invited deeper, and not forward. Forward is not what’s needed in this moment, but deepening, relaxing and seeing what the stuckness wants from you can be a graceful and conscious way through to whatever the gifts are that await you.

Being stuck, when we attend to it fully and stop trying to change it or avoid it, is a gift, a calling from inside of you to stop, go inwards, become intimate with this feeling inside and consciously relax into it to see what it wants.
You can even ask it some questions – Dear Stuck Feeling:

What is it that you want to say to me ?
Which part of my body can I relax a little more so I can get closer to you to really see what you are trying to communicate to me ?
How are you trying to serve me now ?
What am I denying or avoiding right now that would have you feel heard and seen ?

See where you get to. See what this stuck feeling wants to say. Treat it like a young child who is tugging on your skirt / trousers for some attention and a cuddle. Look into that child’s eyes and really, truly asks what would help, what the child needs, how you can attend to them.


How experiments open a new world

If it’s our everyday habits of thinking, action and relationship that keep the world as it is (and they do), then it’s experimentation that has the greatest chance of opening a new world with greater space for us to move in. And when the old world is no longer working out, or bringing suffering, we could all do with a way to open to a new kind of freedom.

This is the topic that Lizzie and I took up in yesterday’s Turning Towards Life conversation, which you can watch here.

Turning Towards Life is itself a big experiment for us, and is opening up new ways of talking, making sense, and building community. This week we grew to over 500 members. We’d be thrilled for you to join us, which you can do over at

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Fuel for Your Fire

In just a month over 350 people have joined our new Turning Towards Life project on FaceBook. It’s been thrilling to find a new way to talk about many of the concerns, ideas and possibilities that are still an inspiration for the On Living and Working blog, and I think it’s likely that our conversations will in turn be the inspiration for more writing over the coming months.

I was particularly touched by our latest conversation on Sunday morning, which took John Neméth’s song ‘Fuel for Your Fire‘ as its starting point. The question we wanted to address is both simple and central to many people – how can we have our difficulties be a source of life for us, rather than a reason to turn away in shame, fear, or avoidance?

It’s certainly a profound question for me. It’s easy for me when I’m in some kind of trouble to imagine that I am somehow special, the only one experiencing life in this particularly challenging kind of way. And when I take on this relationship to my troubles what I notice most is my separateness from everyone and everything – as if I am uniquely cursed, isolated from others and from the possibilities of care and help.

All of this, it turns out, is a profound misunderstanding. If anything, it’s our troubles that show us how human we are, how essentially alike we are. None of us are free from disappointments, mistakes, changes to our circumstances both within and beyond our control. None of us is free from loss. And when we know this to be an essential truth of our human condition, perhaps we can give up self-pity and instead take on the dignifying work of contribution. This – that contribution is often the most dignified and life-giving path for working with our difficulties – has in recent months, and when I remember it, been such a blessing in my own life.

We’d be really delighted if you’d join us in the 30 minute conversation below, which takes up all these themes and asks ‘How can our troubles be part of the path?’.

And if you’d like to join in with the growing community that’s forming around this project, and the lively conversation that’s taking part in the comments, you can do so here.

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Our mysterious inner worlds

It’s probable that our conscious minds, the part we each so readily take to be ‘me’, is but a tiny sliver of light floating on a darker, more inscrutable background.

Deep in this mysterious substrate lie a host of automatic processes – monitoring, regulating, pulsing, analysing, stimulating, suppressing. We don’t have to do anything to make our hearts beat faster when we’re excited or scared. And breathing, while amenable to control by the conscious mind, just gets on with itself when we’re not looking.

Alongside the complex but more automatic processes are parts of us – equally hidden from our direct experience – with immense intelligence, capable of making sense, following through on goals and plans, directing us, holding us back, moving us forward. As Timothy D Wilson says in his book on this subject, we are in many ways strangers to ourselves, easily mistaking the reasons we do what we do and needing to pay careful attention – watching and observing ourselves as we would another person – if we are to have a chance of understanding our motives, preferences, habits and the mysterious movements of our minds and bodies.

All of this has particularly been on my mind in recent weeks during which the original intent of this project – a daily practice of writing and publishing on meaningful topics – has been so difficult to bring about. I’ve never consciously, purposefully given up on the idea but have found my mind and body in something of a revolt against it, holding me back, turning me away. Rather than pushing through (which is sometimes the most helpful thing to do with practices that are important in our lives) I have been treating this inner part as respectfully as I can, as if it has wisdom only dimly available to my conscious mind. In the space that’s emerged I have taken up other practices, of which daily swimming seems the most important and which has been an enormous gift which I will write about another time.

Today, for the first time this summer, I returned to open water swimming at the ponds on London’s Hampstead Heath. As I slipped into the water, something shifted profoundly within me. A returning sense of contact with the world, a realisation again of how indivisibly I am of the world rather than separate from it. There among the ducks and the dragonflies, with my hands invisible before me in the murky darkness, I found out again that I am not alone. And in the midst of this array of life, an enormous gratitude, a surging wish to be of service, and joy at the prospect of writing again.

And wonder at this mysterious something we human beings are, that can be awakened in surprising ways, or put to sleep, by the simple day-to-day choices and practices by which we live our lives.

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All that has come before is preparation

If you were parachuted into your life from outside – into your life and body as it is today – you might start to see what’s there through new eyes.

Perhaps you’d be more immediately grateful for the people around you, for the love, support and attention they bring you that you had to do nothing to earn. And perhaps you’d see the difficulties in your life for what they are – difficulties to be worked with, rather than confirmations of your inadequacy.

Enormous possibilities and freedom to act might come from inhabiting this world in which you’re both supported and have problems towards which you can bring the fulness of your mind, body and heart.

Being parachuted into your life might put an end to self-pity, because you’d come to see how the body you inhabit has been training, practicing all these years building skills, strength and an understanding of the life it’s been living and the difficulties it’s been facing. Maybe you’d see that you are precisely the one best equipped to deal with the detail and intricacy of this particular life. And perhaps you’d discover a way to look honestly at your situation and the resolve to deal with it, step by patient step.

Maybe if you were parachuted into your very own life, you’d understand that everything that has happened to you – so far – is not a shameful failure but the exact preparation you need for living today, tomorrow, and for the years to come.

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Too short, too precious

Life is too precious, and too important for us to believe the stories of our own unworthiness, to plead that we have a special kind of suffering unknown to anyone else, to wallow in shame at our incompleteness, our falling short, our confusion, our lostness.

Yes, let’s feel it all, but let’s not take it to be the only truth about our situation. Because life is too short for us to wait until we feel better before we begin.

Let’s allow ourselves to look at life with childlike eyes that see again the wonder in things, and that live it all, fiercely and passionately. Let’s learn to drop our defences, to give it all away, and use our experiences, all of our joys and all of our sorrows, as a channel for aliveness.

Life is too short, too precious, and too important for us to waste our time doing anything else.

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How to meet the world

There are enough people afraid, yelling, paralysed, spinning, panicked in the world already, and it’s not helping us. Right now what’s called for is the capacity to be grounded, to see with as much clarity as we can muster, to take the world and its changes with the equanimity that comes from knowing that change is the way of the world, and to bring as much virtue to the world as we can.

It’s always been the case that the world, and everyone in it, benefits when we can find courage, truthfulness, compassion, kindness, service, justice, mercy, creativity, gratitude, patience, integrity, fierceness of purpose, commitment and the like. Let’s please, do what we can to cultivate that in one another and in ourselves, rather than those qualities that dehumanise us or isolate us from one another.

Right now I’m taking up the practice of reading less news and more poetry*. I’m finding in this a deeply renewed capacity to engage. So much of what’s passing for news at the moment is in any case fevered speculation, and reading more of it numbs me (with fear or denial). Exercise is helping enormously. Meditation. Long hugs with people I love. Giving up the fantasy that I can control what happens. And doing the thing I’m here to do – writing and teaching.

It seems to me that if ever there was a time to start committing ourselves to what we’re really here to do (rather than what someone else told us to do, or what we imagined would get us liked or give us status) it’s now. With as much sincerity and integrity as we can find.

Let’s get to it.

*I found this suggestion in the wonderful work of Krista Tippett

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Resources for these days

Some resources for these days in which the world looks so uncertain.

(1) How we can respond to the US election result

A fabulous, wise 30 minute talk by Norman Fischer at Everyday Zen, which is actually part 7 of a series called ‘Training in Compassion’ but stands alone beautifully. What Norman has to say is both a reminder of our capacity to respond and a call to hope in that capacity right when we’re least sure what to do.

You can listen to the talk ‘Keep the three inseparable’ here, or pick it up on the Everyday Zen podcast (RSS or iTunes)

(2) What to do when you’re afraid

It’s easy to be ruled by fear. Far better is to turn towards it – to have it rather than be had by it. Tich Nhat Hanh’s excellent book Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm teaches us how to do exactly that.

(3) How to stand up for what’s important

Powerful, fierce, compassionate words from my friend and colleague Joy Reichart, about how to find our strength when there’s something important to be done, and how not to turn away.

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The end of things

Walking among tall oaks in London’s Hyde Park, my thoughts turn towards the end of things. Leaves are falling, their curled crisp edges crunching beneath my boots. There are still many trees clothed in green. The end of this will come soon, I can see, leaving the dark shape of curling branches clear against the sky.

One day, each of these trees, too, will be gone.

It is a relief to know that this is how it is. That things come to an end. Quite naturally. Quite ordinarily. And that it is true for us too.

How many mornings I have awoken with such deep lonely sadness at all this. That I will lose myself. That I will lose all of my faculties. That I will lose everyone I love, and they will lose all this too. That all this has already begun.

But here, among the trees, I am gladdened. Losing it all is not my fate alone. It is not a gross unfairness visited upon me. It is not something I always need to mourn. It is the way of life, and always has been. It is the condition of humanity, and always will be.

I am joined in this path by every living thing that has ever existed, and every living thing that will exist. I am unified with all of life, indivisible from it.

Yes, deep sadness at how all of this ends has its place, reminding me how I long to live and how much there is to lose. But equally appropriate is joy, and wonder, exhilaration and radical amazement that any of this is happening. That I get to take part. That I am, for now, here.

My heart quickens and my eyes widen at the beauty and fragility of life, at its preciousness, at how fleeting it is. I see that there is no time to waste. There is so much to do, so much I can do. Whatever contribution I am here to make, now is the time. Every moment until now has been preparation for this. Every moment to come, however many or few, calls with the promise and possibility of participation in life’s grand, beautiful, tragic, surprising, endlessly creative unfolding.

It is time, as it always is, to begin.

By doing

We’ve been taught to wait, to amass knowledge, and to know for sure what it is we’re doing before we leap in.

We’ve been taught that the only time to do something genuinely skilful, risky and creative – in other words anything that can make a contribution to the state of things – is when we know how to do it already.

It’s ample fuel for the inner critic, the part of us that would have us hold back until everything is just right

And it has us hold others back too.

But, as Aristotle reminds us, when it comes to mastery the paradox is that

“the things we have to learn before we can do, we learn by doing“.

In other words, we have to jump right in, long before we have any skill, make many mistakes, and hang on in the face of our own demons, other people’s criticism, and the many occasions we’ll mess it up.

Does your work, your organisation, your leadership, your life allow any space for this?

Or are you keeping yourself and everyone around you in a tight circle of safe, predictable reliability?

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Part of the path

There’s no doubt that I wish it hadn’t happened this way.

I wish we hadn’t voted to leave the European Union; that the public debate had not been so filled with fear, and lies, and near-lies, and evasions; that we did not live in a society sliding into such deep and despairing inequality. I wish that there were less mistrust, suspicion, and denigration of the other in others, and of the other in ourselves. I wish we were not stepping out of institutions and structures that keep us in relationship with others, that require mutuality and compromise and, most of all, talking together. I wish we’d found a way of working out what to do that was more generous and expressed bigger commitments than only trying to get what we want.

I wish I felt more confident and less afraid than I do today.

But I’m also discovering that the part of me that is afraid doesn’t only become so about political upheaval and all of its unknown consequences. It’s afraid when projects I initiate don’t go so well, when others get angry or bring conflict my way, when it looks like I’m not getting loved in the way it expects, and when there’s a risk I may get shamed or embarrassed. It’s afraid when I lose my umbrella, when I forget an appointment, when I’m running late, and when I’ve sent an email that might upset someone. It wishes, beyond anything else, to be able to control the world so that nothing bad can ever happen.

When I engage with the world by trying to control it, my fear so easily becomes terror because it’s a patently impossible project. I lose contact with my own resourcefulness. I lose contact with the support and generosity of others. I quickly forget myself and my capacity to contribute. I feel alone and helpless. I spin. I know many people feel like this today however they voted in yesterday’s referendum.

I also know that when I give up trying to control that which can’t be controlled, so much more becomes possible. My fear right-sizes itself. I get to see that while there are things to be afraid of there are also reasons for hope – in our own capacity, in the capacity of others, in the relationships we make – that are quite distinct from how things turn out. I see that there are things to be done. Listening and speaking, holding and thinking and inventing and contributing. And I see the possibility that this situation, however it turns out to be, and however tricky, has the possibility of bringing out from us the generosity and compassion and wisdom that’s always possible for us human beings.

And for all these reasons, while I am afraid I am also hopeful, and seeing what I can do to treat the many obstacles ahead as part of the path.

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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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Changing my mind

It’s easy to feel sure that who I am is the inner experience I have of myself. To imagine that I am my thoughts, my values, my opinions, what I believe to be true, what I care about. And, consequently, that to change who I am – to grow, or develop, or address my difficulties – I only need to change my mind.

It makes intuitive sense to think this way, firstly because of course we are each uniquely privileged observers of this particular, own-most inner aspect of ourselves that we call mind. And, secondly, we’ve been conditioned by our culture and its strong background of Cartesian dualism to treat mind as primary and everything else as as secondary.

But it doesn’t take very much looking to see how far my identity extends into the world – how ‘who I am’ is part of the world, shaped by the world at the very same time as I shape it.

I am who I am in relationship with others, for example. The kind of son, brother, husband, parent and friend I am is affected moment to moment by the people I am son, brother, husband, parent and friend to. And who they are with me is equally being shaped by their relationships with me. And in this way our identities are inextricably and continually entwined with those who we are in relationship with.

I am who I am in relationship with what I own and use, too. That I now choose to have a phone without email on it, for example, is profoundly shifting my experience of myself, the kind of attention I pay to life and other people, how preoccupied I am, my sense of what I’m supposed to do moment-to-moment, and what I feel (I’m much less anxious). Similarly, my home, what I choose to wear, the art on my walls, the food I eat, and how I travel are not just expressions of me but an extended part of my identity, continually shaping and shifting and reminding me who I can be in the world.

I am who I am in relationship to my actions and body. The me that I am when I live a life of hurrying and frantic activity is quite different to the me that takes time, that puts things down, that is attentive to movement and space. The me that I am when I ask for help is quite different from the me that tries to do everything on my own. The actions I take shift my story about myself, as well as what I notice, my capacity to respond, and how others relate to me including the stories they have about me.

And because of all of this, any time I want to learn, or grow, or change, or be more genuine, or take up my freedom, or reduce a difficulty I’m in I have to do more than just think differently or hold a different set of beliefs about the world. I have to act, in each of the domains I’ve described above.

It is this very practical step of taking new bodily action that brings about a new identity, a new relationship to life, a new relationship to others, and to the stuff around me. And I have to do it not just once, but over, and over, and over, until it becomes habit, skilful and familiar enough to fade into the background.

Then I can say I have changed.

And this is the case even though the culture I’m embedded in, as well as the voice of many coaches, advice columns, and self-help books, would tell me that if I change my mind, everything else will take care of itself.

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Will, action, and driving on the left

It seems common sense to think of will-power – our capacity to do or not do the things that matter to us –  as coming only from within us. If I can’t start something or stop something, develop a new habit or take up a project, if I find myself procrastinating, then it must all be down to me, and me alone. And, if that’s the case then pushing harder, or harsh self-criticism, or both, seem to be the way to go in order to get myself started.

But self-punishing is hardly life giving, and barely supports our capacity to flourish and get up to what matters in a sustained way. And it’s based on a profound misunderstanding, deeply rooted in our culture, that we are essentially separate from the world. If I’m separate, if the world is essentially divided into me (my mind, my thinking) and everything out there which I have to move or push against, then when I find myself not moving or not pushing what other conclusion can I come to than (1) I’m not trying hard enough and (2) there’s something wrong with me?

But there is another way to look at this that takes into account how open to the world, how indivisible from the world, we are. When we see this we also start to see how much we are affected by who and what is around us. We discover that the world is an affordance for certain things – that different places and people draw out of us different kinds of action and inaction, and that this is often a better description of what’s happening than ‘I willed it’.

Chairs beckon me to sit, paths beckon me to walk, people who are open and receptive beckon me to speak, others beckon me to keep quiet. Place a stack of chocolate biscuits on my desk, and I am drawn to eat. Place a phone in my pocket, filled with incoming messages, tweets, emails, voicemail – and I am drawn to check.

Our whole physical and social world acts as a scaffold or a pathway for our action and inaction.

The startling corollary of this is that how we are in the world is not brought about by inner will alone. It is also, in large part, brought about by what and who we choose to surround ourselves with in our homes and work spaces. In this way the worlds we build for ourselves also make us.

And just as the road layout and road signs here in the UK are an affordance for driving on the left (they call for left-of-the-road driving), and those in mainland Europe or the US are an affordance for driving on the right, we can begin to lay out – with our choice of possessions, tools, spaces and relationships – paths that are an affordance for distraction and delay, or for doing what matters most to us.

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Who is to blame?

We assume that most, if not all, of our actions arise from within us. We talk about drivespreferencesgoals and intentions as if they are, without question, the only forces that move us. And as a result we pay little attention to the way we’re brought about by what’s around us – the people, places and things we encounter repeatedly in our lives.

The inner drive model gives much more weight than is due to our conscious selves – the explicit choice-making part of us that we most readily identify as ‘I’. Much of the time, it’s not this ‘I’ that’s in operation, but a much more automatic, habitual aspect of us that’s skilful at navigating through the world without needing our conscious intervention. This ‘I’ knows the world through its repeated interactions with it. It can navigate stairs, roads, chairs, doors, people, windows, showers, toothbrushes, pens, paper, phones, cars, trains… everything we have to do without really thinking about it.

The automatic ‘I’ is sophisticated enough to take part in conversations, guide our speech (once the conscious ‘I’ has set an intention or a direction) and drive us home. And, rather than being separate from the world, it relies on the world to orient it. It is drawn out by the affordances that surround us – the door handles, keyholes, street crossings, utensils, chairs, keyboards, and people that we have become skilful at responding to by years of apprenticeship.

We quite easily see that this is the case if we visit an unfamiliar culture where the tools, signs, symbols and practices make no sense – there we really have to think in order to get around (if we can get around at all). It’s incredibly hard work. There is little or nothing to draw out from us the skilful, embodied, habitual, automatic response upon which we rely so much. In these situations we feel most acutely our separateness from the world as conscious, thinking, deciding beings. The rest of the time, when we’re on automatic, in a culture with which we’re familiar, there really is very little separation between ourselves and the world to which we’re in the midst of skilfully responding.

And this is one of the reasons why so many of our ways of accounting for the actions people take in our organisations are so unhelpful. Individual performance reviews and targets locate agency solely in the separate conscious self – we are punished or rewarded, hired and fired, blamed and praised as if it’s only the separate inner world of thought and choice that’s relevant to the actions we take. As if what we are in the midst of has no part to play in what happens.

But we are, in significant part, being brought forth by what we’re surrounded by. Which is why it should be no surprise that when we force people to leave (‘manage them out’) we often find the very same problems recurring in the hands of the next person into the role. We are blind to the history that’s bringing about our difficulty. Which is because we’re blind to the surrounding world of people, objects, places and systems that’s bringing it about too.

And so when trouble arises in our organisations it’s enormously helpful to start looking systemically. Not simply ‘who is responsible for this?’, but also ‘what in this system is bringing about this difficulty?’. Instead of ‘let’s get rid of this troublemaker’ we could ask ourselves ‘how are we, collectively, and our whole situation with its tools, procedures, relationships and environments bringing about this trouble?’.

We’d save ourselves, and those we so easily blame, enormous heartache and practical difficulty if we were prepared take this seriously just a little more often.

For a powerful and practical exploration of this topic, you could take a look at Barry Oshry’s work, especially his book Seeing Systems.

Photo by Lior Solomons-Wise

Sharpening ourselves

I think there’s much to be said for cultivating moods that bring about possibility – hope, joy, love.

But sometimes there’s good reason to despair, to fear, to rage, to grieve, and in these moments it may be asking too much for these more optimistic moods to arise. At such times it’s our capacity to show up, to stay involved, and to keep on contributing that’s called for.

Our responsibility – not to have our ability to act on what’s important become blunted by moods, or by our opinion (however accurate) of the state of our lives, of our work, or of the world.

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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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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.

Fear’s fear

When you’re afraid, but starting to see that it’s time to move towards exactly that which your fear is having you avoid…

speaking up
standing out from the ‘norm’
taking action
forgiving someone
doing something that matters
giving up ‘looking good’
making a contribution
making art

…it’s helpful to know that the possibility you might actually do something is precisely fear’s own fear.

So, as you move into action, expect your fear to redouble its efforts to hold you in place. And, perhaps, you could re-interpret your feelings of uncertainty as the sign not that you have to back out, but as a surefire sign that you’re on a path that matters.

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Waiting until you know

Waiting until you know for sure what’s going to happen – where people are involved – means waiting for ever.

With machines, it’s easy. With sufficient understanding of mechanics you can often predict exactly what’s going to happen. Cause and effect, straightforward to establish.

But human situations are nothing like that, even though we pretend to ourselves that they might be.

Take a meeting, for example.

Should you speak up about what’s on your mind? Now? Later? What effect will it have on your colleagues? On the decision to be made?

You cannot know for sure.

Whatever insight you have about the situation can only ever be partial. You can’t know what’s going on for others. You can’t know what they are thinking of saying. And you can’t know – even if you know them well – how they will respond to your speaking.

You have to act knowing that you’re speaking into an unknowable situation. And that speaking up will, in all likelihood, change something, at the very least for you.

But staying quiet is an act too, changing things no less than speaking up. So you have no choice but to be an actor, whatever you do, and however much you pretend it is not the case.

We get ourselves into trouble when we forget all of this. We imagine that we can only act when we are able to predict the outcomes of our actions. Or we blame and judge ourselves and others when things don’t turn out the way we expected.

And all the while we’re holding back our contribution, our insight, our knowledge, our creativity, our unique perspective because we’ve set ourselves standards of understanding that were never – could never be – reached.

Photograph by Kate Atkinson


Confusing Action and Relationship

At work we often confuse getting things done with doing good work. 

They are not the same thing.

Sometimes the very best work comes precisely from not rushing into anything at all. And when we forget this we sacrifice quality for the sake of production, rushing to do things even when the doing will be manifestly unhelpful.

Similarly we confuse conversations for action with conversations for relationship. We mistakenly think that to solve our difficulties with one another we need to produce things – policies, procedures, processes – rather than turning towards each other in new kinds of conversation.

And so when we are having difficulty trusting our colleagues we make lists of ‘behaviours’ we imagine will help us. We say ‘we’ll be able to trust one another when we have better communication’ and head off into producing plans to have this happen, rather than simply speaking directly and honestly to one another.

We’re scared, of course, because turning towards one another and extending trust and openness requires us to be vulnerable, to take the risk of being seen.

And so we tell ourselves the story that talking is a distraction, and relationship-building soft, when there’s the hard work of ‘work’ to do.

But we forget that all work done with others only happens because of relationship. And that if we’re not attending seriously to relationship as the foundation for all action, we’re not attending seriously to our action at all.

I’ve written more about this here and here.

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Speech Acts 8: Between asking and responding

I have written often here about the difficulties we get into by uncritically saying ‘yes’ to requests so often. Resentment, frustration and overwhelm are often the result.

Some of our difficulty comes not so much from the answer we give, but from overlooking a critical step, which happens between the request being made and the answer being given. We forget to talk with the requester about what they meant.

Perhaps we get embarrassed. We’re supposed to understand what’s being asked of us, of course. Or perhaps we have forgotten that talking and listening productively is a much a form of action as ‘taking action’.

And so we rush in headlong, only to find that the proposal that was apparently urgent can wait a while. Or that when she said “I need to know all the figures” she meant just the three most important ones. Or that the budget constraints were much tighter than we expected. Or that the other project we’re having to put aside is more important. Or that someone else was already on it.

Sometimes we even find that the person asking didn’t understand all the aspects of the request themselves, or the knock-on effect of our ‘yes’.

In my work in organisations I’m surprised repeatedly by how common it is to leave out this basic step – a dialogue between requester and requested that continues until both are satisfied that what is being asked has been fully understood. Often such a dialogue will result in a different course of action being taken, or discovering that none is needed after all.

Unless we stop to talk with one another until a meaningful yes or no is possible, we’re condemning ourselves to a cycle of wastefulness that none of us can afford.

You can read more on ‘Speech Acts’ – conversations, requests and promises – here.

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It’s common to think that insight is required before you can make a change to your life, to your work, to your relationships.

But it’s equally true to say that insight is what happens as a result of the changes you make.

Seeing further into the world, or understanding more deeply, often requires standing in a different place to the one you’re standing in now. If you’re waiting for insight to strike you first, you might have it exactly the wrong way around.

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What happens, happens because the conditions were such that it could happen.

How common it is to try, push or strive to have what’s important to you take place, without paying any attention to this.

Right now, for example, are you giving any consideration to the condition of your own body? It’s from this that every action you’re able to take arises.

Are you cultivating the energy, ability to concentrate, capacity to tolerate difficulty, and ability to stay in relationship that will support your intentions? The presence, openness, centeredness to be able to respond?

And if not, do you see how all your efforts might be wasted because you’re working against the very conditions that could support you most?

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The way we’re working isn’t working

I know. You take getting things done seriously. In fact, it’s pretty much all you think about – how much you’ve done, how much is yet undone, and all the consequences if you don’t stay on top of everything all the time.

But how seriously do you take your capacity to get things done?

So many of us are running continuously on empty, or near to empty, because we’ve forgotten about this. We think that if we just keep on pushing ourselves, perhaps eventually we’ll have the opportunity to rest. But we know, really where that ends. In exhaustion, in collapse, in burn-out, in illness. And, more immediately, it seriously erodes our capacity to do anything important, to do anything well.

So instead of looking all the time at how much you’re getting done, how about shifting your attention to how much energy you have? You’ll reap huge dividends by attending seriously to sleep, to rest, to exercise, to eating well, to cultivating a wider range of interests that touch you, to building and maintaining supportive and nurturing relationships with others.

if you’re struggling and suffering, it may be because you haven’t looked here yet. Or you’ve looked but haven’t take action.

If you’d like some support in this – rigorous research, and many practical suggestions – you could read ‘Be Excellent at Anything’ by Tony Schwartz. (I thought the book’s original title ‘The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working’ pointed even more crisply into the difficulties so many people experience.) He’s done a wonderful job of bringing together understanding from many different disciplines to show us what’s possible, and what it takes, to live a life in which we’re able do what’s important to us because of the way we’re taking care of ourselves.

Speech Acts

One of the great contributions of the philosophers John Austin, in the mid-20th century, and John Searle, who is still active today, has been an important claim about language. While a large part of philosophy of language looked at how language describes the world, they became interested in how language changes the world.

All human action, they point out, is coordinated through language. Speaking is rarely just speaking about something. It’s more often an act through which we make it possible to do things in conjunction with others, taking up and putting down commitments so we can pursue the possibilities that are important to us.

This week’s writing here will be dedicated to this topic. We’ll start by exploring three different conversations that make action with others possible, and the many muddles and mistakes that can be avoided by knowing which is which, and which is called for in any moment.

And then we’ll explore conversations for action in more depth – in particular how requests and promises work and don’t work, and what we can do to improve our use of them.

There’s so much to discover by looking closely at all this, because many of the difficulties we face, and much of our wastefulness, can be tackled by developing skill in speaking and listening.

You could start to explore this topic by observing yourself closely over the next few days. Look for all the ways in which you run into difficulty in coordinating with other people. Look closely in particular at all the times what you asked of others didn’t happen, or at least not in the way you intended.

And look too at all those times when you brought your best effort and intentions to a project only to find that it wasn’t needed, wasn’t appreciated, or that what you’d been doing was not quite what other people had hoped.

And let’s see if, by studying this topic, we can improve things together.

You can read more on ‘Speech Acts’ – conversations, requests and promises – here.


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Why I write

September marks five months since the beginning of this project: daily writing on the often hidden possibilities of living and working, arising directly from my work supporting people in their development.

It seems an appropriate moment to say something about why I’ve made a commitment to this, the largest body of work I’ve produced to date and the one that has so far been among the most satisfying and exciting to write.

There’s a certain urgency to it. Because I hope it will do something.

It starts with my sense that we’ve constructed much of the working world in a way that sends us to sleep to ourselves, to others, and to what’s possible for us. We’re often fearful. We’re afraid to be fully seen. We hide behind words, procedures, frameworks, policies, perfectionism. We avoid the risky and important work of understanding one another.

We use shame to get what we want at the expense of people’s dignity. We take the burdens of the world on ourselves without reaching out for help, and expect others to do the same. We make sure we look fine. And we feel alone.

All this stifles our creativity, and has us hold back our most essential contribution from one another.

We design roles marked by how much of people’s uniqueness must be left out, rather than included. And we frequently treat people as if they were machines – particularly troublesome ones who won’t fit into the frameworks and designs we have for them.

Much of this happens even in many of the most sophisticated, principled of organisations.

While we’re doing this to others, we’re also doing it to ourselves. And most of the time we don’t even know that this is what we’re up to.

The writing here aims to help each of us undo all of this, bit by bit.

My hope is to support you if you recognise even a shred of what I’m saying here in yourself or in others; if you lead, whether ‘leadership’ is stated in your job title or not; and if you want to take your development seriously, so you can bring yourself with integrity, courage, generosity, wisdom, and fierce humanity to the world.

At heart, this project is about cultivating both inner and outer human freedom, so that we can release ourselves and others to make the contribution we’re really here to make.

And it’s about a scary thought – that it’s possible to bring about genuine, powerful change that matters.

To the over 200 people who receive this every day, and the many more who join in occasionally – thank you. There’s much more to come.

Photo by Justin Wise

By doing

We’ve been taught to wait, to amass knowledge, and to know for sure what it is we’re doing before we leap in.

We’ve been taught that the only time to do something genuinely skilful, risky and creative – in other words anything that can make a contribution to the state of things – is when we know how to do it already.

It’s ample fuel for the inner critic, the part of us that would have us hold back until everything is just right

And it has us hold others back too.

But, as Aristotle reminds us, when it comes to mastery the paradox is that

“the things we have to learn before we can do, we learn by doing“.

In other words, we have to jump right in, long before we have any skill, make many mistakes, and hang on in the face of our own demons, other people’s criticism, and the many occasions we’ll mess it up.

Does your work, your organisation, your leadership, your life allow any space for this?

Or are you keeping yourself and everyone around you in a tight circle of safe, predictable reliability?

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We’re all inevitably shaped by our practices, the actions we take again and again as we navigate our way through our life, work and culture.

It is, as Aristotle said, that we become what we repeatedly do.

For good reason, most of us have endless practices that cultivate appropriateness. We practice what to say when, how to censor ourselves, how to appear acceptable to others and avoid embarrassment or shame or ridicule. And we rely on all of these to have our world be navigable and intelligible, to give us a sense of where we stand and what to expect when we’re with people.

But appropriateness and spontaneity are antagonistic to one another.

Appropriateness says “Not that, not now”. It’s an ally of the inner critic.
Spontaneity “I wonder what will happen if I do this?”
Appropriateness: “I’ll only speak when it’s safe.”
Spontaneity: “I’ll say what needs saying”.

Without spontaneity – the capacity to respond creatively to what’s needed right now, rather than what’s expected or has been done in the past – it’s harder to make your contribution, address the tough problems of your organisation, respond to difficulty, be courageous or support others fully. Without spontaneity how can you expect the extraordinary creativity and ingenuity available to you and those around you to find its place in the world?

And if you agree that you need it, what are you practicing to make it possible?

[if you’re interested in developing spontaneity, and don’t know where to start, you could join a comedy improv class, take up a martial art in which you spar with others, try freefall writing, take up an artistic practice, or become an explorer of the world around you]

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