Productivity

Ten factors that are more important than the productivity you’re measuring:

  1. Who you have around you
  2. and who you’re supporting
  3. What you’re paying attention to
  4. and what you’re denying, ignoring, or turning away from
  5. What you’ve dedicated yourself to
  6. and how big the questions are that you’re asking
  7. The extent to which you’re doing your work from fear
  8. and the extent to which you’re doing your work from love
  9. How open you’re prepared to be
  10. and whether you’re willing to care

Photo Credit: Phil Gradwell via Compfight cc

Art that helps

On a trip to Madrid to visit my friend Robert Poynton, he hands me this.

“It’s a robot*,” he says, “You carry it with you. It offers you outrageous compliments.”

(*one of over 27,000 made by Gary Hirsch)

What a gift for each of us to hold – a crazy joyful robot that offers us outrageous compliments. It’s such a contrast to the outrageous criticism that so many of us bring everywhere within us – the part that demands that we be perfect, go faster, get loved, get appreciated, be better. The part that’s sure we’re not, ever, enough.

As Robert writes, the gift of the robot is that it ‘knows that you are not the imposter,
that the real imposters are the shadows you chase’.

Perhaps my little robot can remind me of my own goodness more often, and help to question what the critic stands for, whether it helps, and if it’s now time to do without the suffering and holding back that is its ‘gift’ to each of us.

And perhaps you might just make one you can carry yourself.

The enigma of insight, and the Dept. Store for the Mind

Sophie Howarth’s wonderful Department Store for the Mind arrives in the world today, and I’m thrilled that she asked me to write about the relationship between insight and coaching for the launch. I wanted to capture something of the exquisite possibility that arises when we meet someone who’s dedicated to helping us see ourselves and our lives more deeply.

Head over to the store to read more on insight by poets, scientists and philosophers, and to see the range of beautiful and inspiring things that Sophie and her team are bringing to the world.

Coaching, and the enigma of insight – for Dept. Store for the Mind

So much of who we are is invisible, hidden in the vast background of our minds, the familiar habits of our bodies, and the culture in which we swim. It’s as if the conscious mind, which we usually think of as ‘I’, is one tiny part of a deep and mysterious ocean that is more truly who we are. Because of this, insight can be difficult for us to come to alone. And so when we’re in difficulty we can benefit enormously from having a coach alongside us – another human being with the language, courage, and kindness to show us who we are, bring what’s hidden into the light, and help us work with what we find about ourselves in fresh and life-giving ways.

More here…

 

What I learned from Du

Our special guest at the ten-year celebration of thirdspace last week was Du Lapaine, an extraordinary musician from Croatia. As well as playing for us (and more about that in moment), he spoke with us about what had had him step out of his PhD programme in mathematics in order to take up music as a calling.

Like many of us, Du explained, he found out early on that he was very good at something – in his case solving complex maths problems. And he enjoyed it enough, and was talented enough, to be able to study it seriously through school and university, and to step into an advanced programme of postgraduate research.

But something very interesting and profound happened to him during this time. He discovered that he was falling in love, and with something quite different to what he knew himself to be good at. The other party in this growing affair was the didgeridoo, an instrument he’d come across in the corner of a local music shop as a young man. He’d spent some years struggling with it – and many thousands of hours of practice – and was gradually coming to know its contours and possibilities, as well as his own. And, over time, he was coming to feel the call that this practice had for him, and the deep aliveness he experienced while playing.

Unlike many of us, who do our best to stay on the path we think we’re meant to be following, or on the path others have designed for us, Du decided to treat the love and longing he was experiencing with the seriousness it deserved. And rather than forcing things, as he found himself with less and less energy for the studies he was pursuing and less aliveness in the teaching he was doing, he decided his heart’s call needed honouring with a respectful and sensitive response.

“When I told my PhD supervisor I was leaving, and why”, he told us, “he gave me his blessing right away. And he let me know I could always come back”.

Perhaps most importantly, Du chose to go all in – an act of both dedication and surrender. “I knew that to start with it would be like being caught in a big stormy sea,” he said, “but that there would soon be floating wood I could hold on to.”

Eight years on, he told us, he’d managed to build himself a sailing boat and, more recently, with continued dedication and practice, something more like a small yacht with which he has enough power and wherewithal to set a direction and weather the bigger waves and squalls that life can throw at any of us.

“It’s been a huge change in my life,” he said “but I haven’t suffered because I didn’t struggle against what was happening to me. I decided that I would fight for my life with the didgeridoo”, he said, “rather than fight against it”.

That, it seemed to me, was among the most important lessons I learned from hearing Du speak and play: what can happen when we give up fighting against what life is calling us to do, and instead use its energy to support us. Following a vocational call in this way guarantees nothing in the way of material gain (which may not come) or cessation of difficulty (of which there may be much). But it does, at last, offer an opportunity to live – and an opportunity to give up a particular kind of suffering. And this is something that many of us are very far from doing as we try to squeeze ourselves into pathways that others have laid out for us or with which we mistakenly feel we must bind ourselves.

Watching Du play in person is extraordinary. The separation between him and the instrument, and between the music and the audience, quickly dissolves away until it’s clear that we’re all up to something, together.

If you have the opportunity to see him (and I hope we will bring him back, before long), please do. He and his music are quite something to behold.

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

Make good art – inspiration for the start of the week

If you have time to watch one talk this week, I can’t recommend highly enough Neil Gaiman’s talk on the human imperative to make good art.

Though he’s talking to arts graduates (at the University of Philadelphia) his advice – a passionate plea that we not hold back our creative faculties – is a powerful invitation to all of us, whether we consider ourselves ‘artists’ or not, to live our lives themselves, as Abraham Joshua Heschel recommended, as art.

His is a vital voice in a world where we’ll all too quickly reduce ourselves and those around us to ‘behaviours’, to units of production, to the product of neurons firing or genes expressing themselves, or to passive consumers – and in the process forget to make the contribution that’s really possible for us.

Photo Credit: Vilseskogen via Compfight cc

Rembrandt, luminosity, and the contribution of our gifts

Today, a visit to the Rembrandt exhibition at London’s National Gallery – a shimmering introduction to the work of a man who so clearly loved human beings and was deeply interested in understanding human life, emotion, and meaning in all their shades of light and dark, joy and suffering.

Such love for the world is much needed and yet, I think, for most of us very difficult to cultivate. Cynicism, judgement, resignation and despair about others (and about ourselves) are far easier for us to maintain. They are safer moods, less questioning, and with far less of a call on us to be open, vulnerable and affected by life than that called upon by love.

Walking from room to room, it was impossible to escape the sense that exploring and expressing this love and wonder was the point of Rembrandt’s life. Even in the midst of repeated personal tragedy, financial ruin, the ridicule of his peers and critics and his long fall from fame – even in the midst of all this, he never stopped painting.

The room with his very last works, completed very shortly before his death and when his personal life had fallen apart, was the most luminous and transcendent and generous of them all. A powerful reminder of what it is to dedicate life to the whole-hearted contribution of our gifts. And how different from a life in which all our effort is expended trying to have things work out for us just the way we want them to.

Image: Self-portrait with two circles, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1669
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Two to read

Two worth a read.

Robert Poynton on how seductive the new can be, and how it blinds us to the wisdom and value of what endures.

And Seth Godin on the consequence of becoming passive consumers (led largely by the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets) and our ongoing responsibility to produce creative work that can change people.

Photo Credit: harold.lloyd via Compfight cc

That urge…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: kaddisudhi via Compfight cc

How it begins

For the past few days, to mark the first anniversary of this project, I have been republishing favourite posts from the first year of On Living and Working.
To conclude this series, here the very first post, where it all began.

This is the Olduvai hand axe. It sits in a far corner of the British Museum, nestled among artifacts from earliest human history. It’s around 1.2 million years old. It’s strikingly beautiful. And it marks the beginning of the distinctively human practices of tool-making and art that lead directly to what you’ll find here.

Hand axes are among the first great inventions of humanity, and probably came into being at the dawn of the development of both language and culture. They made it possible for the first time for people to cut with skill and precision, and would have opened up the possibility of turning animal skins and wood into products that went far beyond the immediate need for food.

They mark the moment when we extended ourselves from living in the world as it is to actively and consciously shaping it, when we first began to create the complex web of tools, words, work and culture that – a million or so years later – could bring about the society of today.

Millions of hand axes have been discovered around the world, but what makes the Olduvai axe so striking is that it’s much bigger than can be comfortably held in the hand. Its size renders it unusable for most purposes. In all other respects it’s a perfect tool – beautifully balanced, sharp-edged, symmetrical – the result of many hours of skilled and careful labour. But it’s also a work of art, with a purpose that is a much symbolic as practical, an expression of the artfulness of its maker. That it was made at all reflects the human concern for beauty, for creativity and ingenuity, and for expression. And it’s deeply entwined with the practical world of making and doing, the work of providing for a life well lived.

The industrial age of the 20th century taught us that efficiency and predictability were to be prized above all else. Big organisations, mass production, standardisation all became possible. But the rise in living standards this brought still left many people’s experience of life flat, mundane. When we’ve tired of climbing the ladder or pursuing status, we find that living fully, fiercely, artfully and courageously are needed to lift us beyond the ordinary into the life and work from which we can make our fullest contribution. The Olduvai hand axe, from the dawn of our history, is a reminder of this – and the inspiration for everything that follows.

Seth Godin: Your Story About Money

I have been reading Seth Godin’s work for about five years. His book The Icarus Deception was enormously influential in my own decision to write.

I particularly appreciate his ability to see what’s powerfully shaping us, but normally invisible to us, and give it language which, in turn, makes it possible for us to observe and create and take new action. That’s a vital competence for anyone who’s a leader, entrepreneur, coach, writer, or artist to develop.

Here’s an example – a piece he’s just written on our cultural narratives about money.

And there’s a very interesting podcast interview with him on ‘The Art of Noticing, Then Creating‘ over at the On Being website.

You can find all of Seth’s work at www.sethgodin.com

Your story about money.

Is a story. About money.

Money isn’t real. It’s a method of exchange, a unit we exchange for something we actually need or value. It has worth because we agree it has worth, because we agree what it can be exchanged for.

But there’s something far more powerful going on here.

We don’t actually agree, because each person’s valuation of money is based on the stories we tell ourselves about it.

Our bank balance is merely a number, bits represented on a screen, but it’s also a signal and symptom. We tell ourselves a story about how we got that money, what it says about us, what we’re going to do with it and how other people judge us. We tell ourselves a story about how that might grow, and more vividly, how that money might disappear or shrink or be taken away.

And those stories, those very powerful unstated stories, impact the narrative of just about everything else we do.

So yes, there’s money. But before there’s money, there’s a story. It turns out that once you change the story, the money changes too.

Seth Godin, March 2014

Photo Credit: JD Hancock via Compfight cc

On art and seeing

Art does not reproduce the visible;
rather, it makes visible.

– Paul Klee, 1920 –

Surely this, too, is the responsibility of good leadership: making visible that which we had no way of seeing before.

Just one excellent reason to engage seriously with art in its many forms – painting, sculpture, music, poetry, writing – so that we have eyes to see beyond our habits, and beyond our own horizons.

And so that we develop the capacity to discover and disclose new worlds of possibility for one another.

Want to see more Klee? There’s a wonderful exhibition of his work at Tate Modern in London until March 2014.

Spontaneity

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]

Photo Credit: Adam Foster | Codefor via Compfight cc

Life looking back at life

How extraordinary that the fundamental constituents of everything – quarks, neutrinos, bosons, electrons – made a universe in which it was possible for human beings to arise.

We, beings with the intelligence, creativity and ingenuity from early on to build tools, and make art.

We, inventing devices to look back to the dawn of time and into the structure of matter so that, at last, the particles that gave rise to all of it can be seen.

Surely we are life’s own way of looking out at the universe, and back again at life.

And how often we forget the wonder of it all in the thrum and thrall of everyday existence.

Photo Credit: Erik Charlton via Compfight cc

Why we need poetry

In the gardens of the hotel where I was running a leadership event earlier this week, I was lucky enough to come across the artist and poet Robert Montgomery setting up one of his evocative fire poems as part of an exhibition.

Good poetry does something vitally important that’s often unappreciated, expressing in language that which is otherwise very difficult to say in words. It can give us language for our longing, for new possibilities that we haven’t yet seen, and ways of connecting with and remembering our humanity when we’ve forgotten it ourselves.

We’ve all but excluded the poetic from our work lives – and from much of wider life – another consequence of our seeming commitment to reduce everything an everyone to an ‘it’ that can be measured and manipulated.

Robert’s work offers us a hauntingly beautiful alternative.

Here’s the poem I saw in the June twilight:

TO WAKE UP AND BE LIKE THE
WEATHER. TO BE NO LONGER THE
BROKEN HEARTED SERVANTS
OF MAD KINGS

Images courtesy of Robert Montgomery

It begins at Olduvai

Olduvai Hand AxeThis is the Olduvai hand axe. It sits in a far corner of the British Museum, nestled among artifacts from earliest human history. It’s around 1.2 million years old. It’s strikingly beautiful. And it marks the beginning of the distinctively human practices of tool-making and art that lead directly to what you’ll find here.

Hand axes are among the first great inventions of humanity, and probably came into being at the dawn of the development of both language and culture. They made it possible for the first time for people to cut with skill and precision, and would have opened up the possibility of turning animal skins and wood into products that went far beyond the immediate need for food.

They mark the moment when we extended ourselves from living in the world as it is to actively and consciously shaping it, when we first began to create the complex web of tools, words, work and culture that – a million or so years later – could bring about the society of today.

Millions of hand axes have been discovered around the world, but what makes the Olduvai axe so striking is that it’s much bigger than can be comfortably held in the hand. Its size renders it unusable for most purposes. In all other respects it’s a perfect tool – beautifully balanced, sharp edged, symmetrical – the result of many hours of skilled and careful labour. But it’s also a work of art, with a purpose that is a much symbolic as practical, an expression of the artfulness of its maker. That it was made at all reflects the human concern for beauty, for creativity and ingenuity, and for expression. And it’s deeply entwined with the practical world of making and doing, the work of providing for a life well lived.

The industrial age of the 20th century taught us that efficiency and predictability were to be prized above all else. Big organisations, mass production, standardisation all became possible. But the rise in living standards this brought still left many people’s experience of life flat, mundane. When we’ve tired of climbing the ladder or pursuing status, we find that living fully, fiercely, artfully and courageously are needed to lift us beyond the ordinary into the life and work from which we can make our fullest contribution. The Olduvai hand axe, from the dawn of our history, is a reminder of this – and the inspiration for everything that follows.