The Path

I’m reading, and loving, Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh’s ‘The Path‘, a book about how ancient Chinese philosophy can help us understand ourselves and live our lives more fully. It’s concise, clear, and beautifully written. And, at the heart of it, is an important and wonderful idea from Confucius (echoed in the contemporary world by Martin Heidegger among others): that we largely become who we are through our everyday actions.

This apparently simple claim has some extraordinary consequences.

The first is that there is not so much of a fixed way that each of us is. When I say ‘you know me, I hate being around company, I don’t know what to do in a crowd’ and then repeatedly take myself off to be on my own, I’m actively building myself into someone who is more skilful being with myself than being with others. I’m also becoming someone who knows myself in a particularly narrow way. I get to be the kind of person I am through the accretion of thousands upon thousands of actions, both internal and external, and the stories I tell about those actions, bringing some parts of me into view and pushing other parts towards the margins.

For Confucius this is an important ethical issue. My story about myself – that I am a particular way – is much too small, leaving out as it does all those aspects of me (less known, and perhaps less tolerated by me) that can be quite skilful at social relating and which, with purposeful cultivation, could help me live a life which has more connection with people and a greater possibility of moment-to-moment care for others around me.

The second consequence is that there is a profound and quite pragmatic developmental path to follow, one which can open up wide possibility, and that is the path of practice. Repeated, well-chosen practice – in my example above, the practice of being with and being attuned to others – not only builds skilfulness but allows me to rehearse a different kind of relationship to myself and to life than the one I’m used to. By choosing practice carefully I can gradually find out what it is like to be a social person as well as a solitary person, and cultivate those parts of me which (simply by being human) are quite able to be present with and take care of others.

The point made so beautifully by ‘The Path’ is that in a culture dominated by the detached world-view of Cartesianism, which privileges thinking and theorising about things over the day-to-day doing of things, we’ve largely forgotten the value of simple, everyday practices and rituals as a support for living well. And we’ve forgotten how they can widen our horizons, build our capacity to respond more fully to life’s inevitable unpredictability, and help us take care more skilfully of life’s needs.

 

Reason and truth

Over the past few weeks I have been reading, and very much enjoying, Rene Descartes’ ‘Discourse on Method’, a book he wrote in the early 17th century with the intention of cutting through the confusion of the times in which he lived.

Insight into the genuine nature of things, Descartes said, had become so hidden behind layers of superstition and dogma that even the most intelligent and sharp thinking people of his generation were muddled and incoherent. It rightly bothered him that wisdom was so hard to find, and that attempts to establish a more solid basis for truth about the world were rewarded with punishment and scorn. He was keenly aware that his contemporary, Galileo Galilei, had been condemned and imprisoned by the Church for showing that the earth revolved around the sun and that human beings, contrary to dogma, were not the centre of the universe. And he became committed to laying out a new way of understanding the world that could influence the very people who held the newly emerging sciences in such contempt.

Reading Descartes is illuminating. He is warm, witty, playful and extraordinarily clear. And, throughout, he painstakingly describes a powerful method for arriving at truth that cuts through misunderstanding, prejudice and confusion. In many ways his method is simple. Doubt everything and only take as true that which you can prove by stepwise logical reasoning from first principles. Distrust your own judgements. Distrust your heart and emotions. Distrust your body. Distrust all of your experience of the world. Start with the only thing that you can really know – that you exist and that you are thinking – and rebuild the world from there, rigorous careful step by rigorous careful step.

The genius of Descartes’ work is that it works. By doubting all that we take for granted, and by establishing a method by which we can observe the world and prove things from it, he cut through centuries of irrationality and provided a firm basis for the sciences that have revolutionised the world in which we live. And not only is his method robust, reliable and truthful, in principle it can be learned by anybody.

No longer was it necessary to believe something simply because someone else told us to believe it. With the Cartesian method we could find out for ourselves that something was true. Or we could ask those making a claim to show us the steps they’d taken in claiming it. And so as well as establishing a new way of generating truth about the world, he democratised it, taking it out of the hands of those with power and giving it to all of us. The explosion of creativity and insight in mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology and the computational sciences that followed have transformed every aspect of the world – what we can make, what we can understand, what we can do, and what we make of ourselves and our place in the universe.

While there are many limits to the Cartesian way of looking at things, which I’ll get to another time, his plea for rigour and clear thinking strikes me as incredibly important at times like these when there is such polarisation, superstition, uncertainty and manipulation in our public discourse, our media and our politics. Descartes reminds us that there is a much firmer basis for our decisions than how we happen to be feeling in the moment, than our prejudices and fears, and than the stories about ourselves and others we were handed.

He reminds us that in many aspects of human life, doubting is a helpful and necessary orientation. And that there’s no substitute for looking closely, for checking evidence, and for talking with one another about how we’re reaching the conclusions we’re reaching rather than deciding in a vague, muddled or mistaken way on the big issues of how to live together.

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Five Books in Five Days (5) Seeing Systems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Five Books in Five Days (4) The Three Marriages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Five books in five days (1) How We Are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In praise of shadows

Although there are clearly constant qualities that each of us carry from place to place, relationship to relationship, there’s also much of us that gets expressed – drawn out of us – by the places we’re in and by who we’re with.

The offices, public areas, homes, living spaces, kitchens and meeting rooms we inhabit, each with their lighting and decor and furniture and equipment, afford us certain possibilities and deny us others. Some places bring out the possibility of being focussed and diligent, others bring out our playfulness, and in yet others we get attuned mostly to our boredom or agitation.

As we move from place to place, situation to situation, we might notice the different possibilities that are brought forth. But we rarely see that the entire cultural and architectural background in which we live is shaping us all the time. The very kind of people we come to be is, in large part, being produced by the built environment in which we live. And because it’s all pervasive – we’re born into it and, unless we immerse ourselves first-hand and deeply in other cultures we rarely escape from it – much of its shaping effect is completely invisible to us.

I have been reading Junichiro Tanizaki’s book In Praise of Shadows this week, which is all about this. Tanizaki shows us how, in the west, our contemporary buildings emphasise light. We build large windows to catch the sun, and where this is impossible we add bright electric lighting – fluorescent tubes, halogens, bright white bulbs – to illuminate and to banish darkness. And while this can be beautiful, and is at the least enormously practical, there is something profound about the possibilities of deep shadow that we rarely encounter, and so barely know.

On the traditional Japanese way of building a toilet, for example – so different from bright white, tile and porcelain constructions – he writes:

“There are certain prerequisites: a degree of dimness, absolute cleanliness, and a quiet so complete one can hear the hum of a mosquito. I love to listen from such a toilet to the sound of softly falling rain, especially if it is a toilet of the Kantō region, with its long, narrow windows at floor level; there one can listen with such a sense of intimacy to the raindrops falling from the eaves and the trees, seeping into the earth as they wash over the base of a stone lantern and freshen the moss about the stepping stones… Here, I suspect, is where haiku poets over the ages have come by a great many of their ideas.”

It is shadow around which the traditional Japanese interior world is constructed, and which Tanizaki describes so beautifully in his book. His attention ranges from the design of living rooms and bathrooms – and their affect on us – to the experience of eating steaming rice in the dimness of low-eaved, paper-walled dining rooms; from the practicalities of cleaning and heating our living and working spaces to the possibility of ordinary, everyday buildings as places of spiritual repose.

In Praise of Shadows is readable in one short sitting, and an exquisite way of seeing in a new way what’s possible for us, and hidden from us, in the contemporary world of work and home.

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On Action

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.

Book Week Day 7 – On The Internet

How do we learn, really? And what kinds of skilfulness it possible to acquire by learning online? What do we lose in a world in which there is increasing pressure for learning to go quickly, to be bite-sized, and to be done without a teacher (by streaming video, online lectures, online self-study)? These are the most urgent questions posed in this slim volume by Hubert Dreyfus, Professor of Philosophy at UC Berkeley.

Using many examples, Dreyfus shows convincingly why the acquisition and mastery of complex human skills always involves significant time in the bodily presence of others who have already achieved some level of mastery themselves. Distance learning can’t easily replace this not only because so much in the moment feedback is missing, but also because by leaving out bodily participation we rarely experience the emotional and bodily sensation of being fully engaged. Learning to do something well, argues Dreyfus, requires exactly this. We have to risk, to fully feel our successes and our failures, and most of all to jump in even when we don’t know at all yet what we’re doing.

All of these, Dreyfus says, are denied us when our primary form of interaction is at a distance, is disembodied, and is mostly anonymous. Just compare the experience of asking a question that matters to you when you’re in the same room as the teacher and other students, with the safety and relative hiddenness of a question by email. It’s in the felt experience of risk and its consequence, of being in the mess alongside others, and of caring deeply about what happens that much learning of value takes place. It may not be needed for learning facts alone, but if you want to learn do something well it’s vital, and hardly available to us online.

On the Internet also takes up bigger questions about how technology shapes us as we use it. Alongside Dreyfus’ account of what it takes to master anything, including a clearly described series of stages through which all learners must pass, the book includes chapters on the changes in human knowledge brought about through search technology, and a sharp critique of the net’s capacity – by disembodying us – to rob us of our own ability to discern what really matters. For this reason it is a wonderful read for anyone who cares about learning and change – in individuals, in systems and organisations, and in wider society.

Book Week Day 6 – True To Our Feelings

It’s easy to think of emotions as the opposite of reason – unintelligent intrusions into an otherwise measured life. Or to think of them as if they’re a form of hydraulic pressure – to be contained unless (or until) they explode. Or to treat them as mere physiological events, nothing more than a surge of hormones, a quickening of breathing, a pattern of brain activity.

In True to Our Feelings, Robert Solomon mounts a convincing argument that emotions have a rich intelligence all of their own. He invites us to look at them through new eyes, and to see what it is that each of them has to show us about ourselves, our cares, what matters to us. By understanding our emotions more accurately, he argues, and by avoiding the simple reductionism that’s so easy to fall into, we can enrich our lives and develop more sophisticated responses to the world.

Each chapter in this book takes up the story of a different emotion or mood, and Solomon does much to rehabilitate the so-called ‘negative emotions’ to their proper place in the family of moods each of us experience. Written in an accessible style but with the depth and intelligence to bear fruit on repeated reading, this is a fabulous book for anyone who’d like to address their own emotions – and those of others – with more skill. It’s also a resource for helpfully attuning each of us to what moods might be trying to show us, but which we’re denying or ignoring.

The book is based upon a publicly available lecture series, The Passions: Philosophy and the Intelligence of Emotions.

For a companion piece you could have a look at Solomon’s much earlier book The Passions: Emotions and the Meaning of Life. It’s denser, more philosophical, and has an comprehensive dictionary of moods at the back – some 60 of them analysed in detail, showing how each mood orients us to the world, brings us in close or distances us from others, has us feel superior or inferior, as well as what keeps each mood going and how it works to maintain self-esteem in the face of the circumstances of life. The dictionary itself is a valuable resource for understanding yourself and others, and in particular the unique worlds of possibility (some tight and closed, some wide open) that each mood brings about.

Book Week Day 5 – Tiny Beautiful Things

“There are some things you can’t understand yet. Your life will be a great and continuous unfolding… Understand that what you resolve will need to be resolved again. And again. You will come to know things that can only be known with the wisdom of age and the grace of years. Most of these things will have to do with forgiveness. “

Cheryl Strayed’s advice to her twenty-two year-old self from a viewpoint two decades further on, from her searingly honest, compassionate book Tiny Beautiful Things.

As well as writing novels, Cheryl Strayed was the for-a-while-anonymous advice columnist for The Rumpus. This book brings letters written to her about life, love, loss, work, identity – and her beautiful replies – together in one place. Many of those who write to her are in the midst of life’s great transitions and paradoxes and she responds with humour, kindness, depth and an unwavering belief in the dignity, strength and courage of her correspondents. All of this allows her to say what’s true, and what’s sometimes difficult to hear, in a way that invites the possibility of living with a whole heart.

“You cannot convince people to love you. This is an absolute rule. No one will ever give you love because you want him or her to give it. Real love moves freely in both directions. Don’t waste your time on anything else.”

Tiny Beautiful Things is a wonderful read from start to finish, and a necessary reminder that kindness is not the same as niceness, love need not be the opposite of truthfulness, and that it’s possible to talk about the deep concerns of human life in a way that’s at once humane and liberating. An amazing resource for any of us who want to muster the courage to face life’s difficulties, or to support others in doing the same.

Book Week Day 4 – Aping Mankind

This fierce, thorough, and immensely readable book is Raymond Tallis’ challenge to the contemporary trend of explaining everything about human beings either in terms of neuroscience or evolutionary psychology.

Explanations based on neuroscience in particular have become the accepted mark of serious grounding in many fields, even where the science is tenuous or is being used sloppily or inappropriately. These days it’s possible to give a veneer of scientific respectability to just about any subject by prefixing it with neuro-. And so we have neuro-leadership and neuro-coaching and neuro-justice and neuro-aesthetics. And in many cases huge claims are made about the nature of human beings and, from there, rules inferred about how to treat others and ourselves, from momentary glimpses of brain activity in an fMRI scanner.

Tallis, a scientist and physician himself, has much to say about the careless ways in which neuroscience – a field that has so much to offer in understanding the brain – is misused to justify claims in fields as diverse as law, social policy, management and education. But he has more to say about a bigger and more important topic – how peering into the brain can tell us little about what it is to be the uniquely social kind of beings that we are. We form worlds, layered with meaning and practice, which we inhabit together. And the understanding which gives rise to our actions, he argues, arises between us and can’t be found in the firing of neurons in the intracranial darkness. Another way of saying this: brains are clearly necessary to be human but are insufficient to account for the whole story of human life.

This book is important because of the way it challenges the cultural trend of misusing science in order to give a diminished, reductionist account of human beings. Hence the subtitle: Neuromania, Darwinitis, and the Misrepresentation of Humanity.

This is a book determined to preserve the dignity and possibility of the human world by showing how we are much more than glorified apes and much more than clever computers made of neurons. It’s a fabulous read for anyone interested in the question ‘what is a human being?’ and for anyone concerned about how neuroscience is being misused to sell to us, manipulate, or to produce public and private policy that fails to take the dignity and humanity of human beings into account.

Book Week Day 3 – Conversations for Action

Fernando Flores was a minister in Salvador Allende’s government in Chile at the time of the Pinochet coup. In the introduction to Conversations for Action he writes movingly about the difficulties of this time, and the brutalities that followed, and wonders if the course of events in Chile might have been different had he and others in government found a different way of talking with one another that in turn could have produced more effective and coordinated action.

After a period in political imprisonment and his subsequent release, Flores moved to the US and took up the topic of conversations in earnest. This book, a collection of papers written for clients of his consulting firm, is a clearly articulated exploration of topics relevant to the bringing about of powerful coordinated action. It will be of interest to the many of us who have experienced the frustrations and difficulties involved.

Flores’ central argument is that it is through conversation that all human action comes about, and that our common sense about such conversations does not make much sense at all. We need to think again, and more clearly, about the kinds of conversation we have, about our tendency to leave out crucial steps or avoid important topics (often the ones that cause us anxiety), about the role of mood in shaping what’s possible, about the centrality of promises in coordinating action. And we need a new and more accurate understanding of the activity we call listening. If any of this sounds vague, remember that the purpose of this book is resolutely practical – bringing about conversations that can change things for the better.

A book with the potential to shift how you think about the background to all human relationships, and in particular how you think about – and take action in – the conversations that make up the vital human activity we call work.

Book Week Day 2 – Soul Without Shame

Soul Without Shame is Byron Brown’s deep, broad and practical guide to first knowing and ultimately freeing ourselves from the grip of the inner critic.

It’s the critic that has us hold back our contribution, doubt ourselves when there is no cause to do so, and also has us holding back others. Perhaps most importantly it’s the critic that keeps us tightly bound by the norms which surround us, necessary to begin with but ultimately a huge restraint on our capacity to bring what’s most needed. If we are ever to develop the capacity to speak up, to create, to make art, to lead compassionately and wisely, working with the inner critic is a vital step.

This is a book to be savoured, taken slowly. I suggest spreading your reading out over a year or so, studying each chapter and taking up the various exercises and practices as you go. It’s from these – coupled with what you’ll learn from Brown’s clear explanations – that the most powerful possibilities for your own learning will come.

As you read, you’ll see how the critic is a necessary part of our early development, how we keep it going in adulthood long after it’s served its purpose, how to recognise it in action, and how sneaky it can be, disguising itself as conscience or simply hiding itself away while it’s at work. You’ll also see how you can create some space and start to step out of its shadow.

A wonderful companion piece to Stephen Pressfield’s Do the Work
which takes on the same topic from the point of view of creativity and art – surely the activities at the heart of all leadership and principled human action.

Book Week Day 1 – How the Way We Talk Can Change The Way We Work

This week, seven books in seven days.

Books that can change the way we think about work, or about life. And some books that have the possibility of changing the way we think about both.

Today, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey’s How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, which lays out with clarity and precision the inner and outer ‘immune system’ that both protects us and makes personal and organisational change so difficult.

What we can’t usually see, the authors argue, is that as well as our enormous capacity to develop and change, each of us has within us a powerful set of hidden assumptions about the world that keep us within tight bounds. They keep us safe from the unknown, or from shame and embarrassment. But when our efforts to change bring us up against these assumptions we’re quickly stirred into fear or anxiety – as if we’re about to step off the edge of the known world. And until we can see that we’re experiencing this, and begin to test the edge for its accuracy and reality, change remains extraordinarily difficult – even change that’s sincerely desired.

The book describes practical and razor-sharp ways of working with our hidden immune system, both for ourselves and for the organisations in which we work. And it offers a powerful corrective to our attempts to push or force ourselves and others to change, and to the unhelpful language of ‘resistance’ that brings it about.

Passionate, wise, humane and clear – I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to bring about meaningful change in themselves or in their organisation.

A monster calls

“I didn’t mean it,” Conor said.
You did, the monster said, but you also did not.

Humans are complicated beasts, the monster said. How can a queen be both a good witch and a bad witch? How can a prince be a murderer and a saviour? How can a person be wrong-thinking but good thinking? … The answer is that it does not matter what you think, the monster said, because your mind will contradict itself a hundred times each day … Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary. And your mind will punish you for both.

From ‘A Monster Calls’, by Patrick Ness, a short, haunting, beautiful tale about human complexity and longing that’s far bigger in scope and reach than its ‘children’s fiction’ label might suggest.

It’s a story about love, and our longing and fear of being seen for who we are. And it’s about the innumerable ways we’ll twist ourselves out of shape in order to avoid saying what’s most true, because we’re scared of being judged, and ashamed at our own contradictions. And what might be possible when we nevertheless summon the necessary kindness and courage to speak.

And a hymn, to those moments in life when a fearsome choice is to be made between turning away from truth, or turning towards it – which are also moments where we choose between turning away from or towards ourselves, and the people around us.

It reminded me how often we prefer the illusory security of holding back, even at great consequence to our lives, rather than the vulnerability of speaking up.

And just how much of our lives, and how many of our institutions, can be elaborate constructions for distancing ourselves, right when we most need – and most fear – turning towards one another.

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This Is Water

This week I have been re-reading David Foster Wallace’s short work, This Is Water: a book about taking up an I-You relationship to the world, the importance of freedom, and a caution against enslaving ourselves to our own self-centredness. It’s a call to think about how we think, and about how we pay attention to our lives.

“Everything in my own immediate
experience supports my deep belief that I
am the absolute center of the universe, the
realest, most vivid and important person
in existence.”

If we’re prepared to examine this kind of narrow habitual thinking, argues Wallace, we can live in horizons much wider than a life lived on automatic pilot. By taking our part in the construction of meaning seriously we open up possibilities for connection even in the most hum-drum, irritating, everyday situations of life. We can

“experience [even] a crowded, hot, slow,
consumer-hell-type situation as not
only meaningful, but sacred, on fire
with the same force that lit the stars –
compassion, love, the subsurface unity
of all things.”

The book is a warning that much of what we uncritically worship (and we’re always worshipping something) has the capacity to consume our lives: worshipping money and things leads us to feel that we never have enough; worshipping intellect leaves us feeling stupid and a fraud; worshipping power leaves us feeling weak and afraid, always needing to pursue more power in order to feel safe.

And so it’s an invitation to choose, to orient our lives around meanings that are big enough to break us out of the prison of our selfishness, our sense of being the centre of everything.

It will take you all of 20 minutes to read this beautiful and challenging invitation to the work of a lifetime.

“Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily
true: The only thing that’s capital-T True
is that you get to decide how you’re going to try
to see it.”

Essential reading for anyone who has responsibility towards others in life – whether as colleague, friend, family, customer, citizen, or passer-by.

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Heaven and Hell

In the The Barefoot Book of Jewish Tales written by my friend Shoshana Boyd Gelfand is “Heaven and Hell”, a gorgeous story for children and adults about how our interpretations and practices are constantly shaping the world around us.

In the story, an elderly woman named Ariella is given a tour of each of two possible after-lives. Hell, to her surprise, is an elegant palace nestling in beautiful gardens. Tables are set with delicious food and everyone is gathered for a feast. But as Ariella looks closely she sees that they are all frail, desperate, and starving. Their arms are held straight by long splints and because of this they are unable to bend their elbows to bring food to their mouths.

Hell is a beautiful paradise filled with longing, sadness, meanness and misery.

Isn’t much of the world this way?

Heaven, even more surprisingly, looks exactly the same. Same palace, same food, same splints. But here everyone is well fed, and happy. The difference? The residents of heaven know about kindness, and have learned to feed one another. The very same physical situation with a change in narrative and different practices brings forth a radically different world.

It’s so easy for us to imagine that the world we inhabit is fixed, solid. We come to believe that we are a certain way, and the world is a certain way too. But it’s more accurate to say that we’re always making the world together through our interpretations and actions – what’s ‘real’ about the human world is much more fluid than at first it might seem.

And of course the worlds we bring into being in turn change us. The narcissistic, individualistic, cynical world brought about by the residents of hell keeps their meanness and their resentment going, and their starvation. And the world brought about by the residents of heaven amplifies their kindness.

When we head off the possibility of change by claiming the world is, simply, “the way it is”, or when we say “but in the real world this could never happen”, we need to understand that we are active participants in having the world stay fixed in its current configuration. The world is never only the way it appears. And that ought to be a reason for great hope for our families, organisations and society. And a call for our vigorous action on behalf of an improved future for all of us.

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Living all the way through

Listening this evening to a beautiful radio documentary ‘The Living Mountain‘ (based on an equally beautiful book of the same name) I am introduced to the idea of ‘living all the way through’ – living in such a way that we get to taste, smell, see, hear and touch the world.

In our lives of busyness and distraction, in our striving to get wherever it is we think we have to be in order to be happy, in the midst of the frequent harshness of our inner worlds, how often do we remember to do this? To taste, smell, see, hear and touch any of it deeply enough that it can register?

And in addition to all your plans to achieve, to get ahead, to get things done, how about the coming year being one in which to remember this as a possibility?

So that this year is not a year you miss in your frantic activity, but a year that you actually choose to live?

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Monoculture: New reading for the new year

Monoculture: How One Story Is Changing Everything‘, is F.S. Michaels’ eloquent account of how the economic narrative upon we’ve built our society is quietly, invisibly changing the way we think about many aspects of contemporary life.

Taking on work, creativity, our relationships with one another and with the natural world, education, community and health, she shows us how we’ve redefined value to mean ‘financial value’, and the far-reaching consequences of this for the quality of lives we’re able to lead. And she’s bold enough to suggest strategies and practices by which it might be possible to consciously engage with the wider culture without either absenting ourselves from it or simply being swept up by it.

It’s a powerful, provocative and pragmatic book, with enormous possibilities for changing the reader. I’d recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who wants to see through the everyday ‘common sense’ we increasingly take for granted in our institutions, society, and personal lives.

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A small milestone

Today marks six months since the beginning of this project – a commitment to write and publish each day on the hidden heart of living and working.

I had been thinking of writing for a long time before starting here, and one of the inspirations to begin was a wonderful book ‘The Icarus Deception‘ by Seth Godin.

It’s a book about the necessity of creating art:

  • art that makes us human
  • art that allows us to be ourselves fully
  • art that brings what’s new into the world
  • art that’s a contribution to others

It’s also a book about the background narratives that shape our lives invisibly, and in particular the industrial narrative that has us keep our heads down and fit into the shape that others (particularly in the world of work) have made for us. At its heart is an impassioned plea for courage – to step out of the endless cycle of ‘more and more’ and the sense of scarcity it inevitably brings, and instead to turn towards what brings us and the people around us fully to life.

For anyone who longs to make a contribution, but did not yet find the wherewithal to begin, I cannot recommend it too highly.

Watch upcoming posts here for news of a book study group I’m about to launch. By joining you’ll have the chance to read and talk about a book with others and explore how to bring it to life and work. The Icarus Deception will be the first book we’ll be taking up.

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