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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Welcoming Ourselves and Others

In this episode Lizzie and I talk about the radical possibility of welcoming ourselves, and others, just as we are.

To those of us with a more action-oriented stance or a commitment to improving things, welcoming in this way can look like an act of irresponsibility. After all, doesn’t making things better in some way entail rejecting how things are?

We explore this tension together, looking at how our surrounding culture of keeping up and comparison with others turns us away from ourselves. We consider the possibility of both welcoming and working to repair the world. And in the midst of things Lizzie’s niece joins us for a surprise visit.

The source is written by our friend and colleague Steve March:

Letting Be – A Poem to Welcome a Fellow Journeyer

Dear journeyer, you are welcome here exactly as you are.
No one here will try to change you according to their ideas or ideals.
No one here wants you to be otherwise.
We will let you be, just as you are.
Only then can we celebrate your perfect uniqueness.

Letting be is a gift of love that we give to you.
Love of your Truth.
Love of your Beauty.
Love of your Goodness.
Only then can we relish your luminous brilliance.

Letting be is a gift of love that you can give yourself too.
Letting be, your heart will melt, your mind will open, your body will release.
Letting be, your creativity will rocket forth.
Letting be, your innate resourcefulness will amaze you.
Only then can you behold your true magnificence.

The sun beams just for you.
The mountain salutes your majesty.
The river of life guides you within its currents.
The universe is your playground.
Welcome home, dear journeyer.

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.

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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Ritual and culture

Our rituals give us an opportunity to rehearse a different kind of relationship to ourselves and to others than those in which we ordinarily find ourselves.

This is exactly what we’re doing with the ritual of a formal meeting where we take up assigned positions (chair, participants, etc) and give ourselves new ways of speaking with one another that are distinct from everyday conversation. It’s what we’re up to with the ritual of work appraisal conversations, which are intended to usher in a new kind of frankness and attentiveness than is usually present. It’s in the ritual of the restaurant, where the form and setting gives us, from the moment we enter, a set of understandings, commitments and actions shared with both other diners and with the staff. And it is, of course, present in all religious rituals when performed with due attention, which call us for a moment into a fresh relationship with the universe, or creation, or the rest of the living world.

The more we practice a ritual – especially if it’s one practiced with others – the more we develop the imagination and skilfulness to live in this new relationship in the midst of our ordinary lives.

It is for this reason that among the most powerful ways we have available to shift a culture – in a relationship, in a family, in an organisation – is to imagine and then diligently practice new rituals.

And by naming them as such, by declaring that they are ritual, we can help ourselves step in and be less overcome our inevitable resistance, our anxiety, at trying on new, unfamiliar and much needed ways of being together.

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Left Out


Conversations frequently left out of the discourse of professional life:

What you’re feeling – a potential source of enormous insight and connection to others

What you care about – especially if different from those around you

Your history – the story of everything and everyone that brought you to this moment, the discoveries and losses and experiences that have shaped you

Your weirdness – the unique artfulness and way of seeing that comes from you being you

Your imagination – your capacity to invent beyond the bounds of convention, the energy for life which stirs you to break out of the ways you’re held in

Your longing – the life and world you’re in the midst of bringing forth

We shut them out with excuses. They’re ‘soft’ subjects, while business is ‘hard’. They’ll open a pandora’s box or a can of worms. This is a work-place, not a therapy session.

We lose so much when we continue to exclude the passions and possibility of the human heart from so many of our endeavours. And it damages us too, because before long we reduce ourselves and others to shadows of ourselves, inoculated by our cynicism against demonstrating care for much that is of genuinely enduring value to human life. Is this really the way you and your colleagues began your journey into the life of work? Can you even remember?

That work should be this way was sold to us by the early industrialists who needed scores of people in their factories to button down, fit themselves in, and stay in line. They appropriated the language of rationalism and science to fashion people into tools, cogs, and components so they could build their great money making machines. And we bought it, continuing a pernicious myth that shallows our relationships and possibility.

The world faces many difficulties right now, and addressing them is going to take all the generosity, wisdom and heartfelt commitment we can muster. Do we really intend to keep on working to shut that out from the world?


It’s not just that fear is easy, that it makes us feel important, and that it sells.

When it’s unaddressed it also turns us away from our humanity.

When our society turns to fear as the background mood, the humanities themselves come under such assault. We’re turning away from the study of literature and poetry, art and philosophy, music, language and culture as ends in themselves. When we’re afraid and in denial about our fear, as so many of us are, we want just that which will demonstrably help us go faster, complete more, make the money, hit the targets, beat the competition, keep out the outsider, make us feel safe.

The humanities do none of those, at least not in obvious ways. They won’t settle, or soothe, or rush us into action. They’ll take their time. They’ll trouble us, stir us, have us ask bigger and deeper questions than we’re asking. They’ll open the horizon and the wide sky, connecting us with the wisdom and humanity of those who have come before (who may have a thing or two to teach us about our current circumstances), making us feel our vulnerability and possibility, opening us to others, inspiring us, and reminding us what a store of depth and capacity we human beings have to respond to life. This is the very depth and capacity which, as Marilynne Robinson writes in her latest book, might well be ‘the most wonderful thing in the world, very probably the most wonderful thing in the universe’.

When we turn away from the humanities as a serious path, and allow ourselves to be possessed by our fear, we reduce ourselves in profound ways. And, when our democracies and our organisations turn this way, we lose the very thing that makes both democracy and organising together work: our trust in the capacity and dignity of the other human beings with whom we share the places in which we live.

The humanities teach us how vital, how possible, it is to live and work with other people even when we disagree – and how much we must be prepared to learn from others, both those living now and those long gone, if the world is to be bigger, and better, than that tiny and narrowing patch of land we each defend at all costs simply because it’s the only remaining patch of land on which we don’t feel afraid.

Learning again how to trust ourselves

Rene Descartes’ method for discovering what’s true starts with a bold and radical move – distrust everything until it can be proven. It’s not hard to see how powerful a way this is to cut through superstition and confusion. By starting from first principles, and using step-by-step logic, he gives us a way to prove things for ourselves, doing away with our need to rely on anyone else’s claims.

In order to make the method work, it’s necessary to start with one thing that can be assumed to be true without proof – and for Descartes it was that he was thinking. Hence cogito ergo sum, ‘I think therefore I am’. The one thing I can be sure of is that I’m thinking, because here I am, thinking it! And in this move, he both makes his method possible and sets up the condition of our society ever since.

Without this we may never have lifted ourselves beyond the confusion of Descartes’ times. But when we take Cartesianism to be the only way to relate to the world (a project at which our education system is very effective) we quickly become estranged from ourselves. Our bodies, emotions, our subjective experience, and the experience of others are all to be doubted, or considered irrelevant. Even the existence of others is something we can no longer take for granted without proof (and conclusively proving this everyday, common-sense aspect of our experience turns out to be extraordinarily difficult in the Cartesian paradigm). Though we often don’t know it, we’re deeply educated in and profoundly conditioned by the Cartesian principle that thinking is paramount and that everything else is to be distrusted.

The consequence? We’ve forgotten how to trust ourselves.

We don’t know how to trust what’s true in the senses of our bodies (we’ve often barely learned how to pay attention to this at all). We don’t trust the felt-sense of situations, and we don’t know how to tell what action to action take when we feel distorted, disjointed, incongruent, afraid. We don’t trust what we love. And we don’t know how to listen deeply to the longing and song of our hearts.

We’ve become experts at distancing ourselves from ourselves. And because we can’t feel what’s happening to us we launch ourselves into many projects – in our work and in our private lives – that harm us, and harm others, and harm the planet. We justify our actions, if we’re prepared to justify them at all, as ‘reason’ or ‘business’ or ‘productivity’ or ‘best practice’ or ‘getting ahead’.

We need the cold, sharp blade of the Cartesian method as much as we ever did. But if we want to create lives and a world in which we can thrive, a world which brings about wisdom and beauty as well as truth, it’s time to learn how to feel things again. And it’s time to teach ourselves and our children once more about the discernment and understanding of the world that comes not just from the sharpness of our minds, but from the intelligence of our bodies and the sensitivity of our hearts.

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A very dedicated and successful swimmer once told me that the way to extend your reach in strokes such as the crawl is first to over-reach. To add 5cm, practice extending by 10cm for a while. The over-stretch, she told me, teaches the body to settle into a new configuration so that, on relaxing again, your established stroke lands somewhere between where you started and what you reached for.

Over the coming days I want to see if I can point out some ways in which we’ve over-reached with the project that René Descartes started, and how we might restore to ourselves some measure of balance in which reason, with its power to cut through and generate truth, takes up its place alongside the no less important virtues of goodness and beauty in our organisations, our institutions, and our society.

I think this is important not only because we’ve used the sharp-sword of detached reason in places where it destroys rather than nurtures (I started to lay some of those out in this post), but because we’ve done ourselves a huge disservice in worshipping the cartesian method to the exclusion of all else. Whenever we’ve used it inappropriately – forcing it into places where it cannot help us, such as in our attempts to scientifically measure love, or meaning, or care, or art, or ethics – we’ve blunted it, confused it and diminished its power.

I can’t help but think that our misuse and misunderstanding of the methods of objective reason contribute to the spread of quack cures that look convincing because of their scientific-sounding language, to the many failed projects to measure and produce ‘engagement’ in our organisations, to our all-too-easy trust in the explanations given by our politicians, and to our obsession with education systems that train our children to score well in exams (and in easily measurable subjects) rather than develop wisdom and skilfulness in living.

Perhaps by being clearer about where objectivity helps us, and where it does not, we can cut through our confusion about reason itself. And this is important because just as we can’t flourish without goodness and beauty, we certainly can’t flourish without reason either.

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Subjective, Objective

René Descartes’ method gave us a way to find truth by making a clear distinction between subjectivity and objectivity.

Subjectivity, the particular way of looking at the world that is unique to each of us, is to be roundly distrusted because of the way it distorts understanding: introducing errors of judgement, errors of perspective, and the errors that come from being confused by our emotions, bodily sensations, commitments and desires.

Objectivity, the way of looking at the world that comes from dispassionately observing and measuring the properties of things, can be trusted – as long as careful observations are made and conclusions formed by the step-by-step application of tried and tested methods of reason and logic.

By restricting what we take to be true to that which can be found in the objective and logical realm, Descartes gave us a powerful way of establishing truths that had previously eluded us. No longer did we have to believe that flames go upwards because it is of the essential nature of fire to rise above other kinds of matter, and no longer did we have to believe that the sun and stars went around the earth because it is the essential nature of human beings to be the centre of things. We could observe, and test, and reason and conclude, establishing cause and effect relationships free from superstition and free from prejudice.

It was a world-changing shift of perspective that moved reason to the centre after centuries during which it had been in the margins. At the same time, it established mathematics and physics as the central sciences. Mathematics took up a particular specialness because of its power to explain and predict without recourse to any subjectivity or, indeed, any need to rely even upon the physical, objective world in order to do its work.

It’s hard for those of us who have grown up in the world ushered in by Descartes and his enlightenment contemporaries to see what a radical change this was, so schooled have we been in its assumptions and its way of looking at things. But we can see it in the way we go about science and proof, in the way we look for particular kinds of facts or measurements before we’ll take something as true, in the way we make ‘objective’ more important or valid than ‘subjective’, and in the explosion of science and technology in our era. There’s no doubt that our world would be radically different, and in so many ways vastly impoverished, without our having taken up reason as the central project of the last few hundred years.

But I think it’s worth asking questions about where we have taken Descartes’ project too far. We routinely rely on it to produce truth in fields where its methods and its insistence on discarding the subjective lead us to look in a narrow way and can direct us into all kinds of confusion. How we educate our children and ourselves, and about what, working together in organisations, pursuing what’s meaningful rather than what’s simply useful, being in relationship, loving others, community, art – each of these are among the fields where the subjective, where our experience of things, is central, and no recourse to a subjectivity-free objectivity can hope to show us much. And reason, while vital in establishing truth (I would not want to do without it!) cannot help us alone with two other important human projects – beauty and goodness – both of which are vital if we are to have flourishing and ethical institutions, politics, education and organisations.

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Changing the path

We human beings are both path-makers and path-followers. Both are important, but it’s our innate capacity to follow paths that makes possible so much of what we are able to do, and gives it its character.

Notice this in your own home. How the door handle draws you to open the door, how the kitchen table is an invitation to sit, how the half-full fridge calls you to open its doors and find something to eat. Notice how a library is a place you find yourself hushed and reverential, how you push and shove to take up your place on a crowded train even though you would do this nowhere else, how you rise in unison to shout at a football game, how the words on the page guide you through the speech you are giving even when you’re not concentrating closely on them, how you quicken your step in a darkened alley, how you find yourself having driven for hours on a busy motorway without remembering what actions and choice any of the minutes entailed.

Our capacity to follow the paths laid out for us is no deficiency. That the paths support us in the background, and that we do not have to think about them, is what frees us for so much of what is creative and inventive in human life – including our capacity to design entirely new paths for ourselves and others.

To be human, then, is always in a large part to find ourselves shaped by what we find ourselves in the midst of.

It is all of this that exposes the limits of our individualistic understanding of people and their actions – an understanding we use to make sense of much of what happens in organisational life. For when we are sure that it is the individual who is the source of all actions and behaviour, we are blind to the paths that they find themselves in the midst of.

And as long as we concentrate only on getting individual people to change, or firing or changing our leaders until we get the ‘perfect’ right one, we miss the opportunity to work together to change or lay out the new paths which could help everyone.

Indeed, working to change the paths that lend themselves to whatever difficulty we wish to address may be the most important work we can do. And this always includes our developing – together – the skills and qualities that support us in being purposeful path-makers in the first place.


Projects for the imagination

Here are some projects to which it’s possible to turn your innate capacity for imagination.

All of these are meanings already given to us: handed to us by our families and culture, and made up – constructed – by other human beings.

Which means you, and I, and all of us, have as much possibility to imagine and declare new meanings and stories for each of these as anyone who has yet lived so far.

Close in

  1. Who am I – beyond or different to the roles and stories I’ve already taken up?
  2. Who might I be?
  3. What a feeling – bodily or emotional – means (ever noticed that feelings stir up familiar, habitual stories about what’s happening? Perhaps other stories would be more appropriate, life giving, possibility-filled).
  4. What’s possible for me to do?

A little further out

  1. What’s going on in the relationships I’m in (that might be different from the way I’ve imagined it so far)?
  2. Who are others – beyond the roles and stories I have about them?
  3. Who might others be?

Even bigger

  1. What is the organisation in which I work (a machine, a living organism, a pulsing-fluxing-pattern of conversations, a means to make money, a means to make meaning, a way of building community, a way of bringing about contribution)?
  2. What is work for?
  3. What’s the nature of the world I live in (a battleground, a competition to reach the top, a flourishing field of life, a flat dull expanse, a source of continuous disappointment and boredom, an endless wonder)?
  4. What is life?
  5. And what is life, itself, for?

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Roll out

So much difficulty, suffering, and effort would be alleviated if we understood in our organisations that culture is not something we can implementroll-outinstill, or command. It cannot be programmed nor demanded other than through force, coercion, intimidation and fear (a topic that totalitarian states know about only too well), methods which themselves can produce only rigid, stuttering, repressed cultures that serve only the few.

Culture is not a thing, an object, or an entity that has an existence separate from us. We cannot stand on the outside of it, analysing or directing it as if we were not involved. It is born of our participation. It arises from the conversations, promises, commitments, practices and intentions we have towards one another. And it is sustained and created anew in every moment by our acts of relating and responding to those around us – every one of which is either an act of sameing or an act of changing.

If we understood this – if we saw that cultures develop through many tiny living experiments in speaking, listening and interacting – we might relax our efforts to ‘manage’ change the way we do, or our demands that someone else sort out culture on our behalf. We would give up waiting, complaining, until there was more ‘communication’, or until ‘they’ saw the light. And perhaps we would find ourselves stepping in – seeing that although we could never know quite what the outcome would be, every act is an opportunity to tell a new story, to experiment, and to invite a new conception of who we are, who others are, and what there is to do.

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What to pay attention to

I wrote yesterday about the inevitability that what we are doing in our lives (and hence in every activity, relationship, project) is joining the dots, stringing together the phenomena we experience into coherent narratives and explanations. In other words, we are always interpreting – and which interpretations we choose (or which choose us) is of enormous significance.

Of equal significance in this is our choice of phenomena to pay attention to. What we notice, and what we take to be meaningful, is a matter of both choice and practice. Choice – because an infinity of phenomena reach us and we pay attention only to some. Practice – because the way we pay attention (which includes what we pay attention to) is both a matter of habit (we most easily pay attention to what is familiar to us) and skilfulness (our capacity to discern and discriminate between different phenomena is something that can be learned, and cultivated over time).

The current cultural background of scientific materialism in which most of us are deeply schooled without our knowing it does not help us well in developing life-giving interpretations from which to live life, nor in learning to pay attention to what might be meaningful to us. This is not through any fault in science, itself a powerful and rigorous method for discerning deep and fundamental patterns and truths about the material universe. But looking at our lives only this way has us pay attention only to certain kinds of experience. We look only at what can be reasoned about, logically and in a detached way. We treat as true only that which can be proved, measured, quantified.

Scientific materialism, in its deep commitment to understanding the material world (and in understanding the world only as material) has little scope for understanding what’s meaningful to people, what makes our hearts sing, how we are moved by encountering or making art, what it is to love and be loved, what it is to care about life, the world, others. Or, more accurately, when it does have something to say about these topics it can only say that love is a particular firing of neurons in the brain, or an evolutionary adaptation to make it more likely that we reproduce; or that art is simply an adaptation that allows us to build social status, or that our appreciation of it comes because of the transmission of pleasure signalling chemicals to reward centres of the brain. And while all of these might well have a kind of rigorous truth about them when looked at from a materialist perspective, they tell us nothing about the meaningful experience of being human – what it is to love, or be loved, to create art, or be moved by it, to open to the mysterious and endless wonder of finding ourselves alive, or to be a whole world – as each of us are – of relationships, language, meanings, longing, desire, sadness, grief, joy, hope and commitment.

When we treat ourselves or others as mere material objects and truth as only scientific truth – as we are encouraged to do in so many of our systems in organisations, education and government – we miss out on deeper interpretations that take into account that we are subjects too, living beings who act upon the world through our ability to care and make sense, and who possess an exquisite and precious consciousness and capacity for self- and other-awareness. Precious indeed, because as far as we can tell, compared to the abundance of matter in the universe, life is rare enough. And among all the life we know about, as far as we can tell, consciousness and self-awareness (the capacity to say ‘I’ and reflect on ourselves) even rarer.

Alongside our scientific materialism, we could support our understanding and care about being human by paying attention also to the insights of those cultures and peoples who came before us, many of which we have thrown out in our elevation of reason over wisdom. In treating only reason as valid, we’ve discarded ways of encountering truth that can include beauty, meaning and goodness alongside what can be logically proved to be true. Myth, art, poetry, music, legend and spiritual practices that bind us into communities of meaning and action are all worth studying and taking seriously here. They can teach us to pay attention not only to the deep insights of our logical minds but also to the wisdom of our hearts and bodies, and to our first-hand lived experience of being human among other human beings.

Which brings me back to the ‘dots’ we pay attention to – the phenomena we treat as meaningful in our lives. What we experience does not come labelled for us as important, or not, significant or not. We have to decide what’s worth noticing, and practice living lives in which we make matter what can matter. And it’s incumbent upon us to do this, by paying a deeper kind of attention to our lives and our experience, and to what we choose to care about.

The inner life of rebellion

For some worthwhile listening today, check out this gorgeous and provocative conversation between educator and writer Parker Palmer, and journalist Courtney Martin, from the On Being podcast.

A powerful inter-generational dialogue about change, culture, rebellion, making a contribution, and opening ourselves ever more to what life is calling for.

The opposite of polite

Being polite at work always involves suppressing something.

Politeness is doing what’s considered reasonable and appropriate rather than talking about what’s true.

Politeness calls on us to say what will be acceptable rather than what will help.

Politeness has us be liked (although in a shallow way) rather than be trusted.

When politeness dominates we force our concerns underground, hiding them from the light, and from each another. There in the dark where they cannot be acted upon directly our difficulties fester, becoming resignation and resentment. Many a polite organisational culture – in which people are outwardly friendly – masks a deep vein of frustration and despair that can find no useful expression.

The opposite of politeness is not cruelty, or unkindness, or wilful injury to others – unless in your pursuit of truth you also abandon your capacity for compassion.

No, the opposite of politeness is – perhaps surprisingly – respect. Respect for oneself, respect for others, respect for action that matters, and respect for the important work that you are here to do.

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On Play

I am on my way home from an evening of joyful, experimental playfulness. Ten people, mostly unknown to one another, gathered together by a friend and colleague for an evening of games inspired by the world of comedy improvisation.

We’ve laughed, talked, experimented, and experienced some moments of surprising light and tenderness. And now, done, we head off into the damp London night.

I’m struck by how little space genuine play has in many of our lives, and particularly how absent it is in most workplaces. Since the days of the industrial revolution we have largely thought of work as a place of utmost seriousness. We have play progressively schooled out of ourselves by an education system obsessed with predictability and measurement. We’ve relegated it to the margins, thought of it as a distraction, boxed it in to prescribed spaces and times – away days, workshops.

Our most productive, inventive, connected and generative moments come when we abandon our pretensions and tendency to over-think and allow ourselves to be playfully drawn out of ourselves by situations and by others. Such play has enormous restorative power, bringing us back to the aliveness of our bodies and the richness of our interactions with others.

It seems we’d rather ignore the signs of our own stiflement – boredom, tiredness, fogginess and stress – and plough on with our processes and structures even when they no longer serve us. Seriousness has become equated with professionalism, play with taking liberties.

And, yes, play is the taking of liberties – a necessary act of freeing ourselves from our rigidity so that something surprising and fresh and alive can happen.

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The difficulty of changing a culture

One of the reasons that culture change is often so difficult is that we see it as a change of behaviour without understanding that it always involves the capacity to change our habits. And this is itself no trivial matter.

The capacity to change habits requires more than a list of new behaviours to take up, a set of new processes, or even a compelling story about the change that’s needed and what it might bring about – although each of these can surely help.

We also have to learn:

  • how to loosen our grip on our familiar way of being, acting and speaking
  • how to tolerate anxiety (because this is how it almost always feels to let go of a way of being we’ve become familiar with)
  • how to deal with our own inner criticism and deflation when things don’t go the way we’re expecting
  • how to practice new skills, and stay dedicated to our practice over time
  • how to listen, speak, and make powerful requests (so that we can address interruptions and breakdowns to our intentions as they arise)

All of these are developmental tasks that support us in moving away from our habitual reactivity and into the kind of openness and responsiveness that’s required whenever we want to bring about a lasting change.

It’s time we helped ourselves by taking the developmental aspect of organisational change seriously. As long as we see it as just a shift in behaviour, and ignore the shift in our collective development and skilfulness that’s also required, we’re going to keep on adding difficulty to what’s quite difficult enough already.

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On being weird

Are you prepared to allow yourself to be weird?

Weird – different from everyone else around

Weird – saying what’s not immediately understood

Weird – having a quite different point of view

Weird – being prepared to confuse, be confused, in pursuit of some deeper understanding

Weird – turning what’s assumed on its head

Weird – showing people what’s in the background, unseen

Weird – pointing out what people think is ‘normal’ but is actually crazy

Being actually weird (as opposed to just being different or in opposition) is most difficult when we’re young, when we’re still trying to figure out how to fit in.

But as we grow, I think we can afford to start to let our weirdness come out. Because, behind all our protestations, we’re all much more weird than we’ll ever let on. And our determination to appear normal (which just means the same as everyone else) is a way of holding back much of what we have to bring, much of what we have to see, and much of what we could change for the better.

The roots of the word weird are associated with turning, and with becoming: with bringing out what’s already becoming the case.

So being weird is, in the end, being one who is prepared to bring what you actually see, and actually think, and actually feel, instead of the socially acceptable version that will keep everyone happy, or everyone numb.

And our organisations, institutions and society could certainly do with a lot more of that.

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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.

Not best practice

I wrote yesterday about the pitfalls of using process when what you’re really hoping for is relationship. It’s an example of a category error – trying to fix one kind of problem when what you’re dealing with is a problem in a whole different domain.

One reason why performance management processes can’t work on their own to support engagement and people’s own capacity to self-correct is that it’s in the conversation between people that everything important happens. And skill in conversation is not at all the same as skill in following process.

I find it interesting that in many organisations in which I’ve worked people say ‘we have a successful performance management system’ when they really mean ‘we’re successful in following the process’. Rarely does it mean that employees have a greater sense of enrolment, that there is deep systemic understanding of what’s making performance possible and what’s hindering it, or that anyone is able to self-observe and self-correct well enough to actually make a difference to anything. But at least everyone’s filling in their forms, scheduling performance meetings, and assigning ratings…

All of this is an example of why the idea of best practice can’t easily be applied to human organisation.

In a mechanical environment best practice makes sense: if we find that a certain cooling unit produces good results in my factory it’s very likely to do the same in your factory, assuming we have similar conditions and similar equipment. But in addressing a human system itself it’s often impossible to make such an assumption. The 5-point rating performance system I described yesterday, that might have worked so well somewhere else once before, may have very different effects here. Because here it’s us, not them. And here we have our own particular relationships, commitments, language, understanding, priorities, values, habits, discourse, concerns, interests, conversations, bodies, culture… which means that a process on its own could well, might well, produce a whole different constellation of meaning and effect when applied here – including having the very opposite effect from what’s intended.

How many performance management processes which are apparently ‘best practice’ produce nothing but busyness, hiding, disillusionment, manipulation, game-playing and secrecy simply because we took the idea of best practice far more seriously than we ought to have done? And because as a result, we failed to take seriously what was really needed to address our concerns?

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From where does behaviour appear?


In my work in organisations I frequently come across people trying to bring about meaningful change by making lists of ‘behaviours’ that people should take up. If we can just pin down how people behave when they’re being loyal, or creative, or leading, or trusting – the theory goes – and can convince people to agree to it, we’ll be done.

But it is woefully insufficient. Easy to talk about, easy to imagine, and based on a misunderstanding of what human beings are.

You can do a simple thought-experiment to show this. Start by making a list of all the behaviour that constitute ‘trust’ for example.

Can you make a complete list? Whatever you write down, there will always be something important left out – some situation you didn’t yet think of where trust would be expressed in a new way. A phenomenon such as ‘trust’ is way too complex, too rich, and too changeable to be enumerated like this.

Now, look at the items you have written down on your list. Can you imagine situations where somebody does the opposite of what you’ve written but it still could constitute trust? For some items on your list the answer will be yes – because human behaviour is always contextual. We make sense of a particular moment in the light of the particular situation, its history, the future possibilities and intentions we’re pursuing, and who is involved. There is no context-free list of behaviour that defines trust. We know trust when we experience it, but its way of being expressed is particular to this moment.

Lastly, imagine a robot carrying out those behaviours – a robot that has action on the outside but is empty of feeling or meaning on the inside. Would that constitute trust? I don’t think so.

Can you see how this extends to empathy, leadership, friendship?

Yes, we can make lists of behaviour that can help us understand. And, yes, bringing change into being does require us to change our actions. But our lists of behaviour can never be definite and they never are by themselves the phenomenon we are trying to bring about.

Just because I’ve agreed to your list doesn’t mean I’m going to be able do it in anything more than a robotic fashion, or know how to respond when I find myself and others acting ‘outside’ of the list.

Bringing about change by tying people into lists of behaviour fails in large part because it’s a technical response to a developmental issue.

Instead of reducing trust or leadership to something measurable and observable in a fixed way, we need to look upstream at what gives rise to it, and work there. This takes new questions – more powerful, and more complex. How does trust appear in me, between us? What practices make it possible? How might we correct ourselves? And how do we need to speak with one another, when it’s not appearing?

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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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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.

Music to return us to ourselves

Finding practices that recall us to ourselves – so that even the humdrum and ordinary can be imbued with some sense of wonder and aliveness – is something of an art that we each have to discover for ourselves.

I wrote a little about this yesterday.

Have you considered how music could be part of this for you?

Let’s distinguish for a moment between music that’s designed to distract – music for the ‘background’, jingles and muzak and much that’s still heard on commercial radio stations – and music that is courageous enough to express the heart of human experience in a true and honest way.

This second category includes music of all types and genres, of course. But, for today, perhaps you’ll consider listening to just one piece: the first section (on a CD or download, the first track) of Brahms’ Deutsche Requiema ‘humanist’ requiem written in response to the death of Brahms’ mother and of a close friend. It’s widely available to download and a first listen will take no more than ten minutes of your time.

Even if you’re not familiar with choral music, you might hear within the sound and texture of Brahms’ work a passionate commitment to living. He’s beautifully captured the sense of awe and amazement that comes from understanding our unlikely place in this most unlikely of worlds, and from knowing that our time in it is finite. This is music, written from a deep understanding of death, that can bring us searingly and beautifully into engagement with life.

And when you’ve finished with Brahms himself, give yourself half an hour to listen to the amazing episode of BBC Radio’s Soul Music (free on iTunes here, or from the BBC website here) filled with stories of how Brahms’ Requiem has played a pivotal role in people’s lives.

Of course, you’ll need to find your own music or other art form that can wake you up to your life when you forget. Today I wanted to share with you one of mine, in the hope it might be strong enough to be of some use.

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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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Three rings

Downstream: the ‘hard’ measures through which you track what you’re up to.

Upstream: what makes it all possible – the intentions, commitments and relationships from which everything flows.

If you commit to changing a downstream measure without doing the upstream work that supports it, you could easily end up having a very different effect to that which you’re intending.

An example. You commit to answer the phone every time within three rings (a downstream measure). And then you discover that everyone feels so much pressure to perform that they’re abruptly cutting off conversations with customers, frantically interrupting them as they speak, and failing to listen deeply to their concerns.

If the downstream change is going to have a chance of meaning something, you’re going to have to attend to the upstream source that gives it a home in which it can flourish. In this case that’s the genuineness of your intention to serve your customers, and everyone’s capacity to stay receptive, grounded and in relationship to others as they learn new ways to act.

Without this attention the shiny little fish you’re throwing in the downstream waters will survive only for a short while. And when people see them wither once again, you’ll be adding to their cynicism and resignation rather than doing something that could have your intentions flourish.

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Downstream: ‘Behaviours’

Upstream: The kind of person you are.

What’s downstream flows from what’s upstream.

All too often, at least in the organisational world, we try to work with what’s downstream without paying any attention to what’s upstream.

We invent behaviour frameworks, cajole people, and tell them what to do without giving any consideration to what it takes to be the kind of person who has new ways of acting available to them.

We’re looking at what we so urgently want to be present without looking at its becoming.

It’s like tipping fish into a dry river and expecting them to survive without doing the difficult and important work of attending to the spring. And just because it’s quick and obvious doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do, or that it will go any way to addressing the difficulties you’re experiencing.

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Almost invisible

Take a look at the many ways the threat of shame is used as an almost-invisible shaping hand in your own organisation. Or in your family.

Can you see its unspoken possibility embodied in the way you do appraisals, award bonuses, promote people, speak to your colleagues, give feedback?

How do your organisation’s values, frameworks, and stated mission work to keep people in line because they’ll feel shame if they stand out?

What about all the ways you keep people feeling insecure about their positions – working harder and harder, but not necessarily more creatively or effectively, to avoid the shame of redundancy or losing their job?

And how about the ways you quietly support people working crazy hours, giving up on their family life, and being seen to do the ‘right thing’ even if it’s not, actually, right for them or for the situation?

Or do you support a culture in which people are instead very nice to one another, and so are unable to bring up what they see that might be troubling, upsetting, or challenging to the cosy picture you’re promoting?

Shame must be almost invisible, but not quite, for it to have its powerful effect. Its invisibility means many of us simply get on quietly – not standing out too much, taking it as a given part of the background of working life.

Wouldn’t it be a wonderful act of leadership to start to point out the hidden threat of shame everywhere you see it, and to begin to undo it so that the people around you can at last begin to flourish?

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A hidden currency

Shame is a powerful, primal human emotion, stirring up for us as it does the overwhelming sense that ‘I shouldn’t be here… I cannot be here…’. It has us contract, freeze, mute ourselves, and make ourselves acceptable at the price of our aliveness and creativity.

It is the perfect mood for forcing us to fit in, to withhold anything that might cause others trouble, to keep us in line. Which is why it’s used so powerfully and effectively in the life of organisations.

And because owning up to shame is, for most of us, itself shameful, we hide it from others and deny it to ourselves, living quietly with the suffering and wounding that it brings. We pretend we are not feeling shame even as we experience it most acutely.

And we pretend not to see how our leadership and organisational structures actively promote it – how shame is often the unspoken currency of organisational life.

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Scared of feelings

Quite apart from the indoctrination we’ve had that organisations are like machines (and so the people inside them are like machines too), mostly we’re determined not to talk about feelings at work because they force us to face the truth.

If people are scared, they’re scared. If angry, they’re angry. Bored, they’re bored, and so on. Aside from those times when we confuse ourselves about our feelings, or delude ourselves, there’s no denying that feelings are true for those who are experiencing them.

And so when people say “We can’t talk about feelings here, it’ll open a can of worms” what they really mean is “It’s too dangerous to talk about what’s true, about what’s really going on”. Similarly, claiming that feelings talk is ‘fluffy’ or ‘soft’ is a convenient excuse for turning away from a perhaps difficult, significant, and real conversation.

The simple truth of what you’re feeling, and what those around you are feeling, will tell you much about what’s happening in your team and in your organisation. It will tell you much about what you and others actually care about (because feelings arise from what matters for us). And it can open up the possibility of facing the situation you’re in, and acting upon it, together.

We’ve already had enough trouble in the world of organisations because people wouldn’t look at the truth of what was happening around them. Can you be sure your insistence that feelings are irrelevant doesn’t have you join them?

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