Seeing Systems

When you start to see that your organisational dramas (see this recent post) repeat themselves in organisation after organisation you can also start to see that your difficulties are often not so much personal as they are systemic.

Another way to say this is that what you might think is the problem with Dave or Jill or Aggrey or Sue (or with yourself) is often being brought about by the wider system in which everyone is participating and not simply by the person themselves.

We are not used to looking in this way.

We blame Jill, who is in a senior position, for being aloof, distant, and unresponsive to our needs. But all the while Jill is experiencing her own position as overwhelming – caught between her personal accountability for the organisation and all the problems others keep on bringing her.

We blame Aggrey, who is in a middle position, for being unable to respond to our reasonable requests for information or support or action. But in order to respond to you he needs the cooperation and response of others. All the while his experience is that of being pulled in opposite directions by the demands of his bosses and the demands of the people on his team.

We blame Dave, who is a team member, for complaining that he is under-resourced, while missing that Dave is experiencing the vulnerability and uncertainty that comes from others deciding what work he will do, or even if he will have any work at all.

Jill, Aggrey and Dave are experiencing the archetypal difficulties that come with being in a hierarchically ‘top’, ‘middle’ or  ‘bottom’ position. And we judge them, mistakenly, with archetypal and personal judgements, which misunderstand their situation.

We come to believe that for anything to happen they must change and that until they do we must wait and put up with it. While we wait for them to change, or demand that they change, we reserve the right to complain. We don’t see the particular difficulty their positions bring, and we don’t see that our very complaints are part of the problem.

Our complaints assume the difficulties we experience at their hands are personal, and that the solutions to them are personal too (which is to say that Jill, Aggrey and Dave simply need to get their act together, buckle up, and do what we need of them). But much of what we’re experiencing – and much of what Jill, Aggrey and Dave are experiencing -is systemic, which is to say it’s being brought about by all of us. Until we see that, we’re trapped in a cycle of judgement and blame which asks the impossible of our colleagues.

The first step required to get out of this drama is compassion – which includes finding out what the world is really like for those whom we find troublesome.

The second step is seeing that we keep these systemic difficulties going through the stories we tell about others, and that there are many alternatives to the stories that are most familiar to us.

When we find and act upon stories that account for people’s actions more accurately than our usual blame and judgement stories, many possibilities for connection, responsiveness and partnership open to us.

For a wonderful, articulate and very practical exploration of all this, I can’t recommend Barry Oshry’s book Seeing Systems highly enough.


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.

 

Stimulus and Response

I love Dan Pink’s RSA talk on our mistaken assumptions about what makes good work possible.

The subtitle of his talk could be ‘Don’t think you can manipulate people into making their most genuine contribution’.

Paying bonuses for performance, argues Pink, works out only in very particular situations. Promise to reward people more for performing a mindless mechanical task, and often, yes, they’ll find the wherewithal to do it better, or faster.

But make bonuses the reason to do work that requires care, thoughtfulness, or imagination – especially if that’s your primary method of engaging them – and you’re most likely to see poorer results.

I don’t think this should surprise us. We know pretty quickly when we’re being manipulated and it often makes us cynical and resentful.

The very idea that bonuses would increase performance arises from the still-influential work of the behaviourist psychologists of the last century. They argued that the inner experience of human beings is irrelevant, and that we can decide what to do by looking just at outer stimulus and response patterns.

In many organisations we’re still caught up in the simplistic understanding of people that the behaviourists inspired. The consequence? The design of management practice based on the reward and punishment responses of animals such as rats.

But we’re human beings, with rich inner worlds that cannot be ignored just because they’re hard to measure. We are brought to life by meaning, belonging, contribution and creativity. We’re not machines, nor do we contribute any of our higher human faculties in response to a straightforwardly manipulative stimulus such as a bonus.

When we’re treated  – or treat ourselves – as if we’re something less than the complex, meaning-seeking beings that we are, it should be no surprise that we – and our work – are diminished.

Pay people enough to have the issue of money be off the table, argues Pink. And then you need to ask deeper questions.

Here’s the animation from his talk, with thanks to Geraldine for introducing it to me.

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Love

Love – genuine love for anything – is so often left out of the discourse of organisational life.

Apparently it’s not serious enough for business.

Sometimes we’ll allow ourselves passion – a word which is allowed, I think, because it sells us to others with its promise of energy and heat, commitment and making things happen. (We’re so tied up with endlessly making things happen that we’ve forgotten everything else that conspires to make it possible).

And we’ll allow ourselves cynicism and skepticism, moods which distance us from one another and give us a feeling of superiority (a kind of pseudo-sophistication in which we believe we have greater insight than everyone else around us, who simply can’t see what we can see).

Frustration and resignation are also welcomed in many organisations, because serious work is apparently meant to be difficult all the time and both of these moods, reminding us of our difficulty, tell us that we must be doing it right.

But love – genuine love? Deep, heartfelt love for something or someone that brings out our integrity, moves us, has us speak truth even when it’s inconvenient, draws us out of ourselves, can touch people with something beyond manipulation or self-interest? How often do we allow that in ourselves or in others?

We treat love with disdain.

And we’re much the poorer for it.

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Supplier or partner?

A choice to make whenever you work with others: will you relate to them as supplier or partner?

Suppliers are there to give you what you ask for. ‘We want 300 widgets by Friday’ – there’ll be a supplier for that. The supplier does not need to know much about what you care about, or are committed to, beyond the needs of the current supply. Once they have fulfilled your request to the standards you lay out, their job is done. And in relating to them as supplier you become consumer – the one with the right to determine the spec, the one upon whose sole discretion the supply gets accepted or rejected, and the one who expects not to be challenged, or disturbed, or questioned.

The consumer-supplier relationship, even if it lasts over a long time period, is essentially a relationship of safety and utility (an I-It relationship). If someone else comes along who can give you what you ask for more quickly, or more cheaply, or with less fuss, have them supply you instead.

And while supply gives you what you asked for, it gives you only what you asked for. You may get what you want, but you may well not get what you need.

Partners are there to be in your commitments with you. To be a partner is to step in, to care about the same things that another cares about, and to build a relationship which can hold creativity, surprise, trust and difference. To be a partner is to be prepared to question the spec, the strategy and the premise, and be questioned in turn for the sake of the larger commitment you share. It’s to enter into something big together, to be influenced by one another, and to be in it for the long term.

When you step into a relationship this way, you invite the other party to join with you in your endeavours. As such partnership is an essentially I-You relationship, a shared commitment aimed at a far bigger set of possibilities than a supplier-consumer relationship can ever hope to address.

The partner-supplier choice applies to just about any relationship. Colleagues, employees, consultants you bring in, people who make things and services you use – any can be partner or supplier. In each case you choose. Will you invite the other to be supply for your requests or partner in bringing about what matters most?

Each kind of relationship has its place, and each has its consequences. But what gets most of us into trouble, sooner or later, is how often we try to make ourselves suppliers when a bolder, riskier and more significant contribution is called for. And how often we look for the safety and reassurance of a supplier, when it’s a partner that we really need if we’re going to have the impact on the world we’re hoping for.

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Misunderstanding feedback

‘Giving feedback’ has become so much a part of what is considered good management that we rarely ask ourselves whether it’s effective or question the premise upon which it’s based. I think it’s time we did.

The very idea of ‘feedback’ as a central management practice is drawn from cybernetics. The simplest kind of single-loop cybernetic system is a home thermostat. The thermostat responds to feedback from the room (by measuring the ambient temperature) and turns on heating when required so to warm the air to a comfortable level. When the target is reached, the thermostat turns the heating off. It’s a ‘single-loop’ system because the thermostat can only respond to temperature.

In a double-loop feedback system it’s possible to adjust what’s measured in order to better address the situation. If you’re bringing about the conditions in your room to make it suitable for a dinner party you may need to pay attention to temperature, lighting, the arrangement of furniture, the colour of the table cloth, the number of place settings, the mood and culinary taste of your guests, and the quality of conversation. Single-loop systems such as thermostats can’t do this. But double-loop cybernetic systems allow us in principle to ask ‘what is it that’s important to measure?’. And, of course, human beings are far more suited to this kind of flexibility than thermostats are.

It’s from this way of looking that we get the contemporary idea that feedback – solicited or not – is what’s most helpful or appropriate for someone to learn to do the right thing. But it is based on something of a questionable premise. Thermostats, even very clever ones, and other cybernetic systems don’t have emotions, or cares, or worries. They do not love, or feel fulfilled or frustrated. They do not have available to them multiple ways to interpret what is said. They do not hurt, and they do not feel shame. They do not misunderstand or see things in a different way. They don’t have an internalised inner critic, nor do they have bodies that are conditioned over years by practice to respond and react in particular ways. They are not in relationship. They do not have to trust in order to be able to do what they do. And they do not have a world of commitments, intentions, relationships, hopes and goals into which the latest temperature data lands.

People have all of these.

When we simply assume that spoken or written feedback, even if carefully given, will correct someone’s actions or help them to learn, we assume they are more like a cybernetic system than they are like a person. Sometimes it can certainly be helpful – when the feedback is in a domain that both giver and receiver care about, given in language that makes sense, and when it meets the hopes and aspirations of the receiver with sensitivity and generosity. But many times we find that the very act of giving feedback wounds or confuses or deflates or misunderstands or treats the other person as if they don’t know what they’re doing. We find that the world of the giver is nothing like the world of the receiver. We find that our best effort to construct feedback according to the ‘rules’ mystifyingly doesn’t bring about what we’re intending. And then we get frustrated or disappointed, and try to give the feedback another way, imagining that if we can come up with a clever technique or way of saying it then our feedback will work.

Perhaps a place to start would be to stop thinking about people as if they were glorified thermostats. In order to do this we’d have to soften our ideas of truth in feedback – specifically the idea that the one who knows the truth gives feedback to the one who must be corrected. Secondly, we could start to think how many ways there are to learn how to do something well than being told how someone else sees it. And third, we could wonder how we can share the riches we do see in a way that gives dignity and maintains connection between both parties – starting by knowing when it’s time to request, demonstrate, reflect, inquire together, make new distinctions in language, show someone how to make good observations for themselves, or simply stay out of the way.

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We don’t do introspection

“We don’t do introspection”, they said to me. “None of this fluffy, self-indulgent, navel-gazing here”, they continued. “We do action.”

Of course. If you’re going to lead as they were, in a global organisation, then right action is critical. But what they meant by “we don’t do introspection” was “we aren’t prepared to look at ourselves”.

If they had an inkling, and most of us do not, of how much their actions were being shaped, out of their view, by

their personal preferences,
by their fears,
by years of habit,
by their avoidance of reminders of childhood experiences (mostly shame),
by the expectations their parents handed them,
by their inner critic,
by their longing to be appreciated, liked, respected, feared, in control

then they would perhaps have taken introspection or some rigorous self-observation more seriously. They would have been brave enough not just to look at their actions, but to look upstream at what was giving rise to them.

But they didn’t.

They had asked for help because they’d been amazingly effective in taking action – action that had landed them and their organisation in deep trouble.

And now they were trying to get out, with the same excuses, and by doing more of what had got them into difficulty in the first place.

Crazy, and sadly all too common.

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Cell walls

Human beings are not infinitely extensible.

We cannot keep on taking on more, saying yes to more, stretching our efforts into the late hours, getting up early, piling it on, squeezing it in, pushing ourselves harder and harder, without soon hitting limits.

First, perhaps, we reach the outer limits of what our relationships can take. But we say to ourselves that it’s not too bad, that it’s just the way life is, and we push on.

Later we encounter the limits that our bodies and minds can take, and we return home first ragged and exhausted, then increasingly unwell. We’re adaptable though. It doesn’t take us long to get used to be stretched as thin as we can go. And before long we carry with us lasting damage from the stress hormones coursing through our bodies.

And even though this kind of yes-to-everything is endemic in our culture and in many organisations, it’s largely there because we have not yet learned how powerful ‘no’ can be.

‘No’ is a boundary-making move. It’s a declaration that separates this-from-that. It’s through ‘no’ that we distinguish the important from the unimportant, what matters from what does not, and what we care about from what’s trivial.

We can learn much about this from living systems. In cells, for example, it’s the boundary-making properties of the membrane, that which distinguishes inner from outer, that makes the self-producing and life-generating processes of the cell possible.

A cell without a cell wall is just a splurge of protoplasm and organelles.

And just as there is no outside without inside, there is no proper, genuine, sincere ‘yes’ upon which we can act without the necessary, powerful boundary-making of ‘no’.

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Always incomplete

Friday night. The start of shabbat, the Jewish sabbath.

A time to put down everything – work, concerns about work, busyness – for a day of renewal, relationship, paying attention to the world through new eyes.

And yet here, sitting in the synagogue with my family, my body and mind are filled with the long list of tasks left open, opportunities not taken, calls not returned, emails not answered. There’s tension in my chest and stomach at all that is unfinished, all that is mine to do. My mind, barely attentive to what’s going on around me, reaches out in a wide, scattered, urgent arc – as if thinking it through over and again will resolve my difficulty. As if this is a way to complete what is uncompleted.

And then I remember that the day will come, and none of us knows how soon, when I will no longer be able to complete anything. And on that day too, the day that life is done, there will still be a long list of incomplete projects. Messages waiting. Conversations unfinished. Responsibilities unfulfilled.

I come to see that project I’ve taken up with my racing mind and thumping heart, the project of having it all neatly done, can never and will never be concluded. I am reminded that to be human is to live, in one way or another, as yet unwritten.

That it is time to let go.

Yes, there’s a time for urgently finishing whatever is at hand. And a time, a time we need, to set all that aside and to see the incompleteness of the world, and everyone, not as something that always needs fixing but as part of its strange, necessary and wonderful beauty.

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Ghosts

We search for patterns, often without knowing that we are doing so, filling in what we can’t be sure of with what we can already grasp. And so we often relate to other people from our memories of them, or we project onto them aspects of ourselves to fill in the unknown we encounter in them.

But that’s not the end of it. We also easily and unconsciously relate to other people as if they were key figures from other systems and constellations of which we have been a part, in a phenomenon known as transference.

So you join a new organisation, and find that there’s some way in your new boss reminds you of your father. And even before you know it, you’re filling in the blanks as if that’s just who he is. When he doesn’t reply to your email, it feels like all the times you were ignored in your own family. When he’s short tempered or curt with you it reminds you of the times you were judged, and you imagine his reasons for judging you are the same as those you remember from home. You find yourself seeking his praise, repeating the ways you learned to get noticed as a child. And you feel warm and supported perhaps exactly when you get the kind of recognition you longed for when growing up, but feel unseen when he’s recognising you in other ways. And all the while, you have no idea this is going on.

And he, simultaneously, is responding to all the subtle cues that come from the transference you are experiencing. Perhaps you now remind him of his own child, and he finds himself treating you in this way. He looks to praise you the way he praised her. He is frustrated with you for what frustrated him about her. He is reassured when you respond in ways that feel familiar, and confused and exasperated when you don’t fit the pattern that years of habit have taught him.

Before you know it, you have planted the ghosts of brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, teachers and enemies and lovers among your colleagues. And each one of them, in turn, has recruited you into a role you may know nothing about.

And all of you are in a dance that everyone is dancing, even though nobody can see the steps the others are following. On and on, through and through, transferred memories of families and systems that are not of this place, the weave from which your conversations and relationships, your delights and your many troubles, are spun.

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Reimagining Ritual

We human beings need rituals, and we create them everywhere. We have rituals for getting up in the morning, rituals for brushing our teeth, rituals for making breakfast, rituals for leaving the house, rituals for speaking to our families, rituals for paying the bills. And our organisational life is brimming with them – rituals for checking our emails, and rituals for responding to them; rituals for interviewing, hiring and promotion; rituals for the presentation of documents and proposals; and rituals for meetings.

Each ritual, whether private or public, gives us a stable form for our actions and relationships – a way of navigating without having to reinvent ourselves again and again. But each is far more than just a repetition of particular behaviour. A ritual – with its particular structure and pace, style and mood, and with the specific roles taken up by those engaging in it – brings out and rehearses a kind of relationship with life and with one another. And the more we perform it, the more habitual and familiar that style of relating becomes for us.

This, in itself, can be a fascinating area for study. Who am I being when breakfast is a coffee grabbed on the run from a street vendor on the way to the train? And who would I be if I made time to prepare food for myself with care and attention, and with enough time to eat? Who are we being when we gather in the meeting room, rehearsing the familiar pretence that we’ve read the agenda already and checking for emails under the table? And who would we be if we set our devices and papers aside, looked one another in the eye and talked about something really important until we were done?

We don’t have to continue simply enacting the rituals we’ve inherited in a thoughtless way. We could make a start by understanding that even the existing rituals with which we’re familiar are fertile ground for reimagining – and that there are many interpretations available which could bring us into more truthful, engaged and alive relationships with ourselves and those around us.

We could sometimes take up the ritual of travel from place to place as a way of cultivating wonder at the world. We could reinterpret the rituals of getting up in the morning as a way of bringing out exquisite care for ourselves and those closest to us. We could take on our rituals for spending money as an opportunity for cultivating sacredness rather than running afraid or getting just want we want. And we could even take up the ritual of meetings as an opportunity to build welcome, truth and openness rather than as a way of reminding ourselves who’s in charge, how busy everyone is, and how in control of things we are.

 

Left Out

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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?

Human Resources

Intelligence. Creativity. Love. Strength. Openness. Connection. Inspiration. Tenderness. Discipline. Rage. Courage. Artfulness. Curiosity. Compassion. Wisdom.

All of these are human resources.

What we’ve done by calling people ‘human resources’ obscures this. It forces us into a category that includes money, electricity, technology and fuel. This way we become objects rather than subjects, commodities rather than people, tools for production rather than living beings, ‘it’ rather than ‘I’. It’s an example of what in philosophy would be called a category error – a misunderstanding of the nature of things.

So is it any wonder that the systems and language we invent seriously limit the expression of our true resourcefulness?

Behaviours we expect people to follow – as if human beings had no interior world of discernment, meaning, and feeling from which their actions flow.

Values we expect others to take up uncritically as if they couldn’t determine for themselves what they’re deeply committed to.

Competency frameworks we design as if skillfulness, artistry and human ingenuity could be reduced to a set of bullet points.

Management that aims to reduce individuality, creativity and surprise, as if people were an irritant that gets in the way of the smooth running of the machine.

None of these do anything to amplify the real resources human beings have to bring to their lives and work.

And while we might think we’re only treating others in this way, we can’t help but diminish our own humanity each time we treat people as if they had little humanity of their own.

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Eudaimonia

When we measure effort by results alone – return on investment, percentage growth, money made, units shipped – we easily forget that it’s the nature of human beings to be shaped by what we do. We’re profoundly affected by the actions we take, even if we choose to pretend that’s not the case. We become what we do.

And there are real consequences to our wilful blindness. Pushing ourselves ever harder to hit targets with no consideration of the bodily and emotional costs leaves us drained, anxious, depleted, and unwell. People die emotionally this way. Or our relationships shrivel. Or, frighteningly often, we lose our lives because we’ve attended so little to our own genuine care (in Japanese there is a special word, Karōshi – death from overwork – that names this phenomenon).

We’re equally traumatised and diminished when we repeatedly treat our colleagues or customers as if they are a means to an end, when we treat ourselves as if we’re a means to an end, when we speak corporate jargon that numbs and distances us from the truth of our experience, when we try to shoehorn our human fluidity and agility into rigid job descriptions and lists of corporately-sanctioned behaviour, when we mouth platitudes and sign up to ‘values’ in which we do not believe, when we turn up to meeting after meeting in which we have no role and no intent to contribute, when we abandon our cares and concerns in order to get ahead, when we live as if redemption will come in the future (when we get that promotion, job, car, or house), when we mute our own voice because we’re afraid, when we give up our artistry and integrity to serve a set of aims that are at odds with our own, and when we continually ignore the longing of our own hearts and the signals of our own bodies that we’re living at a remove from ourselves.

And yet all of these are what many of us have been taught is precisely what is required by the world of work. We’ve come to believe that success in these self-harming domains is the success we’re striving for. That productivity must always come ahead of care for ourselves and others. That this is simply what we have to put up with, or even that it’s good and necessary to have work be a means by which we absent ourselves from genuine flourishing. And by taking this to be true we enslave ourselves, willingly, to a convenient but destructive myth that has supported the kind of economy upon which many countries have relied for decades, a myth supported by the Cartesian premise that the human mind is separate from the body (so we don’t need to pay attention to the impact our work is having on us), that human beings are essentially broken (so we have to continually push harder to make up for our inadequacy), and that redemption will come from status or being able to buy more stuff (a premise which, itself, keeps the whole edifice going).

In the midst of all of this, it’s no wonder that so many people feel only half-alive, and that so few of us can imagine that work or life could be any different.

But there are other ways of being available to us, and we know them already.

The ancient Greeks had a word – eudaimonia – for the living and working practices of a life well-lived. It means living in accordance with life’s good spirit, living with a commitment to flourishing as well as to excellence in our endeavours. Specifically it means living in a way that cultivates virtues in ourselves and others – those qualities which themselves bring life into the world. Cultivating virtues cultivates our sensitivity to the needs of life and our capacity to do the pragmatic work needed in order for us to live well.

Indeed for the ancient Greek philosophers it was the very definition of excellence and an ethical responsibility to attend to the kind of human beings we become, even as we pursue our other aims and goals. To attend patiently to our practices, becoming more and more able to cultivate hope, compassion, wisdom, beauty, justice, mercy, patience, enthusiasm, peace, creativity and any number of other of virtues. And as we do so, becoming the kind of presence that makes it more and more possible for others us to do the same.

To actively work on the expression of virtues is to actively work on being an expression of life, which in turn breathes life into the people around us. And it’s not a luxury or an option either – we always need these qualities in the world, in the brightest of times and in the darkest.

Of course, cultivating virtue in ourselves is far from easy. We simultaneously have to work on our willingness to step forward and take risks, to work productively with our own inner demons, shame and self-criticism, to be able to let go of our preferences (giving up doing what we like and instead doing what’s called for), and to develop sensitivity for the needs of others and for the needs of the world. There isn’t much in the world of work for most people that encourages us to do that. Most of the time we’re more comfortable staying small, and afraid, and within the familiar bounds within which we know ourselves. And most of the time the culture we’ve cultivated in our organisations would have us do the same (even while we publicly extol the value of ‘thinking outside the box’ and run corporate wellness programmes that serve to cover up the difficulty we’re in).

Today, as we face a wide range of difficulties and tensions that are tearing at the way we’ve done things so far we could, if we wish, reimagine how we work, and reimagine leadership as we do so. We could define leadership in eudaimonic terms, making the work of ‘cultivating virtue in ourselves and others’ the primary task.

And we could, as we do so, find out how much more able we can be in responding to the world in ways that serve everybody, rather than only a narrow set of concerns shaped by targets, unquestioned growth, or our wish to fit in.

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Jonathan Sacks on the Politics of Anger

I’ve been reading, a lot, over the past few days, and noticing how my mood swings as I read. Here, I read an article about the inevitability of the coming destruction, and I am afraid. There, I read that it’s not going to be so bad, and that what is happening in our politics is just a downward blip on an upward trend, and I feel settled. Seeing this has helped remind me how changeable my feelings are, and how important it is that – whatever I’m feeling – to get to work on what needs to be done.

What seems truest right now is that nobody knows what’s going to happen, and of course we cannot know. Being afraid for too long doesn’t help – it causes us to flee, or numb out, or freeze, or perhaps fight one another. We can instead admit that we don’t know, that there’s much at stake, and start to do whatever we can do to improve things. Sitting around, hoping our lives won’t be affected and waiting to see how it turns out is surely an irresponsible strategy.

Getting to work, even when we don’t know how it’s going to go.

That’s what hope is.

Today I’d like to recommend that you read Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s article from today’s Daily Telegraph on the politics of anger, on paying attention to what’s happening in our societies, and on what’s called for in us in order to respond. As I’ve been writing these past few days, it seems to me one of our urgent tasks is to take active responsibility for the kind of society and economy we’re creating. It’s going to mean a lot more listening, much more speaking up, some difficult choices for all of us, much possibility, and our ongoing commitment to hope. For those of us who work in organisations, it’s going to mean speaking up – starting now – so that we can be part of the change. Rabbi Sacks articulates this beautifully, and urgently, and his article is powerful call to action. Please read it.

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Naming

How strange and beautiful names are.

We know we are not our names. You and I are not a Justin or a Sue, a Peter or a Dan, a Zephaniah or a Helen, a Lucy or a Grace, even if that is what we have been called all our lives. Our names never capture us in our completeness, our wholeness, or our complexity.

And yet we also know that our names are powerful. With them we can be referenced, talked about, called to account, questioned, criticised, recalled, honoured, resented, planned for, dignified and loved in ways that would not have been possible before human beings had names for one another.

What we name becomes available to us. Naming brings us into relationship. Naming directly shapes who and what we’ll notice and pay attention to. And naming shapes who and what we have to take care of, just as avoiding names shapes what we’ll ignore.

And this is why it’s important we find out what we’re resisting naming – in our families, organisations and politics. And why finding accurate names for what we’re turning away from is a deep and necessary act of creativity, dignity, and responsibility for one another.

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The perfect mistake

My school German teacher would not tolerate mistakes. His way of teaching was to interrupt us, every time, if we made a grammatical error, even if we were halfway through a sentence. And so while I learned German just fine as an academic subject, a detached exercise in reading and writing, I never learned to speak with any facility. My body – faced with a real German-speaking human being – simply wouldn’t do it.

It’s this that clearly illuminates the difference between learning about a subject and developing ongoing, embodied skilfulness to do something with it. Learning a skill always requires risk and the possibility of getting it wrong. Indeed, we become skilful in the very process of messing up, feeling ashamed and confused, and then trying again in the light of what happened. Making mistakes, and the possibility of shame, call from us the kind of engaged involvement that’s required for our activity to have sufficient power to disorganise and reorganise us, which is the mark of any lasting learning.

As Hubert Dreyfus argues in On the Internet, this is why online learning (now so in vogue in the world of organisations) is fabulous for learning facts but not good at all for learning to master any complex or sophisticated skill – there simply is not enough contact with the bodily presence of others and insufficient social risk to have our mistakes (or the risk of mistakes) affect us.

It’s also why author William Westney argues (in The Perfect Wrong Note) that our fumbling errors made when learning a musical instrument are so constructive, useful, and enlightening, especially if they happen in the presence of a teacher or group of peers.

And it’s why my teacher showed us German, brilliantly, as an exam subject but did not – because he would not let us fail – teach us how to speak.

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Fear is easy

Fear is easy.

Really easy.

It spreads, like wildfire – my fear becoming your fear becoming their fear becoming my fear again.

It makes us feel special – if I’m so afraid, there must be important things to do, like saving myself or saving the company or saving the country. At last, because of fear, I have a role to play.

It makes things look simple – there is no choice here, no nuance, no time to talk together or think together about what’s really called for, or if we’re doing the right thing, or what the consequences over time might be. There is just action, this action, my action, and now.

It helps us look right – how dare you suggest another way, a different way? Can’t you see what’s at stake here? How risky this is? How much we have to lose?

It saves us from having to listen to one another – if you’re not with me you’re against me, and if you’re against me you must be wrong, and it’s because you’re wrong and all of those others of you who are wrong that we’re in this terrifying mess in the first place.

It saves us from having to think – that there might be another way to see this, that your point of view might have merit, or integrity, or something to offer.

It saves us from shame – at the ways I’m hurting you, or hurting myself, or hurting those who will come after us.

It sells – the idea that I’m the best, that my way is the right way, that we’re the chosen ones, that they’re out to get us, that you have to work harder, that you must never stop, that our values are under threat, that we have to do this vital but terrible thing, that after all it’s only business or politics or necessity.

It allows us to justify – these punishing targets, our culture of hyper-activity, my monitoring of your every move, the hours I expect you to work, our obsession with measurement and deliverables, my not listening, our race to the lowest common denominator, your being available at every moment, our treating others as objects.

Of course, fear works best when it doesn’t display itself as fear. It’s at its most potent when dressed up as civility, and best practice, and just-doing-business, and competency frameworks, and HR policy, and micro-management, and ‘smart’ goals, and this-is-work-not-a-playground-don’t-you-know.

Fear is easy, and fear is cheap, but it’s dignity that sets the human spirit free to contribute, and create, and address our difficulties, and listen, and change things, and improve our situation. And dignity takes work, and courage, and honesty, and sincerity, and integrity, and wisdom and compassion and humility and love.

Yes, love. Not a much-respected word in many organisations or in politics, and easily dismissed by the easy politics and business of fear. But it is indeed love that reminds us how brilliant human beings can be, how capable, how varied, how much there is to marvel at in our situation and our capacity, and how much we need all of this right now, just as we always have done.

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When hiding anxiety only fuels it

A story about the trouble caused when we can’t talk about shame and anxiety in organisational life:

A global retailer struggling to meet the expectations of the markets, brings in a new measurement system for its stores, with more than sixty targets to meet.

A daily ratings table of stores is published internally, naming those meeting the targets and those falling short. It’s described as a logical move to increase performance in difficult times. And at the same time, it allows the board to deny the anxiety they’re feeling: “we’ve done everything we can do, and we’ve responded in a clear and rational manner to market conditions”.

Meanwhile, the ratings system has very effectively pushed the anxiety onto the store managers, where even respected, skilful, long-serving managers are reduced to a daily jostle for the top few spots. Unable or unwilling to challenge the system itself (after all, it’s apparently a rational response to the current difficulty), they start to put pressure on their department heads for the daily delivery of the targets. And, unable to start a conversation about how all of this feels to everybody, the department heads – fearful of being shamed – look for whatever they can do to hit their targets.

This is where the real trouble begins.

Because in the face of unnamable anxiety and the unbearable threat of shame, even respected, diligent department heads start to look for ways to game the system.

Numbers are fiddled. Statistics reinterpreted. Orders are left piling up in the warehouse because nobody can keep up with the new standards for shelf layout. Items in the store are relabelled so that products look like they’re available when the mystery shopper team comes around. Staff members are taken off other important duties to work on the tills when queue-length is measured, but the queues are allowed to reach enormous and frustrating lengths at other times.

The target numbers are, frequently, met – aside from for those few unfortunate store managers who aren’t wily enough to play the system – but standards drop relentlessly across the group and customers start to take their business elsewhere.

Public shame, skilfully dealt with. Skilful gaming of the system, denied. The organisation becomes a system for avoiding anxiety rather than serving customers. Nobody talking about it – “it’ll open a can of worms”.

You can see this same drama played out in hospitals, whole health systems, schools, retailers, service industries, transport, government, with huge and debilitating effect.

And in most places nobody’s talking about what’s really going on, because we’ve made mood undiscussable.

If we’re going to deal with all of this – and we must – we’re going to have to wake up to the fact that organisations are always made up of people, and people are always caught up in moods that shape what can be seen and what’s possible. Our insistence on understanding people as detached, strictly rational parts of a well-oiled machine is not doing anything to address these difficulties.

And without the courage to do this, we’re going to condemn ourselves to a future of looking good while we undo our best and most important efforts.

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Imagining or listening?

imagining

Our capacity to imagine allows us to convince ourselves that we know other people – their intentions, their wishes, their inner worlds – when we hardly know them at all. But what we are sure we know can so easily turn out to be simply what we’ve invented. And once we’re sure, we quickly discount evidence to the contrary, reinforcing what we’ve imagined by the selective way in which we look and listen.

We can imagine grudges and resentments, frustrations and slights, judgements and failings, hurts and distances, all without even once checking that they are true. And we can go for years, thinking we know others, when what we know is our story about them.

We do this with lovers and enemies, children and parents, siblings and friends, colleagues and acquaintances. We do this with people whose culture is different from our own, people who live or speak differently from us, people who vote differently.

And all of it feels so real.

There is one simple, and difficult, and necessary way to address the suffering, distance and estrangement that comes from our imaginings, and that is to listen.

Simple, because all of us are able to ask another ‘please, tell me about yourself, tell me what I need to know in order to understand you more fully’. We can do this with loved ones, with work colleagues, and across seemingly unresolvable divides. And we can start today, even if we have never had such a conversation before. All it takes is a willingness to be present and to hear, fully, what the other has to say.

Difficult, because listening in this way means we have to drop our defensiveness, our wish to hear things only on our terms, our fear that we won’t like what is said. We have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, available, open. This is not the same as giving up our own way of seeing the world or simply doing what another person asks, but it does require allowing ourselves to be changed by the encounter. And this calls on us to summon up reserves of courage and grace and compassion, and to give up being in control all the time.

And necessary because our imaginings so easily act as a wedge between us, prolonging our difficulties, denying us the creative and nourishing possibilities of relationship, and blinding us to suffering as well as to the light and goodness that is in us and all around us if we’ll only look.

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Love made visible

Below, nine narratives, nine stories, about what work could be for.

Whether we choose one of these, or one of the infinity of others that are possible for us, there’s no doubt that our narratives have a powerful role in shaping our identity, what we notice, what we think is possible and important, and our relationship with others.

Change the narrative and we change what work is for and much about how we experience it. Change the narrative and we change our relationship with our difficulties and possibilities, with the sense we make of the past and of the future.

Do any of these offer a new way of seeing what you’ve been doing so far…

… and what you might take on next?

Work as…

.. a way of setting the world straight – fixing what’s wrong, making good, bringing integrity, standards, and justice into the world

.. love made visible – an opportunity to dedicate ourselves to our deepest commitments with our minds, hearts and bodies, and in relationship with others

.. a way to cultivate excellence – finding ways to do things better, with greater impact and with ever-increasing quality of attention and skill

.. an expression of artistry – work for its own sake, for the depth and expression and creativity that is unique to human beings

.. an opportunity to learn and discover – work as the pursuit of understanding, learning a field from end to end and using that learning to solve problems that would otherwise continue to challenge us

.. a way to lay down secure foundations – work as what makes it possible to have somewhere safe, dry and warm to live in, a shelter for ourselves and those we love, and the resources that will help us respond to unknown future challenges and possibilities

.. an exercise in freedom and hope – work as what enables us to break the confines of otherwise predictable lives – to play, to experiment, to meet people, to try out new things, to bring into our lives and into the world that which has not been so far

.. a challenge to the status quo – work as a way of upending things that need upending, revolutionising what needs revolution, using our power to shift cultures, expectations and the way things are done.

.. the practice of peace – work as a way of bringing people together, forging community and connection, relationship and shared purpose, a way of having our many differences serve us and each other rather than separate us

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Your family, your team

Here’s a powerful method for working with, and talking about, the unconscious projection of family relationships onto other situations (your team, for example).

1 Map your own family

Start by drawing your own family system – the one in which you grew up. Include everyone who seemed a significant presence to you during your childhood, for better or for worse – parents and siblings in particular, and perhaps aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents.

Map it out on a piece of paper. Draw a circle for each person, with the distance from you showing the amount of contact, and the thickness of line showing the quality of relationship you had (thicker = stronger). For example:

If you wish you can give more detail to your map by noting the mood of each relationship you’re mapping (supportive, caring, threatening, confusing etc).

2 Map your team

Now think about your current work team as if it were a family.

Who do you think takes up what roles? Can you see parents, siblings, cousins, outsiders? What is the age order in this system (it may not be the same as your actual age order)? Who is close in, who is further out? Include yourself in this exploration – specifically, who are other people in the team to you (older brother, younger sister, cousin, parent etc)?

Draw out your team ‘family’ in the same way you did when you mapped your own family.

Do you notice any connections? Similarities? Resonances between the family map and the team map? Can you see any way in which the relationships you take up in your team echo the relationships in your family? Does any of this suggest new actions you wish to take, new possibilities you wish to pursue, or things you’d like to stop doing?

3 Talk about it

Here is where the magic begins. Host a conversation with your team in which you share your family map, your team map, and the insights that have arisen as you compared the two.

If your colleagues are ready, invite them to do the same. Remember that what you’re sharing is each person’s experience – so be curious, gentle, generous, welcoming and as open as you can. This is an exercise in understanding one another, in knowing your shared humanity, not in convincing one another or proving a point.

If you’re willing to be kind enough, and interested enough, and truthful enough, you may just start to give yourself new language that you can all use to observe yourselves in action – and a way of catching the underground patterns that have you relating to one another as if you were people from there and then rather than the people you’re working with here and now.

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Seeing through it

Given how often our naturally associative minds fill in the gaps in our experience with the ghosts of memories, projections, and transference, what are we to do?

Let’s start with understanding that all these processes are entirely natural and – in many circumstances – entirely necessary. Faced with something new and unknown, it’s quite reasonable and very helpful that we have the kind of minds that enable us to predict what might happen and take action on the basis of our predictions.

But let’s also understand that in many situations our associative understanding of the world causes enormous trouble: when I try to gain your approval as if you’re a parent because of the way you have positional authority over me; when I treat you as I do my younger brother because you’re a peer on my team; when I project onto you those aspects of myself I don’t like or can’t tolerate, and judge you or criticise you because of them.

As I have written here in recent days, each of these can lead us into all kinds of difficulty because we are no longer relating to the people around us as they are. So how can we work with colleagues, lead an organisation, parent or be a friend in a more truthful way, a way which is responsive to what’s happening now and here rather than what was happening then or over there?

Perhaps a powerful and insightful place to start is to take up the discipline of regular self-reflection. Buy yourself a journal – something you’ll be pleased to write in. And a pen that you’ll enjoy writing with. And then write, daily. You can uncover wonders with just a few minutes of attention each day (some hints on how you could do this are here).

Write about what you see in yourself – your thoughts, what you experience in different situations, and the actions you find yourself taking. In particular, write about what it feels like to be with others. Where do you feel small, diminished, like a child? Where do you feel grandiose, puffed up beyond your normal stature? With whom do you feel judgemental, angry, resentful? Whose company are you drawn to?

And then, most importantly, write about what each of those feelings remind you of. It’s here that there’s the most uncovering to do – that the watchful, vigilant state you find yourself in with Paul reminds you of the feel of being with your father when you were small; that Dana irritates you the way you feel irritated with your sister; that you long for signs of Karen’s appreciation for you like you did with your mother.

Often it’s just the seeing of our transferences, projections and memories that allows their grip on us to start to loosen – that allows them to move from having us so that instead we can have them. And such self-reflection is vital work for all of us to do, if we want to take responsibility for the systems, communities, organisations and families in which we live our lives.

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Ghosts

We search for patterns, often without knowing that we are doing so, filling in what we can’t be sure of with what we can already grasp. And so it is, as I have been writing in the last few days, that we so often relate to other people from our memories of them, or we project onto them aspects of ourselves to fill in the unknown we encounter in them.

But that’s not the end of it. We also easily and unconsciously relate to other people as if they were key figures from other systems and constellations of which we have been a part, in a phenomenon known as transference.

So you join a new organisation, and find that there’s some way in your new boss reminds you of your father. And even before you know it, you’re filling in the blanks as if that’s just who he is. When he doesn’t reply to your email, it feels like all the times you were ignored in your own family. When he’s short tempered or curt with you it reminds you of the times you were judged, and you imagine his reasons for judging you are the same as those you remember from home. You find yourself seeking his praise, repeating the ways you learned to get noticed as a child. And you feel warm and supported perhaps exactly when you get the kind of recognition you longed for when growing up, but feel unseen when he’s recognising you in other ways. And all the while, you have no idea this is going on.

And he, simultaneously, is responding to all the subtle cues that come from the transference you are experiencing. Perhaps you now remind him of his own child, and he finds himself treating you in this way. He looks to praise you the way he praised her. He is frustrated with you for what frustrated him about her. He is reassured when you respond in ways that feel familiar, and confused and exasperated when you don’t fit the pattern that years of habit have taught him.

Before you know it, you have planted the ghosts of brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, teachers and enemies and lovers among your colleagues. And each one of them, in turn, has recruited you into a role you may know nothing about.

And all of you are in a dance that everyone is dancing, even though nobody can see the steps the others are following. On and on, through and through, transferred memories of families and systems that are not of this place, the weave from which your conversations and relationships, your delights and your many troubles, are spun.

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On Aliveness

Important questions for any of us who care about our work:

  • Do the daily practices and rituals of my workplace cultivate aliveness and soul in me? In others? Or do they stifle life and squash the soul? (hint: it’s often our attempts to control that squash the very aliveness we need).
  • If they stifle, am I really prepared to live with the consequences of work that’s forgotten how to live? Really?
  • If I’m not willing to live with this, what am I going to do about it? What will I stop? What will I ask others to stop? What practices will I invent and initiate – even as an experiment – that could have things be different?
  • And am I ready to take the risky and vital step of leading… of being someone who treats this as with at least as much dedication as I show to our productivity, or to how much money we make?

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Wading together

The kind of tiredness that tells us we don’t want to be here isn’t just a private, personal matter.

How many meetings have you been in when it seems like everyone is tired in this way, but nobody is saying? And how many times have you pushed on, resigned to the pointlessness of the conversation, determined to keep going in the hope that it will help it be over more quickly?

Over a decade ago, before I knew how to work with any of this productively, I was in just such a meeting. On a hot July morning, around a kitchen table, we made a decision to commit the company I co-founded to a multi-year project that would require all of our energy and most of our remaining resources. What I remember most was how the conversation felt – like walking through hot, sticky treacle, or wading through mud. Speaking was difficult, listening was harder, and mustering a ‘yes’ for what we were deciding to do, harder still. And what made it most difficult was the sense that others in the room were experiencing the same heavy tiredness but keeping it quiet. It doesn’t surprise me that the project didn’t work out well.

What I came to see sometime afterwards was how powerful it could have been for any of us to say what we were experiencing, to ask ‘how does it feel, right now, to be having this conversation?’, and then to be curious about the response. We might quickly have learned about the reservations many of us had, about how we were trying to hide them in order to avoid conflict, and about how much life was missing from this particular project that might have been expressed – productively, willingly – in another.

Tiredness like this in a meeting can very often show us that we’re avoiding something, or trying to make a commitment that’s not sincere. And if we’d known this – and acted upon it rather than pretending all was ok – we might have given ourselves a chance to dedicate our efforts over the following two years towards a project that really mattered to us, one that would have brought our our fullest, most whole-hearted commitment and with it, inevitably, our most generous, creative response.

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When tiredness speaks

Let yourself listen to what your body has to say.

For it surely has something to say. Honour its wisdom, even if you can’t yet tell what it is.

Start with tiredness. The tiredness that suddenly sweeps over you in a meeting, in a conversation, on walking into a room, when an argument begins, when you’re not getting your way.

What kind of tiredness is this? Surely not the late-at-night tiredness, the not-enough-sleep tiredness.

But maybe the tiredness of bending yourself out of shape, the tiredness of fear, the tiredness of goals that aren’t sincere and commitments that aren’t genuine, the tiredness of saying yes when you mean no, and no when you mean yes.

And maybe the tiredness that your body brings you when it needs to point out that, despite what you’re telling yourself, here is not where you genuinely want to be.

With thanks to Jonny

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A conversation for clarification

Between the moment one person asks and the other responds comes a necessary but often neglected step – a conversation between both of you to determine what’s actually being asked for.

I know it sounds obvious when said this way but how often do you take the time to talk and listen before you say ‘yes’ (which most of us are conditioned to do) or ‘no’?

Without this conversation for clarification, it’s so easy to launch into a project that’s:

  • not wanted (those three pressured and frantic days writing a financial report when all that was needed was a single paragraph summary)
  • not yours to do (the hours you spent trying to understand the figures when there’s someone else who could do it in a half hour)
  • not something you were ever really prepared to do (and now you have to find a way to wriggle out of it, or delay, or pretend you’re busy, or make excuses)

Hierarchical relationships at work make this more difficult, of course. Perhaps you avoid the conversation because you don’t want to look like you don’t know, or like you’re unsure, or like you’re anything less than fully committed. And then there’s navigating feelings of uncertainty, or fear, or shame.

But how can a yes be a yes, or a no be a no, unless you understand what it is you’re saying yes or no to? And how much precious effort and time gets wasted on the ‘yes’ that was yes to the wrong thing or never really meant at all?

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Productivity

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

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

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Busyness and fear

Three basic human fears about what we do:

That what we’re doing doesn’t matter. That, quite probably, it’s meaningless.

That what we’re doing doesn’t help. That it doesn’t make a contribution to anyone.

That when we’re gone, all our efforts will amount to nothing.

Notice how it’s our busyness that has such amazing capacity to distract us from our fears, to numb us to them. And that it’s our busyness, precisely because it distracts us so well, that has such capacity to make our fears turn out to be true.

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