I used to work really hard...
Selfie: Nikon D3S

Selfie: Nikon D3S

… but I don’t do that anymore.

Nor am I trying to hack my life, maximise my multi-tasking, or re-boot myself.

But for long time, I held to the belief that working hard, doing stuff I loved, would mean that I wouldn’t need to work hard, doing stuff I hated. The discipline served me well, almost right up to the moment when it suddenly didn’t and, last year, I crashed into ‘burnout.’

But as I’ve negotiated a sometimes tentative, still fragile, transition to a new way of being in the world, I see more easily the fear inherent in my limiting ‘work hard’ assumption.

We live in a media world that assaults us with the view that we aren’t good enough. The cult of ‘performative workaholism’ hustles us to work ever harder. Elon Musk and his call for an exhausting 80 hour work week are celebrated. We must continually work longer hours, obliterate our task list, reach ‘in-box zero’, move more ever faster, be somewhere else…

Yet my work is about showing up and being present; offering witness and paying deep, profound attention to fellow practitioners and clients.

Honestly. It’s helpful to be awake.

And I’ve noticed that as I make space in my day for considered reflection, take a pause for breath, schedule my energy (as much as my time) and take time out for family, colleagues, nature, exercise and creative endeavour, the quality of my listening, observation, perception and empathic connection increases.

It’s clear to me that less is more.

Better than that, it just feels so darn good.

We are starting to see renewed calls for a 4-day work week and corporate wellness programs remain popular (though often controversial).

But the more systemic intervention is to design routines work that are heathy, sustainable and well-paced, encouraging creativity and renewal rather than a fatally habitual 24/7 toil.

In a world where we seem to be accelerating ever more rapidly towards unhelpful chaos, time and attention are transformative.

Notes:

Lila MacLellan looks at the ‘The risk of thinking of your job as a higher calling’.

Nancy Klein’s ‘Time to Think’ is a classic read for those interested in alleviating the urgency in our lives.

If that doesn’t work, are a look at Jeffrey Pfeffer’s ‘Dying for a Paycheck.

Steve MarshallComment
We Change Together
Gang of 4: Canon XA11

Gang of 4: Canon XA11

“An attitude of wonder begins with appreciation rather than suspicion, acknowledging the limits of what we know.”

(Howard Zehr)

I realise that I’m not all that interested in people who can tell me what they know.

But I’ve become very interested in how to help people to work with what they don’t know. This is the place where the possibility of meaningful change has the potential to be genuinely transformational.

After 20 years of wrestling with change as a consultant and academic, the most concise thing I can say about the way we go about change in our organisations is, “Whatever you think about it, the chances are that it won’t work like that…”

Yet we are easily seduced by the notion that we should know where we’re going; that clear vision or a slick powerpoint deck will help us lead our people through change.

And with a decent map, we will find our way.

For the last 12 years, I’ve been part of a research group at Ashridge working together on the doctorate in organisational change and I know that I’m not the only one who thinks change can be tricky. So I checked in with a few friends and colleagues to make a short film of them trying to describe how they support doctoral candidates attempting major, transformational change. They were each talented, humble and brilliant enough to admit that they might not know. But that together, we can find our way.

What matters here is not the lone genius working away on a pet theory; social transformation requires collective intelligence to generate action and resilient change.

It turns out that if you want to go somewhere new, the map is no use.

We need to get lost.

Together.

Notes:

The Gang of 4 featured above are (from top left - clockwise); Megan Reitz (@MeganReitz1), Geoff Mead (@NarrativeLeader), Margaret Gearty (@Margigold) and James Traeger (@jrtraeger).

You will also see current candidates Paula Aamli (@Paulettya) and Niel Stander (@NielStander), as well as alumna Pleuntje van Meer (@Apolloniavmeer) join the search.

The film, ‘Doctoral Magic’, which seeks to articulate a quality of learning through relationship that is difficult to name, was shown at the Hult Global Faculty Summit in Jan 2019.

Steve Marshall Comments
Belonging
Niel: Nikon D3S

Niel: Nikon D3S

We were together. I forget the rest.

(Walt Whitman)

We need to feel that we belong.

We also need to celebrate diversity, welcome others and host generously.

Peter Block says that, “The essential challenge is to transform the isolation and self-interest within our communities into connectedness and caring for the whole.”

Today, it feels that we are failing the challenge.

I made this picture of my friend and colleague, Niel, in an almost empty house. A shipping team had taken everything that wouldn’t fit into a few suitcases. Niel had been ordered to ‘leave the UK’ after a minor bank statement issue. He ran a thriving consulting practice, generated his share of VAT, paid his rent and council taxes in advance and had savings in the bank. He was a valuable, contributing citizen doing good work.

None of which made any difference when he attempted to renew his visa. Niel, his wife and young daughter had their passports taken from them and were deported, excluded, they don’t belong here anymore.

I know I’m not very good with exclusion. It bring images from my childhood. Sit on the naughty step. Stand in the corner with your face to the wall. You’re not in our gang. You’re not on our team. That shame can still rattle through me now, and I see it in our efforts to build walls, whether administrative or physical, to stand between our communities.

We are in. They are out.

Or vice versa.

I’ve come to believe that whenever we fragment and separate, we deny our greater potential. As we categorise or label others as ‘not us’ we move towards a world of silos and division which limit our ability to envision the positive, generative futures that are increasingly essential to our survival.

Ironically, Niel’s recent consultancy work is about bringing inclusion, security and empowerment to excluded communities in developing countries. He has the rare capacity to meld the safety of belonging with the potential of difference and diversity.

It’s work that we sorely need.

Whichever side of the wall we stand.

Notes:

You will find Niel in Pretoria, South Africa via Sensibus Consulting or @NielStander on Twitter.

Take a look at ‘Community; the structure of belonging’ by Peter Block.

It used to be that astronauts would claim that political borders couldn’t seen from space. Sadly, it now it seems, our fences are easily visible.

Steve MarshallComment
Appreciation
Christmas is calling: Sony a6000

Christmas is calling: Sony a6000

“Sooner or later, your legs give way, you hit the ground,
Save it for later, don’t run away and let me down,
Sooner or later, you’ll hit the deck you’ll get found out”

(The Beat)

I’m not much of a shopper, Christmas or otherwise, so the cacophony of Oxford Street tends to evoke more confusion than consumerism. But I’m settling into a deep sense of appreciation for the ‘other side’ of our festive season, the part which forgets the noise and consumption, and quietly attends to family, friendship, community and simple comfort.

It’s been quite a year; regular readers of this blog will know that it was mid-summer when my legs gave way and I hit the ground.

And it wasn’t the shopping that did it.

Success, transition, grief, workload, stress and sheer, bone-deep exhaustion eventually found me out.

My body just stopped working. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t think.

But these days, I’m OK; living, working, and being somewhat differently. Burnout, breakdown, depressive illness (whatever you want to call it) is a great teacher and now, six months later, I’m actually full of appreciation for the experience.

Over the year, I’ve gratefully (re)learned some important and familiar lessons:

Everyone is struggling with something. Even though we might lead ridiculously privileged, western, educated lives, we all have shadows. And, despite the ‘hacks’ and ‘hero’ hype, if you think you are relentlessly strong, resilient and indestructible in the face of adversity, that’s probably your problem.

Burnout is more common than you think. As I spoke, wrote and photographed my way to recovery, I was overwhelmed by the hundreds that stopped by to tell me their own similar stories, and the thousands that took time to read my blogs. Evidently, I was not alone. We could do with talking about mental health issues a little more; they are becoming increasingly prominent, and the associated stigma and fear simply get in the way.

People will help you. Not for the first time my life I’ve found that sincere friendship and valuable help can appear seemingly out of thin air. Previous acquaintances have become deeply valued friends, colleagues and work buddies feel like family as my sense of community has shifted. In fact, just about anyone who has suffered similarly will empathise and reach out.

Recovery is not straight forward. But it will happen. And your life can change.

As I’ve gained resourcefulness, I’ve found further balance in simplification and focus. I’m continually decluttering my diary, office, wardrobe, IT, work arrangements and life choices. I walk more lightly now.

I’ve realised that the never ending demands of ‘small w’ work are an easy, often lucrative but unworthy distraction. Instead, I’m finding ways to focus on the challenge of ‘big W’ Work; bringing my creativity to offer simple witness and connection in a world where we each desperately need to be seen and appreciated. I will be using my photography and film to coach, consult and help folk, at home or work, show up in their authenticity, vulnerability and strength as they face into uncertainty and change. And I need to be careful; that probably includes most of us…

So, as Christmas calls, I will be using the quiet time to reflect on the year. We are past the solstice and, as the days get longer, I will be concentrating on family and friends, a healthy lifestyle, creative work, learning and helping out wherever I can.

Finally, to everyone who has dropped in over the year to say ‘hello’; Thank You.

You know who you are and you have made an incredible difference.

You are appreciated.

Notes:

For all the bad press the NHS gets, I have to say that, in my case, they were brilliant. Start with your GP and take it from there…

Depressive Illness ~ The Curse of the Strong’ by Dr Tim Cantopher is worth the read. It even has some key instructions if you can’t find the energy to manage the whole (fairly short) book.

Pretty much anything by Parker Palmer will be helpful. I found ‘Let Your Life Speak ~ listening for the voice of vocation’ incredibly valuable.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working alongside Nic Askew, developing my film craft, and I’ve been newly inspired by the life and work of photographer Sebastião Salgardo (have a look at Genesis) whose captivating TED talk is here.

Steve MarshallComment
The Fear in Holding On
Apple: Nikon D3s

Apple: Nikon D3s

“I don't know what's right and what's real anymore,
I don't know how I'm meant to feel anymore,
When do you think it will all become clear,
'Cause I'm being taken over by the fear.”

(Lily Allen)

The spectacular, beautiful tree fell in a storm nearly two months ago .

Now, each day as I walk past, I check to see if this last remaining red apple, holding on to a newly vertical bough, has finally let go.

The rest of the apples are lying in the grass but I know I will miss the bright spectacle of this one when it finally succumbs to the combination of time and the reorientation of its environment. In the meanwhile, I’m not sure whether to celebrate its resilience or feel critical of its denial.

As I ponder, I notice reflections of my own capacity for heroic ‘resilience’ in the face of changed circumstances and the shifts that I have experienced over the last year. I’m not feeling so cavalier these days.

About 15 years ago, I gave up a guaranteed job for life and, on a wish and a prayer, set off on a new consultancy and academic career. These days, as my practice inevitably finds its way back to imagery, connection and witnessing, I realise that I am much more fearful as I try to resurrect a mindset of arrogant invincibility that underpinned previous professional achievements.

So, what does it take to step away from our conventional notions of status and success to seek a more meaningful, sustainable contribution to the world? As we experience the relentless fetishisation of (over)work, what would it take for me to achieve a healthy, balanced life? Do I give up my fast car? What about my phone? How about my glass of chilled, expensive Sauvignon Blanc?

When will it become clear?

I know that I am not in charge of who I am, my identity is formed and negotiated socially, and to step away from ‘normal’ is to be changed by the process, risking exclusion and shame. Genuine change is not easy.

So, from inside my Western privilege, I will try, half-heartedly, to consume less. I won’t eat meat. I will buy Patagonia or Everlane clothes, and vegan shoes.

But, even though I know that my own lifestyle is contributing to systemic failure and our collective demise, will I ever face the fear and find the courage to let go?

Notes:

I’m indebted to @stevexoh and @paulettya for some excellent conversations this week on what it takes to commit to difference.

Elon Musk has advocated 80-100 hours a week; thankfully, we are seeing some push back…

Patagonia recently announced it would give away $10 Million in tax refunds to environmental groups.

Here I am on Jeff Weigh’s podcast joyfully nattering on about life’s Perfect Imbalance.

Steve Marshall Comments