Life: Retweeted
Paris Louvre: Sony a6000

Paris Louvre: Sony a6000

"Since 1895, we have watched the world as moving pictures on screen. The world we see has in turn been shaped and ordered by the way we see it, from film to television and today's digital networks. The difference is that whereas we had to go somewhere specific to watch a screen , the screens now go everywhere we do." (Nicholas Mirzoff)

 

I had never seen the Venus de Milo.  I'm still not sure that I really have.

To be honest, visiting an iconic museum like the Louvre during the summer tourist season was never going to work out as I had hoped.  But I was fascinated by our collective response to the art (and, maybe, to life) as it unfolded in front of me.

So there she was, Aphrodite of Milos, rather taller than I had imagined and attracting quite a crowd.  It seemed as though everyone in the room was a photographer, each keen to make their own two-dimensional, digital version of the statue.  Notwithstanding the limited opportunity to simply stand and stare, it seemed like the primary experience of the Venus was via a 3-inch screen. 

I'm not sure what Alexandros of Antioch would have made of such an appropriation of the work but wonder if, like me, he might have detected a sad wistfulness that the essence of his art had become so mediated.  

Film director and photographer, Wim Wenders recently asked for help in labelling this kind of behaviour, declaring that it wasn't really photography.  He says, "The trouble with iPhone pictures is that nobody sees them. Even the people who take them don't look at them anymore..."  

But this dynamic has roots extending long before the iPhone. Back in 1843, Ludwig Feuerbach wrote that our society "prefers the image to the thing, the copy to the original, the representation to the reality, appearance to being."  It seems we have a track record of separating ourselves from the lived, embodied sensation of our experiences.  Ironically, we now have evidence that snapshots impair our memory due to the effect of 'cognitively off-loading' the images we attempt to record. 

Personally, I notice that I find it difficult to make photographs of a place that I haven't visited for a while. It's as though there is too much going on for me to understand; I need to 'see my way in' to the light, the patterns and the human interactions before I can magic up a meaningful image.  I get nowhere if I just dive in.

Novelist and poet Russell Banks even claims that visually recording an experience effectively removes him from it:

“I used to carry a camera when I traveled, but almost never took pictures with it, and apologized when I returned home, until I realized that my reluctance to point and click was really a reluctance to line up and edit and frame whatever I was seeing or hearing or smelling. The fall of the morning sunlight against the glittering sea. The crinkled face of an old woman selling spices in the market. It was, I believe, an instinctive reluctance to remove myself from my experience, an experience that could only occur far from home and habit, where the rules as much as the landscape were unfamiliar. To photograph it was somehow to reduce and domesticate my experience and ultimately to kill it.”

Banks reaches his experiences through writing, such that they become 'imprinted' on his conscious memory.  It feels like a very active process.  I happen to think that good photography is a very active process too.

And so here's the thing...

I don't believe we serve ourselves well if we run through life just 'snapping and retweeting' our experiences.

And, broadening the context for a moment, as a privileged Western consumer, if I don't pay any attention to where my wealth, advantage, food and clothes come from, I can rest easy.

The world deserves more than that.

We seem to be 'snapping and retweeting' a modern way of living which is founded on an uncritical, alienated and easy consumption.  When we take time, pay close attention, immerse ourselves in our experience, deeply engage with the world before us, we 'see differently' and make our own judgements and decisions.  It's a slow, deliberate process and invites the kind of criticality that can have a positive impact on our ecological, social and economic systems.

The Venus de Milo is worthy of more attention than just a snapshot.

So are we.

 

 

Notes:

Fast Company thinks we should stop complaining about smartphones at museums.

You can find Russell Banks quoted in the 'evidence' article which I've linked to in the blog or watch him in this PBS interview.

I'm fascinated by Wim Wenders' work. Sadly it looks like his latest 'Polaroids' book is unavailable but here is a link to his mesmerising 'Places, strange and quiet'.

My Feuerbach quote is from Susan Sontag's 'On Photography'. Poor scholarliness, I know and I should really check back to 'The Essence of Christianity'.  (One day...)

The Nicholas Mirzoff quote at the head of the article is from 'How to See the World'.  (I have read that one....)

Finally, my sense of 'retweeting' is greatly informed by Timothy Mortons use of the word in his profound 'Being Ecological'.

 

 

 

This Stuff Matters
Office Bookshelf: Nikon D3s

Office Bookshelf: Nikon D3s

"You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one."

(John Lennon)

 

I've been giving 'academia' a hard time recently and, as I'm the director of a doctorate in organisational change, you'll appreciate the irony and, possibly, the risk in 'coming out' like that.

Yet I'm not the only one. 

It's a fairly well-worn story. Way back, Harvard Business Review set the ball rolling saying that business schools had 'lost their way' and this week, an article in the Guardian said that PhDs should be about improving society, not chasing academic kudos.  The author, Julian Kirchherr, a researcher at Utrecht University says, "Most academic work is shared only with a particular scientific community, rather than policymakers or businesses, which makes it entirely disconnected from practice."

Back in 2009, academic articles were being published at the the rate of one every 22 seconds as academics chased 'output', now it would seem we are approaching 6 articles per second.

But around 50% of these articles have a readership of only the author and their editors...

So what's the point?  What is meaningful work?

I'm not a career academic but my experience of recent years tells me that if we are to hold to a sense of meaningful purpose, in academia and life, we need to consider things differently.

This is (some of) the suff that matters:

Responsiveness:  Rather than work to an prescriptive theory of what should happen, it's important to listen, to sense into shifts and appreciate with them.  Don't dismiss faint signals of difference as outliers.  Genuine change is delicate, complex and emergent so our work as 'change practitioners' needs to respond appropriately. Rigorously, determinedly, seek to understand what is happening now.  Abstract theories or descriptions about what worked a while ago somewhere else probably won't help anyone.

Reflexivity:  A technical label for thinking about how we think. This is more than reflection, rather we are trying to get inside our patterns of thought.  Otherwise, to coin a phrase, we'll get what we've always got. It is a way of generating real transformation and some of the key skills include  widening our choices about 'data'; paying attention to gut feel, half-held hunches and intuitions. Work artfully, journaling, drawing, photographing, whatever... develop as many perceptual and expressive ways of working as you can. You know more than you can say.  Especially if it is presented an 'academic' or 'business' report.

Relationship:  Honestly? If you're going to actually change anything, an ivory tower and isolation isn't going to help. From Day One (or even before), get out and speak to people and work with them to actually change the world.  Convene groups and communities, work together, struggle, figure it out, share the successes and failures. We live, learn and change together.

Finally, I believe that meaningful 'output' from our work isn't found in journals, papers or articles but rather in the ongoing quality of our lives.

As an academic, that's what matters for me. 

Yes, you may say I'm a dreamer... 

 

Notes:

I genuinely believe we are doing something different at Ashridge on our Executive Doctorate in Organisational Change. You'll find that we work with action as much as research, and treat the idea of a sustainable, ethical community of change practitioners very seriously.

Have a look at 'Return to Meaning: A social science with something to say' by Alvesson, Gabriel and Paulsen who have plenty to say about meaningless research and how we can work differently.

 

 

Steve MarshallComment
Maybe Love's the Answer
Looking Up: iPhone

Looking Up: iPhone

"The power of love is that it does not have too be convinced, persuaded, negotiated, deserved, compelled or rewarded."  (Roger Harrison)

"The power of love is a curious thing. Make one man weep, make another man sing." (Huey Lewis)

 

As I've reflected on the process of burnout and recovery, two main themes have emerged for me.

Firstly, I've been able to reconsider what brings life to my existence and to think deeply about where my future contribution might lie.  This is still work-in-progress, and is likely to stay that way for a while yet, but I suspect something significant is on the way.  I've used my 'time off' to experiment, nurture my creativity and to review several of the books on my office shelves. Roger Harrison's  'Consultant's Journey' was on my list and has become the inspiration for this blog.

Secondly, I've been incredibly grateful for messages and gestures of support from colleagues as they have held my process, but shocked by the number that have referred to their own brushes with burnout. Some have been minor but others more significant and, for a few, they have been unable to return to their previous work.

Harrison says; 

'I began to draw a comparison between my own process and what needed to happen in the world. I thought there must be many others who felt trapped in assertive, competitive modes that brought excitement and challenge but no peace and contentment. I wondered if the energy for the next wave of change might in fact be those weary warriors. Perhaps, as people felt more isolated and threatened, they would become at least a little ready to explore the nurturing power of love.'

In reviewing his own work history, Harrison is sure that training programs, so keenly promoted by consultants and executive educators, do not lead to organisational change but that they need to be placed within a larger context of organisational strategy.  My own guilty secret is that I'm sure that learning and growth does not occur through academic programs. Rather, we need to do this work within a larger context of personal development and change. Over the years, I've worked my way through a first degree, an MBA, an MSc and a doctorate, then became responsible for a doctoral program, yet I'm increasingly sure that the 'academic' component of these programs is, at best, only incidental to personal change and transformation.

The  faculty on our 'Executive Doctorate in Organisational Change' at Ashridge work incredibly hard to maintain a safe, productive space for participants in the face of the 'usual' organisational pressures and the more specialised educational industry need for papers, reports, etc. required to demonstrate 'academic output' and, more recently, 'impact.'  But, as action researchers, we believe that our work becomes valuable and impactful when it serves enduring, flourishing change within our communities. The research 'output' is the change, not a paper about how change should happen.

So, perhaps unconventionally, faculty aim to hold a high quality, safe space for participants to direct their own developmental agenda, and our participants mirror this in holding space for their communities as, together, they research the kind of change that they hope to enact.  I think this is how genuine, transformative change happens.

There is a particular feel to this 'holding' that is absolutely critical to both personal shift and wider, organisational transformation.

It's not an abstract, intellectual research endeavour; it's intimate, caring and relational.

Love might be a good word for it.

 

Notes:

Please take a look at Roger Harrison's book, 'Consultant's Journey.' It was published just over 20 years ago but is as relevant as it ever was...

You might also enjoy Nigel Cutts' 'Love at Work.' which is a helpful, practitioner guide to the subject.

 

 

 

 

Creative Recovery
Rose: iPhone

Rose: iPhone

"Social systems that disdain or discount beauty, form, mystery, meaning, value and quality - whether in art or in life - are  depriving their members of human requirements as fundamental as those for food, warmth and shelter."  (Ellen Dissanayake)

 

I first adopted the phrase 'Creative Recovery' when I was writing up my doctoral studies.  At that time, I could see our engagement with work was falling and followed a personal 'red thread' of research into how we could recover the creativity that we lose as we move into our adult lives.  Now, following a brush with 'burnout,' I'm inquiring into how creativity continues to be pushed out of our workplaces even though it is increasingly recognised as essential to normal human life.

The idea that a creative, artful engagement with our world performs a biological function is controversial.  

We easily dismiss aesthetic criteria at work as unnecessary frippery and find words like beauty, meaning or quality embarrassing to use in business.  Back in my office at Ashridge, we frequently extol the beauty of our buildings and 'stunning' surroundings but use a more instrumental, mechanistic vocabulary when we reference our work.  

Yet, conversely, while organisations struggle with artful engagement, the associated techniques form well documented, beneficial approaches to change, and find clear roles in therapy and well-being. 

As I use photography to explore my own creative recovery and healing, I find myself playing within three distinct fields of artful work. 

Firstly, my inquiry is simply to 'notice what I notice' as I use my photographs as an easy 'visual journal'.  

In reviewing the picture I've chosen for this post, I'm just fascinated by the way the iPhone image is pushed to the edge of breakdown, yet it still manages to hold it's integrity and coherence.  It feels resonant to my own situation (and, judging by my email inbox many of you feel similarly).  So, how can I 'know differently' as a consequence of an image 'speaking' to me in this way?  How might I reflect on what is going on for me here? 

Secondly, I realise that I'm playing on boundary of 'therapeutic photography' and 'phototherapy'.  

Therapeutic Photography is the name for photo-based activities that are self-initiated and conducted by oneself (or as part of an organized group or project), but where no formal therapy is taking place.  By contrast, PhotoTherapy techniques are therapy practices used as part of a clinical intervention by a trained therapist.  I need to bear in mind that reflections arising in my 'inquiry into noticing' could be indicative of deeper patterns; I must be wary and look after myself, seeking appropriate help if it becomes necessary.

Thirdly, I know that, as I photograph, I am intentionally setting the ground to 'lose myself' in the magic and wonder of the process .

In fact, writing for this blog can have a similar effect.

In 'Finding Flow', Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi notes that we can spend our days in either work-induced anxiety and stress, or leisure-induced passive boredom.  As I use photography to refamiliarise myself with the 'life altering' potential of the 'flow' condition, my aim will be to encourage its spread back into other areas of my life and work.

And so, returning to the formal 'work' arena, I also return to Ellen Dissanakaye's thinking at the top of this post.  If our work environments 'disdain or discount beauty, form, mystery, meaning, value and quality' or deploy tokenistic gestures to mask their absence, it's no surprise that our engagement with organisations is so low.

As managers and leaders, we need to rekindle our sense of magic, creativity and artfulness, whatever that looks like in our organisations. 

As our professional environments become more pressurised and engagement rates continue to fall, artfulness at work is no longer an option, or a distraction.

It's essential to who we are.

 

Notes:

Check out the state of employee engagement here or here.

As my PhD students will know, I'm a fan of Ellen Dissanayake. Take a look at 'Art and Intimacy' or 'Homo Aestheticus.'

See more about therapeutic photography and phototherapy here at Judy Weiser's PhotoTherapy Centre website.

You can find Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's 'Finding Flow' here.

 

 

 

 

Steve MarshallComment
Life with #NoFilter
Sunset: Sony a6000

Sunset: Sony a6000

"By seeing differently, we do differently." (James Hillman)

 

Amazing sunset.. What do you think of my photo?

Not bad. But why monochrome? Especially when the blue sky is so beautifully intense and that deep orangey-redness smoulders on the horizon?  You've filtered all the life out of it...

But this is how it IS... The world IS grey... We are grey. It's how we are. This is what it is to live in the modern world; isolating, stressful, overloaded, overwhelmed, exhausted, unsupported. Just like that little tree. Jobs today are stressful, anxiety is a part of being at work, so we numb ourselves, and go through the motions of 'time management' and 'productivity hacks'. What's the point? We're deluded. It's all so empty, dull, grey.... 

Ah.... I see... Take a few steps this way.

Slow down.

Breathe.

Look from just over here...

And listen to this from Laura Sewall:

"Soften your eyes, let your attention be wide. Listen, and then soak in the colour, and feel texture with your eyes. Give attention to the golden glisten of pine needles in sunlight. Let your care roam over a landscape, flexible, both focused and soft. Let your practice be this simple and do it often, when you can."

You know, last night I dreamed I saw the world with no filters... there was colour...

Life with #NoFilter? 

Sounds like progress.

 

Notes:

Laura Sewall's 'Sight and Sensibility' is a wonderful book if you feel you need to see the world differently. My quote is from p.119 - in the 'Mindful Eyes' chapter.

I'm loving the therapy of Dave Ulrich's Zen Camera '100 photographs a day' as an approach to refresh how we see the world.

 

Steve MarshallComment