Upstream
Flow: Nikon D3s

Flow: Nikon D3s

“Any circumstance hitting a limit will begin to change. Change will in turn lead to an unimpeded state, and then lead to continuity.”

I-Ching (Book of Changes)

While strongly I admire the conviction of activists, marchers, protestors, rebels and even (some of) the politicians, who throw themselves into the conflicts we face, I won’t be gluing myself to the Houses of Parliament anytime soon. And though I don’t really understand the views of those who seem to so vehemently disagree with my perspectives, I try to remain curious about how the flows of our meaning-making have diverged and the different decisions we make as a consequence.

But when I’m challenged to offer a view on what we should be doing in the face of climate change, political strife or ecological collapse, my best offer is often, “Well, I wouldn’t start from here…”

The inadequacy of my response leaves me to reflect on how change happens and how I could intervene in ways that bring the best of my capabilities to bear.

These days, like many of us, I feel battle-weary. Perhaps I am hitting my own limit.

Which is a difficult conclusion when my average workday efforts are focused on helping folk make change for the better.

Yet the slow-healing scars I carry tell me to avoid the turbulent white water of direct action or attempts to swim against the exhausting currents of conflict. So, what might my activism look like?

I need to work upstream.

I’m realising that I can have most impact and influence when I am helping thoughts form, working with ideas as they take shape and, rather than battering myself against the rocks of hard action, I can encourage attentive reflection as small rivulets of creativity begin to flow.

I think we can each find streams of artful activism that prompt reflection and transition towards a different world.

Activism that bubbles through our thinking and seeps through our skin.

And if we can encourage small adjustments in our thinking upstream then maybe we will find more peaceful continuity and reconciliation in our actions downstream.

Notes:

David Bohm speaks of the nature of thinking and thought in ‘On Dialogue’; a great primer to the work of an incredible mind.

I love the legend of the Shambala Warriors (who I first read about in Joanna Macy’s Widening Circles). The first weapon of the Shambala Warrior is compassion - to help us deal with the pain of the world. The second weapon is insight - to help us see our interconnectedness and mutual belonging.

And, shifting gear, I just loved Fat Boy Slim’s mash up of ‘Right Hear, Right Now’ with Greta Thunberg’s speech to work leaders: “We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.”

Finally, don’t forget Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life’ which is one of the definitive books for finding the joy of total engagement.

Steve MarshallComment
Conflict
Liberty (playing): iPhone

Liberty (playing): iPhone

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

(F. Scott Fitzgerald)

Liberty, our fluffy retriever ‘does conflict’ really well.

She enjoys the role of fierce aggressor but her theatrical range is enormous and she might instantly switch to benign appeaser before rushing back, teeth bared, into the fray. Yet despite the way those flashing incisors might close on a wrist or ankle, she never actually clenches her teeth. Both Libby and her sparring partner will always fight again on another day.

We humans, on the other hand, don’t seem to be playing so nicely.

When F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote ‘The Crack Up’, he followed his ‘two opposed ideas’ claim with the notion that we should be able to see ‘…that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.

Just the kind of capacity we need to act sensibly in our deeply fractured political and economic context.

Yet in a world where our metaphors for conversation and negotiation are reduced to ‘fight’, ‘battle’ and ‘war’, we have stopped inquiring or learning.

And we are ‘doing conflict’ really badly.

When we imagine ‘conversation as war’ we see our ‘opponents’ as the enemy and our exchanges become attack, defence, counterattack and so on. In taking this winner/loser perspective we deny any sense of middle ground and, even though we might claim victory, we don’t notice that the fun, creativity and innovative potential of collaboration born of respectful, generative conflict is lost.

We each have deep, fundamental needs to be seen and heard, to be acknowledged and affirmed. In turn, we need to be able to offer the same to people who don’t see things the way we do.

But those who think differently can make us want to withdraw; we become insecure and unsafe in the presence of genuine difference.

It can feel utterly hopeless as we begin to uncover how different we think we are. Yet every time we choose to stay in conversation, take the time to understand differences and slowly dismantle mutual barricades, we find people just like us.

We are all human beings who yearn for stability and security within relationships that are respectful and creative.

So, we need to notice how we fall into patterns of hostility and have a conversation about that conversation.

When only one side wins, nobody wins.

In ‘The Crack Up’, Fitzgerald tells us that we can never be truly satisfied by domination and, despite wrestling with his ghosts, he comes to adopt a more conciliatory stance; ‘…if you throw me a bone with enough meat on it, I may even lick your hand.

Libby would agree…

Notes:

The Crack Up’ was originally published in 1936 by Esquire magazine.

'Metaphors We Live By’ (George Lakoff and Mark Johnson) is a linguistic goldmine that will take the lid off your noticing of the structures we use to make meaning. The book reaches a controversial conclusion: “If conceptual metaphors are real, then all literalist and objective views of meaning and knowledge are false.” Worth a look.

In ‘Life-changing Conversations’, Sarah Rozenthuler presents a list of what conversation is - and isn’t - and how a real conversation opens up possibilities and offers the potential of answers we would have never anticipated.

Steve MarshallComment
Clocks
Musée d’Orsay: Sony α6000

Musée d’Orsay: Sony α6000

“Time is a construction of our consciousness.”

( Maria Popova)

The clock faces of the Musée d’Orsay literally offer a view through time. From inside the museum restaurant you can see past the hands and numerals, across the Seine to the Louvre, up the sky-line of Sacre Couer and beyond.

Helpfully, when France adopted Paris Mean Time in 1891, the external facing clocks of the then Gare d’Orsay would display Paris Mean Time while the internal clocks and schedules would be set to run 5 minutes late to ensure tardy passengers did not miss their trains.

It seems that our relationship to time has always been elastic but now, like rushing travellers, we are often feel that time is somehow running out on us.

A while ago, I was working with a group who were insistent that they didn’t have time for considered dialogue on some critical, far-reaching investment decisions. They were rushed and impatient with each other. When I asked what they would have time for, one of them responded, “You see, Steve, this is us. We don’t have time for this. We have time to get it wrong 14 times… but we don’t have time for this.”

If I look to some of the critical, far-reaching decisions that we collectively face now, it is increasingly important that we should not be distracted by the notion that we don’t have enough time.

Things are urgent, but let’s not rush.

Our modern world of train schedules and productivity, accounting quarters and key performance indicators requires time to be linear, regimented, controlled and scarce.

But the reality is that time is made up.

Time is an abstraction that has served us well but also brings a shadow: “We don’t have time for this” is a bid for control and a step away from collaboration, participation and democracy.

However, anything that we have made up can be transformed and the first step towards a way of living and being together that is commensurate with the real rhythms and cycles of our world is to make time for each other.

True conversation and connection, deep thinking and creativity are emergent, and have their own qualitative rhythm rather than the tick-tock of mechanistic predictability and control.

And, if we choose to work carefully, consciously and together, there is always enough time.

Notes:

As I thought about this writing, I looked back into some of my favourite old texts. ‘The Passion of the Western Mind’ by Richard Tarnas has some interesting thoughts on our understanding of time.

Timothy Morton’s ‘Being Ecological’ is a fascinating if challenging read. Among other things, he links considerations of time, prediction and outcome. It’s rich material. One quote I like: “The question at the end of the round table wants to see ahead and anticipate what to do, in advance. That’s what we can’t do. Because we have been driving in the wrong direction - that’s exactly why all this happened.”

My more recent reading includes An Other Kingdom: Departing the Consumer Culture (Block, Brueggeman and McKnight). They say, “Busyness or lack of time, is the common argument against Democracy. Oscar wilde said he was for Socialism, but it took too many evening meetings.’

And finally from my buddy John Higgins, co-author of ‘Speak Up’ who tells me to, “Drink coffee. Make crap decisions faster!”

Steve MarshallComment
Structure
Clematis: iPhone

Clematis: iPhone

“Clearly we have not touched the deeper causes of our troubles…. the ultimate source of all these problems is in thought itself, the very thing of which our civilization is most proud, and therefore the one thing that is "hidden" because of our failure seriously to engage with its actual working in our own individual lives and in the life of society."

(David Bohm)

I recently read of a cardiac surgeon who said that 95 per cent of his post-operative patients simply returned to the lifestyle that ‘broke their hearts’.

It’s not an unusual pattern.

In my business, I wonder how many coaching clients or participants on leadership and development programs suffer the same fate as they return to their organisations? Troublesome patterns of power, relationship and identity are resilient and resistant. What is required for people to work with the deeper organisational dynamics they encounter?

As David Bohm says, ultimately, we find ourselves subject to patterns of thought that easily remain hidden, unseen, and continue to structure our lives unless we deliberately bring them into our attention.

As we search for some for the ‘deeper causes of our troubles’; the intolerance and fragmentation in our societies and ecologies, it is thinking that brings form to nations, economies, political parties, organisations, groups, cultures, laws and rules. As our thinking defines and exaggerates our differences, the underlying structures of thought become invisible and, forgetting that our similarities easily outweigh our differences, we move towards conflict and break each others’ hearts.

The images I made on my iPhone, of the trailing flowers over a gateway in our garden, were a brief exploration of the beauty and aesthetics of structure. Daily photography and creativity, taking time to stop, stare and attentively appreciate my surroundings has been a discipline that I adopted about a year ago, after my encounter with ‘burnout’.

It has been a confusing period of recovery and adjustment but the experience has left me sensitised and curious, reflexively asking deeper questions about the mostly opaque assumptions and patterns that inform our work and business lives.

One of those assumptions is that we’re not supposed to stop and stare at the flowers.

There isn’t time.

Yet I have become ever more determined to pause, to stare into the patterns of thought that deeply influence my brief time on this planet. It feels like a radical act.

There are no surprises. My everyday assumptions are mostly based on the fear that I will not be ‘OK’ and manifest themselves in unspoken mantras: work hard, be perfect, fit in, be original, hurry up, and, there isn’t time…

Yet time spent in reflection, individually and collectively, gazing gently into the patterns of our thought is essential if we are to shift the lifestyles that will ultimately break us.

We face ecological and social collapse; the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Let’s take the time. Let’s be radical.

Let’s stop and stare.

Notes:

Take a look at David Bohm’s ‘On Dialogue’ for a fabulous consideration of how we think and impact it has on us. Alternatively, download a copy of ‘Dialogue - a proposal’ by David Bohm, Donald Factor and Peter Garret.

Mark Edwards’ ‘Hard Rain’ project brings the consequences of how we think to life visually. It is both beautiful and deeply disturbing.

I’ve been reading Nicholas Mirzoeff’s ‘How to See the World’ which helps us to understand more of how visual media can change things.

Watched
Norfolk, VA: iPhone

Norfolk, VA: iPhone

“Never again will you be capable of ordinary human feeling. Everything will be dead inside you. Never again will you be capable of love, or friendship, or joy of living, or laughter, or curiosity, or courage, or integrity. You will be hollow. We shall squeeze you empty, and then we shall fill you with ourselves.”

(George Orwell)

There is an old story of customer service agents who were rewarded for speed and efficiency. They would hang up on every third call as soon as it connected. While confused customers heard the line go dead, the agents were rewarded for reducing the average time spent per call.

New technology and artificial intelligence offer increasing ways to watch and measure ‘performance’ but we need to focus our organisational gaze with sensitivity and care.

As we zoom in on KPIs, deliverables, budgets and targets, we should avoid staring too intently at things we might do while staying blind to the qualities of how we might be.

Of course, these days, our vision is to be collaborative team players in interdependent, interconnected, trusting organisations. Relationship, empathy, connection and collegiality are declared to be foundational to our shared endeavours.

But even though we know our professional lives are supported by others in a web of intertwined relationality, our management systems still incentivise personal accountability, individuality and transaction.

This ‘system world’ is gendered; the high quality connections necessary to deal well with complexity and uncertainty require the empathic social skills of nurturing, maintenance and relational competence.

Activity conventionally seen as feminine and which is ‘disappeared.’

It’s not counted as ‘real’ work.

But the crisis in our social, economic and ecological situation demands that we extend our vision.

Rather than self-enhancement and self-employment, we need to watch for work that really counts. Work associated with emotional connection, mutual development and helping colleagues.

Going the extra mile for each other.

How can we open our eyes to that?

Notes:

Joyce K Fletcher named the invisibility of relational work in “Disappearing Acts: Gender, Power and Relational Practice at Work.

You might also enjoy Jean Baker Miller’s seminal work: “Toward a New Psychology of Women”.

Jürgen Habermas looked at the ‘colonisation of the LifeWorld by the system’ when ‘non-rational’ activities such as love or art are deemed worthless by ‘the system.’

Finally, if you wonder what gender blindness looks like, have a look at “Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men” by  Caroline Criado Perez