The Magic of Beginnings
Ashridge morning: iPhone

Ashridge morning: iPhone

And suddenly you know: it’s time to start something new and trust the magic of beginnings.” (Meister Eckhart)

As the effects of burnout subside, I’ve been immensely grateful to friends who have joined me in conversation, helping me to make sense of events and gently (or sometimes not so gently…;-) confronting me with my tendency to take on too much as I heroically overestimate my capacity to influence systemic change.

Time alone has been important too.

The notion of a solo quest appears in many ancient ‘wisdom traditions’ when transition or transformation is required. Even in the face of modern change ‘prescriptions’, we still recognise the value of quiet moments of solitude in an otherwise busy day. I’m fortunate to work at Ashridge and part of my recovery process has been to spend time in the beautiful spaces that surround the business school.

I’ve become increasingly convinced that we need to find ways to drop our habitual mental models before we can sense into something new.

Otto Scharmer writes that, ‘Standard theories of change revolve around making decisions, determining “the vision”, and very often acting through a charismatic figure who can command people’s “commitment to the vision.”’ He then offers an alternative where clarity is reached by connecting to an emerging sense of ‘inner knowing’ and, ‘in a sense, there is no decision making. What to do just becomes obvious.’

I’ve also been catching up on a small book by Quaker theologian, Parker Palmer, who picks up on similar themes in his writings on authentic living. Parker takes the view that, “Vocation does not come from wilfulness. It comes from listening….”

So, my ‘Ashridge Morning’ image comes from a moment of sensing, quietly listening in to my own authentic voice and drawing inspiration from the spectacular dawn of a beautiful new day. It’s a way of working with change that would scare the life out of most corporates.

But it’s taken me a while to get here and I’m enjoying the magic…


Take a look at ‘Presence’ by Senge, Scharmer, Jaworski and Flowers or ‘Leading from the Emerging Future’ by Scharmer and Kaufer which develop ‘the Theory U’ of change and transformation.

Parker J. Palmer has been a life saver and thanks to good friend Amanda Ridings at Originate for sending me a replacement copy of ‘Let Your Life Speak.’

I'm sorry, there isn't time
Sent on the move: Nikon D3s

Sent on the move: Nikon D3s

“Can I just say that this is, in fact, the first time I’ve ever appeared on television?”

“No, I’m sorry there isn’t time….” (Monty Python)

An increasing number of the business emails I receive include little taglines telling me there isn’t time.

“Yours in haste….”

“Apologies for brevity….”

“Sent on the move…”

And, even if I don’t use a tagline, I know that I collude; “…let’s have a quick chat…” or “…can we grab a coffee?”

I remember Russell Brand’s verbose appearance in front of the UK Parliamentary Select Committee On Addiction when the chair, Keith Vaz, said, “I think we’re running out of time.” Brand responded (brilliantly), “Time is infinite. We cannot run out of time…”

It doesn’t feel like that. We’re addicted to the idea that there isn’t time…

Yet taking time and offering attention is an intervention itself into the way our organisations skim across the surface of our most serious issues.

On grabbing coffee, two of our popular vendors proudly announced that they would remove the environmental damage due to plastic coated paper cups by exchanging them for compostable corn starch cups. Their twitter fanfare was soon deleted as it was pointed out no-one had taken time to ask where corn starch came from, how much water it required, how much land was needed, how much food would be displaced? What about the extensive soil damage caused by maize growing? Or the pesticide use?

And that deeper social structures, including the consumerist values promoted by the vendors, means that customers need to rush down the street, coffee in hand, to their next abbreviated and probably equally ineffective conversation.

We need to take time.

For deeper conversation and better listening. For high quality attention that cuts through the superficiality of a snatched few minutes and probes into the deeper structures of our problems, issues and concerns.

Let’s take time to speak to each other with care and attention.

As we sit down to drink our coffee from a proper cup.


Enjoy the utterly chaotic Monty Python’s ‘Election Night Special’ here on Youtube

See the full version of Russell Brand’s appearance before the Select Committee here or and abbreviated version (including the best jokes) here.

Read Cal Newport’s ‘Deep Work’ and the ‘killer app’ of attention.

Have a look at photographer Chris Jordan’s stunning imagery on consumption; here is a link to a picture of the one million plastic cups used on airline flights in the U.S. every 6 hours.

Finally, read George Monbiot’s column on a better kind of disposable coffee cup.

Steve MarshallComment
Losing my Way
Road: iPhone

Road: iPhone

"When you come to a fork in the road, take it!" (Yogi Berra)


My 'fork in the road' photograph came in handy in 'the things I feel gratitude for' Twitter challenge  As I look back at my own seven images and the postings by other nominees, I'm struck by how mundane and ordinary the source of our appreciation is: a blue sky, a bowl of fruit, our pets, flowers, trees, a shadow on a wall.... (Note: no humans or explanations allowed!)

But today I walked along the track in the wood and the fork had gone.

It does that.

Depending on the season and how much rain has fallen, the grass seems to come and go. Today, the summer drought and early autumnal detritus on the road meant that it had disappeared again.

I trust it'll be back soon.

As the effects of my brush with burnout begin to subside, I'm trying to make significant life decisions as images of my future form, move dissolve and reform in front of me. The seductive, binary appeal of a 'this or that' solution appears before me then drifts out of focus into an ethereal, ghost-like mist that bends the limits of my rationality.

Yet I 'know' how to make decisions. As an academic and, previously, as a military operator, I've been deeply schooled in the discipline. I even know how to deal with high uncertainty in organisational settings, when we are working with high stakes, multiple stakeholders, shifting goals, uncertain information. I know the difference between a tame and a wicked problem.

Woo-hoo!  I'm pretty good at all that...

But I'm coming to know differently that we can't tackle complex issues from a place of 'expert knowing.'  Our easy, personal development or management consultant prescriptions for 'simplifying' complexity are confounded as problems become 'computationally intractable'.  Even big computers and AI aren't up to the game. There are some things we simply cannot predict with any degree of confidence.

Over the last few months, I've found that any sense of expertise I might have held to in 'knowing that...' has been replaced by a deeper way of 'being with' humility, vulnerability, openness and trust.

Transformational change isn't achieved through the application of our expertise or ego. We need to let go of all that and open ourselves to images of the future that are unclear, seen only temporarily and disappear into nothing in front of our eyes.  The choices we make can only be built  on trust and half-held hunches as we softly orientate ourselves to a renewed way of being in the world. 

An everyday Twitter challenge has reminded me of the value and meaning in the mundane and ordinary. 

I'm pleased that I managed to lose my way. And as I look to the future, I'm placing my trust in the appreciation of commonplace things.  

They're enough.



I'm struck by how it took me a first degree, two masters and a PhD to reach a non-expert view of transformative learning. If you'll excuse the irony, here are just a few of my guiding texts:

Gregory Bateson became very clear that the seeds of human difficulty came from the deep-rooted Western worldview that enables us to compartmentalise our thinking. He called for a new theory of knowledge in "Steps to an Ecology of Mind."

In 'The Electronic Oracle', Donella Meadows argues for a fully engaged way of working where people, "can be willing to be wrong, vulnerable, caring, and idealistic."  

You have to take a look at David Bohm's work; he studied with Einstein and Krishnamurti as he developed his ideas of thoughts and thinking. Have a look at 'Thought as a System' where he says, "...thought, felt, the body, the whole society sharing thoughts - it's all one process."


Steve Marshall Comments
Burnout: On the Back Road to Recovery
On the (back)road: iPhone

On the (back)road: iPhone

"Everyday is a winding road
I get a little bit closer
Everyday is a faded sign
I get a little bit closer to feeling fine."
(Sheryl Crow)


Maybe the roads where I live don't wind that much but some days I feel that I have literally cycled my way back towards mental health.  Ever since my counsellor said, "Exercise has been shown to be as effective as therapy in these circumstances...", I saw it as a good reason to get on my bike.

A few days ago, I was speaking to Jeff Weigh (@Jeff_Ignite) as we scoped out a future #perfectimbalance podcast, and heard myself telling the story of my encounter with 'burnout' and how I was helped to find a route to recovery. I know that every case of mental distress and ill-health is different but I hope it will be useful if I share these notes of my journey through chronic exhaustion, severe depression and anxiety:

Opening Mindset:  So I've got the T-shirt. Literally. Across the chest is written is "You see impossible. I saw the finish line."  We are fed this 'You can succeed at anything if you try hard enough' nonsense from our earliest days. Any brush with social media will expose you to the 'bigger, better, faster, first to market, killer app' advocacy. I'm afraid I listened then added my own home-bred character flaw: I won't back down... And it's worked. By most conventional measures, I'm a success.

A good cause: I really believe in my work. I want to change the world and I run programs which, I think, are my best opportunity to support people in doing exactly that. I'm an evangelist for what we do, I love it. I geek out on transformational, generative, positive, helpful change.  

I could 'feel' it coming: The clues were clearly there. As I read back through my journal it's plain to see that I was in trouble. My diary was more than full. I was working 24/7. I hadn't slept properly in months. Friends were cautioning me to look after myself. But, hey, if you're not living on the edge you're taking up too much space, right? I couldn't, or wouldn't, reach the obvious, rational conclusions.  Nor could I see how bad things had become.

The Crash: Some irritating emails - nothing out of the ordinary - colliding with fast mounting fatigue. Our medical doctor (and family friend) completely ignored my request for sleeping pills and asked me about the kids instead. Was I (still) working at weekends? And through holidays? How long had this (really) been going on for?  She let me unravel in front of her, just kept offering support and was utterly determined that I should take some time out.

Exploring Help:  A luxury that I wouldn't have afforded myself. I help others, right?  My family let me spend days lying in bed, on the sofa. Not going out of the house for days. Work colleagues took on extra load while completely cutting me out of emails, WhatsApp conversations and chat groups. An opportunity to step back.  Time to myself. A reluctant 'yes' to working with CBT, medication and professional counselling. 

Taking Time:  Another luxury borne, I know, of privilege, a loving, supportive family, great friends and brilliant work colleagues. Time to ride my bike. Time to indulge in creativity; photography, writing and reading.  Time to have conversations that let me gently expose and confront my fears, shame and desperation.

And now?  I was warned about relapse and each episode is hard; especially frustrating given the work and effort that everyone has made.  But slowly....  Mental health has become a new discipline for me; a different kind of resilience which belies an alternative approach to the redesign of my life and work.  Exercise, creativity and community will all remain foundational.  

A renewed mindset? These are early days for a different relationship with my sense of purpose.  My reflections, artful efforts and creative inquiries over the last months have brought me into a different sense of humility, a more local sense of leadership, clarity in how I might make a contribution...

One of the books I have read again during my enforced rest is Margaret Wheatley's 'Who Do We Choose To Be?'  She writes: 

"Too often our energies have been diverted into strategies of protection from the opposition and winning the endless battles. We couldn't avoid this but now it's time to remember the value of community."

"We are not broken people. It's our relationships that need repair. It's relationships that bring us back to health, wholeness, holiness"

So, finally?  I spent about 10 years establishing the patterns that resulted in burnout. Shaking off the consequences isn't going to happen overnight.  But I've learned that there isn't much that family, friends, time, and a couple of hours on my bike doesn't solve...



You might find Pema Chödrön's 'When things fall apart: Heart advice for difficult times.' useful if you are struggling with any of the presenting symptoms of burnout. It's also just a good read for anyone interested in change!

Dina Glouberman's 'The Joy of Burnout' is also worth the read...

Also take a look at some of the widely available 'burnout' questionnaires. This example is specifically for medical professionals; there are many others... just Google.... then pay attention to the results!



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.




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'.