Moments

I don't get many breaks in my driving days. Although I enjoy having time to myself while driving my time is usually pretty tightly scheduled. Today though I had to wait for a client to arrive at a very pleasant business unit in rural Hampshire.

It was a real delight to be on the phone making arrangements for my upcoming business trip to Hong Kong and Australia while enjoying the spring sunshine and watching horses grazing in lush green fields.

Beginner’s mind

I have a driving job coming up soon that, frankly, terrifies me. It pushes me way beyond my comfort zone. I already have a knot in my stomach and the work is days away.

But what am I afraid of? If I am honest I'm afraid of looking a fool, of being incompetent, of being seen to have screwed up.

The title of Shunryu Suzuki’s book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, has always meant to me something about aspiring to return to an open mind, to being a blank slate, being chilled and relaxed.

But now I realise it is as much about grappling with the ego, our inflated self importance, our sense of separation from the world around us, our need for control and our constant battle against a perceived risk of annihilation.

I have long suspected that our current technological, social, and political upheaval masks an underlying existential crisis. Our narratives are broken, our sense of being in control is challenged. In response we are fighting to reassert ourselves, fighting each other, fighting the world.

What if we got curious instead - just as I am with my driving? Not beating myself up about being afraid. Not pretending that I'm not. Not protecting my ego by getting angry. Just being interested. Just noticing. Just being present to whatever is happening now, and now, and now.

We can't control the world around us but we can control our response to it. Doing so from a place of calm curiosity, instead of frantic self interest, surely makes us more likely to respond appropriately?

Gentleness

I have always been impressed by the unflappability of my friends who work as paramedics or in mountain rescue. If you are going to be able to help people in distress and facing extreme challenges you can't get bent out of shape by life yourself. Getting all macho and controlling because of your own fears would just make things worse. Paradoxically real strength exhibits itself as gentleness.

While I wouldn't want to compare the responsibilities of driving large trucks with saving people's lives there are similarities. You are responsible for a very large and very dangerous lump of technology, very often in public spaces. Allowing your fears to get on top of you makes you more dangerous. Precision calls for a gentleness and concern for your immediate environment. Throwing your weight around, literally, makes you a liability.

I have been struck by the consistent kindness of the drivers I have met and been helped by. They share the unflappability of my friends in the emergency services. Their gentleness is something I aspire to. I want to be like them when I grow up.

Keeping up standards

It fascinates me how often people rant at me about the rubbish on Twitter or Facebook, invariably delivered in a tone intended to convey their intellectual superiority, but apparently unaware that what they are describing is their network and that managing that network is their responsibility!

It's up to us who we follow and pay attention to and this takes work, either finding interesting people to connect to in the first place, or having the confidence to mute them or disconnect from them if they add more noise than signal.

Sometimes this feels uncomfortable and socially awkward to do but, as in real life as Jim Rohn once said: “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”.

Thoughts for a Sunday

Religion is the structured process of steering and reinforcing the narrative of "him", "me", "us" , and ultimately "them". Despite reinforcing the idea of community this leads to separation.

Spirituality is the challenging and slippery process of revealing what is left when the narratives stop. Despite being a personal and often lonely path this leads to unification.

Conditioning

When I was a young teenager one of our neighbours worked for a "sporting goods" company. When I visited his son we pored over their catalogue which included air rifles. I couldn't afford a rifle but I did scrape the money together to buy a pistol. It was solid, heavy, like a real gun. It felt manly to hold it and point it at things.

We went out into the fields behind where we lived to kill something. I heard a skylark above us, pointed my gun at it, and against all the odds hit it! It fell to the ground and we ran over to see. It was still alive. I had to "finish it off" with another pellet. I have never recovered. It was the last thing I knowingly killed. I still can't hear a skylark without pangs of guilt and sorrow.

When my sister's son was little she made the mistake of mentioning to my dad that she was troubled with whether to allow him to have a toy gun or not. His response was to say that if we don't get our young men used to guns who is going to fight our wars for us. Talk about chicken and egg!

This desire to kill things isn't innate. It is conditioned. It is part of the bollocks mythology about what "real men" do. We should stop it. And soon!

What do we mean by “social media”?

I often wish we didn't have the phrase. We didn't in the beginning. There were tools that we used, different tools for different purposes at different times, and that was it. It was clear that it was an ecology rather than a single thing. We used the tools that helped us achieve our ends, in my case better conversations, and moved on when they stopped doing that. It was up to us what we used, how, and for what purpose.

And then people started calling them "platforms" and their owners started calling themselves media companies, and then social media became a thing, and for many millions of people it became the de facto way of using the internet to discuss and connect.

Advertising began to dominate, algorithms started to steer users, and the whole thing ended up looking like pretty much any other media activity with a small group of disproportionately influential, and wealthy, individuals acting like gatekeepers and thinking that they are in charge.

When people say that "social media is broken" it is often taken to mean "it", "them", something other than "us". When I unwillingly use the phrase "social media" I mean our collective use of, and responsibility for the consequences of our use of, the tools that allow us to connect. I don't mean the people who think they are in charge.

Facing Fears

Doing something new is always challenging. The possibility of screwing up, looking foolish, creating problems for others. It is invariably stretching.

Taking a truck with a laden weight of 32 tonnes through tight winding London streets, with barely a foot clearance on either side, into busy and unpredictable building sites, and with potentially dangerous loading and unloading environments at either end, has pushed my limits.

A couple of mornings I woke with a knot in my stomach, my mind racing, and teetering on the brink of giving up. I don't need to be doing this!

But it's a challenge, it's good to be out of my comfort zone, and perhaps most importantly I have had great people, kindly and patiently, helping me. I didn't want to let them down.

Hanging in there and pushing through fears is worth doing as the pleasure of mastering a new skill feels great. It's what helps us to grow and find out about ourselves. I'm glad I'm doing it.

Deference and respect

Especially here in Britain we are brought up to be deferential, to defer to the views of those of higher status and authority.

But the problem is that deference is automatic, it is based on role and status and assumes that role and status are a sign of skill, wisdom and trustworthiness.

Respect is different. It is earned. It comes about as a result of consistent behaviour.

Without respect society falls apart.

Without deference, it gets the chance to rise to a higher standard.

Toxic workplaces

Well, let's face it, it's not the workplaces that are toxic, it is people. Not just any people but particular people. And more often than not we all know who they are.

But will anyone do anything about it? Will anyone have those early conversations about behaviour before it builds into an apparently insurmountable problem? Will anyone care enough to ask what is driving those troubled individuals to behave in ways that can do so much damage both to themselves and those around them? Or will everyone just expect HR to sort it out or wait until things have come to such a head that the individual is got rid of?

It's all very well banging on about "digital transformation" but until we get better at dealing with each other, and helping each other to deal with life, transformation is going to have to wait...

The Five Whats

Some of you may be familiar with the idea of "The Five Whys". If you want to really uncover the reason for something ask why, ask why again, and keep doing so until by the fifth asking you are likely to be getting to the real reason.

I reckon we need "The Five Whats".

When someone in business comes out with a stream of nonsensical business bollocks ask them what they mean. Keep asking and by the fifth attempt you may be approaching a plain English, common sense description of something - or you may have uncovered the fact that they have no idea what they are talking about.

Either way, you win!

Oh, it’s just a fly.

The other day we noticed a bee buzzing around our house. We decided to take our chances and co-exist with it rather than throwing it outside where the freezing temperatures would certainly have killed it.

This morning I heard a buzzing again and started to imagine a scenario where I found the bee, tried to look after it, feed it etc.

But then I saw where the buzzing was coming from. It was just a fly. My caring instincts evaporated. It could look after itself and didn't matter. Flies are ten a penny.

Isn't it fascinating the way our brains do this? Label and then evaluate. Good/Bad. Interesting/Not Interesting. Worth saving/Not worth saving.

Sadly we seem unable to stop ourselves doing this.

Even with people...

Invisible chains

When I posted the other day about wriggle room I quoted the oft heard phrase "my boss would never let me do that." Is this really true? Or is it just imagined?

So often we limit ourselves through our assumptions about what other people think. We assume the worst because that lets us off the hook. It's not our fault we havent been what we could have been. It was him, it was them, it was the system.

Many moons ago I wrote "Is authority more important to those who wield it or those who defer to it?"

Too often I suspect it is the latter.

Wriggle room

I know I am not normal. I can work when I want, where I want, using the tools I want. The ways I am able to work are different from those available to most people. The choices I have made have led to me moving away from the apparent security and stability of a corporate job. It is not for everyone.

I am also aware that I make some of my living talking to people who are still in those corporate jobs. I am sure they often think "It's all right for him?" Some of them even say "l could never work the way you do, my boss would never let me!"

But there is always wiggle room. There are ways to start. Even with the most draconian of bosses there is always wriggle room. I know. I had to find it often enough in my past. It is worth trying.

"With a little more care, a little more courage, a little more soul, our lives can be so easily discovered and celebrated in work, and not, as now, squandered and lost in its shadow."

  • David White

The challenges of Twitter

Really interesting Joe Rogan podcast with Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter.

http://podcasts.joerogan.net/podcasts/jack-dorsey

Fascinating to hear the two of them work out the challenges and ethics of this vast network of conversations. It was also fun to hear Dorsey talk about the early days when we were all making it up, and I mean all, Twitter felt very much a group effort in those days.

But the monster that it has become has never been seen before and working out what to do, why, and when is clearly non- trivial. Their conversation brings to life all of the issues I raised in my Ideology of Algorithms article, not least my assertion that we are "allowing a bunch of ADD geeks to determine the future of civilisation".

https://diginomica.com/the-ideology-of-algorithms/

Listening to the podcast I swung between feeling that Dorsey was totally out of his depth and feeling that he was articulate and thoughtful about the challenges. Take a listen and let me know what you think.

Technology

I used to have to attend NAB, the largest broadcasting convention in the world, in Vegas every year when I worked at the BBC. The massive show floors spanning about six huge buildings, crammed with brash, noisy stands trying to entice you to look at the latest systems were such an assault on the senses. We used to chat with the guys on the stands about whether it was more stressful for us than them coping with the onslaught of the week.

The reason our team was there was to try to identify new tools that might be interesting or useful to the BBC, get our head around what they did and how they worked, and then to explain all this to people back home. In the process I encountered software from genius to lunacy and everything else in between. It meant that I developed a good nose for sales fluff and a skepticism about anything too shiny and polished looking.

This legacy means that when I am speaking at HR or Learning technology conferences I make my way through the show floor as fast as I can making sure that I don't catch the eye of any of the sales folks desperate to lure me in. But it also means that I find it all slightly depressing. The tech industry is predicated on overselling overengineered and overpriced software to people who often don't know any better. I also find it unnerving how focussed on systems and technology HR and L&D have become and am left with an uneasy feeling that people have been consigned to being the meatware in the system.

This might come as a surprise given that people seem to think of me as a technologist and a geek. But for me the excitement of technology has always been as a way of enhancing our human qualities, helping us to be better humans, helping us to connect with other humans. The dehumanising that I too often see happening seems to be the totally wrong direction to be heading in. If we are to stay ahead of the robots it is our human qualities that are our USP!!

Remembering

Sharing the story about Joe and Billy Connolly the other day reminded me of this post that I shared on my blog a few years ago. Joe was such a good friend.

Remembering Old Joe April 20, 2014

I can see him now in his brown, zipped up, seventies style windproof. Walking towards me down Ashton Lane with his John Wayne swagger, hair newly Brylcreemed back, flask of tea and box of sandwiches in his plastic carrier bag, fag in mouth, a mischievous smile on his face.

I loved Joe. I still do. Love may seem like a strong word to use for a guy I only met through my summer job in Glasgow. In his late sixties or early seventies, still having to work as a labourer to support himself and his wife, to many he would have seemed painfully ordinary. But he wasn't.

I loved his wisdom, his generosity, his kindness and his wicked sense of humour. I loved that he took me under his wing and told me stories. Endless stories of work and love, told in smoke-filled Landrovers or in dripping oilskins as we sheltered under trees. Tales of Glasgow glamour from his Shawfield days; haunting memories of unrequited love for a Clydebank shipyard owner's beautiful young wife; numbing memories of unbearable sadness when predeceased by his son.

When I think of Joe I get an ache of sadness. I still miss him thirty years on. Forget stories of stones rolling away from graves. If there is immortality we achieve it by leaving a bleeding hole in people's hearts. Joe Wilson left a large one in mine.

Old Joe and Billy Connolly

Prompted by my last post about "the middle" Sean Trainor shared a great skit from Billie Connolly that makes the same point.

This brought back a memory of Joe Wilson, one of the great guys I used to work with in the summer as a landscaping and grounds maintenance labourer. Joe, like me, also worked in the winter with the brother of the family who had a florists business. Sandy was "upwardly mobile" in Glasgow society and very conscious of it. He new anyone who was anyone and was over the moon when not only was he asked to provide a floral display for an event celebrating the career of Billy Connolly, but was also asked to attend as a guest.

Sandy decided that Joe was the safest pair of hands to deliver a large display of flowers in the shape of a banana shaped wellie boot, a prop which Billy used in his show in those days. Sandy was very nervous about trusting anyone with this task as the display was to be ceremonially brought in during the dinner. He kept coaching Joe on what to do and told him not to speak to anyone, just deliver the display and get out.

On the big night everyone is there in their dinner suit finery. Sandy is preparing himself for the guests being impressed and ready to bask in the glory. The door opens and in walks Joe.

At this point Billy Connolly looks around, looks amazed, stands up and says "Joe my man, how you doin'?" "Put that thing doon and come over here and sit by me."

Joe used to be head groundsman at Shawfield Dog Stadium and knew Billy from the old days.

Needless to say Sandy, as Billy would say, "had a mouth like a dugs arse".

The middle

I have often told this story of being a student at St Andrew's and then working as a labourer in Glasgow during the holidays so forgive me if you have heard it before.

At St Andrew's I encountered lots of old money people, people who had always had money, didn't think about money, and had loads of confidence.

During the holidays I worked with people who were often alcoholic, living in digs, had no money, never ever had, and never expected to.

Both groups seemed comfortable in themselves though. One group because they had so much money and the other because they had so little. They could "afford" to be themselves. Both groups were good to be around and a formative part of my education.

In society it seems that it is the middle that has a problem. We are always trying to "get somewhere" to "be someone". We are aspirational and constantly dissatisfied. We compete with each other to get up a fictitious ladder first. We think that buying stuff will make us happy. We cause havoc with our dysfunctions. We are not always good to be around.

It is the same in the workplace. Those at the bottom and the top know where they are and what is expected of them. The middle gets confused and stressed.

I am clearly making sweeping generalisations, and people in any group in society can face problems, but this is a pattern I have seen played out over and over. None of this is anyone's "fault" but it is a shame. Does it have to be this way?

Organisational sludge

Working as I do with people trying to bring about change in their workplaces I am very conscious of what I have begun to call organisational sludge. The behaviours, attitudes, processes and policies that build up to create the enormous amounts of inertia that make change so difficult.

Like real sludge, you can try to clear it away, push it back, stem the flow. But as soon as you stop your efforts it starts creeping back, seeping into nooks and crannies until it eventually returns to its previous levels.

Maybe we need to instigate regular sessions where we hose everything down, clear the sludge before it gets too hard to deal with. Check ourselves, our actions, our attitudes at the end of the day for any signs of grubbiness and do something about it then before it becomes a problem?