Celebrating sameness

I used to worry about the homogenising effect of modern culture - the fact that every shopping malI the world over is selling the same brand dominated tat - and I would still bemoan the loss of diverse and fascinatingly different cultures.

And yet...

...here I am, sitting on the harbour front in Hong Kong, watching Chinese girls wearing ripped jeans taking selfies, and wondering if this will make it harder to start wars with countries whose daughters also wear ripped jeans...

Wherever you go, there you are.

It feels odd that I will set off for Hong Kong tomorrow. That I will think it sensible to sit in a metal tube, speeding through the air, thousands of feet off the ground.

And then I will be there, somewhere else. Or will I? more than likely I will be stuck in my head - just like I am here.

The odd truth of this always strikes me in the context of mountains. I spend a lot of my life wishing I was climbing a mountain. On the way up I wish it would end because it hurts so much. On the top I wish I could hold onto the experience and prevent the wonderful feeling from ending. And then on the way down I wish the pain in my thighs would stop. All this wishing and thinking getting in the way of just being.

It is remarkable the amount of vigilance it takes to be here, now.

It's worth the effort though.

A Sufi Story worth remembering in our polarised times...

“Upon entering a new country a traveler noticed an old man sitting under a tree. He approached him and asked about the people in his land. The old man answered by asking, ‘How are the people in your country?’

‘Oh’ said the traveler, ‘they are friendly, hospitable, and cheerful.’ ‘Well,’ the old man said, ‘you’ll find them to be the same in my country.’

A few days later another traveler came up to the man under the tree with the same question, and again the old man responded by asking how the people in the traveler’s country were.

‘They are always in a rush, they have very little time for each other, and their main concern in life is how much money they can make.’

The old man shrugged and said, ‘You’ll find them to be the same in my country.’”

Zen and the art of HGV driving

The other day I was headed to a location I hadn't visited before. The postcode that I was given wasn't recognised by the SatNav (it was a building site so the postcode was new) so I entered a nearby location and set off. On top of this imprecision I reckon there had also been an incident blocking a more obvious route because I and a couple of other HGVs ended up down this relatively small road and faced with a bridge with a 7.5 Tonne limit which our SatNavs appeared not to know about!

Given that my truck's gross weight was 32 Tonnes there was no way I was going to "take a chance" on crossing the bridge so there I am having to turn around in a small road with rush hour traffic in both directions. I managed to make it in about a six point turn, which I'm pretty chuffed with, but nonetheless I had to remain calm in the face of an increasingly irate audience.

The knack, as passed on by more experience drivers, is to see situations like this as a puzzle that you can enjoy solving, a professional challenge that hones your skills. Hanging on to this idea isn't easy!

No news is good news

I haven't watched or listened to news broadcasts for years. I became tired of being presented with a litany of things to be frightened about, that I could do nothing to prevent, and that had minimal direct impact on my life.

I also lost confidence in journalists. With a few very rare exceptions they barely understand the subjects they write about, always have an agenda, and certainly in the case of podcasts get between me and the people I want to learn from.

The media more generally have a massive impact on our lives. Would Brexit or Trump have happened without the media providing oxygen and fanning the flames? Would we be destroying the planet without marketing creating the sense of lack that drives us to buy more stuff than we need and then packaging shit in seductive plastic?

Would the world fall apart if everyone protected themselves from the power of the media? Or would we find out from each other about the things that directly affect us and be able to do something about them?

Lag time

It is disconcerting how often ideas that I have been banging on about, for years in some cases, are only now beginning to emerge in mainstream media and podcasts.

I list them here for handy reference:

We all have a volume control on mob rule.

The future is too important to leave to technologists.

The ideology of algorithms is an inescapable challenge that we all have to address.

We can all change our worlds, one conversation at a time.

And of course, Organizations Don't Tweet, People Do!

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