"Those of us who aspire to a life of Purposive Drift, try to cultivate habits of mind that allow us, from time to time, to seek experiences that reveal opportunities for well-being that lie outside our immediate context or sit concealed and unnoticed within the pattern of our everyday lives. Habits of mind that encourage us to think of our lives as a series of experiments that provide valuable information about what we like and what we don’t, what we value and what we shun, and what we want and what we don’t. Valuable information that informs how we make it up as we go along and takes account of the richness and variety of the world in which we live."
I wrote this about eighteen months ago. Things looked very different then. For a start, I had no idea that a year later I would find myself caught up in issues around my health or rather lack of it, which has impacted fairly heavily on the kind of experiments in living I have been able to conduct.
The other stuff, collapsing house prices, threats of recession and so on I had been anticipating - that wasn't rocket science, busts always follow booms. I had even made plans to insulate my family and myself from some of its effects. Like many such plans the tricky bit is getting the timing and the details of a coming crisis right. Like most people, that's the bit I invariably get wrong and like many others got wrong this time too.
So whereas at the time I wrote that passage I was anticipating some major shifts in my context and a whole new set of things to explore, instead, eighteen months later I find myself more else in the same place with the central issue being getting by.
But the big surprise for me, which I still find hard to articulate, is the way that I am seeing the waves of bad economic and financial news as being a positive process opening up spaces for new ways to think about and act in the world. Stuff that has been bubbling away under the surface for years if not decades is now seeming ever more relevant. Voices of people, who have been out of the mainstream, such as Russell Ackoff, Jane Jacons, Geoffrey Vickers, Gregory Bateson and Meg Wheatley, indeed all those people from many different fields, who have been thinking in terms of systems and networks.
So here we are in the middle of 2008 and quite unexpectedly I find myself feeling that we are entering one of the most exciting periods in human history, The transition from a civilisation based on selling the family silver - consuming fossil fuels that took ten of thousands of years to form in some thing like two centuries - to a civilisation with some kind of long term future is one that will require all the creativity, imagination and enterprise we can muster. But what an exciting, inspiring project.
Of course, we may have left it too late, but despite all the obstacles, I am still optimistic that we will muddle through.
Which is more or less how I feel about my own future. My nice neat plans may have crumbled and with them the easy solutions have all evaporated. Now it is time for a bit of improvised getting by, bracketing the anxieties that accompany getting by and cultivating a mode of just driftin' in an alert kind of way, watching out for those unexpected opportunities that a bit of driftin' invariably reveal.
Wandering over to John Winsor's blog via metacool, I found this great piece on the value of slowing down. In it he describes how by slowing down in his training his fitness is improving and how the same thing applies in his business activities. Read it here.
Nick Currie's "Click Opera" is one of my regular reads that I don't think I've mentioned here before. He's an interesting guy and well worth reading. What really caught my fancy today was a post of his from a couple of days ago where he is talking about one of those below the surface trends that may be very significant. Apparently car ownership in Japan has fallen has fallen dramatically since 1990 - "The decline in sales since 1990 is equivalent to one big car company like Mitsubishi or Honda being wiped out entirely." Interestingly, this trend is most pronounced among the young. You can read the whole thing here
Just discovered (via Neuroanthropology) a fascinating paper on the so called placebo effect.
They then go on to argue, with a number of examples, that it would be more fruitful to look at the so called placebo effect in terms of what a treatment means to patients and how that impacts on their recovery, both positively and negatively - the meaning effect.
"... as we have clarified, routinized, and rationalized our medicine, thereby relying on the salicylates and forgetting about the more meaningful birches, willows, and wintergreen from which they came —in essence, stripping away Plato’s “charms”—we have impoverished the meaning of our medicine to a degree that it simply doesn’t work as well as it might any more. Interesting ideas such as this are impossible to entertain when we discuss placebos; they spring readily to mind when we talk about meaning."
(Do scroll down and read Dan Moerman's comments on the Neuroanthropology post - much to reflect on here)
Yesterday I was urging my readers to go to the ChangeThis site to help push Russell Ackoff's and Daniel Greenberg's "Turning Learning Right Side Up: Putting Education Back on Track" up ChangeThis's most popular lists. There are important ideas in there that deserve a wider currency.
Today I am back on Ackoff. Over the years I have picked up a number of insights and ideas from him, but he was always in my peripheral vision - I had never read any of his books or heard him speak, the bits I had got were from the odd article or paper I picked up from time to time.
Yesterday I spent some delightful time watching a video of a workshop he gave at Chicago-Kent College of Law at the end 2000. If you are interested in trying to understand how the world works and more importantly what to do to change it to make it a little bit better, this is must watch stuff. Apart from rather tedious introductory stuff that goes on too long, once he begins to speak it is is gem after gem. Funny, wise and inspirational, put aside some time, go there and pay attention. I learnt a lot, I expect that you would too.
You can get to it here.
Russell Ackoff has long been one of my favourite management thinkers, so when I saw his name attached to a paper on ChangeThis, "Turning Learning Right Side Up: Putting Education Back on Track" I instantly downloaded it. I wasn't disappointed. The analysis he and coauthor, Daniel Greenberg, provide is filled with insights and wisdom. Here is its opening:
For too long, we have educated people for a world that no longer exists, extinguishing their creativity and instilling values antithetical to those of a free, 21st century democracy. The principal objective of education as currently provided is to ensure the maintenance and preservation of the status quo—to produce members of society who will not want to challenge any fundamental aspects of the way things are. Traditional education focuses on teaching, not learning. It incorrectly assumes that for every ounce of teaching, there is an ounce of learning by those who are taught. Being taught is, to a very large extent, boring and much of its content is seen as irrelevant. It is the teacher, not the student, who learns most in a traditional classroom."
Go to the Changethis site and download it here. After you have read it go back and e-mail copies to your friends. Let's see if we can drive this one to the top of the ChangeThis's lists of the most popular.
Today, while looking for something else on a long and circuitous journey through the web, I stumbled across this response by Dan Moerman to a talk by Nicholas Humphrey, "A Self worth having". The talk and the responses are well worth spending some time to read carefully and to ponder, but it was Moerman's take that gave me a real liberating buzz. (A reward for a bit of purposive drift?) I quote two key passages here, but do urge you to read the whole thing yourself:
"Consciousness is a gift, and perhaps one from the Devil. It makes no sense. Five thousand other mammals from platypus to dolphin manage without anything remotely like a human system of consciousness, language, meaning, recursion, uncountable sets, aesthetics, etc. Yes, all animals (mammals and planaria) probably have some sense of self (although in some cases, like slime molds, it's hard to know where it would reside); all sexual animals, at least, communicate at least once in a while (well, oysters do it without much communication that makes any sense to me; so let me change it to "most sexual animals"). Some stuff may mean things to primates; although that obviously depends on the definition of "mean," something that would be hard to discuss with the wisest chimpanzee (which is, I guess, the point). And, of course, I know lots of human beings who have utterly no sense at all of aesthetics, even if they can "talk," in some sense of the word."
And the kicker:
"So, given a) the astonishing persistence of non-individualized life, of life free of human-style consciousness (for tens of thousands of animal species, and hundreds of thousands of plant species), and b) the damage that we consciousness-rich persons have done to the whole ecosystem, to the evolutionary system which has been going on for a billion years (more damaging than a streaking asteroid, than a billion volcanos, than the drifting of continents; or whatever), it seems to me that we have to look at consciousness as not an evolutionary (and specifically adaptive) development (which Nick notes is incredibly hard to account for, in the way that we can account for other adaptations, like sickle cell anemia, or tool making), but an accident, or a gift, or both..."
"Bankers provide necessary and useful services. But the runaway juggernaut we have inflicted upon ourselves today has gone far beyond oiling economic activity. It has metastised into something which behaves like a parasite, destroying substance and justifying it by creating an apparently larger, but a lot more fleeting, prosperity increasingly based on our collective belief that it is actually doing so and not on underlying value added. When that illusions shatters, the reckoning will be painful."
Like many people, the current economic turmoil is having a direct impact on my life, amplified by ill health over the last six months that has severely limited my capacity for action. But despite all that I feel surprisingly optimistic. In my naive, bright little ray of sunshine in a cruel dark world way, I can see some exciting opportunities ahead. The positive side of what is happening now is that it sweeping some of the nonsense of the last thirty years or so out of the way. Just maybe now, we can stop rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic and get down to the real business of muddling our way through to a better, more enjoyable world for our grandchildren and their children and the generations that could follow.
Am I alone in my optimism?
I have been fascinated by 37signals since I first discovered them a couple of years ago, when I came across some remarks about planning by Jason Fried that seemed very close to some of my ideas about purposive drift. As well as following their blog and various articles about them I also devoured their book, "Getting Real". More recently, I have been raving to my friends about David Heinemeier Hansson's presentation at Paul Graham's Startup School at Stanford in April. Today I wandered over to their blog and discovered this nugget of wisdom from David:
"Popular perception holds that companies must always be growing or they’re dying. There’s either up or down, win or lose, success or failure. I think that’s a harmful dichotomy that leads to the death of perfectly viable companies in their quest for constant growth.
Not all companies are meant to have thousands of employees or a billion-dollar market cap. Some companies are meant to be just 10 people or 5 people or just one guy. That’s what their product, niche, or technique is capable of sustaining and there’s absolutely no shame in that. Finding your natural size should be a triumph, not a capitulation."
As John Brunner once wrote, "It is one thing to talk glibly about the determinism of history but quite another thing altogether to find oneself caught up in historical forces like dead leaf on the gale."
At the moment I feel a wee bit like a dead leaf on the gale. As I wrote in a few posts ago, "Waiting for the dead cat bounce", I had a nice neat plan for selling our house, which, had it all gone through, would have insulated us from much of the gloom and turmoil of the moment. Like so many nice, neat plans I got the timing wrong, so it didn't happen. So here I am swirling around in the wind looking for that anchor point to allow me to shift to Brunner's more optimistic image of the Shockwave Rider surfing on the waves of change.
There is a backhanded plus to all this. Had my nice, neat plan gone through I could have found myself basking in a smug disinterest. From one perspective looming stagflation, collapsing property prices, high oil prices, the credit crunch and loss of confidence in our government are all a plus - necessary correctives to a set of collective delusions.
While I still think that is the case, finding one self suffering some of the consequences of those corrections along with millions of others, pushed into the situation of having to focus on getting by, may be a better place to think through what is to be done, rather than one of Olympian detachment - a more human, empathetic place.
The downside is, of course, that one is so busy focusing on the day to day business of getting by that that one has little time, inclination or energy to look at the larger picture and to spot the opportunities for positive change that the current shifts in mood and circumstance generate.
This again may be a question of timing. At the moment we have swapped one form of hysteria for another. I suspect that, while not comfortable, things are not going to be as bad as a reading of the financial press would suggest. (I am talking in the relative short term here.) After a while we will reach gloom fatigue - gloom will lose the thrill of novelty and our media will start looking for "things are not so bad stories".
This is the danger point. There are important lessons to be learnt from the current situation in terms of what not to do, what doesn't work. Moving from that to seeing what we should be doing is more difficult and will require greater imagination, creativity and improvisation, to say nothing of some hard reality checks. The danger is that as the gloom lifts we will find ourselves returning to the same old same old rather than taking account of the place we all find ourselves in and dealing with it.
As for me, I may allow myself a brief period of indulging in dead leaf mode, but then it is on to the Shockwave Rider.
"Jean-Claude Trichet, the President of the European Central Bank (ECB), told a conference in Barcelona last week: “From a world of seemingly unlimited resources, mankind is gradually accustoming itself to the Earth as a limited, crowded and finite space, with limited resources for extraction and a narrowing capacity for waste disposal of pollution.”
Mr Trichet argued that the economics of this new world were “increasingly pushing at the boundaries of development” and required new thinking."
Some sound advice from Jeffrey McGrew of Because we can, "Six tips for those about to leap into business for themselves."
1. Get as debt-free as possible, and try your best to stay that way.
2. Plans are worthless, planning is essential.
3. Listen to everything everyone has to say, but then go ahead and do what you were going to do anyways.
4. Look (and learn) before you Leap.
5. Have a solid plan B in place.
6. You've probably already got a niche, you just don't know it yet.
You can read his explanation here and watch him and Jillian Northrup talking about how they set up their business here. Nice to be pointing to a business that actually designs and makes tangible things.
(Thanks to Russell Davies for the tip)
As 2008 proceeds a general mood of gloom deepens. Despite finding my own plans thwarted (see "Waiting for the dead cat bounce") I see in the growing dismal news signals that a long nightmare may be coming to an end and that, just maybe, very soon we can start focusing on dealing the predicaments that face us rather than being subjected to the implementation of a set of half baked theories designed, intentionally or not, to benefit the flashocracy.
In the meantime, here are some words from the Sixties from the wise and under valued Geoffrey Vickers:
"The appropriate attitude to our predicament, however fearful it may be, does not depend on our optimism or even on our hope. It was best expressed in the words of a member of the Connecticut Assembly in 1780, when proceeding were threatened by panic induced by a darkening of the sky so unprecedented as to suggest the arrival of a prophesied Judgement Day. He ruled - "Either this is the end of the world or it is not. If it is not, our business should proceed. If it is, I prefer to be found doing my duty. Let lights be brought.'
Let lights be brought. Not more power; but that much rarer, subtler, more demanding fruit of human spirit - more light."
From "Freedom in a Rocking Boat", page 125
My friend Rosie Dalziel died five years ago. Her illness was sudden. Her death was unexpected. I miss her.
Here is what I said at her funeral:
Rosie Dalziel – A Few Words
When Bob first asked me if I'd say a few words today
I was touched and honoured
It seemed the least I could do
Later my feelings changed to those of panic
How could one sum up someone like Rosie in a few words?
I had two problems
First Rosie was a very complex
quite private person
Even though I have known her for many years
I still found I was learning
and sometimes surprising things about her
right up to the end
My second problem is
that when I think of Rosie
It is often in images
Images that would take a long time to describe in words
Rosie expressed a lot in body language
The expression on her face
often told you a lot more than the words she used
So I tried a few devices to try and capture something of what I knew and admired about Rosie
They all felt inadequate
Then I remember something Rosie used to do
when she was in hyperdrive mode
She's throw out a few words
and you were supposed
to understand what she was talking about
Even though a real explanation would have taken
if not hours
to explain properly
Some of you may remember her doing this to you
Anyway I thought I'd do a Rosie
and throw a few words at you
But I'm going to be a little more helpful
and give you a bit of context too
My first word is Elegant
because this was my first impression of Rosie
when we met some twenty odd years ago
We were both working in a little college in the East End of London
A tech - a pre-undergraduate institution
with lots of students studying things like plumbing, bricklaying, secretarial skills, that kind of thing
It was very old fashioned, hierarchical and under financed
I can still remember Rosie
coming into the room where I was working
on tour of computer facilities
with some colleagues from her department
At that time I was based in a print room
filled with obsolete typesetting and printing technology
I sat next to the one piece of new technology in the room
a digital typesetter
with my bits of new technology
a computer and some other bits and pieces
that enabled you to do exciting things
like drawing circles and lines on a screen
At that point I had no idea how much Rosie knew about computers
but she listened patiently to what I had to say
as if it was all new to her
I can't remember how many conversations after that it took
but it seemed quite soon afterwards
that she invited me to her home
and we became good friends
Now as I said
in the context of the College and the East End
Rosie seemed like an elegant, glamorous, even a bit exotic, visitor from another world
And I was always rather puzzled about how she'd landed there
(She did tell me, but that's another story)
But coming back to the word elegant
As I got to know her I began to realise that it applied to much more than her appearance
Rosie had an elegant mind
She though like the physicist she was
about all sorts of things
quite unrelated to physics
She had this ability to weave complex networks
of concepts and actions
and hold them all in her head
She also had a highly developed aesthetic sense
she liked beautiful things
and she liked to help to create beautiful things
whether that was a workplace, a brochure a website, an IT system or her home
So elegant, Rosie was definitely elegant
My second word is audacious
I had to look this one up to check that I'd got it right
impudent, well if that means a bit cheeky, yes
Now I discovered this quality in Rosie
while we still both at the little college in the East End
It was at the time of the micro revolution
People from different departments of the college
were buying computers to do all sorts of different things
lots of different stuff
on machines that were largely incompatible
with one another
Rosie was appalled by the chaos and waste
that this approach led to
You could say it was inelegant
She devised a scheme based on a network and a cluster of mini computers
that would mean that everyone
had access to all the computer facilities
available in the College
where ever they were
I had been in the College for much longer than Rosie
knew most of the senior people much better
I knew that there was no money available for such a scheme
I also knew that some one as low in hierarchy as Rosie
was unlikely to getting a hearing
for the scheme to get the go ahead
I was wrong
Somehow Rosie managed to persuade
the Principal and the Governors
to back her scheme wholeheartedly
and it moved ahead
at extraordinary speed
The only flaw in the plan
was that Rosie left
to join a new hi-tech company in the New Docklands
and there was nobody else
who understood what she had designed
However this wasn't seen as a problem
parts of her system serviced the administrative needs
of the College
And others were used by an IT course
(one of the first in the country at that level)
that she had set up almost as an aside
But the grand vision disappeared with Rosie
I sometimes used to say that what we had in the College
was a little like
a Jet Plane
that had crashed in the New Guinea jungle
and some of the natives were very excited
because they had managed to discover
how to turn the lights on and off
So we now have two words
Now my third word Ambitious needs a little explanation
I don't think Rosie was very interested in Fame and Fortune
Indeed I was often puzzled by what drove her
Rosie could have had a very pleasant, easy life
She had plenty of interests that could have kept her
happily engaged and entertained
But instead she seemed to find these monumental
impossibly, ambitious projects that she seemed compelled
My sense is that what drove her
was a sense of duty
She would see something that needed doing
and that she could see a solution for
and would go ahead to do it
elegantly and audaciously
(of the course the world being a messy place it didn't always look like that from the outside, but the underlying plan was always beautifully conceived)
I discovered something of the scope of Rosie's ambition
some years after she had left the College
It began reasonably enough
We were standing by the water in London's Docklands
Rosie told me she'd got idea of how to raise some money
for another project of hers
We'd put on a conference
At that point it all seemed quite doable
so I happily agreed to help
However the notion of a money making conference
Instead it became a mission to get European Manufacturing Industry
to understand what had to be done
to make Europe competitive in the global marketplace
Not only that instead of being a conventional conference it became a new kind of conference based on
and I quote here
"an electronic information system allowing a high degree of participation for conference delegates'
This in turn required Bob to design some special conference furniture that enabled groups of delegates to work together using the system
More than that Rosie decided that it was to be held in one of the most prestigious conference centres in London
So we had no money
No organisation in place to support the mission
And yet somehow
the teams were assembled
to make the whole thing happen
'New Manufacturing Imperatives', a European Industrial Summit Conference was held at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, London in January 1988 and in Paris in June the following year
Some time later
a colleague of mine who had worked intensively on the project
and had a few months to recover
said to me
'Has Rosie got another project? I think I ready to jump off a precipice again"
Rosie seemed to inspire that kind of loyalty and affection
among the bright and talented who worked with her
I'm not going to say much about my next word determined
because William Clocksin
who is speaking next
will be covering much of that ground
All I will say is that at some point around the time of the first conference
Rosie had concluded that if European manufacturing was to get the technologies they needed to remain competitive
She would have to set up a group of companies
to invent, develop and deliver them
This final mission was elegant in conception
and audacious and ambitious in scope
What staggered me was the sheer determination of will
she applied to it
Often under supported
She worked long, long hours
and often right through the night
for years and years
to achieve it
There were a number times
when it seemed that the whole mission would collapse
but some how she'd pick it up
and it continued to move forward
I often shared her frustration
at the time it took
and the seemingly unnecessary obstacles
that were put in her way
But she kept going on determinedly
Despite having the option
just to stop
to go off to lead a quiet pleasant entertaining life
So these are the four words I throw out
to describe the Rosie I admired
But there was another side to Rosie
a more private, gentle side
that I valued
The words I would use here are
Rosie was a great companion
a good friend
some one it was enjoyable to be with
I think it was those relaxed times
when we drank endless cups of coffee
and smoked too many cigarettes
about all sorts of things
I think it was those moments I valued above all
and what I am going to miss the most
I recently wrote to a friend of mine enthusing about Meg Wheatley, describing her, among other things, as a "real realist". To which my friend very sensibly replied, "what is an unreal realist". My rather puny response was "For start all those hard headed people, who talk about "the bottom line"."
On Saturday I encountered an article in the Guardian's weekend magazine, "Last flight of the honeybee?". I still haven't recovered. Among other follies it described was that apparently three quarters of the honey bees in the US are shipped to the orchards of California's Central Valley for three weeks each year to pollinate the almond flowers. We are talking here of a $1.9bn a year industry that supplies 80% of the world's almonds.
Even if there wasn't a threat of honeybees disappear altogether, which is apparently a real concern, this practice seems utterly bizarre - but no doubt there are hard headed, realistic reasons for doing things this way and for continuing the practice in the face of losing the bees that do the work. (Why am I reminded of the cod in Canada's Grand Banks and the realists, who despite warnings, went on fishing them?)
So maybe my current nomination for the title unreal realists would be the Almond Industry of California, along with the rest of us, who happily go along with these disconnects between systems and consequences.