A question of re-skilling for cooperation

For […] material, institutional and cultural reasons, modern times are ill-equipped to meet the challenges posed by the demanding sort of cooperation. I’ll frame this weakness in a way that might seem initially odd: modern society is ‘de-skilling’ people in practising cooperation.*
(Richard Sennett)

A question formed as I listened to the contributions of those I met with for a virtual breakfast conversation about the future. We had been asked to share, from our different perspectives, something of the affects of Covid-19 and, coming from education, service, healthcare, government and businesses, there were many rich responses noting both challenge and possibility.

When identifying a de-skilling in cooperation, Richard Sennett points to an increasing income gap between those at the top and bottom of our societies, the siloing of workers and managements and leadership, the short-term nature of employment, and the homogenising rather than valuing of difference as being to blame for this.

Perhaps in these times, we are seeing a rapid re-skilling in cooperation and collaboration among many in our societies. When there is great need, we see how capable we are to do this.

What we are possibly seeing is the forming of communitas:** groups of people deeply cooperating around a shared goal. What we may also note, if this is what we are seeing, is how this kind of community, may dissipate once the need is met or the crisis is past.

What we have seen is just how complex and interwoven our lives are, with an outbreak of this form of coronovirus in Wuhan spreading so rapidly, making a nonsense of the very things Sennett identifies as de-skilling us.

The complexities will continue beyond the crisis and will require a level of cooperation that is increasingly sustainable amongst the human race.

The question, then, forming for me is:

Will there be a considerable minority of people who are significantly shaped by this experience, who will help us work towards a better future?

I guess we may only begin to answer this on a personal level:

Will I allow myself to be changed by these experiences so that my future will include working with others for a better world?

(*From Richard Sennett’s Together.)
(**From Victor Turner’s The Ritual Process.)

What does it mean to you to be human?

If you want to win the war on attention, don’t try to say “no” to the trivial distractions you find on the information smorgasbord; try to say “yes” to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.*
(David Brooks)

This is the main thing. This is what I care about, it is the person. This is the living vessel: person. This is what matters. This is our universe. This is the task, the joy and the dolour: to be born as a person, to live and love as a person, to dwell in the worlds in a Person. The living spirit, the moving form, the living word, life-death, art-life, corpus, body, being, all, persons.**
(M. C. Richards)

What does it mean to you to be human?

The question was raised by a student I was in conversation with yesterday, a timely reminder for me that it’s one of the most important questions of this century and, most poignantly, for these times.

I was swept before the words of M. C. Richards as one carried upon a mighty tide, thrilled at the possibility of what this adventure of human, of Person, will mean. Richards continues relentlessly, leaving me breathless:

Let no one think that the birth of man is to be felt without terror. The transformations that await us cost everything in the way of courage and sacrifice. Let no one be deluded that a knowledge of the path can substitute for putting one foot in front of the other. […] In my own efforts, I become weak, discouraged, exhausted, angry, frustrated, unhappy, and confused. But someone within me is resolute, and I try again. Within us lives a merciful being who helps us to our feet no matter how many times we fall.**

Here are echoes of David Brooks’ “terrifying longing” but also of the need this future will have for great compassion, towards ourselves and each other as everything we are will be tested.

Kelvy Bird both warns and exhorts us:

But happiness cannot come without sadness, the two equal all the hours.^


(*David Brooks, quoted in Cal Newport’s Deep Work, highlighting Newport’s first discipline for deep work: ‘Focus on the Wildly Important.’)
(**From M. C. Richards’ Centering.)
(^From Kelvy Bird’s Generative Scribing.)

Vérité san frontières

The management of Liverpool Football Club have just reversed their earlier decision to furlough its background staff during the Covid-19 lockdown, apologising for this great error to the fans and past players who’d caused a ruckus over what they’d seen as being un-Liverpool.

I don’t know whether Seth Godin knew of this story when he wrote about the lifelong fan:

It turns out that the name of the team (and the other fans) are a much more important part of our narrative than we realise. Part of being a fan isn’t insisting that your team win every game – in fact, being a fan is defined as showing up even when you’re losing, even when the leaders are wrong, even when logic dictates that this makes no sense at all. Once you realise that being a fan is an important part of your self-worth, the most generous thing you can do is speak up when management is about to do something stupid. Because when the fans speak up, it’s possible that leadership listens.*

Like the Ship of Theseus, since Liverpool’s founding in 1892, the ground, the players, the managers, the chairmen, the background staff and the fans have changed many times over. Yet there’s a deeper truth that lives on through all of these changes for the fans and past players, a truth that needs to be preserved – though it is also a truth that has needed all of those years to grow and develop.

Everyone wants to stand for something that matters, a timeless truth, and perhaps the person who is to be most pitied is she or he without any truth to hold on to.

I also happened to read Seth Godin’s letter to young readers this morning:

Are the eggs of the purple unicorn edible? […] If they are edible, would you be willing to have a unicorn-egg omelette? Would that be right or fair or even delicious?**

Godin is catching my attention here because because of his highlighting of playful imagination as being so important for life. Although there are no unicorns, never mind purple ones – and do they lay eggs? – we need to employ huge amounts of imagination when it comes to the truths we live our lives by:

The thing about reading is that anything is possible. No special effects, no stunt men, If the writer can write it, it’s real. […] Discovering what’s possible is your job.**

The third element to these things comes from Cal Newport’s “grand gesture – deep action taken to ensure what we are working on gets done.

When we imaginatively play with our important truths through deep work new possibilities will emerge from the focus of purpose and energy, freeing our truth from time and circumstance so that it can grow and develop into the beautiful and practical expressions the world needs.

(*Seth Godin’s blog: The lifelong fan.)
(**From Seth Godin’s letter to young readers in Maria Popova and Claudia Bedrick’s A Velocity of Being.)

Deep-workers all

A potter brings his clay into centre on the potter’s wheel, and then he gives it whatever shape he wishes.*
(M. C. Richards)

We’ve all been handed a lump of clay to make something out of. It’s called life.

How we shape it is up to us.

We’re all capable of making something very fine and elegant from our clay.

Cal Newport suggests four ways of getting down to the deep work of what we want to do with our life that matters:**

Monastic: Disappearing and isolating to get on with what we want to do over a very long period of time, even a lifetime;
Bimodal: Earning the money we need to live on or feed our work in one mode and disappearing into multiple-days of deep work on what is most important in the other mode;
Rhythmic: Creating a rhythm of habits for the day in order to work on what is important whilst also meeting the other calls on our lives;
Journalistic: Snatching the opportunities to present themselves for deep work, able to enter quickly and be focused.

It feels like a mix of the rhythmic and journalistic that works for me and I’d guess the same for you: the former reinforcing the latter. The important thing is, there’s a way available to all of us to get on with that deep work of sharing the clay into something very fine indeed, before it hardens.

(*From M. C. Richards’ Centering.)
(**From Cal Newport’s Deep Work.)

An artist’s view

It is particularly moving to find the physicist [David] Bohm saying that reality cannot be described statistically – that it lends itself much more to the way of understanding one might have for the arts, of poetry and dance for example, though it is in music that he finds the leading paradigm.*
(M. C. Richards)

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. **
(Jesus of Nazerath)

When we have turned the earth into statistics, commodity, and economics, we have destroyed it.

If we are to inherit the earth, we must enter into relationship, allowing nature to provide us with insight and learning and leading.

The artist does not see statistics but the truth of something, including and beyond data alone … and we are all artists in some way or another.

Wherever you find yourself taking the given time to move outside your home during this lockdown, let nature speak to you, whether it be a garden, a park, some trees, the sky above or the plants pushing through the pavement.

(*From M. C. Richards’ Centering.)
(**Matthew 5:5)

Touching the sacred (an essential condition)

Our brains […] construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to.*
(Cal Newport)

Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging.*
(Cal Newport)

In these two quotes, Cal Newport is reflecting on the work of Winifred Gallagher and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi when it comes to focusing our attention on deep work rather than shallow.

Gallagher focuses on the contents of our attention after she noticed how she felt better about her life when she didn’t dwell on her recent cancer diagnosis but on “movies, walks, and a 6.30 martini.”** Her interest aroused, she began a five year exploration of the science around this, concluding:

Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioural economics to family counselling, similarly suggest that the skilful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your life.**

Csikszentmihalyi emphasises that the very experience of going deep brings rewards that are satisfying to us.

We’re looking at the “inside and outside” of the same thing, a möbius strip helping us to see just how this can be. It’s M. C. Richards who helps us to see this when she ponders the “crossing point” of a carrot seed, able to push down the hard, orange root but also send up the green filigreed leaves:

we may think of the genius of the human being, earth oriented by gravity, with feet on the ground, and in consciousness a weightless being whose head is full of dreams and visions. We do not have to decide which we will be, practical or visionary, for we are both. And that is our genius.^

Gallagher had noticed:

when you lose focus, your mind tends to focus on what’s wrong with your life instead of what’s right”.**

Newport presses on because he wants to consider the sacredness of deep work and how this is absent in shallow work. We must become craftspeople again:

Craftsmanship […] provides a key to reopening a sense of sacredness in a responsible manner.*

You may have guessed this is why I sat up when reading this. It is my belief and work that everyone is a craftsperson – it is our absolutely necessary condition.

(*From Cal Newport’s Deep Work.)
(**Winifred Gallagher, quoted in Cal Newport’s Deep Work.)
(^From M. C. Richards’ Centering.)

What on earth am I doing?

There’s something about keeping your hands busy when your brain feels broken. […] We’re wired to turn chaos into order. Randomness into meaning.*
(Austin Kleon)

I didn’t eat lunch alone, I ate lunch in Castle Rock, Maine, with Stephen King. I’ve hung out with Jane Austen. I’ve curled up in corners with Toni Morrison. I’ve climbed trees with Louisa May Alcott With a book in my hand, I was transported.**
(Shonda Rhimes)

Each morning, as the day begins, I look up at the sky .

The tendrils of trees reach up into its vastness and I wonder whether I’ll see birds flying across.

All of this took such a long time of preparation before I could ever enjoy it, life exploding for me to enjoy the light of day.

Even as we let ourselves consider the wonder of just being here, we know that it doesn’t always feel so great. Cal Newport writes about how knowledge workers can find themselves lost, wondering whether they are producing anything worthwhile, falling back on more predictable things to measure – emails sent and replied to – calling it ‘Busyness as Proxy for Productivity.’^

We can all feel like this at times. We can all lose sight of what it is we really want to be doing.

Austin Kleon confesses at the beginning of one of his weekly newsletters:

I was sort of off this week.^^

What to do when we are feeling off?

Kleon turned to solving problems. These days we can binge on the latest Netflix series, but this is more likely to just put off feeling the off-ness, the lostness.

What we can do when we’re feeling off or lost is to invest in our attitude, how we’ll approach things.

Possibilities include reading a book, going for a walk, looking up at the sky and explore the shapes of the clouds, working with our hands – drawing, collaging, fitting curtain poles and the list goes on.

“What’s your best discovery?” asked the mole. “That I’m enough as I am.”*^

We can lean into our attitude – indeed, we can understand attitude to be the way we lean, no matter what. Kelvy Bird shares how:

After one or two years of dedicated journaling, where I wrote the words alongside sketches, I realised that my style – my true voice – was going to have to be something new, to me and to others.^*

One or two years!

But add up the times you felt odd or lost and one or two years may seem like a bargain.

Back to the beginning of the day, and how it took billions of years of preparing before I could enjoy it, a few years more towards identifying our voice, our colour of productivity, are worth their weight in gold. As Wayne Dyer clarifies:

When you change the way you see things, the things you see change.

(*From Austin Kleon’s blog: The Cube (in praise of solvable problems).)
(**Shonda Rhimes letter to young readers from Maria Popova and Claudia Bedrick’s A Velocity of Being.)
(^From Cal Newport’s Deep Work.)
(^^From Austin Kleon’s newsletter: In praise of solvable problems.)
(*^From Charlie Mackesy’s The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse.)
(^*From Kelvy Bird’s Generative Scribing.)
(⁺Wayne Dyer, quoted in gapingvoid’s blog: Unlock the key to happiness.)