Proof of life

‘We become original through practice.’*
(Seth Godin)

‘It has become clear to me that if I had spent my life avoiding any and all potential risks, I would have missed doing most of the things that have comprised the best years of my life.’**
(Chris Guillebeau)

Seth Godin is considering two styles of practice: by rote and by failure – the latter being the art of ‘creating original work that doesn’t succeed until it does.’*

Inspiration doesn’t appear fully formed.  Some of those I work with may hope that identifying their talents and passions is the solution to their problems or confusion.  If a solution means simplifying things then it certainly isn’t.  Because of the possibilities that knowing our talents and passion opens to us, life becomes more complex – even perplexing – and the only way forward is through practise.

What we discover along the way of forming the paths we must walk is that we’re not only identifying our work or contribution (that may also be our job but not necessarily) but we’re also finding our Self – the person who can become, as Richard Rohr helps us to see:

‘I must know that I am, at least in part, the very thing I am seeking.’^

Erwin McManus tells of how he and his wife Kim were asked to complete a “Proof of Life” form on a visit to the border of Lebanon, in case they were captured by ISIS.  This confidential information was to include things that only they would know about themselves , therefore verifying they were still alive,  Erwin provides this question for us to ponder:

“What would you say are the most powerful proofs of my life?”^^

What would be my proofs?  Yours?

Are we moving in the direction of these?

All of this will require our attention.  Everyone who lives in this direction will need some way to reflect upon their lives ensuring tomorrow opens up with more.  Everyone’s way or means will be different.  Some will spend more time than others?  Some will reflect through an ever-changing flow of questions, others may pose themselves with a few critical inquiries.  Some walk, others sit.  Some read, others watch.

Because of our ability to keep growing and developing – no one has ever reached the limits of their growth potential – there’s nothing to fear, nothing to destroy.  This doesn’t mean there’s no cost.  The most critical thresholds we’ll find ourselves crossing will require us to pay the price of openness, compassion and courage.

This reflection is being conscious of our consciousness, of which Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says:

 ‘The mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a goal, and not longer.’*^

This paying of attention so that we notice the small things, the details and nuances of what are our talents and passions and creations is what makes our continuing practise possible ways that will move us through the failures so we might finally succeed at something no one else has ever attempted – which is one reason for not simply copying others:

‘attention is our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience’.*^

(*From Seth Godin’s blog Two kinds of practice.)
(**From Chris Guillebeau’s The Happiness of Pursuit.)
(^From Richard Rohr’s Eager to Love.)
(^^FromErwin McManus’ The Last Arrow.)
(*^From Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow.)




Light it up

‘Mimicking feels easy and safe.  What feels risky for you is to truly think for yourself.’*
(Hugh Macleod)

‘Values are the nervous system of a brilliant life.  They connect everything.  Put simply, values are right up there with oxygen.’**
(Michael Heppell)

It’s difficult to think for ourselves.

Sometimes when it is said to us, “You must think for yourself,” what’s really meant is, “I want you to go away and think more like me.”  When any of us think, we’re using thoughts from those who’ve gone before us.  What we call thinking for ourselves is the ability to  take these thoughts and make something new from them – I think what Hugh Macleod is suggesting.  Hopefully these become valuable both for those around us and also for those who follow, who will use them to make something new of their own – thinking for themselves.

Part of this unique reworking is how we wonder within the world, what we see and feel, leading on to what we do.  Earlier today I read Kathleen Jamie’s Moon and was mesmerised by what the poet saw, helping me to see:

Last night, when the moon
slipped into my attic room
as an oblong of light,
I sensed she’d come to commiserate.
It was August. She travelled
with a small valise
of darkness, and the first few stars
returning to the northern sky,
and my room, it seemed,
had missed her. She pretended
an interest in the bookcase
while other objects
stirred, as in a rock pool,
with unexpected life:
strings of beads in their green bowl gleamed,
the paper-crowded desk;
the books, too, appeared inclined
to open and confess.
Being sure the moon
harboured some intention,
I waited; watched for an age
her cool gaze shift
first toward a flower sketch
pinned on the far wall
then glide down to recline
along the pinewood floor,
before I’d had enough. Moon,
I said, We’re both scarred now.
Are they quite beyond you,
the simple words of love? Say them.
You are not my mother;
with my mother, I waited unto death.^

Our curiosity as an opening of mind must move on to an opening of heart and the possibility of personal change, and with it confidence that we have something worthwhile and valuable, though we fear it may not measure up to what others think and do.

From this perspective, the number of imaginings and re-imaginings from what we have received from those around us and have gone before us are overwhelming.  But we are thinking for ourselves, we will not stay behind:

‘When we refuse to stay behind, we become conduits to the future.’^^

Our imaginative thinking changes the game.  Sherry Turkle highlights the problem we create when we work with quandaries – the situation shaped when we ask, “Do we do this or that?”:

‘The forced choice of a quandary, posed over time, threatens to become no quandary at all because we come to accept its framing […].’*^

Why does it have to be this or that?  Why can’t there be other possibilities?  The ones you want to bring?

Edgar Schein identifies three significant ways of Helping.  There’s the expert or professional help personified by the consultant; there’s the diagnostic help personified by the doctor, but before we get to needing these helps, what we could do with is the inquiring help personified by the process facilitator:

“In life, the challenge is not so much to figure out how best to play the game; the challenge is to figure out what game we’re playing.”^*

Your thinking may be the game changer we need.

(*From gapingvoid’s blog: How to think like Elon Musk.)
(**From Michael Heppell’s How to be Brilliant.)
(^Kathleen Jamie’s Moon.)
(^^From Erwin McManus’ The Last Arrow.)
(*^From Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together,)
(^*Kwame Anthony Appiah, quoted in Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together.)

Opening the box

‘Adventure is for everyone. […] Everyone has a calling.  Follow your passion.’*
(Chris Guillebeau)

‘The greatest gift you can give to a person is to see who she is and to reflect that back to her, when we help people to be who they want to be,to take back some of the permission they deny themselves, we are doing our best, most meaningful work.’**
(Bernadette Jiwa)

We’re living in a new world.  Many haven’t yet noticed and are still playing by the old (often unwritten, but deeply permeating) rules – whether these are the privileged few, or the underprivileged many.

Our understanding changes the stories we live within.  We are experiencing information and knowledge necessary to altering our understanding as increasingly ubiquitous.  Technology is providing something quite revolutionary: we can find the information we need, explore it more deeply, play with it in all kinds of ways, find each other to play together, let others know what we are providing, all through the Internet.  We’re smitten by social media but beyond this lies the commons of a new world waiting to be taken out of the box.

The outsiders are coming.

‘The best way to verify if you are alive is by checking if you like variations.’^

(*From Chris Guillebeau’s The Happiness of Pursuit.)
(**From Bernadette Jiwa’s Meaningful.)
(^From Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile.)


Live efficiently?

‘The most important telltale factor is the development of a simple and elegant user interface – a gateway of effortless interaction.’*
(Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler)

‘These buildings exist to house small businesses inside them, but just barely, like bomb shelters.  You get in, do what you need to do, you get out.  They are life-draining for the people who work in them, and a daily misery for the people who visit them, though they may not realise it.’**
(Lauren Elkin)

“Drive efficiently” commanded the motorway sign on the M74, on a twenty mile section between junctions in Winter blackness with hardly a car on the road.

I’m not sure what was expected of me.

What if it had stated “Drive beautifully” or Drive elegantly?

And life, instead of jobs and buildings stating Live efficiently, instead encouraged Live beautifully.  Wouldn’t that be better?

(*From Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler’s Bold.)
(**From Lauren Elgin’s Flâneuse, describing “non places.”)

The collective

‘”The history of suburbia,” writes Rebecca Solnit, “is the history of fragmentation.”  It is the history of exclusion. […] It is a story about breaking away from the collective in all its variety to dwell among similar people.’* (Lauren Elkin)

Manchester is the third largest city in England and the U.K.  Whichever way you turn in the city, new buildings are going up, commercial and personal living spaces juxtaposed with the established to create a new cityscape.

Walking through this was an exhilarating experience for me, crushed in by all kinds of people, from so many backgrounds, in the city for makers’ and Christmas markets.  There are two stories from this experience that provide an intriguing contrast.  A new bar and restaurant on the edge of the city centre was absolutely empty.  It was looking for people to make it their space.  On the opposite edge of the city lie old warehouses, graffitied and tired but emerging from one comes vibrant music.

Walking off the dank, dark late afternoon in Manchester, one is embraced by the eating space called Grub.  Formed out of plywood and street food sellers marquees, the interior is rumoured to have cost £2,000 to transform.  People have made this a prime eating place sitting or standing around in large groups meeting up there.

One is a beautiful space looking for a community, the other a story of community people want to be a part of.

We need a story before we need money to begin something that matters for people.  Check out Seth Godin’s Tribes for more details.

And, if you’re in Manchester looking for somewhere to eat, I’d recommend Grub, very close to Piccadily railway station.  I particularly recommend the Cuban sandwiches and halloumi fries with pomengranate jewels – though the street sellers may be different.

(*From Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse.)

Black Saturday

‘Anyone can work more.  Not everyone can care more.’* (Hugh Macleod)

‘In a gift society, the increase follows the gift and is itself given away, while in a market society, the increase returns to its owner.’**  (Lewis Hyde)

Black Friday is just more of the same.  And it’s not the benefit of the customer.

You probably have better ideas.  If you make a habit of leaving the usual and familiar behind and find others – happening in all kinds of ways (Good For Nothing,, U.Lab, Maker’s Labs … .)

‘The flânuese does exist, whenever we have deviated from the paths laid out for us, lighting out for our own territories.’^

(*From gapingvoid’s blog The Magic Isn’t in the Hours.)

(**From Lewis Hyde’s The Gift)

(^From Laura Elkin’s Flâneuse.)

This is it

‘Technics and wisdom are not by any means opposed.  On the contrary, the duty of our age, the “vocation” of modern man is to unite them in supreme humility which will result in a totally self-forgetful creativity and service.’*
(Thomas Merton)

This probably isn’t it.  Whether it’s having made it to the top or the realisation that we will never get to the top or the fruitarian diet we’ve discovered or the latest technology, there’s always more.  And the very thing we think is it can be the very thing that gets in the way.

Thomas Merton’s words, above, were written to Rachel Carson on the publication of her 1962 book Silent Spring, an early environmental warning. I happened to read this alongside Ken Mogi’s description of the Japan’s Ise Shrine which is carefully dismantled and rebuilt every twenty years, passing on traditional building techniques for over 1,200 years.  Mogi offers this as an example of sustainability and concludes:

‘The excellent track record of the Ise Shrine should be studied as a model for the realisation of sustainability.  Clearly, harmony is the key to sustainability.  The reservation and humbleness of the Ise Shrine staff, […] make the Ise Shrine the apotheosis of harmony and sustainability, the third pillar of ikigai.’**

Mogi’s mention of humbleness echoes Merton’s reference to humility, and the uniting of technology and wisdom mentioned by Merton feels as though it anticipates Mogi’s reflection on a different level of sustainability.  From these, Merton asserts, there emerge many possibilities for creativity and service – the more that lies beyond a premature This is it.

Both contributions imagine sustainability stretching over many lifetimes and generations, not just our own.  When we find an it that joins with this then maybe we have found the real it.

(*Thomas Merton, quoted in Maria Popova’s BrainPickings: Technology, Wisdom and the Difficult Art of Civilisational Awareness.)
(**From Ken Mogi’s The Little Book of Ikigai.)


“I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.”
(Thomas Merton)

“To me the converging objects of the universe flow.  All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.”**
(Walt Whitman)

Getness is a life posture or attitude.

To learn from those who have gone before opens new learning to us, not because we have to learn for the sake of learning – though it seems we must as a species – but because we know so much and still get things horribly wrong.

Thomas Merton wrote to Rachel Carson on the publication of her book Silent Spring which identified the poisoning of the planet through chemicals:

“you are, perhaps without altogether realising, contributing a most valuable and essential piece of evidence for the diagnosis of the ills of our civilisation’.

Carson’s book was written in 1962 and yet we hare witnessing the denial of the evidence, of what we know, in the highest echelons of power fifty five years later.

Erich Fromm writes about the difference between Western and Eastern thinking:

‘In Taoist thinking, just as in Indian and Socratic thinking, the highest step to which thought can lead us is to know that we do not know.’^^

Fromm goes on to draw on the thinking of philologist Max Müller who wrote:

“not to know know [and yet think] we do know is a disease’.*^

To be open to learn more and still understand that we do not know is what getness is about and we need more if it.

(*Thomas Merton, quoted in the Northumbria Community‘s Morning Prayer.)
(**Walt Whitman, quoted in Lewis Hyde’s The Gift.)
(^Thomas Merton, quoted in Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings: Technology, Wisdom and the Difficulty of Civilisational Awareness.)
(^^From Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving.)
(*^Max Müller, quoted in Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving.)

When the robots are here

They already are.

‘The robots will make everything we need, except the thing we need most of: humanity.’* (Hugh Macleod)

As we try to make machines more human, Sherry Turkle notices through her research that:

‘long before we have devices that can pass any version of the Turing test, the test will become beside the point.  We will not care whether our machines are clever but whether they love’.**

The notion that a robot can learn emotion Turkle suggests is becoming conventional wisdom and offers this warning:

‘We have entered a realm in which conventional wisdom, always inadequate, is dangerously inadequate.  That it has become commonplace reveals our willingness to the the performance of emotions as emotion enough.’**

She objects to robotocist Rodney Brooks’ comparing of a robot’s computer code to the neurochemicals that produce human emotions because the “programming” happens in different ways for robot and human:

‘I tend to object to the relevance of a robot’s “numbers’ for thinking about emotion because of something that humans have that robots don’t: a human body and a human life.’ **

You are not a brain inside a body but a whole self.  You are not an individual in a crowd but a community.

We always must connect, engage.

We’re “programmed” through our interactions of our bodies within a multiplicity of environments, and these we interact with over many, many years.

Karen Armstrong writes about one of these environments and one of the extremely complex ability to forgive:

‘nearly every day there is something to forgive in the family’.^

From early years, we’re learning forgiveness, or not.  We know forgiveness is not simply a restoring of a relationship to a former state, or even a better one, as Anderson suggests:

‘Instead of seeing this as an irritant, we should see these tensions as opportunities for growth and transformation.’

Forgiveness often involves great imagination and I suspect beyond an algorithm.   One of the most human activities we can involve ourselves in, human imagination can send forgiveness bursting out in many directions:

‘Dazzling and tremendous, how quickly the sunrise would kill me, if I could not now and always send sunrise out of me.’^^

All the time we are trying to make machines more human, are we perhaps asking, How can we be human?

(*From gapingvoid’s Will you be outsourced or automated?)
(**From Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together.)
(^From Karen Anderson’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.)
(^^Walt Whitman, quoted in Lewis Hyde’s The Gift.)


‘We use our imaginations not to escape the world but to join it, and this exhilarates us because of the difference between our ordinary dulled consciousness and an apprehension of the real.’* (Iris Murdoch)

‘A halfman is not someone who does not have an opinion, just someone who does not take risks for it.’** (Nassim Taleb)

We do not have to work from scratch, or come up with the idea no-one else has thought.  We only have to bring our imaginations to the “artefacts” of others for the fun to begin.

To know our mind is one thing.  To know our heart is quite another.

To know the mind of another is one thing.  To know their heart quite another.

We have found a journey without end.

(*From Iris Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good.)
(**From Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile.)