What makes it so difficult for us to pay attention at any given moment? It seems like it should be easy.
"If you are a company leader who says employees should be encouraged to exercise, nobody looks at you funny. The same thing is happening to meditation and mindfulness, because now that it's become scientific, it has been demystified. It's going to be seen as fitness for the mind."
~ Chade-Meng Tan
"Leadership is a choice. It is not a rank. I know many people at the seniormost levels of organizations who are absolutely not leaders. They are authorities, and we do what they say because they have authority over us, but we would not follow them. And I know many people who are at the bottoms of organizationswho have no authority and they are absolutely leaders, and this is because they have chosen to look afterthe person to the left of them, and they have chosen to look after the person to the right of them. This is what a leader is."
The media asked, "Amanda, the music business is tanking and you encourage piracy. How did you make all these people pay for music?" And the real answer is, I didn't make them. I asked them. And through the very act of asking people, I'd connected with them, and when you connect with them, people want to help you. It's kind of counterintuitive for a lot of artists. They don't want to ask for things. But it's not easy. It's not easy to ask. And a lot of artists have a problem with this. Asking makes you vulnerable…
…For most of human history, musicians, artists -- they've been part of the community, connectors and openers, not untouchable stars. Celebrity is about a lot of people loving you from a distance, but the Internet and the content that we're freely able to share on it are taking us back. It's about a few people loving you up close and about those people being enough. So a lot of people are confused by the idea of no hard sticker price. They see it as an unpredictable risk, but the things I've done, the Kickstarter, the street, the doorbell, I don't see these things as risk. I see them as trust. Now, the online tools to make the exchange as easy and as instinctive as the street, they're getting there. But the perfect tools aren't going to help us if we can't face each other and give and receive fearlessly, but, more important, to ask without shame.
"I think a lot of the cries today are for better leaders, better heroic leaders, better parental figures that will lead us better and I think the interesting power shift that this method I use points to is what happens when we stop asking for better heroic leaders and we put in place a system that distributes power, so that we don’t need heroic leaders to save us, rather so that each of us shows up not as an employee subject to the whims of the broader employer and the leader and the boss, but shows up with our own voice and our own power and our own integrity.
If you’re that leader you can show up and say it’s not my job to process your tensions, it’s not my job to heroically step in and save you, I'm going to process my own tensions as best I can and we’re in an environment where we are fundamentally peers even as we take on different roles and those roles have different authorities. We can still show up as humans together in a way that owns our reality where nobody is a victim. It takes a power structure to do it in the same way that we shift from our monarchies and feudal empires where there is a clear top-down component into our modern democracies where you don’t need an empowering king."
See also: Holacracy
The Family Business
Jackie’s been here for twenty-five years and he tells me you get used to it. He says your nose learns to seal itself when you dive headfirst into an ocean of dust; your eyes develop nictitating membranes to keep the chemical sprays out; and your hands… they will grow their own gloves, invisible and tough and permanent. I’ve been a janitor for three weeks and I thought I was made of stronger materials.
We play chess in the break room. Jackie asks me what my favorite piece is. I say the pawn because, you know, he’s the underdog; the odds are against him. Jackie identifies with the pawns too, but he finds nobility in their sacrifice, he sees beauty in their simplicity, in the fact that they’re always moving forward.
Jackie shambles from room to room, moving half as fast as me but somehow getting twice as much done. The night shift will mess with your head like that. Jackie smiles, the saddest face I’ve ever seen. Sometimes I look at that face and feel like we are the servants entombed alive with the pharaoh, polishing someone else’s gold while our oxygen runs out, dutifully preparing a grand feast for a god who will never be hungry.
But Jackie tells me that there is honor in this. A good day’s work. An honest living. There is poetry in this.
But what kind of poetry lives in a can of orange naturalizer, the liquid breath of dragons? The mist dissolves every word creeping up my throat, overwhelms every idea. They got me wiping my reflection from the glass, scrubbing the shadows off the walls. They got me so scared of my alarm clock that I can’t fall asleep, even when my muscles drain out from underneath my fingernails and my thoughts stream out of my ears, and I am left with nothing but two eyes that refuse to close for fear of what they might see.
Is there really honor in this? Or is that abstract notion the carrot they dangle in front of us pawns to move us across the board?
But Jackie says you can’t think about it like that. He says that without us, the people who live and work in this building couldn’t function, that we keep the gears turning and that it might not be glamorous but it’s necessary. And maybe he’s right. Maybe I am just a working class kid who somehow hustled my way into college and got delusions of grandeur. Maybe now I’m “too good” to go into the family business: a hundred generations of janitors and farmers and infantry and factory workers and pawns.
So I suck it up… and last for two more months. And on my final day before an uncertain future, I make a point to shake Jackie’s hand, and I say:
"I’ve been thinking man. I think the reason pawns can’t move backwards is because if they could, they’d kill their own kings in a heartbeat.
"Instead, we are forced to keep moving, believing we can get to the other side and become royalty ourselves, but most likely dying on the way there, sacrificed for a cause we don’t even understand. I wish you… I wish you the best, man. I wish you horses and castles."
Jackie smiles, the saddest face I’ve ever seen, and disappears into his work.
What do you desire?
What makes you itch?
What sort of a situation would you like?
I do this often in vocational guidance of students… They come to me and say, "We’re getting out of college and we haven’t the faintest idea what we want to do.” So I always ask the question, “What would you like to do if money were no object?”
How would you really enjoy spending your life?
Well, it’s so amazing as a result of our kind of eduational system crowds of students say well, we’d like to be painters, we’d like to be poets, we’d like to be writers, but as everybody knows you can’t earn any money that way. Or another person says I’d like to live an out of doors life and ride horses.
When we finally got down to something, which the individual says he really wants to do I will say to him, “You do that. And forget the money. Because, if you say that getting the money is the most important thing, you will spend your life completely wasting your time. You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living, that is to go on doing things you don’t like doing! Which is stupid!”
Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing than a long life spent in a miserable way.
And after all, if you do really like what it is you’re doing, it doesn’t matter what it is, you can eventually become a master of it. And then you’ll be able to get a good fee for whatever it is. So don’t worry too much. Somebody is interested in everything. And anything you can be interested in you can find others interested in.
But it is absolutely stupid to spend your time doing things you don’t like in order to go on spending your time doing things that you don’t like and to teach your children to follow in the same track! See what we are doing, is we’re bring up children, educating them, to live the same sort of lives we are living. In order that they may justify themselves and find satisfaction in life by bringing up their children, to bring up their children to do the same thing!
Therefore it is so important to consider this question, “What do I desire?”
See also: Sing and Dance While the Music Plays
Excerpt from The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self, and Relationship by David Whyte:
There are two possibilities, perhaps we can call them necessities, for keeping the marriage with work alive through the difficult years of childbearing and child rearing. The first is to reimagine the way we have named our work and defined its success. We may find that our priorities have been erased and redrawn by a birth or an adoption; that we don't care for the corporate world's priorities anymore and that mothering or indeed fathering is now our central work.
We may come to the reimagination of our work through the gladly received, genuine revelations of parenting or especially for women, with difficulty, through a rueful acceptance that the months or years with a child have taken us off the career track and that the sacrifices needed to get back on that moving stair are not worth what it would take. Even if we find that circumstances allow us both to be a good parent and to follow a brilliant career, the moral basis of the brilliant career hinges on not neglecting or abandoning our children at crucial times in their growing, and demands that we reexamine the basis of our marriage with work and many of the outer rewards of prestige we demanded up to the moment we became parents.
The second necessity is to find a rhythm, often with the help of our partner or our family or our friends that enables us to make short visits to that kingdom of silence and creativity. These short visits on a regular, rhythmical basis may not further the work very much in the early days, but they are essential to keeping it alive in the heart and mind of the struggling parent until time begins to open up as the child grows and goes off to school. As this window begins to widen and allow fresh air into the life of the besieged parent, the work also slowly begins to resuscitate itself and come back to life. Our vocation starts to pick its feet out of the mud and move onto higher, drier ground.
J.K. Rowling famously wrote large portions of the first Harry Potter book in the midst of this caked, slow-moving, mud-walking, desperate parent stage. "There was a point where I really felt I had 'penniless divorcée, lone parent' tattooed on my head," she said in one interview (Seaton, 2001). Living alone with her infant daughter, Jessica, in an unheated Edinburgh flat, she would trudge through the streets wheeling Jessica to a local café and snatch moments at her writing between feeding and comforting her child. It's a help to know that Rowling felt a general hopelessness during much of that time, and a further encouragement to know that she kept on moving through the mud, kept on writing despite her quiet, private despair.
The café in Edinburgh where J.K. Rowling wrote now has a small plaque on the wall outside to explain who sat there with such private, unsung courage. Most likely the place in which we sit and struggle to bring our work back to life will have nothing to commemorate it except a little window in our own memory that opens onto the small stage on which we appeared during difficult times.
Perhaps each of us should go back with actual plaques and place them in cafés, on walls or in office cubicles with little notes of private courage for the inspiration of others. "This is where I kept my faith alive during very dark days," "This is where I found the courage to leave my marriage," or "This is where I realized that I couldn't have everything I wanted and so felt the freedom to request what I needed." Such puzzling, intriguing and inspirational signs everywhere might bring us to an understanding of the constant enacted dramas occurring around us. How every chair and every corner holds a possibility for redemption. The plaques that said things such as "This is the table where I gave up on my ideals and took the very large bribe" would be equally instructive for the reader.
Un mundo (A World), Ángeles Santos Torroella, 1911
The current understanding of work-life balance is too simplistic. People find it hard to balance work with family, family with self, because it might not be a question of balance. Some other dynamic is in play, something to do with a very human attempt at happiness that does not quantify different parts of life and then set them against one another. We are collectively exhausted because of our inability to hold competing parts of ourselves together in a more integrated way. These hidden human dynamics of integration are more of a conversation, more of a synthesis and more of an almost religious and sometimes almost delirious quest for meaning than a simple attempt at daily ease and contentment.
Human beings are creatures of belonging, though they may come to that sense of belonging only through long periods of exile and loneliness. Interestingly, we belong to life as much through our sense that it is all impossible, as we do through the sense that we will accomplish everything we set out to do. This sense of belonging and not belonging is lived out by most people through three principal dynamics: first, through relationship to other people and other living things (particularly and very personally, to one other living, breathing person in relationship or marriage); second, through work; and third, through an understanding of what it means to be themselves, discrete individuals alive and seemingly separate from everyone and everything else.
These are the three marriages, of Work, Self, and Other.
A word about this word marriage: Despite our use of the word only for a committed relationship between two people, in reality this book looks at the way everyone is committed, consciously or unconsciously, to three marriages. There is that first marriage, the one we usually mean, to another; that second marriage, which can so often seem like a burden, to a work or vocation; and that third and most likely hidden marriage to a core conversation inside ourselves. We can call these three separate commitments marriages because at their core they are usually lifelong commitments and, as I wish to illustrate, they involve vows made either consciously or unconsciously.
Why put them together? To neglect any one of the three marriages is to impoverish them all, because they are not actually separate commitments but different expressions of the way each individual belongs to the world.
This book looks at the dynamics common to all three marriages: first the recognition of what an individual wants, then a pursuit, then the hope to circumvent the difficult but necessary disappointments, and ultimately, in the face of that disappointment, the full recommitment to the vows we have made in each of the three areas, spoken or unspoken.
The Three Marriages looks at the way each marriage involves a separate form of courtship and commitment, each almost a world unto itself that then must be rejoined together. The end goal: In these pages I am looking for a marriage of marriages.
The main premise of the book becomes also its final conclusion: We should stop thinking in terms of work-life balance. Work-life balance is a concept that has us simply lashing ourselves on the back and working too hard in each of the three commitments. In the ensuing exhaustion we ultimately give up on one or more of them to gain an easier life.
I especially want to look at the way that each of these marriages is, at its heart, nonnegotiable; that we should give up the attempt to balance one marriage against another, of, for instance, taking away from work to give more time to a partner, or vice versa, and start thinking of each marriage conversing with, questioning or emboldening the other two. As we discover, through the lives and biographies I follow in this book, how each one of the three marriages is nonnegotiable at its core, we can start to realign our understanding and our efforts away from trading and bartering parts of ourselves as if they were salable commodities and more toward finding a central conversation that can hold all of these three marriages together.
The understanding of this book is that the deeper, unspoken realms of the human psyche, work and life are not separate things and therefore cannot be balanced against each other except to create further trouble. The book most especially tries to dispel the myth that we are predominantly thinking creatures, who can, if we put our feet in all the right places, develop strategies that will make us the paragon of perfection we want to be, and instead, looks to a deeper, almost poetic perspective, a moving, more untouchable identity, a slightly more dangerous but more satisfying sense of self than one defined by ideas of balance.
The Three Marriages looks at the way we actually seem to function – as a kind of movable conversational frontier, an edge between what we think is us and what we think is not us…it tries to illustrate the way we can still make a real life even when crowded by other identities, or even when unbalanced and intoxicated with desire, or even when we are disappointed in work or love, and perhaps the way, at the center of all this deep love of belonging and this deep exhaustion of belonging, we may have waiting for us, at the end of the tunnel, a marriage of marriages, a life worth living, and one we can call, despite all the difficulties and imperfections, our very own.
"Having several tabs open at once on your computer may make you feel like you're getting more done, but multi-tasking can actually hinder more than it helps."
I learned to write by writing. I tended to do anything as long as it felt like an adventure and to stop when it felt like work, which meant that life did not feel like work.
I don't know that it's an issue for anybody but me, but it's true that nothing I did where the only reason for doing it was the money was ever worth it. Except as bitter experience. Usually I didn't wind up getting the money either.
The things I did because I was excited and wanted to see them exist in reality have never let me down and I never regretted the time I spent on any of them.
The Diminishing Returns of Being a Perfect Freelancer
You get work however you get work, but people keep working in a freelance world—)and more and more of today's world is freelance—)because the work is good, and because they're easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don't even need all three. Two out of three is fine.
People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. People will forgive the lateness of your work if it's good and they like you. And you don't have to be as good as everyone else if you're on time and it's always a pleasure to hear from you.
Excerpt from Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoffrey Colvin:
Extensive research in a wide range of fields shows that many people not only fail to become outstandingly good at what they do, no matter how many years they spend doing it, they frequently don’t even get any better than they were when they started.
Auditors with years of experience were no better at detecting corporate fraud—a fairly important skill for an auditor—than were freshly trained rookies. When it comes to judging personality disorders, which is one of the things we count on clinical psychologists to do, length of clinical experience told nothing about skill—“the correlations,” concluded some of the leading researchers, “are roughly zero.”
Surgeons were no better at predicting hospital stays after surgery than residents were. In field after field, when it came to centrally important skills—stockbrokers recommending stocks, parole officers predicting recidivism, college admissions officials judging applicants—people with lots of experience were no better at their jobs than those with very little experience.
[Thanks, Barking Up The Wrong Tree!]
"Tetris was invented exactly when and where you would expect — in a Soviet computer lab in 1984 — and its game play reflects this origin.
The enemy in Tetris is not some identifiable villain (Donkey Kong, Mike Tyson, Carmen Sandiego) but a faceless, ceaseless, reasonless force that threatens constantly to overwhelm you, a churning production of blocks against which your only defense is a repetitive, meaningless sorting.
It is bureaucracy in pure form, busywork with no aim or end, impossible to avoid or escape. And the game’s final insult is that it annihilates free will.
Despite its obvious futility, somehow we can’t make ourselves stop rotating blocks. Tetris, like all the stupid games it spawned, forces us to choose to punish ourselves."
~ Sam Anderson, from "Just One More Game..." The New York Times Magazine, April 8 2012
Hear also: Steve Zimmer recounts the time when he and his co-workers become obsessed with Tetris, The Moth Podcast, Jan. 23, 2012
Excerpt from "New for Aspiring Doctors, the People Skills Test," by Gardiner Harris, The New York Times, July 10, 2011:
"A pleasant bedside manner and an attentive ear have always been desirable traits in doctors, of course, but two trends have led school administrators to make the hunt for these qualities a priority.
The first is a growing catalog of studies that pin the blame for an appalling share of preventable deaths on poor communication among doctors, patients and nurses that often results because some doctors, while technically competent, are socially inept.
The second and related trend is that medicine is evolving from an individual to a team sport. Solo medical practices are disappearing. In their place, large health systems — encouraged by new government policies — are creating teams to provide care coordinated across disciplines. The strength of such teams often has more to do with communication than the technical competence of any one member."
“The first step is attention training. Attention is the basis of all higher cognitive and emotional abilities. Therefore, any curriculum for training emotional intelligence has to begin with attention training. The idea here is to train attention to create a quality of mind that is calm and clear at the same time. And this creates the foundation for emotional intelligence.”
It’s almost as if with the evolution of technology and how we’ve optimized our machines, our software, our algorithms, our databases and data analysis capabilities. What comes next is optimizing our awareness and our consciousness and I think that’s increasingly something that is becoming paramount and evident in organizational life...
You know if we think about it, we all work from the age of 21 to the age of 67, 40 hours a week with a couple of weeks of vacation. That’s about 40% of our waking life spent at work -- ninety thousand hours spent at work and [during] that time we will spend most of our productive time, energy and attention.
And so cultivating the quality of the time and of the attention is increasingly paramount. That’s the case because it’s not only something that would be fulfilling for the worker or the member of the organization but it also is useful in terms of business outcomes.
Actually there’s a lot of data on this. In a workplace in which people feel committed, where they feel engaged, where they feel they’re able to really give the best of themselves and exhibit a lot of discretionary effort — when people have that level of commitment and a feeling of wellness they actually perform better.
Corporate Leadership Council and the Gallup Organization are studying hundreds of organizations and millions of employees. They’ve shown that people perform up to 20% better, for example, when they feel committed and engaged. And when they’re thriving they are 57% more productive and they are almost 90% less likely to leave organizations than others who don’t have that experience of well-being.
Well-being, mindfulness, living a sustainable work and outside life are actually differentiators in terms of how effective organizations are whether you’re mission be bottom-line driven, service driven or whatever it is that your organization is purposed for doing…
The consistent and dedicated exercise of mindfulness in the organization is kind of the underlying framework, if you will, that informs all these programs [at eBay]. Something that we’ve been doing at eBay is we’ve been bringing in mindfulness talks and [making] seminars available to employees as well as for some of our leaders and leadership teams…it’s impressive to see a room of 250 Internet employees, on at Thursday around 1:30 in the afternoon sitting in silence for 10 minutes.
It may seem surprising, or quite counterintuitive, that finally arriving home would require us, first of all, to take great care to conceal ourselves. Doesn’t coming home mean coming home to our true selves, finally dropping all the masks and standing revealed as we are? Why then is such caution, such deception, necessary?
Perhaps dropping the masks requires that we put them on. This is paradoxical, yet true to life. It’s naïve to think that there’s a real self behind all the masks, and that when we take off the masks we will find that self. In fact, there’s no way not to wear a mask. Our masks are our deceptive, partial, social identities that enable us to operate in the world, to reach out to one another, so that we can be revealed. Wherever we are we’ve got to be somebody. We always have a role to play. At work we are workers, professionals, managers; in our personal lives we are friends, acquaintances, relatives; at home we are fathers, mothers, spouses, siblings. In the course of any day we put on and take off masks many times. These masks can sometimes make us weary, especially if we feel we have become only a mask. We can long for a freedom beyond our roles, a place of quiet and truth. This is what our hearts have yearned for; this is why we’ve been journeying all this time toward home.
But once again we’ve mixed things up, we haven’t looked closely enough, we’ve failed to reckon on the complexity and paradoxical nature of the situation. Just as we have seen that true awareness includes unconsciousness, sleep, and dreams, now we see that fully revealing ourselves requires masks. To think we can throw off the masks and emerge pristinely as “I” is to be like the father who thinks he can be a pal, rather than a dad, to his son. He can be a pal, but only by wearing the dad mask. Understanding a mask as a mask, we can wear it properly. Wearing it properly, we can find out what’s behind it. A close friend of mine, a Zen priest and business coach, states this succinctly in one of his “business paradoxes.” “At work we should be completely ourselves,” he writes. “And we must play a role.” This wise saying applies to all spheres of life.