Can’t go round it…….

We are always on the edge of something.

There’s the safe edge, and then there’s the scary edge. Like a black hole, threatening to suck us into that which we don’t understand and don’t control.

I’ve found that much of the time, I’ve been aware of the difference and can choose whether to go, or back off. I’ve got better at going as I’ve done more of it, and realised that the fear is largely illusory. That still doesn’t make it anything other than buttock clenching.

The thing is though, I think that sometimes we don’t get a choice. We find ourselves at some form of Singularity , and we have to come to terms with it. Psychologists call it Liminality. Mythologists term it The Call. It involves crossing a threshold, going over the edge. Once crossed, there is no going back.

We can’t go over it.
We can’t go under it.
Oh no!
We’ve got to go through it!

We’re going on a Bear Hunt. Michael Rosen.

Whatever we term it, it takes us on a journey into the unknown. We will face unknowns, fears and unexpected joys, and moments when we really, really wish we hadn’t started until eventually we find ourselves on the other side of it and know ourselves differently.

Covid -19 is an Edge.

We haven’t had a choice. We couldn’t choose whether or not to be part of it.

Here we are.

Now we’re in it, and we understand we can never go back to “old normal”, whatever those who wish we could say.

We have choices.

We can try to go back, turn around in the white water and try to paddle back upstream,

We can close our eyes, complain, blame others and hope somebody else will sort it out.

Or we can take responsibility, despite the fear and uncertainty, and shape the experience we are in.

My Grandma used to say “Where there’s a will, there’s a way”. She was of course right. That’s a Grandma’s job.

This is a matter of individual and collective will.

Over the Edge – The Rollercoaster Ride

So here we are, whether we like it or not. We’ve spent the last three months listening to the “clunkety clunk” noise as we are pulled inexorably to the top of the first dive, and we can feel that knot of apprehension as we come to the point where up turns to chaotic down and beyond.

We have a choice. We can either shut our eyes,scream and wait for it to be over, or we can keep our eyes open, look around and understand what’s going on.

There’s a way of mastering the roller coaster.

Eyes Open

Look at what is going on around you with fresh eyes. All of us suffer to some degree to “wilful blindness” – we sideline the difficult things and ignore the things we don’t like. It’s where the “elephants in the room” live.

It’s where we should start conversations, but don’t. We start them where they’re comfortable, and don’t threaten our status, our relationships, our territory, or our autonomy. We cling on to a sense of certainty and fairness, like those temporary periods of calm on the level parts of the rollercoaster.

Covid has introduced us to the first scary, but relatively gentle dive. What comes next – we’re not sure quite when or how – will be the equivalent of the double loop corkscrew thing. Probably, but not certainly, Climate Change. There might be one before that – a second wave, a destructive recession, or something else. We know the Climate Change ride is out there though, just not quite how we’re going to arrive at it.

That’s why we need to look around, to get a sense of what might arrive, look ahead to see if we can work it out, or for clues that it might be arriving.

To observe it, we need people who will keep their eyes open and face reality, as well as those from outside our own experience to help us. Physics and common sense tells us we can’t understand the the system we’re part of from inside it. We need a view from the outside. The “flat earther” in us needs a view from the space station.

Balance

If we have a better understanding of what’s coming up, we can better prepare. We can spot the parts that might be fun, as well as the parts where we check we know where the brown bag is.

We also probably want to know who’s in the same car as us. Who’s going to scream? Who’s going to help you notice? Who are you going to have fun with and who’s going to hold your hand when it all gets a bit much?

As we begin to get the hang of it, things change. We can anticipate, predict, prepare and no longer fear what’s coming. We can lead.

We can ride the roller coaster on our own terms.

Choose

Is this the rollercoaster you want to be on? Are you with the people you need to be with? Is this roller coaster a bit tame? Is there another that might challenge you more, with better views and new experiences? Where do you want to be?

Do.

Help those who don’t understand it like you yet. Reassure them, even while you’re still a bit scared. Tell them what you’re noticing. Go again, choose a bigger ride. Learn. Teach. Lead.

The Ride is not an Option

We are where we are, and we’ve a way to go yet. We can’t get off.

Once we understand what is going on, we can see the opportunities. The things we’ve been sidelining are real – the opportunities in a regenerative economy, simpler living, better living, the end of “more” as a virtue, a planet shared. Respect – for ourselves and others in a sustainable economy, because we can do it if we keep our eyes open.

We’re on the ride and there’s still time to choose which car we want to be in, and with whom, in order to enjoy the ride.

If we do, this will be hard work we’ll look back on with satisfaction.

If not, get in a stock of those brown bags.

Paddle!

As we get into week two of lockdown, it reminds me of those times I’ve had to move, when I didn’t really want to . 

Moving house to a new area for a job, because the current one had gone stale. 

Being made redundant. 

Or not getting the move I’d been expecting – the promotion, selection for the first XI. 

There are familiar sensations, the things we know of grief and change.

Denial, anger – at loss of status, of increased uncertainty, a feeling we are not as much in control as we were a moment ago. The strain on relationships, and perhaps above all, the sheer unfairness of it. We convince ourselves we can make it better – to  somehow go back to normal. When that doesn’t work we get really down. 

And then, the things we hadn’t seen – some of which we knew were there, but discounted, and some of them surprises – things we never even knew of – turn up. We get traction. We move on and wonder why we didn’t do it earlier.

I think we are all going to have to move. Maybe location, maybe job, maybe expectation, maybe all three but the same emotions will likely apply, and the difference between a good move and an indifferent one will be mindset.

Mindset

“The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.”               

Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

“Normal” is a much used word at the moment, particularly by businesses who want to go back there, where they feel in control, and by the politicians who want to convince us they can take us there.

I suggest the reality is that normal is an illusion. It means we take a set of circumstances, and effectively convince ourselves they are a constant whilst the real world moves on. 

Sometimes slowly, sometimes very suddenly – like now. When that happens, all the things that have been changing, that we have been wilfully blind to, all turn up and throw a party.

“How did you go bankrupt?” Gradually, then Suddenly

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Always Rises

We can adjust and adapt to cope as best we can with our new circumstances, or we can choose to use this period to rethink. 

It’s about mindset. We can see this as a problem which we are victim to, or we can choose to do what humans do best – harness our imagination and determination, learn and innovate. Move.

Nassim Taleb introduced us to the idea of “antifragile” – the idea of treating unexpected shocks as less something to be resilient to, but to be altogether more assertive. 

Using the energy of the shock to grow.

To do that, we need not to wait for permission, for somebody to sort it out for us. We need to choose ourselves, and act.

To do what we need to do right now

Right now, there are countless opportunities, not just for business but for ourselves. 

The 750,000 volunteers have chosen themselves. 

Our local farm shop have turned their business model around in 48 hours, to generate greater protection for their customers and staff, and help their business survive. They have chosen themselves.

Gin Distilleries switching to making hand sanitiser are choosing themselves.

There are hundreds, probably thousands, of people and businesses making important small moves. Choosing themselves,

(Unfortunately, it’s many of the large Corporates who are using their cash reserves to wait for normal, thinking that they are protecting their shareholders interests. Managers with only upside looking after the interests of transient shareholders with no agency in the business. In effect, hiding. Not, I think, a good place to be. Particularly for the soul.)

Then, imagine what comes next.

What do we do when we can’t plan?

The reality is, none of us have a clue what this will look like in 2021.

Even in “normal” times, the very best forecasters rapidly become unreliable after 400 days, with most of us reaching unreliability after around 150 days. And these times are not normal.

So what do we do?

We Prepare.

Here’s my own checklist:

  1. Focus. Choose yourself, care for others. Be clear in your mind where you’re headed. Fit your own oxygen mask first, then help the people next to you. Be prepared to lead if needed. Pay attention to who you surround yourself with. Jim Rohn suggests you will become the average of them. Experience and research suggests he’s right.
  2. Stay Aware. Stay exquisitely tuned to your surroundings. Notice the changes, particularly the tiny ones that start gathering together. They are signals. Do not assume.
  3. Get Grounded.. Be calm. Find that centre of you that understands the bigger picture, the things that make your life worthwhile to yourself and others, and keep that in mind. It will determine the small steps you take.
  4. Stay agile. Whatever you expect to happen, something else will. Be ready for that. In start up terms, be prepared to pivot. Don’t get bogged down. Recognise “sunk costs”. In many ways 2021 will be a start up.
  5. Own it. Whatever you do, whether you have your own business, or you’re in a brand new squeaky clean role at the bottom of the ladder, own it. You have “skin in the game”. Be grateful for help, but neither expect nor wait for it. Do what you need to. Help others do what they need to do, but don’t steal other people’s problems. It’s wrong.

Enjoy the ride

If you set off for a paddle on the lake, and find yourself in white water, it’s not good. 

If you realise the white water is unlikely to kill you if you stay calm, go with the flow and paddle when needed, it’s exciting.

Relax. Go with the flow.

Paddle.

A Matter of Horizons

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll

It seems to me this quote reflects where many people are right now. Waiting to be told what the future is so that they can go there. The problem of course is that we just don’t know. And that’s fine.

I was talking with Steve Done yesterday around how we saw people’s reactons to the current situation, and he compared to the idea of finite and infinite games, and the work of James Carse and Simon Sinek.

What does it take we wondered for a perfectly reasonable, rational, social person to turn into a shelf clearing, toilet roll hogging monster? Or someone with a balanced long term portfolio to panic sell?

The games we play

The world of most work is built around finite game thinking. Timeframes, scores, winners and losers, competition.

At the same time, the mindset of our best leaders is built on infinite game thinking – decades out, focused on creating something lasting.

Infinite game leaders recognise two things; firstly that this will pass. It is a shock to the system, but the vast majority of us will survive it. According to the ONS, roughly 75,000 of us die each year from respiratory diseases, out of the half million or so in total, so whilst Covid-19 will clearly have an impact, we need to get it into perspective.

Coronavirus is an existential threat to finite game mindsets – whether that is from a personal, or business perspective. From a longer term view, it’s a blip. We will get past it.

Horizons

Our horizons determine our reactions. If our entire raison d’etre is based on this years results, we have a problem. If however, like the Native American peoples we regard ourselves as the fourth of seven generations – shaped by the three generations preceding us, and shaping the three that follow us – our perspective changes. Covid -19 will not determine the destiny of my great grandchildren, should I be fortunate to have any.

On the other hand, climate change might, or how we handle the integration of AI into our decision making processes. Through this lens, the problem changes, and my concerns move away from short term competition and the drive to win, to how we support each other to ensure we get to play another game.

A New Game?

Maybe, just maybe Covid-19 is both signal and opportunity. We have been given a wake up call, and an opportunity to reflect on where we’re heading if we stay as we are.

We can either see this next few months as a looming disaster, or a time out in order that we can look upwards and outwards, not inwards.

At an individual level:

  • What time horizon do you have?
  • Why have you chosen that?
  • How would you explain your job to your grandchildren so that they are grateful to you for it?

Over the next few months, alongside the necessary work to get through, we need to reflect on this and decide, once we’ve survived this episode, why we’ve survived it.

You’re on stage. Smile.

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.

William Shakespeare

We’re all actors in our own play

Today, in a coronavirus, artificial intelligence, climate crisis driven environment we are all actors in an improvised play. We do not know what the next line to be spoken is, or where the play will end.

How then should we now behave?  Perhaps like an actor.

Few professions demand so much training and commitment and reward it with so little certainty, and so few prospects of security.

Most actors spend time between roles and they rarely just sit there waiting for work to turn up.

They know that there are others who can play the roles they want, even if they are convinced no-one else can play the part quite like them.

They spend the time, depending on where they are in their careers, doing everything from washing dishes to make ends meet, to immersing themselves in things from which they will learn. Sometimes they write. Sometimes they explore. At no time do those who last just cruise.

Most of us, me included, are operating at only a fraction of our capacity. We know we are capable of more, but experience huge resistance to developing our potential through a combination of fear of failure, to convincing ourselves our current comfortable life is something we deserve because of the work we have put in. 

What does your agent / employer think?

So how at any point should we rate our prospects? If investors had bought stock in our, how would that stock be valued? What would our price to earnings ration be?

Are they buying us for the prospect of growth, or for a safe, regular dividend on their investment in us?

If what we are doing represents real value, that value can be realised regardless of our current employer, our P/E would be high, and our shares in demand. 

If however all we are doing is providing dividend – a short term return on what we are being paid, then under pressure, our personal stock price is likely to collapse. 

What part do we want to play?

How might we think about our value? 

What is is that we understand, or access, or can do that is difficult to replicate?

How have we grown that in the last year; the last five years?

What are we exploring, and learning? How are we innovating ourselves?

It’s really easy to stall. Early success resulting in a comfortable income in comfortable company.

Reality is that very few of us are motivated by money on some sort of a linear basis. Those who study happiness think there’s a flattening off of the money motivation curve at around $75,000 a year. Beyond that, it’s as much about ego and power as it is about money, and the people motivated by that are a minority.

Being comfortable is a dangerous place to be. It’s ok when things are relatively stable, and business models last for a period of years. Until even quite recently, it was possible to fuel a moderate, comfortable career off the back of a good education and a large, recognised name employer.

Now, that’s dangerous. The career half life resulting from being a one hit wonder is rapidly reducing. Our past success is what the finance people think of as a sunk cost. It’s behind you, and no guarantee of future performance. 

What stage are you at?

Shakespeare talked of seven ages of man:

  • Stage One: Infancy
  • Stage two: Childhood
  • Stage three: Adolescence
  • Stage Four: Youth
  • Stage Five: Mid-Life
  • Stage Six: Senescence
  • Stage seven: Dotage

I think our careers follow a similar pattern, and that many of us stop when we get to mid life on an assumption that we can somehow stay there. 

I don’t think we ever could really, but now, in current and emerging circumstances, we certainly can’t.

So, what to do?

  1. Check in with yourself. How much are you learning from what you do versus how much is repetition. How youthful does your career feel?
  2. How much does what you do engage and excite you. (Clue: if it doesn’t, welcome to stage six, Sensecence)
  3. How much of what you do will be eaten away by technology?
  4. How are you developing the human side of you, your unique qualities, the part that cannot be replaced?
  5. What are you doing to explore new areas that challenge? Who are you talking to, who has your interests at heart,  who will challenge you?

Coronavirus is not a one off event. It’s a stage call. Are you ready?