All art, therefore, appeals primarily to the senses, and the artistic aim when expressing itself in written words must also make its appeal through the senses, if its highest desire is to reach the secret spring of responsive emotions. It must strenuously aspire to the plasticity of sculpture, to the colour of painting, and to the magic suggestiveness of music—which is the art of arts. And it is only through complete, unswerving devotion to the perfect blending of form and substance; it is only through an unremitting never-discouraged care for the shape and ring of sentences that an approach can be made to plasticity, to colour, and that the light of magic suggestiveness may be brought to play for an evanescent instant over the commonplace surface of words: of the old, old words, worn thin, defaced by ages of careless usage.
My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm—all you demand—and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.
This is true whether we’re working for pay or we’re parenting, whether we’re working on something that’s very obviously for ourselves or giving up time, energy and money to serve others.
Even at our best (most generous, most sacrificial) – perhaps especially at our best – we’re working for ourselves. We give up immediate and obvious rewards or pleasures (for ourselves) for the deeper reward (still for ourselves) of doing something for other people.
And this is fine, and by being honest about it we immediately remove a layer of anxiety about our motivations by answering the question “Am I actually just doing this for myself?” with a straight answer: “Yes.”
This leads us to a far more useful set of questions: “What am I hoping to get?”; “Who else is this for?”; “What am I hoping to give?” and “Where am I focusing my attention?”
The most important thing to remember now a simple sentence: “It’s not for you.”
So you run an Indian restaurant on 6th Street in New York and you have a $24 spicy vindaloo, if you finish it you get it for free, it’s that spicy.
And someone comes to the restaurant and says, “I hate spicy food,” it’s really obvious what you should do, and it’s not take it off the menu.
It’s saying to that person “Vaselka, Ukrainian food, is two blocks away, nothing in the restaurant is spicy, here’s their phone number, thanks for stopping by.”
“What I sell is not for you.”
Being able to do that is hugely powerful.
So I look at the 100 most loved books ever written, all of them have more one-star reviews on Amazon than any book I’ve ever written – all of them. Because if you’re going to write To Kill A Mockingbird or Harry Potter a lot people are going to read it, and if a lot of people are going to read it, some of them are going to need to say, “It’s not for me.” And the way they do that is by writing a one-star review.
But Harper Lee shouldn’t have read her one-star reviews because it’s not going to make her a better writer tomorrow. All it says is “I don’t like spicy food.”
This is the vision and values stuff – identifying needs, thinking through the “why” of the project, articulating its importance and sharing the vision and values with those both inside and outside the organisation. This is the work that keeps you and your team and partners focused and on the right track. It’s also often generative work, in the sense that it generates possibilities for your organisation and others, and also generates work for your team. (This can be good or bad depending on the work and the team’s capacity, but long term you can’t live without it.)
Strategic and Managerial work
This is getting into your organisation’s mission – making strategic decisions (or working with others to make decisions) to do with the “what” of how the vision will be achieved, with finding people who can do the technical work (including managing others) and with managing them as they do it.
Management work is also generative in the sense that it turns vision into specific work and jobs to be done (i.e. it generates work), and because good management generates capacity for the organisation. It does this because people are more productive when they are clear about the work that they need to do and supported to do it, and also because good management allows more effective and integrated specialisation, either by type of task or by project.
Executive tactical and technical work
Unless your organisation is big are big or you have a large personal staff, it’s probable that you also have a technical contribution to make: as a consultant helping your team to set up systems, or as a specialist doing a specific part of the team’s work on the ground. This might be outward focused (delivering training and working on products or selling them) or inward focused (things like recruiting, completing accounts and managing inventory in support of your outward goals). This work is executive in the sense of getting things done and shutting down possibilities. Tactical tasks can be ticked off as “done”. It’s generative to the extent that the quality of the work enables more and better work by colleagues or creates a reputation that attracts new partners to the organisation.
As in “axis”, plural – sorry if you’re disappointed.
We can’t win at everything.
The good news is that you’re in charge of what you’re competing on.
Kids find this hard to learn, but it’s true: if you’re not racing, you can’t be beaten.
We do well when we remember this when we’re tempted to compare our cars and homes, families and relationships, careers and organisations with others’.
It’s so easy to slip into playing someone else’s game – for example, by starting to compete on “bank balance” with someone who runs their life to maximise for money, or on “shiny office” with an organisation that’s maximising for ostentation, or on “Objective score” with someone who’s maximising for test results.
This always feels bad. But worse, it can fool you into taking your eye off the the things that really matter and forget the game you’re really playing – which inevitably means starting to play it badly.
Think hard – think very hard – about what matters most, about the games (there are always games within games within games) you want to play, and what axes you’ll measure success on. You’ll certainly need to remind yourself of these from time to time, and it will be helpful to remind your team and customers too.
You’ll almost always lose on other people’s axes… which might turn out not to be as bad as winning a game that’s not for you. On the right axes, you might end up delighted even if you lose.
The idea is really just this: time on a watch is not the same as time in your head. An hour can fly by or seemingly drag for eternity. Time as we actually experience it, rather than as we measure it, is subjective.
We all know this intuitively, and our culture has idioms for it (“time flies when…”) but it’s helpful to remember that this phenomena occurs on both sides of a many of our interaction at the same time, and in opposite directions.
The rule seem to be that the more urgent, important, personal something is to us, the less comfortable waiting becomes, and the more slowly time seems to pass (i.e. the longer a given amount of time seems). Conversely, time goes faster and a given amount of time seems shorter when the opposite conditions are true. Quality of relationship – levels of trust, how positive our disposition towards the other, the history of the current “waiting” – plays into things, and cultural norms will shape our feelings too.
Note that none of this is “reasonable” – it’s just how we seem to work.
Conclusions and applications
A reply to a message probably needs to go a bit earlier than you think to seem courteous and pronpt. In my case this means that the extra day’s delay in replying to messages that “can wait” is less okay than I think it is.
The flip side of 1: you should take longer to assume you’ve been disregarded or snubbed.
Remember that people reading novels exist in different time zones. “Reasonable response time” is twice as long as is usual… which will stretch to at least four times as long as seems reasonable to you if you’relookingafterchildren and waiting for relief.
Get off the phone / out of the bathroom faster than seems reasonable – especially if someone is waiting to use it.
This is all a long way of saying that it probably behooves us (and will almost certainly benefit us) a to be a little more attentive to others and respond a little faster, and to be a little more patient and forgiving.
Akimbo Season 4 Episode 20 (July 10, 2019) – Systems Thinking
This is a great episode of riffs on how systems create – and constrain – possibilities, and the opportunities that open up when systems change. Featuring Mr Heinz and the fictional (!) Betty Crocker.
Akimbo Season 4 Episode 18 (June 26, 2019) – Find the others: Apollo 11 and the making of culture
This episode isn’t flagged as an episode about systems or systems thinking, but that’s really what this telling of the story of going to the moon is all about. We watch the Space Race grow out of the wreckage of the Second World War and unfold across a network of more-and-less-and-un- expected connections within the complex adaptive systems of science, science fiction, culture and politics. I loved it.