Marcus Borg on unending conversation

Where does the drama of history get its material? From the “unending conversation”* that is going on at the point in history when we are born.

Imagine you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before.

You listen for a while; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

Marcus Borg – The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith

*Borg owes this metaphor to Kenneth Burke

See also Clay Shirky and Niall Ferguson on networks

Cohort

Seth Godin talks quite a lot about cohorts: “The people who get you. The ones who have been through it with you. Who see you.” An emphasis on peer-relationships is one of the defining features of his highly rated and very-low-drop-out-rated online workshops.

He’s got me thinking again about the value of a group of people doing similar work, with similar levels of experience. These are people – ‘fellow travellers‘ – who can relate to your struggles, share what they know, encourage you to keep going, push you to get put there and do better work. By turns they might be sounding-boards, collaborators, mentors, sympathetic ears, or champions of your work.

Where’s your cohort?

It’s relatively easy to find them among peers when your training for something – in school, on a course (although I’m agnostic about finding them on an online course), in your time in the army (!), or in the trenches doing your job. When I was teaching, colleagues at about the same stage of their careers were definitely my cohort.

But having a good cohort becomes harder if you move around, or as you start to manage and lead – by default there will be fewer ‘people like us’ around, and there are fewer natural opportunities to meet. Maintaining a cohort becomes something that you need to do deliberately by seeking people out and having conversations, by asking questions, looking for opinions and advice, and sharing resources with people who find them helpful.

Five Questions and – slowly – the Driverless Crocodile podcast are a way of doing this.

That saying (wherever it’s from) might be right: “… if you want to go far, go together.” Find friends for your work.

Fellow travellers: Seth Godin and Brian Koppelman on mentors

Seth Godin and Brian Koppelman have had a great series of conversations on Brian’s The Moment podcast. Here’s a little something on the subject of mentors and feedback:

Seth Godin: The memo is only four sentences long. That’s all I needed. That a fellow traveller who knows how to do the craft of giving me feedback gave me those key lines, that’s the kind of notes that I need…

Brian Koppelman: Fellow traveller is a great expression and a great way to think about who you should enlist in your journey. And a fellow traveler doesn’t mean someone who’s already in Wyoming if you’ve starting out in New York. A fellow traveller is someone somewhere along the path that you’re going, somewhere close to where you are. Perhaps they’ve made the trip before.

SG: The whole mentor thing is way overrated… First of all, the math of it doesn’t scale, because the number of people who are successful who can mentor the number of people who need to be mentored doesn’t work.

Number two is, it’s usually an uneven exchange, in the sense that you’re asking someone who is busy and leveraged to stop that and start doing something else with you.

But the real reason is that people who are successful are almost never good at actually coaching people who aren’t successful yet. It’s a totally different skill set…

The Moment, 1st January 2019

This touches on and unpacks my motivation for writing Ordinary People. Good Work. and adds a some extra ideas into the mix. Find fellow travellers.* Start talking.

*WordPress wants me to spell it one a single L.

Ordinary people. Good work.

Good to Great is all well and good, but what about Pretty Good to Very Good?

I’ve been mulling over the DC podcast and this is what I’m going to focus on: ordinary people doing good (and important) work.

Not multi-million pound-dollar businesses and organisations, but those working with tens or hundreds of thousands.

Not companies boasting world-class-execution-across-the-board, but individuals who are very-good-at-a-few-things with (if we’re honest) patches of mediocrity and plenty of room for improvement.

Not role models glimpsed as they soar through the stratosphere, but peer models who can share something that they’re good at and what’s worked for them, as well where they feel they’re falling down, and start some conversations.

The people I have in mind are a different set of elite performer – people who do work that they think is important and do it well, who buy their own stationary, wash their own dishes, and pay for their own mistakes.

Ordinary people. Like us.

Test Scores vs A Body of Work

When you show up and say “here’s my resume,” basically you’ve just shared your SAT score … with the HR people. And the HR people are charged with filling the slots with the cheapest competent people they can find.

On the other hand, if you build a body of work, if your body of work is irresistible, if it’s generous, if it’s remarkable, if your body of work actually changes things – they will call you.

Seth GodinAkimbo How to get into a famous college

Ways in: ravelling the network

Interface

A discipline, culture or scene is a network: a mesh of people, things, ideas and ways of doing things.

It might be tightly defined, with a clear centre, tightly woven middle, and a strong sense of a margin.

It might be clustered, with areas where the web is thicker and deeper, but with threadbare valleys inbetween,  fading out to the hinterland.

It might be looser – candyfloss or mist – a ball of tenuous connections at a distance.***

Whatever the form – and if you zoom in or out far enough, they all look much the same – a key feature is that there are no edges. The margins are always porous, threadbare, and frayed, and everything is intertwingled.

Ways in

We find our way into a network by joining it – by making points of connection, by crawling the web, ravelling the edges of the network.

For a field of study, we ravel the references, following the threads of footnotes and references to position ourselves in the network.** 

In a culture or scene, we hop from person to artifact to text to place to practice, each one leading us on to another – and back and round again – as we get familiar with the landscape.

Some things to bear in mind

  1. Thick cloth is hard to pierce, and it’s hard to break into the middle of a network. Change (including accommodating you) is slower and harder: the web is thick and tight, the connections harder to break and re-weave, and space is limited.
  2. Networks overlap. A strong connection with a person (relationship, status) or an idea (expertise, reputation) in one field might help you cross over to the middle of another, different field.
  3. The web is sticky. Once you’re in, you’re usually a bridge (in and out) for others. Be generous.
  4. You add value to the network by bringing something new: new and valuable ideas, new tools or ways of doing things, new attitudes that make it more enjoyable to be part of the network, new connections (by connecting the dots within the network to thicken it, and by bringing connections to an entirely different network).

Start somewhere: Show up. Make connections. Be generous.

**Citations formed a web of knowledge long before the internet.

*** Word on the street is that candyfloss is tougher, denser and less tenuous than you’d think (hat tip: RudderlessSalamander)

Network opportunities

One telephone – in the whole world – is useless. Who would you call?

The more telephones there are – and especially the more telephones that belong to people you want to talk to – the more useful they become.

This is Metcalfe’s law: the value of a network increases exponentially with the size of the network.

It works for Lego, too. Add a brick, and you add many more possibilities.**

And it’s true for languages – broadly speaking, if more people speak a given language, the more opportunities knowing it creates.

Books also exist as a kind of network. They don’t just depend on other books to enrich their meanings. Books need other books to mean at all. Books make it easier for there to be more books, and if more people read them it makes your books more valuable.

Most things work better with other things – and it’s truer than ever as our networked age allows more people, things and ideas to connect than ever before.

Some ways to add value to a network:

  • Expand the network – add a new node and increase the possible connections
  • Highlight the best parts – not all books are equal
  • Strengthen important connections.
  • Make maps: find and share ways through the network that make it more useful, richer in meaning, faster, more fun
  • Explore: find lost treasures at the periphery and bring them in
  • Create: look for missing pieces – points of possibility that would add a lot of value to the network if they existed – then make them

** Two eight-stud Lego bricks of the same color can be combined in 24 different ways. Three eight-stud bricks can be combined in 1,060 ways. There are more than 915 million combinations possible for six 2 x 4 LEGO bricks of the same color. (Lego Land fun facts)

Anything yet

Here’s the intuition:

  1. New technologies – including ideas, techniques and ways of thinking, as well as physical tools – very often come from the creative recombination* of old technologies
  2. There are more people in the world than ever before, and more of these people – an increasingly diverse set of people – have access to more technologies than ever before
  3. These same people are networked to more people than ever before. Each person who joins the network increases the number of potential connections – and the value of the network – exponentially.
  4. So we have more ideas mixing in a wider range of minds and environments than ever before, and far more potential for good ideas to be realised and to spread…
  5. … and as of about now, only about half of the world’s population is online.
  6. It takes longer than we think – perhaps a generation – for new technologies to really embed and make a noticeable difference.
  7. Conclusion: it might feel like we’re on the far side of the digital revolution – that computers have happened, the internet has happened, the world has changed – but it’s only just beginning.

We haven’t seen anything yet.

*: I first noticed this phrase in Tim O’Reilly‘s WTF: What’s the Future? but the idea runs through Walter Isaacson‘s The Innovators and Kevin Kelly‘s What Technology Wants to name a few. See WtF: Technology and You for more references.