Archive for the ‘philosophy of work’ Category
Silence can be nice sometimes, too
I know a few people who process life verbally. I’m not naming names, but to be with them is to sit before an open window through which you hear internal debates, sharp intakes of breath in response to a new stimulus, and general narration about turning left or standing up or “I think I’ll eat a jelly bean.”
People process life in all sorts of ways, of course. I don’t know what I think until I write it down. Others might sketch a response to a life event. Others process a life event over the course of a three-hour bicycle ride. James Thurber could hold 1000 words in his head as his eyesight failed, processing and editing in his brain-pan and seeming to spit out a fully-formed essay or story.
And some talk it out: declaring boldly and then backing up to change direction. And then boldly declaring the opposite. They settle on a position over time (often). Sometimes it’s fun to engage in their internal debate. Sometimes it is maddening to witness the ebb and flow.
The ways we process life are not mutually exclusive, we might each do all of the above to figure out what is going on. It may take many conversations and many bike rides and many sketches to, say, process a larger than expected tax refund (ha), or a job loss. Or a death.
But the verbal processor plays a unique role among us. They are the ones who quickly spout a response to a question. They tend to be more comfortable in a group, or , perhaps this: for the groups they are comfortable in, they are even more verbal. The things they say become a sort of conversational/processing rudder against which we agree or disagree. But it is something nearly tangible (as tangible as words ever get) we can react to. The verbal processor does everyone a service by putting something out there for the rest of us to respond to. Their initial, fast response is a word that can rescue us from our solitude. Their quick work can help us avoid sitting passively while inside we are furiously yelling to get our heads around some new situation.
Kudos to the verbal processor.
Their out-flowing attempts to sort things pull the rest of us in as well.
Dumb sketch: Kirk Livingston
Pivot Your Conversation on Some Fresh Hope
One dubious skill I learned early in corporate life was that skeptics and fault-finders earn respect at a conference table. If you are not presenting the idea (and thus less invested in making it work), you’ll win experience-points with others by blowing holes in whatever the group is discussing. Finding fault won’t cost you much and could win you a more exalted place in the world of that organization. Plus: you need know next-to-nothing about the idea or context to find some loose thread to pull and hope for collapse.
Yesterday I sat around a conference table with a group of skilled, opinionated, driven people who had a brand new idea. All around the table were invested because they had been working different parts of the idea for some time. The hero directing the conversation skillfully wove a bit of verbal fabric above us by hinting at how these disparate work groups were—quite possibly—creating some brand new category. I’ll not be more specific because of non-disclosure agreements, but what was remarkable to me was the intent of the verbal dreaming and the way it resonated with a group that could have been contentious.
Yesterday’s meeting reminded me that fresh hope is a disarming thing to bring to a group of seasoned people.
By the way, my book ListenTalk: Is Conversation an Act of God? is moving through the publisher’s proofreading department toward an actual physical presence. Chapter 2, “Intent Changes How We Act Together” highlights the work of the late University of Chicago rhetorician, Wayne Booth, who showed three different ways our intentions derail conversations. He ended up developing a way of talking that could unite conversation partners—much like the hero in my story above. You can put your name on a list [here] to be notified when the book is available.
Randomized, double-blind studies indicate that people who put their name on that list live happier, more thoughtful lives. I just made that up. But you can–and probably should–put your name on that list.
Image credit: Kirk Livingston
Don’t stunt your growth by reaching for fame
It’s funny we gauge personal success by numbers of followers. It’s as if we’ve adopted the business transaction as a model for every area of our lives.
Business wants more eyeballs for more attention for more revenue for more profit. And that makes perfect sense for our business goals.
What’s problematic is when we confuse business with what humans need to move forward: Doing what attracts attention and gathers “Likes” is often very different from the stuff our souls need to grow.
One thing I’m learning from the artists and photographers I’ve been interacting with at Dumb Sketch Daily (currently at bad drawing #78) is that while today’s drawing is (clearly) imperfect, there is always tomorrow’s drawing. And I know what I’ll do different in that drawing. I know I’ll try this technique, or that view, or this topic. I’ll do it again and create yet another imperfect representation of the world.
And that’s OK.
Because the pursuit is about learning to see, learning how to draw, learning how to write. Learning how to tell the truth. Learning how to interact with each other. Learning how to be human. Perhaps even learning how to interact with God.
The goal is not fame, unless you really want to turn this pursuit into a business. But learning itself—whether crowds acknowledge you or whether you plod silently and alone—learning is its own reward.
But I still argue your growth is also a benefit to the humans around you.
And while I don’t think 78 bad sketches have changed my life, I can say with certainty that I see things differently than I did 78 days ago.
Dumb Sketch: Kirk Livingston
May You Have Interesting Colleagues
This is the time of year when people refer to that old Irish blessing (about the road rising up and so on). But here—stuck in the middle of the work week—I want to offer you a more contextual blessing: the people around you.
Well, maybe not everyone.
But often there is someone you come in contact with who is, well, delightful. Their sense of humor, the wacko things they say over the cubicle wall, the inappropriate things they do in department meetings. The fact that they will trim your hair in the back room when the director is out of the office or dump Vaseline in the bigshot’s duffle bag or instigate rebellion at the slightest provocation. [Am I sounding like a bad employee?]
In fact, it is typically the people around (the fun and interesting ones, anyway) who make work enjoyable.
Martin Buber made a point of differentiating between how we treat objects (“I-it”) versus the way we treat people (“I-thou”). One of his points was that we should never treat people as objects: ordering them about as if they had no will of their own. Instead we should engage with each other. That’s what humans do.
Of course that very object-treatment is one of the primary sins in many of our corporations, where people become known as “human capital.” Churches are not so different when they refer to congregants as “giving units.” Hey—we even take cues from our cultural bosses and call ourselves “consumers.” Our language makes no attempt to mask this object-laden perspective.
But no so with interesting colleagues, because of our connection with them. Because of conversations you’ve had with them (some even soul-baring), because you’ve talked shop and lamented death and rejoiced in birth together, you get to know each other as fully-human. Trust and connection fit in here. And the ability to say anything.
The ability to say anything and still be heard and respected, that is the fullness of connection with another Thou.
May the “Thous” rise up to meet you today and this week.
Image credit: Kirk Livingston
Because Isolation Won’t Cut It
There is a special frightening moment in many of my writing projects lately. I’ve had a few longish-form assignments, each with lots of moving parts. In each I’ve needed to collect first-hand information from people with diverse backgrounds and expertise, and then combine that with research from journal articles. Each interview—each assignment—was a mini-seminar where I was schooled (very quickly) on the intimate details of the situation.
Not so long ago I noted the benefits of sending work out to others and embracing deadlines. More recently I made the case for the aspirational lie, noting how one works toward telling the whole truth, mostly getting it wrong before getting it right. Both the sending out and the aspirational lie are at work in this visceral fear. There is this moment, after I’ve written my email with explanations about what my client will see, after I’ve written my caveats, after I’ve attached my rough draft, this moment where I pause.
Do I really want to send this?
Because, honestly, I could do more. It’s a visceral moment: I feel in my gut the holes in the draft. Do I really want my new client to see my argument in this shape? But budgets and timing dictate this project move forward. And the only way forward is through a reaction from someone else.
Just as I’ve noted how my dumb sketches are talking to the writing part of my life, now I see how the entrepreneurial “Just Ship It” mantra is playing into my creative side. Because there is much to be gained by getting a reaction.
Image credit: Kirk Livingston
Get in that job-machine, mister.
More dire news for university English departments: from the University of Maryland, English majors are bailing like mad. And faster and faster.
The humanities have been getting a bad rap for, oh, half a dozen decades or so, because they don’t lead directly to a slot in a job machine. And, as the thinking goes, without the job machine you fail at life. Or at least paying for life’s good things (like a huge TV and plenty of Lean Cuisine) (Or rent and clothing).
We’ve certainly seen this coming. We’ve wondered: Why go into college debt just to be a philosophy-talking barista? We’ve lamented the pitiful conditions of adjuncts. Colleges in my area cut budgets and then cut more, from fat to bone. And now wholesale amputation to accommodate the demands of producing souls for job machines.
True: English departments that focus solely on esoterics need to undergo change. I’ll argue that any academic program (or any institution, frankly) that promotes the inward-gaze as the end-all, top-function of the human condition is currently being rudely awakened.
Smart English departments are tuning in to this—just like businesses have been realizing people don’t really care about their product all that much. Even churches are starting to realize there is a world of people living and working just outside their doors—people not interested in joining the club but crazy-interested in the meaning of life. Speaking of churches, we used to call it “evangelism” when we invited others in. Business evangelists understand all too well the benefit of going where people are and adapting their product to current conditions.
But reaching out to the rest of humanity—that’s where the action is.
It’s because we’ll always need to reach out, to communicate something to someone else, that I’m optimistic about English, if not exactly English departments. Rather than an either-or approach (deep-thinking/creative expression or assembly line training), we need both-and: deep-thinking and creative expression that leads to more conscious assembly line work. And perhaps that thinking will help us move beyond assembly lines entirely.
As I prepare my next set of writing classes for college English majors, I am beefing up the entrepreneurial end. Because the way out of a soulless slot in a job machine is to invent your own job machine.
That’s something we should train writers to do. And some of those writers will be English majors.
Image credit: Kirk Livingston
Except for Bill Holm
The late poet and writer Bill Holm spent his days teaching at Southwest Minnesota State University. In the context of daily teaching, he was too busy to write his own works. But when class finished for the semester, he wrote his poems and stories and memoirs long-hand on the back of the memos he received at school. Interestingly, he was a gregarious soul who often welcomed people into his house but continued to write at the kitchen table even as he engaged in discussions with visitors.
But for many of us, writing is a solitary activity. Oh, sure: ideas pop in conversation. Careful, committed writers take note of the idea on whatever scrap they have handy. And that scrap becomes useful when the writer is, yet again, sitting before blank screen or page.
Unless you are/were Bill Holm, it is the typical writer’s fate to sit alone.
This is not to say writers must be loners or introverts. Those are not necessary conditions, although they do often fit together.
But creating is only one part of writing. Yes, it seems like the biggest part of writing, doesn’t it? Creating and the aura around creating are certainly the most celebrated bits of writing.
But another part of writing is reading. Specifically, getting read. And that requires publishing, in one form or another. At its essence publishing is getting read by someone else. And for all the (quite true) advice about “just sitting down and writing” and “writing = butt-time-in-chair,” it seems to me there is still a missing piece: the reader at the other end of the writing. Written words need to find and land on their audience.
Here is a place where writers might learn something from copywriters. Copywriters have deadlines. They have people who expect copy at a certain time and quite often that copy is delivered verbally—often read aloud by the copywriter to the client.
Something happens when writing is read aloud to an audience. The text itself tends to shape and reshape and the writer hears it differently because of the people listening. The writer cannot help but see things differently when another person is also hearing the copy.
Many will say that some of their best writing happens during revising. I agree. Especially after having read something aloud to someone else and seen their reaction. It can be thrilling. Or depressing.
Butt-in-chair time is essential for writing. But sending your writing out—scary though it might be—is equally essential to hear how the ideas land and to revise with creativity and gusto and possibly increased motivation.
Image credit: Kirk Livingston, Brian Peterson/StarTribune