conversation is an engine

A lot can happen in a conversation

Archive for the ‘philosophy of work’ Category

How To Rip The Top Off Your Club

with 2 comments

Work or church or bowling: It’s easy to mistake why we’re here

First a quiz:

  1. My company exists to give me a job. True or False?
  2. My church exists so I can feel better about myself once a week. True or False?
  3. I’m part of a bowling league so I can practice bowling and maybe get better. True or False?

Lately I find myself using “club” to describe those organizations that have turned so inward they have forgotten their purpose. Sometimes clients forget they got into the business to help customers live better lives. Sometimes they spend their days fixated on managing up. Sometimes pastors think all these people show up to take direction, fill the offering plates and carry out the pastoral vision. Sometimes parishioners show up thinking this hour will medicate me—I’ll be inoculated from the mundane horror of daily life for about a week.


Of course, none of this we say out loud. We also try not to say these things to ourselves. But our attitude gives us away.

When I teach college writing classes and we talk about finding jobs, we spend a lot of time talking about how work is thing we do together for others. Work is not a thing set up for the sole purpose of getting money. If you think the former (work is about helping others) you’ll have an enduring, meaning-making attitude that will help you accomplish stuff in the real world. If you think the latter (work is for me to get money/fame/prestige), you will never be satisfied. Might as well trade derivatives on Wall Street.

It is true that we each stand at the center of our world. Philosopher Robert Sokolowski calls that stance our “transcendent ego.” And that’s just how we experience all there is to experience in the world. But it takes a maturing person to step away from the giddy, teen-age fiction that all of everything revolves around me for real.

Is it time to call your club back to the central purpose—the purpose that people signed up for in the beginning—making a difference in the world? If it is, you’ll likely have uncomfortable conversations with your friends in the club. You may even cause current programs to jump the tracks. But that’s ok: that’s what happens when we refocus on the bigger purposes of why we are here.

That is a work that helps all of us in the club.



Image credit: Kirk Livingston


No, Really: What does a Philosopher do?

with 2 comments

When Adjuncts Escape

Helen De Cruz has done a fascinating and very readable series of blog posts (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) tracking the migration of philosophical thinking from academia into the rest of life. As low-paid, temporary workers (that is, “contingent faculty” or “adjuncts”) take over more and more university teaching duties (50% of all faculty hold part-time appointments); smart, degreed people are also starting to find their way out of this system that rewards increasingly narrowed focus with low pay and a kick in the butt at the end of the semester.

Ms. De Cruz has a number of excellent interactions with her sample of former academics (at least one of whom left a tenured position!). I love that Ms. De Cruz named transferable skills. What would a philosophy Ph.D. bring to a start-up? Or a tech position? The answers she arrives at may surprise you.

Why the Nichols Station Apartments look different.

Why the Nichols Station Apartments look different.

I’ve always felt we carry our interests and passions and skills with us, from this class to that job to this project to that collaboration. And thus we form a life of work. Possibly we produce a body of work. We once called this a “career,” but that word has overtones of climbing some institutional ladder. I think we’re starting to see more willingness to make your own way—much like Seth Godin described his 30 years of projects.

The notion of “career” is very much in flux.

And that is a good thing.

Of particular interest to me was the discussion Ms. De Cruz had with Eric Kaplan. Mr. Kaplan found his way out of studying phenomenology (and philosophy of language with advisor John Searle!) at Columbia and UC Berkeley to writing television comedy (Letterman, Flight of the Conchords, and Big Bang Theory, among others). If you’ve watched any of these, it’s likely you’ve witnessed some of the things a philosophical bent does out loud: ask obvious questions and produce not-so-obvious answers. And that’s when the funny starts. It’s this hidden machinery that will drive the really interesting stuff in a number of industries.

Our colleges and universities are beginning to do an excellent job dispersing talent. That thoughtful diaspora will only grow as time pitches forward.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Cure for the Common Blahs (Millman + Godin)

leave a comment »

Take Two Books and Call Me In a Week

I’ve been reading Seth Godin’s The Icarus Deception (NY: Penguin Books, 2012) and Debbie Millman’s How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer (NY: Allworth Press, 2007). Both books convey hope that work can look different—more personal and more meaningful—than any corporate recruiting brochure can ever let on.

@JamesVictore : "Although I used that word 'perfection.'"

@JamesVictore : “Although I used that word ‘perfection.’”

Mr. Godin’s message is consistent with his blog and other books: find a way to not submit to corporate overlords and their pre-packaged (wonderful) plan for your life. Make your own way. Along the way he hints that owning your work can happen in a variety of ways (even if working for the man). I’ve always appreciated Mr. Godin’s sense that art is about making connections and doing new things that spring from one’s brain/desire/compulsions/passions applied to a real-world problem. I would argue that kind of passionate living can happen in a big company or on your own—but we must all keep a sharp eye out for when life and work become rote ruts (which require re-routing).07082014-9781591846079_p0_v1_s260x420

Ms. Millman’s book is an absolute delight to read because it consists of 20 conversations with designers whose work has set them apart for years. People like Stefan Sagmeister, Neville Brody, Paula Scher, Emily Oberman, Bonnie Siegler, Paul Sahre, James Victore, Massimo Vignelli and Milton Glaser. The genius of 07082014-9781581154962_p0_v2_s260x420Ms. Millman’s book is two-fold: asking penetrating, questions (1) and then standing aside (2) to let each designer spool out their answers in the way they choose. I’m certain each question and answer was edited, but Ms. Millman’s book gives a sense of hearing the very crux of what drives each person’s creativity in their own words. Their answers provide lessons in the habits of artists, how to combat the woo of popularity and the lapses into isolation. Some of these designers have succeeded and failed and succeeded and failed—so look also for lessons in starting over from scratch.

I’m no graphic designer—maybe you aren’t either.

And I’m no artist (perhaps you are?), but Godin + Millman together provide a satisfying set of snapshots that keep anticipating the very personal work your problem-solving can accomplish. The advice and hope from each book make me want to look for problems to work on that take advantage of what I love doing.

Both books present forward-looking ways of relentlessly defining, redefining and doing your own work. And make no mistake: again and again it is the work itself that pulls these talented people deeper into their talent and continued relevance.

What is your work today?


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

July 8, 2014 at 9:41 am

Seth Godin: Six Habits for Artists

with 3 comments

Especially #6: Ship it.

I like Mr. Godin’s expansion of “artist” to include anyone trying to make a connection (full definition here). If you are trying to create, you’ll find these six habits useful.



Written by kirkistan

July 7, 2014 at 9:23 am

How to help your teammate hatch an idea (Dummy’s Guide to Conversation #22)

leave a comment »

The satisfying work of relating

Some of us find great joy in the work itself: left alone to turn the block on the lathe or write the intro paragraph—we get a tad giddy. Like we know what we are doing (more or less) and this process is stimulating and fun and I can see stuff taking shape.

A friend with a VP-of-Meetings type brain would often jab me with his love of meetings:

Meetings are great. I don’t know why people hate them so. We get so much done.

When he said this I assumed they were great for him because he enjoyed telling others what to do. And his lackeys went and accomplished real stuff. Were meetings great for his lackeys? I have my doubts.

But for many of us, it is difficult to get that sense of getting stuff done with people. Conversation is a messy business that seems to typically lead into a wilderness of tangents and false starts rather than to a place where real stuff happens. Washington is the current poster child for conversation thwarted at every turn.

Must it be that way?

Can you see how a lot of freight gets shifted in a conversation?

Can you see how a lot of freight gets shifted in a conversation?

I can’t prescribe a cure for Washington (though targeting the removal of big money would be a positive first step), but here’s a few suggestions for helping each other hatch big ideas and get stuff done:

  1. Listen. For real—really listen. And repeat back what your colleague says to make sure you get it and to give yourself time to process what your colleague said. Resist the temptation to formulate a counter-argument while appearing to listen. Listen for potential.
  2. Ask your colleague to say more. Gain clarity for yourself and your colleague. Work out the idea together through a volley of responses.
  3. Breathe. That’s right, take a breath so you can stay in the moment and hear your colleague. They might just do the same for you.
  4. Use your words to precisely parse an idea. It’s easy to get sloppy and quickly dismiss ideas (and people, for that matter). Instead, tease out the potential idea you saw. Give it some kindling and fan it and get the fire going.
  5. Say it out loud to get something done. Pulling together an idea that is scattered before a team is sort of like nailing it to the wall for all to see. Once everyone sees it, they can respond. Grabbing the idea and saying it aloud can often feel like work accomplished. It feels that way because it is exactly that.

We do well to pay attention to what our colleagues are saying. And the more attention we pay, the more wealth of ideas and practical insights we might just find. In fact, some people work this way all the time:


When we toss things back and forth, there is no compromise at all. That is when it is magic.

–Millman, Debbie. How to think like a great graphic designer. (NY: Allworth Press, 2007). From Emily Oberman & Bonnie Siegler/ Number 17, p.96

 Also: consider returning to David Rock’s Quiet Leadership and check out his tidy six steps

  1. Think about thinking
  2. Listen for potential
  3. Speak with intent
  4. Dance toward insight (Permission + Placement + Questioning + Clarifying)
  5. CREATE New thinking
  6. Follow up

People are never tools or things we manipulate to achieve our desired end. But honoring each other by listening and talking—that’s how real stuff gets done in the real world.



Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Medtronic, “Accounting Fiction” and Irish Performatives

leave a comment »

How do you say “Fridley” in Irish?

To those who live as if words are worthless and refuse to see the role of systems in building wealth, let us now gaze on Medtronic’s deal to buy Covidien. What does $42.9 billion get you these days, besides a cohesive portfolio of medical devices and a bunch of intelligent workers and systems? Smart people are speculating it also buys freedom to spend foreign profits without worrying about more taxes, which may amount to a roughly $20 billion future spending spree.

Of course corporations will seek the best deal for making money—that is the project of corporations—and will surprise no one. Do Minnesotans worry a beloved company born and bred in Minnesota is growing up and leaving home? Of course. But the significant investment Medtronic has made in their operations in the state should cause worriers to back off a bit. A quick driving tour through Fridley and Mounds View reveal a rather permanent corporate presence.

How do you control chaos and churn?

How can you control chaos and churn?

But then—of course—stuff happens and things change. Which produces anxiety in hard-working people.

What I find interesting is that while the deal involves a significant exchange of money, it also changes a key definition that then dodges a set of tax requirements. Note this: becoming an Irish company is mostly in name only. The StarTribune quotes Eric Toder of the Urban-Brookings Tax Center as describing the newly formed Irish company an “accounting fiction.” So while Medtronic will always be a Minnesota company, it will become an Irish company. And there is money to be saved in being an Irish company. By cutting this deal—by pronouncing these words in international legal documents—a new thing happens at Medtronic that will please shareholders and worry local workers. JL Austin might call that corporate speech-act a performative. And there is no question that performative will change things in the real world.


[Full disclosure: The author has worked for Medtronic and continues to consult for Medtronic.] [At least the author did until posting this.]



Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

June 17, 2014 at 9:56 am

Your 10,000 Hours

leave a comment »

Trust Your Process

There are times when you don’t know the answer and you cannot see a way to an answer.

There are times when you simply cannot see what to do next. This happens constantly in my work: even today I have a project that needs a unique kind of help. Help I cannot even quite imagine.

What to do?


My writing process seems to be all about working my way into a corner or a dead end. It happens again and again. But as I continue chipping away and working at it (which is to say, I keep writing), the dead end turns out to be a way to rethink something. Getting stuck in a corner turns out to be the necessary thing, the thing I needed to actually turn the corner.

Malcom Gladwell contends that you must put in 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. He may or may not be right about the numbers, but certainly an expert has worked out a process the she or he follows—some way they use to accomplish the thing they do. They’ve sorted some way to keep at it. And whether or not the outcome is perfect, the process itself is revealing.

That’s why one keeps at it: to see what the process reveals next.

What are your 10,000 hours revealing?


Image Credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

June 11, 2014 at 11:54 am

Anxiety is the experience of failure in advance–Seth Godin

with 3 comments

There is no better apologist for freelance than Seth Godin


If you find yourself asking “What is my work?” listen to this interview with Seth Godin:



Via Brainpicker

Image Credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

May 22, 2014 at 8:35 am

12 Years a Slave vs. The Wolf of Wall Street

with 6 comments

Two Films filed under “Difficult to Watch”

One film I can’t stop thinking about. The other, I wish I could.12vWolf-05112014

I’ll admit straight up I never finished The Wolf of Wall Street. I tried thrice. But every time I picked up where I left off, it felt like I was shimmying through a hole in an outhouse and dropping into the muck below. The movie has a corrosive effect. It’s a nudie, sex- and Quaalude-filled downward spiral of lies, idiocy and bad behavior borne from naked greed. Evidently a true story and maybe even the movie excesses were not far off from how it actually played out in real life.

DifficultTime-05112014-4Then there was 12 Years a Slave. Also difficult to watch, but not corrosive. It was difficult because the filmmaker helped me empathize with these intelligent people living in the degrading and inhumane deep South. Their courage was breathtaking and heartbreaking and deeply affecting. Solomon Northrup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is an honorable man stolen into a dishonorable system. In 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen brings alive a terrible period of our history. The result is clarifying and worth the discomfort: we need to recover our sense of shame at ill treatment and still—even today—we need to recognize the inherent dignity in being a person.



Image credit: imdb, imdb

Written by kirkistan

May 11, 2014 at 10:01 am

Creative Rebellion and Your DIY Career

leave a comment »

Creativity + Freedom = Finding Your Work

We’ve finished our last session of freelance copywriting at the University of Northwestern—St.Paul. And now, after all the boring, blathery lecture stuff and all the portfolio additions and all the clever advertising we’ve seen, the bottom line is freelancing is a business of making it up as you go.


Just like no one can teach you to write (though teachers offer suggestions and direction, writing remains something one learns on one’s own), no one can teach you to rebel or to cultivate a disruptive presence in your work. Writing your way into and through creative rebellion is the beginning point to locating a solution to a problem that connects with an audience.

Freelance copywriting has by no means cornered the market on these qualities of creative rebellion. But those freelancers invited back provide value by looking at things deeply and differently. These are the folks who have organized their lives around creative rebellion and get antsy when asked to follow a party line.

Let there be more of this tribe.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

May 9, 2014 at 12:19 pm


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,043 other followers

%d bloggers like this: