Archive for the ‘philosophy of work’ Category
…in the deeper, unspoken realms of the human psyche, work and life are not separate things, and therefore cannot be balanced against each other except to create further trouble.
–David Whyte, The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship (NY: Riverhead Books, 2009)
Image Credit: Kirk Livingston
And that’s saying something.
According to Mrs. Kirkistan, these are two of my (many?) positive traits:
You’re a good sleeper and a good eater.
She is right: I am. Both.
That’s the kind of stuff we say about an infant, in which case it is high praise indeed: getting that little human to sleep and eat bodes well for future growth. It’s some of the first stuff we can say with any authority about a newborn.
But we struggle to praise an adult.
If we look at those same qualities on the other end of the lifespan, “good sleeper” remains a positive. Older folks have a hard time sleeping (it turns out all sorts and ages of people have a hard time sleeping). What constitutes a “good eater” changes through the years as well. Moving from a voracious eater to a judicious eater seems an especially praiseworthy approach that can span the years.
Still, how can we offer praise to one another in a meaningful way? The trophy for “just showing up” is nearly worthless and most of us see through that. But acknowledging the contributions we each make goes a huge way toward helping each other find and lay hold of our better meaning-making activities.
Yesterday my client drew a red star next to a paragraph he liked. It’s a small thing, but in conversation I told him it was meaningful that he did that. Our best work, it seems, goes by mostly unremarked. That’s how we know it is good—no one says anything. This is in contrast to when we are kids and our parents praise us for picking up our toys or finishing our Brussel sprouts. Even in school we look for praise from teachers and professors to know that we are doing the right thing/on the right track. But most of life doesn’t work that way.
Giving feedback can help us close the circuit for each other. Even if barely acknowledged, a complement does a whole lotta good.
But it better be true. Otherwise it’s just pandering.
Image credit: Kirk Livingston
If one motivation doesn’t fit you right now, check that you have a pulse
We’re not great listeners. There’s so much we want to say and we are generally desperate to be heard. And in these highly partisan times, we simply shout at and past each other and call it a conversation.
But there are natural times when each of us actually does stop to listen. I count at least four:
- I Need Something. The most interested college students I teach are the ones who realize they need something. They are motivated to listen and stay engaged in class because they see themselves using the skill/knowledge we are talking about. I listen intently to the old guy at the hardware store because I truly have no clue why this plumbing connection will not seal. I listen because I need whatever it is the person is saying.
- I Want to Understand. It’s why a lot of us read fiction and non-fiction alike: we want to understand this topic and we’re willing to pay attention to this author as she or he spins out the story or argument. Wanting to understand is the motivation behind a story’s tension—it’s the hook that keeps us on the pages. We listen to our kids when they explain why they did this or that (when it seems perfectly counterintuitive to me). We sometimes listen to our own explanations and obfuscations as we try to distance ourselves from some thing we’ve done.
- I Want to be Close to You. “Listen, sweetheart, tell me everything about you.” The early days of romance give way over time to the growing realization that there is much we don’t know about our spouse—even after 30 years of marriage. We listen because we want to hear the perspective of our beloved.
- I Want to Serve. “Serve” sounds so menial, doesn’t it? And yet finding yourself in a position to help another is a primary motivation for work—at least I’ve found it so. Wanting to help beats working only for money. Wanting to help beats working to amass power every time. And wanting to serve is a sort of gift that keeps on giving. The desire to serve means listening to someone to see what he or she needs and wants. You cannot serve without listening.
If you have a listener in your life—someone who lets you spin out your argument or story and remains engaged—count yourself fortunate. I believe there’s actually quite a lot of healing in those listening encounters.
If you want to be an extreme listener tap into one of these motivations and apply it to your current situation.
Can you think of other motivations for listening?
Image credit: Kirk Livingston
Engineers aren’t the only ones who love to correct you
I’ve been saying aloud the oral version of a dumb sketch. I’ve been telling and retelling the story of how I thought one thing but then in conversation with different experts, came to see what I thought was really not so at all, but something different. I know this is terribly abstract and I apologize: We’re working on a new proprietary idea at the moment, so I cannot be too specific.
I thought X was like Y. But it turns out that X is very like Z. And when I tell that story—of trying and failing and trying—my listeners get it. They learn something. They jump to Z and each gets pretty excited about Z—they had not seen Z before. But now that Z is named and out there, Z may just change everything (and not in a breathless marketing-hype way, but really change how people move forward in this particular industry) (Which I cannot name.) (Sorry.) Each mini-audience put the pieces together and then leaps forward in a way my didactic, linear, word-driven paragraphs did not succeed at.
The point of a dumb sketch is to be not-finished. A sketch is the opposite of the heavily produced diagram or slide. The “unfinishedness” of a sketch is the very crux of usefulness as a communication tool. By being unfinished, the sketch invites collaboration and improvement. And people seem to not be able to turn away—at least from the oral version. Failure is built right into my story, and who can resist gawking at a car wreck?
Maybe this is an engine behind John Stepper’s notion of “working out loud.” Maybe this is a key to how we collaborate with each other. We already do this with friends and family, but what if we extend our try-fail-try circle to include many others?
Dumb sketches: Kirk Livingston
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