personal manifesto: get and stay unstuck

disciplines - US

The next section of my manifesto is about four disciplines, the exercise of which, for me, are critical for living well.

Get and stay unstuck

In the early 1990s I wrote a life plan that included some ambitious contribution to significant change. I was working within an organisation and was part of a vocational network that I had no reason to doubt would shape the rest of my career. I had significant leadership roles and found kindred spirits whenever I travelled around the world. I felt like I was part of something big and important.

Then I gradually became unsettled. I developed hunches that my contribution would not lead to the kinds of changes I had imagined. Having spent the first fifteen years of my working life on a trajectory within the not-for-profit sector, I wondered what it would look like to work for myself. I had no commercial experience, and I’m mostly glad I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

I really had no idea what I was doing really, I quit the world I knew and ventured into the unknown. And the world opened up for me like a spring flower on time lapse. I got unstuck from the career trajectory that I had expected would define my contribution over a lifetime. I met people, engaged ideas and discovered rich values and communities that I would have never believed existed. I had no regrets about my vocation until then, but the new worlds that I encountered help me appreciate how ‘big’ life can be.

I had tasted what it was like to make a change. A real change. I knew I would never allow myself to be stuck again.

Rituals and habits are fabulous. They give life stability and are an extremely efficient way to make decisions. Imagine if I had to decide what to do afresh every morning in my getting-ready-for-work routine. Debilitating.

One of the ways to determine the healthiness of a particular routine is to assess the ease with which I can choose not to do it. If I find myself without a real choice, then I am addicted. And addiction is always a bad thing. It is healthy to be able to choose to do something, even if I make that choice relentlessly for the rest of my life.

This can be confusing when overlaid with my personality or psychological preferences. These hard-wired attributes incline me to act in certain ways. For example, I might be inclined to wash the dishes every night after dinner. Tick. But if I simply cannot go to bed with dirty dishes in the sink, I have a problem. Trivial at one level maybe, but it reflects being hostage to a habit, rather than a habit being in service to me.

A life well lived is one in which I make choices about the circumstances that define my life and / or my response to them. Choices determine how I spend my time every day, but the accumulation of choices (or non-choices) over time determine how I spend my life.

It is a foolish naivety to believe I can ‘have the life I want’. Such platitudes come from positions of power with rare acknowledgment of the systems, privilege and luck that supported the ‘rise.’ But even with that caveat, sometimes I believe I am stuck when I am not.

I can change careers, I can move cities, I can become healthier. But I must embrace the consequences of the choices to do so. Inertia is insidiously strong. If I am in a pattern of living and relating that has been developed over time, what started as a productive groove can become a debilitating rut. I can feel like I’m stuck on the treadmill.

By looking at my life through the pleasure, betterness and meaning lens, I can determine which levers I need to pull to live more fully. If the ‘ruts are deep’, some disruption may be necessary to make a change. So be it.

I need to beware the inclination to change things that are simply uncomfortable or hard; to avoid responsibility or seek easy-street. That is not what I am talking about here. I am talking about a life where pleasure, betterness and meaning are in harmony over time, a life where I am fully alive. Discretion and wisdom will help me determine what circumstances I am stuck with over the long haul, and which ones I can navigate away from.

Getting unstuck is also not about moving on or leaving. Getting unstuck is about moving to. Making effective life-changing decisions is about executing a long term (or at least a medium term) vision. It is about taking steps to put the elements of life in place that allow me to harmonise pleasure, betterness and meaning for the long haul.

Mountain-top epiphanies aside, there is rarely a compelling time to make the big calls. However, learning to make decisions from a projected five year time frame is a helpful attitude. “If I could look back on my life now from the vantage point of five years down the track, what would I wish I had had the courage to do, but didn’t?” “What am I spending my energy on now, that feels important in the moment, but in five years time will seem like a waste of effort from the perspective of what matters over time?”

The commitment to get unstuck, and the discipline to stay unstuck, is a potent antidote to long term regret.

Questions that help me get and stay unstuck

1. What do I dream of in life? What is holding me back that I could change if I chose to?

2. What are the consequences of biting the bullet and making the change? What will I do to manage those consequences or implications?

personal manifesto: home

(All the pieces of my personal manifesto fit together and build the bigger picture, so to get the full meaning you’ll need to scan the previous posts, in particular, for this post, the one on community.)

Home: a place to love

Identifying with a community or tribe helps me understand and communicate who I am in the world. My drives for pleasure, betterness and meaning are rarely hidden; they are about my engagement in the external world and so by definition are ‘public’ pursuits. But the extent to which my engagement with those communities is healthy, is determined somewhere else. The formation of who I am is inner work. I am who I really am when no one is looking.

‘Home’ is that place where I am free to be my unpolished self. It is also the place where that small number of people I call my family are free to be their unpolished selves too. The quality of my being in the external world, the demeanour and character with which I pursue pleasure, betterness and meaning is determined by the love I experience at ‘home’.

Note that home is not necessarily the family home, or indeed the house where I am living. It is the space, where I am accepted unconditionally and accept unconditionally. If community is about belonging, home is about love.

What happens if I don’t have a ‘home’ in this sense of the word? I compensate, and I look for it in the various communities to which I belong or am seeking belonging. But there is a hard edge to this; without a loving home – a place where I am unconditionally accepted and accept – my engagement in the external world, my pursuit of pleasure, betterness and meaning, will tend to become a search for ‘home’, and my ‘performance’ and corresponding affirmation in those arenas becomes a surrogate for a loving home. My navigation of life will be characterised by recurring indications that society in general or people specifically ‘owe me something’

The counter is naturally also true; that if I love and am loved unconditionally, if there is a place where I am relationally secure and safe, I will be equipped to engage in the public pursuit of pleasure, betterness and meaning with confidence and grace.

I am screwed up. I am not free from the psychological impact of living among other screwed up people. This is not about perfection, a sure psychological illusion. It is about a foundation of self esteem and a confidence with which I can engage our society with the primary posture of being a giver rather than a taker. I have a deep need to be loved and affirmed for who I am. Without a ‘home’ where this need is at least partially satisfied, the rest of my life becomes dominated by social maneuvering and manipulation to get people to affirm me.

There is a paradox here, similar to the one in the meaning discussion. The path to be loved is to love. Children aside, there is no shortcut to being loved. I can manipulate people into doing things that look like love, but they aren’t love. Of course just because I love someone does not guarantee that person loves me back, so loving can never be a ‘strategy’ to get loved. Love is simply the highest and most potent human act. But unlike self actualisation that sits on top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, love is not the end point. Love is the beginning and the end, the foundation and the peak.

The pursuit of a well lived life, the sustained satisfaction that comes from harmonising pleasure, betterness and meaning, starts and ends with a place to love.

Questions to help me understand my home(s).

  1. With whom and where am I most ‘at home’?
  2. Who do I really know and love? Who really knows and loves me?
  3. How will I become more vulnerable and give more ‘at home’? What do those I love need most (from me) in this season of life?

personal manifesto: design

This is post 5 of 15 in a series sharing my personal manifesto. You can read why I ended up writing it here. There are 4 parts or sections in my manifesto, this is the last bit in the section about the three key drivers in my life: pleasure, betterness and meaning.

Design: using the three drivers as design elements

The pleasure, betterness and meaning lens is very helpful in assessing the ‘design’ of more specific parts of life. For example, at the west end of Bourke Street in Melbourne is Donkey Wheel House (dwh), a building that is home to social enterprise and a plethora of innovative business practitioners. It has the X factor. But what is the X factor? We use the term to attribute a positive trait that we can’t really put our finger on. Let’s apply the pleasure, betterness, meaning framework to a few things to see how in combination and harmony they produce a so-called X factor, starting with dwh.

The building is a physically pleasing place. It is a heritage building that has been renovated tastefully into great spaces fit for purpose. It has corridors, workspaces, meeting rooms, shop fronts, and interesting utility spaces that are appropriately if interestingly connected. It has good natural light to complement the internal colours. It includes kitchens and cafes so smells and tastes are catered for. (pleasure)

dwh is a place where people do what they are good at – whatever that is. Designing, cooking, administration. Legal work, coding and politics. The social power of the networks in the building inspire people to broaden and deepen their competencies. There are communities within the building that value care alongside professional competencies, whether the support networks in The Hub, the staff gatherings at Kinfolk Café, or the comradeship in The Difference Incubator. (betterness)

And overlaid is an overwhelming sense that this is a place committed to a better future for the world. Kinfolk Café is a social enterprise, The School of Life helps people apply practical wisdom to everyday life, Ethical Property Australia’s vision is to facilitate the use of property for the common good … and the list goes on and on. There is mission and vision for a healthier world in every nook and cranny. (meaning)

If any one of these was absent or weak, the whole package loses whatever it is that elevates it to something special.

The Do Lectures is a gathering that changes people’s lives. It is a potent mix of these three design features. It is intentionally held in stunning natural and remote locations. The sensual experience of being in the natural environment alongside the highest quality food is an assault in the most positive sense. (pleasure)

The team that puts on the event ‘do their thing’. It is a team of people in flow, doing what they love to do, and this translates into a collective experience where attention to detail and quality is paramount. (betterness)

And the talks, the discussion and emerging themes are unashamedly about prototyping better ways of living for people in communities and around the world. It is rich with mission. (meaning)

Same deal, it is the mix of these things that elevate the Do Lectures beyond a regularly good event. Diminish one of these and mediocrity is just around the corner.

Pretty much every aspect of life can be assessed through the lens. Here are a few more examples.

A workplace

Frequently we hear of people unsatisfied at work. Every situation is unique, but understanding the pleasure, betterness, meaning design framework offers helpful insight. Every time I have offered this framework to someone who is restless at work they have quickly identified the diminished nature of one of these design elements.

– The workplace is sensually unattractive- it is simply not an enjoyable place to spend time;

– There are too few opportunities for them to do what they are good at. There is no sense of them becoming a better person as a result of being there.

– They can’t reconcile their best energies being spent on things that ultimately don’t matter, or are not important to them (such as making someone else wealthier).

A relationship with a significant other

Our relationships go through seasons. Some times they feel fabulous and other times more ho hum. When we are committed to cultivating growing relationships it can be useful to ask:

– Are we doing fun stuff together? (pleasure)

– Am I appreciated in the relationship for things I am good at, and does the relationship draw out my best? (betterness)

– In our shared experience of life, are we engaged meaningfully with the things that matter most to us? (meaning)

A city

There are various ways to assess cities, with residents of my home city tending to cite the ‘most liveable’ city criteria, as Melbourne frequently scores highly on that scale. But these design features also give me a quick and intuitive sense of why or why not some cities just ‘work’.

– Are there lots of sensually stimulating places to be? (pleasure)

– Does it have a particular strength? Is it known for being ‘good at a particular thing’? As in, ‘Melbourne is really good at ….’ (betterness)

– Do the city and its residence make a contribution to the common good? Do the civic values honour people and the future? (meaning)

In the earlier chapters I have commented on how useful it has been for me to apply these design features to my living. The three drivers can be thought of as ‘sliders’. Each needs to make a contribution; the extent to which we dial up each one will depend on the situation.


Questions to ‘test’ the framework?

1. Think of an event, a space, a relationship or any other aspect of life that comes to mind that you would describe as having a bit of X factor. Assess the extent to which it is an expression of pleasure, betterness and meaning.

2. Now think about an aspect of life that is not quite doing it for you. Look at it through the pleasure, betterness, meaning lens. What is missing?

personal manifesto: harmonising pleasure, betterness & meaning

In the last three posts I have defined and shared some notes on pleasure, betterness and meaning. The introduction to my manifesto gives some context. For me, pleasure, betterness and meaning are three fundamental drivers in life. They explain most of the motivations behind decisions I make – small and big. In this post I explain how they fit together for me.

Harmonising pleasure, betterness, meaning: patterns not balance

Allowing my life to be dominated by just one of these three drivers is a mistake. The hedonist in me is doomed never to have my thirst quenched (pleasure). Despite the relentless parade of so-called successful people getting to the second half of life and asking “what has it all been for?” the pursuit of personal or professional mastery (betterness) is also tempting. Why am I so slow to learn that becoming the best I can be, ‘reaching my full potential’ is only slightly less hollow a goal than the pursuit of pleasure?

Perhaps the reason I am inclined to make decisions based on pleasure and betterness, is because of the paradox of meaningful living. I find it difficult to get my head around the fact that the deepest satisfaction in life, the highest levels of happiness come when I am focussed on the wellbeing of others.

But it is a mistake for me to then make life solely about meaning and relegate pleasure and betterness as the domain of lesser beings. This is what I have done in the past, in statement, if not in reality. The value of ‘the cause’, or ‘the other’ has at times been so elevated that ‘sensual’ pleasure or ‘selfish’ development, was effectively prohibited in my thinking. In statement only though, because my natural and healthy drive for these, ‘found a way’, even if not acknowledged overtly.

A well-lived life harmonises pleasure, betterness and meaning. The idea of harmony is more useful than balance. Balance implies that one thing needs to be diminished for another to be enlarged. But harmony is about the three drivers co-existing in measures and routines that fit with each other, feed off each other and shape life into an integrated rhythm of pleasure, betterness and meaning.

I am always thinking about how life is going. When I am sufficiently fortunate to answer ‘very good’, I have found that it is because the elements of pleasure, betterness and meaning will all feature. I will have consistently done stuff that was sensually enjoyable, pleasurable experiences have been integrated into my life (pleasure). There will have been a pattern over time that I have made valuable contributions by doing what I am good at, and most likely became better at it, either by deepening or broadening my capacities (betterness). And my life will have been shaped by prioritising what matters to me, there will have been integrity in my life because I have acted in ways that have been consistent with what is important to me (meaning).

The converse is naturally true. If things haven’t gone so well, then it will be because one or more of the key drivers was unsatisfied. There was little in my life that gave me genuine pleasure, I had few opportunities to do the things I am good at, or I ended up busy with activity but didn’t really contribute much in areas I believe matter most.

Time and seasons are important. I can neglect one or more drivers for a season, but if diminished over time, I will have a growing unease with my lot in life. And clearly the three are not mutually exclusive. A meaningful contribution will likely require me to do what I’m good at, and I may well experience sensual pleasure along the way.

Pleasure, betterness and meaning are essentially my design features in a well lived life. I look for patterns not balance. Whatever is going on in life, these are elements that I need to find ways to incorporate.

Questions to understand how the three drivers are harmonised in my life

1. Which drivers are most prominent in my life in this season?

2. Are there patterns over time? Are any of pleasure, betterness and meaning dominant or missing over time?

3. What will I do to better harmonise the three drivers in my life for the coming season?

personal manifesto: meaning – purposeful contribution

In the two previous posts I’ve talked about pleasure and betterness; both fundamentally important to live well. But without an intentional commitment to purposeful contribution, no amount of pleasure or self improvement will satisfy. So this post is about the third of the three drivers: meaning. If you haven’t read the last few posts, please read the intro post for context.

The table below is a bit of a taxonomy of the three drivers …


Meaning: purposeful contribution

Some things matter to me more than others. A meaningful life is one where what I actually do, how I spend my time every week, the decisions and behaviours that shape my life, are aligned with my beliefs about what matters in life.

I am involuntarily drawn to engage the things that matter to me. I can be interested in a whole range of things, but some things draw my service and my giving of time and money. These are the things that matter to me. Family. Social justice. Environmental care. Local community issues. Poverty …

The drive for meaning

Meaning is the bedrock of a well lived life for me. I cannot embrace existential nihilism’s argument that there is no intrinsic purpose in life, so all meaning is construed. Neither can I accept, at the other end of the scale, fundamental religion’s insistence that we can access an unambiguous God-revealed purpose. Yet I crave meaning in my life. I can ignore it for a time as I busy myself with pleasure and betterness, but it breaks through my mid-life consciousness at any reflective opportunity. I know in my heart of hearts that I am part of something bigger, that my actions or inactions have consequences and that somehow my reason for being is, to a significant extent about contribution.

The contributions that satisfy my need for meaning are related to our shared destiny as people and planet, our connectedness. I derive a sustained sense of meaningfulness, not from activity that is about me (pleasure and betterness), but about the welfare of others individually and us collectively.

Connections between meaning and feeling good about life.

As much as goodness is underrated, busyness is overrated. Despite my inclination to wear it as a badge of honour, it is a contemporary pathology because it can so easily disqualify me from meaningfulness and so robs me of satisfied living. So many things are apparently so important right now. Against this reality is the consistency of voices from those in the twilight of their lives who wish they had spent more of their time being true to themselves and investing in the relationships of those they love.

In the context of my busyness, I feel a corrective call to ‘be’ rather than ‘do’. This is a healthy call, a good one for now. But a better call would be not only to slow down and stop doing, but to ‘do better things’, things that align with my convictions about what matters most in the world. The great lie I tell myself is that the important things can wait until later. “I’ll spend more time with my family once I’ve got through this year”, or “I’ll give back to society once I’m semi-retired.” As I heard someone say recently, if I feel like I’ve got to ‘give back’, it probably means I’ve taken too much in the first place.

When I’m living a meaning-ful life, when I’m clear about what is important and manage to direct my primary energies to engaging and contributing to those things, I am rarely flustered or scattered. There is a calm determination that helps me navigate the complexities of life.

According to Martin Seligman’s research, published in Authentic Happiness, those who report the highest levels of personal happiness are those whose lives are shaped by a commitment to contributing to the wellbeing of others. There is a paradox here. The activities and causes that result in the most sustained satisfaction in life are those where the beneficiary is another. I crave meaning in my life. But my craving sits alongside my drivers for pleasure and betterness, who’s promised rewards are more immediate, and in many cases are more socially acceptable.

The experience of sustained meaningful living, in essence, comes from selflessness. That I derive the most satisfaction from activity that is mainly about contributing to the welfare of others, is a profound statement of my connectedness with other human beings.

Questions that help me understand meaning in my life

1.What matters to me? What do I consider of most importance? What do I believe in? From where do I derive a sense of purpose?

2.To what extent am I engaged and active in pursuit of what matters most to me. Am I making a contribution to a better world? (Not at all / every now and then / frequently / my life is full of meaningful service)

3. What will I do to better align my actual behaviour with what I believe is important?

personal manifesto: intro

In my last post I explained why I ended up writing a personal manifesto. This is the first in a series of posts where I’ll share the content. Each piece is designed to fit into a cohesive whole, so I’m a tad nervous about posting in isolation, but hopefully the little bits carry some value on their own and add some value for your own deliberations on living well. If you’d prefer to get it all at once, you can download a pdf from the bottom of this page.

If bite size is your preference, then to get a sense of where it’s going, here is the contents page.

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 11.49.45 AM


IN MY OLD AGE, assuming I am fortunate enough to get there, I’ll be reflecting back on my life and the memories will provoke deep reactions. The panoramic view of life in hindsight will distill the reality from the rhetoric I told myself along the way. I’ll see the consequences of my choices, all of which seemed to make sense at the time, but some of which I will wish I could re-visit.

For a very long time I’ve been interested in understanding what constitutes a well lived life. What does it mean to be fully alive? Generally, I have had a good time of it: a loving, stable childhood, tons of opportunity, and some achievement. My mother is currently living with dementia, one of our daughters has a chronic disease, and one of our other kids has lost a partner in an air crash, each of which has shaped (and continues to shape) our little family significantly, but in the scheme of things we consider ourselves fortunate. Grace and luck: tick and tick. But there have also been choices; real choices that shape how life has gone. Occasionally there have been big calls (career, life partner, where to live etc), but for the most part living is defined by patterns of behaviour, patterns that are formed over time and that I perceive as part of who I am rather than choices I have made (what I do in my discretionary time, what I eat, how I exercise etc).

I have come to realise that the quality of my living has had less to do with external realities and more to do with how I see and make sense of the world; my mental models. These notes are, in that sense, a mental model. They offer a framework to help me understand what the underlying realities are, for me, in what I believe will be a well lived life; it helps explain why my life seems to be going well in any given season (or not) and as a corollary offers me a diagnostic lens to determine what I can seek to change if I have a hunch that things are not quite right.

My framework is not prescriptive. It is not about living a particular way, within a particular ideology or worldview. The framework is a set of design elements, things that I have discovered are true of my living in any context, with whatever ‘attribute hand’ I have been dealt, if I am to be fully myself, living life to the full and making choices that ensure I don’t look back on my life with regret.

The framework helps me develop a meaningful response to the question, “What kind of life have I lived so far?” and also provides a lens through which to evaluate smaller chunks of time (the seasons of life). There already exist some ways to describe elements of being ‘fully alive’, (such as mojo & flow), but I haven’t come across a single word to describe, with nuance, what I have developed here, so I have chosen to use ‘generative living’. These notes explain how I get there, and why this word has been valuable for me in figuring out better ways to live.

This is a personal manifesto. I am an educated, urban living, professional with a family. I am under no illusion that my notes here are applicable across cultures and contexts, or even for other people, although my suspicion is that those living in a similar environment might identify with some of my ideas.

There are two parts. In the first I’ve outlined the elements of a framework through which I view my life. (see below) Included in this are notes on:

  • three key drivers; pleasure, betterness and meaning
  • two foundations; home and community, and
  • four enabling disciplines; getting & staying unstuck, being uncluttered, modal living and contentment.

The second part introduces the idea of generativity; what it is and how it is a helpful frame applied to the earlier notes on living well.

overview annotated

Next post: pleasure: engaging beauty.

it takes all sorts, including yours

wooden boat rally, Launceston

wooden boat rally, Launceston

There is an emerging and predictable challenge to the millennial inspired exhortation to quit your job and follow your dreams. Just like the world champion sports person who suggests to teenagers they can achieve what ever they want, those who believe it is open to anyone who wants, to step off the job treadmill and follow their dreams is naive to how particular educational and life opportunities facilitate a capacity to navigate our social systems with capacity and power. But that doesn’t mean identifying what we enjoy and what we are good at, and figuring out how to carve out time to dedicate to them is not a healthy and even necessary part of a well lived life.

Passion and competence, and a small dose of eccentricity, was on display in spades this weekend out our front door on the marina in Launceston. We had seen the signs for the ‘wooden boat rally’, but really didn’t expect to see the number of boats that showed up. Boaties are a particular breed. Restoring and maintaining seafaring craft seems like more of a life commitment than a hobby or recreational pursuit. Seeing the workmanship and dedication that has gone into some of these huon pine, kingbilly pine and various other timber boats made me wonder about the character and skill these men possess. As we wandered past one incredible little punt, the braces wearing owner-builder offered to answer any questions about anything to do wth his boat. I couldn’t fathom what to ask that would do justice to how many years of weekends in the shed he must have spent. He would have thrived on the common appreciation of wooden boat building technical minutia, and the shared comradeship of the other eccentrics similarly hanging around their pride and joy. All I could have mustered would have been, So how long did it take? Did you have fun? … I decided to keep my mouth shut.

So while it is the domain of privilege to quit your job and sustain participation in society without dropping out, I reckon we could all do with knowing what it is that gives us joy and a sense of accomplishment. And sometimes the way we commit to work robs us of being our true selves. Seeing the proud smiles of these old salties on the water this weekend renewed my resolve to make choices to do the things I love, to figure out ways to get better at what I’m good at, and hopefully make a meaningful contribution in the process.

Have I got time in my week to do stuff that I love?

Am I becoming better at the things I’m good at, am I making progress?

Am I making a contribution that matters?

competent participation vs. ownership

The masterful Mark Lobo took this shot at The Do Lectures 2014

The masterful Mark Lobo took this shot at The Do Lectures Australia 2014

When I was at uni, a friend and I spent most of the money in our bank accounts to travel interstate to attend a conference at which one of our heroes was speaking. We ended up having dinner with him and he remained a mentor of mine for decades. I was thinking about this when the always thoughtful Carol Lawson asked me to elaborate on a comment I made in last week’s post about mistakes we had made in the 12 year MBO/Ergo business experiment.

I’ve had a need to use some professional services recently and have consequently come across some very competent people. And then, someone came along who appeared to operate at a different level. What is it about them that puts them in a new category? In a great little ‘rites of passage’ book called Secret Men’s Business, John Marsden, among many other things, talks about how a mark of maturity is knowing ‘when to break the rules’. (I recall the example of ignoring a red pedestrian light in the middle of the night when there is little traffic around.) People who stand out in their profession have a different relationship to the rules of the game.

Some of the ‘very competent’ people I have been working with practice their profession by navigating the rules of the game. The rules are king. These people are good because they have learned well the domain in which they operate. But the standout practitioners act above the rules. It’s not that they ignore them, they have mastered them to the extent that it is as if they make their own in order to achieve their desired outcome. This mastery is everywhere once you see it.

There are any number of deli/cafes around: these great little businesses add a person touch to the ‘formula’. But some places, like Annie’s Provedore own the rules. They are masters of the domain. There are dozens of champion AFL players, but the Chris Judds of the world somehow change the game through the strength of their talent, they are more than great players. The David Bowies own or invent a genre, they don’t just participate in it.

Chef’s, engineers. Facilitators and gymnasts, economists or politicians. Doesn’t matter what game we play, there are masters among us, people who are more than competent participants.

So, back to the question. What mistakes did we make? It wasn’t so much that we made discrete mistakes as much as we were seeking to model something we had hunches and inclinations about, but had not done before. We were participants in an emerging genre. We were mimicking others shamelessly as we went; for example, we took on Jack Stack’s Open Book management. And yes, we made up rules of our own on everything from performance reviews to philanthropy. But what we didn’t have was experience. We hired people we assumed would ‘get it’ and they didn’t and that caused truck loads of pain. There is no shortcut to mastery. The mistakes we made were not so much ‘we did X when we should have done Y’, it was more, ‘we tried our best and did good’, but we were tutors not masters. When we see people applying formulas, it is a sign we are in the presence of competence, or if it is an emerging area, creativity or ambition, but not mastery.

The professionals I have been dealing with in recent weeks have not made any mistakes, it’s just that they do their job by navigating the rules. It’s so different when you come across someone who understands the outcome and cuts clear paths toward it; someone for whom the rules of the game are servants rather than constraints.

What does this all mean? What is applicable? Simple really; figure out which competencies matter most to you. Find some masters. Mimic shamelessly. Learn from them. Read their stuff, watch their videos, listen to their podcasts. Write to them, go to conferences where they are, and invite them to have a drink with you. Even if, as it did for for me and my uni mate, it costs you your last dollars. It won’t safeguard against mistakes, but it will offer inspiration to move past mere competence. Maybe hokey pokey is what it’s all about.


summer and January

We loved living on the perennial holiday mood of Bullcock Beach on the Sunny Coast.

We loved living on the perennial holiday mood of Bullcock Beach on the Sunny Coast.

It is not particularly cool these days to talk about new year resolutions. Very passé. But in the wake of the festive season, especially one that has been satisfying for all the classic reasons (family, summery recreational activities, afternoon snoozes, excessive quantities of plum puddings, fresh rasberries and cherries etc), it feels like a part of the natural rhythm to take stock and reset for the year ahead.

Brigid Delany wrote a nice little piece in the Guardian last week, on lazy, long summers; or at least the way we remember them. It is true that we romanticise some of our memories into myths. As kids we were spared the unsanitised reality of adult responsibilities and relationships, so it is no wonder we imagine long lazy summers with rose coloured glasses. But let’s not give up the dream too easily.

As Delany says, it is our contemporary work-centred lifestyles that trump our summer dreams. (Also see: Why are we still working? – thanks for the share @MelinaChan) But choices can be made. Yep, many of us feel we are compelled to fit in with what everyone else is doing, but as with most things in life, where there is a will there is a way. Maybe there are some habits from the 60s and 70s worth retaining. Our friends the Shorts and the Baxters have spent 6 weeks over summer at an iconic Sunny Coast caravan park ‘since Adam was a boy’, with commuting back into Brisbane the necessary price. And they are not alone … I’ve loved seeing updates from lots of friends this December / January who have done the iconic Aussie thing and lived temporarily on the coast. It is good for our souls; the simplicity of life in shorts and thongs. Board games, simple meals, long walks and salt water on our skin.

What we hope for is a quality of life, the evidence of which can be seen in everything we do, rather than by ticking off a few activities. If you’ve baked a rubbish cake with too much salt and not enough sugar, you can’t redeem it by putting strawberries on top. Sometimes, new year resolutions look like that … people trying to redeem life by adding some strawberries. The fundamentals of a well lived life are pretty ordinary and unglamorous. But if we get the basics right, adding some strawbs can make it a pretty special.

So, long lazy summers did not, do not, and will not deliver the quality of life we imagine. Long, lazy summers can refresh my soul, but only when I have a clear picture of what is important in life and somehow I manage to give expression to that in the hustle and stress of contemporary urban working life, as well as when I’m on the banana lounge. What is the quality of the relationships with those I love most? How is my health and physical resilience? Where do I find pleasure, goodness and meaning in my life?

Let’s take stock and reset; it is a good thing to do. But let’s build in weekly habits and routines that align the foundational routines and commitments in our lives with what is most important to us, rather than add in some activity that is unlikely to stand the test of a stressful winter Monday.

thinking about the sound of one hand clapping


Over the weekend I finished reading The Sound of One Hand Clapping. I figured while living in Launceston I’d read a classic Tasmanian novel. Some parallels with Maria’s childhood, growing up in Hydro villages in the harsh environments of the wet west made Richard Flanagan’s acclaimed 1950s tale an obvious choice. For the Europeans who made up much of the workforce, Flannigan describes their daily lives through the lens of wartime atrocities, the memory and reality from which they are attempting to escape.

Daily life in the villages and in 1960s Hobart is a kind of façade, behind which the unfathomable depths of pain from the past lay hidden. It might be less dramatic for us than Flanagan’s characters, but there’s a whole bunch of ugly stuff behind our façades too I reckon. Unmet needs for love, security, recognition and a whole bunch of other stuff.

One of the strengths of Flanagan’s tale is the unspoken understanding of each others’ pathologies. Grace is given. The inhabitants of the single men’s quarters are under no illusions, unlike those of us who’s lives have been less painful, that games of denial are being played as people get on with the routines of life.

As I write, I am sitting with my back to a group of about a dozen professional athletes; they are the leadership group of an AFL football club that has failed to make the finals. They are debriefing the season, exploring the factors (positive and negative) that have impacted their performance this year. As these blokes walked past my table, they could hardly have presented with more confidence; swaggers and struts the order of the day. But I wonder what the cultural hero status hides? (As I write a young women has taken her shoes off and ran to the water’s edge and into the shallows, turned around with arms lifted skyward for her friend to take a shot, one which will no doubt find its way onto social media – and I wonder what pain and insecurities lay behind the insta-smile.)

Should we attempt to live without facades? I think not. Imagine the awkwardness of everyday interactions. But it helps to acknowledge their existence. Mine, and others. And then beyond acknowledgement, hopefully there are a handful of loved ones who we trust enough to invite behind the façade. This is where love happens.

I like a good instagram pic as much as the next, but my instagram persona is a miniscule fraction of who I really am, as is your’s. I love competence and confidence in the workplace too, but how people present in their work uniform, whether it’s a suit, overalls or a footy jumper, is not who they really are either. These things are simply the facades we have constructed, and as helpful as they are in navigating our way through life, our lives are not our projected persona any more than the building is the façade.

So I have been wondering about the depth of our lives. I have been wondering how we are supposed to fathom the complexity and mystery of the accumulation of disappointments and years of living as screwed up people.

Flanagan’s book is profoundly and hauntingly sad. It challenges us to understand our living, not as a polaroid of the present, but the accumulation of everything we have experienced, especially the pain. For me, it has been a good antidote to the sometimes pollyanna stories we prefer to tell each other about who and why we are. And despite the depths of tragedy, for Flanagan’s characters, as is true for us, attempts at selflessness, however stumbling and imperfect, have a near magical, and certainly mysterious, capacity to break through life’s facades with the hope of genuine love.