what is greatness?


(will resume posts from my manifesto next time …)

I started the day in the Lower East Side of Manhattan at the Tenement Museum. Through film, an amazing bookshop, and guided tours of restored tenements and the local area, the centre tells the story of how the Irish, Germans, Jews, Italians, Chinese and others came to New York and shaped the society that is the Manhattan we know today. I learned about the living conditions, the working environment, and labour movement, the social institutions and the cultural melting pot that was the Lower East Side. These people were adventurous and resilient. From incredible hardship, they achieved prosperity for their families and communities.

The streets in the Lower East Side are still an eclectic mix of cultures. It is gritty and strong.

Then I got on the metro and 5 stops later emerged into a different world. Up near Central Park on 5th Avenue, the Rockerfeller Centre is a monument to individual capitalism. The creed inscribed in the plaque is the classic homage to liberal capitalism. As one of my colleagues said, that’s easy to say when you’ve got lot’s of money and power.

The buildings around Midtown are shiny and tall. The streets are clean and sidewalks are paved in contrast to the clusters of brick tenements and potholed roads of the LES. What is greatness? It can mess with your brain. Contrasting perspectives born of different life experiences.

I have only been here once before, many years ago. It is presumptuous of me to say so, but in my view NYC is a transformed city. Overall it feels cleaner, more civil and more socially aware. It is more ‘progressive’; there is healthy food everywhere and the Highline is a great example of urban renewal done with outstanding success. When I was here last time my local host was explaining to me the city’s challenge to completely replace the water and sewerage infrastructure in New York and on Manhattan specifically. I remember being completely overwhelmed with the magnitude of the project. This weekend there is evidence all around the city of pipes being replaced. We also learned of the now completed project to renovate the Empire State Building to achieve the highest level of energy efficiency. I admire the American spirit and commitment to get on and do it. In our part of the world it is always politically too hard to do the big things, the things with long term payback.

If there is one thing that these few privileges days here have reminded me, it is that people, individually and collectively can achieve great things. It takes courage and steely resolve. The scale of this place blows your mind. If you can transform a city like NY, then it seems anything is possible.

Personal manifesto: Pleasure – engaging beauty

Last week I posted the introduction to my personal manifesto. Please read this for context if not already. In this post I’ve included some notes on the first of “three drivers”. The “drivers” are the three key motivations that shape our living. Psychologists vary in how they describe these; my framework draws mainly from the work of Martin Seligman.

My understanding of the place of pleasure has changed a lot over the years. Knowing deep down that pleasure doesn’t offer deep and lasting satisfaction, I had mistakenly not given it a healthy place. I now appreciate better the relationship between pleasure and beauty. Elevating pleasure has helped me embrace the incredible beauty on offer in the natural world.

Pleasure: engaging beauty

I define pleasure as being associated with the five senses. I am a physical being, I live in a material world. This is not about materialism or sensuality in the way those terms are normally used, it is about the enjoyment I get from experiencing the beauty of the world via my senses.

Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder and that holds true here too. Whether it is the feel of a new car, a breathtaking vista, the taste and smell of an exquisite meal or favourite tea, or a long slow embrace with Maria, I am buoyed by great sensual experiences.

My drive for pleasure

I have a natural drive to maximise my pleasure, and I do not think I am alone: it is an unusual person who actively shuns opportunities for pleasure. In some communities of which I have been a part, there has been a high value placed on sacrificial service, the drive for pleasure may not have been immediately apparent and was certainly not overtly encouraged. Austere living or choosing socially or environmentally challenging contexts masked, at least for me, what a little scratching below the surface revealed; a consistent drive to ensure I was being sustained by sensually pleasing experiences.

The connections between pleasure and feeling good about life

The pursuit of pleasure alone leaves me unsatisfied. But my desire for pleasure is insatiable.

It is not that the overseas holidays are not satisfying, even exhilarating. In fact some of the genuinely best times of life have been when in strange and distant lands. The point is that if I expect my holiday, my new jeans, or new home alone to deliver me deep and lasting contentment, I know I will be sorely disappointed. However, nearly every media message I consume lies to me that maximising pleasure is what life is all about. So instead of the pursuit of pleasure contributing to a well lived life in concert with other elements, despite it continually failing to quench my search for satisfaction, I keep going back to the well in pathetic addiction.

Pleasure is a fundamentally important part of being fully alive, but it must be pursued in concert with other drivers.

Questions that help me understand what gives me pleasure

1. What gives (has given) me pleasure? What are those daily or special things that warm my soul and make me thankful I’m alive? Not only the routinely ‘pleasant’ things, but those things that really enliven me.

2. To what extent are these things part of my life in this season? (Not at all / every now and then / frequently / my life is full of them)

3. What will I do to inject and integrate more pleasure into my living?

Next post: betterness: competent participation

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.

a personal manifesto


In every stage of my life, amidst the clutter and noise; the busyness and status anxiety; the rules and the ideologically driven pronouncements, I’ve wondered about what was most important. And then came the integrity question: under scrutiny does my actual living match what I say is valuable?

The harder I tried to write a book about what I was learning, and I tinkered away at it for many years, the more uncomfortable I became with the presumption that my reflections on my own living would be transferable and applicable for others. It seemed to me that the peculiarities of our individual experiences and identities make ‘self development’ material a loose net that only catches people who are already similar to ourselves. So I stopped trying and made peace with the reality that my ideas wouldn’t have a broad audience.

And then I realised that I was actually the main audience for the content. What I was trying to do was to capture some ideas that had formed and been really useful over the years. This recognition liberated me to go back and reframe what I had done as a personal manifesto.

There is an intro and 16 short chapters. Over the next little while I’ll post some of it. If I am the primary audience, why am I posting it? This blog has always been a journal; packaging my observations and experiences into reflective little thought bubbles has been therapeutic for me. Looking back through the hundreds of posts is like looking through an old photo album. This little book is no different, so while I needed to write it for me in this season of life, I’m happy for others to engage the ideas if helpful.

What are the dimensions of a life well lived? What kind of life am I living? What choices can I make to insure against future regret? I’ll post the intro next week.

empowerment; only partly good

This osprey lived near our place on the Sunshine Coast.

This osprey lived near our place on the Sunshine Coast.

Vocational communities are characterised by self-management (see previous post). Most people assume this is about empowerment. But as Frederic Laloux explains in Reinventing Organisations (p137), self-management is much more than that. If employees need to be empowered, it is because power is concentrated at the top of the organisation. Empowerment is the process by which those who hold power, delegate its use to those lower down in the organisation. Self-management happens when decision-making rights are distributed and held by everyone.

Make no mistake, empowerment is a great improvement on the authoritarian hierarchies of most organisations. Empowerment is the healthy processes whereby people have the capacity to give input and shape the decisions that affect their work. But the authentic self-management of vocational communities is something entirely different.

Allowing anyone in the organisation to make any decision sounds completely ridiculous from within the conventional organisational paradigm. Surely it is unworkable in practice. When Dennis Bakke was CEO of AES, a global power company with 40,000 employees, anyone could make any decision including: what they did, the salary they took, investment decisions … The mechanism used for decision-making was called the Advice System. In essence, it was mandatory to seek advice for any decision that affected others. Obviously the bigger the decision, the wider the consultation. The nature of the decision dictated the kind of expert advice sought. Importantly though, no one, not even the CEO could veto a decision.

Bakke recalls the story of Shazad Qasim a recently hired financial analyst who sought advice from him about relocating to Pakistan to expand AES’ work into that region. Bakke was sceptical given the market research the company had already conducted which had concluded AES would fail in Pakistan. However, Qasim designed a role for himself and (with extensive advice seeking with Bakke and the board) decided to invest $200M in a new power plant. Clearly this is an extreme case, but I share it to illustrate that this approach is not “Mickey Mouse”. It unleashes innovation unimaginable in conventional hierarchies.

Extraordinary injustices still exists in our society but most are widely acknowledged. In the workplace however, it is still considered, not only normal but necessary to limit the influence of voices. Self-management is not about unleashing foolishness; it is about a profound acknowledgement that extraordinary intelligence and competence is untapped in conventional organisations because of the restrictions the power hierarchy imposes on people’s ownership of the outcomes and their capacity to implement their best ideas.

It need not be so, but it will take some courageous leadership effort to change it. The future belongs to vocational communities.

comfortable partial truths

scales uneven

I get frustrated with myself sometimes when I shrink from advocating passionately for contentious issues. People I respect write fiercely provocative essays, attend rallies or pepper their social media streams with political, religious or social ideologies. And I hold back. My defence is usually, ‘It’s not that simple’, or ‘Of course you’d say X because you’ve never seriously seen the world from the perspective of people who experienced Y.’

When I was a Uni student I sat listening to a talk by a Dr Ian John. I wrote about that talk, the first time I’d come across the idea of a paradigm in this post four years ago. More recently, I came across this quote by Clay Johnson, American technologist and political campaigner.

“Who wants to hear the truth when you can hear that you are right.”

Over the years I’ve come to see that we tend to believe the things that ‘significant others’ in our lives believe. Or, in other words, we identify with a community and adopt the belief system of that community. Of course we tell ourselves we have thought rationally about our beliefs, but we usually read apologetic material from people we already believe are ‘right’.

Twice in the last month I’ve flicked through a newspaper and been genuinely shocked by the editorial pieces on climate change. Recently a full page article was mockingly pointing out that the ‘climate was refusing to rise’. If you read the Herald Sun that day, then chances are you might not have watched the ABC News the night before, during which an item discussed the records showing that 2015 had been the hottest year ever recorded. Hmmm.

In a business context we are typically pretty poor at debate too. I think it is because we hold our views too close to our professional identities. Somehow, being persuaded by a better argument is a sign of weakness. Unfortunately, what often happens is the strongest personality wins. In his excellent little books Death by Meeting and The Advantage, Patrick Lencioni goes as far as to say that unless there is conflict and debate in meetings where important issues are on the table, they are a waste of time.

So, seeking out alternative views, although uncomfortable, will strengthen our thinking incredibly. If an important issue is gaining momentum I believe it is an important role of thought leaders to appreciate alternative views. For example, if you find yourself agreeing with the increasingly mainstream arguments for euthanasia, then do what I did and seek out a robust alternative perspective. (Karen Hitchcock’s piece in the Monthly makes a strong case against the prevailing wisdom.)

There is nothing wrong with identifying with a community and telling each other stories that affirm our worldview. In fact, it a great thing, belonging and shared meaning. There is something unhealthy though, about so filtering our mental diet that we believe that everyone who believes something different is either stupid or evil. If you want to seriously understand the dynamics of why smart people end up being divided on important issues, I highly recommend Jonathon Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. If you haven’t got the time or headspace for that, and you think euthanasia is a no brainer and anyone who thinks otherwise belongs in the past, then just read Hitchcock (above).

I am still learning on this, but increasingly I find myself asking, not whether a particular view is right or wrong, but rather, ‘what are the values that either consciously or unconsciously lead to that perspective?’ Or, put another way, focus less on ‘what I think is right’, and more on ‘why I think what I think, and why others think what they think.’

If we believe what we believe because of our experience, then it follows that the only way to know whether our beliefs hold up to even our own scrutiny, is to expose ourselves to alternative perspectives and experiences – let them go. If our convictions come back to us we will hold them very differently than if we’d never let them go in the first place.

attention as commodity (or me as self righteous luddite)


100 years ago fortunes were made from oil, timber, iron, and other (finite) natural resources. Our great grand parents and grandparents were willing consumers as the world changed in ways unimaginable in the years before them. Pollution and sustainability were not even on their radar.

Entrepreneurs of our time are making fortunes competing for another finite resource; our attention. We are similarly willing consumers of media that apparently enhances our lives. Digital connectedness is increasingly ubiquitous in the same way we take electricity for granted. A leading global research company has recently changed its questions about the frequency of people’s ‘internet use’ to include an option “almost always connected”. Current US data has 20% of people selecting this option; not surprising given the current habitual use of smart phones.

Progress brings incredible benefits. Very few of us however, even the most insightful, can predict the unintended unhealthy or negative consequences of social and technology trends. Early motorists bumping down dirt roads would not have conceived of experiences associated with metro peak hour commuting today in LA or Melbourne. As we all embrace electronic and social media, can we imagine the pathologies associated with being constantly connected?

I have slowly been opting out. I should say that I know a few people who are passionate advocates of digital technology who aren’t addicts. But they are rare.

We love a convert. Christians love a reformed criminal or serious sinner. These days we similarly love a converted social media addict, the instagram celebrity who turns off her account. We are less enamoured with the wise folks who never got sucked in in the first place. Funny that.

I’m neither a recovering addict or someone who has never been immersed and drawn in. I would never have admitted it, but I loved being the FourSquare mayor of a major airport Lounge – figured I’d made it as a frequent flyer. Crap. But I always got angry that people seemed so confused by the difference between popularity and value, and the pathetic way we all like to cultivate a particular online persona and image.

Let’s not give away our attention to media. What I attend to shapes my life. Start by switching your phone to airplane mode for a period everyday. Make eye contact with people around you. Lie on the grass and look at the clouds. Go for a walk and leave your phone at home, listen to the birds rather than your playlist.

I want to avoid having to get converted in a few years time. I’d prefer to be an early adopter of cultivating a healthy integration of digital living. Do I really need to watch those videos of people doing odd or crazy things? No. How much value does seeing fabricated selfies of people I hardly know actually add to my life? Zero. Can I absorb the information in posts from 100s of people in my social media feeds. Nup.

Do I love and like some people and can social media enhance my connectedness with them? You betcha. But that is a completely different proposition from the fear of missing out that has us giving more attention to our screens than the wonderful faces and hearts of people around us right now.

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?

deferred gratification for the common good

One of the most well known psychology experiment is the ‘marshmellow’ one, where kids are offered a sweet. However if they wait 15 minutes without eating it, they will receive two sweets. Stanford Marshmellow experiment It turns out that the ability to defer one’s gratification is a great predictor of positive life outcomes. Our kids are probably sick of hearing me go on about deferred gratification!

Not long ago I happened to have the radio on while Melbourne’s Lord Mayor talked about the disruption to Melbourne’s CBD that will occur during the construction of major new infrastructure. We are not talking about the odd road closure here; we’re talking about whole city blocks without utilities for months. We are talking about businesses being compensated, residents relocated etc. City Square will be a works depot.

Now we know that investment in major infrastructure is critical to maintain liveability in cities, something which we in Melbourne particularly like to talk about. But how much do we complain about the inconvenience required to get there? From road works on the Bruce Highway, to power disruptions … listen to us moan.

It’s one thing to choose to defer our gratification when we anticipate even greater personal benefit at the end. Home renovations are the classic. But what does it look like to suck up the inconvenience when the personal benefit is marginal or (at least perceived to be) non-existent?

We have heard ad infinitum that we suffer a social pathology arising from unchecked individualism. We are far enough into our collective journey to get a sniff of what comes next to correct this. Instead of being the ideological domain of hippy left wingers, we are now beginning to appreciate connectedness. We are part of systems where cause and effect are not closely related in time and space. And the systems all form part of bigger systems. Human beings are actually part of the natural system, not masters of it … etc.

So I wonder how, as this collective consciousness becomes more mainstream, we will process disruptions to our living that are in service of the common good. I wonder what the Stanford experiment equivalent might be for communities, societies or nation states that resist scoffing the marshmellow in front of us now for the sake of two in 15 years time? CBD disruptions, changed lifestyles to mitigate the affects of climate change … have we got what it will take?

wisdom and fundamentalism

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) has helped us appreciate that we never really free ourselves of our addictions. Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. The impact of some addictions; drugs and alcohol, gaming, porn etc are pretty well understood and acknowledged. What about the fundamental adherence to a belief or idea?

I was thinking about this after reading Adam Kahane’s courageous, Collaborating is not the best optionThis from a man who has built a career on helping solve tough problems through thoughtful collaborative processes. Maybe I’m over-reaching a tad, but think with me about this process that has been played out countless of thousands of times in management thinking and publishing.

  • We observe or experience, something that works really well.
  • We get enthusiastic about seeing it happen again. Eventually we have a vision of applying it more broadly.
  • We distill, deconstruct or abstract the solution into a ‘formula’ or set of principles.
  • We figure out how to scale it through training others, writing a book, rolling it out at greater scale.
  • Sometimes it works great, other times it doesn’t. When it works, we feel great, because the data supports our belief that we’ve got a great ‘belief’. When it doesn’t, we typically dismiss the data, convinced that other factors must be at play. (b/c there is nothing wrong with our solution!)

About six months ago I started using a little self constructed tool we can call the ‘wellbeing grid’. Every week, on the whiteboard in my Melbourne apartment I start a clean grid. Down the left hand side are the days of the working week: Mon-Fri. Across the top I have a set of commitments that I tick off each day. They are eclectic. There are a couple of different kinds of exercise (swimming and stretching/strength), I couple of food related commitments (portion size and sugar related), some personal writing and learning (journalling and Italian language), and another more general wellbeing commitment. I have figured out, that at least for this season of life, if I can maintain my daily / weekly commitments in these areas it significantly helps my general sense of wellbeing.

It’s a great little tool, simple and flexible. I’m sure others would find it helpful too. But there is a subtle and very significant difference between saying, “This works for me”, and “This works.” Now no one wants to waste time re-inventing the wheel, so it makes great sense to learn from what works for others. The professional services economy is built on the scaling of tried and true systems and processes. But, I suspect we too easily become fundamentalists for the systems and processes, and the beliefs that have helped shape our professional identities.

It takes courage and insight for an Adam to stand up and say, maybe we’ve presumed too much about the approach we’ve been promoting. The point is not that collaboration (in this instance) doesn’t remain the best hope in solving tough problems, or that my little wellbeing grid is not a helpful tool to stay centred in a busy urban life. The point is that each scenario is deeply unique. Perhaps the test is our emotional reaction to someone stating, “Well that [insert your pet approach] wouldn’t work for me/us.” Are we prepared to engage that meaningfully, or do we assume they’ve misunderstood the ‘power’ of what we are offering and that they’ll come around if they allow us to convince them?

Addictions are things we can’t say no to. Are we addicted to an approach to solving a business or social problem? The word that probably suits the situation more aptly is fundamentalism, where we have somehow got to a point where we believe our perspective has a one to one correlation with absolute reality.

So what does this mean? In a world where the challenges we face require new ways of thinking, let’s be suspicious about our own presumptions that what has worked for us locally can be scaled to solve the world’s problems. Does that mean we can’t participate in large scale ambitions? Of course not. But let’s do so with humility and wisdom rather than presumption and fundamentalism.