Oh Bad – the Larkinesque poetry of paperwork
by Jim Bright
Oh Bad – the Larkinesque poetry of paperwork
by Jim Bright
We get frustrated when we are unsure how to act, and feel disheartened when we voluntarily or involuntarily act in ways that are not true ourselves. We can get lost while searching for the sweet spot that lies between pattern and surprise, consistency and spontaneity, security and risk, familiarity and freedom, and order and disorder. We can use the idea of fractals, described in the Chaos Theory of Careers, to guide us into satisfying action that is spontaneous and consistent.
When I suggested in my previous post that people act before they think one common concern is that this means acting in an entirely random manner. Indeed I did suggest “committing random acts of contribution”. However underpinning these supposedly random acts is a thread of continuity. The random acts I advocated were not totally random, they were constrained to being acts of contribution.
What I am advocating is to repeatedly apply the same rule “to contribute” over and over again in many different contexts and in many different ways. Through these acts, a pattern of contribution emerges – or in the words of the Chaos Theory of Careers a Fractal pattern emerges.
A Wikipedia definition of a Fractal captures what we need for our purposes. ‘Fractals are typically self-similar patterns, where self-similar means they are “the same from near as from far”…. The definition of fractal goes beyond self-similarity per se to exclude trivial self-similarity and include the idea of a detailed pattern repeating itself.’
So repeatedly applying the value “to make a contribution” whenever and wherever leads to a beautiful fractal of contribution.
We can use Fractals as a way of motivating us to action, in a manner that is consistent but not totally predictable; novel but similar; sort of like old, but new; trait-like, but changing; or in the words of H.B. Gelatt, focused AND flexible.
There are four steps to Fractal Action
Step 1 Define your value rule
This is the rule you are going to apply over and over again. It should be specified in one sentence and should NOT be over-specified. It needs to be self-evidently clear, but not limiting, and it is NOT time-based.
Here are some GOOD examples:
These are BAD examples
(You can see that the good “rules” are akin to values or higher order/fuzzy goals, whereas the bad examples more closely resemble the increasingly discredited SMART goals.)
Step 2 Apply your Fractal value to your next action
For any given situation, bring to mind your fractal rule and ask yourself:
“How can I apply this rule in this situation right now?” and then do it!
Step 3 Repeat
The key to this process is to repeat the process continually and regularly, in as many situations, if not all the situations you find yourself in.
Step 4 Step back and understand the pattern that is emerging
Look to see patterns emerging over time, consider the outcomes of your actions and also the underlying process. You should see developing a complex, changing, unpredictable pattern that nevertheless has a thread of continuity reflecting how you, your values and skills have connected with the world, and how you have emerged into yourself.
As Aristotle wrote “We are what we repeatedly do; excellence, then, is not an act but a habit”. And that is coaching fractal action for personal development – it’s simple but its complex!
The history of mankind can be understood through our reactions to complexity in the pre-machine, primitive machine, industrial and information technology eras.
In the the pre-machine era, complexity arose from our familiar surroundings and the challenge of feeding, nuturing and protecting ourselves and our groups. The immediacy of these challenges and the limited opportunities or hazards for travel and communication. Complexity asserted itself through the mysteries of illness, the vagaries of the weather, and other acts of God. Complexity was something accepted and tholed in equal measure and it was something that was not questioned.
In the primitive machine era – wheels, tools and similar simple machines offered opportunities, without greatly increasing the obvious presence of complexity at work. Machines simplified life in many respects. Complexity was still considered in fatalistic terms as an occasional harbinger of trouble, or occasionally good fortune.
In the industrial era, automation, factories, the move from the land to the cities saw enormous change. The machines of this era enormously increased the opportunities for many and changed the lives of all living in industrialized countries. For the owners of these machines and those able to pay for the products and services arising from these machines, their benefits outweighed the increase in the complexity that accompanied them. Work, for those tending these machines was routinized and predictable and relatively well paid. Indeed these jobs, especially those on conveyor belts were routinised to the point of monotony. Complexity was seen as being under our control and potentially tamed with the application of science, technology and engineering. Complexity could be reduced to simple building blocks and simple models of human behavior. The clarion call was “Keep it simple”.
It has been the information technology era that has really made obvious the complexity that has always lurked in the shadows of life. The rapid rise in communications technology allied to jet planes has made the notion of our group go from those we live close to, to practically anybody and everybody on the globe. The impacts of our decisions and the decisions of others can not so much ripple around the world, as to shake our world to its foundations.
An argument lost in a teleconference in Brussels can lead to a whole office of workers losing their jobs in Athens, Melbourne, or Detroit. A technology developed in California can lead within months to the employment of hundreds of thousands in China.
The term “complexity” has been used increasingly over the last decade by theoreticians, politicians and practitioners to describe the world we live in. Complexity is now beginning to be seen once again as more inevitable and more regularly intrusive into our supposedly ordered existence. Except increasingly people are beginning to appreciate the nature of complexity and how it is the very complex nature of things that provides opportunities and hope as well as being a source of unwanted influences.
The characteristics of complexity are set out in the Chaos Theory of Careers (e.g. Pryor and Bright, 2011) and include, inherent long term unpredictability, sudden and disproportional changes, and stability arising only from continual change.
The challenges of complexity for careers include: moving beyond a reliance on control and predict methodologies of planning and goal setting; a realization of the limits of our ability to control and predict the future; the development of personal strategies promoting opportunity awareness on one hand; and persistence and resilience on the other; the promotion of personal and corporate creativity and innovation to provide the momentum for the continual change that in turn permits a form of stability.
The greatest challenge confronting practitioners assisting individuals or organizations in developing successful working lives or businesses is to help them understand complexity and to thrive on complexity. The clarion today is “Confront the complex!”
We are all familiar with all the advice on how to get rich. However here I analyse George Clooney’s wealth and provide a possible reason for his wealth.
George Clooney apparently earns $15m per film
Assume Clooney appears for 60 minutes of a 90 minute film
That works out at $250,000 per minute on screen.
George likes coffee, in my local supermarket Lavazza beans are $30 for a 2.2Ib bag.
So if he visits my supermarket can he buy coffee faster than he earns money?
The self-serve barcode swipe machine in my local store will process 9 items a minute (thanks to help checkout guy in my local store!).
The guy on the checkout tells me he can swipe up to 20 items a minute.
So if George Clooney goes mad and does it himself he could spend $270 in a minute on coffee, or $600 if he gets the checkout guy to do it. (and that is without waiting to pay or swiping his loyalty card for air-miles (remember Up in the Air?).
This leaves George with a net profit of at least $249,400 per minute. So this isn’t going to work.
So George likes TV (he was on it for much of the 1990s), so what if he pops down to my local electrical retailer, and spends up big on Sony 55 inch 3-D LCD TV screens priced at $3300?
Now lets assume these items are stacked right next to the checkout (to save time hauling them through the store) and the swiping rate is also no more than 20 per minute.
Now he can spend $66,000 per minute. This still leaves him with a profit of $184,000 per minute.
So maybe cars or houses are the go. The trouble is, with all the paper work, he couldn’t buy one in a minute.
Ebay auctions are out because they last at least 5 days.
So what if George has some help? Lets go back to that TV retailer. Now suppose we have his old friends from ER helping him Anthony Edwards (Dr. Mark Greene) Sherry Stringfield (Dr. Susan Lewis) and Noah Wylie (Med Student) helping him by also swiping 20 TVs a minute. That’s 80 TVs a minute.
Now we have 4 x $66,000 = $264,000 per minute which exceeds his income.
So here could be a recipe for bankruptcy for George. Would George Clooney be so rich after that?
BUT each TV box is about 60 x 32 x 5 inches and weighs 70lbs and they dont come from nowhere. Somebody has to freight them to the store. Each semi trailer has 40,000lbs cargo capacity. So there are 570 TVs in each load.
So George and ER friends would go through a semi-trailer every 7 minutes. Is that why George Clooney is so rich?
Now allowing for backing out the empty semi-trailer from the loading bay and manoeuvring the waiting full semi into the bay, and allowing for a team of loaders to offload the TVs, even if they were throwing them off the truck, onto forklifts taking 10 TVs at a time, each trip will take at least 30 seconds to get it from the truck to the check out – that is about 30 minutes per load!
But George’s team are buying ‘em at a rate of 7 mins per truckload!!!
So, in the best case scenario the store has 570 TVs stocked by the checkout, with a full semi-trailer to go. Let’s suppose they start offloading the TVs once George’s team starting their purchasing.
In the first minute the team purchase 80 TVs.
In that time the stockers, re-stock at a rate of 10 TVs every 30 seconds. That is 60 a minute, or a net shortfall of 20 TVs a minute!
So I calculate that after only 30 minutes of this madness, George would be the proud owner of 1590 Sony TVs, and be owed 40 the store couldn’t stock in time and in the process would still be over $10 million richer.
And that is why George Clooney is so rich.
LinkedIn report the top 10 clichés found on LinkedIn profiles in 2011 (see here). So how do these words stack up in terms of historic usage? Using a relatively unknown google research feature called Ngram, we can see how often each of these words have appeared in books since the 1500s! It is interesting to see how many of the words in career development have only recently become fashionable, but there are some that we might think are shiny and new that have been around before or forever.
Top of the LinkedIn list was “creative”. Here is the Ngram result:
note: (the graphs show the results of analyzing up to 6000 books published each year from 1500-2008. In the early years this represents all the books published, and in later years, a random selection of books. The percentages on the y-axis represent the number of times the searched word appears as a proportion of all words published in the sample of books for that year)
Next up is the word “Organizational” – which is kind of embarrassing I was the National Chair of the College of Organizational Psychologists!
At number 3, was “Effective” – a word that was popular in the renaissance, and is having, well, a renaissance now.
Number six on the list was “Motivated”.
At number 10 was that old stalwart of the resume – “Dynamic”.
But what about some other terms that we bandy around frequently in Career Development – like er, “Career”
The word shows a less dramatic rise in usage, having been used relatively often in the renaissance, but really started to build in the Victorian era and the industrial revolution. Interestingly, Parson’s seminal work “Choosing a vocation” was published at the historic peak usage of the term career, which promptly went into decline until the 1950s. I’m not claiming causation here!
The term “plan” that is dear to the hearts of some in the Career Development world is an interesting one. It exploded in popularity between 1750 and 1800 (when Napoleon had his mojo) and stayed relatively popular up until the end of world war 2. Interestingly then it declined until about the 1980s, when the dreaded goal setting literature and Olivia Newton John turned us all into leg warmer wearing goal-focused gym junkies and office warriors – well perhaps!
The current popularity of the term narrative in career development, politics, well just about everywhere, is reflected in the graph below, showing exponential growth in usage since the second world war.
Another term we hear a lot at the moment “constructivism” rocketed to popularity in the 1970s, but by 2008 looks to be at the beginning of suffering an equally sharp decline. So constructivists out there, get publishing more – or at least start thinking about it, if you believe thought is reality and see if by the power of thinking you can get the line to move upwards once again. Just kiddin!! 🙂
Words close to my theoretical heart and a basis for the Chaos Theory of Careers is the word “Change”. Ironically there has been little change in the growth rate in usage of the term change. It shows an almost perfect linear growth rate in C18 and C19 (funny that the Industrial “revolution” didn’t give it a kick along). However C20th saw the growth rate in usage of the term increase markedly, but then it plateaued around 1970 – which is a little surprising to me.
The term “chance” has a colorful history as the graph below shows. The Elizabethans were into it big time (as they were equally into “mutability” as Rob Pryor and I point out in our book – The Chaos Theory of Careers. The term peaked in usage between the world wars, fell steadily in the era of “certainty” of the 1950s to 1980s, and rocked back into popularity in the last 10 years.
Finally “Chaos” is an interesting one. It appears that 1650 was total chaos! I blame in on Frenchman Renee Descartes who said “I think therefore I am” in this year, well probably “Je pense donc, je suis”, but it is all French to me. The term has taken centuries to recover from his method of doubt, but has shown steady and predictable (ie not chaotic!!) growth in usage, apparently recently returning to long term growth trends after a little flurry in the 1980s probably associated with the popularization of the science usage of the term by Gleick and others during this decade.
So what other words would be worth exploring?
Here is an article in the Australian Financial Review on Luck in Careers. How to get luck on your side in your career. It is about luck in careers, luck readiness, and luck and career success.
Transform your career by shifting: Shift 11 – From Trust As Control To Trust As Faith
There comes a point in all things that really matter in life when trying to exert control is not sufficient. The complexities of the world make it impossible to be any more planned or prepared, there will always be some loose ends, some possibilities that cannot be thought out in advance. When we reach these points, if we are to confront them effectively with imagination, creativity, optimism and hope, we need to shift our trust in the power of control and embrace trust in faith.
Trust as Control
Too often people misuse the word “trust” when what they really mean is control. When they say “I trust you” or even “I trust myself”, they are actually saying “I control you so tightly you can only do what I expect” or “I control myself so tightly, I can guarantee the outcome”. This can lead to some fairly predictable problems:
Trust as Faith
The Oxford English Dictionary definition of trust is “trust (noun): ‘confidence, strong belief in the goodness, strength, reliability of something or somebody’, ‘responsibility’
have trust in (verb): ‘believe in the honesty and reliability of someone of something’, ‘have confidence in’, ‘earnestly hope’ ”
Look at the key words there:
Trust in fact has nothing to do with control, but has everything to do with faith. It is about uncertainty not certainty – you do not need to be confident or hopeful about an outcome, if that outcome is assured. Trust is about ambiguity, complexity and mystery. It is about the limits of what we know and indeed what is knowable.
When trust as control is not enough, or not desirable, we can shift to a stronger position of trust as Faith.
Faith in Self
It is a commonly heard injunction “to believe in yourself”, “to back yourself” during times of duress. Having faith in yourself is an important cornerstone of career development. There is plenty of evidence for the importance of this idea from clinical psychology such as Albert Ellis’ work on unconditional self-acceptance.
A recent favorite of mine is Brené Brown and her work on shame. In her book the Gifts of Imperfection she talks about the importance of Courage, Connection and Compassion. The last of these, Compassion, relates to compassion for ourselves as well as others. It means accepting who we are, and appreciating that it is OK for us to be limited in our powers to control or change things. I have written more about Brené’s work here and here.
Strengths-based approaches to Career Development that aims to build on existing strengths rather than overcome perceived “weaknesses” is another positive way of working on faith in the self. See this post on David Winter’s excellent blog Careers in Theory for more on this.
Faith in self also means recognizing that we are strong enough to confront whatever life throws at us. When this belief is lacking, our exploration of our own potential and of the world is also lacking. However this does not happen in isolation and our faith in ourselves is bolstered and also determines our faith in others.
Faith in Others
If you think having faith in self in hard enough, just wait until you have to put faith in others! In fact we unwittingly put faith in others all the time. Whether it is faith the builders did a good enough job to prevent your roof falling on you while you sleep, or faith in other drivers not to do something crazy, or faith in farmers not to poison us, we are steeped in faith for others.
It is fairly obvious that our actions become very self-limiting without this faith in others. If we believe we cannot rely on others, we will fail to reach out to them, and try to fulfill our needs ourselves or not even try. The result is self-limitation and social isolation. A potent recipe for depression.
Again, complexity is to blame. When we are in the grip of “Control fever”, we demand certainty from others. It is an impossible demand because the world and people in it are too complex and too inter-connected to permit certainty of outcomes. Trust as control here really means “I do not trust you”. When we do not trust, we are cautious, slow to move, closed and self-limited.
Trust as faith means to accept that ultimately we accept our own imperfections and in turn that allows us to be accepting of the imperfections of others. Thus we believe in ourselves and in others too. Indeed as Brené Brown points out, our love of others is limited by our love for ourselves. So too with faith.
Faith in the Universe
Wow! Why stop at faith in ourselves and others? What about the bigger picture? It strikes me that at some level, having faith in systems that our bigger than ourselves and our social circle is an empowering and transforming thing. Having faith that we belong and take our own place in Universe is not only reassuring, but gives us a sense of ownership and responsibility that transcends daily hassles and doubts, and provides:
We cannot predict and control everything in our lives, nor is it desirable to do so. We and the world we inhabit are complex, open and changing. Trust as control is a limited and potentially damaging response to those realities, it needs to be subsumed within trust as faith. It is perhaps the most important shift of all the Shiftwork principles.
Shiftwork is the work we have to do to manage, thrive and survive in a world where shift happens. I’ve identified 11 shifts that we have to make (see here), this was the final shift. The earlier ones you can read by following these links:
What other shifts do you think we need to make? What shifts do YOU need to make? Which of these shifts presents the biggest challenge to you? How are you going to SHIFT?