Too much drift, not enough purpose?

I haven’t posted anything here since the end of August. I wish could say that it is because I have been on an exotic holiday, without internet access or that I have been so absorbed in an important project that I just haven’t had time. The reality is more mundane. It is not that I haven’t had anything to write about – there is a lot of stuff happening in the world, much of it pretty depressing, but also some rumours of hope. No the truth is that I have been in drift mode – dealing with the most pressing tasks, like cleaning the kitchen or chasing some cash – but doing little else except for thinking and chasing ideas on the web.
Now as regular readers will know I am a great advocate of drift, that’s what Purposive Drift and entries like Echoes of Purposive Drift are about. But drift needs to be tempered with purpose and knowing whether you are on purpose is sometimes difficult to recognise. This is particularly true when you are in a slow drift when it is hard to know whether you are drifting productively or simply lost. I had reached this point, when, after a long and complex trail, I came across this from Stewart Brand, writing shortly after the collapse of the dotcom boom:
“For years, the fashion was to sprint, collapse, and then get up and go for it again. It was the do-more-faster age, so people did more faster. But was it better? There wasn’t enough time for relaxed thinking. In fact, people were often punished if they let their mind drift. Today, however, you can afford to step back and chase idle thoughts. That’s the whole point of downtime: to wander around and pick up anything that arouses your curiosity.
If you don’t have to sprint, why would you? What’s urgent isn’t truly important. The urgent finds you; you have to find the important. So when you’re going as fast as you can, there’s not much room for choice. Between urgencies, however, you can work on the stuff that you really care about because you can afford to slow down. Importance is not fast. It is slow. It is not superficial. It is deep. And as a result, it’s extremely powerful. When important matters go wrong, they undermine everything. When they go right, they sustain everything.”

That old distinction between the urgent and the important reminded me that doing what is important is the purposive bit of purposive drift. The tricky bit is recognising what is important. As that wise, but neglected figure, Geoffrey Vickers once remarked; “Learning what to want is the most radical, the most painful and the most creative act of life.”
What makes recognising what is important tricky is that learning what to want and doing important stuff is not a static process. You change and more importantly the world changes. There are some signals when you are on purpose like a sense of pride in what you are doing and a sense that it is worthwhile. But this is not always the case, particularly in a time of deep transition, which is where we are now.
One of the signs of this transition is that so many people I talk with are either seeking something more worthwhile to do or, more sadly, feel that their context for action has changed so much and placed so many obstacles in the way of doing what is important that they have to get out. I am talking here mainly of people in public services, like teachers or health workers, but the same can be said of people working in the private sector too.
But there are signs of hope in the widespread sense of frustration and dissatisfaction one finds in private conversations. The cult of the manager that has so distorted our lives for the last two decades is slowly imploding as it failures become exposed. The associated notion that the world is nothing but a marketplace is also crumbling as people remember that much of what we value cannot be priced.
The shift from this paradigm to whatever comes next is likely to be slower than many of us would wish. But if you are a questor for something else, and I speak to myself here as much as you, I would suggest that looking for something, however small it may seem, that helps speed this shift is an important thing to be doing. Two clues to what something may be and how to do it may lie in two extracts from previous entries.
The first is from Geoffrey Vickers again; “The meaning of stability is likely to remain obscured in Western cultures until they rediscover the fact that life consists of experiencing relationships, rather than seeking goals or ‘ends’.”
The second is mine, “…the strongest advice I could give to any individual or business is to become sensitive to where you fit in your networks, learn to think in terms of nodes and connections and the complex interactions and feedback between them, and be conscious of the dynamics of your patterns of connection. Whether you are aware of it or not, your success or failure is going to bound up in how well or not you identify, create and navigate your networks.”