Just driftin’

“Those of us who aspire to a life of Purposive Drift, try to cultivate habits of mind that allow us, from time to time, to seek experiences that reveal opportunities for well-being that lie outside our immediate context or sit concealed and unnoticed within the pattern of our everyday lives. Habits of mind that encourage us to think of our lives as a series of experiments that provide valuable information about what we like and what we don’t, what we value and what we shun, and what we want and what we don’t. Valuable information that informs how we make it up as we go along and takes account of the richness and variety of the world in which we live.”
I wrote this about eighteen months ago. Things looked very different then. For a start, I had no idea that a year later I would find myself caught up in issues around my health or rather lack of it, which has impacted fairly heavily on the kind of experiments in living I have been able to conduct.
The other stuff, collapsing house prices, threats of recession and so on I had been anticipating – that wasn’t rocket science, busts always follow booms. I had even made plans to insulate my family and myself from some of its effects. Like many such plans the tricky bit is getting the timing and the details of a coming crisis right. Like most people, that’s the bit I invariably get wrong and like many others got wrong this time too.
So whereas at the time I wrote that passage I was anticipating some major shifts in my context and a whole new set of things to explore, instead, eighteen months later I find myself more else in the same place with the central issue being getting by.
But the big surprise for me, which I still find hard to articulate, is the way that I am seeing the waves of bad economic and financial news as being a positive process opening up spaces for new ways to think about and act in the world. Stuff that has been bubbling away under the surface for years if not decades is now seeming ever more relevant. Voices of people, who have been out of the mainstream, such as Russell Ackoff, Jane Jacons, Geoffrey Vickers, Gregory Bateson and Meg Wheatley, indeed all those people from many different fields, who have been thinking in terms of systems and networks.
So here we are in the middle of 2008 and quite unexpectedly I find myself feeling that we are entering one of the most exciting periods in human history, The transition from a civilisation based on selling the family silver – consuming fossil fuels that took ten of thousands of years to form in some thing like two centuries – to a civilisation with some kind of long term future is one that will require all the creativity, imagination and enterprise we can muster. But what an exciting, inspiring project.
Of course, we may have left it too late, but despite all the obstacles, I am still optimistic that we will muddle through.
Which is more or less how I feel about my own future. My nice neat plans may have crumbled and with them the easy solutions have all evaporated. Now it is time for a bit of improvised getting by, bracketing the anxieties that accompany getting by and cultivating a mode of just driftin’ in an alert kind of way, watching out for those unexpected opportunities that a bit of driftin’ invariably reveal.

“Having a car is so 20th century”

Nick Currie’s “Click Opera” is one of my regular reads that I don’t think I’ve mentioned here before. He’s an interesting guy and well worth reading. What really caught my fancy today was a post of his from a couple of days ago where he is talking about one of those below the surface trends that may be very significant. Apparently car ownership in Japan has fallen has fallen dramatically since 1990 – “The decline in sales since 1990 is equivalent to one big car company like Mitsubishi or Honda being wiped out entirely.” Interestingly, this trend is most pronounced among the young. You can read the whole thing here

The meaning effect

Just discovered (via Neuroanthropology) a fascinating paper on the so called placebo effect.
Early on the the authors, Daniel E. Moerman, PhD, and Wayne B. Jonas, MD, assert:
“The one thing of which we can be absolutely certain is that placebos do not cause placebo effects. Placebos are inert and don’t cause anything.”
They then go on to argue, with a number of examples, that it would be more fruitful to look at the so called placebo effect in terms of what a treatment means to patients and how that impacts on their recovery, both positively and negatively – the meaning effect.
And conclude:
“… as we have clarified, routinized, and rationalized our medicine, thereby relying on the salicylates and forgetting about the more meaningful birches, willows, and wintergreen from which they came —in essence, stripping away Plato’s “charms”—we have impoverished the meaning of our medicine to a degree that it simply doesn’t work as well as it might any more. Interesting ideas such as this are impossible to entertain when we discuss placebos; they spring readily to mind when we talk about meaning.”
(Do scroll down and read Dan Moerman’s comments on the Neuroanthropology post – much to reflect on here)

It’s how the parts interact

Yesterday I was urging my readers to go to the ChangeThis site to help push Russell Ackoff’s and Daniel Greenberg’s “Turning Learning Right Side Up: Putting Education Back on Track” up ChangeThis’s most popular lists. There are important ideas in there that deserve a wider currency.
Today I am back on Ackoff. Over the years I have picked up a number of insights and ideas from him, but he was always in my peripheral vision – I had never read any of his books or heard him speak, the bits I had got were from the odd article or paper I picked up from time to time.
Yesterday I spent some delightful time watching a video of a workshop he gave at Chicago-Kent College of Law at the end 2000. If you are interested in trying to understand how the world works and more importantly what to do to change it to make it a little bit better, this is must watch stuff. Apart from rather tedious introductory stuff that goes on too long, once he begins to speak it is is gem after gem. Funny, wise and inspirational, put aside some time, go there and pay attention. I learnt a lot, I expect that you would too.
You can get to it here.

Let’s change this

Russell Ackoff has long been one of my favourite management thinkers, so when I saw his name attached to a paper on ChangeThis, “Turning Learning Right Side Up: Putting Education Back on Track” I instantly downloaded it. I wasn’t disappointed. The analysis he and coauthor, Daniel Greenberg, provide is filled with insights and wisdom. Here is its opening:
“Education should be a lifelong enterprise, a process enhanced by an environment that supports to the greatest extent possible the attempt of people to “find themselves” throughout their lives.
For too long, we have educated people for a world that no longer exists, extinguishing their creativity and instilling values antithetical to those of a free, 21st century democracy. The principal objective of education as currently provided is to ensure the maintenance and preservation of the status quo—to produce members of society who will not want to challenge any fundamental aspects of the way things are. Traditional education focuses on teaching, not learning. It incorrectly assumes that for every ounce of teaching, there is an ounce of learning by those who are taught. Being taught is, to a very large extent, boring and much of its content is seen as irrelevant. It is the teacher, not the student, who learns most in a traditional classroom.”

Go to the Changethis site and download it here. After you have read it go back and e-mail copies to your friends. Let’s see if we can drive this one to the top of the ChangeThis’s lists of the most popular.

A gift from the Devil?

Today, while looking for something else on a long and circuitous journey through the web, I stumbled across this response by Dan Moerman to a talk by Nicholas Humphrey, “A Self worth having”. The talk and the responses are well worth spending some time to read carefully and to ponder, but it was Moerman’s take that gave me a real liberating buzz. (A reward for a bit of purposive drift?) I quote two key passages here, but do urge you to read the whole thing yourself:
“Consciousness is a gift, and perhaps one from the Devil. It makes no sense. Five thousand other mammals from platypus to dolphin manage without anything remotely like a human system of consciousness, language, meaning, recursion, uncountable sets, aesthetics, etc. Yes, all animals (mammals and planaria) probably have some sense of self (although in some cases, like slime molds, it’s hard to know where it would reside); all sexual animals, at least, communicate at least once in a while (well, oysters do it without much communication that makes any sense to me; so let me change it to “most sexual animals”). Some stuff may mean things to primates; although that obviously depends on the definition of “mean,” something that would be hard to discuss with the wisest chimpanzee (which is, I guess, the point). And, of course, I know lots of human beings who have utterly no sense at all of aesthetics, even if they can “talk,” in some sense of the word.”
And the kicker:
“So, given a) the astonishing persistence of non-individualized life, of life free of human-style consciousness (for tens of thousands of animal species, and hundreds of thousands of plant species), and b) the damage that we consciousness-rich persons have done to the whole ecosystem, to the evolutionary system which has been going on for a billion years (more damaging than a streaking asteroid, than a billion volcanos, than the drifting of continents; or whatever), it seems to me that we have to look at consciousness as not an evolutionary (and specifically adaptive) development (which Nick notes is incredibly hard to account for, in the way that we can account for other adaptations, like sickle cell anemia, or tool making), but an accident, or a gift, or both…”

Well, yes

“Bankers provide necessary and useful services. But the runaway juggernaut we have inflicted upon ourselves today has gone far beyond oiling economic activity. It has metastised into something which behaves like a parasite, destroying substance and justifying it by creating an apparently larger, but a lot more fleeting, prosperity increasingly based on our collective belief that it is actually doing so and not on underlying value added. When that illusions shatters, the reckoning will be painful.”
Good stuf from Jerome Guillet (Thanks to Dave Pollard for the pointer)

I seem to be alone

Like many people, the current economic turmoil is having a direct impact on my life, amplified by ill health over the last six months that has severely limited my capacity for action. But despite all that I feel surprisingly optimistic. In my naive, bright little ray of sunshine in a cruel dark world way, I can see some exciting opportunities ahead. The positive side of what is happening now is that it sweeping some of the nonsense of the last thirty years or so out of the way. Just maybe now, we can stop rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic and get down to the real business of muddling our way through to a better, more enjoyable world for our grandchildren and their children and the generations that could follow.
Am I alone in my optimism?

Right size triumph

I have been fascinated by 37signals since I first discovered them a couple of years ago, when I came across some remarks about planning by Jason Fried that seemed very close to some of my ideas about purposive drift. As well as following their blog and various articles about them I also devoured their book, “Getting Real”. More recently, I have been raving to my friends about David Heinemeier Hansson’s presentation at Paul Graham’s Startup School at Stanford in April. Today I wandered over to their blog and discovered this nugget of wisdom from David:
“Popular perception holds that companies must always be growing or they’re dying. There’s either up or down, win or lose, success or failure. I think that’s a harmful dichotomy that leads to the death of perfectly viable companies in their quest for constant growth.
Not all companies are meant to have thousands of employees or a billion-dollar market cap. Some companies are meant to be just 10 people or 5 people or just one guy. That’s what their product, niche, or technique is capable of sustaining and there’s absolutely no shame in that. Finding your natural size should be a triumph, not a capitulation.”