One of my favorite books is Gordon Mackenzie’s, Orbiting the Giant Hairball (1998). During his 30-year career with Hallmark Cards, Mackenzie discovered ways to retain creativity in the face of the inexorable gravitational pull towards conformity (the “hairball”), and to seek bliss while remaining dedicated to the corporate mission and vision:
“Orbiting is responsible creativity: vigorously exploring and operating beyond the Hairball of the corporate mindset, beyond “accepted models, patterns, or standards” — all the while remaining connected to the spirit of the corporate mission.” (page 33)
He later quotes Joseph Campbell in service to this definition, offering “…if you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all along, waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living.” Mackenzie says, “Orbiting is following your bliss.”
The ability to derive meaning from work is key to following your bliss. When we clarify our intentions and values, we define the criteria by which bliss has meaning for us. When we are determined to engage in Reflection and Synergy, not merely Task (referring back to Lesson #3 inWhat Matters at Work), we find our creative energies unleashed so we may be capable of “orbiting,” staying engaged without getting sucked into the Hairball of conformity. Just as importantly, we also do not fly away, escaping to save ourselves by jettisoning our creative talents from our work; all too often, many of us engage in repetitive, energy-depleting tasks at work and save our creative energies for sports, theatre, or other hobbies that occur elsewhere.
As I look back upon my career, the ability to orbit has been key to my success and sustenance. I have been good at recognizing toxic environments and at assessing whether there was space to make them healthy. I have been capable of injecting creative energy into groups with whom I have worked, whether as a member, team lead, teacher in a course, group facilitator, or as the manager of the organization. In those few instances where I have failed to recognize the sucking, toxic energy of Hairball as quickly, I have also learned how that feels for me (exhausting, depressing, debilitating), for those around me (similar, though sometimes with different experiences of anger and betrayal at me for not protecting them), and for my customers (abandoned, disappointed, withdrawn… sometimes, when I am lucky, honest with their feelings). As Mackenzie notes, the Hairball is not the product of bad people, but a natural consequence of seeking “normal” and protecting those cultural assets we believe should be defended against the threats of creativity. But it is a misplaced loyalty, one that is derived from the assumptions of “pyramid organizations,” a concept we will explore later.
Exercise: What is your experience with “Orbiting the Giant Hairball?” What has it taught you? How has it informed and revised your telling of the Core Story of your life? Reflect on these questions, then discuss your responses with a trusted Partner… of course, this may need to occur “virtually” these days, but that’s OK.
Communities of Practice (CoP’s) offer an outstanding way to organize ourselves to focus on the most important issues facing us in this special time. These peer-driven learning organizations are uniquely adaptable to our virtual environments, bringing people together across organizations, professions, localities, and experiences in order to address a common learning challenge together. As they are based upon trust and adaptability, CoP’s are uniquely able to facilitate practical learning while helping members be vulnerable to one another about the challenges along the way.
On Wednesday, May 27th, I will be joining Darin Eich to facilitate a special free webinar, “Communities of Practice: A Practical Way to Focus on What Matters at Work,” in which participants will have an opportunity to see how CoP’s can help them address the new and unique challenges and opportunities of this uncertain time. Whether you’ve participated in CoP’s in the past or are brand new to the topic, this will be an engaging learning opportunity. Share the link with others, so we can bring together a diverse set of experiences to learn together!
When: May 27, 2020 10:00 AM Central Time (US and Canada)
I sit at my table, working on my computer and occasionally looking out the window. My dog moans. My partner, also working at the table, notices something she feels is worth sharing with me. I halfheartedly listen to her, all the while continuing to look at the words and images on my screen. At one point, she asks, “So, do you think that’s a good idea? Any other thoughts about how we can get that done?”
While this particular example is placed in my apartment, where we now work remotely in the age of COVID-19, it could have easily occurred at my office, or it could have been around home issues, rather than work issues. All too often, we fail to give our full attention to one another, resulting in inefficient communication regarding the questions and challenges that consume so many hours of our lives. It isn’t that we lack the skill to listen, or even the broader intention to do so. It is that we often fail to cultivate genuine empathy and curiosity, and as a result, we cannot call upon it reliably at times when it is required.
We are definitely in a time of transition. Such times are some of the most challenging, stretching our abilities to listen to one another. As such, they offer unique opportunities to cultivate that capacity… try the following exercise.
(1) Each morning (or whenever you begin your work day), take five minutes to close your door (or otherwise gain some privacy) to practice your Intention to be Curious. Breathe deeply, and with each breath center your body and ground yourself. Such mindful practice is easy to do, causes minimal disruption to others, and prepares you to listen.
(2) Before concluding the breathing, remind yourself, “I seek to be fully present to listen, to be genuinely curious about what others are sharing, and to try and understand how they are experiencing their lives without judgment.”
(3) Give yourself a simple Talisman that you can use to fulfill your Intention. This may be a physical reminder (such as a small stone you can place on your desk) or a visible reminder (such as a picture or photo) of your Intention. By touching or seeing this Talisman, you will readily return to your Intention when called upon to do so.
(4) When someone comes into your space, or when you enter someone else’s space, take a deep breath and use the Talisman to focus and listen with openness, curiosity, and empathy. Do this as frequently as possible throughout the day.
(5) At the end of the work day, before transitioning to the next phase of your day, take five minutes to journal your experience and learning: Did you listen in accordance with your Intention? What worked well? What was challenging? What did you learn that you can bring to the next day?
If you repeat this exercise each day for a week, you will find that it becomes much more natural. You will also likely notice that you appreciate certain interactions and conversations much more fully than before, and that there is greater depth to some of these discussions. All told, you may also discover that there is greater clarity regarding What Matters as a result.
Please excuse this promotional announcement… The eBook version ofWhat Matters at Work will be on a special sale on the Amazon site for the coming week. It started at $ .99 yesterday, May 11th, then increases to $3.99 and $5.99 through the next seven days before returning to its usual $9.99 price (still an excellent deal) on May 18th. If you’ve been waiting for an eBook version — or if you have friends and coworkers who might appreciate such a gift — this is your opportunity!
For Trekkies, the question I am raising here is obvious. But for most of us who have watched the various incarnations of Star Trek through the past 50+ years, the premise of the program is something we may not have recognized is crucial to the current state of world affairs. It is well understood that Gene Roddenberry envisioned a civilization of greater social justice, racial tolerance, and collaborative governmental efforts. His stories were intended to be moral tales that could allow viewers to contemplate both the dangers of adventure (“to go where none have gone before”) and ethical dilemmas that resulted; the values of the desired society were tested in the behaviors of the characters facing overwhelming adversity through such stories. In many ways, Star Trek is more mythology than science fiction.
But how did we ever get to a time in the 23rd Century where “The Federation” existed? What series of events transpired to facilitate this vision? Here is an excellent summary from New York Vulture in 2017:
To understand the allure of Star Trek, it’s necessary to understand the ways its creator Gene Roddenberry and later writers conceived of humanity’s future. While Earth is, for all intents and purposes, a utopia during the time of the various Star Trek series, it took a long, bloody road to get there. 21st-century Earth was embroiled in many conflicts, including what would become known as World War III (2024–2053), which was sparked by a litany of issues, including anger over genetic manipulation and the Eugenics Wars. Governments fell. Major cities were destroyed. The loss of life hovered around 600 million. Ten years after the end of the war, First Contact was made with the Vulcans (a rigid, highly logical species that count fan-favorite character Spock as a member), thanks to humanity building the first warp drive that allowed for space travel faster than the speed of light (this event is dramatized in the 1996 film Star Trek: First Contact). The discovery of intelligent alien races forced humanity to get its act together. After further chaos and attempts to establish order, eventually the United Earth Government was established in 2150. By the early 22nd century, humanity was able to eliminate most, if not all, of the poverty, disease, hunger, and cruelty that has plagued us since our beginnings. Racism, sexism, and even money was a thing of the past. Humanity’s drive became a philosophy of betterment and exploration.
We currently live at the front edge of this critical time in the history of humanity, the “Star Trek Moment.” It has been ushered into our collective consciousness by the COVID-19 pandemic, as this global threat has exposed the rifts and fissures of our economic, political, and social systems where threats to climate change, the global refugee crisis, previous disease outbreaks, and other vast problems have only scratched the surface. As competition for scarce resources to address this threat intensifies, it exposes deep questions that must now, inevitably, be confronted:
What future do we now seek? What are we learning today that may help us navigate tomorrow?
Will we go through a multi-year conflict where much of the Earth is decimated and tens of millions die? Or will the “better angels of our nature” emerge to provide leadership and wisdom that brings forth our greatest instincts as human beings: to care for one another, to be compassionate in the face of fear and loneliness, to collaborate to find treatments, vaccines, and other life-saving remedies that benefit us all?
And might this be the time when we become capable of recognizing the “tragedy of the horizon” of climate change, and reinvent our economies to be sustainable and protective of this fragile planet?
In his 2006 book, A Brief History of the Future, economist Jacques Attali speculates regarding whether such capacity is already present. After reviewing economic history and the gradual movement of power centers over time, he shifts gears and focuses on the future. He articulates the dystopian expectation that there will be a total economic and political collapse of the US Empire around 2035 (some speculate this is occurring right now), followed by “hyper-empire” in which nation states collapse and chaos dominates. But this is followed by an optimistic period of “hyper-democracy,” led by resources that are already expressing themselves in our present day: NGO’s, collective intelligence, and leadership by “transhumans” who are empathetic, inclusive, leaders that take Earth beyond its abyss into a hopeful future. They establish businesses that are dedicated to the “triple bottom line” of economic, environmental, and social returns on investment.
Attali’s sense that all will fall apart in the second quarter of the 21st Century is similar to Roddenberry’s Star Trek premise, but whereas Star Trek sees the discovery of Vulcan culture as a key catalyst for transformation, Attali recognizes that humanity already possesses many of the required resources and attributes. Indeed, around 10% of world GDP (according to Attali) is already produced by these socially responsible businesses, and they can serve as a critical foundation to understand the present moment of the pandemic.
In What Matters At Work, I briefly wrote about Frederic LaLoux’s important book, Reinventing Organizations (2014). LaLoux outlines characteristics of “next level organizations” and provides practical illustrations of their approaches across industries and scale. These are powerful examples of organizations that represent worldviews and perspectives that may summon forth our greatest capacities in service to the complex challenges now facing us. We are also witnessing, in our own communities, other such examples as companies rise to the occasion of transforming their operations to provide critical supplies and protective gear to essential workers.
“Next level” companies, non-profits, B-Corps, and similar organizations also recognize the intrinsic value of internalizing the externalities of the current economic system. Rather than viewing environmental and social costs as being “external,” in the usual capitalist economic model, they “internalize” these costs as part of the cost of doing business. As such, a carbon footprint is internalized into the replacement cost of producing energy or any given product, social displacement is internalized into the cost of urban renewal and gentrification planning, and the transportation costs of delivering food and supplies from across the globe are internalized into calculations around a given supply chain. These are real costs borne by the planet and by society if we recognize the “Long Game” of complexity and systems thinking, and the post-COVID economy will need to grapple with such realities.
I am skeptical, to be sure. I witness the many ways that the largest actors in the current system — the US, China, Russia, many other self-centered states and mega-corporations — continue to pretend that their self-interests are proscribed by their borders and shareholders. But I am also hopeful that there are many “transhumans” out there who recognize What Matters and can provide leverage influence at critical places and moments as we navigate this challenge.