A lesson in indiscriminate change
I felt incredibly uneasy at #responsiveorg, an unconference for changemakers and those who identify thus. It took me a while to organise my thoughts into something I can share.
A ‘changemaker’ goes into an organisation to change it. The main obstacle is people resisting change. So far, so basic.
I was a little surprised to see, in the very first talk by Matthew Partovi, the organiser, people split into three groups: Green – energised, yellow – almost there, red – blockers.
Yes, dear reader, if you were, in this scenario, needing some more information or asking too many questions, or just generally of a more sceptical nature than those who quickly and unquestioningly say yes to every new idea and initiative, these young people who just came in wouldn’t label you as ‘still needing more information’ or ‘intelligently opposed’ – no, you’d be a red dot, a blocker. You’d simply be bad.
I tweeted (easy for me to be critical, I’ve never actually done this kind of work – except I have, just not framing it like that) and the very wise Benjamin Ellis replied with
— Benjamin Ellis (@benjaminellis) April 27, 2015
I really thought the people doing this work had a little bit more theoretical knowledge and human experience. So that wasn’t a good start.
It only got worse when it all moved into lifecoaching territory.
One of the sessions was announced as ‘helping to find our purpose in life.’ I laughed it off. I went to a session about exactly this kind of thing in 1992, but more about this later. However: the session about purpose was facilitated by Tom Nixon, partner at NixonMcInnes, an agency I’ve had long relations with, not least because the other partner, Will McInnes, was one of the first people in this environment I met and had lunch with and talked about the future. (Coincidentally Giles Palmer was at that lunch too – Will left NixonMcInnes to work with him at Brandwatch.) And they were one of the sponsors of the London #localgovcamp I ran in 2010. So that’s good memories.
So I went to Tom’s session about purpose – it’s always different when people proposing these kinds of sessions have actually achieved something in life. It adds credibility. I thought, maybe it’s not going to be so bad.
In a room of about 25-30 people, Tom asked everyone to breathe and center themselves, and then answer 7 questions he posed. Tom based his questions of the work of Charles Davies. It was all about ‘unlocking purpose’. Tom writes a blog about these subjects too.
I didn’t answer these questions – I wasn’t trying to be difficult, I just know what’s good for me. If asking myself, ‘would I rather be somewhere else than looking after a disabled child on my own?’, results in a loud and resounding YES, then that’s not news. Even though I’ve gotten far better at actually being here, it’s still something I have to work on.
For me, I know ‘purpose’ isn’t something absolute that you can unlock with some questions. I know that if you asked me 30 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago, 7 years ago, my purpose would have been completely, entirely, absolutely, resoundingly – different from what I thought I wanted before. 7 years ago I wanted nothing but to go back to Nigeria, I knew that I could work there and create change, make money, have so much fun. People genuinely responded to me. I loved it. So what could possibly stop me from going back? The fact that I have responsibilities.
And that’s the other thing left out of the equation of these ‘find out what you really want and then go for it with all your power’ coaches – they completely leave out the fact that people have responsibilities (Apart from this, it’s also nothing new. The session about the 7 Habits I was at, in 1992, was exactly the same, and Mike Hernacki wrote the Ultimate Secret to getting absolutely everything you want even before that. I wish had looked a little bit deeper into the people and their various shortcuts to sorting out all life’s problems then. (As it happened, I fully went for it, disconnected from where I was at the time, because I wanted something bigger and better. Because PURPOSE. It didn’t end well, because when I ended up where I thought I was supposed to be, I wasn’t who I thought I was.)
On the subject of responsibilities, it might be interesting to note that NixconMcInnes has changed course drastically and made all their former employees free consultants instead. A course of action that seems to have resulted in only positive responses, at least in public (I’ve had some private chats that sounded very different.)
My two problems with the ‘unlock your purpose with some meditation and some deep questions’ crowd: 1. you can’t know now. It’s not hidden somewhere in you, to be unlocked. It’s not absolute. You change throughout life, you learn, that’s human, and that’s ok. 2. You have responsibilities. You might not like them but if your ‘purpose’ means running away from things you don’t like doing, who does it serve really? You make it look so spiritual but in reality it’s completely selfish.
I didn’t make a secret about how I felt during the event, both on Twitter and in person. Because I spoke out and told the room why I had resisted the process, Tom sat down with me and we had a conversation. So this post isn’t coming as a surprise there.
The entire event was full of fuzzy things like this, and it’s not only this event. It’s like everything is getting more basic every year – or maybe I’m just getting more demanding. @Technoshaman (self-appointed integral mindfulness mentor and adviser to visionary leaders & changemakers) was there and there was the old ‘guru-disciple’ dynamic – the guru/shaman/teacher themselves being utterly unimpressive without the fawning disciples surrounding them and introducing them as someone utterly wonderful (I unknowingly sat opposite him at dinner. It wasn’t very interesting.) People with the absolute sense of being a leader and writing about being too humble to speak (I’ve head him speak and his amazing addition to the world of change was asking the basic lifecoaching questions and creating a 3D map of the answers, and calling it atmascape.) And so on and so forth.
It’s like we’re trying to find more and more shortcuts for actual life, experience, knowledge, love. Meditation? Sure, but it will only show you what’s already in you, you won’t make new experiences. Yoga? Sure. Mindfulness? Yeah, certainly, if you know who your teacher is and where to stop the process from hollowing out your emotional well-being (But that’s another post.)
I really want to know what happened to having some sensible power to discriminate between bullshit and information. And what happened to actually saying what we think. In the meantime I don’t really mind being the only one openly saying what I think – if that’s the only benefit I have from being German, I might just as well.