How leading by letting go and cultivating compassion leads to better performance.
It’s a windy, crisp morning at Middleton Point surf beach in Adelaide. The swell is bumpy and difficult to ride. Mark Searle dives under an unpredictable wave, emerging the other side. “Surf just happens. It’s not personal. Pointless fighting the surf. Choose when to paddle and when not to paddle. Sometimes you just need to let it roll along.” This philosophy has served Mark well over the years.
A former CEO of City of Marion, a local government area in the south western suburbs of Adelaide, Mark joined at a time when the council recognised the need to do things differently. “What hit me first when I arrived in 2000 was the financial situation. The council had never had a surplus, it had an operating deficit around 12-13%, and no long term strategic or financial plan.” Mark also inherited a staff turnover rate of around 25% and a poor project and customer service reputation. His challenge was to build the performance of the organisation and a readiness for change.
In spite of the pressure to act quickly and decisively, Mark did something counterintuitive – he took his time, getting to know the place and the people. He deeply reflected on and investigated the challenges, rather than jumping in to solve them. “I didn’t do the classic restructure. I worked with what I had. My strategies were simple - see what is going on, build trust, talk to people, ask for help – build a constructive caring culture.” These strategies were grounded in Mark’s belief in the fundamental importance of leading by letting go of the need to control.
Mark understood that a minimalist approach was essential to working in a complex system. In such systems, one thing we can rely on is for interventions to have unintended consequences. In fact, the bigger the intervention, the bigger the unintended consequences. Rather than create new roles, make others redundant, and move people from one department to another, he set up smaller, more inexpensive interventions. These were experiments that tested assumptions about the appetite for change, and provided useful learnings about what worked and what didn’t. He built a common language, philosophy and focus of caring to deliver outcomes.
Mark faced the challenge of transforming the culture from an organisation that rewarded and encouraged self-protecting behaviour, with people shifting responsibilities to others and blaming everyone else for mistakes, to a more humane, compassionate organisation with higher level purpose. Mark’s approach was based on his hypothesis that by shifting the internal dialogue of self-criticism, people can become more compassionate with one another. This was informed by an insight earlier in his career that his protestant work ethic, ‘if you don’t suffer, you don’t get results’ approach, was feeding his inner critic. “Our biggest barrier is telling ourselves we are deficient. When our actions are grounded in positive intent, our actions are more constructive.”
All Mark’s decisions reflected this philosophy. Rather than tighten performance measures, he ensured that every single employee was supported, encouraged, appreciated and involved in setting their goals. “The organisation is only a corporate entity. I wanted to care for all people.” One year later, this approach yielded incredible results: turnover dropped to 16%.Over the next few years, all turnover dropped to 7.3%, including retirement. As staff were trusted and trusted others in return, they were less scared of making mistakes, and more focused on learning and contributing. As it became a more compassionate organisation towards staff, the compassion towards the community grew too. Complaints dropped. By 2006 the council had an operating surplus of 8% and never looked back.
Mark embodies what English poet John Keats’ called “negative capability” in reference to William Shakespeare’s ability “to dwell in mystery and doubts, without irritable reaching after fact or reason.” By slowing down, taking small steps and focusing on the human element of the challenge, Mark facilitated a powerful learning process for his organisation and opened up the space for his staff to flourish. By removing the hurry and force from his approach, Mark enabled greater connection, compassion, and ultimately a high level of performance.
After 14 years as a CEO, his legacy lives on. “Organisations come and go. Look after the people and the organisation can stay a bit longer. Not the other way around,” says Mark. Then starts paddling as a wave begins to break behind him and he takes the drop across the clean face of a beautiful right hander – in the flow of nature’s energy.
Brim-fill the bowl,it’ll spill over.
When Alastair walked into psychiatrist Azita Moradi’s office, he was a ticking time bomb. His drinking was at an all-time high, as was his blood pressure, weight, and anxiety. Alastair was a successful, wealthy, 47-year-old CEO of a large Australian organization. He lived in an affluent suburb of Melbourne and was married with two sons. He was so successful in business that it was killing him.
As a child, Alastair had vowed never to be poor. When his father was made redundant from his job, alcohol became the fourth member of the family. “I will never be like my father,” he thought to himself. “I will make a success of my life.” When his school went on an excursion into the city, Alastair saw what success looked like – men in suits striding purposefully through the streets. They were focused, clear-eyed, walking with confidence. They were everything he wanted to become. Two years later, Alastair’s father collapsed and ended up in hospital, where he died of alcoholism. As he stumbled through the months after his father’s death, Alastair veered from grief and sadness to determination and anger.
Although driven to succeed, Alastair made an effort to treat people well. By the age of 40 he was CEO of the organization he’d been part of since his late teens, having climbed steadily through the ranks, from intern to director. To all appearances, Alastair was a success story. At a personal level, though, he was never able to shake the feeling that he was a fraud. He felt unworthy of his position, his wealth, and the respect shown to him by colleagues.
Throughout his working life, Alastair always felt the chill of poverty at his back. He worked harder and harder to outpace that cold wind. Every now and then, he thought he’d left the fear behind, but as soon as he started to feel comfortable, he’d sense it again. So, he would work more hours, taking on more responsibility, until he was working 16 hours a day, often still on his laptop at 2am.
His wife not only complained about the early morning work, but also about losing him. “You’re risking a heart attack!” she’d say at least once a week. As a young couple, they’d promised to always listen to and be there for each other. As the anxiety increased, the only thing that held his fears in check was alcohol. It soothed him, relaxed him in social situations, and settled his hamster-wheel mind for a few hours. But it took him even further from his family. “It’s only temporary,” he told his family again and again. “When this restructure is over, I’ll take time off. I’ll stop working so hard.”
Not enough sleep. Too much fast food. Up to ten drinks a night to manage his anxiety and depression. No time for any exercise. Sitting at a desk or in the car from 6am to 10pm every day. Arguing with his wife. Taking his anxiety and exhaustion out on his family. Everything about his lifestyle was leading to the perfect storm.
One cold, rainy Thursday night, Alastair came home at 11pm to an empty house. The lights were off, his wife’s car was not in the garage, and his sons’ beds were empty. He opened their cupboards and drawers and found more emptiness. Breathing in great gulps of air, he ran to the room he and his wife shared. The bed was empty. Her walk-in closet was empty. She had even taken most of the food from the cupboards. He had been out of the house since 6am and she had had plenty of time to strip the house.
Alastair talks of the shockwaves, like tremors after an earthquake, that ran through him that night. He woke to his alarm at 5am after sleeping only three hours. The restructure was at a crucial stage and he remembers thinking, “I don’t have time to deal with this. I have to prepare for the morning meeting. I’ll have to deal with it tomorrow – or at the weekend when I’ve got some time.”
The weekend came and went and Alastair drank more than four bottles of wine. He didn’t call his wife. On the Monday morning, Alastair woke up feeling tight in the chest, as if a rope was wrapped around his ribcage. He couldn’t breathe properly and his heart was beating erratically. As if she were right next to him, he heard his wife’s voice. “You’re going to have a heart attack one day!” With sweating, trembling hands, Alastair called the ambulance, terrified they wouldn’t get there in time. At the hospital, the doctors told him he’d had a panic attack. Yes, he was overweight, drinking too much, working too hard – but this was “just a panic attack.”
Despite their reassurances, Alastair continued to feel the tightness in his chest and became too afraid to leave the house. “What if I have a heart attack at work? Or in the car?” he thought. “Will they get to me quickly enough? At least if I’m home, I can call the ambulance.” He dialled the office, informing colleagues that he had the flu and couldn’t come in. That was one of the first occasions Alastair had ever taken time off work.
Two weeks passed and still Alastair stayed home, fending off workplace queries, claiming that he’d contracted pneumonia. His insomnia became so severe that he went three nights without sleeping and his mind raced uncontrollably. Every time he thought about work, his pulse hammered, his chest tightened and his face and hands broke out in a cold sweat. Every time he heard an email notification on his laptop, he wanted to run out of the room.
Finally, at the end of the two weeks, Alastair admitted to himself there was a direct connection between his symptoms of panic and thoughts about work. He knew he needed help and went to his GP, who prescribed sleeping tablets and referred him to Dr Moradi for psychological help. This was the moment when Alastair began to calm the storm raging within him. “Into my office walked this gentle man with a deeply furrowed brow. He was clinically obese, sweating profusely, and terrified he was about to die.” He was chasing corporate success because of his fear of poverty, but with no clear goal or end point in sight.
That fateful Monday morning, when his panic attacks first started, Alastair had made the decision to lay off several his staff. While the restructure alone was stressful, it was the repetition of history that finally tripped him up. Without being aware of the silent drama being played out in his subconscious, Alastair felt responsible for ruining the lives of his staff, just as the faceless CEO had ruined his father’s life when he had been laid off. He was responsible for causing the same suffering he’d experienced as a boy.
“While he received medical care to treat his obesity and high blood pressure, Alastair and I worked on understanding the underlying psychological factors behind his behaviour and drive for success. He began to redefine his vision of success and his own sense of self-worth as distinct from work, wealth, and achievement. While he had assumed the breakdown of the family was due to poverty, he realized it was more complicated than that,” noted Dr Moradi. After months of unpacking the impact of his early experiences, he understood that what he cared about most was family unity and togetherness, not wealth, corporate success, or having a big house. He learned how to focus on what mattered, and stop the obsessive doing, which was almost wholly motivated by fear.
[Extract from ‘Not Doing: the art of effortless action’ by Diana Renner & Steven D’Souza]
To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone and everything is to succumb to violence.
More than ten years ago I was fully immersed in the not for profit world. I was running Sanctuary Victoria, a community organisation I had founded to sponsor refugee families languishing in refugee camps, finance their travel to Australia once approved, and ensure their successful settlement on arrival. The volunteering role quickly spread to my evenings and weekends. I was lodging refugee applications with the Department of Immigration, corresponding with refugees around the world, running fundraisers, and helping newly arrived refugees settle in Melbourne.
In 2007 my family hosted a Congolese family of five, who Sanctuary had brought to Melbourne from Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. Mum, dad and their three little girls lived with us for seven weeks until we were able to secure them adequate rental accommodation. It was an incredible experience, intense, exhausting, rewarding. As a mother of two young children I was working round the clock, with no space or time to take care of myself. How could I, when the need was so great, right under my eyes? Luckily I had the support of a great team of volunteers who helped me provide practical skills and advice for the family to start a new life in Australia.
A year later, I joined the Brotherhood of St Laurence as a Strategic Development Officer and then an Acting Manager of the Ecumenical Migration Centre (EMC). My work and volunteering roles became an all-consuming, frenzied ‘doing’. I was starting to have sleepless nights, I was constantly tired and suffered from headaches. My energy decreased and so did my passion for my work. Looking back now, I can see that I was burnt out. I lasted less than two years before I resigned.
A drive to ‘save the world’ can lead to burnout, exhaustion and despair, to the point where we may feel the need to withdraw from the very work that has given us meaning. Burnout is not the same as exhaustion or compassion fatigue; burnout has a vicious impact on us because it robs us of one thing we need most: hope. It can also leave us feeling angry at the rest of the world, shame and guilt at our failures, and frustration at the systems we are trying to change. This is common amongst activists, social innovators, community organisers, and change makers.
Frenzied doing robs us of peace and wellbeing, while also robbing the world of passionate, committed, engaged people. The last thing we want is for change agents to withdraw from the work they’re doing. What would happen if activists took a ‘Not Doing Day’ once a month? What if each movement prioritised stillness, patience, waiting and silence on a regular basis, at every meeting, every protest?
What would happen if practices included:
“I meditate once a week, especially when I feel overwhelmed by the issues.”
“I wander aimlessly through the natural world I’m trying to save.”
“I turn off the laptop, TV and social media for an hour every day and I read fiction.”
“I sit in stillness and quiet every time I feel like shouting at someone for not caring enough about social issues.”
Also, what would a ‘whole of system’ approach look like for building healthy and resilient work cultures? From my experience as a leadership educator and consultant, when it comes to tackling complex challenges, it is not sufficient to focus only on building individual skills. The challenges faced by anyone who suffers from burnout, exhaustion and despair are also systemic in nature. Therefore they require approaches and interventions that go beyond traditional learning and development interventions, and work with the whole system, taking a long-term, experimental view to making progress.
With this in mind, I am excited to be partnering with Dr Azita Moradi, a psychiatrist and resilience expert, bringing together our expertise across leadership, coaching, organisational change, medicine, mental health and mindfulness. We are creating a suite of programs and offerings to help people thrive, not just survive, in these complex and uncertain times.
Join us for our one day program in Adelaide on 15 August or Melbourne on 6 September. For more information and to register visit our website or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything. It is the presence of time, undisturbed. It can be felt within the chest. Left with a more receptive mind and a more attuned ear, we become better listeners not only to nature but to each other.
~ Gordon Hempton
Silence is so uncommon in today’s world that its presence can be strange, even terrifying. We’ve all heard the phrases nervous chatter, nervous laughter, awkward silence, deafening silence, talking to fill the silence; ideas that reflect our discomfort and awkwardness.
Anyone who has visited a cave would be familiar with the nervous giggle that bubbles up, if we are unaccustomed to such a deep and powerful silence, almost audible in its intensity. It presses on the ear drums and amplifies the whooshing sound of blood through the veins and the thumping of the heart in the chest. It brings cavers in direct contact with themselves; not all who experience this can cope with that intimacy of self.
In silence, we can have an increased awareness of our feelings. If we are not silent, if we are filling ourselves with sensory data, we cannot recognise our inner fears or hear our inner voice. Not only is there challenge, confrontation and a kind of emptiness in silence, there is also possibility and an opportunity to shift, a chance to connect with the vastness within. In Inviting Silence, poet Gunilla Norris observes, “Within each of us there is a silence—a silence as vast as a universe. We are afraid of it … and we long for it.”
Silence can be felt as a kind of persecution, or interpreted as a way of keeping people at arms-length, because it is not experienced as warm and welcoming. Powerful silence can make us nervous, unsure. I see this in my work facilitating leadership programs. Even a few moments of silence can seem threatening and cause anxiety. Many people can’t tolerate the hanging feeling, the suspense created by the void in between sentences. Someone inevitably jumps in with a comment, a joke, anything (!), just to relieve the tension.
Poet David Whyte writes in The Three Marriages that “when we have no practice with silence and the revelations that arise from the spacious sense of reality can be like a novice violinist trying to play the opening notes of a Bach concerto. We can be so overwhelmed by the grandeur of the piece that we give up on our beginning scales.”
In an article in Huffington Post, George Hofmann tells the story of composer John Cage, who wrote music that included long periods of silence. When the musicians stopped playing, concertgoers were quickly confronted with the shuffling, shifting and coughing sounds in the concert hall. Hofmann says, “Silence is the absence of intentional sound. Intentional sounds are the things we turn on, such as TVs and iPods; words spoken or heard in a conversation; music such as humming or tapping; and the noise of tools, keyboards, or other objects. Sounds that remain are unavoidable. So, silence is purposeful quiet. Some find it unsettling.”
Acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton has been on a mission to preserve natural silence, which he says is “as essential as species preservation, habitat restoration, toxic waste cleanup, and carbon dioxide reduction.” In an extraordinary bid to prevent the extinction of natural silence, Hempton searched for one square inch where he could listen for fifteen minutes and not hear a human sound. It was in the Olympic National Park, on Washington's Olympic Peninsula in the Pacific Northwest, where 95 percent of the land is protected as wilderness, where he found the “widest diversity of soundscapes and the longest periods of natural quiet.”
“Think about finding one place in a park that you can visit, where there will be no trucks heard, no planes flying over, no man-made machinery, no human noise. Wouldn’t that be a beautiful thing?”, asks Hempton. It’s a powerful idea, because sound travels. If he can protect the silence of even one inch, he calculates that he will be protecting the natural soundscape of approximately one thousand square miles of surrounding land. It’s a first step toward his goal of preventing the extinction of silence.
I am inspired by Hempton’s initiative. It is a worthy alternative to the loud and angry protests that are common in activism, and a powerful leadership intervention. My mission, however, is not a national park. I strive to carve out space for silence in small ways in my day to day, in the sessions that I facilitate, the meetings that I attend, the conversations that I have. My hope is that by cultivating an appreciation of the generative power of silence, we can become better equipped to manage the complexity of our lives.
Who knows what we may discover
if we create a quiet corner in our office or home without any devices,
if we allow just a few more moments of silence before we next speak,
You’ve got to go by or past or through boredom, as through a filter, before the clear product emerges.
~ F. Scott Fitzgerald
Whenever I sit staring at the blank page, waiting for inspiration to come, I prefer not to think of it as a writer’s block, but an opportunity to sit with the tension and possibility of waiting. An opportunity to be bored rather than stress about how unproductive I am.
Sayings like ‘bored to death’, ‘bored to tears’ or ‘bored stiff’ give boredom a bad reputation. Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard saw boredom as “the root of all evil” and poet William Wordsworth described it as a “savage torpor.” Yet there is value in having nothing to do. Studies in psychology, history, social science, and neuroscience reveal the positive role it plays, such as being a pre-condition for curiosity, stimulating creativity and fostering innovation. Boredom can also lead to contemplation and reflection, which are also connected to the creative process.
In a September 2016 article in The Conversation, Teresa Belton, a Visiting Fellow at the University of East Anglia, writes about interviewing creative people and hearing how crucial a state of waiting and nothingness is to their lives. For some, childhood boredom provided fertile ground for imagination and ideas. For others, it had become a regular part of their creative practice.
Boredom was my friend while writing ‘Not Doing: the art of effortless action’, co-authored
with Steven D'Souza. Whenever I would feel stuck, I would seek it out, allowing myself periods of time-wasting. I trusted that boredom would create a refreshing spaciousness, allowing nothingness to flow through me until creativity emerged. My best ideas would come when I was lying in bed, before falling asleep, letting my mind wander.
For composer John Cage a boring process of composing induced ideas. “They fly into one’s head like birds,” he noted. However, we don’t have to be engaged in artistic pursuits to benefit from boredom. “Just letting the mind wander from time to time is important, it seems, for everybody’s mental wellbeing and functioning”, says Belton. “A study has even shown that, if we engage in some low-key, undemanding activity at same time, the wandering mind is more likely to come up with imaginative ideas and solutions to problems.”
As I write this, I am conscious that spare or empty time, as an essential pre-condition to boredom, is a privilege. Those who are working to make ends meet, or toiling in a subsistence economy, do not have the luxury of feeling bored. I am grateful for the privilege I have to do nothing and be unproductive in the service of creativity and writing.
While I was researching Not Doing, I came across a delightful short film directed by Andy Oxley of Screen 3 Productions for the National Geographic, entitled These Men Love Extraordinarily Dull Things. It features members of online group the Dull Men’s Club who live by the motto “celebrate the ordinary.”
“Life seems to be continually speeding up,” says Peter Willis in one scene. He’s not doing much, except sitting with his hands clasped, enjoying the peace and quiet of a patch of grass by a road in a country village. A bright red post office box stands on a corner nearby. Peter has just been taking photos of that post box, carefully capturing it from all angles. So far, he’s photographed 2,500 of Britain’s 115,000 post boxes. “I like to take in as much of where I’m going or what’s in front of me as I can. It could be an old lamp post, a finger post, a directional sign.” Frankly, Peter Willis, who is a member of the Letter Box Study Group, is a little dull.
Ken Beresford, President of the Roundabout Appreciation Society, is also dull. One of his most exciting discoveries, which made him ‘tingle all over,’ was a roundabout with a duck pond at the centre. Roundabouts are places of peace and tranquillity for Ken, unlike the ‘robotic fascist traffic lights’. “If you suffer from a nervous disposition, or you’ve got heart trouble, it’s the perfect hobby for you. Just to sit back and take in these beautiful pieces of round architecture,” he says. “Sometimes we need to take a step back and just go round the roundabout twice. Slowly.”
In a world where speed and success are celebrated, these men have chosen a different path. While they may be dull, they are not boring, or bored. They are engaged with simple, ordinary pursuits. They don’t collect precious antiques or stamps, but milk bottles, toothpicks and bricks from under hedgerows.
“People ask, ‘this Dull Men’s Club - is it a movement?’ No, it’s not a movement. We like to stay put,” says Leland Carlson, Assistant Vice-President of the Dull Men’s Club. “The Dull Men’s Club is a place in cyberspace where dull men can hang out and share their experiences with fellow dull men. It’s a sanctuary for them, a place they can hide out and get away from the glitz and glam, the hurly burly, all the noise of modern life. We find there’s a lot of joy in just sitting on a park bench. To take my time. Time is what keeps everything from happening all at once.”
I am inspired by this little film with a big heart. I think about our world obsessed with speed, performance and achievements … what it would look like if we made space to cultivate an appreciation of ordinary pursuits instead?
What would ‘celebrating the ordinary’ look like in your life?
If we believe that we live in a world of scarce resources, whether of time, money, or opportunities, one consequence is that we give too much emphasis to what we could potentially lose out on. This causes us to work just in case, or take on more work than we should, rather than because we really need to.
This sentiment is so common it has become an acronym: FOMO, or fear of missing out. It is that habit of doing something just so we don’t feel like we missed out. In the workplace, FOMO may mean that we join more committees than we need to in order to remain visible. It may mean being copied into email trails, servicing the need to know. Or it may result in us saying yes when in fact we mean no. But the effects of this can be detrimental, resulting in a sense of overload, an inability to put the phone down while having dinner with family.
Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s work with the phenomenon of loss aversion shows that people have a tendency to prefer avoiding losses rather than acquiring equivalent gains. For example, it is better to not lose $100 than to find $100. Their research demonstrates that losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as gains. No wonder we would rather do it all rather than suffer the loss associated with saying no. How often do we undertake empty and meaningless activity just to avoid missing out? How often do we do simply for the sake of appearances?
Advertising and social media feed the idea that we should be living life to the full, making the most of opportunities. Carpe diem. Seize the day. Live your life as a checklist: places to visit, restaurants at which to dine, books to read, films to see. No sinful waste of our time. In Carpe Diem, Roman Krznaric argues that the idea of seize the day has been hijacked by four forces: the consumer culture, where Just Do It has become Just Buy It; the growing cult of efficiency and time management that has turned spontaneity into a culture of Just Plan It; the 24/7 digital entertainment that has replaced vibrant life experiences with Just Watch It; and the unintended consequence of the mindfulness movement “that has encouraged the narrow idea that seizing the day is primarily about living in the here and now. Just Do It has become Just Breathe.”
By showing us what others are doing, social media is raising our status anxiety and tapping into our fear that if we are not connected in the virtual world on a social platform, we will miss out. Like our obsession with social media, we can become addicted to the adrenaline, the feeling of working, of doing something. The compulsive nature of work not only taps into our identities, but also into our pleasure centres, the thrill, the chase, the buzz. It plugs us into what’s going on and reduces our ability to reflect.
What if we replaced the Fear of Missing Out with the Joy of Missing Out (JOMO)? Celebrated Australian cartoonist Leunig challenges us to look at our aspirations and the expectations we put on ourselves. His cartoon challenges the notion that we can or should do it all and have it all. "He invites us to “feel the loveliness”, to enjoy the pleasure of our emptiness, and choose our “peaceful self, without regret, without a doubt" instead.
Oh, the joy of missing out!
[adapted from ‘Not Doing: the art of effortless action’, Diana Renner & Steven D’Souza, LID Publishing 2018]
‘Am I doing enough?’ The question started haunting me as soon as I started to work on ‘Not Doing’. How do I ‘do’ about ‘not doing’, I asked myself, as the manuscript deadline was getting closer? Deadlines could become all consuming, if held too tightly, but not working against a time limit could make it hard to keep my focus.
I didn’t know if my expectations of what I needed to do were too high. I started overthinking and froze. My writing stopped as the doubt started creeping in – questions about competence, quality versus quantity, level of research required…
I remembered the advice of a mentor a few years ago who sent me an encouraging email whilst I was struggling writing ‘Not Knowing’ - “Dance with the questions rather than wrestle with them – release the effort as much as you can, bring your awareness to the balance between focus and flow, and trust yourself and the process to deliver the clarity you need.”
Release the effort? How could I do that and still create something? Create without effort? The words won’t magically appear on the page. It had taken effort and perseverance to write ‘Not Knowing’. Sometimes I had to push through the discomfort. I was now writing about effortless action. The irony hadn’t escaped me!
I thought my mentor was right to encourage me to trust myself and the process. That went to the core of my challenge. I concluded that the only way to write about a topic I was myself challenged by, was to be totally immersed in it. I decided to follow American psychologist Clark Moustakas’s process of heuristic research, which he describes as “a process of internal search through which one discovers the nature and meaning of experience and develops methods and procedures for further investigation and analysis.”
Heuristic research starts with an initial engagement phase of connecting with the subject, involving self-search, self-dialogue, and self-discovery. I fully and deliberately immersed myself in the question I was grappling with – what does Not Doing mean for me? Moustakas argued that it is the autobiographical source of the question that generates the process of enquiry and discovery.
Immersion followed soon after. I became alert to all possibilities for meaning, wherever I came across the themes and ideas I was exploring. I started seeing Not Doing everywhere in my day to day life – in newspaper articles, in snippets of conversation on the train, in my leadership classes, in my kids’ games, in nature. I became totally absorbed in the topic.
Then, incubation. Moustakas suggests retreating from the intense focus on the question, detaching from involvement and awareness of its nature and meanings. For Moustakas, incubation “is a process in which a seed has been planted; the seed undergoes silent nourishment, support and care that produces a creative awareness of some dimension of a phenomenon or a creative integration of its parts or qualities”.
He quotes Michael Polanyi who argues that deliberate mental effort and direct, calculated efforts do not automatically result in discovery, “the way you reach the peak of a mountain by putting in your last ounce of strength – but more often comes in a flash after a period of rest or distraction. Our labours are spent as it were in an unsuccessful scramble among the rocks and in the gullies on the flanks of the hill and then when we would give up for a moment and settle down to tea we suddenly find ourselves transported to the top … by a process of spontaneous mental reorganisation uncontrolled by conscious effort”.
During the period of incubation, I spent time alone, letting my thoughts wonder, as well as engaging in activities that were unrelated to my research, like cycling and listening to music. Incubation is a key part of the creative process, which taps into the unconscious through equal parts boredom and reflection. Seemingly strange and unrelated things popped into my mind, like a memory of losing track of time when I once baked a cake, and wondering whether animals embodied Not Doing naturally. I did not judge the random ideas or looked for connections, just allowed them to surface.
I stepped away from activity, turning off the stream of data that I had nurtured into a steady flow. This was similar to the idea of ‘close your eyes to see’ we explored in ‘Not Knowing’. Immersion involves letting go of the need to know, to find more information, by closing off all the senses. This paradoxically enables new knowledge to emerge. I found the confidence to let go, knowing that at some point I would return to re-engage with the ideas. This phase felt like I was creating a different kind of space for the work, a counterintuitive valuing of an absence of input.
This allowed me to become open to new dimensions of the topic, which were ready for exploration. Moustakas called this process of being open and receptive, illumination. “Illumination opens the door to a new awareness, a modification of an old understanding, a synthesis of fragmented knowledge, or an altogether new discovery of something that has been present for some time yet beyond immediate awareness.” The whole frame of reference that I’d had about Not Doing collapsed. I could see more clearly what Not Doing was, and what it wasn’t. I knew what story I wanted to illustrate the essence of Not Doing and how to connect that to the other stories in the book.
Explication followed, a phase of “fully examining what has awakened in consciousness, to understand its various layers of meaning”. This required me to be fully present to my own feelings, thoughts, beliefs and judgments, as I reflected on the connections with the themes of Not Doing. This became my favourite step, a luxurious process of examination and sense-making, which created a natural way to surface the essence of my experience in writing. This is what Moustakas calls the process of creative synthesis. As the writing started to flow, I captured the nuances and textures of Not Doing, my experience of solitude, silence, patience, waiting, and my yearning for tranquillity, all coming together to form a thread through the book. No longer stuck, I was writing myself into the book, dancing rather than wrestling with the questions.
“I have never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude” Henry David Thoreau
As a leadership educator, author and speaker, my work is public. It requires me to show up, be seen, and engage with groups of all sizes, from small intact teams to groups of hundreds of participants in conferences. Every session, workshop, presentation demands my full attention and presence. I am expected to inform, advise, inspire, challenge, and support.
My work is aligned with my values and gives me a strong sense of purpose. But the public facing nature of my role and the accompanying expectations to ‘perform’ can be exhausting, overwhelming, at times. I am constantly being challenged to better manage my energy so that I can be effective in my work.
I have just finished attending the HR Summit 2017, a two-day conference in Istanbul, where I delivered a presentation on ‘Leadership for an uncertain world’ to an audience of 1,000 HR professionals. From the time when I arrived to the time when I left, I was ‘on’, whether meeting with my fellow conference speakers, engaging with the conference organisers, or attending dinner with a group of sponsors. I loved the buzz in the exhibition hall and the noise of the crowd.
However, between the social interactions, the need to use every spare moment I had to prepare for my presentation, and my jet lag, I had little time for myself. It is exactly situations like these when I most crave solitude.
For me solitude is not about being alone. Even though retreating to my room, or to a quiet place “far from the maddening crowd” can be useful, it is often not possible to step away.
Solitude is about sustaining my energy by connecting with myself. As Parker Palmer says, “solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people — it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others.”
Being fully present to myself means being in relationship with myself, so that when I feel being pulled in all directions and weighed down by different expectations, I can steady myself. Over the years, I’ve learned that, paradoxically, I need to step outside of action for a moment, before I can get in touch with myself. This ability to ‘zoom out’ to ‘zoom in’ creates space for micro-moments of solitude, even in the most intense situations.
There were many opportunities for these micro-moments of solitude at the conference. One such moment came just before my speech, as I was getting ready to walk on stage. First I zoomed out, and saw myself from above, a bird’s eye view of me standing, poised for action. Then I zoomed in… feeling my quick pulse, my sweaty palms, weight shifting from leg to leg… Then time slowed down, everything slowed down... pure stillness. I became fully present to myself, from the soles of my feet to my heartbeat. I felt peaceful and fully connected.
The energy from micro-moments of solitude like these carried me through the two days of the conference. They created spacious perspective which enabled me to center myself, ‘hold steady’, and not be swept away by the currents of pressures around me.
We do not need to wait until the weekend, or our next holiday to connect with ourselves. Every day brings opportunities for carving out micro-moments for solitude.
Late last year I embarked on my second book project with Steven D’Souza, ‘Not Doing’. This follows on from ‘Not Knowing: the art of turning uncertainty into opportunity’, which we published in June 2014.
I’m excited about ‘Not Doing’ as it enables me to explore a topic closely aligned to our work at the Uncharted Leadership Institute, which Andrew Stevens and I founded almost 12 months ago. Our purpose is to develop leadership for a complex world, so what better way to contribute to the thinking and practice in our field than a book about ‘Not Doing’, especially as the world is becoming increasingly fast-paced and uncertain?
In our work we have meet people struggling with the increasing pace of change and constant, draining and excessive busyness. Many feel stretched, overwhelmed, and exhausted, besieged by the demands of complex projects and complex workplaces. They are engaged in a kind of ‘doing’ that is more effort and struggle, rather than a kind of ‘doing’ that comes from a place of presence, openness and aliveness. We think this is not only ineffective and unsustainable, but ultimately ends in stress, anxiety and burnout.
Some questions we are exploring at the centre of the book are:
My hope for this (semi-regular) blog is to share with you some thoughts, ideas, research and stories, as they take shape. It is an invitation to a conversation and an exploration of the world of doing and not doing. As Spanish poet Antonio Machado says, “traveller, there is no path, the path is made by walking”.
Diana Renner is a Director and co-founder of the Uncharted Leadership Institute. She is co-author of the award winning ‘Not Knowing: the art of turning uncertainty into opportunity’, with Steven D’Souza.