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Artisans. Found in Transition?
A rite of passage, understood in retrospect.
Writing is the process by which you realise that you do not understand what you are talking about. Importantly, writing is also the process by which you figure it out. FS.Blog
In leaving more traditional rites of passage behind, from religion to communities, we have lost a vital perspective. Growth has become something that we are encouraged to think of as infinite, and our definition of it has become warped. We don’t move on, we move up. We are not encouraged to evolve, but rather to become more expensive versions of what we currently are. There are no rites of passage because our economic model defines us in its image, as consumers, and we are the poorer for it.
Transformation has become a buzzword hijacked by consultants offering commercial botox to organisations looking for eternal youth. These organisations have no inbuilt sense of their own necessary mortality, and become a form of Zombie - existing, just in order to exist. The danger for us is that we get swept along with that, shaped according to these organisational needs and discarded when our utility is exhausted.
That utility is becoming more fragile as technology becomes ever more powerful, and potentially alarming.
There is a sense that something needs to be done. And I think that social media as a cautionary tale is what's in people's minds when they see how quickly generative AI is developing." Melanie Subin. Managing Director of the Future Today Institute.
The reality is, of course, that we just don’t know. I think we can be confident (if that’s the right word) that there will be a point when our personal relationship with the organisation we are part changes, an inflexion point where we have to decide whether we are we going to stay part of it, and submit to it, or take a different path to become more of who we believe we are. I suspect it will also happen sooner than we think.
For this week’s post then, my personal experience of a rite of passage, understood in retrospect.
Rites of Passage have three phases - separation, transition, and reincorporation.
Most of us reading this will have been in that meeting - the one where we either say we are leaving, or told we are leaving (or now, a sterile Tweet of similar nature)
A moment of separation rarely happens in a considered fashion, and is often either a growing reaction to a no longer tenable position, or something of a surprise. Either way, many of us enter separation as a reaction to something rather than a deliberate, considered decision.
We can do better than that. We can design and prepare our own rites of passage to give us greater freedom and choice in how we live our work lives. As my Swiss friends used to joke, we can cope with any surprise as long as we are given enough notice. So maybe, we would do well to prepare.
Here are some thoughts on that, as a starter:
Preparing for Separation
Most of us will be in some form of work for five decades, maybe longer. If we want to actively shape that, we have to take “radical responsibility”; the decisions and consequences are ours alone, even though we may get help and support from others. Mimesis - the instinct to want what other people want, and do what they do - is a powerful gravitational force, which in one of the reasons people stay in jobs that make them miserable. Overcoming that to achieve “escape velocity” needs us to be part of a community with similar intent, having discussions that help us clarify in our own minds some form of plan will give us the coherence we need when we find ourselves at the point of separation.
Separation is also inevitable, and whilst the precise timing may vary, I think recognising it when it comes is far better than denial. Indigenous societies had fairly fixed timelines - birth, adulthood, marriage, eldership, and death. For us, the first and last categories remain non - negotiable, but the parts in the middle far more fluid, and if we want to have some sort of control, we need to set our own.
I’ve written previously about our work life having two phases - the twenty five years or so of post education work where we establish ourselves as adults in the community, often as part of an organisation run by others, and the second half, of around the same length, from middle age to eldership. The challenge we have is that we are so busy in the first phase, that by the time we get to the second phase we are rarely ready. What if we could choose to treat the first part as apprenticeship and practice in preparation for mastery on our own terms instead of turning into “busywork” into a habit?
‘Speed is the ultimate defence, the antidote to stopping and really looking’
We also need an end goal of some sort. I was vaguely aware of mine, though it had very little definition or precision - it was more like the idea of “minimum consensus” - an understanding of what I didn’t want - whilst I did what I had to do to pay the bills. My own experience, and observation of those I have worked with, is that the end goals find us as much as we find them, as long as we give them encouragement. That means making room for open conversations, reading, quiet time, and finding the company of people who recognise who we are perhaps more than we do.
It will come, in whatever form it takes.
My own came when I found myself being extremely well paid to do things I didn’t like, to people I did, for the benefit of shareholders I rarely met, and who changed constantly. It was a moment of quiet, economically inconvenient, crystal clarity.
In more traditional societies, this sort of transition involved “vision quests”, tests of courage, and facing fear. For me, it was no different even if less cinematically compelling. I was fortunate in that I had some form of preparation - I’m a reader, and generally get through two books a week around what has always drawn me. I also had a group of people interested in the same areas with whom I had served on advisory boards and which is at the heart of what I write about. Nonetheless, exiting a CEO role in a good sized international business and finding myself alone was a salutary experience, and interesting to look back on. My “separation”, in reality, took a good five years, involved living and working in Switzerland, in a language I spoke clumsily, with a small startup working with Swiss and German scientists, moving from a set of “doing” skills to a new set centred on coaching, facilitation, and conflict management. I was very lucky. My instincts served me well, and the support I had from family and friends humbling.
My point is this, when separation happens, we don’t know how what we want to do will look. If we do, it’s not separation. It will vary for each of us, but I’m pretty convinced it takes more than a couple of weeks off somewhere warm.
We can, I believe, prepare for separation, but not plan for it, and I’ll return to this below.
There comes a point where we are no longer who we were, even if not yet who we want to be. Again, I can observe it in others, but only experience it for myself. I came back from Switzerland with new skills, a confidence in them, and a real sense of where I wanted to take them. Being physically away from where I left was also interesting. Returning and meeting those who I used to work with involved a lot of what is probably best summarised as WTF? but which quickly settled to not just acceptance but recognition. My transition resulted in less money than would otherwise have likely been the case, though it has been a great investment in what I have gained in terms of my own sense of craft, and personal coherence.
I left an “executive” defined by others and returned, having found my own Artisan.
Preparing for Separation
I believe we benefit from rites of passage, and would do well to pay more attention to them not just personally, but as teams and organisations (that’s for another post). There is a wealth of reading to be done, mainly anthropological, that has much to reflect on. Here are my thoughts on what I have come to understand, based partly on reading, partly on conversations about the reading, and my own experience.
Set a date, not less than five years and not more than ten from where you are now, and assume it will be a transition point. The date is less important than the focus.
Set aside time to prepare for it. Five hours a week at least, more if you can, to do the reading, have open conversations, have conversations about the reading, and develop a space work cannot enter where can work on ourselves.
Find a community, somewhere you feel like you can belong, that has nothing to do with work - online or off.
Avoid SMART goals like the plague. Create the space for what you are looking for to find you, because you will not find it.
You will never be ready, and that’s OK. Separation is like that.
I believe we are entering a time when separation from the “familiar” of the workplace will become more frequent, happen earlier, and leave us with fewer conventional options.
If we handle it well, I think it’s an opportunity for our artisan to emerge.
Next Friday, I’ll cover how we can shape New Artisans to be a community like that I mention above.
Have a great weekend
Note: I attended a webinar with Laurence Barrett on 16th March “Navigating Midlife” (I know, leaving it a bit late…) which enriched my thinking enormously in this area. I’ll come back to part of it in future posts.
We’re putting together a small group, maybe two, to explore turning discussion on Artisans to practice via “slow adventures”. There are, a time of writing, some places left for those who want to find out more. The list will close at the end of the month.
A Conversation with Peter Geoghegan
Peter is one of our finest investigative journalists, who I’ve been fortunate enough to know for a while. I always enjoy our discussions.
I’m fascinated by the way in which investigative journalists approach something that doesn’t seem to hang together, capture it and bring it to our attention. I thought a discussion with him might illuminate our discussions around New Artisans and just be a lot of fun anyway….
Join us on Wednesday, 22nd March, 6:00 pm UK time for what promises to be a great discussion.
Here is some more on Peter