The Artisan and Rites of Passage
Creating spaces to let go of the old to create space for the new.
One of the many things we have lost sight of as we have become obsessed with efficiency, productivity and the near-term returns within a “Horizon 1” culture is the notion of “rites of passage”. I think we are the poorer for it.
We can easily think of them as having something to do with anthropologists and television documentaries about indigenous peoples. That may be true, but in not honouring them in our contemporary lives, we are losing valuable perspective. Rites of Passage give us time to pause and consider what is happening around us and where we are going.
Birth is an event. a Christening or similar is a rite of passage, an introduction into a cultural context. Death is an event, and a funeral is a rite of passage that marks our exit from our community. Passing our exams is a relief; our graduation ceremony is a rite of passage. Rites of passage acknowledge beginnings and endings.
Business Failures, Mergers and Acquisitions, “Strategic realignments”, and many other business events mark the end of one state and the beginning of another. Yet, we have no rites of passage for them. Nothing makes us pause to consider what is happening and what new responsibilities are now being assumed.
In “The CEO and the Monk”, Robert Catell tells the story of the development of Keyspan Energy, the “funerals” it held for the companies it acquired, and their initiations into the (then) new Keyspan Corporation - an interesting example of rites of passage. The company received many plaudits beyond its profitability in a brief period before being acquired by the UK’s National Grid and disappearing as the beacon of inspiration it briefly was.
The same is true for us as individuals who are part of those organisations. We may get the flashier car and bigger salary, but we are not given a moment’s pause to consider how our success or failure will affect us, those who report to us or whose lives are touched by the product or service we provide. We are expected to just slide into the new role and “perform”.
Artisans, though, think differently. They are the authors of what they do and assume responsibility for it. Their work is their signature, and their craft a means for signing it. They recognise the implications of the change and that attitude is becoming increasingly important as we look for leadership in periods of uncertainty. Rites of Passage offer a period of grace as we let go of what we must and find what we need.
We have been brought up to be fodder to the education, training and development providers, from state education to universities to corporate training programmes. Our weaknesses are laid bare in the context of the workplace and programmes provided to mitigate them and enable us to become better “corporate citizens”. This would be fine if corporates offered us hope for a future we want, but they don’t. Their agendas are often markedly different, short-term, and focused on profit as the primary message. Milton Friedman’s message that “the social responsibility of a business is to increase its profits.” may have been comprehensively trashed from a societal perspective. The evidence suggests that Corporations haven’t yet received the memo.
I often think back to my first couple of decades in work as a journey together with my employer - I needed some of what they had, and they needed some of what I had. It was a satisfactory arrangement until the time came when we realised we were heading towards different places but did not have a mechanism to discuss it. They wanted me to go where they were going, and I wanted them to come with me to where I was going. The separation was less elegant than it might have been if we had recognised the need for a rite of passage.
So how do we find our way as artisans?
The last decade has seen a complete transformation in the way we connect with each other. Whilst we may be preoccupied with the downsides of that as technology is deployed by tech titans in a form of bottom fishing for our attention, there are numerous upsides that we have yet to grasp.
One of the biggest is an ability to cut out the middleman and disintermediate the personal development “industry”. It revolves around what that same industry talks about as “Locus of Control” and centres on considering “who are we developing ourselves for?”
I’m very happy for an employer to help me develop my skills as a lawyer, accountant, software engineer, or any other skill I can apply to the service I provide. I am far less happy for them to define who I am, my personal strengths and weaknesses, my purpose, or sense of meaning because, when it comes down to it, our relationship is likely to be Malthusian - nasty, brutish and short - as shareholder imperatives and technology examine the temporary nature of my role description.
As a New Artisan, I want to do work I can sign, not just process and accept my responsibility for creating the opportunities for it. It requires both awareness and creativity and takes me to the idea of inversion (link below), the idea that most problems are better solved backwards than forwards and that avoiding stupidity is often better than seeking brilliance.
What if, instead of vast HR budgets, recruiting algorithms, and a fortune spent on organisational design, we considered ourselves the lowest common denominator of all of them and started there? What if we built our organisations around people who wanted to work together rather than knock the “edges” off people so that they “fit” a preconceived design that sees people as parts?
Over at Reflections, I wrote a short post - ‘what sort of hungry are you?” - on the limitations of menus. Menus tell me what you offer, but they are not the start of a discussion on what I’d like. Resumés and job descriptions alike are menus more than lists of ingredients from which we can talk about what to make.
Technology gives us the ability to find the ingredients we need, and develop ourselves as we wish, not just take what is being offered. I want, in the words of Oscar Wilde, “to be myself, because everybody else is taken”
Becoming ourselves is where rites of passage become vital. We can create our own communities and our own traditions, as Grayson Perry outlined in his own very individual way in his series on Channel 4. (link below). It’s worth watching.
It means taking responsibility. There’s probably not much we can do about our own initial education because we are passengers on a ship of state and parental desire, and we have limited options in our first hasty, clumsy rite of passage as we go for our first jobs, driven as many of us are to start earning.
What comes next, though, is different, and we can do much more about preparing for our next rite of passage.
We start our adult lives and careers as we find ourselves the best place we can to set off. As the novelty of employment diminishes, the monthly paycheck becomes both security and a prison cell as we sell our skills forward through debt-based consumption in a combination of necessity, demonstration of status, a search for acceptance and diversion from the uncomfortable.
At some point, though, we encounter an unease around the idea that this is what we may be doing for the rest of our working lives, an uncertainty around our security of tenure, and the nagging sense that there is something else that is calling us. For many of us, it will reach a point where we must decide. We used to sanitise this time as a “mid-life crisis anomaly,” but increasingly, we recognise it for what it is - who we really are leaking out and demanding recognition.
In earlier, more communal times, it would have been a rite of passage, perhaps from warrior to elder, or for us Artisans, from journeyman(sic) to Master. Having honed our skills in different settings, with different “Masters”, time to establish our own distinctive presence in a community of practice where we belong.
The challenge is that we don’t normally have the space for it. Organisations find handling these ideas difficult, inconvenient, and easier to find easier alternatives. For us, we often don’t have a community separate from work to host this rite of passage.
I feel drawn to focus on this one small part of the whole idea of New Artisans for a while. To create a space where we can prepare for this rite of passage, from early work to calling, surrounded by those who will support us.
A number of us have created such a space, almost by accident, in the “conversations without agenda” we have been holding every week for over two years. What is needed now is a way to capture what we have learned to find ways of reproducing it so that we can teach others to do it.
Discussions over the last couple of weeks have offered a starting place, and I’m hoping to pull a small group together to find ways of making the approach to this “rite of passage” more of a “slow adventure” than a period of confusion. There’s been a good response from people this week, and there is still room for a few more if you’re interested before we close the list and get down to proper discussion.
I think sometimes we are sucked into the idea (and felt obligation) of perpetual advancement in whatever we find ourselves doing in the same way that our business models aim for perpetual growth. Both obsessions blind us to other possibilities, and the route to finding them is not a quick-fix “course” or book. It is something altogether slower and more considered. A time to sit with possibility and discuss it with others, savouring the uncertainty and what it offers, and make a conscious decision whether we stay on the path we are on or set off on a new one before we find ourselves in a position where either we have to make the decision, or have on forced upon us.
The space between where we are and where the work only we can do will come calling. When it does, we should find a way to listen. A rite of passage.
“The times are urgent; let us slow down. Slowing down is losing our way—not a human capacity or human capability. It is the invitations that are now in the world-at-large, inviting us to listen deeply, to be keen, to be fresh, to be quick with our heels, to follow the sights and sounds and smells of the world.”
— DR. BAYO AKOMOLAFE
Links to references in this post.
The CEO and the Monk. Robert B. Catell.
Locus of Control. Psychology Today.
What sort of Hungry are you? Reflections blog.
Rites of Passage. Grayson Perry.