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The Chemistry of the Artisan
In search of generative work
I remember the excitement as a child of early experiments in chemistry (when health and safety regulations were more fluid) of learning how different reactions produced bangs, smells, colour changes, and a whole host of what seemed like magical changes. It was a discovery process, with the learning taking place after the fact.
I consider myself enormously lucky in that much of my life has followed a similar pattern. Although it started off destined to set off down tracks to establishment respectability and security, the constraints became increasingly unsatisfactory, and I found myself treading a career path with more than its fair share of bangs and smells.
For most people, I think work has become a bland necessity. Lots of performance-based stress incurred in finding the means to survive, but an absence of the wonder and surprise from which insight and joy are catalysed.
Yet progress, and growth of any kind, are fuelled by the unmeasurable - curiosity, wonder, awe, courage, and other unique elements of our humanity. So, in looking at organisations, we have found ourselves pondering “culture” and talking about its nature, how we shape it, measure it and direct it, as though it was a lab experiment all of its own. We talk of cultures becoming toxic and how we might somehow cleanse them satisfactorily. We seem to have become affected by a poverty of ambition that causes us to ignore what is happening around us, from birdsong in the morning to the sunset in the evening. The miracle of conversation and laughter, and the simple satisfaction of helping somebody just because we can.
I am starting to think that “culture” is a cop-out invented by those in HR Consulting to give them a patient to work on. Culture is a constantly evolving expression of the countless chemical interactions happening at every moment, within us, outside of us, and between everything organic and, indeed, on a slower timescale, inorganic.
Everything we do is an experiment, with no certainty as to what the reaction will provide. Sometimes, it is as expected, sometimes like phosphorous and water, and sometimes what happens when egos and ambitions encounter a reality different to what is expected.
I suspect we will do well to pay less attention to intended outcomes, and far more to those novel reactions that are harbingers of what is arriving.
There is something reassuringly quaint about Jacob Rees-Mogg, now through dint of what nobody is quite sure, Sir Jacob, warning of the dangers of civil war in the Conservative Party. Firstly, there already is, and secondly, it is very welcome if it enables us to understand where their very wide choice of ethics and values really lie. The same is true of most corporations and other large, bureaucratic organisations. The containers they have built are not strong enough to contain and direct the energies being released by the chemical reactions they have triggered.
Our job, then, is to be clear about our own place in this and which containers we want to be part of. Whether we are prepared to be elements of damp squibs or something rather more colourful, smelly, noisy and generative.
Our work is a key testament to our lives, not just our ability to consume. We would do well to treat it as such.
“The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are. You trade in your reality for a role. You trade in your sense for an act. You give up your ability to feel, and in exchange, put on a mask. There can't be any large-scale revolution until there's a personal revolution, on an individual level. It's got to happen inside first.”
― Jim MORRISON