The "Chrysalis Phase" of the Artisan
...and an idea of "slow adventure"
Some people know what they want to do from an early age, some of us just think we do, and in a system that makes money such a defining feature of our lives, some of us never find out. Leaving aside the child prodigies and those visited by a particularly insistent muse, most of us make the best guess we can as we come to the end of the education production line and get transferred onto the work one.
The next thirty years let us know how good our guess was. I think of it as a “caterpillar phase”, a time of much activity, eating, being eaten, and exploring with little time to reflect on what we might want beyond the superficial anaesthetics of more…money, holidays, and “stuff”.
Most of us, however, enter a “chrysalis” phase at some point. A time when we have consumed enough and recognise there is something inside us that wants to emerge, even though we might not be clear about what it is. We just sense it.
When a caterpillar enters the chrysalis phase of its life, its caterpillar body dissolves into, well, we’re not exactly sure what, so we call them “imaginal cells”, and from these imaginal cells, inside the security of the chrysalis, the body of the butterfly forms. It’s a well-known metaphor, but no less apt because and resonates with what I see in others and have sensed in myself.
The way the world of work is evolving means that our caterpillar phase is getting shorter, and our chrysalis phase arriving earlier. Not so long ago, people often didn’t get to the chrysalis; they started and finished work in the same company and the same job, but now, it’s different. The twenty-five or thirty years that follow our education will likely see us through several employers, the skill set we left education with largely obsolete, and the infrastructure of employment radically different as technology replaces globalisation as the major disrupter.
The point was brought home to me by the paradox of those in power wanting the over-fifties back in the workplace to ease the inflationary pressures of low unemployment and the complaints of those over fifty who couldn’t get back into the work they were nationally qualified for. In a rapidly changing workplace, “experience” is less valued than raw productivity and low cost. Local social impact has become disconnected from global economic imperatives, and, of course, the disruption will only accelerate as artificial intelligence moves from boogeyman to everyday reality.
That everyday reality, for most of us, will impact us at the point we least want it - as we enter that period of life between fifty and seventy when we would normally be capitalising on our careers, enjoying the perks of promotion and building capital for retirement. Whilst that path won’t disappear but will be available to fewer of us, and if we want to capitalise on the work we’ve done in our “career phase” between twenty and fifty, we must embrace the chrysalis and be prepared to use our skills on our own account.
It presents an interesting challenge. How do we prepare for our chrysalis phase when we’re still immersed in our career phase?
This is where the idea of the “slow adventure” comes in for me. When I consider my own case and those with whom I now work, the chrysalis phase is considerable, perhaps a decade. We start thinking we know what we want to do beyond what we currently do, but when we get into it, we find it isn’t. We must allow our craft to find us as much as try to create it. I’ve referred before to the saying that the best time to plant a tree was thirty years ago, and the second best time is now, and we need to think about our chrysalis phase similarly.
We’ve become used to process, productivity, efficiency and speed. The chrysalis doesn’t care about any of those things. It knows the capabilities we have that we do not yet recognise or perhaps value. The things we think everybody can do but can’t. Letting the chrysalis do its work takes time and dedication, and we need to start before we’re ready because otherwise, when we find ourselves disrupted, we will have far fewer options than if we haven’t done the work.
I’ve written previously about notions of capacity, attention and performance and how we can find ourselves so wrapped up in them that we do not notice what is happening around us. We find ourselves lacking that exquisite awareness which Boyd called “Fingerspitzengefühl” - fingertip feeling - that otherwise signals to us we need to pay attention to something emerging. That’s where the slow adventure starts, with curiosity but without judgement, with patience and without expectation, waiting for what we need to notice to make itself known.
“The best way to find out things, if you come to think of it, is not to ask questions at all. If you fire off a question, it is like firing off a gun; bang it goes, and everything takes flight and runs for shelter. But if you sit quite still and pretend not to be looking, all the little facts will come and peck round your feet, situations will venture forth from thickets and intentions will creep out and sun themselves on a stone; and if you are very patient, you will see and understand a great deal more than a man with a gun.”
Elspeth Huxley, The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood
At some point, though, what we need makes itself clear, and we must form a relationship with it. From personal experience, that’s not always easy because what turns up is not what we expect. It can be confusing, and “imposter syndrome” can have a party and invite all its friends, but despite all that, we come to know it to be true.
And then, we have to decide what to do with it. It might mean, in many ways, starting again. Putting down all the badges and labels we’ve collected in our career phase. Forming new relationships, and learning new things, until we realise it’s not a departure but a transition - a different relationship with what we’ve learned and understood up to this point. Something that puts us in a position where we can see a route to action that results in us saying, “I made this”. Not because I was told to, or paid to, or expected to but because I could see it when others could not.
I think this is where New Artisans can go next - to move beyond the philosophy of “New Artisans” into something that can help create them. To host people as they take their own slow adventures in the company of others doing the same.
I’m talking with others about how we might do this and will continue to “think out loud” with you during March, intending to have a prospectus for “slow adventures” by the time the clocks go forward. Seems appropriate.
Finally, I‘d just like to acknowledge what I’ve learned from others since the beginning of the pandemic in getting to this point, not least Johnnie Moore, my guide on all things unhurried.
New Artisans Zoom; 21st February.
We had an excellent session with James Gairdner last Tuesday. Here’s the recording for those of you that missed it. It will be available until 28th Feb. (if you’re reading this after that date, please get in touch with me for access)
Have a great weekend
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Nice read. It's perhaps an indictment of our contemporary mindset that Slow Adventure sounds like an oxymoron.
Great re-watching the call from Tuesday to 'end' the week feeling calmer...thanks for sharing Richard.