The Importance of Seasons
I have a mental image of the Board at OpenAI running around the offices looking for the future. They know it is around there somewhere because it had an eighty-six billion price tag on it, but this morning they’re damned if they can find it.
Generally, there are two types of investors. Firstly, the Warren Buffet type - a long look at basics, commit and hold, knowing there will be ups and downs, but that, over the long term, the aggregate up will provide a good return. Then there is the venture capital type, investing in something because it has a story that can be amplified and sold on. There can be no ups and downs, just a relentless up of the story as greed is arbitraged.
The problem seems to occur when the two types collide when we have long-term builders, akin to artisans, building a business being financed by people who want to sell a story to make short-term returns. Hiring, firing, buying, selling and doing whatever is necessary to keep the story alive, even when it is clear the story is fiction.
Looking around the markets at the moment, we can see far more of the second type. Less investors and more landlords expecting consistent rent regardless of circumstances. Addressing uncertainty by knee-jerk reaction, even where the long-term prospects remain sound. Sacrificing capability, institutional knowledge and trust in order to protect a couple of quarters results in order to keep the myth of linear growth alive.
If it were just businesses, that would be one thing, but when business “culture” has seeped into every aspect of our lives, and everything is measured in money, our public services and politics have been contaminated by this short-term, linear-at-all-costs mentality. No pausing for breath, no reflection, little debate. We can be confident that any announcements of tax cuts in today’s autumn statement will be based less on fundamentals and more on a last throw-of-the-dice gamble to keep the political story alive.
The thing is, we need seasons. We can cope with downs if we know they are the investment we make in the ups. Spring and Summer require Autumn and Winter, and knowing that, we can enjoy the seasons.
The question it raises for me is where, as individuals, we invest our trust. Our relationship with any institution that measures itself in money is always going to be transactional. We can sell our labour, but they expect our enthusiasm and emotional commitment to come for free without any reciprocal expectation.
It’s a big question.
During the week, I found myself in a conversation about the difference between fragmentation and dissolution. In our organisations, we prefer the idea of fragmentation. Oops, poor old Humpty; never mind, let’s get the consultants in, cobble him back together, and remarket him. The trouble is, we seem to be in omelette territory - dissolution and transformation. We don’t know precisely what is coming - we never do - but we can sense the straws in the wind. Three-degree warming by the end of the century, with all its collateral in terms of food, migration, and the rest. Defensive, mouth-frothing populist politics and something that feels more like feudalism than capitalism.
On the other hand, I’m a big believer in the law of unintended consequences, so whilst our default is to see doom, it’s not compulsory. Other mindsets are available.
Mindsets need fertile places to grow if they are not to become rootbound and are unlikely to develop in the way we need in much of the depleted organisational and political soil we find ourselves in on a day-to-day basis. Healthy mindsets thrive on good conversation with those we respect and learn to trust. They also evolve, like the seasons - how we see and understand the world changes according to the shape of our lives - success, disaster, pain and joy all sculpt who we are.
The purpose of our life is not to get to our death unscathed.
We seem to have reached a point where organisations that allow themselves to be defined by money are unhealthy. They don’t tolerate ebb and flow or natural rhythms and are prepared to sacrifice anything that gets in the way of perpetual growth as defined by the bottom line. They have become zombies with clever PR agencies.
That does not mean we do not have to work with them; the nature of our economies determines that we do, whether as employees or partners. What matters to do so on our own terms.
My attention keeps being drawn to the idea of community - from communities of survival to communities of practice via those of place, belief, interest and many others. today, organisations are rarely communities, as defined by Toby Lowe:
“A group of people who share a story that is so important to them that it defines an aspect of who they are. Those people build the shared story archetypes, or characters, of that community into themselves; they build the history of those communities into their own personal history, and they see the world through those shared stories.”
First, the industrial era and then technology dissolved our traditional communities as villages, towns, and workplaces succumbed to the forces of globalisation and the search for efficiency. For a very short while, work provided community, from pit villages to industrial towns. They have not been replaced by social media, which are, at best, proto-communities without the depths of connection and shared cultural equity that distinguishes genuine ones. Places where we can share the seasons of our lives with others doing the same, who support each other as they travel their own inevitable heroes journeys on a way to a life well lived.
To face the challenges approaching us, we need the shelter and support of real communities. As it seems neither the government nor the workplace are going to provide it, we will need to create our own, one small, cohesive group at a time. Somewhere, we can find the coherence captured in Toby Lowe’s definition above.
We are going to have to make a journey from communities of profit to communities of shared meaning.
Artisans form the basis of one sort of community, bound together by an approach to work, but there are many others.
As we approach 2024, that seems like a useful direction to take what we have learned together over the last two years.