Relevant Complexity

Relevant Complexity Link

Here’s to a brand new year.

And to celebrate I’ve bashed out a new blog, based on what I’ve learned about life, the world and everything since I started Achilles and Aristotle in 2010.

Time flies – or rather it doesn’t; a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. But ‘Relevant Complexity’ was a fairly early discovery, I first wrote about it in January 2012 here.

Like all good things in the writing life, the more you write about it, the more you think about it, the more it changes you and what you do – Aristotle said as much.

I’ll plan to keep both blogs going: this one as a reminder of what I was up to in years to come; the new one to remind me to live for the day and enjoy a life full of ‘Relevant Complexity’.

The Eaves

Cycling to work every day I get a regular soaking. Decent waterproofs help. But there are days, when looking out of the kitchen window, I don’t fancy it much. A number of years ago in the book ‘Angry White Pyjamas’ I read a quote from the Hagakure – the Japanese Book of the Samurai. It advised stepping out from the eaves:

There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to everything.

I was reminded of this, in the week, by Montaigne’s similar write-up on the Roman Legions:

Their military discipline was much ruder than ours, and accordingly produced much greater effects. The jeer that was given a Lacedaemonian soldier is marvellously pat to this purpose, who, in an expedition of war, was reproached for having been seen under the roof of a house: they were so inured to hardship that, let the weather be what it would, it was a shame to be seen under any other cover than the roof of heaven. We should not march our people very far at that rate.

I don’t mind being rained on, but I’ve often thought I’d last about five minutes on a proper Roman or Medieval battlefield. Some glum milling about before, and then probably a spirited moment of excessive unavoidable bravery early doors followed by a sharp death. That sounds about my fate. I can only assume my forebears were quick to procreate, as I don’t reckon we’d have lasted long.

But my other pet theory is we were scouts and messengers. Sharp eyed endurance runners with a precise tongue. Who knows. The Hagakure is admirably clear on the matter: ‘Bravery and cowardice are not things which can be conjectured in times of peace. They are in different categories.’

Some Hagakure quotes are positively Aristotelian, take:

‘Intelligence is nothing more than discussing things with others. Limitless wisdom comes of this.’

But like Aristotle, with his theories on biles and humours – and posture, character and beards – not everything in the Hagakure is to modern tastes. As ‘Angry White Pyjamas’ also highlighted:

When one departs for the front, he should carry rice in a bag. His underwear should be made from the skin of a badger. This way he will not have lice. In a long campaign, lice are troublesome.

I’ll step out from the eaves in GoreTex and Lycra, but I draw the line at the skin of a badger.

Cosmos

20110714-090550.jpgToday I spent an hour, at the unveiling of a statue to Yuri Gagarin, with the man who has spent more time in space than any other – the Cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev.

Poised, distinguished and himself chipped from granite, he is definitely the man you would want in the space capsule with you if something went wrong. He’s ten years older than me and found himself circling the earth when the USSR imploded leaving him temporarily stranded in outer space. Having met him, I expect he took it in his stride.

I talked to him about fitness loss in space, cosmic rays causing flashes in your eyes (a dozen per half hour or thereabouts in his experience) and experiments to test what snails had in common with dinosaurs (inconclusive).

As you might expect, given the things he’s seen, he had some reasonably profound things to say about international collaboration, friendship and what humanity has and can achieve.

My summary of his wise words:

While the ancients thought the world was infinite – and perhaps bourne on the back of elephants – when you see it from orbit you see it is big, but really not that big – and above all you see it is finite.

That the international friendships he has made are his greatest treasure and that international collaboration in science and space has always transcended the politics in his time in space.

Space is unbelievably hostile. And when all that separates you from it is a few millilitres of aluminium – which you could easily puncture with a kitchen knife – you recognise how fragile your existence is.

To say that ‘going into space has been done’ and ‘there’s nothing more to do’, is like saying the Romans built roads so why bother building a train.

Finally – and his eyes lit up on this one – the future is always exciting, we will go further and we will always reach for the stars.

A ramrod straight, decent and good man I concluded, with the quiet bravery of a modern day Achilles.

Tragedies

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Simon Armitage’s updating of The Odyssey this week – a rattling good read, in my view. Our hero Odysseus, helped by Athene – and in spite of Poseidon and the only sometimes benign neglect of Zeus – overcomes a decade of trials and torments to return to the arms of his long-suffering Penelope.

Serendipitously, I also heard a Philosophy Bites about Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche argued Greek Tragedies were the perfect human and artistic response to the balance of ‘Dionysian’ chaos and ‘Apollonian’ order in life. The world is chaos and disorder (fickle gods) but humans can briefly rise above that to create pockets and moments of order (depending on the goodwill of the gods).

This tension of chaos and order, it is suggested, energises, drives virtue, excellence and courage and guards us against hubris and vanity. For Nietzsche, tragedies and myths enriched and invigorated Athenian culture, fuelling its dynamism, optimism and creativity – a latter day ‘Yes we can’ despite all evidence to the contrary.

I think he’s onto something. Planet Earth is an extraordinarily delicate life-boat in a cosmos of nothingness occasionally punctuated by ice, fire and crushing gravity. And our world wasn’t always so benign. On hols in France – watching an improbably large stork fly overhead – I was reminded of massive raptors bouyed by high levels of atmospheric oxygen, avoiding the constant vulcanism and raging forest fires which were the Carboniferous era. Pretty Dionysian. As The Odyssey teaches we can be heroic and stoic, but we are mere mortals against primal forces.

Enter Socrates – everything can be learned, mastered and understood by unrelenting reasoned debate and dialogue. The human mind can penetrate the deepest mysteries and bring order to nature’s chaos. And indeed we can to some degree – with a bit of observation and Aristotle’s scientific method thrown in. But like Odysseus, Achilles or Icarus we can all be raised up and brought low by the fates, with only chaos and chance as explanations.

For Nietzsche the pre-Socratic Greeks had it right. Tragedy and myths were the spiritual batteries of their culture – their way of coping with an unpredictable and inhospitable mother nature. But they could, through luck, bravery and virtue, enjoy moments of truimph and joy. Art lifted their spirits and their culture.

But then along came Socrates who badgered us into believing the world was rational. I like the Socratic method – stepping outside your own beliefs to examine them and debate them with others – but not his unintended consequence. Nietzsche accuses Socrates of killing art with reason and, with it, art’s ability to help us live with and laugh in the face of chaos.

I’ve cited Armitage’s Odysseus three times at work this week. It helped me and others understand and deal with our workplace fates and some all too human failings. It made us reflect, laugh a bit and cope better. Art imitating life or life imitating art? Either way, stepping outside our local tragedies to reflect on ancient ones seemed to help.

Poetry in Motion

I’ve just finished Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘Flow’. There are things to criticise. Some points – the time we waste in front of TV notably – are right but he makes them repetitively. His style occasionally grates. But, in my humble opinion, it is an outstanding book. My Bayesian brain infers he is likely a pretty outstanding man.

There are many themes to pull out, ideas to take forward, good advice and thought provoking evidence. My simple summary is – just read it. I’ve given ‘Flow’ its own link in the sidebar to the right.

Two personal things I’ll draw out. First Csikszentmihilyi’s advice to read a piece of poetry every day. I’ve never much cared for poetry. But, as he says, I’ve discovered a poem is a simple and rewarding pleasure. It doesn’t take much. Just five minutes and two or three poems at bedtime and mood and life are subtlety and magically enhanced. I told my partner. She’s taken with it too. And now we both have books of poetry on the go. My advice – just do it.

The second personal thing was my curious desire to get the book over with. Mainly, I think, so I could get on with all the things I now want to read as a result of reading the book. But also because I ever-so-slightly feared Csikszentmihalyi might barrel off the rails and disappoint me at the end.

Many potentially great books have been marred by a lame ending. I worried about this one. Tantalisingly the penultimate chapter was pretty good – synthesis, some emergent structure and integration of themes. So, as I said to to a particular friend, I was anxious that the last chapter would be a major disappointment. He said ‘Don’t read it, write your own final chapter’. Good advice, but a somewhat daunting challenge, so I read it instead, and I’m glad I did.

No easy answers therein, but a validation of my own thesis, that the good life requires both thought and action – Aristotle and Achilles. Csikszentmihilyi also recommends the thinkers and writers of history and antiquity as invaluable guides. I increasingly agree. But his final challenge is a tough one: to learn to master oneself and then get beyond the self to find an overarching meaning for our lives and tune into and live vividly in the full ‘flow’ of the real world. Easy then.

Discussing this on Monday with another friend, we concluded life takes the balance of a Nureyev: to balance internal with external, self with others, the world within with the world without, skill with challenge, what we achieve in life with what we would want to be remembered for.

Stoic, Sceptic, Epicurean, Existentialist, pick your school of philosophy, they are all scratching the same basic itch: how much to stick your neck out and risk your mental and physical health in the hurly burly of the real world.

Finding ‘meaning’ for Csikszentmihalyi or a ‘telos’ for Aristotle is the tough one. For Aristotle’s harp player it’s playing the harp well. For me the meaning of life is getting clearer, but it’s reassuring to know there are philosophers and poets to help me on my way.

Inner Disposition

Twice this week I made myself feel a lot better by acting to adjust my ‘inner disposition’. Before Christmas I read the Stoic Epictetus’s ‘Handbook’. The translator and expert guide Keith Seddon has produced a simple summary of Stoicism in a flow diagram (above). In the centre is ‘adjusting one’s inner disposition’ which reduces ‘wrong judgements’, ‘debilitating emotions’ and overreaction to ‘external events’ – notably people. The products of an adjusted ‘inner disposition’ are ‘serenity’, ‘peace of mind’ and ‘fearlessness’. 

I associate Stoicism with passivity. Shrugging the shoulders, avoiding situations, retreating to the intellectual ‘cave’ and keeping your head down. I conclude from this week it ain’t necessarily so. Why? Because in both cases I ‘adjusted my inner disposition’ by taking action ‘in the moment’, not reflecting on it too much, and in the process letting go of the ‘debilitating emotions’ almost immediately. 

The first instance was easy. I was fuming about my day at work and the inappropriate behaviour I’d been subject to. I put my iPod on and tapped out a rant (which I kept to myself) on my iPhone. Rant written, fave tunes playing, my ‘inner dispositions’ changed in less than 5 mins. I let go and felt better.

In the second instance, I also wrote a rant, but this time hit Send. Risky. And after an hour with no answer, I started regretting it. But like hitting the reset button, or turning a computer on and off, my head and heart were cleared. So when the time came to deal with the consequences of my rant, I had a better ‘inner disposition’ and we changed the air.

Many of the great thinkers draw on Stoicism. Kierkegaard, who I’m enjoying at the moment, places taking responsibility for your own life as part of his ‘ethical’ stage of life. Aristotle advocates thought and action. Like Achilles though, sometimes I have to act – not think – to achieve ‘serenity’, ‘peace of mind’ and ‘fearlessness’.

Playing to win

I’ve been thinking recently about how to ‘be’ at work. Not everything – or everyone – is easy to get along with. Working life has many pressures and frustrations. I’ve often worked too long or too hard in my working life and sometimes got cross, spiky and brittle because of it. So looking after myself better has been part of learning to survive in bigger jobs. But surviving isn’t good enough. Thriving is what I’m after.

One potential solution to overstretch and indignity is Stoicism. It’s certainly better than ‘passive aggression’, or another past favourite of mine ‘victim behaviour’. Stoicism gives you a handy detachment and a heightened ability to endure and ‘not take things personally’. That’s a good ingredient to have in my mix, but it’s not in itself very attractive – enduring is not leading.

So how about ‘attracting’. On my better days I can definitely attract people with concepts and ideas. On my very best days I can stir a bit of passion too. But mostly I’ve been reticent to put myself at the centre of situations or ‘put my chair in the centre of the room’ as a friend of mine puts it. Partly this is fear of everyone looking at me. Partly this is the fear of friends ‘jeering’. Not much of my attraction to attraction is narcissism, but I do like to be liked.

I was reading bits of the Illiad and Odyssey last night and seeing what Achilles would have done. Achilles is the ultimate action hero. In modern managementspeak he’d be a strong ‘shaper’ and ‘personal performer’. He was passionate and incredibly driven, but he was also selfish, undermining and reckless. He was playing for himself not for the team. But he was a hero and he did make and change history.

As Odysseus said to the ghost of Achilles when he encountered him in Hades:

“There is not a man in the world more blessed than you – there never has been, never will be one. Time was, when you were alive, we honoured you as a god, and now down here I see you lord it over the dead in all your power. So grieve no more at dying, great Achilles.”

But in return Achilles protested:

“No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus! By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man – some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive – than rule down here over all the breathless dead.”

Achilles was a great talent, but he played for himself. He burned brightly, briefly. Then he was spent, and died carrying regret. Had he been a Stoic he would never have risen to the anger and fury which propelled him into history. But would he have been more contented in Hades had he stuck around and achieved more with – and for – others?

I will read more about Odysseus – or Ulysees. On first glance, he has a winning combination of courage, guile, teamwork and sustained leadership under pressure. He played to win for the team and the cause, not just for himself.

I re-read a useful piece of research today, which concluded:

“Leaders would do well to use the energy they have to attract people to the vision and purpose of the organisation, rather than themselves. The challenge is to have the organisation’s purpose ‘in your bones’.”

This crystallises the advice I’ve been following recently to consciously put the organisation’s “cause” at the heart of my choices and narrative. I’ve already found it gives me more courage and conviction to do the right things.

‘Playing to win’ means not being reckless, selfish, impatient, kamikaze, intemperate, self-indulgent, defensive or fearful. It means constantly re-focusing myself and those around me on doing better what everyone who works here – on our best days – believes in.

Why? Because what we do really does change people’s lives. And what I do has and can change the organisation greatly. So unlike Achilles, I should use that power for good not for myself.

Corporate Punishment i) Questions

I’ve decided to begin an irregular series on ‘corporate’ behaviours which one encounters in large organisations.

Most of these start with the germ of a good idea from some management book or coach. Some are learnt through imitation and emulation. Taken to excess or with the wrong intent they stymie progress, sap energy and scupper decision making. A common feature is they are safe and look clever but often aren’t. As with so much in life, too much or too little is a vice – only the golden mean is a virtue.

Number one in the series is always asking questions and not stating your own view. Aristotle (not himself a man to beat around the bush) quotes a prior Greek, Hesiod, on this topic.

Hesiod is pungent as an old sock in his critique:

“He is best of all who of himself conceiveth things; Good again is he too who can adopt a good suggestion; But whoso neither of himself conceiveth nor hearing from another layeth it to heart; — he is a useless man.”

It takes Aristotelian effort to develop a new insight and the courage of Achilles to present a new idea. Listening, thinking, improving, adapting and adopting is what you want in return. Questions are too easy.

Achilles

Within hours of setting up this blog and posting my first post I was gripped with a pang of pure fear. What if someone mad, bad or sad takes an interest in me, seeks to contact me, meet me or hurt me or my family? Natural human reaction to unknown unquantifiable risk – flight. Must put privacy around the blog, make it invite only or better still just write for myself and only let others see any of it when I’m 100% sure it’s safe and correct and good.

But then Achilles came to me. When I thought of the concept Aristotle was the Greek for me. Achilles like Brad Pitt in Troy was too flashy and reckless and gym-toned and beautiful. But on reflection Achilles has qualities I value too. Bravery, action, leadership, courage and the capacity to stand tall and be a man.

So I changed the name of my blog to Achilles and Aristotle not or. I may not have his looks, torso or divine protection, but I can have his courage, boldness and strength. The desire to retreat to the purely cerebral, to my own cave and away from the uncertainty of people is strong within me. But the rewards of family, work and friends require me to constantly step out from the shadows.

So what’s to hide? If I attract some spam, some barbed comments, even some people I don’t want, I have the strength growing within to ignore, forgive or say no. I increasingly know myself and have real strength within. So I’ll follow Achilles, set aside fear and just write.