Forme et fond

I remember, from working in advertising in France, the slippery distinction between ‘forme’ and ‘fond’ – broadly style versus substance.

Much of organisational life lies in the interplay between these two; what’s the underlying ‘thing’ you’re tackling and how do you package and talk about it; as Wikipedia has it here.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned at work: it’s once you’ve sorted what you’re going to say; how you then say it will largely determine how it goes down – and that’s all about tone. Especially if it’s bad news, when some honesty and some humility are required.

The flip side though, is this week I’ve recognised when it comes to what others ask of me: I’m much better focusing on the ‘fond’ than the ‘forme’. 

Forget the wrapper, ditch the interpretation, don’t fret about being patronised, ignore any implied criticism, leave aside the irritation, accept any humiliation; just spot the action arising.

99 times out of 100, all that interpretation just makes you brood and ruminate: “can’t you see I’m busy”; “you really think I hadn’t thought of that”; or indeed occasionally “how bloody dare you…”

Leave all that alone and simply spot the action arising – edit the document, chase the right person, connect the protagonists; get the thing done. And the miracle of this approach is… No brooding (well not much anyway), problems solved, stuff sorted and even the odd word of thanks!

I conclude: if you want someone else to something; it’s all in the tone. If you are being asked to do something; ignore the style and focus on the substance – the action arising – however mundane, trivial or irritating; and do it directly. 

Rumination is ruination; happiness lies in action.


An interesting discovery from Learned optimismis that rumination is the optimist’s worst enemy… Chewing the cud leads to pessimism and inaction.

One thing I’ve learned at work down the years is: ‘if in doubt, do something’

Armed with this new insight I’m even more sure taking and helping others take action – sometimes any action – is my best defence against mine and their pessimism.

And this reminded me to look up Hannah Arendt the great 20th century philosopher, who I seemed to remember was big on action too… 


I was right. Here’s a boiled down extract from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:  

“For Arendt, action constitutes the highest realization of the vita activa, via three categories which correspond to the three fundamental activities of our being-in-the-world: labor, work, and action. 

Labor is judged by its ability to sustain human life, to cater to our biological needs of consumption and reproduction.

Work is judged by its ability to build and maintain a world fit for human use.

Action is judged by its ability to [manifest] the identity of the agent and to actualize our capacity for freedom.

Although Arendt considers the three activities of labor, work and action equally necessary to a complete human life, it is clear from her writings that she takes action to be the ‘differentia specifica’ of human beings.

Action distinguishes [us] from both the life of animals (who are similar to us insofar as they need to labor to sustain and reproduce themselves) and the life of the gods (with whom we share, intermittently, the activity of contemplation).”

Nuff said. I made myself a little flowchart last Sunday to remind me, which still seems on the money…


In the face of setbacks, troubles and ugliness; don’t ruminate – act. 

In the presence of success, progress and beauty; act – but don’t forget to contemplate too.

Or another way to look at it, less Theo van Doesburg


More Franz Marc


No more chewing the cud.