This morning I awoke to find that some Republican senator or some such had upset a number of those I follow on Twitter by suggesting that people who are sick have not “lived good lives” and thus shouldn’t expect those who have to subsidies their healthcare costs. Which gives me an opportunity to rant a little about meritocracy.
On the face of it meritocracy seems good. It’s sold as a fair way to distribute wealth and power. Instead of doing it based on birthright or some other arbitrary privilege, meritocracy promises that we can do it on the basis of who deserves it most. I mean, that seems fine doesn’t it? Until, of course, you realise that it’s essentially impossible and ultimately tautological.
You begin with the problem of how we define merit. Merit is, according to my dictionary, the quality of being particularly good or worthy, especially so as to deserve praise or reward. So merit is whatever is good. Do you begin to see a problem? Who exactly gets to decide what is good?
The question of what is good and what is bad has been bugging philosophers for thousands of years. It seems unlikely, therefore, that we are close to a consensus on this topic and even if we were would that consensus not be merely a temporary construct? In which case the thing that we currently consider to be “merit” is essentially arbitrary. There was a time when being a strong slave owner was seen as worthy of praise, when beating one’s wife when she got out of hand was smiled upon, when it was good to put people to death for blasphemy, and so on. Would it be anything other than hubris to imagine that our concepts of good and bad will seem any less strange to our decedents?
But, people argue, we don’t need human opinions on this, we can simply use the Invisible Hand of the Market to decide. Which is where we go from impossible to tautological.
If the market decides what is good and what is bad, how do we learn of this decision? Why, we learn of it through how much wealth the market decides to bestow upon various people. Ergo, we know what is good by how much money that thing makes. In other words, if something deserves to make money we know it deserves it because it is making money. See, tautological.
This isn’t the end of it, however. Because once people begin to believe that they live in a meritocracy you start to see the most powerful perversions of the idea. If we are meritocratic then what happens to someone, either good or bad, is deserved. The poor deserve poverty, the wealthy deserve wealthy. Sick people should not be helped by the healthy because they clearly do not deserve health. We should not tax the rich or provide relief for the poor because to do so would be to undermine meritocracy. Why strive if your deserved rewards will be taken from you and handed to those less deserving?
Taken to the natural conclusion a believer in meritocracy should also support eugenics since inferior genes do not deserve to be passed on. To enable someone who is inferior to breed would be to pass a burden to the next generation.
The very idea of meritocracy depends on the belief that life is in some way fair to begin with, that good decisions will always lead to good outcomes and that people have an abundance of control over their lives. The most passing inspection of the world would put pay to that idea in a moment.
First of all, we don’t have control over our lives. Every day decisions are made, forces act upon the world, that are beyond the understanding, let alone control, of any individual. The weather, random fads and trends, infectious illnesses passed around invisibly through a thousand unpredictable vectors. How many people might have invented Facebook had some small variation in history taken place? A chance encounter, a misdirected communication, a car accident, or some other random event?
And that doesn’t even begin to address the question of free will. Even if we allow that we have free will, it’s very difficult to argue that we have actively chosen our starting points. Did Mark Zuckerberg choose to be born in the USA and have the genes that coded for a well above average intellect? And had he been born with the exact same genes only ten years early or later would he have been rewarded so richly for these gifts?
None of this is to diminish the role of hard work and ability. To achieve something we need effort and we need talent. But we also need luck. Had Mr. Zuckerberg been struck down with a nasty ailment at just the wrong time he may have missed the window to create his fortune. Perhaps he’d have found another window but this we cannot know. We can know, however, that with our frail bodies and chaotic universe, we are all subject to the powerful forces of fate no matter how hard we work or how talented we are.
What can we take from all of this? I think there are two lessons.
- Be humble when you succeed because no matter how much it feels like the result of your own hard work and abilities any success must come along with a great deal of luck, even if that luck is merely being born at the right time and with the right genetics.
- Be forgiving of failure, your own and other’s. Just as the fates must have smiled on those who succeeded, it is likely that failure is as much down to poor fortune as it is to poor choices.
It is right and good for people to strive for what they want. Fulfilling your life’s purpose must be your ultimate goal. I am not arguing in favour of a world of nihilism and self denial. But be flexible in your goals because fate may have other plans for you. Forgive yourself your failures and be grateful and humble in the face of success. You may deserve your success, but that doesn’t mean someone else wasn’t equally deserving but just a little less lucky.
“If I had a hammer,
I’d hammer in the morning
I’d hammer in the evening,
All over this land
I’d hammer out danger,
I’d hammer out a warning,
I’d hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters,
All over this land.”
– If I Had a Hammer by Peter, Paul & Mary
A lot of people think this song is just a catchy, hippy singalong about peace and love. But I disagree. I think that Peter, Paul & Mary were under appreciated philosophers trying to warn us all about the danger of Maslow’s Hammer, otherwise known as The Golden Hammer or The Law of the Instrument.
The Law of the Instrument is usually summed up in the following saying:
“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
– Abraham Maslow
More broadly the Law of the Instrument applies to the idea that as soon as you give someone a tool to use he or she will begin to see everything through the lens of that tool. Immediately shutting out alternative solutions that would not be approachable via the familiar tool at hand.
Examples include medical specialists who will seemingly always interpret symptoms such that they lean towards their own area of expertise, car mechanics who, if specialising in a given part of the car will more often than not come to the conclusion that this part is faulty, or almost any business professional from Lean Practitioner to Systems Architect who will invariably find that whatever ails your company is due to a fault that they have the tools to fix.
In the end, are these people using their tools or are their tools using them?
This should be worrying if you’re either using a lot of creativity tools or processes and even more so if you’re someone who makes a living selling them.
“Just because you’re *allowed* to use magic now does not mean you have to whip your wands out for everything!”
– Molly Weasley in The Order of the Phoenix, chastising Fred and George for overusing their newly gained magical freedom
And if you think about it, isn’t that what Peter, Paul & Mary were saying? After all, if they had a hammer, they said, they’d never stop hitting things. I certainly hope nobody ever gave one to them.
This is why I tell my clients to be very wary of tools. And by tools I mean anything that is designed for a person to use to achieve a certain goal. Tools, you see, can end up using you.
Some things that I define as tools within the world of creativity:
– All idea generation techniques
– End to end creative processes or systems
– Mechanisms for converging around a single solution
I don’t teach creativity tools and techniques as a core part of my business. I’ve actually argued directly against paying anyone to do such a thing. Tools are fine, but we all too often begin with the tools and before long we have fallen foul of Maslow’s Hammer.
And here I am happy to say I can once again join forces with my friend and colleague, David Birss, after last week’s unpleasantness. You see, David has recently written an article on why brainstorms are terrible and we should all stop using them.
He is absolutely right and has happily provided an excellent real world example of what happens when people find a tool they are familiar with and just keep hitting things with it.
They’re much like people who needlessly risk RSI shaking Polaroids. It makes no difference but once the idea is out there it’s hard to dislodge.
Brainstorms are terrible but I would go even further and urge readers to let go of all the tools they use. Or, if not entirely let go, begin to hold them far more loosely.
“My policy is to have no policy.”
– Abraham Lincoln, 1809–1865
To bring this to a more personal level, I think we can all remember a time when we’ve learned some new tool or technique and found ourselves endlessly applying it. I recall when I first learned of The Myers Briggs Personal Assessment and took the test. From that moment I became obsessed with understanding myself and others through the lens of this tool.
I had fallen prey to narrow minded instrumentalist and it has taken me years to fully rid myself of its restrictive effects.
Perhaps I’ve convinced you to be less in thrall to tools, techniques, processes and methodologies. What, then, do I recommend instead?
– Get back to basics. If you happen to have a set of tools or a process you follow, put it aside and improvise. See what happens when you go in with no agenda, no techniques.
– Change the situation so that your old tools don’t work. If your tools are dependant on some kind of technology, switch it off. Need to be in the same room? Go elsewhere. Need pens and sticky notes? Lock the stationary cupboard.
– If you must use tools, mix them up as often as possible. Learn new ones all the time and rethink the use of old ones.
These are useful short term fixes but the only sustainable way to avoid being whacked with Maslow’s Hammer is to get past the idea that creativity is something separate from your normal working life.
Creativity happens now – in the moment. It’s not something that lives in workshop rooms or studios, it’s part of life. If you can find ways to increase your awareness of creativity in the moment, become more flexible and responsive just as a part of how you live, then you’ll find that you no longer feel the need to reach for the toolkit and plan a workshop every time a problem needs solving.
“If you put an empty gourd on the water and touch it, it will slip to one side. No matter how you try, it won’t stay in one spot. The mind of someone who has reached the ultimate state does not stay with anything, even for a second. It is like an empty gourd on the water that is pushed around.”
– Takuan, Japan, 1573–1645
You know, when David Allen, the creator of Getting Things Done (GTD for short) says that it takes about a year to “get this stuff”, in reference to GTD, it’s easy to imagine that by this he means that GTD is complicated. It’s not. In fact, it’s very simple. That, of course, doesn’t mean it isn’t hard.
I’m coming to the belief that the biggest things we have to deal with in life – family, friends, love, loss, death, peace of mind, purpose, the whole general mishmash of existence – largely fall into the Hard Not Complicated bucket. Which is great for me from a philosophical perspective (life appears to be very “on brand” right now) and also interesting from a how we learn perspective.
The question at hand, the thing that I’ve just sort of got my head around, is the difference between actions at projects and, more specifically, how to manage them.
I’ve had an “action” in my list for a while now, waiting to be acted on. This “action” was “Arrange dinner with Laura”. I’ve placed the word “action” in inverted commas because I’ve now realised this isn’t, in fact, an action.
In GTD they say that an action is the next, visible step and it has to be something you can do in one go. Arranging a dinner doesn’t fit this definition because, despite being a small and relatively simple outcome, it still breaks down into smaller actions. Furthermore, it isn’t entirely clear what all those actions will be from the outset.
It could go like this:
- Send email to Laura suggesting dinner
- Read email response with suggested dates
- Ask wife about availability
- Respond to Laura with preferences
- Read email response and confirm with wife
- Confirmation email to Laura
- Add to calendar
- Buy bottle of wine to take
On the other hand it could go like this:
- Send email to Laura suggesting dinner
- Call to follow up email after three days as no response
- Find out that Laura has had to go out of town on business
- Defer action until Laura comes back in two weeks
And there are, potentially, endless other ways that this could go. Even here, something that looks like an action is in fact a project with multiple steps and since one cannot do a project and can only do an action it’s unsurprising that so many lists that are, on first glance, full of actions, end up being hard to engage with.
Separating out the thinking and the doing is one of those Hard Not Complicated things that take discipline and time, not talent or brains. And when this is the case it seems that the only reliable path to success is through a period of immersion and multiple passes at the same question.
Hard Not Complicated things are problems that require a change takes place in you rather than a change taking place in the thing you’re trying to solve. You don’t so much solve a Hard Not Complicated problem – you adapt to it.
They say that you need to ask why five times to get to the nub of any given issue. This is the famous “Five Whys” approach to route cause analysis. It’s good. You should do it.
I’m starting to believe that, when it comes to creative problem solving, the whys, whats, wheres, and any other interrogative pronouns you like, can be almost infinite.
Presently I’m working on a little bit of branding work. As always I like to collaborate as much as I can with my clients so I find myself asking lots of questions. Today I was wondering about wellbeing – a central element of the brand – and I realised something. I wasn’t sure what wellbeing meant to my client. I had assumed that I knew. But, of course, wellbeing means something to me but that doesn’t mean it means the same thing to my client. My assumption had closed off an important avenue for thinking about the problem at hand.
Assumptions are pretty much always the enemy. And so it has proven when it comes to my own work; specifically business development.
It’s a little embarrassing for a creativity coach to admit this but I’ve been rather uncreative when it comes to my market. I’ve been assuming all sorts of things about who will and who will not be interested in what I have to offer. This is despite the fact that much of the work I am doing has come from unexpected sources.
Because of these self limiting assumptions I have missed out on business development opportunities, closed off conversations too early and generally been too picky about who I spend the time to talk to.
Don’t be as silly as me. If you have something of value to offer, don’t assume you know who will want or need it. Don’t be afraid to ask the question or explore a possibility that you had previously considered out of bounds. Sure, we have to rule out some things when we need to focus our time and energy but when you’re starting out, as I am, one thing you tend to have plenty of is time and energy. What you need are clients.
I just did something embarrassing. I’ve been fiddling about for a day or so trying to figure out how to set up an app which for some reason didn’t seem to offer me any way to tell it I had a paid up subscription. It just kept telling me that my trial had expired. Very frustrating.
So, finally, I relented and sent off an email asking for help. Then, literally 30 seconds later, I figured out what I needed to do. My problem was solved before the email had collected even a pixel of digital dust. If ink could be wet in cyberspace, then mine still was.
I felt silly. And then I felt curious. Why was it that I had struggled for so long and then the moment I had given up the answer came to me. Was this the universe playing silly buggers with me or was this something more?
Casting my mind back I can think of other examples of these moments in my life. Calling out to my wife to ask how to do something and then finding that the solution revealed itself almost at once. Calling a helpline to find that I’d solved my dilemma while still on hold.
And then it hit me. Problem solving requires a wide focus. When we feel under pressure we tend to get narrow in our focus – seeing only the items we expect to see, those right under our noses, going around and around in circles, blind to the alternatives around us.
Consider the behaviour of people when they’re panicking – head down, oblivious to anything around them. Similar behaviour can be seen in people trying to achieve some large, extrinsic reward; a sort of attentional blindness driven by stress and pressure.
This, I think, is part of my answer. By asking for help I reduced the pressure on myself. I let my brain off the hook. But there was another side to; this was the first time I had stated my problem clearly. By writing down what I was struggling with I provided new clues to my brain.
By asking for help in this way I both increased my capacity to think clearly and provided myself with new information with which to work.
Maybe asking for help is the simplest form of self help there is.
Coaches are often very smart and insightful people. This is to be expected because coaching isn’t easy. If you're a coach like me then you practice design thinking and creative problem solving as part of your daily work. But coaches, when they’re coaching, aren't supposed to solve problems for people. No matter how smart they are. They're supposed to help that person process they're own thoughts and come to a solution for themselves.
Then comes the dilemma; what if you know the right answer?
We’ve all been there, watching someone struggle with a difficult dilemma and having this overwhelming urge to point out a very clever solution that has occurred to us while we’ve been listening. Some of us, in moments of weakness, have even gone so far as to subtly manipulate the thinking of our coachee to help them arrive at the answer that we’re so sure is the right one.
But here's the rub; you don't know the right answer. Or at the very least you can't assume that you do. It may well be that you have a good idea but are you sure it’s the best idea? And by best I mean not only objectively optimal but the right fit for your coachee.
That’s the crux of it – your answer may be perfect for you but coaching assumes that the best solution for the person with the problem will come from that person. It’s the foundation of the coaching approach – boost awareness, facilitate thinking, ask questions and then help the coachee stay the course.
Further more, when you give advice, consider what you're assuming. You're assuming that you're smarter than your coachee, that you understand his or her life better than they do. This assumption is unsafe. It's also arrogant.
When you find yourself tempted to give advice, ask yourself these questions:
- What if I'm wrong?
- Even if I'm right, should this solution come from me?
- What might I be destroying if I speak now?
You could perhaps sum all these up with one position question?
- What would I do if I assumed my coachee is as good a thinker as I am?
In fact, this question goes far beyond coaching. What if you assumed that everyone you spoke to was as capable of thinking as you are? What if you believed that the homeless person on the street could be as insightful as the founder of the latest billion dollar tech breakthrough?
A short while ago I wrote about the feeling of relief that I felt when switched from believing that people needed me to save their problems for them to believing that the world is full of good and powerful people, filled with potential.
Apply that same thinking to your life. Would you feel a sense of relief if you knew the people around you were capable of solving their own problems and only needed you to believe in them? How would you manage your team differently if you knew they were smart and ready to use those smarts? How might you treat your children differently?
Coaching isn’t about teaching, but being a coach teaches us many things. The first lesson, of course, is humility.