Opposition politics in the UK are in a sorry state. The Labour Party is in the grip of a far-left cult which is not much interested in parliamentary democracy. Since the General Election, those in the Labour Party who don’t favour Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership have gone quiet – perhaps buying into the myth that by not losing the election as disastrously as everyone expected, he somehow won it instead. Because the moderates expressed their lack of confidence in Corbyn on the grounds of his unelectability, they are now shouted down by those who crow about Corbyn’s apparent popularity. What has been lacking is a principled critique of what he stands for.
London’s community of mindfulness practitioners lost a guiding light this year with the death in March of Cindy Cooper. Cindy was my teacher and sometime supervisor for about ten years. During that time, I frequently reflected on my good fortune to have encountered her. She combined the integrity and wisdom evident among the best practitioners in her field, with a warmth which made people feel they had a deep connection with her. In this, she embodied the value we gain from working with a teacher and learning in groups. She helped generate a depth of understanding that could never arise simply by practising alone.
Some years ago, I attended a meeting on whether executive coaching could help make society better. I mentioned a Marxist critique of the crisis in capitalism that I had recently read. Before I even managed to share any insights that I’d found relevant, one of my associates brushed aside my contribution – asserting something along the lines that we didn’t want the Stasi in the UK (a sentiment with which I naturally concur). He seemed to want to restrict the conversation to the role of business in promoting environmental sustainability. The episode defined for me a sensibility in working life that holds to faux-apoliticism as a badge of professionalism. In this view of the world, there’s a safe agenda of social change, which allows a degree of corporate virtue signalling around our shared interest in planetary survival, but forbids the potentially more divisive discussion of wealth and power and the role of organisations in sustaining them.
This distinction is increasingly hard to sustain. The backlash against a capitalism that consigns whole communities to the backwaters is recognised as a factor in both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. This year, the Grenfell Tower fire gave us a grotesque demonstration of where apolitical collusion with the apparently natural workings of the economy can lead. Not just the circumstances that led to the fire but the local authority’s inability to respond to the disaster revealed a hollowed out state, in which an over-financialised approach to management overwhelms the ability of organisations to meet basic human needs.
In conventional thinking, the people who get on in life are those who are brainy or talented. But this apparent truth was overturned by the Stanford University psychologist, Carol Dweck. Through many years of research, she found that being labelled as talented could quickly become an obstacle to achievement. It turns out that effort is much more important than talent.
This simple but important finding is presented in Carol Dweck’s book Mindset. The key insight it contains is that people learn and develop best when they adopt a “growth mindset” – open to learning as a challenge, relishing setbacks as an opportunity to learn – and flounder when they adopt a “fixed mindset” – defensive of their identity, frightened to take risks in case they fail. The fixed mindset values innate talent over cultivating potential.
The English and Their History by Robert Tombs is a monumental book covering the story of England from the 7th Century to the present day. Published in 2014, it’s a pertinent insight into our national identity. While the whole of the UK is leaving the EU, it is English nationalism that is a driving force behind it.
Tombs shows that an English nation was established well before 1066 using the language of old English which was suppressed by the Normans but revived in the fourteenth century. A long history of conflict with Scotland overhangs much of the story prior to the Acts of Union. The union is sometimes portrayed in the nationalist perspective as something close to England’s annexation of Scotland. But the union also meant England was subsumed into Britain. Scotland retained a national identity, England less so. And Tombs’ history becomes more blurry after union: it’s hard to pick out England’s story from that of the broader UK.
I was somewhat nonplussed by the Royal Academy’s Jasper Johns exhibition, which ends this weekend. His renowned work is undoubtedly pleasing. Partly this a function of his portrayal of the familiar – flags, numbers, targets – which he renders unfamiliar through multiple repetitions and subtle variations. But more, it’s to do with how his repetition strips out meaning and defies interpretation. So you’re drawn into his artistry: the texture of his paintings of the flags, the attractive form of his numbers.
Continue reading “Jasper Johns shows us what mastery means”
Why do I write so much about politics? Because there’s an inescapable link between our political situation and the way organisations are led. It’s a moot point whether organisations align with the prevailing political discourse or whether politics is shaped by the interests of organisations. At the moment, it’s politics that’s making the running. There’s a broad consensus across the political spectrum that, whatever path Britain takes in relation to Brexit, it needs to become more inclusive. There’s not much agreement (nor even much in the way of ideas) about how this is to be achieved. But I fear many organisations don’t yet grasp the demands it will place on them to overcome the alienation and social fracturing that blight large parts of the country.
Brexit is shaping up to be the object lesson par excellence in how not to lead in complexity. First this week we have seen the Government’s negotiating strategy (if one can call it that) for getting to Phase 2 of the Brexit talks blown to pieces by its negligence of the Irish border issue. Then the Brexit Secretary, David Davis, admitted that the Government had made no assessment of the impact of Brexit on the various sectors of the economy, despite having previously insisted on several occasions that such assessments were in hand. So the Government is navigating what is the biggest peacetime challenge that the UK has faced in generations, not just with no real understanding of what its impact will be but no attempt to understand. It’s almost as if the truth would be too frightening for ministers to know.
The premise of Cal Newport’s Deep Work is that deep work is what creates value in the knowledge economy but our culture encourages people towards distraction. Therefore opportunities exist for those who can prioritise depth. The book outlines strategies for doing so.
Newport defines deep work as:
“Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
Its antithesis, shallow work, is:
“Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”
If the thought of a life of concentration sounds exhausting, the good news is that it is not necessary – in fact, would be counter-producive – to try to spend all one’s working time in deep work. Newport says the aim should be to minimise the shallow and get the most out of the time this frees up by committing three to four hours a day to deep work. A certain amount of idleness is necessary to make sure the time spent in deep work is productive and creative.
The New York Times columnist, David Brooks, wrote a series of columns this year on the subject of moderation. He was responding to the increasing prevalence of fanaticism in the United States, which stretches from Trump’s “conspiracy mongering” to the neo-Nazis. We have our own problems with fanaticism in the UK, ranging from the hard-line Brexiteers who will have no compromise with reality to the misogynistic and anti-semitic left.
The problem with fanaticism is that it provokes righteous anger in those who oppose it. So a perfect storm of rage encompasses civic life. The last sentence of my previous paragraph might even have contributed to it.