June 24, 2013

The tyranny of the moment


Warning!  This post doesn't contain 7 steps or 12 ideas, nor is it the ideal 600-800 word length ...

"The greatest tragedy in using speed as the answer to complexity and the complexities of work-life, is that very soon we cannot recognize anything that is not traveling at the same velocity as we are. We become strangers to the longer wave-forms of existence; and distant from the greater seasons of our maturation, time itself becomes the enemy and strangely, prohibits us from having a real relationship with the timeless. Our loved ones become strangers to us as we commoditize them into our mechanical but blurred view of the hours of the day, and the internal, eternal imaginative self, inhabitant of the place where the time does not exist, becomes the greatest stranger of all.

Adapted from ‘Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity’ Riverhead © David Whyte

In recent times, several movements have celebrated "slowness" - there's slow food, slow cities, slow schooling, and even slow sex.  Each of these seems to be a call back to a more authentic life.  Slow food, a movement originating in Italy, calls us to savor the experience of eating and nurture our bodies with healthy and wholesome food, as opposed to mindlessly consuming so-called fast food, for which the name junk food is much more appropriate.  Slow cities call us back to the community, they encourage walking or cycling rather than driving, they encourage smaller shops selling local products as opposed to large impersonal shopping malls.  Show schooling reminds us that education is a process and that knowledge is deeply contextual.  It also reminds us that it is important for children to have time to just be children, and not be bogged down in endless extra-curricular activities.

A couple of years ago I had the privilege of getting to know Prof Paul Cilliers, a world-renowned scientist and philosopher who passed away in 2011.  Paul was well known for his work in complexity thinking.  He authored an article on slowness in 2007, and from the interactions I had with him, I can honestly say that he lived this philosophy.   In this article, he explores "underlying principles which make the debate on slowness an important one."

He starts off his article with the following:

"It should also be stated upfront that there is no argument against an appropriate fastness. A stew should simmer slowly, but a good steak should be grilled intensely and briefly. The argument is against unreflective speed, speed at all cost, or more precisely, against speed as a virtue in itself; against the alignment of “speed” with notions like efficiency, success, quality and importance. To the contrary, a system that has carefully accumulated the relevant memories and experiences over time will be in a better position to react quickly than one which is perpetually jumping from one state to the other. ...

Slowness is in itself a temporal notion, and in many ways the exact opposite of the notion “static”. In point of fact, it is actually an unreflective fastness which returns you to the same place."

I believe that "unreflective fastness" has become an epidemic, at least in my context.  It used to be that the standard answer people would provide when asked how they were would be "I'm fine thanx, and you?", nowadays 9 times out of 10 the answer is "I am busy" or "hectic".  I often hear people complain (and to be honest, I do as well) about how time seems to have sped up.  How the years seem to be speeding by at an ever-increasing pace.  So Paul's argument for slowness is one that resonates with me very deeply.

An almost unrestrained growth in technology, especially telecoms has made it possible for many of us to try to live in an 'eternal present', or what Eriksen (2001) in Cilliers (2007) calls the “tyranny of the moment”.   Everything has an immediacy to it, we are instantaneously in contact with everybody everywhere.  There is no distinction between work and home life anymore - privacy seems to be a fallacy, as is downtime.  We are expected to be available 24/7, vacation time or even sick leave no longer counts as viable excuses.    Cilliers states "This state of affairs may have been less detrimental if it did not also demand instant response. The very reason for mobile phones and e-mail lies in the fact that immediate response is possible. It is in this “immediate” that the main problem lies. There is less and less time for reflection. Reflection involves delay, and in a cult of speed, delay is unacceptable. This move away from reflection to immediate response has profound implications for our understanding of what it is to be human"

Stories that I  hear about work-life balance issues in organisations often highlight how everyday habits undermine the most well-intentioned policies.  Stories abound about flexi-time or telecommuting policies that very few employees feel that they are actually allowed to make use of.  Many people feel that switching off their phones at night or while on vacation is potentially career limiting.  And this isn't only true for people working in large corporates, but also for entrepreneurs and even people who work in non-profit organisations - it's as if we inherently believe that not being available and contactable 24/7 will put us at a disadvantage those who are; because not being available is career limiting.

How do we escape the "tyranny of the moment" ... I'm not really sure but I do think it is a decision each of us needs to make.    I've also heard other stories, stories of people who seem to "buck the system" - positive deviance stories of people who under the exact same circumstances managed to get completely different results.  We are often in awe of how these individuals are able to resist the seemingly relentless pull of the system towards busyness.  I know people who are incredibly efficient, but at the same time uncompromising when it comes to managing time boundaries.  These people seem impervious to the colleagues who jokingly ask if they're working "half-day" when they leave at a reasonable hour.   Other people simply cannot bear to face veiled jokes and other devices that colleagues employ to ensure that everyone adheres to the culture of business.  But the truth is, we can all choose not to join the other hamsters on the wheel ...  the only question is if we're willing to live with the consequences.

I would love to hear some of your stories or reflections on this topic.

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