in king’s cross
in king’s cross
What work is being done here?
How much have I done?
Is that enough?
Is the work good enough?
Does it have any value?
I’ve been working in a variety of ways at the Centre for Creative Collaboration for more than a year now. My trip to America gave me an opportunity to reflect on what I’ve learned with others in the course of that year. Whenever I told people about the Centre, they were very interested in what we had found about the process of collaborating in a creative context.
On the whole I think people recognise that it’s a valuable but difficult thing to do. But why is it difficult? I think it comes down to some of the conventional wisdom about identity and branding. My repeated experience of working with others in the context of the Centre and before that with Tuttle in general is that most of us find it hard to give up a strong sense of personal identity for something that isn’t well-formed yet.
Now, I have to admit that even when I worked in big organisations I had trouble leaving my ego at the door and making my work about something bigger than just me. However, it’s a lot easier to do that when you have a formal contract with a corporation (at the end of the day, you’ve made an agreement to do what you’re told) than when you and a bunch of folks are sitting round a table trying to come up with something new.
Practice makes perfect, but I always feel like my own progress with this is painfully slow.
There’s so much to let go of – first of all at a personal creative level there’s the fear of making the first mark, of being wrong and of being seen to be wrong. Anyone involved in creating something new is familiar with the difficulty of the blank sheet of paper. However, having others watch me struggle with a blank sheet of paper doesn’t necessarily make it feel any easier. Making this discomfort explicit can help. Just acknowledging out loud and in the group that this is a difficult bit of the process takes away some of the power of the block.
In a Creative Collaboration people might not just be representing their own interests but those of an organisation too. Ideally we want to manage this – to have points in our process where we all let go of the organisational ego and others when it’s acceptable to bring it back in.
The greater struggle for me though is to let go of personal attachment to who I am and what my part is in the group. I have to keep reminding myself that we’re here for some higher purpose, even if that purpose isn’t well-defined – indeed we might just be here to define a purpose… We’re certainly not here to admire Lloyd and wonder at his wisdom (there’ll be plenty of time for that later…)
So part of working together is acknowledging that working together can be difficult and pulling ourselves back again and again to remembering that (at least for this meeting or piece of work) the group is the most important unit and that personal and organisational attachments may need to be temporarily jettisoned.
Because the truth is that we are simultaneously individuals and part of a group but for some reason our brains struggle with holding that idea for very long – we yearn to be one or the other.
I asked on twitter “What is the purpose of knowing what the purpose is?”
and then I went and got some lunch…
Martyn Clark said: “Creating cool stuff. Oh. That’s mine. Hmm. The purpose of the purpose IS the purpose. By definition. Fractal.”
Nick Holder said: “In order to feel purposeful?”
Michael Lewkowitz said: “to simplify”
Hmmm, all fair enough, but I wasn’t thinking of it that way, I hadn’t made it clear that I was after understanding why other people are so interested in understanding why I do what I do (a recurring theme and irritation for me…)
so I replied: “I was wondering more about what other people’s purpose is in knowing my purpose (or vice versa)”
and Martyn came back: “In that case, the purpose of ME knowing YOUR purpose, is so I can see how MY purpose relates to YOURS. Is there an OUR purpose?”
Aha! Bombshell. Paradigm shift. I once was blind but now I see.
When someone asks “Why are you doing this? What’s the point? What’s the purpose of this, I don’t understand” I habitually become defensive. Especially so if I don’t know or understand either.
I’ve never seen that question as a possible opener to collaboration, a means of finding some common ground that might take both of us forward. I only ever see it as a way of closing me down, of pointing out that I’ve got it wrong – because under it all I believe that if I can’t articulate the purpose then I shouldn’t be doing it and that this question is a test to see whether I can articulate the purpose.
I feel a big weight being taken off me! That might be useful then…
I was asked, before, during and after, “why not just do this using couchsurfing.org? It’s set up for what you’re doing and you’d meet new and interesting people.”
Well, for one, I *did* meet new and interesting people anyway but this wasn’t so much what I was after. i really wanted to experience travelling through my social graph. When I was at university one of the courses I loved was Operations Research, including problems like the Travelling Salesman Problem. I think it was the simplicity of iterating over a set of rules that I find beautiful, but I was also aware that we were dealing with extreme abstractions. An actual travelling salesman would have all sorts of distractions and deviations – he didn’t just get up in the morning and set off like an automaton. So in a way, I was playing with this idea of traversing a network algorithmically as an intelligent agent, while acknowledging the complexity of real life travel.
[And when I write that, I become aware that for part of the audience the story just got way more interesting and for a bunch of others it became duller than ditchwater. Or maybe not. ]
So couchsurfing, yeah. I wanted to see what it was like if I did this with friends, people I already knew, rather than relying on a ready–made and well-prepared network of people who do this all the time. How does it feel for me to be a perpetual houseguest with people with whom I already have some connection, however tenuous, that was formed for some other purpose than this trip. What are the feelings, problems, delights that emerge for me? And then how does it feel for a host to have someone you know from the internet just popping up in your town, on your doorstep, in your kitchen, sleeping in your spare room? And then, when they’re gone, going back to normal and watching them do the same thing over with someone else, maybe sharing stories about you or even physical objects that you had in your hand yesterday.
I think there are a few reasons why it’s important I wrote about my situation this morning and that I keep doing so as things shift and change, not just leap to “and suddenly it all turned round and I stand before you, a glowing success”. If I’d jumped from landing in California to pootling around the East Coast, you’d have felt cheated wouldn’t you?
1. We can make things better if we talk about what’s really going on. I was musing with a good pal yesterday that we’re living through a white-collar 1979. I keep thinking of Boys from the Blackstuff. We’re slowly waking up to the fact that our economy isn’t going to be based on the same things we’ve come to take for granted and we’re going through the same stages of shock, denial, anger and frustration. At the moment, people who are struggling think it’s just their own story of finding things difficult, because of their industry, their poor education and career choices, their personal ambition to do something more fulfilling than maintaining a brain-dead bureacracy. But haven’t you heard? We’re all in it together! Look back at The Blackstuff. See men isolated from their families and from each other – we have a chance to do something different, we can talk to each other across the world, but it will only help us if we’re willing to talk honestly about how we’re feeling, what’s actually going on, where our mistakes have been, when we think we’ve failed.
2. If people don’t know they can’t help. People want to help. All that stuff about social capital while I was travelling – that’s what I’ve built up and doubtless you have too. Bonds with people that mean when they hear things aren’t so good, they rally round.
3. It really helps to know that others have been there too. But I didn’t find out nearly so much about other people’s low points and failures until I started talking about my own. It’s not done, especially in this country. I am having a bit of culture shock coming back after a month in the USA. But it’s culture shock that I’m used to, it’s a bit like when I walk down North End Road after a day of being socially active on the web for an extended period. The culture I enjoy being part of isn’t just American, it’s one of the cultures of the web. I want to hear more from the people who say “I’ve been exactly there too, I’ve felt a failure and not known what was going to happen next” and then I want to hear what did happen. That’s why I’m still writing.
4. Allied to that I don’t want to lose too many bits of the story to rationalisation and the benefits of hindsight. I think we could learn more about enterprise, organisation and ourselves if we got rid of the case-study approach to education. Pick a success, ask people involved to reflect on why things worked, construct a theory that makes it seem inevitable that it all worked out beautifully. Blogging lets you see the story unfold as it happens and go back and see the source material and the vital bits of context that were important at the time – it’s much more difficult to fool ourselves into thinking that there are simple, replicable formulae for successes.
5. The journey’s more interesting than the destination. And a zig-zag windy road is more interesting than a straight one. I do choose to live like this. I choose the ups and downs and learning and expanding and pushing the boundaries over a supposedly safe and secure straight line to retirement. To me, believing that I’ll be doing roughly the same thing for the next 20 years would be like spending a day in San Francisco and just getting a plane to New York. it’s the search, the not knowing that makes it worth doing.
I lost my ability to restrain pen and tongue on twitter this morning. I apologize to anyone upset by it.
I hate being in this position. I’m embarrassed, ashamed, tired, disappointed, bored, desperately bored with being the nice guy who everyone respects and admires but who is puzzlingly incapable of generating regular revenue and looking after himself.
In a nutshell, I’m down to my last few quid again. My rent is 3 weeks overdue and I have no income at the moment. I had to call my kids yesterday and tell them I couldn’t visit them last night as arranged. I know these are distasteful things we’re not supposed to talk about in public, but I am convinced that *not* talking about it does me more harm.
I have had a wave of loveliness from people on twitter. I know I’m loved, admired, respected and that people are inspired by some of the things that I do. That means a lot to me.
I’ve been exhorted to hang in there, stay positive, stand proud and keep my chin up and I will. I’ve been told I’m not a quitter and that I’m hugely capable, that things always turn round and nothing stays the same. I know, I’ve been here before. I really had hoped not to be here again.
I have to ask again what I can do today to generate more cash, preferably on a regular basis.
PS for anyone coming to this fresh, please take a look at the archives, some “obvious” ground has already been covered.