The old ones are the best

In an interview last year, I was asked why we use the arts and humanities so much on the Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme.

To me, the question revealed a couple of assumptions. First, that the most important knowledge is proto-scientific, technical and in the main, rational. And, as a natural consequence, that it is the most recent theories, the ‘latest research’ we should pay most attention to. These assumptions are, I think, very widespread, which is what made it a natural question to ask. I also think they are mistaken. So I answered with another question.

‘Why would you ignore the collected wisdom of thousands of years of human inquiry?’ I replied.

We are easily seduced by novelty and recency and can quickly become ‘fashionistas’ of thought. This is upside down. My feeling is that there is a kind of inverse law in play, along the lines of ‘the more recent it is, the more likely it is to be trivial or inconsequential’.

If you are grappling with anything that involves a consideration of human nature (and frankly, who isn’t?), if you are looking for deep understanding, for an explanation of why we act as we do, then you are going to need, at the very least, to include the long view of human thought.

It is a bit like biomimicry. Yes, it is a nascent field, but biomimicry bases itself on three billion years of research in the massive R&D lab that is ‘life on planet earth’. Surely the collective wisdom of thinkers and doers throughout the ages is more likely to hold solutions to important human issues than an up to the minute MBA?

So, if you want to learn proper grown up stuff then the old ideas are the best. Or to put the same thing the other way around, that if you only concern yourself only with new learning, you are unlikely to come across anything that is great.

The Dictatorship of Diaries

Diaries take time, lay it out in a long line and chop it into little bits. They all do. In more or less sophisticated, clever, beautiful or techie ways perhaps, but essentially it is the same idea.

As if time is a piece of string.

This is not how I experience time. For me time has depth and layers and fuzzy endings and beginnings and intensity and quality and colour. More like a river than a piece of string.

I am not alone in this. Stewart Brand wrote about ‘Pace Layers’ in a wonderful chapter of his book ‘The Clock of the Long Now’. The Greeks distinguished between ‘chronos’ (quantative or clock time) and ‘kairos’ (qualitiative, propitious moments).

So the tools we have don’t work for me. Cutting time into pre-determined chunks that dictate what I should do based on some prior decision… What if I don’t feel like it? What if I am not in the mood? What if the activity I need to spend time on is a slow, long, rumbling, ruminative one that won’t fit neatly into a box? There are a thousand ways that the dictates of a diary don’t work or don’t help.

So, tool makers of the world, here’s a challenge. Can we design a diary, electronic or otherwise, that acknowledges the rich, complex, layered nature of time and helps us use it in a wiser, gentler, more creative way?


I don’t work

Driving down the hill this afternoon, I bumped into my neighbour, Vicente. He is one of the few people (even round here) who lives mostly off the land. I mentioned I was heading down to the office to do a bit of work. ‘I don’t work’ he said.

This puzzled me. After all, I happen to know that this week he and his family have harvested (by hand) several tonnes of olives. ‘I only do what I like’ he said. ‘I don’t have any money, but then I don’t work like you do’.

Actually, since my ‘work’ this afternoon consisted of an hour’s conversation on Skype with my great friend Amanda Blake about her upcoming book ‘Your Body is Your Brain’ I am perhaps not so different from Vicente, at least, not today. And I remembered that just over a week ago I had lunch in Madrid with my brother in law, who is a Professor of Psychiatry at Manchester University. And he said something very similar to Vicente – about how privileged we are to be able to do what we like.

So I wonder what would happen if anyone who can, whenever they can, started acting like Vicente?

Stop working – do what you like.