The Power of One

person raising hands mid air sidewards while standing on gray steel railings
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Think-tank charities typically advocate for reform, to influence decision making at government level.

Some nations (the US, France and the UK) appreciate the role independent think-tank charities have to play, both domestically and to help them evolve their foreign policies. Others including Japan, China and Germany seem to encourage such charities efforts where they’re already aligned to current government policies.

What value do think-tank charities add and what can we take from their approach to help us in our own lives?

Some problems don’t get solved by simply scaling up the current effort. Look at the US involvement in the Vietnam war as a case in point. Simply putting more police on the streets of London, or widening the London congestion zone, won’t solve knife crime or decrease air pollution respectively. What think-tanks can do is apply fresh thinking and find the best leverage points to effect positive change.

Can we all be our own think-tank charities to effect the changes we want to see? It does require self belief (confidence). It also requires flexibility thinking. Being our own, personal, think-tank charities (the power of one) will challenge us to use fresh thinking alongside existing (tired and sub-optimal) solutions. A bit like keeping your existing tool box. But adding more tools that can help with other DIY jobs. Half the job is the reflection & fresh approaches. The other half is the advocacy action taken.

Food for thought?
Simon

Photographers of Life

Is photography a recipe and metaphor for living? Should we make similar decisions about shutter speed, depth of field, subject composition and photo vantage point in our life, as we do taking pictures?

As photographers, we know that together, those four things add power and impact to the picture. We juggle them and toggle between them for the best combination. And we make a series of minor adjustments within each one too. Good photographers think rapidly and flexibly when we do all that. Who knew taking photos could be so complex!

Freezing motion or letting motion blur using camera shutter speed is like deciding what rate to absorb information at. We’re reading a news feed, listening to a funeral speech, or driving a vehicle. Do we absorb (and react) fast or slow? Do we do a deep dive into some specific detail. Or decide to keep just a general impression?

Having woken up to a new day or encountered a novel situation, depth of field is like choosing to combine various pieces of information together versus emphasising one in particular. A woman dates a guy. She finds him handsome, funny, kind to children and animals. But untrustworthy. Someone asks us to sign an agreement, or volunteer to help someone. What depth of field is appropriate?

Composition is about presentation. What combination of information will achieve the most impact for others? Should we mask our real feelings, or risk upsetting someone and killing their enthusiasm? Should we always project confidence? Will we look stupid if we ask a basic question?

As photographers, vantage point is largely under our own control, regardless of the subject matter. What do we choose to search out and take meaning from? Should we find the moral high ground? Can we step around an immovable obstacle to gain clarity?

A final thought. Perhaps it’s our flexibility to switch rapidly along the spectrum of shutter speed, of depth, of composition and of vantage point that gets us the best results of all.

Simon

Flexibility shining through

grayscale photo of baby feet with father and mother hands in heart signs
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Our choices create bridges to new aspects of our lives. And enable new branches on our family tree to develop too.

Our choices may be optimally timed, morally righteous and/or inherently wise. But their direction and sustainability are a product of the flexibility we have at the time.

Our family tree develops its height and shape due in a large part, to the flexibility our forefathers and mothers thought they had. There is perceived flexibility and reality flexibility. And not always great alignment between them. To elaborate, some of our forebears may have emigrated to new lands expecting a better life, simply because they perceived the flexibility they would have there to be almost infinite.

Where perceived flexibility greatly exceeds reality flexibility, we take risks. Where our perceived flexibility is significantly less than reality flexibility, we squander chances. Clearly we have to act too. But our effectiveness in acting is often due to flexibility we have, or think we have.

There are at least two things to improve, to enable our lives (and our family tree) to flourish. The first is to grow & maintain our flexibility per se (grow and keep our options open). The second is to keep trying to close the gap between our perceived and reality flexibility.

One tool to close that gap is flexibility itself. What’s a simple example? If we become more flexible on what we value (become less materialistic and more ambitious but for different things), our perceived flexibility can reduce to match reality flexibility. We then take jobs that involve fewer compromises and probably less stress. We live with less credit card debt. We seek less punishing avenues of stress relief – less gambling, binge drinking and sugar consumption. We sleep better and feel fitter, with fewer sporting injuries. In some cases, lowering the perceived flexibility can itself improve reality flexibility.

For some people the reverse is also true. By daring to dream and not settling for second best, they inspire those around them to lift their game, benefiting everyone. A low perceived flexibility can lead to self harm, anger issues, mental health problems, or turning to a life of crime. Beliefs become fatalistic and self fulfilling. Instead be realistic and recognise the value of real options ahead of time. Keep asking what are the things that open doors and keep on opening doors?

In summary, flexibility is like the sunlight and fertiliser for your life and your family tree both.

Simon

What flexibility can do

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Flax, nikau palms and cabbage tree fronds to the Maori people of New Zealand are what bamboo is to the peoples of South East Asia i.e. a wonder material.

The Maori used flax fronds to weave fishing lines, rope, make mats, clothing items, lash decorative housing panels together and even as a fibrous fish hook to catch eels with. Meanwhile In Europe, it was stripped into fibres and woven into linen to make fine clothes.

The flax plant is lean and tough, yet thrives in windy conditions because it has no rigid stem. Even cabbage trees, with a flax clump at the ends of long bendy trunks, break up the wind and with leaves of minimal thickness that present little side resistance.

Translated into our personal and professional lives, if the winds represent change and buffet us without warning, what can the humble flax plant teach us about being more flexible?

Working as a group of leaves disrupts the force of the wind. The leaves deflect some wind, shedding some along the length of the leaves – the direction in which the leaf is strongest. As families, or as work teams, we can do the same with some forces of change. The ‘lengths’ of our skills allow us to shed some of the ‘wind’. Or use it to our advantage, blasting away troublesome pests.

We can take design inspiration from the flax plant too – a strong base and lean leaves to give integrity. Shiny in all weathers. Projecting in all directions and able to shelter smaller creatures. A toughness and benefit that even survives the death of a leaf.

Finally, the flax leaves have so many uses because of their strength combined with their flexibility. If we choose to develop both things together, personal and professional versatility should result.

Simon

Going the extra mile

The faster the pace in our lives, the more we take shortcuts to cope. Finding more shortcuts, or making shortcuts on the shortcuts are two solutions.

Controlling the pace of our lives is a third solution. That takes a different kind of flexibility. Sometimes it’s about:

• changing people’s expectations of us,

• changing our expectations of ourselves,

• recognising ahead of time how long something will really take,

• putting in place measures that mean when we do speed up the pace, the risk of crashing is lessened.

Using flexibility thinking, means switching from how and when to do more, to why do more? If working faster at work is desirable because the boss wants more done, ask yourself what you can do that will achieve the same overall result (make your boss look effective to their boss and help the customer to a greater extent) without taking shortcuts to work faster.

Perhaps gather some data from your observations of customer needs and if the volume of basic tasks can be outsourced to the customer as pre-transaction work, that frees you up to provide more meaningful services to the customer. Then everyone wins.

In a home setting, if it gets harder and harder to juggle; working a job, running a house and raising a family, taking more and more short cuts probably isn’t going to cut it (no pun intended). Instead, ask why am I the one doing so much. Who can I empower? Who else has a stake in making this work? Children learning new skills is how they grow as people. Extended family helping out is how they connect to your immediate family. Neighbours exchanging favours eg taking an Amazon delivery on behalf of the person next door, is how communities grow again.

Finally, if the increasing pace of life forces some time cuts elsewhere, switch to multi-tasking – swap dedicated gym workouts for physical house maintenance (painting and moving furniture, mowing the lawn, landscaping, lugging shopping back to your house, repairing stuff).

And if you have to cut time, make sure you shed some time exposed to negative things – listening to excessive or duplicated criticism, watching reality shows that don’t teach you something, or counselling people who aren’t going to change.

Simon

Exchange, acquire and shed

photography of a woman sitting on the chair listening to music
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Boredom can occur when we cannot or won’t seek out change. Or when we grow impatient waiting for something (passive boredom). Regarding the first type of boredom, a certain amount of repetition is reassuring. Too much just frustrates and exhausts us (active boredom).

In the workplace, boredom likely explains quite a bit of tense workplace interaction, job hopping and sub-optimal activity – the saying ‘the devil makes work for idle hands’ springs to mind.

Outside the workplace, because of boredom, people become activists (not the only reason they become activists). Others gamble, take drugs and alcohol for escapism, persecute others, change their image, watch reality TV, have affairs, or indulge in sports that provide an adrenaline rush.

Regardless of what makes us bored, our boredom has a threshold (limit) and we have an appetite (a capacity & desire) to avoid boredom. We also have varying levels of control over our ability to avoid boredom.

If boredom is commonplace, why do we let it remain the unspoken elephant in the room? Do we think talking about boredom makes us seem self-indulgent or powerless? In the workplace, do managers never talk about their teams being bored, because it will indicate they hired the wrong people? And can’t find enough productive things for them to do?

Presumably for each of us, our boredom threshold varies by activity, by what kind of day we had before the repetition. By our level of familiarity with the repetition. By the level of compensation for the boredom endured. And whether we suffer the repetition alone, or in good company.

To make boredom more pleasant, we can try to control the repetition or the wait, using personal flexibility.

Returning to the title of this blog, exchange involves exchanging one king of repetition for another. At an aerobics class, instead of doing exercise in silence (and by ourselves), we dance to the music as a group. As WordPress bloggers, we produce a series of (hopefully) interesting blogs. Yet it’s just as important to appreciate the series produced by others too- we learn something by producing our own. Yet grow more as individuals by paying attention to what others have to say too.

Acquire includes obtaining options in advance, that give you the freedom to change the form or timing of the repetition. Options include controlling the speed of the repetitions. Or creating options that intersperse the repetitions with more exciting interludes.

Shed means develop flexibility to avoid the wait, convert it into productive time, avoid the repetitions. Or leverage them into something bigger. Ironically, our minds make us bored.  Yet our minds are the key to our personal flexibility too.

If you find these blogs interesting, feel free to recommend them to others.

Simon

Parenting and Flexibility2

photograph of a family
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Firstly, I don’t have a monopoly on parenting expertise. Or claim to have all the answers on good parenting. However I do have 13 years of experience of hands-on parenting that includes; parenting step-children, parenting step-children who grew up in another country and parenting three genders.

What might be interesting is to look at parenting through the lens of flexibility, to see if a fresh perspective might help some of today’s parents with some of today’s parenting challenges.

In the business and not for profit world, culture & policies blend with goals & support functions. You might think of it as ‘setting the tone’, mingling with ‘setting the scene’. In parenting, setting the tone and setting the scene are also important.

Setting the tone in a family is arguably about setting some kind of structure, responsibilities and boundaries. As well as providing guidance from those in charge. The family comes to develop some kind of family-level ethics and values, typically involving loyalty to the family. And one family member representing the rest at various events. The family is seen as bigger than any one member. Setting the tone doesn’t involve spending money, so much as intervening at the appropriate time with the appropriate message.

Setting the scene includes making commitments, often involving parents giving time & money to create an environment for the children to develop in. An extension of this is when parents choose to entrust the education of their children to a school and its teachers. Parents typically also tell their children that they are available at short notice. Whenever the children face a problem beyond their control.

How does all this relate to flexibility? Firstly kids love flexibility. Especially where they benefit directly from it. Real life requires some level of flexibility from parents too. Situations arise on a scale of serious to trivial. Life threatening to minor. Formal to informal. Urgent to non urgent.

One idea in a two parent active family (active parenting by both parents), is to alternate the roles of setting the tone and setting the scene between the two parents. Why? Through alternating the roles, there is more scope for consistency. And if one parent is absent, the other can perform either ‘setting’ role more confidently.

A final thought. Can parenting be enriched by pairing up all nine combinations of setting the tone (ethics, structure and mentoring) with setting the scene (scope, sponsorship and logistics)? For example, can the parents emphasise family ethics and parental logistics together? Or family structure and parental scope together? In other words if delivering a serious, dry message on tone, balance it with a more positive message on setting the scene as well. At worst, it will deliver fresh, rounded messages to the kids. At best it will strengthen the pace of their development.

Simon