This is an old post ported from my old site; I share it here because it remains relevant. It was written mid-way through the first year of the pandemic.
So! The other day I received a text message from a friend. It went something like this:
Hi Jason. Hope you are still in good spirits, despite the second VIC lockdown. I wondered if you have a recommendation on a workplace mindfulness coach—my team is quite overworked and I would like to provide them an introduction to the mindfulness topic. Thank you and cheers.
Thankfully I have a good sense the disposition from whence this request was coming from (good heart; sound mind; complexity affinity, etc).
But it also had me realise that gosh, right now, many folk are probably turning to mindfulness (and ‘resilience’) training as a means to ‘cope’ with the stress associated with the increased workload brought about by this pandemic. Often, this takes the form of a palliative kind of care—something to reduce the pain, without necessarily addressing the cause.
The issue is not that people need mindfulness to cope with overwhelming workloads—the issue is overwhelming workloads. 
And we can do something about this.
A question of ethos
Overwhelming workloads are an emergent phenomena of the neoliberal/late-capitalist/techno-optimised ethos of this hyperconnected world we live and work within. It’s all-consuming—there’s always more that can seemingly be done (and thus, nothing is ever ‘enough’). The boundaries between work-life and home-life (and of privacy itself) have long been eroded by the internet—and now, thanks to our pandemic, they’ve all but disappeared.
This question of ethos is important, for just as our current collective work ethos is consuming our lives, so too is it consuming the host—our planet, and the vibrant living systems we are a part of. To quote from The Chrysalis:
This is the first truth about our times we must affirm—Gaia is sick. The planet is very, very sick.
In any diagnosis, we look for the causes—the aetiology of the disease, malaise, or malady. The generally accepted diagnosis is that the disease is anthropogenic—that the human ethos and attitude towards the Earth and Nature is pathogenic. As Heraclitus put it, “ethos is fate”, and we are seeing today that our contemporary ethos is fatal, nihilistic, destructive, and thanatic.
This is the second truth of our situation. And if we were to step outside our narcissistic self-interested bubbles of delusion and self-deception we would see that it is so.
The human is not the pathogen. It is the ethos or general attitude that is the pathogenic factor. This is fortunate because it can be rectified. An ethos is mutable, convertible, changeable, transformable. Were it not so, there would be no possibility of an authentic “metanoia” or “new mind”, which is the primary theme of The Chrysalis—the urgent need for a new ethos, a new metanoia—one grounded in the principles of health and healing (ie, “integral”).
Aside: I’m not sure if it’s a case of a new ethos but rather a renewal of the many stories and myths we already have at play. (Which, to be fair, is what the author does—as with the many authors tending to the kindling of a brighter future, amidst the growing pallor of our inevitable collapse). The bard Dr Martin Shaw writes of this in his essay Small Gods:
We hear it everywhere these days. Time for a new story. Some enthusiastic sweep of narrative that becomes, overnight, the myth of our times. A container for all this ecological trouble, this peak-oil business, this malaise of numbness that seems to shroud even the most privileged. A new story. Just the one. That simple. Painless. Everything solved. Lovely and neat.
So, here’s my first moment of rashness: I suggest the stories we need turned up, right on time, about five thousand years ago. But they’re not simple, neat or painless. This mantric urge for a new story is actually the tourniquet for a less articulated desire: to behold the Earth-actually-speaking-through-words again, something far more potent than a shiny, never contemplated agenda. As things stand, I don’t believe we will get a story worth hearing until we witness a culture broken open by its own consequence.
I suspect we are witnessing this breaking, and have been for some time. (Afflicted with naïve optimism? Give this podcast a listen.)
So! How might we bring about a shift in this collective ethos that’s currently consuming its host? Hoho… I don’t know.
But! I have some tentative ~notions to share, which might enrich your perspective a little. At least: in the domains of ‘work’ in Enterprise Land.
Ethos as affliction
As you know, I spend most of my time flâneuring in the noösphere; oft simply gliding upon the notional currents with The Cleverness (our zephyrous wizardwood solarpunk skyship), to see what might emerge. Occasionally I dock in Enterprise Land, responding to the Fox Signal (actually more like a sigil), to see what magic/mischief I might weave with fellow agents therein. What often strikes me is the commonalities that exist across many of the senior leadership teams I work with. Generally speaking:
- Everyone is busy. Thanks to redundancies and shrinking budgets, we are taking on more roles and responsibilities, without necessarily having the compensation or support they might have once had. ‘Time to think’ at work is now a distant dream. Further, this busyness leads to working longer (though not necessarily more effective) hours. This, in turn, diminishes the restorative and regenerative aspects of life (sleep, play), which translates to lower psychophysiological state—which then translates into grumpier moods, lower trust, and less bandwidth for complexity or nuance. Generally, relentless busyness makes us more short-tempered, selfish and short-sighted.
- Everything is a priority. Which, of course, is a very unhelpful frame. Our optics have become ‘orthographic’ (as Robin Sloan describes)—we’ve lost our sense of perspective between what makes for meaningful progress, and that which could be considered as a delusion of progress. In some organisations, the signalling of any kind of progress (meaningful or not) is a more effective career advancement strategy than actually doing the work that matters. (This often being the quiet, subtle, non-linear and complex work that brings us closer to genuine value and relevance.)
- Everything feels uncertain, ambiguous and subject to change. And of course: almost everything is uncertain, ambiguous and subject to change. But what this translates to (in a low-state culture) is a kind of strategic ‘withholding’ of resources. We all have a finite amount of time, energy and attention available to us each day—it makes sense that we invest this into the things that provide the richest sense of progress. And yet, the activities that provide the richest sense of progress are often ‘default’ busywork and micromanagement. As they say, ‘what gets measured is what gets done’—which is why the more important things rarely get done. Why bother, if there’s nothing obvious to show for it?
- Everything is political. There’s always power at play, and hence: there are always politics (how power and status flows). There’s no escaping this—power and status dynamics are enthused in every facet of life. In healthier teams, issues are surfaced early and worked through in a generative manner (thanks to a high degree of openness, psychological safety and trust). In this way, it’s like a generative dance. But in low-state enterprise cultures, such issues are buried deep and left to fester. If they are ever dealt with, they are done so in a manner that is passive and pernicious. Insidious and indirect. Bad vibes.
- Everything is geared toward ‘more’. Bigger, newer, faster, more-er—we love that, and the game is rigged for enterprises to pursue such. Most enterprise folks have been talking ‘transformation’ for some time—but always in the context of adding ‘more’ things to do. Doing more with less. Seeking new efficiencies; optimising our tech to win the race to oblivion; a productive race to the bottom. And yet transformation is the alchemy of creativity and destruction. Perhaps now—finally—we might consider that which we might begin to destroy/decompose?
Hoho, well. That’s what I tend to notice in aggregate. The thing is, almost every individual human who works within an enterprise is actually quite lovely. Reasonable, warm hearted and caring. Chat with them outside of the context of ‘work’ (if such a thing exists) and you’ll often find that we are each flawed, fragile and insecure beings at heart; each of us seeking—in our own way—some sort of betterment in ourselves and the world.
So why do such aberrant and abhorrent behaviours manifest in the collective?
Rivalrous dynamics are at the heart of it, to be sure. (Hence why I find the notional directionality of game ~b so fascinating). But such matters aside, I would like to bring another ‘way of seeing’ to this challenge. Something that might be difficult to perceive from within Enterprise Land (unless you have the disposition of a sleeper agent ‘poet’). To paraphrase the venerable James P. Carse:
“… poets do not ‘fit’ into society [or an enterprise culture], not because a place is denied to them but because they do not take their ‘places’ seriously. They openly see its roles as theatrical, its styles as poses, its clothing costumes, its rules conventional, its crises arranged, its conflicts performed, and its metaphysics ideological.”
Enterprise as Egregore
Collective thoughts and motivations give rise to an egregore—a non-physical intersubjective ‘thoughtform’. An ‘Enterprise Egregore’ (EE) or ‘demigod’ is thus shaped by our thoughts, and rarefied through our symbols, rituals and deeds. It emerges into a pantheon of egregore-demi-gods, and has a direct influence on the way we think and act. Imagine; a noöspheric entity that exerts influence over the motivations and deeds of the cultures that manifest it (and vice-versa).
(I am speaking in metaphor here not because I believe this is ‘true’, but rather that this perspective might be ~useful. Aaron Z Lewis has written similarly of such in his phenomenal essay Metaphors We Believe By).
The enterprise itself becomes a collection of formalised myths and ceremonies, and an EE is shaped and bolstered by shared belief. Rituals thus emerge to support, feed and protect the EE. Brands are made of them—and thus we wear the ‘symbols’ of EEs on our shirts and our satchels (even willing to go to battle against those who sprout the branding of other rival EEs). Rites of recruitment and advancement are enacted, conferences make for congregations, and sacrifices are made upon the alter of ‘success’.
Thus, if an egregore is borne of a collective amidst the context of our prevailing neoliberal/late-capitalist ethos… what do you imagine such a demigod wants?
It wants to grow. To gather power. To dominate the other demigod entities. It wants to ‘win’—at the expense of all. To be the one, and only. Enduring, like Baldur’s body. Deathless; undying—and thus never truly ‘alive’.
But such demigods need worshippers willing to sacrifice their life energies. In contemporary role-playing game mythology (which, itself is the bastardised bricolage-synthesis of many preexisting myths), we’d call such folk ‘warlocks’.
Warlocks at work
A ‘warlock’ (in the context of this musing) is someone who has—in some way, beknownst or not—made a compact with the emergent egregore of their enterprise. Some EEs are benevolent powers. Many: indifferent. Some are altogether more maleficent. By sacrificing their time, life energy—and even humanity—a warlock can receive ‘boons’ from their patron power. In an Enterprise in this ethos such boons can look like: status, influence, control, or cash-bonuses (aka: ‘reward and recognition’).
Some folks sacrifice much for very little reward or recognition—there’s an almost soup-like malaise amongst some of my friends deep in Enterprise Land right now. It pains me to watch them sacrifice their evenings, their weekends, their sleep, their health and their relationships to feed the EE—only to be met with passive bullying, more work and even more politicking. I try to woo them into the verdant mythical fields of the solarpunk game~b lands—but it’s bloody hard to make the transition. And our prevailing neoliberal/late-capitalist ethos coupled with the genuine anxieties of our times keep them caged in a weird stasis of perpetual sacrifice. (I literally have a friend right now who is experiencing crippling migraines from a lack of sleep due to work pressures from a fragile boss who exhibits bullying and racist behaviours in a system that rewards and reinforces such. I also have a handful of friends who find themselves crying at work at some stage most weeks. It’s harrowing to know this.).
I am not sure what sacrifices are made at the upper echelons, and how some folks are able to make their way to positions of power and influence relatively unscathed. Lady Fortuna might have something to do with this, or the three sisters. And maybe a touch of sociopathy, for some. So too: privilege, circumstance, maleness, whiteness, ableness, straightness, cisness, and so on. No doubt.
Still: it is what it is—and it usually takes extreme burnout or some sort of deep existential epiphany for the EE’s compact to be broken.
But the EE does not want that! It does not want you to think.
A Mindful Distraction
Any self-respecting EE doesn’t want its supply of life-energy diminished—it needs a steady stream of ongoing sacrifice to feed its growth. Some of the apex warlocks know this, which is why—when people are faced with overwork—they turn to The Ideas Industry for ‘answers’ (distraction). And lo!—the Ideas Industry provides. oft-times putting the onus right back upon the individual to somehow cope better.
This has the effect of taking our collective attention away from the complexity of the systems itself. And thus we endlessly here recurring themes of ‘passion’, ‘resilience’, and ‘grit’—means to make us work more tirelessly in service to the EE.
I could talk of this in great detail—but this article does most of the heavy lifting. Chiefly, there exists a ~somewhat helpful distinction between the public intellectuals borne of academia, and the thought leaders borne of the market.
“Both Public Intellectuals and Thought Leaders engage in acts of intellectual creation, but their style and purpose are different. To adopt the language of Isaiah Berlin, Public Intellectuals are foxes who know many things, while Thought Leaders are hedgehogs who know one big thing. The former are skeptics, the latter are true believers. A Public Intellectual will tell you everything that is wrong with everyone else’s ideas. A Thought Leader will tell you everything that is right about his or her own idea.” (source)
I’ve frolicked in both worlds. But since writing How to Lead a Quest I have become increasingly plagued by the notion of ‘meaningful progress’. The quest for meaningful progress—‘that which brings us closer to future relevance’—was a core thesis of the book. But when considered in the context of a world wrought with ecological devastation, systemic inequality, and a pervasive sense of alienation and disconnect… it becomes a little more pressing.
We’re on a disastrous path—ergo: ‘meaningful progress’ does not necessarily mean helping the Enterprise Egregores by distracting their people into more sacrifice. But it does, potentially, mean helping the people flourish and thrive from within.
Flourish and thrive to do what? To better coordinate at higher levels of complexity, maybe. To perhaps become a deliberately developmental organisation. Or possibly: to use the organisational powers of ‘business’ to co-create a world more curious and kind.
But to do this, I would suggest that fellow public intellectuals and rogue scholars—those of intellectual honesty to whom have some affinity for complexity—might consider adopting some of the aesthetics of ‘Thought Leadership’.
Yes, really! Irksome, I know. And yet smug game denial from the sidelines isn’t helping anyone. And throwing stones doesn’t feel nice either.
Just as Yancey Strickler warns (of people leaving the mainstream open web) in The Dark Forest Theory of the Internet:—
“Should a significant percentage of the population abandon these spaces, that will leave nearly as many eyeballs for those who are left to influence, and limit the influence of those who departed on the larger world they still live in.”
—so too the same might be true of public intellectuals who abandon Enterprise Land.
To quote again from David Session’s article on Daniel W. Drezner’s work, here’s a snapshot of the landscape:
…today’s thought leaders all share a core worldview: that extreme wealth and the channels by which it was obtained are not only legitimate but heroic. This is why the Ideas Industry, as Drezner effectively shows, favors the thought leader over the more critical, skeptical public intellectual: Academics tend “to dismiss the ‘Great Man’ theory of events.” If the marketplace of ideas is flooded with hucksters evangelizing the next big thing and the importance of billionaires for “making the world a better place,” it is because that’s what billionaires want to hear.
I sense at least three main ways in which complexity thinkers and philosopher-poets can work our magic.
- We can throw stones at Enterprise Land (and the EEs it spawns) from the outside. I fall into this habit far too often, and I don’t like who I am when I do. This is the path of destruction, and sometimes it’s necessary.
- We can create new alternatives—building a new village by the river (as Nilofer Merchant describes). This is the path of creation, and it’s vital.
- Or we can do both—sneaking sensibilities from the village into Enterprise Land; changing the shape of things from within. This is the path of transformation.
To work your magic in Enterprise Land—to liberate the many souls from the clutches of a maleficent egregore—sometimes, we have to sneak our way in (overtly, transparently, honestly and in plain sight).
Or maybe this is all just one big narrative I have concocted to help me sleep at night. Who knows!
(Narrator: it was).
The double disenchantment—and the renewal of kinship, solidarity and trust
Once on the inside, I often find that one of my first tasks is that of disenchantment. Folks are often already disenchanted anyway—so to disenchant a state of disenchantment is to bring about the conditions for new enchantment.
But what are we disenchanting, exactly? Why: the egregious Enterprise Egregore itself.
And how do we do this? Hohoho well: that’s a musing for another time. Transmuting an EE from within is a complex and delicate art—highly contextual; and something we do together.
But at the heart of it all: we begin by restoring ‘trust’ amongst teams. We elevate psychophysiological state. We eliminate (or at least mitigate) the activities that could be considered a delusion of progress—and then we treat that liberated time as sacred. We begin to push back on the ridiculous norms that pervade most of enterprise life. And then we question the systems themselves, and ask ourselves how we might coordinate our efforts better.
But mostly, it starts with fostering a healthy and generative team dynamic amongst leaders. We rekindle the capacity to think, create, collaborate and learn, and cultivate renewed sense of enchantment at work.
How do we do this? Well, hoho: mindfulness probably plays a part. Or at least, the topic of mindfulness is salient and popular enough to allow us to smuggle many such sensibilities in. ƪ(˘⌣˘)ʃ
And then, once equanimity is restored—once teams are liberated from the grip of their EE—we quest for ‘meaningful progress’. Whatever that might be. (ﾉ◕ヮ◕)ﾉ*:･ﾟ✧
I am not in a habit of sharing such, but I know they wouldn’t mind. ↩︎
Actually it’s both/and—mindfulness is a vital sensibility; a gateway to insight. But stay with me: I need to effectively ‘dismiss’ mindfulness temporarily, so that we might cast our attention to that which is so easily overlooked. Fret not, we shall return in glorious synthesis come the end. ↩︎
By diminishing the intersubjective sway an EE holds on its people, we are then left with: its people. Its people, who then blink to clear their vision, and who then begin to see each other as people—complex, wondrous people—who are gathered together with the potential to do some good, in some way. This is perhaps why ‘off-sites’ can be so effective—folks are removed from the context of Enterprise Land, and thus further from the EE’s hold. ↩︎
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