I am the sky
And my heart
Is a white wing
I am the sky
And my heart
Is a white wing
The only way to catch it
is to hold it.
The only way to hold it
is to become it.
The only way to become it
is to love it.
The only way to love it
is to say - I am it.
I am a fire.
I am the fire.
I am fire.
I am a fire.
I am the fire.
I am fire.
I am Prometheus
and I am burning.
I am a phoenix
and I am dying to be alive.
I am on fire.
I am the fire.
I am the fire.
A thought this morning
Out walking -
To love my body
As it was moving -
To allow and enjoy
The infinite intelligence
Of this living system
And its movement -
And in that moment
I said to myself
That I loved my body -
And then laughed
At the physical recognition
That the ‘I’ that I clung to dearly
My feet are here
My hands are here
But ‘I’ am nowhere to be found.
‘I’ love my body -
Such misplaced pomposity
Of an ‘I’ deigning to adopt
A position of affection
Towards a miraculous
As if standing in authority
Above it and surmising
With some superior judgment
That this living moving thing
Is worthy of love.
And I laughed at this
Comedy of errors
Of this human propensity
To fall in love with a word
And hold it high
And look through it
At the world
And see in every thing
Its own reflection
For a moment
Stopping to detect
The lie that this ‘I’
Is invariable and real -
This shattered mirror.
This empty line.
The promise is too tempting
To be broken by the offer
Of seeing clearly.
Better to hold to a wish
That it is true.
My ‘I’ comes with a promise
To stop time and sustain
A passing moment
By the power of possession -
Reaching into the river
And declaring it held
As empty fist clasps rushing water.
My love is blind.
Better to invest my life
In every losing bet
Than face this empty space
Without the comforting return
Of your baseless vow.
‘I’ll define the undefinable,
Grasp the ungraspable,
Mask the unmaskable.’
The seduction of a crutch -
This ‘I’ stands up straight
In my place.
A word to fall in love with.
An endlessly accommodating elision.
I will be anything you want me to be.
Put a pin in the world
And call it fixed.
Design a word from scratch and say
This word can bring anything here
Make anything now
And take what’s ephemeral
And make it last.
Too busy looking at what the word
Is pointing at we forget to look
At how it works.
This magic word.
This simple spell
That posits certainty
In a universe of flux.
Say ‘I’ and feel it.
So charged with emotion
And power and weight -
And just a word.
Say ‘I am great’
And feel it
So convincing in the feeling -
This instantaneous invention.
‘I am lonely.’
‘I am broken.’
‘I am yet to be persuaded.’
An infinite array of adaptations.
‘I am happy.’
‘I am weary.’
‘I am delirious with envy.’
The possibilities are endless.
O little word
O simple trick
I think you’re me
But you’re really
Not even quite a tick
A scratch, a mark, a stick -
Eloquent and defiant
Can be relied on only
To capture my attention
In a moment’s misdirection
This magician’s wand
This number one
This little lie
That turns my eye
Away from life
Into a fiction.
I think of a storm
Of raging ocean waves.
The kind that surfers dream of.
And us, out at sea,
throwing ourselves into the swell.
Seeing the life in the water
but ill-equipped to ride it.
Crashing again and again,
churning in sand and foam —
exhausted arms and legs
reach out for the shore.
Surrendered to wet sand and stone,
look back and see the racing waves.
Reminder of what passed.
In humbling acceptance of limitations.
Salt-watered cheek and lip
the only reminder
of a strained adventure.
Of reaching for experience.
Of tracing the boundary
of the edge of possibility.
I will bury my feet in clay.
In the riverbed
I’ll count the stones
As they are washed
past my ankles
by the current
And I will lay down
On the damp earth
In a furrow in a field
And watch the stars,
Counting the feet
Of every tiny creature
That might walk
Across my skin
I will close my eyes
And listen for the morning
As every bird says its name.
And in this silence,
In this waiting,
My gift to you.
On those days
where everything is lost
where no bird comes to the window
where I am not sitting on a volcano
where the wind is not with me,
On those mornings
where I am sitting in a hole
in the ground unable even
to contemplate contemplating my navel,
On those nights
where the dark and empty of the world
can hardly summon the necessary
to whisper an echoed song of loss
to a dark and empty soul,
I can do well to remember
that a falling tide
flows all the way out
to the horizon
twice in every day
and twice in every day
a rising tide flows
all the way back to the shore.
I could long for no greater master
Than the forest teacher
Who with wind and silence says
No greater doctor than
The forest healer who
Holding life and death within her says
‘You belong. And are not lost’
No greater friend than
The forest priest who
In chorus with a thousand million leaves says
‘We are but visitors here. Let go.’
It’s one of those things that we basically all know is true, but is so easy to forget in practice: in order for two people to work together, one of them has to invite the other. And, if you want to work together well, it’s absolutely essential that you know who invited who.
If you invite someone for dinner, you are the host and they are the guest.
If you ask for help, then your role is ‘person being helped’ and the other person’s role is ‘helper’. And each of these roles has different rules. So it really matters that each person understands their respective role — and what that means for how you relate to each other. Otherwise feet get stepped on. And you might think you’re helping, when you’re not really helping. And you might end up taking responsibility for things that aren’t your responsibility.
When you’re working together creatively — bringing something entirely new into the world — then it matters even more. Because when you have an idea of something entirely new you want to bring into the world and you ask someone to help, then they really have absolutely no idea what the thing is meant to look like. Because it’s your idea. In your head. And so it’s up to you to tell them — so they can help you bring it into the world.
And — this isn’t always the case — but quite often it takes two people to successfully get something all the way out into the world. Because bringing something new into the world requires two skills: the first is being able to listen inside for what the new thing is and the second is being able to take the steps to make it real. And doing those two things at the same time can be really hard. Some people are better at tuning in. Some people are better at stepping up. Some people can tune in and step up at the same time — but it’s a real art. So, quite often we find a helper and we build a bridge between us, taking one half each. You be the feeler, and I’ll be the doer. You be the visionary, I’ll be the pragmatist. You be the author and I’ll be your agent.
And, intuitively, we all know how to step in and out of those roles.
We know that if you’re the host of a party, you‘re responsible for the space, you say who can and can’t attend, you decide what kind of party it is. You get the benefit of control and the weight of responsibility. If you’re a guest, you don’t get to decide those things. You get to decide whether to show up or not and you get to decide whether it’s the kind of party you like. You don’t get to control the party — but you also get to enjoy not being responsible for the thing.
And we know that a good helper is full of ideas and helpful suggestions, but not attached to which one is right. And that a good receiver-of-help is one who can happily listen to all the ideas — good and bad — and then choose the one that is actually right for them. Fundamentally, we all naturally know all these things.
But, strangely, this elementary aspect of how humans work together well is often overlooked at work. We get caught up in job titles and seniority and expectations and ego and whatever — and forget to check who is helping who with what. Who is host and who is guest. My friend Peter Koenig has been trying to reintroduce these concepts to the workplace by teaching founders of organisations the unique nature of their role as visionary-person-asking-for-help, and then teaching them how best to work with the people who are helping them bring that vision into the world.
For my part, I’m trying to make working together effortless by showing how easy it is to map what’s actually going on when people collaborate.You can normally draw it out on a page. It normally doesn’t take longer than an hour or two. And, if there is any kind of friction between people working together, if there’s any kind of fuzziness in who should be doing what and when, then it normally resolves all of that pretty much instantly.
I call the process initiative mapping and it goes something like this…
How to map initiatives
I’m going to start by talking about just two people working together. Firstly, to keep things simple and, secondly, because collaboration is always only ever two people working together on a shared need. It might look like you have groups of people just working together in big, mushy pile of something, but if you look again, you’ll see that the big, mushy pile is actually an intricate web of connections made of pairs of collaborators. Just in the same way that the internet might look like a big, mushy pile of stuff, but if you break it down, it’s just made up of links joining one thing to another thing. In short: if you understand how two people work together, then you understand how everyone works together.
When you want to get clear on how two people are working together, there are six things you need to get clear on:
Who asked for help?
What are they trying to do?
What help do they need?
Has someone agreed to help?
What have they agreed to help with?
Why have they agreed to help?
That’s basically it.
And it feels so straightforward and self-evident that it feels almost silly to spell it out. But I have worked in offices. I have been stuck in never-ending circular meetings. And I don’t think I’ve ever worked anywhere where always asking these questions was part of the normal routine. (The closest I’ve come is working as a magazine editor, where there’s a pretty good discipline around making sure that editors have briefed writers clearly.)
So, to spell it out, let’s say I have a garden and I want my garden to be beautiful. But I don’t know how to make my garden beautiful. So I ask you to teach me.
Who asked for help? I did.
What are you trying to do? Make my garden beautiful.
What help do you need? I need someone to teach me how to make my garden beautiful.
Has someone agreed to help? Yes.
What have they agreed to help with? They’ve agreed to teach me how to make my garden beautiful.
Why have they agreed to help? Because they love making beautiful gardens and think they might get better at it by teaching someone else how to make their garden beautiful.
And you might draw it like this:
Drawing out the humanity
Here’s the thing.
Have you noticed how literature is full of people who are broken and irrational and desperate and joyful and impassioned and changeable and lovable and irritable and human?
And have you noticed how organisational charts are full of people who are… robots? Where you can just say ‘this person = this job’ — and that’s it? Where they can be plugged in and plugged out (“Oh, we replaced our head of operations.” — like you’re replacing a head gasket or a burned out solenoid or something.) Where everyone is a little bit cardboard and empty and purely rational and devoid of any kind of inner life?
Only one of these pictures of humanity is true. And it’s not the one in the organisational charts. It’s the one that’s full of humanity.
And if you want to talk about how people work together and you try to use the inhumane cardboard charts to do it, it doesn’t work. It’s like living in a fantasy: imposing the wrong set of imaginary expectations on something that is real and alive and sitting right in front of you. Like a car mechanic changing careers and becoming a vet — but thinking he can still use his Ford Escort Owner’s Manual to ‘mend’ a horse. It’s not going to help and the horse is going to die. We have to use maps that are appropriate to what we are working with. So, when dealing with humans, they have to be maps that show humanity.
And this is how initiative mapping works. Not designing an organisation. Not giving people titles. Not drawing what should happen. Not drawing how people should be.
When you map initiatives, you draw what is happening, you draw whathas happened. You treat people as people — with desires and dreams and needs and demands. And when those people manage to understand each other’s needs and one commits to helping the other, then you draw that. And when they don’t manage to understand each other’s needs and they don’t commit to helping each other, then you draw that.
And you soon find out that when two people understand each other’s needs and one commits to helping the other, then working together is effortless.
And you soon find out that when that doesn’t happen, everything starts falling apart.
Making initiative visible
As it stands, organisational charts don’t capture who took the initiative to start what. They don’t capture who invited who. They don’t capture why anyone is doing anything.
But they need to.
Because the person who starts something is ultimately responsible for it. The person who starts something ultimately holds the vision for what that thing is. The person who starts something is the only one who will really know when it’s finished. The appetite of the person who starts something is ultimately what dictates how much energy is available for making it happen.
So if you don’t include initiative-taking on organisational charts, then you all too easily end up with ‘ghost initiatives’, where something was started by someone, but then they left, and the thing carries on in a kind of weird, disconnected limbo. Or someone started something for a particular need, the particular need was met, the thing was no longer needed, but people carry on with the thing out of habit.
And you end up with ‘cuckoo initiatives’, where something is started under the guise of ‘helping’, but isn’t actually connected to the need of the person apparently being helped.
The promise of initiative mapping is that you can actually keep an accurate account of who is ultimately responsible for what and who is really answerable to who. And it does that by working with specific people’s real needs. And it does that by checking whether those things are still live or need. Not by looking at a chart — but checking in with each individual’s relationship to the work they are doing. And it does it by looking for specific personal commitments made from one person to another. Never ‘this department told that committee’. Always ‘this person told that person’.
Mapping initiatives: how it looks when things are working.
When things are working, initiative maps look like very clear, simple family trees. Or river systems.
There is always only ever one person at the top: the person who started the initiative. And you only map one initiative at a time. And you plot everyone (and everyone’s contribution) in relation to that one initiative.
So the simplest diagram (as above) just shows one person with a need getting help from another person, who is also served by that need being met:
And when the person who started the initiative needs help from more than one person, it looks a little more complicated, but it’s still just as clear:
And, more often than not, the person who is helping also needs help to do what they need to do in order to help. (“I can help make your garden more beautiful. But I will need someone to trim the hedge.”) And the person who is helping the person helping sometimes needs help. (“I can trim the hedge for you, but I will need someone to hold the ladder.”) And so the diagram gets a little more complicated again, but it’s just as clear:
The important thing is that the principles underlying the whole thing are always the same and always apply. In order for two people to work together, one has to invite the other. Otherwise, they’re just two people working near each other — which isn’t the same thing at all.
Mapping initiatives: how it looks when it doesn’t work
Of course, when things are working, it’s easy to draw out a nice, neat river system, where every person is plugged in and contributing to the task at hand. It’s when things aren’t working that it gets interesting. And more useful.
Try it with any project you’re working on at the moment:
Do you know which person you’re helping?
Or which people are helping you?
Are you clear what need the work is serving?
And how each helper is contributing?
Are all the commitments clear?
Is it clear who is responsible for each part?
When things aren’t working you’ll notice that the map starts to get a bit cloudy. Because if you don’t know who you are helping and what help they need, then how can you know what work to do? To make matters worse, it’s not enough to help someone because they say they need help. It actually has to be true too. They have to actually need help and want help — and need and want help now — and they have to need and want your help now. Otherwise, it’ll still get cloudy. Because it’ll be like trying to help someone eat when they don’t want to eat. Like pushing an elephant upstairs when really it’s set its mind on coming downstairs. In order to help we can’t just go by the book. We can’t just take things at face value. We need to develop our capacity for empathy and discernment and intuition.
Let’s get back to my beautiful garden:
I need help making my garden beautiful. I ask you for your help and you say you’d love to help, because you love making beautiful gardens. I have a moment of inspiration and realise I need a nice shed to sit and spend long mornings writing. And I ask you to find me a nice writing shed. So, you find me a very nice summerhouse / upmarket garden shed to go in the garden. And I say that’s great. And you say that, really, I need a kitchen in the shed. For preparing barbecue food. And I say, well, OK. That could be interesting. You ask if it’s OK if you go and look for quotes to get a kitchen put in the shed and I say OK. You come back with oak-topped worktops and double sinks and granite breakfast bars and all kinds of beautiful things. And I say that probably all I need is somewhere to make tea and coffee. But you point out that if I’m going to be spending £1000 on a summerhouse kitchen, then I might as well spend £2000 and do it properly. Because it’s always better to spend a bit more money up front, than have to redo it all again later. And I say that makes sense and you go and order the kitchen.
Now, it might sound like a perfectly reasonable conversation — two people collaborating in a creative way to get something done. But if you try to draw it, it becomes obvious exactly where things are clear and where things get cloudy.
It starts off well…
Each step is clearly made. Responsibility is clearly held and clearly taken. And it’s unambiguous who instigated what and why. And it’s obvious how each part contributes to the initial vision of a beautiful garden.
But then as you get further down…
The road to confusion part one: forgetting that you’re helping.
And the thing that has gone wrong, is that the helper has forgotten that they’re meant to be helping. And the helper has forgotten that helping means understanding the needs of the person you are helping. And so a disconnected idea — a cuckoo initiative — has snuck its way in. The idea that a kitchen is “just good to have”. The idea that “you might as well spend £2000”. These ideas are just ideas — disconnected from the reality of the present situation. They’re not even really ideas. They’re more like superstitions. Unquestioned beliefs. And they derail everything.
About twenty years ago my mum needed two light switches put in by her front door. There was a normal light switch (for the light inside) and a timer switch (for the light outside). When the electrician came around she asked for the timer switch to be higher up on the wall and the light switch to be lower down on the wall. And when the electrician installed the two lights, he went ahead and decided that he would rather put the light switch on top and the timer switch below “because it’s better that way round”. And I can’t remember why he thought it was better and I can’t remember why my mum needed the switches that way round. But I do know that it annoys her every day… (I think it must have been that she wanted the one she needed to use every day to be in the spot that was easier to reach.)
The point is that when you’re helping someone the question that matters is “Am I helping?” You need to check whether or not you understand the need of the person you are helping and whether or not the work you are doing is helping to meet that need. When you start talking in terms of ‘better and worse’ — as if those are things that are eternal and unchangeable — then you get lost. (Because ‘better and worse’ are always only ever subjective and depend on where you’re standing and on what you want. In this context, talking about ‘better or worse’ in this way is like asking ‘Where is left? Where is right?” To which the answer can only ever be: “Well, it depends on where you’re standing and who you’re asking and what way they’re facing.” You can never just say “It’s over there.”)
These kinds of little ideas are *so* tempting to follow. And they can easily derail the most mindful of creative souls. But they also have one feature that gives them away. And if you can train yourself to spot this one feature, then you need never be derailed again:
Beware statements that claim always to be true.
“You can’t start a new project unless you know what you’re doing.”
“You can’t ask people for money.”
“You need to make sure everything you do is of the highest quality.”
“It’s unacceptable to be made to look a fool.”
They sound like reasonable assertions, but they’re all things that are only sometimes true. There is no eternal measure against which we can judge things. Our task is always to look at each situation afresh and see what is appropriate to that particular situation. When you lose sight of that, you lose sight of where you are, what you’re doing and who you’re helping — and you’re lost.
The road to confusion part two: using the word ‘we’
Now, a lot of people feel wary about being in charge. And a lot of people feel wary about being told what to do. And, that’s understandable if you’ve grown up in an educational culture that has no concept of consent. Where someone else is in charge and you just have to do what you’re told and show up on time and stand and sit and complete tasks regardless of how you feel about it. And it’s understandable if you’ve been exposed to workplaces that just extend that culture from the classroom to the office. But the problem is never that one person is in charge and another person is being told what to do: the problem is when consent is not respected. (And while our attitude to consent has mercifully evolved when it comes to marriage law and personal relationships, it’s still strangely lagging behind in a lot of workplaces.)
But, because people feel wary about acknowledging who is in charge and who is being told what to do, they often end up talking about ‘we’.
“Well, we decided to put a kitchen in the summerhouse.”
“Well, we thought it was better to spend a bit more upfront, but it didn’t really work out.”
And the trouble with ‘we’ is that it is far too forgiving when it comes to defining who actually did what and who is actually responsible for what. And if you let ‘we’ get into the picture, then it ends up almost impossible to draw any kind of map at all.
And the thing about saying ‘we’ is it often ends up disconnected from the real world, with people saying things like:
“Well, I think we said that we would just go ahead and do it.”
As if the two people involved just were simultaneously moved to speak word-for-word in unison and decided at exactly the same moment on what they would do. And, sure, it may seem like it’s just a figure of speech. And, sure, maybe you can just put it down to the convenience of being a bit casual in talking about exactly what happened when. But — more often than not — the “we” and the “I think we said” are a cover-up. And the truth is there was no ‘we’: one person was in charge and one person was being told what to do. And when someone says “I think we said” what they really mean is “I know that no one actually said this, but if someone had, then I’d have been totally justified in doing what I did, so I wish someone had said it.”
And it’s at exactly this point, where people start talking about ‘we’ decided to do this and ‘I think we agreed to do that’ that everything gets cloudy. Because when things actually work as they should — when the different roles of helped and helper are acknowledged, when commitments are explicit and consenting — then there is no cloudiness. And, when I sit down with someone to map an initiative, those moments, where explicit and consenting commitments are made are memorable and distinctive and ultimately unambiguous.
Mapping initiatives: you don’t have to map everything
Of course, if you tried to map every single bit of work being done at, say, Coca-Cola and show everything that everyone is doing in order to help them sell more Coke (or whatever their ultimate mission actually is), it’s going to be a vast thing. And that’s ok.
But the thing about initiative mapping is that you don’t have to always map everything all the time. In fact, if there’s no need to map anything, then you shouldn’t map anything.
Before you even put pen to paper, you should check:
What am I trying to map out and why?
Because that will tell you how much map you need.
Don’t try to map what everyone is doing everywhere, each for their own reasons. Initiative mapping means looking at something in the world and wanting to learn about what it is by looking at where it came from. Looking at a building site and asking: I wonder who is building this and what they are trying to build? Because if you want to help them build, you need to know what they want to build. And if you think you have a better way to build it, you need to know what the thing is for — what it’s meant to do. And the only person who can actually tell you that is the person whose need is being met by the thing being built.
Mapping initiatives: it’s not about the map.
Also, in the end, the map is not the territory. And the point is not to draw a nice map.
It’s about working out what you’re actually doing. Getting clear on what’s actually going on.
It’s about seeing what’s working and not working. It’s about being able to see why things are working or not working — and fixing it. It’s about getting back to a state of communal creative flow.
And it’s about practising a particular way of engaging with the world. Where we develop our capacity to understand our needs and other people’s. Our capacity for compassion.
And, ultimately, this last part — developing our capacity to understand our needs and other people’s — is the only game in town. So, if drawing maps helps us do it, then we should draw maps. And if it doesn’t, then we shouldn’t.
But we do need to understand each other if we want to work together well.
I write regularly about how to be clear. If you’d like to know how to be clearer about what you’re doing, who you are or how everything gets done, I can teach you. You can read more here, join the next Clear Course or just get in touchand we’ll sort something out.
Credits: My work on initiative mapping builds on the seminal work of Peter Koenig, who taught me a way to understand how organisations work by looking at who started them. His way of looking at organisations — Source — has helped me navigate the relationships between people’s ideas and the way they work with other people. You can find Peter here.
Over the last ten years, I developed a process that can turn a not-very-clear idea into a very clear idea in about two hours. I’ve used it more times than I can count, helping hundreds of entrepreneurs and artists and whoever get clear on what they’re doing. It’s different every time, but this is roughly how it goes.
This is how it begins.
Someone says, ‘There’s something I’m not very clear about that I’d like to be very clear about.
And you say, “OK. What are we talking about?”
And they say, “I want to be clear about my career. Or my new project. Or my life. Or the book I’m writing.”
And you spend a little time working out what it really is that they want to get clear about.
And then you help them get clear.
To start with, you ask for their full, undistracted attention and focus.
Not on the present situation. Not on the problem. Not on the past.
But on the idea.
The thing they have in their mind that they want to do or need to do or wish they could do, but that isn’t yet clear enough.
You leave the everyday world behind.
You move into the space of ideas. Where everything is possible.
It may be necessary to say to them, “This is your dream. Everything is possible here. You don’t have to dream about things being difficult. You don’t have to dream about consequences. And you don’t have to dream about how you’ll get there. We can look at all of those things later. But now, we start with the dream.”
Because the starting point has to be finding out what the thing is.
This thing they’re not very clear about, what is it?
Unless you know what it is, how are you meant to talk about how to get there?
So the first task is the dream.
What do you need?
What do you want?
What do you demand?
What do you love?
What do you wish for?
What do you dream of?
What do you live for?
You can ask them these seven questions.
Not about now.
Not about what they need, want, demand, love, wish for, dream of now.
Not who they are now.
But there, in the dream.
And they can talk and talk and talk.
It’s like warming up.
They get to hear about the dream.
They get to feel the words coming out of their mouth.
They get to think it through while someone witnesses the process.
And maybe you write it all down.
Or just the good bits.
And then you read back the best bits to them.
And they tell you what they remembered from the bits you read out.
And pretty soon you have a handful of words, maybe a few broken sentences.
The beginnings of a clearer idea.
Take the pieces. Put them together.
Between you, see if you can turn it into one long, clumsy, barely grammatical sentence.
It doesn’t have to be beautiful.
It’s not for putting on a billboard or a promotional mug. Or for talking about in public.
It just has to be vaguely accurate.
A rough approximation of what you’re talking about.
Then take this one long, clumsy, barely grammatical sentence and start again.
Ask them to leave the everyday world behind.
Move into the space of ideas. Where everything is possible.
Ask for their full, undistracted attention and focus.
And read out the sentence and say:
Is this what you need?
Is this what you want?
Is this what you demand?
Is this what you love?
Is this what you wish for?
Is this what you dream of?
Is this what you live for?
If they say yes to every question, then you’re done.
The thing is clear.
If they say no to some of the questions, take them one at a time.
Still there. In the space of ideas. Where everything is possible.
Still talking about the thing you agreed you’d talk about.
If the answer’s no, find out what yes is.
Is this what you need?
OK. What do you need?
And when they’ve answered, see if you need to tweak that one long, clumsy, barely grammatical sentence.
When it’s tweaked, ask them again — Is this what you need?
And when they can say yes, then you can move on.
Repeat until the answer to every question is yes. Then you’re done.
It normally takes me about two hours to get someone from “I have no idea what I’m doing with my life.” to “I have no further questions.”
If you’d like to book a Very Clear Ideas session, drop me a line.
If you’d like to try the process yourself, follow these instructions and see how you get on.
A story about the creative process and the art of being true.
About five years ago I found myself drawing a tree on a bit of paper and writing the line:
“Being truthful is the root of beautiful projects.”
One of those things where I don’t know where it came from, but when it shows up, it feels like it will last forever.
About three years ago, I found myself on stage in a Dutch forest, improvising a story about being a chameleon. Later that night, a stranger came over to me and said he thought he knew what the message of the story was. I said that was good, because I didn’t know what the message of the story was.
“Stay true. I think that was the message. Stay true.”
About a year ago, I was in a workshop in Waterloo (Belgian battlefield, not London underground). After introducing myself, someone I’d only just met insisted that I could sum up the whole of my work in one word:
I think he was right.
About ten years ago, I was sitting on my lounge floor in Brighton, surrounded by post-it notes, index cards, scraps of paper — several years of brain emptied out in front of me. There were notes on improvisation and The Way of The Fool (introduced to me by Floris Koot). And money and identity (courtesy of Peter Koenig). And the creative process (from working with The Kaospilots, Ideo and Matt Weston). And storytelling (from one eternally inspiring one-hour lecture by Ron Donaldson, from my time as features editor at The Face, from collecting the Storyteller book-and-tape series aged six).
And something happened where all these different threads came together. Where I could see how these different theories and different practices wove together into one. That — somehow — they were all pointing at the same thing. I felt it. I knew it to be true. And I had absolutely no way of articulating what it was.
You know when you have something to say and it’s on the tip of your tongue - you can almost physically feel it there? Nearly becoming speech, but the connection from brain to mouth hasn’t quite been made. This was like that, but instead of the unexpressed idea being just a moment away — almost articulated but not quite — I could sense in that same almost physical way that the idea was in there, but about ten miles back. Way, way back in my mind. Like I could see landscapes — neural pathways and hillsides and rivers and streams of consciousness and blue skies obscured by clouds — and way beyond, somewhere near the furthest horizon of thought, just hidden from view, there was the answer.
It was a great relief to feel as if, in some hidden way, I’d managed to make sense of all these disparate parts. Even if I couldn’t put it into words, somewhere a knot had been tied. And it was strange, also, that I knew from that first moment that the answer would make its way towards the front of my mind at its own pace. And that ‘its own pace’ was very, very slow. Like in a film where the camera — unmoving — watches someone walking all the way from the horizon.
I carried on exploring improvisation and money and identity and project design and storytelling. And I started exploring meditation and dharma and what makes a good question and what it means to take the initiative. And I’d check in on that idea in the back of my head and watch its progress towards the front. And it would make me laugh — that it was so intangible and nothing-y to track the progress of an unnamed idea, but at the same time it felt like the essential and persistent factor in the course of my life and my work and my thinking. And it would make me laugh — that I felt so entirely helpless in the face of its uncompromisingly unhurried progress.
“Who has time for that now?
Waiting for a natural path to open up
Only acting when the moment arrives?”
— Poem Fifteen, I thought I was on the way to work, but I was on the way home
And I developed a systematic way to clarify ideas. And I wrote a new version of Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching. And I attempted to articulate the fundamental nature of money in a ten minute stand-up talk in Amsterdam. And I spent hundreds of hours unravelling the knots that were stopping people from pursuing their vocation.
And in the end, all of it comes down to this.
In this very moment, there is a next step for me to take that is true.
In this very moment, there is a next step for me to take that is true.
And if I listen inside, with care, without prejudice, I know what it is.
In this very moment, there is a next step for me to take that is true.
And if I listen inside, with care, without prejudice, I know what it is.
And if I take it, then I am being true to myself and to the world I am in.
And if, having taken it, I can look back and say — in that moment I was true to myself and to the world I was in — then there is no space for regret.
Because what more can we ask of ourselves than that — in one moment — we might manage to stay true to ourselves and the world we are in?
I look across the table at her. And she asks what I see. What we might do together. We’ve barely met, but we’ve promised to speak truthfully to each other this evening, either side of this little restaurant table. And I go to say a selection of usual responses, of projects we might undertake, of visions we might bring to the world, but I hear another voice in me, somewhere deep inside. And I laugh. And I take a number of deep breaths. And I try to climb out of my chair without climbing out of my chair. And I tell her. I see us doing everything. Together. For years. And she says: ‘Woah.’
It’s not magic. Being true in the moment doesn’t mean that what you hope will happen will happen. You might get a ‘woah’ when you thought you’d get a ‘yes’. But whatever you get, you’re still living truly. Truthfully. And, whatever you get, you don’t end up walking around with an ‘I wonder what would have happened if only I had…’ as your dispiriting inner companion.
It might be difficult to say what ‘truth’ is. One of those big philosophical questions. But it’s easy to say what being truthful is. And we know when we are lying. And it’s easy to say what it means ‘to be true’ to someone or something. We know when we are being unfaithful. Disloyal. Duplicitous. Deceitful.
Because being true is about listening. We always know what we’re meant to be doing. We don’t always know we know. Sometimes the information is deeply hidden, behind fear or superstition or prejudice or conditioning, butsomewhere inside, we always know. And if we listen — in the moment — and we listen carefully enough, then we have the chance to be true. In thought and word and deed.
And it’s an art.
When you improvise, it’s the art of being true. Anyone who has stood on an empty stage with no plan, but with full faith that inspiration will arrive to save you… anyone who has had that experience of inspiration arriving exactly on cue and providing a live feed of genius to mind and mouth and body… anyone who has been there, knows what it means to be true.
But it requires faith. And it requires surrender. And it requires listening. And it requires love.
It’s the most beautiful thing.
And anyone who has read a poem or heard a singer or seen a play or watched a speech knows the difference between true and not true. The job of the performer is to reveal something true. And when they don’t — when they dissemble and protect themselves from exposure — they break the deal. And we know. And we feel it. The difference between watching a singer being true in their singing and a singer not being true in their singing is the difference between something that is alive and something that is dead. (It’s the difference between being torn in two by Adele singing “I heard that you’re settled down / That you found a girl and you’re married now”. Or just being bludgeoned in the ear by her yelling “hello from the other side”.)
“In the early days of the Little Review people used to tell me that I had no critical sense, that I didn’t know one thing from another. I always answered: I know the difference between life and death — in everything.”
— Margaret Anderson, Little Review founder and first publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses
And we have a language for talking about working in this way. In a way that’s true. And it’s a language of the present moment. It’s the language of impulse, inspiration and initiative.
When we’re talking about feeling, the first moment of feeling our way towards doing the right thing, that’s a moment of impulse. Where you know something, but you don’t know quite what it is you know and you might not even know that you know, but you find yourself subtly directed by some inner intuition.
When we’re talking about thinking, the first moment of making that inarticulate impulse conscious — being able to look at it and enquire into it and make sense of it — that first moment is a moment of inspiration.
And when we’re talking about doing, then there can be every reason in the world not to act. Every doubt and fear may raise its head. But if we succeed in walking through those doubts and fears, and we actually act — then that first moment of action is the moment of initiative.
And each step — from impulse, to inspiration, to initiative — each step depends on listening. Each step depends on being clear, on being true. And if we succeed in clearing that path — all the way through from feeling to thinking to doing, then the action that we take in the end is animated by the vivid energy of the initiating impulse. The action has life in it, because the action is true to the impulse. And that’s what we want to see on a stage, on a page, at work.
And this is the knot that I tied in the back of my mind sitting on my lounge floor surrounded by post-it notes and index cards and the content of my thought laid out in a hundred handwritten scraps.
That it is possible for the things that we do to be true.
And when we are true in the things that we do, then the things that we do have life in them.
And it requires love. And it requires listening.
And there is an art to it. And it is possible to learn it.
Learning how to improvise is learning how to listen to the impulse and how to not stand in its way. How to not be afraid, but accept the present moment as it is — with love — and find in it the potential for something that is alive.
Learning how to tell stories is learning how our minds make sense of these impulses. And it’s learning how to articulate those intangible hidden movements so we might share the truth of our inner lives with others. So that we might understand this creative movement.
Learning meditation and mindfulness is learning to listen to the feeling and the thinking. They are the practice of staying in the present moment listening to what is true now (not what you wish were true or what used to be true). Not listening is the enemy of work that is true. And it’s the easiest thing in the world: to be doing one thing and not paying it the slightest attention, as our focus is entirely on something imaginary and elsewhere. To be caught in a story of who we are or who we are meant to be, rather than listening to what wants to happen here and now.
Learning how to work with identity — to understand and engage with that festering nest of stories we carry around with us about who it is OK to be and who it is not OK to be — that is learning how to clear the path for something alive. To see clearly how stories about money and society and self can play like a broken record, bringing a dead past to bear on a living present.
We call it ‘the creative process’ because it’s meant to produce something alive at the end of it. Like a seed becoming a flower. Like birth. Like nature.
And if we are true in each step of what we do, then what we do is creative and something alive is born from it.
And it is not the same as going through the motions. If we go to work in the morning and check emails or lay bricks or serve coffee or sing songs, if it is not built out of the living force of impulse and inspiration and initiative, then the only output is something dead.
So now, when I go to work, this is what I do. I try to stay true to this creative process and I try to illuminate the path for other people. Whether I’m improvising on stage or talking about money or writing a poem or uncovering someone’s purpose or finding the story that unlocks someone’s creative potential, it’s always only ever this one thing. The art of being true.
The idea that I had ten years ago… that took its own sweet time to cross the vast landscapes of the mind to make it here… the idea walks up to the camera lens, takes out a cloth and wipes it clean — crystal clear, in focus, bright — then puts the cloth away, turns and starts a long walk back to the horizon.
Find out more about how to be clear at howtobeclear.com
Easier said than done
So say it first
Then do it:
Stand for love.
Easy to do what’s easy
And forget it
But don’t. No.
Stand for love.
For it is our gift
To know in any moment
What love wants.
Stand for love.
And it is a duty
To listen for ourselves
And everyone and
Stand for love.
Don’t do the right thing.
Listen harder. And
Stand for love.
And it is a fight.
Against every easier call
Against it all -
Stand for love.
For it is only in standing
That we live.
So let life begin
And stand for love.
Being clear is a simple art.
It’s one of those things that is very simple — but takes a lifetime to master. Like cooking or painting or yoga. There are some basic principles to understand. There are steps to follow. There are things that work and don’t work.
It’s one of those things where if you practice, you will improve. But before you practice, you need to learn the basics. When I teach people to be clear, I teach the basics. And then we practice. And then we share the tips and tricks we learn along the way.
It’s one of those things where we can help each other. I find it really hard to be clear — to keep clear — when I’m only relying on myself. But I find it easy to help other people be clear. And I find it easy when other people help me.
I know some basic principles of how to be clear. I know the steps to follow. I know some things that work and don’t work. But the real challenge is to practice: to remember to practice, to take the time, to stay motivated.
It’s easier to practice when there’s a community to support you. It’s easier to practice when there’s a culture that’s supports the work. A community that understands the basic principles of how to be clear and wants to practice. A culture that values clarity and seeks it out — where it’s easy to ask for and offer help with being clear.
And this is my vision of getting everyone clear.
A clear morning in Northern Ireland. Summer 2017.
Being clear is nothing special
Everyone knows the difference between being clear and being unclear. It’s nothing clever or complicated.
It’s the difference between knowing exactly what you want or not exactly knowing what you want. It’s the difference between being able to explain something truthfully so someone else understands it or not being able to. It’s the difference between having an idea and effortlessly turning it into reality or having a vision and stumbling and straying and getting lost in the fog.
When I talk about being clear what I’m really talking about is clearing the way for creativity. Clearing the path so that creative potential turns into creative expression — whether that’s as an artist, an entrepreneur, an inventor, or a cook — or basically anyone who is alive and feels things and wants to do something. Another way to say it is that being clear just means being able to live and work in the world in such a way that we are able to understand our needs (and other people’s) and act in such a way that we are able to meet them.
Three ways to be clear
I have for a long time helped people get clear: talking them through something that’s stuck until it flows again. But years and years ago I decided that I didn’t want that process to depend on me being in the room. That’s why I developed the Very Clear Ideas process: to capture a way of getting clear that people could go away and use for themselves.
Now I have three tools. When you want to be clear on what you’re doing, use Very Clear Ideas. When you want to be clear on how to get it done, use Initiative Mapping. When you’re clear on what you’re doing and how to get it done, but it’s just not happening and you don’t know why, use Identity Yoga.
And I want to make these three tools so popular that they are everywhere. Not out of some self-aggrandising desire for fame and recognition (well, not only that anyway…). I want them to be everywhere because I want to be part of a community that understands the basic principles of being clear and wants to practice. I want to be supported by a culture that values clarity. And I want that because it will help me to be clear.
There is magic in being clear
When I’m clear about what I’m doing, it actually happens. When I’m able to clear away the things that stand in the way (normally in my own head), then work becomes effortless. When I’m able to make clear deals with the people I work with — and come to an understanding of what each of us needs and how we serve each other — then working relationships become enriching and enjoyable.
I love it when people want to get clear on how everyone contributes to a piece of work (and how everyone benefits from it), because it means the right people end up doing the right things.
I love it when people want to clear away bias and prejudice — because it means that what needs to get done might actually get done.
I love working with people who have clear ideas, because it means I know what they need and how (or if) I might help them.
A clear vision
I want there to be a shared culture of clarity. I love that you can find people in Holland and Ireland and France and Australia and America and all over who use the same steps — the same set of seven questions — to get an idea clear. I love being able to show up at someone’s office and, if I don’t have my Very Clear Ideas cards with me, being able to use theirs.
I want there to be a shared language for talking about being clear. It’s so helpful to be able to talk about how ideas turn into reality in a way that is simple and useful. There is a little vocabulary: talking about needs and ideas and authority and authorship, talking about ‘who is helping who with what’, talking about the source of an idea (thank you Peter Koenig), talking about initiatives and identity.
Again and again and again I end up working with people who are stuck and who are suffering because they are trying to talk about work as a personal and creative endeavour, but they’re trying to do it using an opaque, industrial set of words that don’t actually help to illuminate the process of bringing an idea into reality. Words like CEO and vice-president and productivity and performance and…you know, all those words.
I want there to be a community — communities — that support the work of being clear. If I want to learn yoga, I can go to a class. I can buy a mat and a book. I can watch a hundred thousand different teachers on YouTube. If I want to learn how to cook or paint or mend my bike — evening classes, Google, bookshop… I want the same for being clear.
Find out more about how to be clear at howtobeclear.com.
“Every work of man should have the nature of a love song.” — Eric Gill
What do you long for?
Can you tell me?
Do you know?
What is it that your heart sings for?
If we leave behind the afternoon chat —
of what shall we have for dinner
or where shall we go tomorrow.
If we forget about to do lists
and appointments and that
and listen out for what’s beyond them —
What do you long for.
There is a quickening that comes
with gathering up your life
and handing it over to devotion.
What is your gift?
What is in you that longs to be given?
I am asking because I want to know.
And because the answer is holy.
And because, underneath everything,
The something that you stand for.
Long for. Wish for. Dream of.
Your calling. Your life’s work.
Your allotted task
on these few turns around the sun.
And it’s always easier not to say it.
Always easier to put it to one side.
Always easier to say we get along just fine
and we’re all sort of muddling along
the same sort of path to somewhere.
Easier to ask “What did you think of this?”
and “Did you see that thing that somebody did?”
To live in a world of affiliation.
Of likes and dislikes.
Of preference as reference.
And it is harder.
To listen deep.
To be still enough —
To sink as a stone dropped in a well.
To be able to talk
Not of how this fits with that or what might happen if
But of something that is yours and cannot be moved.
It is this that I stand for.
It is this my world will always turn around.
And it is harder still
Not only to talk of something that is yours and cannot be moved
But to act upon it.
To wake up this morning and gild every shining moment
With the intent and loving attention of one who is devoted.
To see the washing and the car
And the road and the house
And the shopping and the table
And the things that must be done
And bring to every thing
The truth of what is yours
That your life
In every word and deed
Might sing its song of love.
May your heart be a flood
And fill you with love
Unmooring every broken vessel
Drawing ocean anchors from their holding -
Offering no path but
To surrender to boundless powers
Of forces that know no fight
But are mighty
By their very nature.
In order to look at the fundamentals of creative work, we have to check what work is and how it works: we have to understand it as a creative process.
And to understand work as a creative process, we have to start from looking at the nature of creative processes: how things come into existence, how things grow and transform, how things end. We have to understand the creative processes of nature as a whole — rather than limiting ourselves to the specific culture of work in human society in our lifetime.
And to do that, to look at work in that way, we need to put down all the usual furniture of the working world — looking past the superficial norms and forms and illuminating the fundamentals. What is essential about work and how work works? What is natural?
Not 9 to 5. Not job titles. Not promotions. Not limited companies.
Not inboxes. Not lunchbreaks. Not business plans. Not personal brands.
We have to drop below all those things and think and feel our way to what work actually is at a more subtle level. And that also means dropping below the self-help how-to’s and the seven habits of highly effective people. And it means dropping below inspirational quotes about meaningful work on Pinterest. Because, for all their seductive, feel-good ‘do it this way’ prompting and t-shirt friendly insights, they don’t actually get down to what work is. They don’t actually articulate what work is for.
What is work? And what is work for?
Think about trees.
Think about grass.
Think about bees.
Think about a pack of wolves hunting.
Think about a bird building a nest.
Think about squirrels collecting a winter stockpile.
Think about building a shelter.
Think about finding food.
Think about raising a child.
Walk through a forest and see and feel life at work all around you.
These creative processes that we are surrounded by and that we engage in every day — they are so natural that we don’t even see them. But if we stop and look it’s clear: they follow rules, they have structure, they have properties in common. A bird builds a nest so that… the eggs don’t roll away. The need defines the work. The need dictates the form. A nest is the shape it is because eggs are the shape they are. And when a bird has built a nest that will protect the eggs — it stops work. Because the point of the work is to meet a need.
It’s a natural way to work. Noticing something is needed. Working to understand that need — and what is required to meet it. And taking the steps that are necessary to meet that need — and then stopping when it is met.
It’s how we work naturally. We eat until we’re full. We sleep until we’re rested. We travel until we get there. We listen for what we need, we do what is needed — and then we stop.
Some of our stories about work have gone astray. Superstitions have crept in. That it’s ‘bad’ if a company closes (rather than a sign that the need has been met and the work can stop). That working harder, longer, more is ‘good’ (rather than the amount of work being in proportion to the size of the need being met). But those superstitions only serve to separate us from the real potential of work.
We eat so we don’t die. We build shelter so we don’t freeze. We learn to speak and sing and dance so that we can communicate with each other and understand each other — and learn to live together without killing each other.
Work is creative. Work is life ensuring the continuation of life. Life ensuring the expansion of life. Whether it’s animals collecting food for the winter or me collecting food from the shop — the appetite arises from life’s own urge to sustain itself. And that appetite provides the direction — and the energy — for the work. And in order to understand the fundamental nature of work, we need to understand that appetite of life in us. That creative impulse that isbeing alive, that is being a part of life on earth.
When we work in that way, with an awareness that we are alive and that we are a part of a vast living system, then work is natural. When we work with an awareness of the rules of that system, the demands of that system, the constraints and possibilities of that system, then work comes naturally.
Sometimes it feels to me as if we treat work as something imaginary. Where we can just invent rules of work and say that’s how things work. And we treat the world as imaginary — where we pretend that all you need to succeed is to listen to a motivational talk or get up earlier. As if there were no context, no cause and effect, no environment. And we treat ourselves as imaginary — where we pretend that people and jobs are just interchangeable — swapping out one person and swapping in another. As if there were no such thing as individuality, or personal history, or personal relationships.
But we are actual creative beings living in a specific creative system. And there are definite principles that we can learn about how to work creatively within that system. And we have to take into account who we are and where we are and what we need.
And that means not only knowing what work is and how work works and what work is for, but also feeling those things. So that when someone says the word ‘work’, you don’t think of offices and desks or money or shovels or timesheets or teabreaks, but rather you feel your place in a vast creative system. You feel the appetite for life inside you. You feel the direction and the information and the energy bound up in that appetite.
When someone says ‘work’, the antennae inside you activate and tune into here and now and start listening for what actually needs to be done.
When someone says ‘work’, you remember your capacity to empathise with others and intuit what’s going on — and respond in the wisest and most compassionate way.
When someone says ‘work’, you think of all the vast miraculous projects mankind has undertaken — of mapping genomes and building cathedrals and inventing alphabets — and you think of the infinite complexity of countless mundane daily miracles happening all around us — as seeds are planted and dinners are made and paths are cleared and people are healed.
And, with this as our starting point, we can look at how we work and find ways to work more effectively, more creatively, more naturally. Not by learning lists of rules or by trying to turn ourselves into someone we’re not — but by developing a profound and intimate understanding of ourselves as creative beings.
Find out more about how to be clear at howtobeclear.com.
My wild heart flowers.