Thursday, 25 March 2010

So what have you achieved lately?

March is always the maddest month. Most of my clients are keen to ensure that they have fulfilled their obligation to the financial year, which means that approximately all of them have 31st March as a deadline. Meeting their needs invariably occupies the evenings, weekends and scattered hours of downtime in which I might otherwise be converting the various ideas for blog essays into proper pieces of text.

Hence the recent quiet.

Even now time is pressed. This pressure certainly focuses the mind, and if diamonds and coal are anything to go by then this is not necessarily a bad thing. I have, in any case, hewn a small chunk of space-time and shall now purify and forge it into a compact riff on the nature of achievement.

The matter has been on my mind for a few weeks, ever since someone I don’t know told me that I had not achieved very much. The story began when a head-hunter invited me to put myself forward for a position on the board of a public body. I had not, prior to the call, been considering such a move; but it is of course flattering to receive such an invitation, indicating to one’s fragile ego that (a) someone you don’t know has heard of you and (b) that some sort of process has identified you as a potential candidate to do something prestigious.

My ego thus tickled I completed and submitted the highly structured application form. Squeezing oneself into little boxes is never comfortable, I find, and is not something I have chosen to do very often in my life, but the opportunity that had been dangled was genuinely rather enticing, so I did my best.

A few days later I received a call to say that I would not be needed for an interview; and a few days after that I received a call providing ‘feedback on your application’.

There had been many applicants, the anonymous recruitment consultant intoned, and the panel felt that I didn’t have as many achievements as the shortlisted candidates.

“Achievements”.

I wonder what this means. Does it mean the achievements I listed in the little boxes didn’t seem ‘big’ enough? Or they were the wrong kind of achievements? Or that what seemed like achievements to me did not seem like achievements to them?

If I say, for example, “I wrote a report”, how big or small an achievement is that? If you say “I built a bridge” – big or small? [Did you build it yourself?] How about “I set up and grew a business”. Is this an achievement? How would you know what kind of achievement it is unless you have done it yourself?

There is a useful analogy here with ‘behaviours’. [Among my few achievements is a small body of research work in and around what is called ‘behaviour change’, so I’ve read a few books and talked to a few people and given a few lectures on this sort of thing.] Imagine a behaviour such as ‘smoking’ or ‘drinking’ or ‘driving’ and we may think that, perhaps, we ought to do less of these things.

But look closely. Let’s take ‘drinking’. I decide to go to a pub. I shall be meeting a friend. I shall be walking to the bar. I shall be choosing an ale. I shall be holding the glass. I shall be sending volleys of invisible electronic messages to my elbow and my mouth, commanding myself to take a mouthful. Which part of this is the behaviour ‘drinking’? Is it all ‘drinking’? If I want to drink less, which level or element of the elaborate and compound behaviour ‘drinking’ should I address? Do I stop going to the pub? Or could I just use a heavier glass?

Back to achievements. “I set up and grew a business” conflates: I do recruitment, training, business planning, financial management, risk assessment, strategy, professional indemnity insurance, software development, authorising the purchase of a new sofa, marketing, management meetings… Are any of these ‘achievements’?

“I am a dad” = I cook, launder, drive, cajole, support, love, josh, play. Any achievements there?

It depends on your perspective. If you’re on the lookout for multi-tasking capability, organisational management and effective prioritisation skills, then the lumpen achievement “I am a dad” is shorthand for a whole load of relevant stuff. If you’re on the lookout for coaching and development skills, then it’s only the ‘cajole, support and josh’ achievements that you need to hear about.

So, if you’re on the lookout for a member of an under-represented group, with a track record of sitting on committees, supporting or initiating charitable work and of having useful political affiliations, then an iconoclastic white male intellectual with a commercial background will clearly not have the achievements you are after.

It would be nice, next time, if you could be a little clearer, then we’d all waste a little less of our finite, valuable, compressed and irretrievable time.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Let's take a walk

Brook Lyndhurst has recently completed some research exploring the phenomenon of ‘social capital’. Given significant impetus in the 1990s by Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone”, social capital has become an established mantra of contemporary policy discourse: if we can invest in social capital in the same way we invest in financial capital, runs the unspoken argument, our ‘return on investment’ will be well-being. This, surely, is a good thing. If ever rising GDP will not deliver happiness, perhaps an ever-rising Social Capital Index will do the job instead.

Our research, soon to be published, presents a strong critique of this line of argument. Unlike financial capital, social capital does not build to an aggregate from homogeneous constituent parts. Rather, it is a composite of heterogeneous elements and subjective perspectives. One cannot inject social capital into a community in the hope of producing improved outcomes in the way one can inject financial capital.

What does seem possible, however, is to remove barriers that prevent freely associating individuals from forging their own social capital in ways that make sense to them; or, more positively, it may be possible to design and put in place facilities and services that enable or encourage people to do this. When humans gather and interact, they naturally produce a fabric of exchange, a pattern of informal connections, which provides a kind of social ‘mulch’. This enables the growth and development of more formal phenomena – levels of participation in volunteering, membership of bowling clubs and the like – the measurement of which is so beloved of social scientists and their attendant policy colleagues.

One of the most effective mechanisms for producing this mulch - it appears – is the singularly unglamorous activity of walking. When people walk, they meet. When people meet, they talk. When people talk, they create connections, networks, channels for exchange, mechanisms of belonging, a group psychological plasma that nurtures the growth of society’s basic units.

Settlements where individuals routinely or regularly walk exhibited – our research and analysis suggested – higher levels of both formal and informal social capital; whereas those where there was little walking (poor layout of housing schemes, excessive reliance on the car, few local facilities within easy walking distance of housing, and so forth) exhibited lower levels.

This throws a new and interesting light on walking. Walking is not merely good for your personal health (both mental and physical); it is not merely a ‘
low carbon leisure activity’; it is not even just a perfectly natural human activity in which we express our animal need to swing our limbs and move our minds and body through space unencumbered by barriers between us and the rest of the world. It is, in addition to all this, a profoundly social act, a means of colliding on good terms with our fellow beasts, and in so doing to forge the bonds that lift us.

We already know this of course. We regularly walk in groups, without ever questioning it. Whenever we wish to express our collective discontent, for example, we gather and walk. We call it a march, to be sure, but it is simply an orderly walk. We do not, generally, go on a protest run or a protest drive or a protest hop; we go for a walk. And we do so with our kith and kin, to demonstrate our solidarity.

The most impressive manifestation of this habit – this need – is the peasant movement in Mexico whose name –
Zapatista – literally means ‘those who walk’. They walk en masse, not simply as an act of socially solid protest (walking is exceptionally egalitarian) but also to signal that walking is their only option. They are the dispossessed. They have no land, and few belongings. They do not have cars. But they do have feet, and each other. Together, they walk.

Their leader – a man so stubbornly and wonderfully committed to the egalitarian nature of their effort that he rejects not merely the idea but also the title of ‘leader – is
Sub-comandante Marcos. He is following an intriguing vein of South American action/thinking in which the divide between the physical/material and the cognitive/spiritual is a falsehood; instead the being and the doing and the thinking and the acting and the personal and the political are all one and the same. The great Ivan Illich walked widely throughout South America, not as a holiday jaunt or to raise funds for his favourite televisual charity, but as an integrated and inseparable part of his political philosophy.

In the UK, by contrast, ‘walking’ has become that tiresome thing we have to do to get to the shops, a thing we do to get from one transport mode to another, a thing we occasionally do on holiday to take us to a fine view.

Enough. Walking is the humble bedrock of physical and psychological health in the individual (see
Antonio Damasio for the science on this); and it is the activity par excellence for promoting collective understanding and capacity. Walking is not a chore; it is a revolutionary act. Get out there now and do some. Don’t go shopping; make mulch.