Ever since I can remember, I wanted to be a translator. From parent to sisters talk was my first interpreting work. Then it was from teenager to mother. Not just language. Turning ideas into things was a favorite. But also creating experiences.
I've had several careers. After the jobs above. Simultaneous interpreter and translator for neurological development. That's where I picked up the strong foundation of what makes humans work… and what doesn't. Marketing, communications, strategy, creative, product in five industries all followed. With considerable overlap. Coaching and advising evolved from there.
Transitions were much easier early on. Almost natural. My work evolved from the compound effects of hands-on learning on the job. I want to keep going. Yet, I somehow sense that the protracted pandemic has created a situation where people must fit into boxes.
I don't. Never did. Even as a small baby. I found ways to get out of the playpen. So, I've been wondering about this. It's a dilemma. Because I think right now we need people who can truly connect disparate domains for strategic development.
And to fix what we've broken. Growth via exploitation got us where we are. With control issues, and diminishing energy. Where value is only one kind. Exploration can put us back into balance. As humans, we need a bit of both.
Hence my question.
Can we make transformation natural?
I'm taking the temperature here. In a recent interview with (I'm told the last issue, pity) Departure print magazine, Stanley Tucci says, “In the food of every country is the story of that country.” And its culture of transformation. It all depends on your appetite.
Movie critics found The Devil Wears Prada and Julie & Julia shallow. That's too bad. Plus who cares? They are not the ones in the arena. I found out so much about human nature from both. With the added bonus of the winning duo Meryl Streep / Stanley Tucci. She makes everyone better. He makes everyone interesting.
Food. Yes, I'm in favor. We can learn a lot about natural transformation from food. Michael Polian wrote an excellent book turned into a Netflix docuseries. Cooked: a Natural History of Transformation is not just how humans evolved. It's also necessary to reclaim our health.
The book talks about how cooking involves us in a web of social and ecological relationships. Cooking, above all, connects us. Cue in images of grandmothers making cappelletti from scratch (mine), husbands making their favorite meal (looking at your, Rand), kids helping bake cookies, that scene in Eat, Pray, Love where they're eating outside and talking in Rome.
I love baking. It's more of an exact discipline. Once you get a system down, you're golden. By the way, a baker took exception to some of the science behind bread-making in the book. The lacto bacteria is already is the wheat. The only objection anyone raised, that I know.
Cooking is creative, it reconnects us as a whole person, and gives us the opportunity to support the people we love.
“Our society assigns us a tiny number of roles: We're producers of one thing at work, consumers of a great many things all the rest of the time, and then, once a year or so, we take on the temporary role of citizen and cast a vote. Virtually all our needs and desires we delegate to specialists of one kind or another – our meals to the food industry, our health to the medical profession, entertainment to Hollywood and the media, mental health to the therapist or the drug company, caring for nature to the environmentalist, political action to the politician, and on and on it goes. Before long it becomes hard to imagine doing much of anything for ourselves – anything, that is, except the work we do "to make a living." For everything else, we feel like we've lost the skills, or that there's someone who can do it better… it seems as though we can no longer imagine anyone but a professional or an institution or a product supplying our daily needs or solving our problems.”
And of course:
“When chopping onions, just chop onions.”
Who could forget that eye-watering scene in Julie & Julia where Tucci finds Streep elbow-deep in onion-chopping. The greatest part of cooking is the ability to soak in the history of food in a country and pass it on. With some constraints, like the ingredients, temperature, time, etc.
Constraints are useful for creativity. But also when dealing with complexity. Dave Snowden has long been an observer of natural science. He applies what he's learned to people and systems. Constraints allow us to create sustainable practices.
Language is a useful constraint. The words we use to define things should be the language by which we change things. From description to intervention. Describe the present, see what you can change. A more natural way to transformation.
The end is never easy
Of a project, as a career. A relationship, but also of a habit.
Can you imagine alternating your story with that of other people naturally? We all strive do make an impression, leave a mark, make things better. I like the third expression over the other two. They imply some act of vandalism.
Death is the ultimate transformation. We don't talk about it much. People die somewhere else. In hospitals, mostly. And away from the family and loved ones. In this past year, we've managed to make even death data-driven. To the point that it's hard to imagine actual persons.
Rachel Clark's loving account of her patients' stories and her own highlights the importance of human connection. Dear Life is a reminder that death is part of life. And we can have the same degree of care, compassion, and love for that phase as we have for others.
It's a reading to approach with emotional fortitude. I could not have read it after my father died. A day after he was put in a sterile hospital room with a stranger. It would have been useful before. But the experience of being there with him changed me. How I talk about death and prepare for it has changed. There's pain involved. Letting go. We're so attached to life.
This passage in the book is especially touching:
“If there is a difference between people who know they are dying and the rest of us, it is simply this: that the terminally ill know their time is running out, while we live as though we have all the time in the world. Their urgency propels them to do the things they want to do, reach out to those they love, and savor the moments of life still left to them. In a hospice, therefore, there is more of what matters – more love, more strength, more kindness, more smiles, more dignity, more joy, more tenderness, more grace, more compassion – than you could ever imagine. I work in a world that thrums with life. My patients teach me all I need to know about living.”
If only, right? So much of our behavior makes no sense when you look at this kind of transformation. Because “there is nothing more important than another human presence, old fashioned, instinctive, love and tenderness towards one of our own.”
The end is never easy. Even for companies.
But all is not lost
The “cult of efficiency” predates World War II. Technology just added the existing culture. Yet, we can't be more productive by treating persons like machines. I've hated the 'lean in' philosophy from the moment it went mainstream.
Celeste Headlee says, Do Nothing, instead. Well, not literally. Given how we've just recently confirmed that our idea of change always involves adding something, doing nothing is design thinking for the obsessive-productive person.
“The truth is, productivity is a by-product of a functional system, not a goal in and of itself. The question is not whether you are productive but what you are producing.”
Research find that subtraction often beats addition.
“We work best when we allow for flexibility in our habits. Instead of gritting your teeth and forcing your body and mind to work punishing hours and “lean in” until you reach your goals, the counterintuitive solution might be to walk away. Pushing harder isn’t helping us anymore.”
The blog is my one online writing tool. For note-taking and thinking, I still use mechanical pencil and paper notebooks. Fabriano. Because they're the perfect size, paper, and binding for me. Mastering different tools can get in the way of mastering rigorous thinking, lead to cognitive overload.
The book pulls together threads from history, neuroscience, social science, and even paleontology. I especially enjoyed the history of work part. England is often a reference. Most people owned some land in the Middle Ages.
My family was quite poor for generations. Though I do have some uncles and cousins who own land. It's a beautiful thing. Vineyards, open space. I've come to appreciate the attachment to a patch, a space to put your roots down.
Yes, we can wake up and smell the garlic. But what we need is a cultural shift. Our desire to belong is driving the choices of many. Even when they're not good for us. We really do much better when we're rested, invest in quality idle time, and are honest about what we can accomplish, when.
Recently, I came across the short blog entry where my mother wrote about bringing home her new puppy thirteen years ago. What joy she describes! Quality of life comes from our creativity, social connections, our ability for reflection, and the capacity for joy.
They're not on the spreadsheet, but they're transformational.