synthetic authentic

Humility

Every now and again I catch myself playing the “what if” game – you know, the one where you picture your younger self, living your boring, pedestrian life as the kid that no one noticed because you were so chronically and genetically uncool, untalented, and unremarkable so as to be invisible.  Then one day you turn up at school having won the Wimbledon Singles Boys Junior Championship.  Overnight, you go from bullied to fêted, zero to hero.

I recently heard Bradley Wiggins speak about his life on a BBC Radio 4 interview*.  For the uninitiated, Wiggins is a celebrated British cyclist, 2012 Tour de France champion, holder of seven Olympic medals, and six time gold medallist at the Track World Championships.  On hearing that he was on the 2013 New Years Honours list for services to cycling, he is reported to have said:

“I’ve won a bike race, you know, and I feel a little bit inferior to everyone.  I was just talking to some of the other people getting stuff, and asking them what they’ve been honoured for, and they are historic things, ground-breaking science or whatever.”

What?  Tour de France?  Four Olympic Gold Medals?  Six World Championship Gold Medals?  I’d call that an achievement worth celebration.  That he has achieved all of this without cheating (in a sport marred by high profile cheaters), while being a great ambassador for the sport in Britain and an inspiration to a whole generation of young athletes, should surely qualify him for the knighthood.

Wiggins sees it quite differently.  Asked about his achievements, he speaks about his wife and two children and keeping a marriage of 13 years.  Asked about how he felt winning the Tour de France, he spoke about his gratefulness to his supporters, and how he felt compelled to turn away from the dignitaries on the podium at the Champs-Élysées to face his British fans who had travelled all the way to Paris to see him win.

One more anecdote from the Tour de France to cement in your minds the kind of man we are dealing with.  I quote from Wiggins’ Wikipedia page:

During stage fourteen, a mountain stage, a spectator threw carpet tacks onto the narrow road at the top of the Mur de Péguère climb. Several riders suffered punctures, including Evans, the defending champion, who lost approximately two minutes while his team repaired his bicycle. Wiggins and his fellow members of Team Sky emerged without a puncture. Believing that a puncture resulting from an unfortunate incident should not determine the fate of a competitor, Wiggins then had his team-mates and the rest of the peloton slow down to allow Evans and other affected cyclists to catch up.  It was perceived as a generous act of sportsmanship and Wiggins was called “Le Gentleman” as a result.

My interest in humility has recently been stirred by my son’s curious response to success.  If you don’t already know, you need to know that I hold my children in high esteem.  They certainly did not inherit their father’s skill at mediocrity.  However, gifted as he is, my fifteen year old hates being called out for excellence.  He resents being praised for doing good work.  And he particularly despises being asked to play the piano “because you play so well.”  In the interest of family harmony, we have had to coach doting grandparents and unctuous uncles to refrain from public praise.

Wiggins seems to have taken a similar approach to success.  As a child he worked hard to fly under the radar so as not to be picked out by his teachers.  When asked by his teachers after winning a race at the Junior Track Championships why he had never said anything about his racing, he said “I didn’t feel the need to”.  He was happiest to be left alone to do his thing and not to stand out.  In fact, his invisibility caused other competitors to underestimate him.  After winning the Tour de France, many of his peers said that they remembered him as a bit of a clown and karaoke king, but “they never expected him to win the Tour”.

Maybe my son is on to something.

* Desert Island Discs – Sir Bradley Wiggins, 10th May, 2015

 

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Harbingers

Spring

Landscapes

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“Landscape is still often understood as a noun connoting fixity, scenery, an immobile painterly decorum.  I prefer to think of the word as a noun containing a hidden verb: landscape scapes, it is dynamic and commotion causing, it sculpts and shapes us not only over the courses of our lives but also instant by instant, incident by incident.  I prefer to take “landscape” as a collective term for the temperature and pressure of the air, the fall of light and its rebounds, the textures and surfaces of rock, soil and building, the sounds (cricket screech, bird cry, wind through trees), the scents (pine resin, hot stone, crushed thyme) and the uncountable other transitory phenomena and atmospheres that together comprise the  presence of a particular place at a particular moment.”


Robert Macfarlane – The Old Ways, A Journey on Foot

Grey

Trike“For you, everything has to be either black or white” was how a recent tangle with my volatile 15 year old ended.  That got my attention.  I was saved from having to wonder exactly what he meant when he yelled from another room, “You never see any grey”.

Just so that we are clear, he wasn’t literally challenging my ability to discern grey.  He was referring to what he perceived to be my habit of distilling every argument down to a choice between two outcomes.  Right or wrong.  On or off.  Black or white.  While I wouldn’t freely admit to that tendency, it’s true that I am distressed by ambiguity, discombobulated by choice, and distracted by crowds.  I’m happier when I can make a shortlist.  I’m happiest when there’s an obvious choice.

Perhaps there’s a connection between this tendency and my preference for photos that tend towards deep contrast, strong blacks and white whites.  The raw images that pop out of my scanner depress me with a sea of grey.  Perhaps it’s because I’m not happy until the shadows are dark enough to offer a place to hide.

As to my teenager, at least he didn’t call me colourless.

Maple

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Judgment

“The word that is too often missing from leadership studies is judgment.  Everybody involved in the business is desperate to appear scientific: academics because they want to get research grants and consultants because they want to prove that they are selling something more than just instinct.  But judgment is what matters most, and it is hard to measure.  It takes judgment to resist getting carried away with one quality (such as decisiveness) or one measure of success (such as the share price).  It takes judgment to know when to modulate your virtues and when to pull out all the stops.”

Schumpeter – The Economist June 8th, 2013

 
We know that even wise and experienced leaders can make appallingly bad choices with catastrophic results.  This is often because their judgment has been clouded by an untempered ego, they have ignored the warning signs, and they have sought and received unreliable feedback.  These problems seem easily remedied but many organizations are ill equipped to help their leaders take such measures.

Ash

Letters

I wrote a letter a week over a 15 year period starting from age ten.  Over the years, what started as a chore became a pleasurable activity.  Curiously, the discipline of filling two sides of a sheet of A4 every Sunday morning, whether I wanted to or not, became a welcome challenge: How can I make the recitation of a week’s mundane events interesting?

Part of the joy of letter writing involves the choice of materials, such as the writing paper and writing implement.  Of course no one cares about such things these days, since the advent of the word processor.  In fact, with the exception of Christmas cards, no one relies on “snail mail” for personal correspondence any more.  After all email is so much quicker.  Besides, with one’s entire life posted on Facebook and Twitter for the world to see, what is there to write about?

I think we have all lost something through this transition to electronic correspondence. Firstly, the ability to quickly draft and immediately re-draft everything we write creates a much more edited result.  I think it makes us less transparent, or at least it allows us to present a sanitized version of ourselves which would have been much harder to accomplish with pen and paper.  Secondly, and I realize that this contradicts my first assertion, dashing off a quick email or Facebook post entices some of us to be much more superficial and even flippant in what we say.

Third and most importantly, we deny each other the tactile pleasure of receiving a letter in the mail that has required thought and effort on our part.  The physical labour of writing, the choice of paper and pen, and even which stamp to use.  No one else will get a letter like that – it’s tailored for the recipient.  Even the time taken for delivery allows the delightful possibility that our news is no longer news.  And of course we miss out on the best part of letter writing: receiving a reply.

Yew

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Contrary

I recently read about Alice Stewart, a pioneering industrial epidemiologist whose work on the dangers of low level radiation was aggressively opposed by the establishment.  Because she was pitted against a powerful lobby group, her work was starved of funding in Britain, and she was frequently shunned by her peers.  Nevertheless she persevered and was finally vindicated when the permitted levels of radiation for the public was reduced by two thirds.

What I found particularly interesting about Alice Stewart’s approach was her partnership with a statistician by the name of George Kneale, whose job it was to prove her wrong.  As the evidence mounted, he became less and less able to disprove her findings, thereby lending more and more weight to her claims.

In our anxiety not to be proven wrong we are tempted to surround ourselves with people who agree with us.  We seek out those who will “like” our Facebook posts, leave supportive comments on our blog, and re-tweet our 140 character views of the world.  Isn’t it more important to find people to critique our work so as to help us find our errors, and in so doing quickly put us back on the right track?