Up Against It
Building the Creative Universe
There’s plenty to be anxious about at the moment. Last week I had a nightmare, my first in years — not a social anxiety nightmare or a taking-a-crap-in-public nightmare, but a full on Hammer House of Horror, terrifying intruder nightmare — the kind of nightmare for which they invented the word. My bad dreams normally feel like noir comedies or episodes of The Office — a little uncomfortable or tense, but nothing like this: the dark silhouette of a man’s head at the window as my wife put our children to bed; me unable to move or scream, only air escaping my throat, door creaking open while I hyperventilate… Aarggh!
Despite my love of symbols and synchronicities, I was able to write this dream off as so much psychic noise. But later, scanning my estimated energy bill for the year ahead, I suddenly became aware of the war in Ukraine as a visceral, material forcefield — an intruder impinging on my life. The war was not just a soul wrenching humanitarian disaster, but an actual imminent factor in my family’s security. In this context the nightmare made sense. Combined with our (weirdly countercyclical) post-COVID decision to homeschool our children — not to mention peak oil, escalating commodity prices and the wobbly state of global geopolitics — I started to feel a bit… scared.
Clients of mine in recent weeks have regularly described themselves as a bit up against it. Even family and friends just going about the regular round of their daily lives — not executives in the hedge fund / consulting / legal professions (even my not-very-retired Dad and my 15 year old nephew) — report themselves stretched beyond normal boundaries of endurance by their own busy-ness.
In just a few years, most of us have got used to pressures that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. I’m pretty sure we have more data at our fingertips, more decisions to make about how to process it, and less certainty within which to make those choices, than the US president did 100 years ago.
The sheer scale and intensity of this daily task subjects us to g-forces that would have torn apart earlier, less resilient versions of ourselves. I will never forget a friend of mine high in the Private Equity business telling me around seven or eight years ago (still in the asset frenzy post 2008) that there was simply no time for anything any more: “Everything is squeezed at the margins” he said.
My friend’s comment confirmed for me a felt sense that the very seconds of my life were being encroached upon by the invisible, odourless gas of money, with its power — unintentionally assisted by global deregulation — to move like air into any domain of life. It seemed conceivable that not too long from now every spark of human creativity and insight — however private or sacred — would be transfigured into a unit of productivity, each one ascribed an unconscious time / money value.
You don’t need to be Marxist to notice money’s incredible power to turn everything into itself; only to observe the unstoppable rise of the attention economy (and its medicine, the mindfulness industry).
But of course, money is just an enabler — it is technology (ie our divine and relentless drive to optimise and systematise everything) that’s really done it. Technology has brought war, Instagram and competition with global rivals — for better and worse — right into our own untouchable private spaces.
The process has been boil-a-frog-invisible to most of us (does anyone actually remember what it was like to have no smartphone?), but now the strain is starting to show. Canaries in the mine — the sensitive, underprivileged or overworked — have been falling ill with burnout and worse for decades. Now, the traditionally well-paid and well-looked after professional classes are also feeling the heat. Just hashtag #burnout on LinkedIn to get a sense for how much need there is in this market.
Life — to put it bluntly — is pretty demanding.
I used to get angry about this — raging against the dark star of empire that I felt was commoditising our brain space, situating me at some muddled meeting point of No Logo, the Gift Economy and The Idler. But recently I’ve changed my mind.
Rather than seeing this intensity as something to resist, I’ve started understanding it as an evolutionary pressure: the hot pressure cooker of existence forcing us to release the jus in the marrow of our bones — the effortless genius of which each of us is capable — supported by the simplest, most elegant systems we can create. From that point of view, the accelerating shitstorm of life is a challenge to each of us to step into being who we truly are — a leader, of ourselves and others around us — and to hold to our instinctive grasp of how things could be.
The reason I think this is important is that the world’s problems are increasingly our own problems. The personal and the collective are one. It was always so, but these days there’s just no avoiding it. It used to be you could outsource intensity by living at the heart of a successful empire; now this is only possible if you are extremely rich (and even then, doubtful). We are all in this together.
To put it another way — if you’re having a hard time, cheer up!
The pressures of participating as an equal in a tech-turbo-boosted global economy / meltdown can feel overwhelming, invasive and completely out of your control; they can cause you to forget and lose touch with yourself; you can become entropically distracted, stressed or even aggressive.
Or you can view the challenge as an opportunity to grow, engaging with external pressures on your terms, holding them at bay until you are ready — and in the way that you choose — to engage.
This is why the small, quiet act is always the most powerful. A core principle of the work I do with leaders in business is to help them (sometimes even force them) to make space inside themselves for the resilient and creative response. To survive as a leader you have to put the world second, always, to your own space of creativity and renewal.
This translates into mundane but pricelessly important habits and rituals of connection. It means holding at arms length external stories and pressures in any form, however true they seem. And it means holding your creativity sacred as the core engine of regeneration in a living universe.
Which is the only way I’ve found to understand my purpose in a world that is (always) falling apart. It’s f***ing hard. I fail at it all the time, but every now and then I succeed. And then I’m glad.
It wasn’t Jungian analysis or meditating or even writing that helped me last week. That quiet act of space was how I let go of the nightmare of the zombie intruder, without effort and without trace. And it let go of me.
Now it is just a story.
I support leaders to take control of their resilience and creativity in a world of impossible complexity and change. To find out more you can visit me here.