Tales of longing and belonging
Many moons ago, when I was a PhD student, I worked as a teaching assistant. At the time it felt like the most sensible way of getting some money working around the demands of doing a PhD. With hindsight, it was exhausting and criminally underpaid work essentially doing all the seminars, office hours and marking that the professors didn’t want to do. They did the teaching. You needed to supervise the actual learning.
As a university teaching assistant you essentially get the best of the work and the worst of the work.
The worst of the work is that you don’t build the syllabus and you often have to hold an identical seminar 6 times per day, several days a week, with different groups.
The best of the work is the seminar is never actually identical. Because of the students. Because of their own reading of things. Because of the questions they are not afraid to ask. Some odd and whacky. Some broad and pondering. And some cutting right to the bone and making you re-think and as a result re-learn everything.
In one of those classrooms I met an incredible young woman. Incredible then, incredible now.
This post is for Maryyum. She asked for it. And sometimes it’s important to remind people that if you don’t ask, you won’t get. You may ask and still not get, there is that. And you may get more than you bargained for. There is that too. Or you may get something totally different to what you asked for. But if you don’t ask, you are leaving way too much to chance.
And this is where Maryyum is getting more than she bargained for. Because she didn’t ask for a piece about political reform, navigating transformation and the simple act of asking. But that’s what she’s getting.
Tales of longing
There is this weird symmetry between how countries, organisations and humans relate to time. They mostly live in this limbo of harking back to a long lost time of innocence and a hazy hope for a better future. Now is all we have and yet, in its transience, it’s not as important as before and after.
This is true of humans but it is overwhelmingly true of communities and their shared timelines, especially as those are woven through story-telling more than individual memory stores.
The past seems pristine, an era of heroic ancestors, a time when growth was easy and every arrow seemed to strike true, an age when choices didn’t seem forever suspended between a rock and a hard place. Were those times ever true? It doesn’t matter. They are a key part of collective identity, of how we construct shared memory and collective identity, and they inform what it is we wish for, as a collective.
Every nation, every tribe, every corporate has hopes and dreams.
It sounds silly, but miss that and you can’t drive a revolution or a transformation programme for toffee. And no they are not the same. But they are more similar than you think. Change is uncomfortable and troubling and unsettling even when you want it. And the end result of a move away from things is always unknowable in its detail.
So… you know….
Revolutions and transformation work have more in common than you may think. And neither can even get off the ground unless the seed of longing for something better, meaningful and achievable can be sown in the collective minds of those who have to do the toiling.
Being able to hope for things isn’t an idle exercise.
I can dream of being a ballerina, but at 43 with two herniated disks in my lower back I can’t hope to become one. Hope is about dreams with a degree of realism. Achievability. You need brand permission for hope. It needs to be credible, and for that it needs to be anchored in something.
The myth of belonging
I knew that years of studying ethnic conflict and tribal belonging would be good for something. Even if it is to keep saying ‘this is similar, trust me’. And there is something staggeringly similar in what it takes for a leopard to change its spots, irrespective of whether the leopard is a corporate or a country. Irrespective of whether it is an exercise of administrative transformation or a bloody uprising.
And the main thing the journey has in common is the mental rails of who we are like and who we are not like.
Which global community we need to be recognised by, which lunch table we need to be welcome at.
Be it the League of Nations or the erstwhile society of trailblazing innovators, change is often about what you think you deserve, what you think is right for you, but also who you believe you belong with. And this part is important. Because the longing is about belonging.
The playing field you want to be seen as belonging to. The peers you want to belong with. Transformation isn’t just about you internally. It’s about you transforming so that you can play a different kind of game for the future. And yes it’s for you and your people and your own sustainability. But part of how you know if it’s working is this belonging, this dialogue with the peers either side of you, engaged in a similar journey as you. How else can you measure progress if not against each other? How else do you validate your own hope? Your own brand permission? If not against how theirs is playing out?
So although your journey is all about you, the toil all yours, progress is an outward dialogue. A validation. A yardstick of sorts. Moving but knowable.
The problem of course is that knowing this doesn’t make the days easier.
The here and now
In one of the classrooms of my years as a PhD student, a young undergrad once pointed out that international relations was easier than government studies and easier still than political science. Quite, said the snooty political scientist in me.
Because IR says ‘France didn’t like that’ as if France has agency and continuity and volition.
Government will look at economics and labour relations and legal systems and electoral law and allow for the fact that ‘France’ is a rather more complex animal than a single set of decision points.
And political science? Ah, well political science accepts that humans make everything messy, and although we have ways of measuring and predicting the behaviours of humans when they congregate in large numbers, we also know that the same group size behaves differently if it is a crowd at a rally, a tribe, a platoon or a corporate. And each of those is further affected by culture, history, law, weather, art and the messy humans in the mix.
Political science is all about accepting humans make everything unpredictable and trying to work within that.
And how on earth do you work with that?
What do you do with that?
You have two options really.
One is to go for the broad brush approach. Find shapes that largely explain the world. Shapes that fit well together even if they miss the nuance and complexity of what it takes to get from A to B. The other is to try and understand the complexity. And frankly, as a political scientist, I can tell you that’s much more interesting. And as a practitioner in business, I will tell you that it may be vertigo-inducing but the complexity is where the work happens. So if you want to story-tell after the fact, sit it out and wait till we are done and then you can do broad brush. But if you want to do the doing, the messy middle, the complex mess of humanity is where it’s at.
So. Back to my point.
You have your longing. You know what you are hoping to do.
And you have your tales of belonging.
Of why you. Why this. Why now.
And then what?
The grand narratives are needed. You won’t even get started without. But they won’t tell you what to do with your day and your hours.
And when driving change, each hour matters because each hour is hard. If it’s not hard you are not doing it right.
So how do you go about it?
The first thing is you start from where you are.
And don’t you roll your eyes at me. This is not obvious.
When the Leninist brigades brought Marxism to Mother Russia, the fact that the original theory was meant for a mature industrial society and not the mass of impoverished peasants that made up the Russian populace did not deter them.
How much could it matter?
A lot, as it turned out.
So don’t start from where you wish you were. Don’t start from where the others are. From where that book you read describes as the starting point in their case study.
Start from where you are.
Take a long, hard look at what is real for you. That’s what you have to work with.
You can’t just ignore it. You don’t have to like it. Changing it is the point of this exercise. So you can hate it, that’s ok. But be honest about it. With yourself first and foremost.
Once you’ve done that, then it’s simple.
You need to take it one day at a time.
And you won’t like that any more than you like starting from where you are, but this is the way. You can’t skip over the boring bits. The work is the work. You need to put one foot in front of the other. Each hour and each day. And if you look at where you are going and how slow you are moving it can get overwhelming, so you take it one day at a time. If you can achieve one thing each day, what is it today? If you can add one small piece to the edifice each day, what is it today?
Taking it one day at a time means playing your hand one day at a time. And giving yourself things you can achieve in that horizon. And holding yourself accountable. Both for not letting yourself be overwhelmed and for moving forward in ways that may be small at the end of each day, but they won’t be small at the end of the month and the year and the journey.
Oh. And always give yourself something to look forward to.
That’s not a transformation tip. That’s a mental health tip.
When life is hard, the best way to not lose yourself is to take it one day at a time and give yourself something to look forward to.
And as you do all that, remember to ask.
Ask for help.
Ask for clarity.
Ask for the things you want.
Ask for the things you need.
Because life is messy and transformation is hard and unless you ask, you may not get. And that will be bad for you but it may also be bad for everyone because anything that helps people make sense of a confusing reality has value. And sometimes, just sometimes, a question helps everyone around you re-learn.
And take stock of where they are and what they are doing with their days.
And in doing so you generate a very different kind of belonging. Not just with the peers whose acceptance and membership nod you are driving towards, but with the trench buddies you are taking the journey with.
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem. She is chief client officer at 10x Future Technologies.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!