I went to Findhorn Foundation wanting to get a clear direction in my career. I left with a sense of possibilities, and to explore many career directions. That I don’t have a clear, single, set, marketable direction is something I am OK with. I will need to live with that uncertainty. Turn to face the future. Let’s go!
Going on a course.
Last week I was at a course called Leading from the Future, led by Robin Alfred, based in the Findhorn Foundation. It was five years to the month since I was in Findhorn for a conference on climate change and corporate power. It was on the night train to that conference that I decided to leave Forum and start somethings.
A lot has happened in the intervening time. Professionally, I have done some interesting consulting projects (including for the Cabinet Office, UNDP Private Sector Team, Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership), and been chair of sustainable finance charity EIRIS Foundation through a transitional time. I also spent a year trying to start a global initiative within UCL. I had thought that would be my next five years until the pressures of COVID led to me leaving in August 2020.
More importantly, right at the start of 2021 my wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer. We were told she had years, but it was far more aggressive than anyone expected. She died suddenly at the end of April, taking even her doctors in the Intensive Care Unit by surprise. I put most of my professional activities on hold, and prioritised our children through the summer months.
September brought a new academic year. They went back to school, crafting a new normal for themselves. It was time for me to turn attention to myself.
The personal side is pretty straightforward. The children come first. The most obvious way is to stay in London (before Jo got ill, we had been planning a few years in New Zealand, made possible by my position as an Edmund Hillary Fellow). When we got our first mortgage, Jo had insisted we get life insurance. So, we have financial security in the short- and medium-terms too.
Also, I need to keep on grieving. As Julia Samuel puts it in her excellent Grief Works, that means finding “a way of living with a reality that we don’t want to be true”. Jo is gone; I don’t want that to be true. The months immediately after her death were a heightened time: organising the funeral and celebration (as the lockdown persisted and then ended), all with many forms of support from friends across all parts of our lives.
Now, I am moving from those heights down into a new normal. I feel fine, but it is complex, and not a smooth path. There will be years of working through all that.
What should I do professionally, for the rest of my life?
And so, I took myself to Findhorn to find professional direction. I had been trying to find one after leaving UCL. I had made some progress before Jo’s illness put things on pause. But, over the years, I have lost count of the number times I have tried to vision or imagine my career. Exercises included: writing the epitaph I want; crafting a purpose statement; articulating the values to guide choosing between different options. All of these have left me unsatisfied. Nothing specific has caught.
Yes, I have a ‘domain’: working for a fairer and more sustainable world, where we can cope with the challenges of our times and everyone has more chance to live their version of a good life. Obviously.
And I have a bank of experiences and skills around strategic advice, futures methods, facilitation for decision-making, bringing ideas and challenges to people, and leading teams for systemic change. Great.
But within that vast terrain of possibilities, specifically what?
Jo’s death also threw up all kinds of paradoxical perspectives. Lives are for living, and death is inevitable. Life is an infinite game, until it ends. “We strive towards a larger goal / Our little lives don’t count at all!” (as the young revolutionaries sing in Les Miserables). “People will forget what you said,…but people will never forget how you made them feel” (Maya Angelou) — and Jo made people feel alive. The time for action is now, and there was never a bigger need to know that we are taking right action.
I went to Findhorn with pressure on myself to come up with a single direction for my career. Only that, I thought, would give enough definition to others that they could know whether they wanted to engage me, as a consultant or in employment. Only that could mean that I make a contribution in this, our decisive decade. Only this would give me the specialism, identity and coherence that drive success. Only this would give the certainty which meant I could progress professionally, and provide stability for my children.
So, what should I do with the rest of my life? That was the question I went into the 4 days with.
This isn’t the place to summarise the course. For one thing, it is Robin’s to convey. For another, it was a lived experience that covered the programme, the Findhorn setting and the unique group of participants. The way we as a group formed, weaved, celebrated, cried, meditated, sang and played together is not something I can reproduce here. Anything I write would only be a map at best, and a map is not the territory. The ethos is in this line from the webpage:
“To be truly open to the future means cultivating an inner and outer practice of seeing the world, and all that is in it, afresh. It means understanding that… the future is already happening now.”
(Long-time readers of this blog will hear a parallel with Bill Sharpe’s notion of future consciousness expressed in Three Horizons: The Patterning of Hope.)
Within all the things we did together, the pivot for me was a pair of exercises that drew beyond my rational, strategist mind (always my strongest archetype, which has value but also crowds out other ways of engaging).
The first was free writing (just keep putting whatever comes up on the page) using questions from a David Whyte poem ‘What to remember when waking?’. After twenty minutes of just writing my answers to ‘What urgency calls me forward?’ and ‘What is the future whispering to me now?’, my words were getting very Anglo Saxon. Very. It was more of the visioning stuff, which gets me nothing. The outputs were a failure. Again. Again, with the failure to find a direction. Would this never end?
The next exercise was to form a sculpture that represents my current situation and the emerging possibilities (an exercise from Otto Scharmer, adapted from the Ashland Institute). I just worked the clay in my hands. No front of mind thoughts. After a few minutes I had a bowl. Then a snake, which became two spirals (see image). Another bowl, and a sorta cave. Then a lump which was a bit like an owl.
When I read Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, I wondered what animal would be my dæmon (or embodiment of my soul) would take. I had thought owl: wise (obvs) and physically capable, but also solitary with a sharpness. People who know me might disagree (where are my loyal and caring sides?) but still, that was a view I had.
So, the part-shape in my hand became an owl, with two thumbprint eyes, a beak and wings. (Very pleased that when I got home my daughter, unprompted, said “Oh, an owl”.)
And I placed the owl at angle to the other shapes, which were finished with the last of the clay in an unformed form.
My partner asked a series of questions. I realised that what was waiting to die was the pursuit of certainty, and waiting to be born was a period of experimentation. Not exploring within a single direction. But an exploring of different directions.
The urgency calling me forward, for now, is to live in the confusion of not having a single, clear, marketable career direction. It is to explore the possibilities that emerge in the overlap between what I can do and what the world needs.
I turned the owl forward, facing the future dead on.
Declaration of intent, not an action plan
This is my second working day since Findhorn. I now need to start putting into practice exploring different directions. The Strategist part of me wants to plan it all out before I get started. Which is, of course, a great way to never get started.
Hence this post. It is a declaration of intent, to move me forward before I try to get things perfectly ready. It is an act of exploring itself. How will people react to this longish, rather dense piece? (Most likely: few will read it, but it will give me self-permission). Here we go.
I declare my intention to explore different career directions. The specifics of that I will leave for another day.
The privilege of having possibilities
By any lights, I have had a tough year. People often say to me that they cannot imagine what it is like, or even how I can be standing up. Well, I don’t have to imagine it (which isn’t the same as I can describe it). It seems to me that standing up is what there is.
Jo was great for me, and I am grateful. We wished to have more time together, to bring up our brilliant children, be grandparents, grow old together, have successful careers. That is not going to happen, and it is nobody’s fault.
One of my realisations in Findhorn was that, in our family life, it was Jo who said “Look! Over there! Follow me!” on getting together, getting married, having children, moving house. All of that. In archetypal terms, she was our Explorer, and so I didn’t need to exercise that muscle. As my grief therapist has said to me, I now need to rely on my own resources.
So, the experimenting is not just in the content of my career directions, or in the process of how to explore them. It is also in my way of being, my personality, that meets the world afresh in each moment. As Chogyam Trungpa puts it (emphasis added):
We have a mind and a body, which are very precious to us. Because we have a mind and body, we can comprehend this world. Existence is wonderful and precious.
It is a great honour to be here, alive, now. I also have the privilege of having possibilities, skills to offer, experiences to use, networks to engage, near-term financial security. Plus, much loving and nurturing support from those around me.
“Look! Over there! Follow me!“
Edited Tue 5 Oct. Details of what will be exploring and how removed. Too long, distracts from the rest. To follow in its own post. Also, for spelling (pivoting has one ‘t’).
Edited Wed 13 Oct. The Explorer archetype phrase is “Look! Over there! Follow me!”, not “Look! Over there! Let’s go!”.
First, my condolences. We’ve not spoken for a long while and I wasn’t aware of your terrible loss.
Second, I am more than grateful to you for sharing this article. While not as tough as yours, it’s been a challenging year for me personally and professionally. Reading your personal and honest thoughts has resolved me to do exactly what you have done to challenge my own direction.
Andrew — thank you for your condolences. Also, very pleased to hear that the article has inspired you into new action. Good luck! — David
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