“People today think of ‘learning’ as the pursuit of knowledge, whereas the ancients thought of ‘learning’ as cultivating the self.”
– Cheng Shude, Notes on the Analects of Confucius
The topic of what a defined philosophy of life has to do with working professionally together with other people might seem an odd one, but for a number of reasons, I sincerely believe it to be of great importance, especially when working in tight teams, in projects or with running a business or organization. Please bear with me for a bit, and I hope you will see why. Recently, I was asked the question of how I believe a boss should be, and after giving it some thought I came to the conclusion that I do not really see a difference between that, and how I want everyone, including myself, to be. And not just that, I do not see a difference between professional and private life in this. What those characteristics are, I will return to soon, in twelve brief points.
Over the last couple of decades, agile project management has grown to become a bit of a buzzword, especially in certain industries, and while many have adopted it wholeheartedly, others are just getting into the process. Exactly what agile means varies wildly, but at the core lies a fundamental openness to adapting to changing circumstances, and a willingness to start a journey where the destination isn’t perfectly clear at the beginning, and where the travelling circumstances are likely to change throughout the journey. For all intents and purposes, this borders on philosophy and it may well change a person’s private life too, when adopted deeply.
Now, it doesn’t matter if you are a CEO, COO, analyst, designer, developer or project manager. Sooner or later we all face serious difficulties in life, and quite likely issues which will make us question our choices or even our very being, both at home and at work. So, how do we handle such things in a time where many of us do not have a clearly defined religious foundation and associated moral code, and often only have a rather vaguely defined philosophy to live by?
Rooted in this agnostic and atheistic void, the self-centred 80s, the “post-Hippie” Yuppie era, saw a strong fascination with Bushido and Master Sun’s Art of War, an influence which perhaps can still be traced in parts of business, with businessmen picturing themselves as samurai and Chinese “warriors”, retrofitting 2500 year old Chinese military strategy to modern Western business practice, and at its extremes even affecting national and international politics, as states have been pushed towards being run as businesses instead of as civil societies. The profound issues with transferring ancient Asian philosophy for war to the very different context of modern Western practices for business and politics should be obvious, and I won’t go into them here. But, what else can we look to, to find guidance in modern collaborative work, with a better fit?
My background is likely a bit different to that of most, not coming from a business or tech schooling background, instead approaching this topic with experiences as a teacher, a sergeant, a boss, an instructor, a project manager, and a career as a freelance consultant, spanning over 25 or so years. At the centre of the pedagogics studies lies an attitude, a belief and a philosophical idea of what it means to be human, a thinking and feeling person, with a fundamental respect extended towards everyone, and a quite profound understanding of what knowledge and learning actually mean, and of how a leader best guides others towards a desired result. This is one important piece in how I approach everything in life, as a father, as a project manager, and as a sports instructor. In his Striking Thoughts, Bruce Lee argues that:
A teacher, a good teacher that is, functions as a pointer to truth, but not a giver of truth. He employs a minimum of form to lead his student to the formless. Furthermore, he points out the importance of being able to enter a mould without being imprisoned by it, or to follow the principles without being bound by them.
– – –
A good teacher protects his pupils from his own influence. It is easy to teach one to be skilful, but it is difficult to teach him his own attitude. Each moment during teaching requires a full alert and sensitive mind that is constantly adjusting and constantly changing.
This idea, I believe, fits perfectly with both modern pedagogics and with decentralized, agile work methods, and is deeply reliant on both trust, confidence, and respect for the individual.
The second important piece is personally having found a lot of comfort and help in the stoicism of Aurelius and Seneca as well as in reading Master Lao’s Tao Te Ching, and from them, and from many other experiences, including passing through some great personal and professional difficulties in life, Out of these sources, I have synthesized some core tenets to use as my own guide in life, regardless of context. And, like with agile project management, they have helped me pass through quite some difficulties. Of course, grief, frustration, anger and many other such negative or difficult emotions do not disappear, but through this, they are not quite the same hindrance as they have potential for.
But not only that, these tenets also remove a lot of other unnecessary and undesired sources of confusion, misunderstandings, and conflict, and can thereby benefit collaborative work and relationships with others. They are only a dozen, even if the implications of some have some depth to them, which require some time and consideration.
So, let’s have a look at them:
1. Look soberly at reality & accept things as they are
Our feelings, our hopes, our fears, and our dreams commonly make it difficult to perceive the reality around us in an objective manner, and even more so, from the perspective of others. We all experience different realities. But, we can shed some of those distortions by striving for a calm objectivity, allowing us to act in more appropriate ways. The way to do this, is to accept things as they are, not as we want or fear them to be.
2. Change what you can, accept the inevitability of the things you can not
Focusing on changing things we have little or no influence over inevitably leads to frustration and steals energy, distracting us from things we actually have influence over and can improve upon. Therefore, we simply have to train ourselves to accept the things we can not change, letting go of the associated frustration. This, however, should not be taken as meaning you should choose passivity instead of activity. Quite the contrary. It is a matter of learning to make distinctions and priorities, using your resources the best.
3. Have a vision, but do not let it hurt reality
Without aspirations and dreams, we achieve nothing. Having them is absolutely crucial to all aspects of life. But we mustn’t let them drift too far into fantasy. A strong element of realism and pragmatism need to be maintained throughout, from start to completion. Otherwise, sooner or later, that vision will come in conflict with reality and begin to hurt it.
4. Do not ignore stressful, painful or difficult things & Don’t postpone things
We all shy away from things that pain us. It is a natural instinct to try to flee from harm. But oftentimes, pain is an unavoidable part of life and we need to face it straight on, or otherwise risk seeing far greater harm coming to ourselves or the things we have committed ourselves to. Postponing things can be one way of fleeing pain and should only be done with great care and awareness.
5. Be honest and truthful, and when you can’t be honest, be silent
Business, and even relationships, are sometimes compared to playing a game, with a struggle for power and dominance, and I have certainly met people who have lived by this. I, however, don’t believe in this approach, and I think the very idea is commonly quite damaging to all that it is applied to. Instead, I believe in the importance of being honest and truthful, speaking openly, thereby avoiding misunderstandings or building of frustration or even resentment.
There is of course also such a thing as “too much honesty”, and sometimes the better diplomatic option is simply to remain silent on certain topics, sometimes saving it for a better opportunity.
6. Be simple and straightforward
Relationships, in work or private, are complicated enough as they are, so aim to avoid making them even more complicated. Keep things simple and be straightforward with all that you do. This connects to the next point.
7. Communicate what needs to be communicated, in the right place
Do not hold back on things that need to be shared with others. Make sure to choose the correct channel and moment though, especially today, where some channels are not persistent for long, and some things are important to preserve for the future. Other things are sensitive and mustn’t be communicated in more insecure channels.
Furthermore, you are unlikely to always be capable of judging what information is relevant or useful to everyone in your team, so it is likely better to leave that decision up to the individuals themselves, with the exception, of course, for sensitive information.
8. Be open & pay attention to subtleties – Accept differences
Especially with partners and colleagues, a working relationship requires a certain openness, sharing thoughts, feelings and hopes. This of course should not be excessive or reckless, or worse yet inappropriate, so attention needs to be paid to the subtleties in this.
Likewise, since everyone is different, and people are not equally comfortable with being open, you also need to pay attention to more subtle signals sent out by people around you, and especially as a leader, but also as a colleague, you need to accept people’s different characters and quirks.
9. Be humble, but also confident
As our experience and skill set grows, we naturally become more and more confident. This is a good thing, as it relieves us from things that otherwise might hinder us in our work. However, there is also a risk of blinding ourselves to great ideas and practices of others, especially those with less experience and a smaller skill set. This is something to be very watchful for, especially in certain businesses where younger colleagues may have important knowledge brought in from both more recent studies and from a closer connection to contemporary trends.
10. Own your mistakes and learn from them so you don’t repeat them
Making mistakes is embarrassing and sometimes even painful, so a natural instinct is to move away from them as quickly as possible. However, this can lead to frustration in work groups, especially when it becomes a pattern, or when negative consequences for others remain unacknowledged or ignored.
Likewise, excuses soon become meaningless, if the reason for them becomes a repeating pattern. So, learn from your mistakes, and strive your best to never repeat them.
11. Avoid exceptions. Be consistent & meticulous
As stress and lack of time come into play, it is very easy to start making exceptions from made agreements and established routines and practices, leading to spreading inconsistency, which in turn causes confusion and increasing frustration. This is therefore very important to avoid, and pushing delivery dates and deadlines is normally a better option for everyone.
And be meticiulous, pay attention to the details, and make sure to go all the way with what you are tasked with.
12. Be kind
Without kindness, there can be no happiness, and without happiness why do what we do? This is no different in our professional lives. So be kind, at all times. From this, we all benefit, especially if we work tightly together.
Finally, I find having a mental image to be of great use in many situations, not least the pressing and difficult ones. I keep two of them, using the image of a rock in a river, sometimes using the one, sometimes the other motives, depending on the need.
“Flow like the river”
Strong, adaptive, resilient and pure.
- Adapt to where the flow takes you.
- Adapt to changing circumstances.
- Adapt to any hinder encountered, flowing forward, sometimes fast, sometimes slow.
“Be like the rock in the river”
Stable, reliable, foundational and consistent.
- Let the rapid water flow past you.
- Let the water change you slowly.
Finally, this is my own synthesis of various philosophies and experiences through life as I approach turning 50. Your journey is different, starting from a different place, but I sincerely believe the above to be useful for most people, in their private lives as well as their professional ones, not least in organizations that aim to work agile. As for myself, I strive to live by it at all times, and have found great use and comfort from them.
Thank you for reading.