Open Thinkering


Month: June 2021

Weeknote 25/2021

Map with pencil

It seems unbelievable to me that, here we are, almost at the midpoint of 2021. As ever, it’s easy to look back with different lenses over the past six months, depending on whether we’re thinking about physical, intellectual, or emotional energy being expended. I’ve simultaneously been nowhere and everywhere, it seems.

This week has been a particularly quiet one in terms of the number of hours of paid work I’ve done. Fewer than 20, in fact. Some Catalyst Continuation support, podcast recording, fixing things, doing some usability testing for OpenLearn, and meeting with people. Hannah’s contract hasn’t started yet, due to bureaucracy around the way that the NHS procure services, so it feels a little bit like we’re in limbo.

I could do with getting my teeth into a decent-sized bit of work, to be honest. I enjoy consultancy, but project tend to last a few months at most, whereas I want to be thinking about actions taken now and the effects they will take a year from now. The grass is always greener, I suppose.

This week, I wrote two posts here:

I posted daily to, updated after someone suggested a new link, and published the following on Thought Shrapnel:

I’m planning to go away for a night’s wild camping on Sunday night, as the weather looks like it should clear. One thing I really do miss about pre-pandemic life is getting away from the place that I both live and work for a few days at a time. You need critical distance from the places and people you love to be able to appreciate them properly.

It would be remiss for me not to mention that my family spoiled me last weekend with gifts and attention on Father’s Day. I jokingly pointed out that it fell near my ‘half-birthday’ — and low and behold, a couple of hours later I was presented with half a chocolate cake…

Image of route planning using an OS map.

Walkways lined by abandoned gestures

Tiled wall with wall and cement revealed

I can’t remember when I first came across it, but The Book of Disquiet is an incredible read. It seems to peer almost directly into the soul of its author, who himself is a heteronym of the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa. It was published decades after Pessoa’s death from unedited scraps of paper found in a trunk. He called it a “factless autobiography”.

There are inevitable disagreements about the order in which the fragments should be placed, but to give a flavour, my translated version (Penguin Classics) includes the following in Chapter 41:

Silence emerges from the sound of the rain and spreads in a crescendo of grey monotony over the narrow street I contemplate. I’m sleeping while awake, standing by the window, leaning against it as against everything. I search in myself for the sensations I feel before these falling threads of darkly luminous water that stand out from the grimy building façades and especially from the open windows. And I don’t know what I feel or what I want to feel. I don’t know what to think or what I am.

All the pent-up bitterness of my life removes, before my sensationless eyes, the suit of natural happiness it wears in the random events that fill up each day. I realize that, while often happy and often cheerful, I’m always sad. And the part of me that realizes this is behind me, as if bent over my leaning self at the window, as if looking over my shoulder or even over my head to contemplate, with eyes more intimate than my own, the slow and now wavy rain which filigrees the grey and inclement air.

To shrug off all duties, even those not assigned to us, to repudiate all homes, even those that weren’t ours, to live off vestiges and the ill-defined, in grand purple robes of madness and in counterfeit laces of dreamed majesties… To be something, anything that doesn’t feel the weight of the rain outside, not the anguish of inner emptiness… To wander without thought or soul – sensation without sensation – along mountain roads and through valleys hidden between steep slopes, into the far distance, irrevocably immersed… To be lost in landscapes like paintings… A coloured non-existence in the background.

It continues, flirting with, but never falling into bathos. Instead, for me at least, it describes a certain part of the human condition in a more precise way than I’ve read anywhere else. I recommend this episode of BBC’s In Our Time podcast about Pessoa for those wanting to find out more.

I came across a blog post yesterday about someone I have interacted with a few times over the last decade. They’re going through, and have gone through, what sounds like a hellish time. They’re being open and candid about it. Most people keep much smaller things than these to themselves.

It made me realise that many people around me at the moment are going through some serious stuff right now. Mental health issues, losing loved ones, physical injuries, bullying, insomnia, to name but a few. Some of this is pandemic-related, but much of it isn’t.

Much of life involves pain and suffering of one type or another, and so people respond to this in different ways. For me, there is a delicate dance to be performed at the border of despair and ignorance, and too often I fall one way or another, having to pick myself up and start again.

Image by Natalia Y. The title of this post is also a quotation from the book.

Specialization is for insects


I saw the title of this post as a quotation on Brandon Hartshorn’s profile and it immediately struck a chord. The full quotation:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

(Robert Heinlein, ‘Time Enough For Love’, 1973)

A lot of this speaks to our desire, in an ever more interconnected world, to be self-sufficient, to be able to do lots of things ourselves.

What I’m interested in, however, is the implicit assumption of specialization in professional settings. Organisations put people in boxes and, instead of trying to climb out of them, too often people dig down. I’m sure there are exceptions, but in my experience, as you’re a ‘senior’ something (senior marketer, senior learning technologist) there’s a chance you’ve probably over-specialised at the expense of your career.

Job titles aside, the more senior you go, the more likely that those people can easily perform a range of jobs, if push comes to shove.

Others have used Heinlein’s pithy quotation about specialization as the basis for their own reflections. For example, Gary Herstein (whose name is close enough to Heinlein’s to make me double-take) wrote:

Here is a simple fact: if you cannot explain yourself to non-experts, than you cannot explain yourself at all. The reason why we all have a moral obligation – yes, you “hafta” – to explain ourselves to non-experts is because it is only in those sorts of explanations that we genuinely show that we do – or do not! (e.g., Stephen Hawking) – know what we are talking about. Few of us are granted the privilege and the bully-pulpit of an established publisher who will carry our ideas onto dead trees. (Another technical phrase.) But we can still go beyond just saying what needs to be said; we can show that we know what we’re saying by saying it to people who don’t already know that we know what we are saying.

Just today I had a conversation with the representative of an organisation we’re helping with some digital support. We were discussing the disconnect between charities and digital agencies, both of which can use specialist, technical language at times when it’s not necessary. Instead of jargon being used as a timesaver — for example, using a term instead of having to speak in paragraphs — it becomes a barrier to understanding.

In general, and again in my experience, people confident in themselves and in what they’re discussing don’t use buzzwords and unnecessary jargon. They know what they mean, and can discuss it both in literal and metaphorical terms. To be able to do so requires an understanding that approaches concepts from multiple angles, which you only get from wide reading and experience.

We don’t have to define ourselves by the job titles given to us by other people or in ways that make answering the questions of hypothetical dinner party guests easier (“So… what do you do?”) Human beings are complex and multi-faceted. In other words, we’re generalists.

Image by Yogesh Pedamkar