On carelessness

Last year, on a trip to Cambodia, I bougt a gong at the Phnom Penh Russian market. It was a small round piece of golden metal, with a rope to hold it from the top. It came with a small wooden stick, one end thick padding of wrapped fabric, to hit the gong with, and make a sweet echoing sound. I bought the gong for events and workshops, to keep time, and indicate the end of a sequence, in a soft, yet compelling manner.

It’s a precious work tool, though one I rarely use – only for larger events, three, four times a year, and hopefully, soon, more. Most of the time, it lay on the ground of my study, under a metal bookshelf. Rarely used, but, at certain times, important. In June, my partner asked me whether he could lend it to a friend, who needed one for a play. I agreed – indicating I would be using it on August 27, for a workshop that I’m facilitating tomorrow.

On Monday, I wrote to the friend, asking to get my gong back for my coming event. She was unable to find it. Thoughtfully, she ordered another one for me – but it hasn’t arrived on time.

This lost gong has made me strangely sad, and brought up a wave of negative feelings – anger, resentment. “If people are losing your tools, they’re not valuing your work. Why bother then?” Sing the dark sirens of despair. And I listen to them, curious. Why is this affecting me?

Losing a lent object is a clear case of carelessness. And of course, on the surface, easy to forgive. I got distracted, I placed it somewhere, it was so long ago, then other things happened, moved, covered it, and now I can’t remember where it is. My world is such a whirlwind, I got overwhelmed, I didn’t anticipate, now I turn, and there is chaos. Who could blame this?

Yet I can’t help but wonder – if something belongs to someone else, would we not take extra care of it? And I wonder, gentleness, approachability, patience, all virtues I try to cultivate – could they be the root cause of my disappointment? If you fear me, you won’t lose my things – hey, you won’t even ask to borrow them. The same holds for trust and generosity. If I openly share what I have, with no bond, no pending sanction for loss or damage – then how can I expect that you will pay particular attention to them? When other people around, institutions, groups, constantly dangle swords over your head. And so, when we make things easy, opening up too much, do we simply foster carelessness? And, through that attitude, expose ourselves to the risk of resentment? Should we become harsher then, lend not, and keep what’s ours under good guard, as an armour against sadness and anger?

Maybe the greatest danger to communities and the warm bonds of trust is not frontal, frank hostility – but more sinister carelessness, lack of attention, distraction. Yet – how often we slip, and how much easier, and common, to be careless, than hostile. So, maybe, this is also what we should most actively try to forgive – because only so can we maintain a social environment that will actually nourish and support us. And, maybe, there is a case for harshness, as a way to prevent carelessness, and better hold each other.

[… then an hour after I wrote this, the postman delivered a new gong, just on time – and offers yet another opportunity to reflect]

On skipping a beat

At seventeen, I started singing in choirs, and continued until I was twenty-five. In a choir, individual voices only contribute if they blend harmoniously with others, in pitch, colour, and rhythm. It has been a precious school of humility.

It has been a school of pragmatism as well. I have a high tenor voice, and was able on its account to get into better and better choirs, eventually singing alongside professionals in the making. But I’m not a good sight reader. At early rehearsals, I would often get lost. There, I learnt an important lesson. When you lose track, the worst possible attitude is to follow your own skewed rhythm. Collective activities have a cyclical nature. Stop, look for the right moment, and jump back in.

Through practice, I integrated this. I could stop anytime I needed, without compromising the whole edifice. Skip a beat, and get on with the music. My focus should not be so much on never making a mistake, but on rejoining the group with minimal disturbance. Different skill, different mindset.

Earlier this week, I got out of sync with my writing. After a late dinner, I postponed editing and publishing to the following day. This continued, with a nagging sense that I should catch up, do double load. Yesterday, rather than edit and share my Friday reflection, I caught myself writing two new pages in my notebook, and publishing nothing. Something was wrong.

I reverted to choral wisdom. I tripped, and must give up on strict dailiness. No need for shame and self-doubt, think about it pragmatically. Time passes, people move on. Rather than stick to my new skewed rhythm, and jar with dynamics around me, I stopped, I breathed, I jump again. Back in the beat.


Acknowledging weakness

I’m now evolving more and more in a world of (social) entrepreneurs. After years in academia, I enjoy its optimism, energy, and let’s-do-it attitude. But I also find it – sometimes – harsh and heartless.

The main element I stumble upon is a contradiction between rhetorics and attitude regarding failure and weakness. Everyone acknowledges that failure is part of success and setting a new risky venture demands not only time and intelligence, but also consistent emotional strength. Yet most people I come across in this world – more particularly their online persona – seem to wear a constant plastered smile on, as if real hardships happened only to others, but they were somehow exempt for the rule. Success is duly celebrated and broadcast, but failures, mess-ups or radical moments of doubt are hidden under the carpet.

I believe that fully acknowledging weakness and failures – your own, and that of others – is an important form of entrepreneurial wisdom, and essential to developing a healthy culture. From the classics, I learnt to suspect hubris. At the very least, sharing stories of rejection and mistakes, or simply reflecting on hopelessness and dark days, would not only allow us and those around us to better accept and survive them, but also – maybe – avoid the worst of them.

I’ve been thinking of designing a ‘share your failure’ event – and as I wrote this post, launched a message on the Hub Yammer group to test interest among the community. We’ll see what the response is. I’m curious.