The space between sharp and soft

👋 Sup.

Welcome to another weekly edition of Salmon Theory.

Let’s take a deep breath. And here we go.

I. Excuses

It’s helpful to see the world through heuristics. It makes our thinking process clearer. Which in turn can lead to better decisions, and less unnecessary anxiety. One that I’m a fan of? Believing that most bad things are good things taken too far.

It’s easy to assume the worst. Too damn easy. And we have more tools than ever to express our reaction to that worstness (is that a word?) in the world. The reality – the one I choose to adopt, anyway – is that people and systems lose control. And often, they don’t realise they lost control until everything is spinning.

The proverbial shit in the fan.

This is how we end up with things like:

  • Disorganisation as a need for agility that’s taken too far

  • Bullying as a need for control that’s taken too far

  • Hubris as a need for innovation that’s taken too far

  • Indecisiveness as a need to collaboration that’s taken too far

  • Workaholism as a need to feel valued that’s taken too far

All of these feel bad. But really they’re often good things taken too far.

Another heuristic I find helpful: assume everyone thinks they’re the hero of the story. No one wakes up thinking they will bully their staff today once again. They might label it as ‘radical candour’, no matter how toxic it ends up being for everyone else. But in their mind, it’s coming from a fair place. Even if we can argue how fair that place is.

Does this mean there are not people who have bad intentions? Nope. Does this mean we should condone other people’s abusive behaviour? Of course not. Does it justify all the bad shit we see around workplaces? Not by a long shot. But it helps us understand why things are the way they are. And labelling the problem can be a first step to understand how to solve it. As in therapy, so too in workplace relationships.

II. Softness

I’ve come to admire people who speak by mixing sharpness and softness.

Does this feel like a paradox? It might be. But hear me out. One of our most basic instincts is to try and be the loudest person in the room. (Speak up!) It’s a cultural thing. It’s hard to avoid when conversations escalate. But sometimes the loudest person isn’t the clearest. Which means you get a lot of heat, but not a lot of direction. Let’s call them the “we need to be more disruptive” Chief Visionary Officers.

Okey dokey, cheers buddy!

Elsewhere on the spectrum, you have people who show authority in a different way. They are the people I see as being both sharp and soft. They produce sharp words, but keep the tone soft. They don’t raise their voice, but when they speak it’s clear where they’re heading. And how we can go there with them. At their best, they lower their voice even more to force everyone to shut up and listen.

I’ve seen this happen. When it works, it’s one hell of a sight.

As a planning director, this is one thing I aspire to. To be able to give teams and clients clear direction, without getting into a ‘who can speak louder’ game. To play in that strange wonderful place of sharp words, with a soft tone. Like most things worth their salt, it’s not something you learn once and done. You gotta practise it every day.

III. Conditionality

I’ve been reading Pema Chödrön’s book Start Where You Are for a couple of weeks now. It’s not a long book, but it’s one you gotta savour as you go. The fact I am not rushing to finish it suggests I may be growing up. And not hoping that if only I finished that book, and do it fast, finally I will be a calmer person.

That’s one of the main points of the book, as suggested in the title. It’s about spirituality, meditation, practising Buddhist teachings in everyday life. But above all, it’s about not thinking you need a full transformation to do any of this. In fact, she argues you want to start from the imperfect state you are in right now.

(Spoiler alert: that’s the state any of us will ever be, until the very end.)

This, in turn, takes me back to what my therapist once said. She noted I used a lot of ‘if only, then’ articulations to try and solve my problems. A few classic ones:

  • If only I read X books a year, then I would feel smarter

  • If only I got that new job, then I would finally feel like I belong

  • If only I learned that skill, then I wouldn’t feel like an impostor all the time

Notice a pattern? I notice a few.

First, they are all conditional statements. If this happens, then finally that happens. Second, they are all external things to try and solve internal problems. Third, they are all about playing catch up so we can finally be at the same level as others.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with any of the above milestones. Books are good. Career aspirations are good. Upgrading your skills is good. But every time I’ve hit some of these milestones, I felt happy for a hot second. And then I got back into the loop of feeling like I wasn’t good enough, or that people were out to get me.

And this is exactly what Pema Chödrön advises us against. Aspirations are good. But don’t let them become the conditional state after which you will finally be free. Or calmer. Or happier. Or loved. Granted, I should acknowledge my own privilege in having a good life. I have few ‘real problems’ that I know other people have. This isn’t to belittle that, not one bit. But anxiety latches on to whatever is around it. And good lives can be led by miserable people.

(Not that I am miserable either. But I am thinking of the Succession family.)

(What a fucking awesome show that is. Come on Season 3, do your thing!)

I sometimes do a mental exercise of imagining my life had nothing else to offer. Whatever I have now, is all I will ever have. Would I be ok with that? It’s not an easy exercise, but it’s a way to practise contentment by starting where I am right now. And sitting with it, seeing how it feels. And breathing around that feeling. It removes the expectation that I just need this other hit to finally get there. Wherever ‘there’ is.

It’s not always effective, but sometimes it is.

And that’s good enough for me.



PS: I will be off the next 3 weeks. See you back in July!

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