By Dan Fine, Business Adviser at Hive Business
“I can’t make that decision until I get this in order first…” How often we say such things to ourselves as we struggle to create order in our lives. “If this then that” is a quintessentially human mode of navigation. It’s linear and binary. It stops us going mad. With it we can see what we should be doing and, for the time being at least, write off what we shouldn’t.
Yet much of what we know about the universe says otherwise. Things aren’t necessarily linear; different processes are happening all the time, inside us and inside other people, and all around, to businesses, groups of organisations and everything. One day we might suddenly learn something new from an experience that happened to us many years ago. Perhaps it took us this long to be ready to perceive it in the right way.
Things aren’t necessarily binary either. Of course, black and white thinking is cognitive shorthand to navigate through the world too. Yes, there is a right and a wrong answer to the question “what is 2 plus 2?”, but few questions in the real world are so neat and tidy. Then again, if we embrace nuance we can drown in it — we need something to hold onto.
This is where your values and principles come in. If you are running a business, for instance, presumably you are not just asking yourself whether the numbers stack up. You are also thinking about what kind of life you want to live and what kind of values you believe in.
At the same time there has to be a recognition that everything is gradually declining into disorder all the time. This is the principle of entropy, or the second law of thermodynamics. When we say to ourselves “I can’t do that until I do this” we are telling ourselves a little lie.
We are pretending entropy isn’t true and constructing an artificial reality where things are static. There is never really equilibrium in any person, group or organisation, we just pretend there is to make ourselves feel more secure.
2,500 years ago the Greek philosopher Heraclitus suggested that the only constant is change, giving the analogy of stepping into a river. As it is flowing you can never step in the same place twice.
Your business, like your life, is a process. When it feels rigid and stuck it’s a sign that things aren’t going well. When it feels free-flowing, flexible and vital, you know that somehow you are in the right place at the right time and things are happening much faster, even if they feel effortless.
How do you get to that high flow place and stay there? Maybe it’s this: you muster the courage to abandon the linear and binary framework and look at the whole of your business and the whole of your life as a temporary experiment that will end, and in fact is always in the process of dying.
Maybe it helps to remember your body. We often tell ourselves we want a long life, but if this really was a priority then our best course of action would be to preserve our bodies by staying still and eating much less. We don’t do that because we want to use our bodies to do things we love — we want to live according to our values and our philosophy and be active in the world.
Your own a priori values and principles are really powerful, and they will prevent you disintegrating when you take the comforting illusion of equilibrium away. Adopting this fatalist, tragic sense of life might seem pessimistic, yet everyone who writes about it, such as the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, says it feels liberating.
Peterson argues that if you really do accept that everything is falling apart, that life is fleeting and disintegrating, you can free yourself from the illusions that go with it. The more you remind yourself of entropy and death, the easier risk taking becomes. You lose either way — but in which way do you lose less?
To bring it back to the real world, we often meet practice owners who just want to stabilise their Denplan list, or refurbish their third surgery, or move house before taking meaningful action on their growth plan. Hopefully these reflections have made the case that sometimes — but not always — it’s healthier to risk it and take action even when all your ducks aren’t in a row. Because — and this is the pessimistic bit — there is always a cost to inaction. The Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci put it much better than me when he encouraged his readers to cultivate “pessimism of the spirit, optimism of the will”.
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