Would You Rather…?
It really dawned on me this weekend that I have several annoying habits that can make people feel uncomfortable. The first is a real propensity to foster a discomforting sense of uncertainty. Most people feel secure when they have a good idea about where they are and where they are heading as an individual or as a collective. I have learned that this is easily upset with a few questions that don’t contain clear answers. It seems that every student has their own limit of how many of these questions they can handle before surrendering in frustration or running off in panic. Some of these students might be consoled by the fact that my realisation about how hard this uncertainty can be, occurred as I found myself waist-high in a bed of stinging nettles during a country walk. Justice is served with an irritating rash. (I had not suffered this many stings since around 1988, when jumping into a bed of nettles seemed well worth it if retrieving a cricket ball would prevent the suspension of play until enough pocket money could be cobbled together for a replacement.) The epiphanal moment came as my predicament conjured up a memory of a particular illustration from “Would You Rather?” – John Burningham’s classic book, which I had enjoyed so much as a young boy. Perhaps, I found it easy to relate to the bewildered ginger-haired boy who faced the relentless barrage of “would you rather…?” questions throughout the book. How could anyone ever expect a six-year-old to find any certainty in the world after facing such unfathomable questions as “would you rather jump in the nettles for £5, swallow a dead frog for £20 or stay all night in a creepy house for £50?” I have probably spent the best part of three decades since first reading this book attempting to unsettle anyone who might reckon they have life all figured out. How could they be so blind in their efforts to rationalise any answer to questions that are more or less important than whether they would rather have their dad dance at school or see their mum row in a café?
An image of me scrabbling around for dock leaves might be ever more satisfying for anyone else who has suffered uncomfort from my far more annoying habit of getting lost. I ended up among the nettles because of a careless wrong turn at the end of a field, which is the sort of situation that I often inflict on fellow travellers. Too many people, who need the relatively simple comfort and security of knowing exactly where they are and how to get to where they are going, have been reduced to tears on a journey with me. It is infuriating for many people because I can read a map. In fact, I am obsessed with cartography and can follow regular journeys on automatic pilot. The problem is that I rarely use maps to navigate new paths, as I prefer to follow my nose and see where it leads. In wandering and getting lost, I have discovered wonderful places in the world and even inside my own head. Finding the way home from wherever I might end up only adds to the enjoyment. Of course, I have come to learn the hard way that getting lost is far less fun for anyone who has been expecting me to deliver them safely to their destination without any drama. I never said I knew where I was going. Perhaps, my willingness to set off in my own direction is easily mistaken for knowing the right way. I shall be sure to start making it clearer to people that I half expect to get lost along the way.
Although I have to admit that this might not always have been the case, I do not enjoy making other people feel uncomfortable. I am curious by nature and I like to explore. Not everyone appreciates that. After starting and finishing Alastair Humphreys’ book on “Microadventures” on Friday, I felt inspired to use the weekend to take on a 50km walk on my own without needing to worry about causing anyone else discomfort, disappointment or distress. Alastair is a serial explorer of the remotest corners of the planet, but in this book he wanted to show “normal people” that even a lack of time or money need not limit their enjoyment of the challenge, the fun and the learning experience of an adventure. He has assigned the name of microadventure to the various activities that are enjoyed daily by people around the country in the hope of creating a community of explorers who can share their experience or feel inspired to take their first few steps.
My own microadventure might not offer a survival story from the Sahara, but the significantly less dangerous exploration of the garden of England helped me appreciate some of the good intentions beneath my annoying habits of making people feel uncomfortable. Tracking rivers and jumping train tracks presented a refreshing opportunity to rediscover an old way of engaging my curiosity for the world that had lain dormant inside me for far too long. Someone reminded me this week of the difference between child-like and childish; allowing the inner child a chance to play presents a whole new world to enjoy. Like Alastair, as a young boy I too had been an avid reader of books like “Swallows and Amazons”, which led to all kinds of adventures to the bottom of the garden and beyond. (My Mum still gets good mileage out of the story about how my brother and I aborted our first attempt to camp in the garden after scaring ourselves with talk of killer slugs.) As a teenager, curiosity led me even further afield as I began to spend most weekends trekking through the countryside. It was only once I started university that this curiosity was translated into a search for meaning about the world in books. I may have learned from the likes of Jacques Derrida that we could interpret the world by reading it like a book, but my microadventure this weekend reminded me that the comfort of certain truth and meaning would not be discovered hidden away in a book. I would also need to find meaning while on a journey to experience the world for myself.
The significance of this that leaders of sustainability should be aware of is that we often hold ourselves back from exploring the world. Both internal criticism and external pressures to conform often lead us to reject experimenting with new ideas in favour of repeating safer and familiar patterns, even if they are not working. This can create a real danger of substituting genuine experiences in life with a willingness to adopt the answers from others that we allow to do our exploring for us. The sustainability leadership thinker, Petra Kuenkel, suggests that breaking these habits requires us to rediscover our original intentions of curiosity from childhood that become buried later on in adult life. This means not only being brave enough to engage with the inner child, but also learning to get comfortable with uncertainty. Jacques Derrida embraced the idea of aporia as the decision to be made in the face of a dilemma without the knowledge to show a clear path forward. We also need to become comfortable in getting lost. Gilles Deleuze rejected the idea of a map as an accurate reproduction of the world. He argued that we should instead create our own maps as we chart each unique moment that we encounter in a quantum world.
A sustainability leadership journey is, to some extent, about letting go of the fear of getting lost or the fear of setting off without the certainties and guarantees of reaching a destination. The famous psychiatrist and Holocaust-survivor, Viktor Frankl, learned from his own painful experience that the most important human freedom is “to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Would you rather remain safe and let someone else take the risks of exploring the world or choose to discover your own way through life? The answer to the question might not be as easy to answer as one might expect. Meg Wheatley suggests that we need not make the difficult decision to travel alone if we turn to each other for inspiration on how to take our own journey of discovery. The experiences of others can help us see in new ways and share new stories about what we find – not as models – but what is possible. To take a few steps into the uncomfortable unknown can open up an entire new world of possibilities. So, if you are interested in spending your weekend stranded in the English countryside, while playing a game of “would you rather?” – you (might) know where to find me.