Indicators of Incongruence & an Ascension from The Funk
When growth displaces purpose—a most benign epiphany
Huzzarh! Tremble and rejoice, world! For I have ascended from that cursed funk* that gripped me for the past half-year. A thing that withered my whimsy, wit and wanderlust, diminishing my equanimity and disposition, and generally making life seem a bit crap—but, no more! “Hahahar!” I roar, triumphantly—with particular emphasis on the final syllable—throwing my head back with chest thrust, fists balled and arms akimbo. Lightning strikes, on cue.
* A ‘funk’ is the term I choose to describe something that’s “not quite the blues—and certainly not depression—but a kind of restless apathy. A strong feeling of discontent for I don’t know what. A meandering, persistent (and yet not entirely consistent) melancholy that’s at stark contrast to the many things to be grateful for.” When I wrote about this last year, many subscribers wrote back to describe feeling much the same. It got me wondering if this is partly due to the times we’re in (world politics aren’t terribly inspiring at the moment) and/or if it has become a default, dormant, underlying state.
Well, kind of. I may well have quietly ascended from the funk, and regained some perspective—for now. But, as with all things in life, this too may well be ephemeral.
The flow that serves as the counterpoint to the ebb.
Tis but the nature of this paradox we call work and life—we’re fixed in a state of flux. Change is the only constant, and so on. Blah. *arm swing*
This has all got me musing if such oscillations—in and out of funks—are not only natural, but rather: vital.
Indicators of Incoherency & Incongruence
Feeling down, meh, disgruntled, off, or not-quite-right (aka, in a funk) can serve as an indicator of some form of incoherence or incongruence—expressions of cognitive dissonance* that provide a window into the very source of your discontent. Without the experience of the funk, there’s a high chance incoherence or incongruence can persist unaddressed—which may, in turn, steer you further away from where you want (or need) to be.°
* The psychologically discomforting state in which we find ourselves simultaneously holding multiple conflicting values, notions and beliefs, while performing actions (or presented with information) that contradict these. Though, if you’re pioneering through paradox, I’m not sure cognitive dissonance can be avoided entirely. It’s a burden pioneering leaders must accept.
° And deeper into the funk.
Being attuned to incoherence and incongruence requires a combination of intuition and introspection—two powers that can be greatly diminished when we find ourselves ‘too busy’. And hence, this is perhaps why funks do us such a service. Just like how some people might believe that ‘getting sick is your body telling you that you need to slow down’—getting into a funk may be your mind telling you that you need to step back and reconsider things.° The busier you are, the greater the funk needed for you to pause and take heed.
* Naturally, such statements wouldn’t hold to any rigorous, reason-based inquisition—we barely understand the/your/our mind. But nonetheless they are useful beliefs.
And so, let’s dive deeper into incoherency and incongruence—so that we may better find the path out of our funks (toward coherency and congruence).
This is the state in which our thoughts and actions don’t make sense within our current context. Where possible, we pursue coherence—the state in which our actions make sense within our current context.
In fact, coherency is the very point of strategic thinking and decision making. It’s rather satisfying. Are you wearing underwear and pants before going to visit your local café? Good show—that behaviour is quite coherent in most suburbs. Quite strategic for anyone looking to maintain good standing in their local community.
Now, are you riding a horse to work? If you live in the city, that activity might widely be considered incoherent. Especially sans pants. It just does not fit the context given that we have cars, bicycles and public transport. Likewise, advertising your business in the telephone book is probably an incoherent activity. It doesn’t make sense, due to the fact our current context has the Internet. Twenty years ago, it would have been completely coherent—but today, it just doesn’t make sense.
Coherence is rather attainable if you’re a simpleton who’s not inclined toward curiosity or forward thinking—you simply match your activities and thoughts to your current context.* If the context changes, you respond in kind—catching up to match the times.°
* Hence why ignorance is bliss, and why leadership teams might find activities like sense-making confronting, as they may highlight incoherencies in their leadership, strategy or business model, which may well be awkward or psychologically taxing).
° Hopefully. If you do not ‘catch up’, you might experience the dissonance of being a fogey or laggard in modern times. When confronted with any such dissonance, there are at least three clear options: (i) embrace the context, and learn what behaviours and philosophies are required to be coherent (adapting); (ii) change the context that you’re in, so that the dissonance is lessened (migrating); or (iii) deny the context, and look for opportunities to reinforce the identity, behaviours, values and philosophies formed in previous contexts (justifying).◊
◊ This is often the most stubborn and cantankerous approach, yet sometimes (oddly) the most endearingly wise. It is from here we have the persistence of enduring wisdom and ‘old school’ values—things like actually being present to the company you are with (rather than on your device), and of doing things ‘properly’. And so, what we might see here is in fact a different expression of forward thinking—one that ensures the good is not lost.
But lo! What if you are inclined to think ahead? What if you’re curious and empathetic for the emerging needs of the market, of our world, and the planet we’re on? What if you can’t help but imagine multiple possible future contexts? And what if your mind naturally dwells in the intersection of trends, foreseen and otherwise?
Well—this is where we find ourselves in a state of incoherence.
It’s exactly this quest for relevance—for coherence, now and into the future—that occupies the minds of most pioneering leaders. Indeed, it’s the primary focus ofHow to Lead a Quest: a handbook for pioneering executives. And it’s a core paradox—our desire for coherence makes us much more prone to generating a state of incoherence.
If you’re an over-thinker like me, this can be quite disconcerting. And this is exactly the space I found myself in for the past six or so months. Things were acefor the business (depending on how you looked at it). My new book had gone bestseller, I’d been awarded ‘keynote speaker of the year’ in Australia, and my calendar was filling up with international bookings. I was also doing more work with senior leadership teams—hefty strategy and leadership development, pioneering stuff wrapped up in NDAs, to the backdrop of wickedly complex enterprise challenges.
Doing this in a goodly manner naturally occupied a lot of headspace. And so, in the gaps of times I had, I’d be thinking about client challenges—on flights, during the evenings and on weekends. Beyond client work, I found myself having less time to write, think and—to put it crudely—personally pioneer. As someone whose business model is fueled by thought leadership: the way I was doing things—my trajectory—had become incoherent. It didn’t make sense for me to be ‘too busy’ for meaningful progress (in my case: pioneering thought leadership). And, as Maria Popova (of Brain Pickings) relates in a conversation with Tim Ferriss (in Tools of Titans, an excellent book); “the paradox is that accepting the requests you receive is at the expense of the quality of the very work—the reason for those requests in the first place—and that’s what you always had to protect.”
This lead me to a logical conclusion: if revenue is bottlenecking with me and my time, then we need to develop revenue streams that aren’t dependent upon my time. In other words—to shift from a practice to a business. That way, I’d be able to take sabbaticals from the business—to think, write and explore—and still have revenue coming in.
Makes sense, right?
Where incoherence might refer more to the relationship we have to our external context, incongruence refers to the relationship we have with our internalcontext.
If you’re in a state of congruence, your thoughts, actions and experiences are consistent to your ‘ideal self’—the type of person you’d like to be.* Incongruence, on the other hand, is experienced as inner discordance—the jarring/grating mismatch between our actions/experience and our philosophy, character, values, sense of purpose, and so on.° When there is a lack of harmony between our inner ideals and the way we act or experience life, we find ourselves in a state of incongruence.
* Of course, such experiences are often fleeting—and we rarely ever attain complete harmonious congruence—but this type of self-actualisation is worth striving for.◊
° Though sometimes I wonder if this is indeed the source of suffering—the fact that we have an ‘ideal version’ of ourselves to constantly compare ourselves to.
◊ This is primarily why it can be helpful to have a sense of purpose—it’s a reference point to check decisions against, to ensure you’re not doing anything ‘off purpose’. An early tripwire, to ward against incongruence.
My attempts to deal with the incoherency of my trajectory (growing new revenue streams to effectively buy myself more time for deep work) resulted in a deeper incongruence (which contributed largely to the funk that plagued me in the second half of 2016). For a long time, I masked this growing sense of incongruence with more busyness. I kept myself ‘productive’ (as a form of sublimation), which served to distract from the very things I needed to address.
*Barked laugh.* This is exactly what I warn against in How to Lead a Quest. It’s ‘The Delusion of Progress’—a state in which we fixate on the activities that provide us a rich, reliable, unambiguous, tight and timely sense of progress. And yet these activities are often, ironically, the very things getting in the way of meaningful progress. They’re a perpetuation of the default thinking—the distorted echoes of previous decisions, which may be the very things exacerbating the very situation we’re in.
In my instance, I was avoiding the opportunity to understand the source of my incongruence. And this is a pattern I’ve noticed amongst many of the leadership teams I’ve worked with—friction, complication and busywork are amplified as a means of looking productive while avoiding the fundamental questions (and the potentially painful truths that sit behind them).
The only way to truly find the source of it, was to get to a space beyond busyness.
I’m hesitant to offer anything that looks like advice—it’s far too easy to descend into flippancy, pumping out pithy charismatic tweetables that do little to address the complexity of things. Things are rarely as simple as they seem—and yet still, I’d like to share the experience I had that lead me out of a funk.
First, I read this article by Oliver Burkeman—Why Time Management is Ruining Our Lives.° This article threw hand grenades into my mind, necessarily disrupting some of the constructs I had formed in order to ‘get by’. It called me back to the things I inherently knew, giving strong hints as to the source of my funk.
I then listened to the (well produced) short radio series—Oliver Burkeman is Busy, which shone further light on the incongruence I was experiencing. This series concludes with an episode titled: In Praise of Idleness*—which seemed to be exactly what I needed, and yet which I had so fervently fought to deny.
* Idleness is essential for any leader who thinks. And yet, in these times, it can seem like such an impossible thing to attain, as the value of such activity (if it can be thought of as such) lacks the immediate, discrete, and easily-quantifiable indicators of default ‘productive’ work.
And of course, most of the while, I did those 5 things I mentioned in my original ‘what the funk?’ post.
Then came a hike in the mountains of New Zealand. An immersive experience—away from the distractions of the world (no internets for a week), organised by my good friends and fellow authors Patrick Hollingworth and Mykel Dixon, and designed specifically for ‘busy thought leaders’. A chance to step out of your usual context, to reflect, and gain perspective whilst amidst pure wilderness. But who’s got time for that?
Actually, quite literally, Kim and I thought we had no time for this, and we boarded our plane quietly seething that we had to spend a week in the mountains when we were already ‘far too busy’. Funny that, given I’m the same person who wrote that “unrelenting busyness is the gateway to irrelevance”. Oh ho ho, self-inflicted irony. Delightful.
Suffice to say, this was an offsite done brilliantly, and it was absolutely what we needed. Patrick and Mykel know what they are doing. “The mountains will do all the heavy lifting” they said. “Trust in the mountains.” Two days in—backs drenched in sweat, ascending 70° slopes whilst carrying dozens of kg’s on our backs, panting with confused expressions on our faces (in a combination of awe and affront)—we learnt that this was more of a metaphor.*
° Turns out what might be considered a walk in the park for someone who’s climbed Mt Everest is a tad more challenging for those who have not. But a worthy challenge, nonetheless. Loki had my back.
But it was completely apt. The confluence of ample time away from the distractions of busyness, in the company of like-minded folk (of which whom’s perspective I respect), removed from our usual context, amidst the incredible power of the mountain ranges, worked magic. I really ought not be surprised—but I was. Surprised at how effective it was, and surprised about how surprised I was.
And so, having been primed with the right angst (thank you, funk), and having begun to ponder in the right directions (thank you, various authors and friends, for illuminating the options), we ascended the mountain. And like a parting fog, it became clear to me what was causing me to experience such incoherence, and feel such incongruence:—
When Growth displaces Purpose
Or, more specifically: unquestioned growth.
Automatic, non-thinking, default growth.
I cannot tell you how frustrating it is to be faced with this kind of irony.° I’m known to question stuff. I write books about questing, and the curse of efficiency, the dangers of the default, and the importance of deep work, of curiosity, empathy and enduring relevance.
* Although, here we are, nearly 3,000 words deep—so I evidently can tell you something about it. But I sincerely cannot quite articulate the conflux of thoughts and emotions this manifests. It’s powerfully odd. This goes beyond the mere ‘irony of expertise’. It’s not like the mechanic’s car simply broke down—it’s like it transformed into a robot, which then went around acting weird to everybody, before it exploded. I’m left thinking: how did I not see this?
Let’s come back to the original premise: demand for my time had risen beyond the point of sustainability. I was not getting time to think, reflect, write or recharge, which triggered the paradox at the heart of the incoherency, wherein the demand was eroding the very thing that creates the demand.* And so I thought: let’s hire more people and switch up to a business. It’s worked for others.
* It is, of course, incredibly flattering and honouring to have such demand, mind you. And like a stumbling stoic, I do try simultaneously not take it for granted while not letting it get to my head. After all, as Nassim Taleb states: “Success brings an asymmetry: you now have a lot more to lose than to gain. You are hence fragile.”
I had never thought to question the very premise of growth in the first place. You see, since transitioning from a university lecturer and academic to eccentric consultant, my practice had grown in revenue every year. Growth was the default—it had never been a question. Growth is good, right?
And yet, as environmentalist Edward Abbey illuminates:
“Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”
Somehow, I had passed the point at which growth was good—the pursuit of growth was beginning to displace the very purpose behind what we do.* We were running a big event (Percolate°) whilst launching an independent magazine during my busiest period of international work. My calendar had become thoroughly optimised. Incredibly efficient (we squeezed a lot in), but also incredibly fragile.◊
* Championing the pioneers and meaningful progress. Serving as a precursor to wisdom and a beacon for relevance. Creating a world that’s more curious and kind.
° As shared below. It was an incredible success—but it cost us a heap (in terms of time and resources).
◊ Much like how an ‘optimised’ holiday might look. You plan a tight schedule wherein you maximise the amount of things to see and do (crippling the opportunity for spontaneity and serendipity). And then, with this tight plan of yours, all it takes is for one flight delay or a missed train—and big chunks of the plan start to break. It’s fragile. Nassim Taleb contrasts this with what he calls the rational flâneur—someone who makes a decision at every step to revise their schedule, so that they can imbibe things based on new information. In this sense, optionality is maintained: maximum upside, minimum downside. “The flâneur is not a prisoner of a plan.” It made me crave a schedule like this.
Something had to change.
A Most Benign Epiphany
The thing I realised in the mountains—default growth and unrelenting busyness are not for us. Clearly. I’m not sure it’s for anyone.
But moreso, we realised that developing new non-core revenue streams independent of my time—which would take time—so as to free up my time, was actually a perverted form of silliness masquerading as prudence. And besides—I’m still a bit of a boffin at heart. Growth and scale have never been my cup of tea.
And so, we’re slowing things down. Simplifying. Bringing things back to what we do best. Reprioritising time to think, to write, to be curious and explore. Saying no to more, so as to ensure our work continues to be transformational (for desperate want of a better word), rather than transactional. Treating thought leadership like an artisan, rather than a capitalist.
The Upside of the Downside
But enough of me.