Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Wabisabi and the Business "Gurus"

The essential components of wabisabi -- the recognition that nothing is perfect, nothing is permanent
and that our world is ever-changing -- ought to have some value in the workplace but there is still probably a tendency to look up wabisabi as being oriented to materials and objects rather than people or organizations.

There is, however, a significant industry dedicated to the development or maintenance of certain levels of commitment, energy or extroversion in the organization that continues to enforce the attitudes required in an environment or organization that strives to be competitive.  The efforts to train to staff to ensure they are engaged or motivated to meet performance targets have spawn countless publications by business gurus large scale seminars that are intended to psych people up or capture the fire within.  To reinforce with the Japanese orientation of the wabisabi columns I'll cite a passage from Kyoto-born author Haruki Murakami's most recent novel, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage which includes the following passage on a character's business seminar program:

"Basically a quick, impromptu brainwashing course to educate your typical corporate warriors.  They use a training manual instead of sacred scriptures, with promotion and a high salary as their equivalent of enlightenment and paradise.  A new religion for a pragmatic age.  No transcendent elements like in a religion, though, and everything is theorized and digitalized.  Very transparent and easy to grasp.  And quite a few people get positive encouragement from this.  But the fact remains that it's nothing more than an infusion of the hypnotic into a system of thought that suits their goal, a conglomeration of only those theories and statistics that line up with their ultimate objectives."

It is perhaps an accurate depiction of the experience of reading a book by one of those motivational superstars like Anthony Robbins who offer the same message, slightly repackage with the same theme and message as before but freshened up with new epigraphs anecdotes for each chapter or presentation.  The attempts to go to this well regularly to renew people's enthusiasm for the job is one that provides diminishing returns and more dangerously purports that the attitudes and approaches to "success" be narrowed down to those that encourage increased competition and the accompanying stress that would come with it for people who don't have the stomach for it but feel they have to play along.

Accountants calculate capital depreciation into their assessments of an organization's assets and liabilities, but the insistence that individuals have not depreciated -- or more accurately appreciated -- and merely need a motivational tune-up is fast falling out of vogue.  The romantic equivalent of these books and seminars make bold promises such as that of "Love in 90 Days," but asserts that set strategies and approaches will allow success to occur based on a plan and a timetable that is adhered to. These guides to achieving various forms of success overlook the individuality of their readers and presume that conforming to their guidelines will assure success.  The reality is that those who follow the principles of these books limit their range of possible routes quite dramatically and create a Darwinist competition for success when there is a more synergistic option available if the authentic interests of those reading these books is taken into account.

Returning to these books and seminars for, as Murakami puts it, "an infusion of the hypnotic" is an
attempt to override the waning enthusiasm for work that does not suit an individual or strive to sustain the unsustainable.  Rather than expecting people to conform to the standards that were first set by Dale Carnegie nearly a century ago and have been reinforced (and quite profitably so) by a long roster of his followers over the last few generations, author who have made the case for more authentic and complete individuals to express their passions and find their niche.  More recently, author such as Susan Cain (Quiet) and Simon Sinek (Start With Why) have offered antidotes to the rah-rah energy of Anthony Robbins by citing a need for greater empathy and authenticity among individuals as a means to achieving greater individual and communal or organizational success.  Their appreciation for what a wide range of individuals can achieve or contribute is a marked departure, not to mention a great relief from the trend that has persisted for much of the last 90 to 100 years.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Wabisabi of Peggy's Cove

Peggy's Cove, a post card pleasant fishing village outside Halifax is a place that embodies many elements of wabisabi and may, as the popular tourist destination it is, raise a few questions that challenge how purely it represents the principles of wabisabi.

For generations Peggy's Cove has been a picturesque example of the lifestyle of sea-going fishers along the Atlantic coast of Canada.  There is little indication of the industrial scale of fishing that takes place in other coastal communities and there is very much a sense that the fishery out of Peggy's Cove is at a smaller scale than the type we associate with over-fishing.  The small inlets where the boats are tied present placid settings that enchant with their stillness and the relaxed pace of life.  The village has been mandated to avoid modernizing the appearance of the homes and businesses there to ensure that it remains a representative example of what the village (and others like it) looked like in its heyday.

The village abounds in the patinas of wood grain and granite, steadily and inexorably weathered and worn by the wind and waves.  In the ongoing commitment to use wood siding on the buildings and the docks throughout the village there is a willingness to not merely acknowledge the elements and the passage of time but to embrace it as well.  There is no veneer of vinyl or aluminum siding overselling their abilities to withstand the elements without requiring any care but rather evidence that the community and the economy of the place will continue to connect itself to the sea and the impact that it has overtime.

There might be the impulse to say that the aging wood and peeling paint are quaint touches that "fit" in Peggy's Cove.  There is something more than quaintness to it.  If, for instance, the village were clad in aluminum or vinyl siding the aging would still occur, just at a different pace.  The fading siding would not be as appealing to the eye.  It would fade in colour and wear in other ways but the passing of time would not reflect as well on those surfaces because of the impulse to detach ourselves from those materials.  The sell on these materials is that they don't need maintenance, an arrogant suggestion and one cast into stark relief when compared to the smooth grit of the nearby granite that surrounds the village's iconic lighthouse.

One component of wabisabi is the fusion of object, use (or attachment) and time.  The material, human and temporal come together, even if it is only the eye that the human brings to the interaction.  With manmade materials that put a veneer on surfaces and allows people to distance themselves from the trouble of maintaining them or ultimately discourages them from using them as thoroughly, intimately or carefully as wood, rock or ceramic might invite that fusion that is so central to wabisabi is eroded and a poetry of interaction is diminished.  Some might say that the loss of poetry is an insignificant one and to that I would say too many decisions are left to those with no ear or compassion for poetry. The things they may aspire to erect (rather than create) would wither without the graceful patinas or the evocative beauty of the shingles of Peggy's Cove.

The invitation to meditate on Peggy's Cove and the textures of surface and the passage of time is a rewarding one that is hard to walk away from.  As the waves lap, the granite bequeathes each grain of its self to the sea and the wood yields to the winds and sun, there is a dear opportunity to pause and reflect on time, its power and our need to be attentive caretakers of what we create and aspire to achieve.  Replacing all of these vulnerable materials with modern materials that would bring a more stable but ultimately sterile appearance to the place and with it, likely invite a kitsch to the community that has been so successfully fended off by insisting on - paradoxically enough - preserving it by ensuring that it is made of materials that decay and cannot be preserved.