Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The News Through a Wabi-Sabi Lens

Odds are, the mention of disinformation, news or information just prompts a pall of weariness and a look or click toward something more distracting or diverting, but that is the problem, isn't it?

At a time when meaning-making is more difficult because of the amount of noise that is overwhelming us or leaving us in a quandary of doubt and resignation about what is what and who to trust or rely on for information or -- dare I say it -- truth, it is incredibly tempting to just divert ourselves from the planet-wide, confounding-as-a-Gordian-knot train wreck that is the world we live in and retreat to a vantage point replete with the take on events that we prefer or a steady stream of distraction until clarity returns.

In a world of complexity, that clarity will only return after a massive tumult and a settling of the dust that will likely be decades or centuries in length. Given those timelines, it would be worth reconsidering the reliability of the information we receive and the sources that provide it to us. Marshall McLuhan said that the news was a product and the demise of newspapers underscores the simple reality that the news, as it has been delivered by mass media sources, is just as much a product as a widget. A news item - whether an article, TV report or the entirety of a broadcast, paper or magazine - complies with the dictates and tastes of advertisers and news consumers that they are striving to appeal to.

There was a time when people settled for the thud of the newspaper against the door or the supper-hour newscast as the sources for news and information with little thought to the template that prevailed on those media regardless of the community they were intended to serve. There has been a bland sameness to the news and, despite the integrity we attribute to print or the frivolity we attach to television with the blow-dried assurance and other tropes, the consistency that prevails despite the audience is a leading indicator that the news is something that is manufactured to specifications that ensure profitability of the organization providing that product. The reliance on those particular products has induced a passivity among news or information consumers, who struggle to find meaning given the atomization of news distribution that has replaced the once-reliable pipelines that have become obsolete.

Two things are occurring currently. There is a market shift due to the emergence of online news sources and those organizations which have not adapted - more frequently newspapers than radio or TV at this point - have fallen by the wayside. With the online world, there is further splintering of the audience. People have the opportunity to immerse themselves in the echo chambers of their choice: right-wing, left-wing, mass-media, alt-right, alt-alt and beyond. In this instance there may be a different sense of the product as niche producer of "news" and "information" adapts to the audience, business model and mission that it sets out for itself.

Audiences, however, are only getting slightly more engaged in putting knowledge together and it may be that their sole acid test fort he information they consume is whether or not it is what they want to hear or read. Audiences will express their preference for information that confirms, rather than challenges, their worldview and there is probably a preference for a degree or lack of depth in the news. Despite the frenzy of news that arrives via social media, there is an emerging niche for "long reads." There is, of course the preference among some audiences to look no further than a headline to determine what is occurring.

Despite the number of news sources that have emerged, one common characteristics remains in news reporting. There is still a preference to pursue closure and resolution to a story or to shape news around a narrative not unlike that in fiction. The temptations to impose this structure on a story or dispose of a news item altogether if it is proving to have the energy requirements of a Russian novel are one of the obstacles to understanding our world as well as we could.

At a time when there are so many options, there is that much more opportunity or requirement to handcraft your understanding of the world and current events via a number of sources and beyond that to take a critical view of the news sources and the processes, perspectives and biases that mould their take on events. It is also necessary to acknowledge the complexities and paradoxes that a story -- whether a news story or a different narrative -- contains. Taking an in-depth look at a single news event over a longer period of time (from a variety of sources) rather than passively accepting a packaged version of reality from the 'if-it-bleeds-it-leads' factory will allow a news consumer to discover familiar patterns, themes and subtleties that will be much more informative or enlightening than a heady consumption of apparently serious, but unambiguous and unthoughtful coverage of adrenaline-pumping bleak news about where we are at.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Book Review: Wabi-Sabi Welcome

I have been seeking English-language books on wabisabi for about a decade now and another addition to that too-short shelf is Julie Pointer Adams' Wabi-Sabi Welcome: Learning to Embrace the Imperfect and Entertain with Ease. The book makes an interesting distinction in that it moves beyond creating a space with objects that possess or embody wabisabi toward the act of entertaining.

As an object, the book typifies the rough hewn feel of wabisabi. The spine of the hardcover of the book is exposed and the book's title is printed straight on to the exposed folios of the book. There is a heft to it and the images in the book do a great deal to introduce the principles of wabisabi and how they can be embodied during a gathering.

In a distinct departure from other books, Pointer Adams has five chapters set in five different regions: Japan, of course, but also Denmark, California, France and Italy. In the chapter on Japan, the book lays out the principles of wabisabi and what they typify from an aesthetic view, but there is also great detail on relationships and interaction as well. The case is made for eschewing the pursuit of perfection for a more relaxed interaction. The move from the visual arts and our surroundings to ways of interacting. The case is made to be spontaneous when entertaining and to be open, to not merely schedule intermittent occasions to have guests and strive to have the meringue perfectly sculpted and every last edible flower in its rightful place but to have guests regularly and spontaneously as a means of bridging distances in over an informal gathering, whether tea or a meal.

The book is a good primer in the area of wabisabi, but the travelogue approach does the topic a disservice.  The chapters set in Japan and in Denmark provide the fundamentals on wabisabi principles and show how it can have its analogs in other cultures and locales but the subsequent chapters lose a bit of the focus that is apparent at the start.

The chapters on California, France and Italy do not add much to the discussion and there are times when the book veers a little too close to stereotypes about each place to actually be a discussion about wabisabi. The attempt to link wabisabi with the Danish practice of hygge works, but the suggestion that the French phrase c'est la vie equates with wabisabi seems, at best, forced.

Instead of providing the deep detail on the topic that Leonard Koren and Andrew Juniper provide in their writing, there are digressions on cooking, shopping and the stresses that come with entertaining that overextend the application of wabisabi principles before they are adequately discussed. There are times when the discussions of cooking and shopping in particular contradict the essence of wabisabi and there are further occasions for paradox when during the introduction the author says, "We've forgotten how good it is to have unhurried, uncurated experiences..." (p. 11), but introduces a passage on Denmark with the heading "The Simple Home - Collect, The Curate" which suggests continued accumulation and consumption en route to finding the uncluttered simplicity that wabisabi and other Japanese aesthetics espouse. Including very un-wabisabi chain retailers like Ikea and (Japan's equivalent) Muji among the resources for home basics keeps readers starting with this book from getting the full taste of what wabisabi signifies. The book would have great appeal among those interest in home design and entertaining but deeper reads on the topic, namely Koren's and Juniper's work remain the go-to reads.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Autumn's Transient Light

Needless to say, the changing of the seasons is an ongoing reminder of wabi-sabi. Harvests from the fields, the sky's chevrons of the southbound and the turning of the leaves from green to the shades of their respective fates all remind us that autumn captures the essence of change and transcience more clearly, and more gently, than the other seasons.

We are probably more responsive to these changes in the autumn than during other seasons as well. We are more entranced by the raking of leaves in a sweater that has been pulled out for the first time since early spring. Not only to be undeliberately meditate of the clatter of the tines and the shuffle and applause of the dry leaves, but we can just as easily gaze upon the grain of a wood handle as we grip it and pull the leaves toward us. This season's beauty, and its poignancy make us more attentive to the changes and increase our appreciation of nature.

Another aspect of autumn, in areas like Calgary where the length of the day changes so dramatically throughout the year, is the current length of the day. Dawns and dusks have crept back in from the distant corners of 4am and 10pm to become the actual bookends of the workday. Each sunny day, the skies extend an invitation to pause and take in the fleet changes in the shades of the clouds as the sun tracks its course during our commutes. The long stretches of summer brightness -- quite welcome, I'll grant you -- make us less attentive to the changes that occur in the sky during a single day.  The summer's long light, just like its heat, makes us drowsier and less inattentive. Perhaps because of the timeliness alone, I seen more and more people pause to take out their phones and capture the beauty of sunrise or sunset during the autumn than would be the case at other times of year. Even if it is a mere matter of convenience, we truly take our time to drink in the changes of the season.

For all the comfort of summer, and despite the harbingers of winter that have already applied their first dreaded bites on us, the autumn is a time to observe and reflect in wonder at the beauty of a moment where the sun is in the right place to add an element of beauty to a yellowed tree that makes us far more present and focused on the moment than we are in summer and definitely in winter, when we would want to shut out the world and immerse ourselves in all the warmth that we can provide ourselves.

It is also a moment when we are more comfortable with that paradox of a beautiful omen of all that autumn symbolizes and prefaces. We are attentive to the changes that occur and with our careful regard for the acoustic rasp of fallen leaves at our feet, we even immerse ourselves in the details of our surroundings more deliberately and more energetic than we do during the lethargies that the heat of summer and the frigid grasp of winter elicit from us.

This is the season when we pause and tune our senses more carefully to all that our surroundings offer at this time of year and we absorb the spiritual offerings of the season to make ourselves wiser and perhaps optimistic about the looming winter.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Wabi Sabi and the Paradox of Possession

We are regularly made conscious of the negative impacts of consumption and our attachment to the things we own. From a Buddhist perspective, there may be further assertion against consumption given associations some make between Buddhism, minimalism and detachment from the material world. Wabisabi, however, is quite willing to encouraging a well-considered intimacy between a person and the things that one - purposefully - takes possession of.

It may seem to be a puzzling contradiction that might not merely distinguish but so much as separate wabisabi from its Buddhist roots.

In illustrations of the fondness for an object that embodies the poignancy of wabisabi, there are evocations of time's polish on a carpenter's hammer and the history of connection and, yes, attachment between the hand, the tool and the work they have done together. In my case, the grip of my digital camera has spots where the gripping and handling since 2006 has worn off the factory finish. The manufacturer's matte surface has relented to my grip and revealed a shiny black plastic. The mention of a digital camera in this context is probably antithetical, but the reality is that from a wabisabi perspective a discussion of a possession will come around to not only the aesthetics of the object, but more importantly the connection between a person and that possession.

There remains unease about the word 'possession' in this context. My digital camera, especially as an object to look at, lacks the essential elements of wabisabi, but it has aged with the passage of time, not merely with the flight of technology or as a consequence of the planned obsolescence that was built into it and the millions of mass-produced units that were churned out. At the same time, it has served as a vehicle for appreciating the transient moments that a camera can capture and elevate the objects which catch my eye. It, like a carpenter's hammer, is a tool of creation and the hammer, like the digital camera, is not without the baggage of paradox.

Apart from the intimate connection between object and the person using it; the tangible aging that has occurred; and its value as a medium of expression, there may be little to assert that this particular camera has qualities that embody wabi sabi. The wabi sabi qualities that it does possess may only have been imparted to it with the passage of time.  My relationship with this camera is not, however, premised entirely on possession.

A less troublesome case of a possession, one not burdened with the modern technology that the digital camera raises, is the agenda that I have toted around since last November. Conscious of my irresolute agenda-keeping over the years, I have jotted in the dates for each month as it approaches and note my appointments, goals and key events on a spread of two pages and add details and notes from each day in freeform rather than trying to squeeze them into the boxes of a traditional agenda. The to-do lists compiled and the jottings that have occurred throughout each day and month have turned those blank pages into a vital reference that I have kept at hand for nearly a year.  While the pages have transformed into something I value and handle everyday, the bindings have succumbed, the ribbon bookmark has given up the ghost and I should be able to eke another 6 weeks out of the bindings thanks to the tape jobs I have done with whatever I happened to be at hand when urgency struck. The intimacy has not worn on it as gently as time has worn on the camera grip, but the cracks reflect well on the relationship.

In both cases the ideals of wabi sabi are in that intimacy and, despite the paradox, the attachment that
is formed because of the value that the object gains over time. If there is further attachment that forms because of the wear rather than despite it then there is a relationship that occurs between the person and the object. A mindlessly gathered collection of goods -- one that is the result of quick consumption or immediate gratification to fill an unplumbed or ill-perceived void and consequently never exposed to the utility that regularly-used objects gain -- would never be used as thoroughly or competently as that carpenter's well-worn hammer. Beyond that image of the polished grip, however, is a clear connection between person and passion. The wholeness of that relationship and its purpose has an authenticity and depth that makes possession and material an afterthought.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Diane Ackerman and the Expansion of the Senses

One of the most enchanting and wise voices I've read over the last twenty years is Diane Ackerman. I first came across her work with the creative non-fictions books Natural History of the Senses and A Natural History of Love which provide the template for much of the writing she has done throughout her career and also provide valuable touchstones if you are looking to get in touch with themes and topics of either book.  In other words, get out there and find them, stat.

From a perspective of one writing about wabisabi, Ackerman briefly references it in her 2009 book Dawn Light but throughout her career she has demonstrated a sensitivity to cycles in nature and connection to nature that encapsulate much of the spirit, the sensitivity and the warmth of wabisabi.

Throughout the writing she has done, Ackerman brings a poetic and virtually encyclopedic command of the topics that she addresses.  She illuminates subjects with a range of perspectives that are eclectic and inspired. Whether she is excavating the etymology of a word to unearth a history latent with depths that we have previous been ignorant of or bringing to our attention an eccentricity from some corner of the animal kingdom, her writing is nourishing with the breadth of wisdom that she brings to her subject.

Even beyond those discoveries there are explorations into old myths, superstitions and ways of doing things that will just as often evoke a fondness or attachment for quaint traditions in a way that would more likely prompt one to introduce them into your life rather than look back on certain times as uninformed or delusional.

Much of her writing comes directly from her passion for the environment and a knowledge of the cycles that occur around us, whether in gardens, the transitions and stirrings that start the day or the first stirrings and lasting confirmations of love. She finds constellations of connection in the cycles, moments and the seasons of life and never does she close her meditations on a subject to a single approach.  The eclectic approach to her writing is comprehensive and atypical of what many writers, including those crafting creative non-fiction, would bring to bear on her subject.

That comprehensive meditation on her subject also encourages the reader to take a similar approach to regarding their situation or surroundings and coming away from their experiences and observations with a more informed and intuitive interaction with their environments.  Writing (or reading) that prompts people to take a more personal assessment of what they observe gradually induces and expansion of the senses and prompts an interest in making connections between the things that are observed, not only inviting an expansion of the senses and a fonder regard for the cycles of nature and the tenuous balances that exist as our world goes through the continuous change that makes our world the vibrant engaging place that it is.

Ackerman's writing provides a model and a gateway toward a more intuitive and in-depth knowledge and connection with our world and her efforts to illustrate the interconnectedness of the constellations that she lays out are breathtaking

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Meditations on a Surviving Sears

One of the ongoing narratives in Canadian business news during the summer of 2017 has been the unfolding news of Sears Canada’s decline. Several stores and outlets are being closed as the retailer staves off bankruptcy.
One outlet that will avoid the chopping block for a while longer is the wilting anchor tenant of a nearly 60-year-old shopping centre near my home. The mall has gone through many retrofits and reincarnations over the decades and it still has reasonable traffic, but it lacks the glamour of larger, more recent consumer temples that feature bigger footprints, more square footage and underground parking. This smaller mall has the neighbourhood supermarket that I have relied on for the last ten years and nearly full tenancy with clothing stores, hairdressers, a food court, pharmacy and sundry others that maybe a little less likely to generate lots of traffic.  Still the mall appeals as a quick go-to place for the essentials. Even though one of those bigger more glamorous malls is a 10 or 11-minute drive away, it holds its own as a convenient place to hit without getting lost in a labyrinth.

A walk east through the mall, however, reveals the taint of the declining anchor, its Sears, even before you reach the store, which features the only escalators in the mall and perhaps the first Calgary ever had.  I frequently pass through this Sears as I make a short cut through the mall to my son’s daycare on my walk home. My assessment of the store is strictly a passing one without the motivation to stop and check on deals for socks or to replenish my Stanfield’s.  The fixtures and the linoleum tile floor speak of an ancient retail era and there is a sense today that the space is not distributed properly. There are areas that seem overcrowded with merchandise and others that seems sadly bare or empty.  There is even a hair salon, which I've only approached to determine if the lights were still on. Speaking of the lights, the lighting seems too dark or of the wrong light temperature to appeal. There is a dingy feel, but apart from the precise calculations that a retail expert would calculate to distribute the space more evenly, refine the displays and the colour palette for the store, there is little to distinguish it from any other shopping experience.  There is something desperate rather than quaint about the way this store has aged and that lack of aesthetic appeal accompanying the decline is, in part, a consequence of the effort to dress up the store with the most contemporary touches at the time that it was built.  A reasonable enough suggestion, but the use of chintzy man-made materials for such decorations all but guarantees that the store and malls in general will never age well.

With the decline of this particular outlet, it is hard to tell if the vicious cycle started with a decline in sales or the lack of resources to maintain or improve an inviting decor.  The shopping here is strictly functional — not a bad thing, but one that raises questions about the survival of the business and the place that shopping has in our society.  It has lost whatever appeal it had as a venue for that indulgent consumer experience by virtue of a few tweaks to its appearance to keep it current, or to ensure that its cache as a shopping venue is retained or that the atmosphere is enhanced to a point that the cash spins a little more quickly or fluidly. Sears is not the only dying brick-and-mortar retailer, but one of many which have clamoured to stay off the sidelines ever-so-futilely.  The puzzle is why is it that a slick, current, templated appearance similar to more successful physical competitors is so necessary.

The challenge for shopping centres is sustaining vibrancy in a closed-off, self-contained and private place the same way that the public space of a Main Street shopping district can retain a certain appeal, even if there are a few windows covered with brown kraft paper. Tenants come and go in both the shopping centre and street level modes, but the quaintness that prevails on an active street requires significantly more work to maintain a mall.  The skylights, kiosks and other innovations in a mall do not compete with the appearance and interactivity of a street. So much more effort is required to maintain the shops in a mall or the entire structure because of the control that is sought.  Perhaps it is that the incidental aspect of street life does not merely serve the retail purpose, which is the exclusive purpose of the mall. There is a need to refine the formula of appeal to a precise degree and calibrate it regularly to maintain it because it is an ecosystem unto itself and one that needs constant mediation and adjustment as change occurs and time passes.

A bit like an obsession with fashion, isn't it?

For too long, consumerism has gone beyond the need to assure survival needs to fulfilling more existential or perhaps more superficial desires as they relate to our self-esteem and our definition of self. The consumption has been intended to define ourselves, whether with the brands that we adorn ourselves with or to amplify personality traits with a degree of preparedness or foresight that we want to demonstrate. Like the shopping mall, the need to control the environment or situation and to project a certain image takes an enormous amount of energy and distances ourselves from our authenticity because we are striving to emphasize limited parts of it rather than letting characteristics be expressed as required in response to the circumstances that we encounter when we are interacting with a variety of people or in a range of circumstances that require us to be completely and consciously ourselves rather than a collection of traits that are isolated and amplified in the name of an ever-drifting definition of conformity.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Technology Versus Diversity

A few months ago I was reading a book that suggested that we are closing in on the point where life expectancy could annually increase by more than a year. To reiterate that, if we reach a point where life expectancy increases by more than a year annually, it might prompt some -- despite the fallacy -- to muse about the increased possibility of immortality.  That is just one example of how technology has changed our grasp of the possible. It is also a graphic indication of how alluring technology's promise can be, despite its record of bringing as many challenges as benefits, if not more.

Whether it is benefits of rewriting genes or using other emerging treatments to minimize the threat and damage of certain diseases, the pursuit of progress in health and medicine is hard to argue against. The pain and suffering with any serious illness is going to be fought, perhaps by any means necessary, and few people would argue against that. Eschewing the benefits of modern treatments and interventions might be considered irrational, and individually, it would be hard to justify foregoing treatment or interventions to prevent disease or, for that matter, disability.

One thing that we, individually, overlook is how technology introduces conformity into our lives, societies and potentially, when we talk about genetic interventions, into the species.  The resistance to aging, or the fear of it, is something that goes directly against the tenets of wabi-sabi, which is willing to embrace and welcome aging.  At a time when the benefits of these technologies are readily available, it may seem at best, quaint to decline the offer of some form of extended or eternal youth and health.  There is already a degree of disdain for individuals or religious groups who decline certain types of medical treatment because of their beliefs.  It is conceivable that we see a time in the not-too-distant future when a society may express the same disdain toward individuals who forego the interventions that would allow them to extend their youthfulness, going so far as to regard them as a burden on society for declining this possibility.

In the Richard Powers' novel Generosity, the possibility of a genetic orientation toward happiness is explored. The story is driven by the discovery of a refugee from a war-torn country who appears to be innately happy and therein the promise that a gene splice could be identified and offered (at a price) as a root of lasting happiness. In a larger discussion of genetics, beyond the mere possibility of genetically engineering emotions one of the characters says: "the minute you tell prospective parents, 'We'll give your child the traits you want and get rid of the ones you don't,' you turn humanity into a fast-food franchise." (Powers, Generosity p. 94) which is one existential risk.  Another risk is the unknown imbalances we would be creating by tweaking our genetic make-up in favour of certain apparent goods.  As the movie Inside Out would assert, there is a place for "negative" emotions such as anger and sadness.

Going beyond the unknown imbalances that would be created, there could be a time in the future when there is similar disregard for families that forego editing their children's genetic make up to avoid disease or disability.  The whole notion of "burden on society" may get expanded for the sake of arguing that a child with a physical or intellectual impairment.  From a wabi-sabi perspective, however, the term "differently-abled" would not merely be a bit of PC-speak to avoid certain words, but an expression of the value that is placed on imperfection and -- consequently -- diversity rather than a desire for conformity.  From the wabi-sabi perspective, the argument would be made that a proposed genetic or technological ideal of what humans are would be arbitrary and even pose limits on mankind's potential.

Beyond Powers' arguments in his fiction and the tenets of wabisabi are the observations of Temple Grandin, author and animal rights activist if I can leave out a few handfuls of the multiple hyphens that could extend her introduction.  In her book, Thinking in Pictures and Other Reports from My Life With Autism, she makes the case that the intellectual diversity that has come with differently-abled minds throughout human evolution has blessed us with the scientific advances that have brought us to where we are today and, ironically, to the dilemmas we face now that we have the technological ability to reduce or eliminate that diversity amongst humanity because certain atypical mindsets or patterns of behaviour could be regarded as inconvenient or unfashionable.

While wabi-sabi might not strive to be a humanitarian line of thought, there is a clear respect for nature and all that it encompasses - from beauty to cruelty - this would extend to include people's genetic make-up and therefore advise avoid tampering with it.  Such tampering would ultimately make people manufactured goods and result in a consistency or conformity that would ultimately be sterile, perhaps in several senses of the word.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Wabi-Sabi Leader - A First Foray

When I set out to write this blog I was motivated in part to explore the subject of wabi-sabi for the sake of expanding my own grasp of the concept and determine ways that I could apply it.  There is little actually written about it in English (compared to Japanese) and there may even be a dearth of materials on the subject compared to other components of the arts and aesthetics in Japan. One thing that may undermine the impulse among Japanese writers may be the simple self-evidence of the aesthetic and the relative comfort with which Japan and perhaps other Eastern cultures accept change, imperfection and decay.

From a creative perspective, it has been easy to integrate aspects of wabi-sabi into my work, especially as a photographer. It has, in particular, clearly influenced my approach to subject and there is a desire on my part to elevate and bring attention to subjects which are in decay or heed change as it occurs to them - be they leaves, buildings, or driftwood, to name but a few things.

Beyond that realm, my writing on this blog has brought me to the cusp of a discussion of leadership or management and I have hovered around the subjects of authenticity, artisanal attentiveness, agility, holistic approaches, interpersonal connection, mindfulness and sincere integrated work at a task. The risk of adopting too-sentimental an approach to leadership or business has kept me from staking out too-tenuous a limb in asserting that there is a need for an approach to leadership that is influenced by wabi-sabi theory.

There is the simple point, however, of acknowledging that change is inevitable -- in an organization as much as in a man-made object or our natural surroundings.  From a wabi-sabi perspective, the response to change would begin with recognition and acceptance. Recognition of change or decay would, for instance, motivate a more proactive approach to addressing these as they occur.  The approach would also prompt a more holistic response to change and a tolerance for a lack of resolution.  These would be a significant contrast to a more technocratic approach, which in contrast may be too optimistic about technology's capacity as a panacea to fend off change of decay indefinitely.

To take the wabi-sabi and technocratic paradigms a step further, a wabi-sabi approach to leadership would be more people-oriented while a technocratic approach would be more oriented to process and technological solutions. If we were going to acknowledge that change is inevitable, then we have to consider which direction to take when addressing change or trying to influence or control an inevitable decline or change.

A technocratic approach, with an orientation toward or emphasis on process, would look to control the errors in a process to reduce or even eliminate the decay that occurs. This could consist of maintenance or replacement of machinery in a blue collar or assembly line setting, but there is still the temptation to adopt and implement an industrial theory of some sort to maximize the efficiency of a group of workers whether they are in a blue-collar or white collar setting. Like fad diets, new management approaches and techniques are rolled out as a means of maximizing individual performance and there are metrics that would guide the measurement of performance and the responses that could be made when decay and decline threaten to dent productivity numbers.

There is the likelihood that the management model itself goes into decay and the human factor in the organization, being overlooked in the pursuit of some efficiency, proves to be too random or eccentric to fit a machine model of productivity. In short, the efforts to stamp out such the (admittedly) error-creating randomness that will occur when employees become disengaged, or lax in their approach to work may actually exacerbate a decline in productivity - unless the work is designed to regard the employee as a depreciating input that would be replaced as other capital inputs would be.  Turnover is calculated in advance and employees are replaced quickly because of an available formula prompts easy anticipation of depreciation and/or departure.

Such a technocratic model is not talked about as much of late. There are more and more cases of efforts being made to engage employees and to be proactive in response to the changes that would occur in employee-employer relations, especially in smaller organizations.  Instead of striving for quality assurance processes to ensure that work is standardized and rationalized, a more personal, authentic approach to leadership would show a tolerance for individual approaches to work that would enhance autonomy among employees and heighten engagement to a level that improves retention and kindles a spark of creativity and commitment among employees. A scan of the distinctions between wabi-sabi and modern, more technological approaches to [management] would cite the characteristics of reflective thinking, humility, mindfulness, flexibility and listening as qualities that a leader could integrate into a wabi-sabi approach to leadership and management.

The distinction between a wabi-sabi approach and a modern, technological approach raises the question about whether the preference is to control processes for the sake of minimizing the exposure to risk from errors or variation or to influence the relationship with the employees and team to engage them and encourage them to work in a way that activates the creativity and passion that they can and want to bring to their work. Neither model is ideal, but a wabi-sabi approach, in my opinion, is one that can be refined and adapted to respond to the changes that will occur to a team, rather than lower the bar to control processes under the glimmering facade of a more rigid management theory. Ultimately, it is a matter of what a leader or manager aspires to influence.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Quest for a Wabisabi Office Space

from: http://ablissfulspirit.blogspot.ca/2013/03/
stairway-gets-new-look-with-paint-runner.html
One of my motivators in writing about wabisabi is the belief that there are aspects of wabisabi that can apply to business, leadership and management.  Still, there is the drive to relate this to the visual, whether it is art, pottery, architecture or the materials that we surround ourselves with.  From there, I proceed to the question about the office spaces that I have been in.

From my experiences, the workspaces that best embody the characteristics of wabisabi are medical offices based in older, repurposed homes.  The ones I recall are original, century-old homes that have found themselves in the core of a city which has evolved from residential to office over the course of time.  The original features of that house, whether the newel at the foot of the staircase to the lighting fixtures, wainscoting and even the old radiators that take the mind to another time. While these features may not be marked by the decay that wabisabi might normally embody, the craftsmanship that went into the item when it was first made merits at least the briefest of reverence for the artisanship and a touch of nostalgia for the passage of time.  The handcrafted touches that remain in those offices after the passage of time easily make those places far less institutional.

Other spaces that have had a charm despite their age are those occupied by small non-profits, the ultimate (and perhaps eternal) shoestring start-up.  In those spaces, which rarely have the burnish and gloss of a professional's office in a renovated building has a rough hewn, personal charm of a group of people who are pitching in to make ends meet and remain focused on their mission.  The touches in the non-profit offices that are eked out of old residences or old office buildings add an eccentricity that reflects the way the teams there have a sense of their identity tied up in their mission.  These spaces, whether occupied by a non-profit or a burgeoning start-up venture often embody Jane Jacobs' adage, "New ideas require old buildings." The new ideas she spoke of may not have only required low overhead, but the aesthetic nourishment of a space that was made by hand and is blessed with the attentiveness of craftsmen dedicated to their work and seizing each moment of their work to fully express themselves in their chosen medium. Jacobs likely looked at better examples of old buildings than those the 1970s and 80s have bequeathed us and line industrial park streets with their heavy duty version of the strip mall.

Start-ups probably have that same sense of mission bound up in the space they create and they are part of the appeal of those early days (when successful) and there may be something ineffable about those comforts and personal touches, whether the space they occupy is older, more modern or the garage.  The amount of attachment they have to the place may be a reflection of the nostalgia for their era of growing pains, but there may also be something about the level of unbounded creativity that defined the organization and the individuals who were working toward, as with those non-profits, a sense of mission.  However, the distinction between older and more modern spaces asserts itself in the difference between embracing and regarding the features of an older space as a decoration and accent to the workspace versus the desire to cover-up the mass-produced materials of spaces assembled over the last 25-40 years.

The meeting space available in the author's current workspace.
While there may be a charm about the older spaces that start-ups may have the opportunity to occupy, there is the chance as the evolve and grow that they move into a more corporate, linear or prefabricated office space - one that I suspect undermines the creative or innovative momentum of that older, handmade space.

As organizations grow, I am not certain of the tolerance they may have for a setting that reflects the characteristics of wabisabi.  There are a number of reasons for this discomfort with a more worn and lived-in office environment as an organization grows.  It is hard to visually articulate that an organization has made "made it" if there is a noticeable bow in the floor of a building  housng a team of a few hundred people. That "made it" vibe is something that the organization would want to communicate to its staff and to partners.  The allure of high technology and information devices would prompt or pressure organizations to go all in for the sheen of technology, even though the argument can be made that we achieve certain things far more creatively or effectively by analog means.

The lure of the technology and desire to look modern and successful may actually pose a limit on the creativity or collaborative capacity of a team that works in a linear space aimed at defining an organization's "arrival" and the accompanying sense of attainment or, that threat from the wabisabi perspective, completion (which may also suggest that potential has been achieved or exhausted.)

Furthermore, modern buildings, say, those built between 25 to 40 years ago, have been built more rationally and with a bit less flare or artisanal passion than they were 75 to 100 years ago. The goal of cost-effective construction inside and out has resulted in office spaces that do not age in a manner that is as evocative as buildings from previous eras. Currently, I work in a two-storey office building that is about 30-35 years old.

While "skin jobs" and the installation of modular cubicles and office units have been done on various components of the building to make it more modern or visually appealing, there are common areas of the building that have gone without update or rejuvenation and the decline of those 1980-era materials.
From Billy Wilder's The Apartment, 1960.

The wear and tear of materials that were made with an eye to cost efficiency and perhaps even some notion of indestructibility (vinyl siding, anyone?) becomes an eyesore and even a hazard with the passage of time and do little to make the space they define welcoming or conducive to productive or engaging work. There may be a need to leave the office to do work that is intended to be collaborative, creative or collegial rather than the linear and piecemeal.

While different organizations look to adapt work environments to contribute to creativity, collaboration, innovation and wellness, a variety of approaches and unique spaces are being implemented but it may still be worth considering the appeal of a space that was made well from materials that were made well and embody the characteristics and the mindset that are central to their mission and giving people, not the freedom, but the mandate to make their space their own.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Product Placement Optional

The melee of odd-shaped books spilling from the shelves and the scattering of toys on every horizontal surface of my home are familiar rather than overwhelming now.  After five-plus years of life surrounded by the detritus of a child I'm all but immune to it - barefoot missteps not included.

However, I do bristle at the TV-series-book-toy-tie-in corporate complexes that work their ways into the space. There is a cringe at the cynicism that goes into those marketing formulae and a small headache and the clatter of calculator keypunching that drowns out any of the creative risk that goes into the writing of a brilliant children's book that matches my son's often untapped vocabulary and intelligence is a welcome relief.  The inanity of an "age-appropriate" adaption of a Marvel comic to targeted at the lad challenges me not remain patient through the reading and treasure those moments when he lets me choose the reading.

Amongst the books I have encountered over the years are an ample selection of Fire Truck books and any parent who has read three knows of the familiar plot points: cat rescues, fires, washing the truck and calling in the fire boat, to name just a few.

Much to my surprise, A Fire Truck Named Red, took a completely different approach to the story and one that embodies many of the things that I associate with wabisabi - a pleasant shock in a contemporary children's book.  Upon the first dispiriting glance at the cover, it would be easy to resign oneself to plodding through another familiar similar set of plot elements.  A close look at the image has a few surprising touches.  The truck's paint is blistered, the ladder in disrepair and the vehicle caboosed by an old quaint bell rather than accented by the familiar wail-maker of a discreetly hidden siren.

Instead of the book being about fire-fighting, the story is about the old truck itself.  It is a gift from grandfather to grandson and may not be the most winning gift that the child might expect, but with a bit of attention and attachment to the toy, the sense of its worth its transformed by the time that the grandfather and grandson put into it and share with one another.  The story is an exceptional account of the possibility of bonding over this old object and the value of this handcrafted and hand-tended piece of childhood that sparked enough affection to be preserved for (at this count) two generations.  It also makes an appealing reminder about how a toy's value is in its activation of the imagination rather than its sheen or battery-powered cacophony.

The contentment with the wear and tear that the truck shows and the child's recognition of these badges of honour are a clear indication of an ethos that does not push toys or the typical daydream on preschool kids, but gives them a big-hearted story about the value of relationships and the passage of time rather than the pitch of the next new toy.

A brilliant and compassionate little read.