Ah yes, January. Bit of an opinion divider as months go. Some of us are raring to go, all ‘out with the old and in with the new’ – purging ourselves of brandy butter and port, and filling the void with earnest resolutions. Some of us are closer in sentiment to an old Flanders and Swann song:

Dark November brings the fog/Should not do it to a dog.
Freezing wet December, then/Bloody January again!

My own take on resolutions is probably closer in spirit to an Oscar Wilde quote – “The basis of optimism is sheer terror”. The spur to think about changing things springs predominantly from the horror of the idea of more of the same old same old. Which in turn requires a modicum of awareness that things could at the very least be different, and possibly better. Faced with thinking or feeling “Uh oh, here we go again”, one answer is to go somewhere different.

It’s a train of thought that reminds me of another quote, from a man who passed away in the final days of 2011. Profiled in last year’s ASK Journal‡ when we looked at twelve examples of people that epitomised different leadership attributes, Vaclav Havel was highlighted for his courage. Were they more frequently cited as leadership strengths, we might equally have picked his keen humour or his sense of the absurd. Having found himself President of Czechoslovakia, he was in turn found scampering between Prague Palace meeting rooms on a scooter belonging to his secretary, whereby hung a tale unlikely to be attached to any other widely admired leader:

An early profile described his secretary as “a busty hippy in a skintight, purple mini-dress, with filigreed white stockings, lace-up boots and funkily mismatched earrings”. But this, after all, was Bara Stepanova, one of the heroines of the Society for a Merrier Present, a Dadaish troupe given to posing as riot police in the November demonstrations, and threatening the crowd with cucumbers and salamis. When she produced the scooter, Havel, then still secretary-less, hired her on the spot.”

I’m not proposing that we should all emulate Havel’s recruitment strategy – or certainly until we’ve had time to acquire shares in a scooter manufacturing company – but an outlook that believes in the possibility of ‘a Merrier Present’ isn’t something to so lightly dismiss. Havel may have had a sense of the absurd, but he was hardly a man to be described as silly. Someone merely silly would not have said the following:

Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

Think of hope as a doorstep. The optimist uses the step to launch themselves forward, the pessimist to sniff the air and assess the chance of rain. (And the realist, presumably, uses it as somewhere to store an umbrella and a map.)

But what about learning? Colleen Wilcox, Executive Director of the Alliance for Teaching, is clearly a woman who sees a doorstep as the first step of many, having once said that:

Teaching is the greatest act of optimism.”

If you ignore the gloomy Sartre quote that starts the posting, the rather alarming illustration and the ‘none darker’ colour scheme, Nick Shackleton-Jones’s recent Disruption article (on his aConventional blog) shares that optimism – and echoes my own thought about the wisdom of driving yourself away from the same old same old:

What do learning and beauty have in common? In their most essential form both are disruptive experiences. Experiences where reality crashes in upon us, disrupting our constructs, forcing us off the rails, opening us up to the possibility of being reshaped. Of course, not all learning or beauty is experienced in this way – but there is something to be learned by considering their essential character.”

I read it shortly after reading another blog in the general HR/learning arena, Rob Jones’s Masters or Bust, where Rob – a good read on pretty much any occasion – was having his own go at future gazing. I am, of course, quoting out of context (for which apologies to Rob), and his general tone is far more Opti-Mystic than Pessi-Mystic Meg, but I stubbed a mental toe on one of his points:

9. Black will be the new black
Some things will become less useful; others will be the next big thing but throughout all of this most of things that make life plod along will continue to be the things that make life plod along.”

In the greater scheme of things, I couldn’t agree more. Feeling that I’ve seen uncountable bandwagons trundle through life on their way to nowhere much isn’t a symptom of cynicism as much as of age: I’m simply old enough to have seen a lot of bandwagons. (I tried pondering them after re-reading that Havel quote and wound up thinking they all too often represent optimism without hope – shortly before I decided more tea and a couple of paracetamol was a more productive approach. I can’t know for sure they’ll cure the headache, but taking them makes sense …)

Black probably will be the new black, but in a year that it seems even the most tambourine-shakingly euphoric among us think is going to be at least slightly challenging, part of me wants to ask if a splash of colour palette might not be so bad. 2012 could turn out to be pretty grinding, and opportunities to make a difference – even if in hope rather than in full-blown optimism – feel like something that should be applauded. Still waters may well run deep, but we don’t live in still times: we live in turbulent times that might outpace us all too easily. As L&D professionals, 2012 could be a perfect year to drop some well thought-through rocks into some organisational pools – even those who don’t respond directly to some positive disruption may be able to surf a little on the ripples.

We might even try a little positive disruption of those around us. There’s an excellent article about the benefits of coaching at the New Yorker website written by a surgeon and journalist: Atul Gawande’s Personal Best: Top athletes and singers have coaches. Should you? Realising that even Rafa Nadal has a coach – and discovering that virtuoso violinists and singers do too, confounding his previous view that, like medicine, these were fields where training was something you completed some time ago – he hired his own to act as external eyes and ears on his own performance:

He had new pointers for me. He wanted me to let the residents struggle thirty seconds more when I asked them to help with a task. I tended to give them precise instructions as soon as progress slowed. “No, use the DeBakey forceps,” I’d say, or “Move the retractor first.” Osteen’s advice: “Get them to think.” It’s the only way people learn.”

I suddenly remembered a birthday card I’d posted this morning to a friend. As she’s a senior professional in a University School of Education, the caption had seemed light-hearted and witty:

It was a pretty tough day in the office. All the computers went down and everyone had to learn how to think for themselves all over again.”

Suddenly I wasn’t so sure it was that funny, except in ‘damn and blast the ******* machines’ sort of way’, but I could certainly see that a bit of disruption that spurs us on a little might not be such a bad thing. Or, as Atul Gawande put it:

In the past year, I’ve thought nothing of asking my hospital to spend some hundred thousand dollars to upgrade the surgical equipment I use, in the vague hope of giving me finer precision and reducing complications. Avoiding just one major complication saves, on average, fourteen thousand dollars in medical costs—not to mention harm to a human being. So it seems worth it. But the three or four hours I’ve spent with Osteen each month have almost certainly added more to my capabilities than any of this.”

So, welcome to 2012. Now make some ripples.

‡ The 2012 ASK Journal is now available, and this year’s theme is Loyal Lieutenants – those who serve other than by leading. If you’d like to receive a copy, click here.

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