Tag: David Whyte

Solve Problems Before They Happen by Developing an “Inner Sense of Captaincy”

Too often we reward people who solve problems while ignoring those who prevent them in the first place. This incentivizes creating problems. According to poet David Whyte, the key to taking initiative and being proactive is viewing yourself as the captain of your own “voyage of work.”

If we want to get away from glorifying those who run around putting out fires, we need to cultivate an organizational culture that empowers everyone to act responsibly at the first sign of smoke.

How do we make that shift?

We can start by looking at ourselves and how we consider the voyage that is our work. When do we feel fulfillment? Is it when we swoop in to save the day and everyone congratulates us? It’s worth asking why, if we think something is worth saving, we don’t put more effort into protecting it ahead of time.

In Crossing the Unknown Sea, poet David Whyte suggests that we should view our work as a lifelong journey. In particular, he frames it as a sea voyage in which the greatest rewards lie in what we learn through the process, as opposed to the destination.

Like a long sea voyage, the nature of our work is always changing. There are stormy days and sunny ones. There are days involving highs of delight and lows of disaster. All of this happens against the backdrop of events in our personal lives and the wider world with varying levels of influence.

On a voyage, you need to look after your boat. There isn’t always time to solve problems after they happen. You need to learn how to preempt them or risk a much rougher journey—or even the end of it.

Whyte refers to the practice of taking control of your voyage as “developing an inner sense of captaincy,” offering a metaphor we can all apply to our work. Developing an inner sense of captaincy is good for both us and the organizations we work in. We end up with more agency over our own lives, and our organizations waste fewer resources. Whyte’s story of how he learned this lesson highlights why that’s the case.

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A moment of reckoning

Any life, and any life’s work, is a hidden journey, a secret code, deciphered in fits and starts. The details only given truth by the whole, and the whole dependent on the detail.

Shortly after graduating, Whyte landed a dream job working as a naturalist guide on board a ship in the Galapagos Islands. One morning, he awoke and could tell at once that the vessel had drifted from its anchorage during the night. Whyte leaped up to find the captain fast asleep and the boat close to crashing into a cliff. Taking control of it just in time, he managed to steer himself and the other passengers back to safety—right as the captain awoke. Though they were safe, he was profoundly shaken both by the near miss and the realization that their leader had failed.

At first, Whyte’s reaction to the episode was to feel a smug contempt for the captain who had “slept through not only the anchor dragging but our long, long, nighttime drift.” The captain had failed to predict the problem or notice when it started. If Whyte hadn’t awakened, everyone on the ship could have died.

But something soon changed in his perspective. Whyte knew the captain was new and far less familiar with that particular boat than himself and the other crew member. Every boat has its quirks, and experience counts for more than seniority when it comes to knowing them. He’d also felt sure the night before that they needed to put down a second anchor and knew they “should have dropped another anchor without consultation, as crews are wont to do when they do not want to argue with their captain. We should have woken too.” He writes that “this moment of reckoning under the lava cliff speaks to the many dangerous arrivals in a life of work and to the way we must continually forge our identities through our endeavors.”

Whyte’s experience contains lessons with wide applicability for those of us on dry land. The idea of having an inner sense of captaincy means understanding the overarching goals of your work and being willing to make decisions that support them, even if something isn’t strictly your job or you might not get rewarded for it, or sometimes even if you don’t have permission.

When you play the long game, you’re thinking of the whole voyage, not whether you’ll get a pat on the back today.

***

Skin in the game

It’s all too easy to buy into the view that leaders have full responsibility for everything that happens, especially disasters. Sometimes in our work, when we’re not in a leadership position, we see a potential problem or an unnoticed existing one but choose not to take action. Instead, we stick to doing whatever we’ve been told to do because that feels safer. If it’s important, surely the person in charge will deal with it. If not, that’s their problem. Anyway, there’s already more than enough to do.

Leaders give us a convenient scapegoat when things go wrong. However, when we assume all responsibility lies with them, we don’t learn from our mistakes. We don’t have “our own personal compass, a direction, a willingness to meet life unmediated by any cushioning parental presence.

At some point, things do become our problem. No leader can do everything and see everything. The more you rise within an organization, the more you need to take initiative. If a leader can’t rely on their subordinates to take action when they see a potential problem, everything will collapse.

When we’ve been repeatedly denied agency by poor leadership and seen our efforts fall flat, we may sense we lack control. Taking action no longer feels natural. However, if we view our work as a voyage that helps us change and grow, it’s obvious why we need to overcome learned helplessness. We can’t abdicate all responsibility and blame other people for what we chose to ignore in the first place (as Whyte puts it, “The captain was there in all his inherited and burdened glory and thus convenient for the blame”). By understanding how our work helps us change and grow, we develop skin in the game.

On a ship, everyone is in it together. If something goes wrong, they’re all at risk. And it may not be easy or even possible to patch up a serious problem in the middle of the sea. As a result, everyone needs to pay attention and act on anything that seems amiss. Everyone needs to take responsibility for what happens, as Whyte goes on to detail:

“No matter that the inherited world of the sea told us that the captain is the be-all and end-all of all responsibility, we had all contributed to the lapse, the inexcusable lapse. The edge is no place for apportioning blame. If we had merely touched that cliff, we would have been for the briny deep, crew and passengers alike. The undertow and the huge waves lacerating against that undercut, barnacle-encrusted fortress would have killed us all.”

Having an inner sense of captaincy means viewing ourselves as the ones in charge of our voyage of work. It means not acting as if there are certain areas where we are incapacitated, or ignoring potential problems, just because someone else has a particular title.

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Space and support to create success

Developing an inner sense of captaincy is not about compensating for an incompetent leader—nor does it mean thinking we always know best. The better someone is at leading people, the more they create the conditions for their team to take initiative and be proactive about preventing problems. They show by example that they inhabit a state rather than a particular role. A stronger leader can mean a more independent team.

Strong leaders instill autonomy by teaching and supervising processes with the intention of eventually not needing to oversee them. Captaincy is a way of being. It is embodied in the role of captain, but it is available to everyone. For a crew to develop it, the captain needs to step back a little and encourage them to take responsibility for outcomes. They can test themselves bit by bit, building up confidence. When people feel like it’s their responsibility to contribute to overall success, not just perform specific tasks, they can respond to the unexpected without waiting for instructions. They become ever more familiar with what their organization needs to stay healthy and use second-order thinking so potential problems are more noticeable before they happen.

Whyte realized that the near-disaster had a lot to do with their previous captain, Raphael. He was too good at his job, being “preternaturally alert and omnipresent, appearing on deck at the least sign of trouble.” The crew felt comfortable, knowing they could always rely on Raphael to handle any problems. Although this worked well at the time, once he left and they were no longer in such safe hands they were unused to taking initiative. Whyte explains:

Raphael had so filled his role of captain to capacity that we ourselves had become incapacitated in one crucial area: we had given up our own inner sense of captaincy. Somewhere inside of us, we had come to the decision that ultimate responsibility lay elsewhere.

Being a good leader isn’t about making sure your team doesn’t experience failure. Rather, it’s giving everyone the space and support to create success.

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The voyage of work

Having an inner sense of captaincy means caring about outcomes, not credit or blame. When Whyte realized that he should have dropped a second anchor the night before the near miss, he would have been doing something that ideally no one other than the crew, or even just him, would have known about. The captain and passengers would have enjoyed an untroubled night and woken none the wiser.

If we prioritize getting good outcomes, our focus shifts from solving existing problems to preventing problems from happening in the first place. We put down a second anchor so the boat doesn’t drift, rather than steering it to safety when it’s about to crash. After all, we’re on the boat too.

Another good comparison is picking up litter. The less connected to and responsible for a place we feel, the less likely we might be to pick up trash lying on the ground. In our homes, we’re almost certain to pick it up. If we’re walking along our street or in our neighborhood, it’s a little less likely. In a movie theater or bar when we know it’s someone’s job to pick up trash, we’re less likely to bother. What’s the equivalent to leaving trash on the ground in your job?

Most organizations don’t incentivize prevention because it’s invisible. Who knows what would have happened? How do you measure something that doesn’t exist? After all, problem preventers seem relaxed. They often go home on time. They take lots of time to think. We don’t know how well they would deal with conflict, because they never seem to experience any. The invisibility of the work they do to prevent problems in the first place makes it seem like their job isn’t challenging.

When we promote problem solvers, we incentivize having problems. We fail to unite everyone towards a clear goal. Because most organizations reward problem solvers, it can seem like a better idea to let things go wrong, then fix them after. That’s how you get visibility. You run from one high-level meeting to the next, reacting to one problem after another.

It’s great to have people to solve those problems but it is better not to have them in the first place. Solving problems generally requires more resources than preventing them, not to mention the toll it takes on our stress levels. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

An inner sense of captaincy on our voyage of work is good for us and for our organizations. It changes how we think about preventing problems. It becomes a part of an overall voyage, an opportunity to build courage and face fears. We become more fully ourselves and more in touch with our nature. Whyte writes that “having the powerful characteristics of captaincy or leadership of any form is almost always an outward sign of a person inhabiting their physical body and the deeper elements of their own nature.”

David Whyte on The Three Marriages of Work, Self, and Relationship

“We are each a river with a particular abiding character,
but we show radically different aspects of our self
according to the territory through which we travel.”

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The most difficult of David Whyte‘s three marriages, found in his wonderful book, The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship, is the marriage to the self, which lies beneath both the marriages of work and relationships.

What is heart-breaking and difficult about this inner self that flirted, enticed, spent time with and eventually committed to a person or a career is that it is not a stationary entity; an immovable foundation; it moves and changes and surprises us as much as anything in the outer world to which it wants to commit.

In the midst of a life where we work hard to put bread on the table and foster a relationship, we often neglect “the necessary internal skills which help us pursue, come to know, and then sustain a marriage with the person we find on the inside.”

Neglecting this internal marriage, we can easily make ourselves a hostage to the externals of work and the demands of relationship. We find ourselves unable to move in these outer marriages because we have no inner foundation from which to step out with a firm persuasion. It is as if, absent a loving relationship with this inner representation of our self, we fling ourselves in all directions in our outer lives, looking for love in all the wrong places.

[…]

If we are involved in the outer world in ways that betray our conscience or deeply held beliefs, then even simple internal questions can become very difficult to ask. As if we intuit that drinking from the well will clear our eyesight and help us see what is real in the outer world and that once we have built that outer solid wall, brick by brick over long years through equally long effort, the gift of seeing that reality is the last gift in the world that we want.

We can easily become afraid of the internal questions and the silences that illuminate them — which is why of the three marriages the marriage to oneself is the hardest.

The act of stopping can be the act of facing something we have kept hidden from ourselves for a very long time.

In a world that doesn’t sleep, where we are bombarded from morning to night, this is the most difficult marriage.

To the outward striver— that is, most of us— it can seem as if this internal marriage is asking for a renunciation of the two outer marriages. Feeling this can come as almost a relief, a way out, for in the name of our many responsibilities and duties, we can use it as the perfect excuse not to look inside at all, feeling as if our outer world will fall apart if we spend any time looking for the person who exists at the intersection of all these outer commitments.

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three_marriages

The Need for Silence

All of our great contemplative traditions advocate the necessity for silence in an individual life: first, for gaining a sense of discernment amid the noise and haste, second, as a basic building block of individual happiness, and third, to let this other all-seeing identity come to life and find its voice inside us.

Equanimity, in the Buddhist tradition, roughly translates into “to be equal to things, to be large enough for the drama in which we find ourselves.”

Almost all of our traditions of instruction in prayer, meditation or silence, be they Catholic, Buddhist or Muslim advocate seclusion or withdrawal as a first step in creating this equanimity. Small wonder we feel it goes against everything we need to do on the outside to keep our outer commitments together. Intimate relationships seem to demand endless talking and passing remarks; work calls for endless meetings, phone calls and exhortations. In the two outer marriages (work and relationships) it seems as if everything real comes from initiating something new. In the inner world we intuit something different and more difficult. It can be disconcerting or even distressing to find that this third marriage; this internal marriage, calls for a kind of cessation, a stopping, a fierce form of attention that attempts to look at where all this doing arises from.

For the busy, Whyte argues, it is nearly impossible to stop and read the following:

In the beginning of heaven and earth
There were no words,
Words came out of the womb of matter
And whether a man dispassionately
Sees to the core of life
Or passionately sees the surface
The core and the surface
Are essentially the same,
Words making them seem different
Only to express appearance.
If name be needed, wonder names them both:
From wonder into wonder
Existence opens.
Tao Te Ching (translation by Witter Bynner)

Whyte then goes on to say:

“Thank you,” we say, “but I don’t have time. Please give it to me in three bullet points that I can look at later, when I get a moment, when I retire, when I’m on my deathbed or even when I’m actually dead, surely, then, there’ll be time enough to spare.” Trying to be equal to Lao Tzu’s opening remarks in the Tao Te Ching when we have no practice with silence and the revelations that arise from that spacious sense of reality can be like a novice violinist trying to play the opening notes of a Bach concerto. We can be so overwhelmed by the grandeur of the piece that we give up on our beginning scales.

The third marriage to the internal self seems to be to someone or something that in many ways seems even less open to coercion or sheer willpower than an actual marriage or a real job. Not only does this internal marriage seem to operate under rules different from those of the other two outer contracts but it also seems to be connected to the big; we might even say unbearable, questions of existence that scare us half to death and for which we have no easy answer. Like a skittish single unable to commit to the consequences of a full relationship, we turn away from questions that flower from solitude and quiet.

The marriage with our self is the most difficult. It’s “connected to the great questions of life that refuse to go away.” In our world of non-stop busyness, the cracks of silence that open can reveal an unfamiliar character. Developing this inner relationship, “we see not only the truth of our present circumstances and a way forward but we also realize how short our stay is on this earth.”

This is where we live. This is where we die.

The sudden absence of our partner waits for us. The end of our work or our retirement waits. The hospital bed waits. Right now, in some obscure medical appliance company in a corner of a bleak industrial estate, the very bed on which we will lie, trying to get the great perspective, is perhaps being manufactured as we read. We don’t want to know, of course, but all our great contemplative traditions concerned with this marriage, say, this willingness to look at the transitory nature of existence, are not pessimism but absolute realism: life is to be taken at the tilt, you do not have forever, and therefore why wait? Why wait, especially until your faculties have atrophied or your youth has gone, or you have lost confidence in your self? Why wait, to be, as the poet Mary Oliver says, “a bride to wonder”? To become a faithful and intimate companion to that initially formidable stranger you called your self?

Whyte’s book is a fascinating exploration of the three marriages that challenges our conventional notions of balance.

The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship

three_marriages

Work-life balance is a concept that has us simply lashing ourselves on the back and working too hard in each of the three commitments. In the ensuing exhaustion we ultimately give up on one or more of them to gain an easier life.

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Few books I’ve read contain more marked passages and pages than David Whyte’s passionate and thought-provoking book, The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship, which argues we should stop thinking in terms of work-life balance.

The current understanding of work-life balance is too simplistic. People find it hard to balance work with family, family with self, because it might not be a question of balance. Some other dynamic is in play, something to do with a very human attempt at happiness that does not quantify different parts of life and then set them against one another. We are collectively exhausted because of our inability to hold competing parts of ourselves together in a more integrated way.

Whyte argues that we come to a sense of meaning and belonging “only through long periods of exile and loneliness.”

Interestingly, we belong to life as much through our sense that it is all impossible, as we do through the sense that we will accomplish everything we have set out to do. This sense of belonging and not belonging is lived out by most people through three principal dynamics: first, through relationship to other people and other living things (particularly and very personally, to one other living, breathing person in relationship or marriage); second, through work; and third, through an understanding of what it means to be themselves, discrete individuals alive and seemingly separate from everyone and everything else.

These are the three marriages, of Work, Self and Other.

These three lifelong pursuits, Whyte believes, “involve vows made either consciously or unconsciously.” Neglecting any one of these “impoverishes them all” because they are not mutually distinct but rather “different expressions of the way each individual belongs to the world.” Our flirtation with each differs and yet we are left to inter-weave the vows into a cohesive person, consciously or unconsciously.

Whyte’s premise is also his conclusion:

We should stop thinking in terms of work-life balance. Work-life balance is a concept that has us simply lashing ourselves on the back and working too hard in each of the three commitments. In the ensuing exhaustion we ultimately give up on one or more of them to gain an easier life.

… [E]ach of these marriages is, at its heart, nonnegotiable; that we should give up the attempt to balance one marriage against another, of, for instance, taking away from work to give more time to a partner, or vice versa, and start thinking of each marriage conversing with, questioning or emboldening the other two. … (once we understand they are not negotiable) we can start to realign our understanding and our efforts away from trading and bartering parts of ourselves as if they were salable commodities and more toward finding a central conversation that can hold all of these three marriages together.

Perhaps this resonates with me more than most because I’ve always found the argument that we should live a balanced life lacking. At its heart this implies we should trade one aspect for another, compromising as we go. To me this trimming of excess in one area to prop up another serves to remove, not create, meaning.

The other argument that Whyte surfaces penetrates the fabric of our human needs: the constant tug of war between our social desires and our need for space. This is another area where we naturally try to find balance and in so doing compromise part of ourselves.

The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship “dispels the myth that we are predominately thinking creatures, who can, if we put our feet in all the right places, develop strategies that will make us the paragons of perfection we want to be, and instead, looks to a deeper, almost poetic perspective.”