The Deliberate #48: Striving for coherence

Three thoughts about my future writing and inquiry

As a reminder, I’m Sam. Hello. I write this newsletter about deliberate attention, personal development, organization design and the various intersections of those and adjacent ideas. Thanks for being here. If this doesn’t float your boat any more please feel free to unsubscribe completely guilt-free. We’ve all got way too much on our plates and I promise my feelings won’t be hurt. Onward!


The last time I sent this newsletter, I had only alluded to an upcoming sabbatical but had not yet embarked on it. Now, I’ve just finished up my fourth week and am transitioning from complete lassitude to moderate semi-productive activity. I’ve done a bit of writing throughout that time, starting with this article articulating what I was thinking about just prior to starting the sabbatical, this one looking back at the first two weeks, and this one looking back at weeks three and four. At a bare minimum, I intend to keep writing biweekly retrospectives and hopefully much more than that, too.

On the podcasting front, Max and I are keeping up with Fields of Work, if at a somewhat diminished rate. We’ve published two episodes since the last newsletter: Ep. 48 “Sam’s Big Sabbatical” and Ep. 49 “Goose Vibe.” You can listen on the website but it’s a much better experience to just search for the show using your podcast player of choice.

Finally, I appeared on The Ready’s podcast to talk about one of my favorite transformative practices, the Action Meeting. If you find yourself sitting in bad meetings more than you’d like, it might be worth a listen (or check out this article I wrote in 2018 on the same topic).

Thoughts on creating coherence in my thinking and writing

One of my initial sabbatical activities has been reviewing my body of work (articles, newsletters, journal entries, notes, etc.) and trying to see the themes and ideas that cut across them all. My curiosity is vast and my writing has been pretty unfocused. I crave a more coherent structure that I can use to orient my various interests in a way that makes sense to me and everyone else. Over the last couple weeks I started pulling together a bunch of various threads that have always been somewhat aligned, in the sense that they are things I think a lot about, yet are also disjointed.

Here are a couple of the ideas that jumped out during this review.

First, I think most of the popular writing and discourse around personal development has been hijacked by discussion of habits. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that writing about personal development through the lens of habits is like writing about hockey through the lens of one brand of skate. It’s part of the story, sure, but we miss a lot by focusing so intently on one aspect of it. What does a “post-habits” take on personal development and deliberate living look like?

Second, the same appreciation for complexity science and complex adaptive systems that is becoming more mainstream in the way we talk about organizations and organizational change needs to be brought to conversations about personal development. This is possibly an offshoot of my previous point, but it seems that some of the stale thinking that shows up in how we think organizations run is also showing up in how we think about our own individual growth. In the same way that modern organizations are not served by assumptions and operating systems derived in the Industrial Era, I think there are ways to think about personal and professional growth that better take into consideration the reality of the complex systems in which we are all embedded.

Last, I think simple yet deliberate experimentation is the key to all meaningful personal growth. It doesn’t have to be in the highly technical vein of the quantified self movement or require a terminal science degree in order to do it well. In fact, I think ten to fifteen minutes of careful thought every week is probably enough time and effort for a truly transformational personal experimentation practice. Much of my work in the near future is going to be laying out the minimum framework and tools to help people who aren’t naturally drawn to this way of thinking. It takes more time and attention than you’re probably investing right now, but much less than you’re afraid it will take.

If you can think of anything you think I should read or watch or listen to related to these three topics, please let me know!

For Your Attention

1. Dancing With Systems by Donella Meadows

I originally read this article through the lens of an organizational change practitioner. Obviously, organizations are complex systems and you need to have a deep appreciation for that if you want to understand how they operate (or even more challengingly, how to change them). I then re-read it through the lens of thinking about personal growth and individual development and liked it even more.

2. Why Your Leisure Time Is In Danger by Krzysztof Pelc

I’ve been thinking a lot about leisure recently. You know, being on sabbatical and all. I’m very guilty of consistently looking at leisure as more or less a productivity hack — the thing that will allow me to get back on the field of work in a way that will make me more effective. Thinking about leisure as something worth doing for its own sake feels like a frontier I have not yet explored.

3. Panache - Seasonal Theme for Summer 2021 by Fernando Gros

I’m a sucker for a good personal theme. “Panache” is one of the better ones I’ve ever heard of.

4. Stoicism Is Not Enough by Simon Sarris

It is a testament to Simon Sarris and how much he has become one of my favorite people and writers online that he can write an article that roundly critiques two of my favorite things, Stoicism and David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” commencement address, in a way that actually opened me up to some new ways of seeing without making me mad.

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