Mental Masturbation

Walking through the city of London (while attending a conference recently) and observing the locals and tourists alike, I found myself contemplating a lot of truths we take for granted back home. I use the word ‘truth’ lightly in this case because much of how we perceive the world is based on conditioning and indoctrination rather than inherent truths. If we are to assume that the perception of our reality remains to be true for us at least, then let us accept that that is the truth that we all hold ourselves to serve.

This would beg the question as to how those truths are informed. Hence conditioning and indoctrination. The reason these two points are so important is because very few of us are products of our traditional upbringing these days. Even those traditional upbringings are questionable because of influences that they inherited in centuries or eons passed. And so the waters that provide bouyancy to the truth become muddied even further. But back to London.

I stood in awe, quite literally, at how many tourists were smitten by the old buildings that hold absolutely no significance in their lives. More than this, I was also flummoxed by the crudity that I saw around me that was being celebrated as dignity. Before you accuse me of elitism, or being judgemental, please refer to the previous paragraph. Growing up as an Indian in South Africa and therefore having been conditioned by the simultaneous brainwashing of an educational system with roots in English colonialism, and the cultural force of apartheid, I was also raised to believe in the superiority of the white race and the radiant historical significance of monuments like the Voortrekker Monument and Big Ben, or the nobility of purpose in the founding occupational forces that landed in the Cape of Good Hope so many centuries ago, or the present occupational force of reverse racism that lands it butt in the butter each day that it takes its seat in parliament. And that’s when it struck me, not for the first time though, that the significance attached to these icons are simply notions that we subscribe to.

A flag is only a piece of cloth that has a pretty design on it until the ones in power imbue it with a symbolism beyond its innate nature. Those that are subservient will therefore defend this symbolism to the death and lose sight of the truth behind it. And so my mind wandered as I wandered while I noticed the conflicts welling up inside of me. As I walked through St James’ Park I kept thinking ‘Zoo Lake’ in my mind. (The Zoo Lake is the equivalent destination in Johannesburg). Then I walked down the streets of perfectly manicured trees that lined both sides with a beautiful shade of green and I was reminded of the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. And as I continued my travels through the city I kept finding myself drawing parallels between what I experienced in this foreign land and what I have available to me in my own homeland. With one key difference. Access to resources.

That realisation was accompanied by its own conflicts. On the one hand, we couldn’t compete with the global investors that pump wealth into this region in order to gain more wealth out of it, but on the other, we probably have proportionally equal amounts of wealth being squandered through corruption and incompetence. The difference? While walking through London I got a distinct sense of a collective pride that everyone had in what their country offered. It was in fact nauseating to flip through channel after channel in the hotel room only to see some or other aspect of the English lifestyle being celebrated as superior to anything else. That’s what we lack. Collective pride.

And so, in the absence of such pride, we turn on each other. We become opportunists looking to get what we can from what is available, with very little focus on giving back. We tolerate corruption by contributing to it, and we condone poor service delivery by squeezing the blood out of our labourers. There is no nation, let alone nation building. We bicker, we complain, we criticise, and we loathe, and the contradiction in this statement does not escape me, which brings me to the title of this post.

We’re a nation of mental masturbators. Extremely eloquent in defining responses or solutions, but lethargically poor at building unity and serving each other. And I noticed this same tendency building up inside of me as I walked through the streets of London, forming essay after essay in my mind about how we could be even greater if we had access to the same kind of resources, etc. all the while knowing that that is not true. If we had access to more resources than we already have, we’d just take corruption to a greater level, and dish out incompetence in greater portion sizes.

Watching the madness around Nkhandla and seeing the president laugh mockingly at the same nation he is supposed to be serving, and juxtaposing that against the American president that was dragged through the coals simply for getting a blow job, and it becomes plainly clear that we view illicit sex that others envy as infinitely more detrimental to society than showing the middle finger to the poor and downtrodden, and then speaking of it as if you are above it. That, in my mind, is the worst form of mental masturbation. The ability to speak authoritatively of morals and values when you’re the same scum that sets the standard and consistently raises the bar for such despicable norms, and then still insisting on dignity while robbing the very same people that put you in power of the dignity that they actually pay for.

Sitting back and decrying our state because of the legacy of apartheid is again, mental masturbation. 21 years. That’s enough time to raise a child, put them through school, followed by university and pretty much obtain a degree, yet we have adults (read ‘idiots’) in power who are supposed to be educated while surrounded by the best advisers of their choice that still think that their downright incompetence and moral corruption is a result of apartheid. No, it’s simply self-loathing greed. Self-loathing because no one with an ounce of self-respect will conduct themselves as despicably as our leaders do. Unfortunately they are the icons that the masses subscribe to. But I recall my initial reaction to Big Ben when I first saw it. I also flipped out my cell phone to take that first pic, with the realisation of its impotence only dawning on me later.

So I find it difficult, as frustrating as it is, to judge harshly those that continue to vote for the cancer that is eroding the fabric of our nation. It leaves me with one defining realisation. While the non-white in South Africa may not have enjoyed much dignity in the eyes of the ruling elite at the time, we had dignity among ourselves. Now that apartheid is gone, it seems we gave up that dignity in our pursuit of the trinkets that propped up our apartheid masters but sinking one level lower. That lower level that we’ve succumbed to is because at least during apartheid we all took care of our own kind, both the whites and non-whites alike. Now, we’re too selfish and morally depraved to do even that.

So any criticism of the moral decay that we see around us is nothing more than mental masturbation from a nation that has sold its soul in favour of the aspirations of its apartheid masters. Ubuntu? Did I hear someone mention Ubuntu? Don’t make me laugh. We’ve lost even that simple truth and traded it in for individual enrichment.

Look Behind Their Eyes

The one who judges is most often reflecting their bitterness rather than the merits of the subject of their judgement. There is a simple but important difference between judging and understanding. In seeking to understand we are compelled to make judgement calls about what we observe. Those judgement calls are in the form of observations or assumptions we make relative to what is visible to us, what we know about the subject, and what we think relates practically to it. In other words, our frame of reference is brought to bear on what we are faced with. We all do this. It’s a normal cycle we go through sub-consciously in order to make sense of the world around us.

The challenge lies in what we do with this information. The worst among us assume that this set of information is absolute and authoritative and therefore feel confident enough to use it as a basis of judgement against others. The lesser contemptible among us realise that it is only true within our current frame of reference and could change substantially if new information were to come to light. But there must be a simple reason that tells us why we respond so differently, and it cannot be external either. So what is it about how we perceive ourselves that gives us reason to be either arrogant and judgemental, or grounded and understanding?

I believe it lies in that septic space called self-worth. The lower our self-worth, the greater our inclination to judge, and vice versa. Those that despise themselves seek affirmation in the fact that others are lesser beings than they are. It’s an easy fix to stave off the contempt we feel for our shortcomings when we lack the strength of character required to face it, and deal with it. It’s significantly easier for me to slander the efforts of another than it is for me to raise my game and be as competent or benevolent as they are, all the while fearing insignificance with the current audience if I am seen to be the weaker one.

The challenge in expecting such bitter souls to reflect is that their bitterness is exactly the distraction that prevents them from reflection, and in turn, mindfulness. I still believe that those that may be bitter but are inherently good, and strive (albeit internally only) to improve their character and humanness, will ultimately attract the right set of circumstances that will force them to set aside the bitterness for long enough to see the truth of themselves that they tried to wish away.

The clutter in my space is making this thought process very difficult to articulate. When we see someone behaving despicably, our most common response is to despise them and to shun them. We distance ourselves from them from fear of contamination of their vile ways, or at the least, from fear of being associated with them. The former is a lack of our sense of self, and the latter being our need to be perceived well by others. In other words, our need for significance. If we didn’t fall victim to these two obsessions, I would guess that our response to vile behaviour would be very different.

Instead of shunning or despising, both of which are inherently judgemental, we would seek to look behind the eyes of the contemptible one, and instead of responding harshly, we would see the weakness that drives them to behave the way they do. But this demands of us that which we are most loathe to acknowledge. It demands an embrace of our own weaknesses, and more importantly, our gravest failures. In order to look behind the eyes of another, we need to recognise in them what we once subscribed to as well. Look behind the eyes of anger, and you’ll see a desperate need for significance. Just because they may be demanding that significance in the workplace doesn’t mean that it’s their colleagues that are the root cause of their desperation. Most often we tend to project our aggression on those that are least likely to resist or challenge it, while avoiding such aggression in the presence of those that we wish to appeal to instead. It’s the path of least resistance that enables such behaviour. We are more likely to show aggression in those spheres of our lives where we hold more authority because the coward in us directs us away from those settings where we know the repercussions will be costly. The cost being relative to what we desire.

It’s for the same reason that parents may vent their anger in the home but be docile and compliant at the office, or vice versa. As despicable as such behaviour may be, the moment we recognise that need for significance, or the need to appear competent, or simply to be liked, we will be able to see the weakness that provokes the brute, rather than believing that the brute is a lesser being than ourselves.

When we judge prematurely, we recede into a space of arrogance that eventually convinces us that we’ve arrived at the point of awareness in our lives where all we do is impeccably informed, and all we challenge is of a noble cause. That’s when we become the aggressors, and it is then that we should pray that there is one in the audience that will take the time to look behind our eyes so that they may be able to sensitise us to the weakness that has driven us to become the contemptible one.

If we look behind the eyes of the aggressor, we’ll see that there are no bad people in this world, only weak ones.

[Yet another incomplete thought process]

The Art of Insincerity

One of the most common observations that people share about me is that they know where they stand with me. I’m the one that usually speaks everyone else’s mind for them when they lack the courage to be bold. I don’t do this deliberately, I do it out of frustration. That frustration stems from the realisation that whining in private never changes what irks us in public.

Initially my inclination to speak out is based on a belief that those that are silent are in fact oppressed in some form or another. It’s a belief that drives me to be convinced that if given a shoulder to lean on, or a support structure from which to draw strength, people will inherently find more reason to be true to themselves, and in so doing, act with greater conviction in the face of obstacles, or oppression. Such idealism has never served me well.

The reality is closer to people wanting to be liked more than they care about fighting any good fight. Popularity is what drives us more than conviction. Perhaps this is why leaders are despised in the making, but revered in office. We judge harshly those that push for change when such change disrupts our own comfort zones, but feel no qualms about indulging in the benefits of the new realities created by the same people we once despised, often even proudly claiming affiliation with the struggle that brought about the much needed change.

Glory hunters. That’s all we are. To be associated with that which is perceived as popular or meritorious by those we idolise is what drives our conviction. Pride of association. It’s a powerful tool to influence the masses. But it comes at a price. The price we pay for it is the isolation we feel when we realise that we’re simply the pawns of the masses in the run up to the turning of the tide.

The art of insincerity is best displayed in that final phase of a tough project when all the naysayers suddenly rally around being fully supportive as if they were by your side all along, drooling with the anticipation of sharing in the glory of the achievement that everyone thought you insane to pursue in the first place. That’s when the ambivalence sets in because despite the obvious hypocrisy, you need them to appreciate the benefits of the endeavour, because without those very same consumers, the outcome will be redundant no matter how brilliant the solution.

This is true in both work and life. The fact that we still have good reason to differentiate between the two is sad, but that is a topic for another day’s ramblings. So it seems the art of insincerity is a reciprocal one. It’s one of the times when holding fast to higher principles will erode the value of the outcome. Sanity can only be salvaged through the adjustment of our expectations. If we expect sincerity, we’ll be distracted from our purpose. But that demands a reciprocation of insincerity, because if we don’t have an expectation of sincerity, then by default we accept that demanding less than what we would ideally want is in itself insincere relative to our convictions. In so doing, we too will master the art of insincerity that we so vehemently despise in others.

I guess the test of life might lie in being a better hypocrite than the next. I think we call that political correctness, no?

Double Standards

The hypocrisy of society is reflected in its inclination to chastise individuals for being individuals while declaring that we should all be respected for our right to be so. The individuals among us are often belittled and ridiculed when we seek to encourage change because of a notion that if we try to achieve more, we’re automatically assuming a level of aloofness that undermines the validity of our neighbour’s struggles. The only time we’re allowed to be bold is if a presently recognised authority or personality (a.k.a. uninformed celebrity) bestows such acknowledgement on us as well.

We are a mentally lethargic society that seeks direction from academics and political leaders alike in our assessment of the merits of anyone’s argument, before we will apply a meagre dose of courage to actually think for ourselves. The distractions have become the substance, and substance is rarely recognised any longer. Too many times have I found myself being ridiculed for holding alternate views about a common misconception only to later see the same pea-brained bodies propagating the very same view because it was suddenly associated with a public figure. Public figure, celebrity, academic, and the like should not be mistaken for an informed source or an independent mind.

We have become masters at producing templates for individuals to adopt, and those that don’t adopt our templates are discarded as irrelevant. Our templates are disguised as frameworks and free thinking models, associated with a farce of freedom of expression, embellished with unspoken limits which, once crossed, finds the transgressor stripped of any credibility that they may have previously enjoyed in those superficial circles. It’s a matter of first winning the popular vote, and then being able to sway opinion, rather than winning the popular vote because you have an opinion.

This is not a vent, nor a cry for sanity to prevail, both of which would be futile anyway. This is merely an attempt to state the obvious, because far too often we miss the obvious in our efforts to appear informed or introspective. Stating the obvious without demonstrating any personal conviction in the process (unless you’re a celebrity) may afford you a rare opportunity to actually influence the minds of those around you to challenge the reality that they take for granted. Of course, even if they do pause for a moment while seriously contemplating the gravity of your observation, their moment of pause is often quickly followed by a nonchalant shrug waiting patiently for an endorsement of the truth they just contemplated before they find reason to act on it.

Those that act on a recognised truth independent of such endorsement quickly fill the ranks of the individuals that shalt not be. They are the eccentrics, or the weird ones. The ones that apparently don’t get it because everyone disagrees with them, while they smirk internally and smile politely externally having realised that a lost sheep will forever remain lost if their only sense of direction can be obtained from a shepherd. And all the while, the sheep will be goaded on to think for themselves and exercise their right to freedom of expression, provided they express themselves within the norms that have been deemed acceptable by the tokens that rule their brainwaves.

Yet another case of pervasive ignorance parading as collective wisdom. Or more importantly, the sane man appearing insane in front of an insane society.

They miss the point!

I have a tendency to seek the potential in people and then proceed to encourage them towards realising that potential. I do this because I am naïve enough to believe that that is truly the aspiration of all of us. You know? That age old claim that says that we want others to believe in us because we’re so precious and we have so much to offer but we’re just waiting for the right opportunity and the right support and the right everything to come along before we can take that pathetic step forward to suggest that we actually have something to offer. It’s all bullshit.

I’ve realised that the most gut wrenching and draining thing you could ever do is apply yourself towards the upliftment of others. Why? Simple. People are lazy by nature. They’re lazy and un apologetically uninspired because the few that pursue their passions are mocked and ridiculed for being different, while the rest are preoccupied with fitting in and being ridiculously unique just like everyone else.

Yes, I am annoyed and disheartened. More so at the fact that there is always an overwhelming chorus of people chanting for change, but as soon as the choir breaks up, they’re the first to run home to enjoy their celebration of mediocrity while living life through the achievements of their icons that are nothing more than fictional tales they see in the gossip columns of the tabloids. The stench of puny thinking is repulsive. People look at things and immediately decide what is good enough to get past what they’re faced with, while just a small group will actually consider how can they take what they are faced with and turn it into something larger than life.

I’ve spent the better part of my life trying to understand the human psyche because of a naïve notion that suggested that it is fear and nothing else that limits us in what we can achieve. I thought that by understanding those fears I would be able to help them see past that limitation and thereby unlock a beauty that would amaze even them. Of course understanding their fears was always only ever a result of me seeking to understand my own first. But they never get that. The default assumption is that if I am able to articulate what constricts them, then I must be free of it myself. I must have never experienced it hence my ability to seemingly trivialise what they feel.

They just don’t get it. In all my efforts I’ve tried to demonstrate to them that they are innately capable of greater things without the need for a guide or mentor or other pillar of strength to lean on. However, I didn’t realise that in doing so, they automatically turned me into their crutch to achieve more. That is not nearly a compliment to me when considered within the context of the disappointment it spawns. Each time I believe they’ve reached a new level of confidence and capability, I’ve found that they were only acting out of compliance with what they deemed to be my expectations rather than because they had a sincere conviction in the values that I thought we shared.

This is an unapologetically self-indulgent rant. It is a trickle of what needs to be vented in order to regain some balance in my perspective on life and people. I have trusted in the human goodness that is often celebrated, but each time it has resulted in the degradation of relations because the burden of expectation was greater than the willingness to be true. The impossibility of perfection should never be reason enough to dissuade us from its pursuit. Unfortunately, too often, we’re prone to believe that only icons or celebrated leaders are capable of such accomplishments, while conveniently forgetting that a human exists behind the façade that they have imposed on them.

Managers, Leaders, and Collaboration

Rather than quote case studies on this, I prefer to share a few random thoughts on what has proven to be effective for me and the teams that I have worked with. To unlock collaboration, you must abandon team meetings. It might sound counter-intuitive, but it works.

Setting up regular meetings (like the ones that generally set the tone in most projects) run according to the text books of ‘best’ practices, sets the expectation that collaboration beyond your immediate accountability is constrained to only that time set aside for the meeting. When we provide structure beyond just delegations of authority, or accountability for delivery, we hinder performance and encourage individualistic approaches to dealing with problems facing a project, or a team. In other words, we inadvertently push the agenda of the hero rather than the team and we create the perfect climate and culture in which heroes thrive. Getting recognition for your efforts in a team setting of the type described here is a further catalyst to encourage lone-ranger behaviour rather than creating an environment conducive towards collaboration.

Leadership by facilitation is a powerful skill that can unlock potential in teams and individuals in ways that no amount of coaching or mentoring will be able to equal. The reason why this is seldom practiced is because most leaders are managers first, before they are leaders. In more than two years of running a software testing team, among other functions, we have yet to have a real team meeting. Even when we had ‘team meetings’, it was ad hoc and focused on a specific concern or issue of alignment that needed to be addressed, rather than having a team meeting for the sake of meeting with the team. Regular informal interaction between team members that is focused on clearly defined objectives always yields much better results than dictating who is responsible for what. How often haven’t you seen bright individuals recede simply because they felt overwhelmed by the heroes and bullies in the team?

Consider this. When you have a team meeting, the agenda usually includes items focused on providing feedback on outstanding actions, allocating new issues to someone for resolution/action, or providing general feedback to staff about what has transpired since the last meeting. All those agenda items confirm only one thing to me. Team meetings are focused on the allocation of individual responsibilities rather than team goals, but are disguised to look as if it’s a team effort that is taking place. To prove this, look around the table at your next meeting and see how many people adopt a sheepish grin when asked about whether or not they read the minutes from the last meeting?

The moment we avoid establishing routine interactions, we set the scene for spontaneity. I work with various guiding principles in mind that inform the way I engage with others. One of it states that every individual is competent until proven otherwise. Another says that every individual is a mature adult until proven wrong. And yet another favourite is that every individual has an innate need to be recognised for their contribution while being allowed sufficient latitude to employ their personal flair of creativity in the way they arrive at the set objectives. These principles always foster a culture of mutual respect, accountability, and transparency. People clam up and become territorial when they feel like their significance is threatened or questioned. That significance is often challenged if they have reason to believe that their competence is being doubted or questioned.

More often than not we don’t directly challenge anyone’s significance or competence, but the way in which we trust them, guide them, allow them to act independently, and respect the delegation of authority that we provide them with, collectively reveals how seriously we consider their input or their contribution. You’ll never be able to engage in a meaningful way if you’re managing by team meetings, because just as that sets the expectation for team members to primarily be accountable to that forum, it also sets the expectation that the manager of that team is only expected to engage meaningfully during that session as well.

The more I try to isolate collaboration and aspects relating to leadership, the more they seem to become intertwined, and perhaps in that there is much truth as well. A manager will be prone to taking a rigid approach towards managing the outputs of a team if that is the limit of their confidence in being able to command the respect and commitment from the team. A leader on the other hand will feel much more inclined to trust, and provide principled leadership that encourages individual-level collaboration and accountability that align with the project or organisational objectives, without feeling a need to enforce their idea of how those objectives should be reached.

There is an inherent desire in every one of us to want to contribute to a greater purpose. A leader will demonstrate, and therefore share their passion for the organisational goals which in turn will inspire their subjects to aspire to contribute towards the stated goals. However, a manager will assume the role of defining the individual components required to achieve that goal, and will subsequently delegate accountability for those components and then simply expect compliance in the achievement of those goals.