Managing Through Absurdity

I began 2020 by asking the question: Can Business Be Philosophical? Little did I know it was going to be a test.

As this very difficult year comes to an end, I’ve been mulling over any learning I can carry forward. I’ve been pondering the fundamental notion of quarantine, a strategy I’ve never before considered as a defense against an invisible assailant. I’ve even taken to religious texts for clues on interpreting the darkness. I’m not finding many answers to my perhaps impossible questions, but I do find myself zeroing in on a direction in thought that has guided me as a coping strategy in traversing shaky ground.

What are we supposed to learn from the year of pandemic? If there is no learning in crisis, then a repeat of the same crisis is inevitable. I don’t believe that because it ends the contest between fatalism and free will. We can’t throw in the towel that easily.

Understand the Malady

Might I suggest we have been living through a period of absurdity?

Covid-19 thus far taking the lives of more than a million and a half people globally and 300,000 Americans is absurdity.

The failure of our government to be in a state of readiness for this crisis is absurdity.

Conflicting policies between federal, state, and municipal restrictions is absurdity.

Misaligned interstate regulations in a nation where we travel freely is absurdity.

Hospitals with ICU wards beyond capacity is absurdity.

Categorical rejection by millions of a protective vaccine is absurdity.

Systemic racism is absurdity.

Failure to acknowledge and address systemic racism is absurdity.

Police brutality directed at people of color is absurdity.

Suffering wildfires and hurricanes while rejecting climate science is absurdity.

A president who lies endlessly for convenience as an alternative matter of style is absurdity.

A soundly defeated political candidate and his followers denying the legitimacy of validated democratic process is absurdity.

That’s a lot of absurdity. It can’t be tucked away in a vault. It can’t be explained away by any retroactive framework. Our ability to move on confidently hangs in the balance.

Maintain Integrity

I wonder, have we arrived exhausted at a place and time where all opinions are due equal consideration? If I say that the moon is made of cheese, is that just another point of view I get to insist is as valid as any other idea? Are we so proud of killing political correctness that we have forgotten the pernicious blurring effect of false equivalency?

Like all of us, this year I had to make a lot of hard decisions. Many of them impacted the lives of others. I worried at length about the easy draw of relativism and situational ethics.

By relativism, I mean the temptation to justify a decision I might not otherwise make because of the material circumstance of contemporary events.

By situational ethics, I mean the ability to justify a twist in the consistent application of values as warranted by endlessly deteriorating real-world conditions.

Neither of these is ever desirable, but faced with absurdity, it is easy to see how one could slide toward an argument that was de facto temporary and expirable.

Don’t Make It Worse

In times of turmoil, we must never cross our own lines of absolute right and wrong, but can we know for certain under extreme duress where those lines begin and end?

I suppose some might think the justification or compromise of authority in our pragmatic world is linked to intention. Is the outcome of a tense judgment call broadly beneficial or narrowly self-serving? If we do something we otherwise wouldn’t for a public purpose, for the greater good, is it okay to bend our own rules? If we don’t do it to benefit ourselves, can it be less highly scrutinized?

Those are all curious frameworks I’m sure many in leadership positions encountered this year. None of it worked for me. I chose instead to steer toward a path I could consider consistent. That was an early lesson in managing through absurdity. When faced with absurdity, the first mandate had to be not to compound the absurdity with more absurdity.

Remain Methodical

I thought I might call this post: “What I learned this year.” Then I decided I didn’t learn it this year. The learning has been cumulative. Socrates suggested that all learning is recollection (Socrates also believed in reincarnation, so of course all learning would be recollection).

This year I have been recalling the battles of previous crises: 9-11; the internet bubble; a corporate hostile takeover; a shareholder war; the CDO financial collapse. These were all instances of absurdity. We know that 2020 is not an isolated collection of discord; it’s recency might just make it feel that way.

Maybe that’s the key learning: absurdity can’t be suppressed. It can at best be navigated. Calm, thoughtful teamwork is a good place to start. Collective learning and brainstorming are usually more exponential in effect than individual edict or hunch.

That doesn’t mean we can allow absurdity to become our norm. Dysfunction has to be called out. Identifying dysfunction is often where healing begins. We will be tossed into absurdity again, and the choice will remain: dig in deeper or dig our way out. We’ve proven conclusively we can do both.

Not long ago I happened upon a streaming performance by Bill Irwin at The Irish Repertory Theatre in New York. He enacted several passages from one of my favorite plays, Waiting for Godot. Beckett’s existential masterpiece is about absurdity, about inaction masquerading as action. It is a play of anxiety where nothing happens except for the characters’ recognition of their own circuitous fate. Are Didi and Gogo noble in trying to identify purpose when escape is beyond their ability to see past the proscenium? They may go nowhere, but they never give up hope. The unsettling themes of tedium and uncertainty seem incredibly apt for our times.

Learn to Learn Quickly

Yes, it’s been a hell of a year. Loss, fear, isolation, alienation, pressure, financial inequality, hardball rhetoric, political divisiveness, ceaseless conflict— it’s been a nasty witch’s brew of stress. Are we ready now to embrace empathy?

My ongoing observation in getting past this and getting on to that is that life is too short. I don’t mean that to be cerebral or pithy, but practical. We can’t learn stuff fast enough to put it to work. Just when we start to understand how things work we are old and retiring. If only we could learn it sooner, faster, how much better our work, our interactions, the whole of our lives might be. If only knowledge as recollection could be accelerated to a state of immediacy.

Sadly our journeys aren’t predictable that way. We know what we know when we know it. We can’t reach for answers we don’t have because absurdity comes calling. Our experience emerges and compounds at its own pace. We can no more control the amassing of experience than we can control the unfolding of absurdity.

We must take what we know, apply it the best we can when faced with turmoil, and remain true and consistent to the values we cherish. We will fail often, but the faster we fail, the faster we learn what not to do. That modest confession is my takeaway in managing through this morass.

That’s not absurdity. That’s reality.

I wish you a brilliant, healthy, revitalizing new year of recovery and inspiration.

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Photo: Pixabay

The Study of Philosophy

With all of the ways one could spend four years in college, why would anyone study philosophy?

It’s impractical.

It’s largely self-serving.

Given the vast syllabus of reading necessary to be even modestly well versed in both Eastern and Western thought, there is terribly little material one can cover in such a short amount of time.

It makes no sense to absorb oneself in such an esoteric endeavor with such thin coverage and so little quantifiable value.

It’s an expensive way to squander time, and even harder to explain to those helping pay for it.

Yet I did it, albeit about three and a half decades ago. Truth be told, I still spend unreasonable amounts of time delving into such curious texts as Kierkegaard’s Either/Or and Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.

Why?

Why Then and Why Now are two different things. Let me try to begin with a justification, and then tell you how it has helped me to be better in business, better in service, better in life.

Philosophy is mostly about reading literature, but not the fun stuff. It’s mostly non-fiction, and it’s mostly argued opinion, if not conjecture. There is some history and an occasional parable, but mostly it’s very dense expository in translation. Occasionally you get to drill into something quirky and theatrical like Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, but that’s a tangent, not core curriculum. I mostly focused on the Western canon, so that means works originally composed in Latin, Greek, German, French, and Russian. The translations are often as head-scratching as the source texts.

From the middle ages to the Renaissance in Western philosophy, there is little differentiation between theology and philosophy, so if you don’t want to read about God, this is probably not going to be your thing. You can reject faith later as is often the tradition in modern existentialism, but you have to read a lot about it to reject it comprehensively. Faith is a subject of mainstream devotion and much conflict in our culture. It’s worth learning about it, regardless of what you choose to believe.

The tension in philosophy between quantifying the physical world and attempting to explain metaphysics is persistent and unresolved. Logical argument as a discipline embraces mathematics until calculations outreach contemporary science, forcing abstraction onto problems that later generations will solve. Laws, ethics, psychological motivations, justification for conflict and its resolution, and even aesthetic judgment all prove evolutionary. What is certainty at one time is speculation in another.

Rejection, revision, and reform are the guiding constants of substantial ideas. It’s all quite messy, contradictory, and exhausting.

Philosophy for me as a young person became a passion of personal growth, self-realization, and academic inspiration. It was helpful to me that it was mostly non-emotional because I was also a student of the arts, which were emotional. I needed the balance. I needed the complementary discipline. I needed to be satisfied that hard questions were worth attempting to answer, even if those who answered them began by rejecting the last person who tried to reject them. Somehow that all seemed progressive and appealing to me.

I also managed to convince myself that the power of logic was broadly applicable in almost any field of inquiry. At the very least I would find the structure of articulating an idea useful in dramatic storytelling. While it might not have seemed obvious or even apparent to me how that could be put to use in purchasing food for consumption, I had faith I would figure it out at some point.

Ah, faith—it surfaces in the least likely of circumstances.

There was also this quintessential challenge from Socrates in Plato’s Apology:

“The unexamined life is not worth living.

Those words messed me up because I took them seriously. I even wrote and directed a short film in college specifically about the reincarnation of Socrates in modern times to make this point. It was called Apology. It was supposed to be funny. It wasn’t, but the dialogues of Plato became so ingrained in my consciousness that I had to give it a try.

Failure came early and often after that, but with much clearer reason.

That was Why Then. Let’s cut to Why Now. Yes, there actually is a timeliness to all this.

Our next presidential election is on the horizon. A lot of awful stuff has happened since our last presidential election. I’m upset. I’m more than upset. I’m baffled, befuddled, and out of sorts. Our nation may never heal. I doubt we will get over these scars in my lifetime.

Philosophy remains my comfort zone. It’s a place I go to make sense of things that do not, will not, and perhaps cannot make sense. I wrestle with this all the time. It does not immobilize me. I get things done. To my surprise, I have indeed learned how to apply logical argument to my work. I use it in storytelling and even find ways to wind ponderous floating into the plots of my novels. I also use logic to make arguments in business—in sales, in legal, in coaching. That’s become a byproduct of philosophical usefulness. The core practice is now about coming to terms with the absurd.

I’ve heard all the rhetoric about how our president got elected, about somehow appealing to a forgotten middle class. He has never acknowledged income inequality as one of the defining issues of our generation, never displayed any evidence of empathy or humility, yet he declared himself the champion of hard-working people authentically in need of a break. Those voters may have been duped, but he is an absurdity, as is their loyalty. Our embrace of ignorance and authoritarian mindlessness is absurdity. I use philosophy to live with the absurdity. As long as I am wrestling with difficult ideas, I am convinced the wrestling matters.

Where there are ideas, someday there will be solutions.

The unexamined life is not worth living.

Why are we here? Why is there consciousness?

To do this hard work.

To self-define in the name of combating the absurd.

To commit authentically to making that which is bad better.

Might there be such a thing as Applied Idealism? It’s a counterintuitive notion, difficult to contemplate certification, but spiritually tempting. Samantha Power grapples nobly with reaching for a more attainable abstract in her new book, The Education of an Idealist. It’s comforting to know we are not alone in our outlandish aspirations.

When I envision structures of evaluation, I often discover that the separation of thought and action is at best temporary, if not arbitrary. Logic does not exist outside a problem; it is embedded in the problem. Ethics aren’t distinct from rules and laws; they are expressed in the adoption of rules and laws. Pragmatism does not have to be isolated from hope. When I contemplate a model of assessment and apply it rigorously, I can be held in check by obstruction, but I can’t long be fooled.

As long as I can study, I can stay a fighter. As long as I can delve into the abstract, I will always have more stories to share with you. Once in a while I may even get you to chuckle. That’s when I know your mind is opening and perhaps ready to absorb something new.

In the end, is the study of philosophy a tragic waste of time? I guess for many that might be a fair conclusion. I’ll never see it that way. I see it as vital. I see it as necessary.

Stay tuned to this channel. There’s a lot more philosophy ahead. Considered yourself warned. Or alerted. Or ignited. Ideas are always free. What we do with them is seldom without cost.

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Image: Pixabay