The Red Pill or the Blue Pill?

I’ve written relatively little over the past few months and am feeling for the lack of it.  When I first set out to write this blog, my intention was to use it as an aid to digestion; that is, to assist me to synthesise the thoughts, feelings and experiences that come about in my work in the field of personal and organisational transformation.  I’m honoured that my scribbles have been of value to others as well!

While I’ve been missing the thinking and reflecting that goes on as I write, I have made use of another opportunity for reflection.  I have been doing some major house renovations of late and have found the meditative work of sanding endless window frames or staining the entire outside of the house, while physically exhausting, extremely fun.  A good part of the fun came in having “nothing” to think about.  I had hours to just reflect, with few limitations of time or demands of day-to-day busy-ness.  It took as long as it took.

I realise that it was a luxury to have so much time to reflect on some of the big questions of life; I’m not independently wealthy and don’t foresee a period when I’ll have so much time away from the busy-ness of work.  However, it reinforced in me the importance of building in time to unplug myself and ask the big questions:

  • Who am I?
  • What am I doing?
  • Why am I doing it?
  • What do I value?

The parallel for the business world, I suppose, is when senior leaders get away from the office so they can ‘work on the business, not in it’.  Get away from the demands of email and phone (though it’s somewhat self-defeating when they spend their retreat constantly checking their smartphones), change focus from the day-to-day operational stuff and think bigger about the business.  Similar questions get covered:  Who are we?  What business are we really in?  Why are we doing what we do?

If business is to succeed in the 21st century, the same big questions need to be asked by the people themselves.  It is not good enough for people to persist with the same old Theory X mindset.  More and more, people are looking for more from work than just a pay cheque.  While it is not so unusual these days to read about the relevance of personal growth and growing self-awareness in the context of work, it is more unusual to see a business culture that is actually orientated to providing people the means to derive meaning, mastery and autonomy from what they do every day.  I would go as far as to say that increased self-awareness in the modern workplace is not an optional extra; it is fundamental to improving effectiveness, increasing satisfaction and maximising joy at work.  It also behoves businesses to place value on people developing self-awareness because self-actualisation and effectiveness go hand in hand.

If this is the age of the self-awareness, why do businesses still pay for training about stuff, but shy away from investing in something where people learn about themselves, who they are, what makes them tick, what they value, which seem to me the things that would be of most benefit in unleashing true potential at work.

When someone says the word self-awareness, something in my head switches and I hear “self-awakeness”.  To me, awareness of myself is being awake to myself.  While total awakeness to my thoughts, feelings, values, drivers and motivations may be elusive, I am most likely to get close to it when I my line of sight is less obscured by the minutiae of daily life, requests from others, deadlines, emails, barking dogs and so on.  If can take away as many of the filters that cloud my self-vision, I can get close to seeing myself as a camera might, warts and all.  Why would I want to do that?  Short answer: to be free, to be happy.  When those executives at their away-day retreat announce at the beginning of the session that they need to keep their phones switched on because “people in the office will need to be in touch with me”, I have a Walter Mitty moment.  An image of the universe flashes into my mind and I think, “It’s been here 13.9 billion years, this solar system for 4.5 billion…. and YOU are insignificant….the people in the office will get along just fine without you.”  What I mean by this is: why not unplug yourself from the matrix and find out just a little bit more about who you are and why you do what you do?

When I do what I do in my work, I challenge people.  I don’t give answers.  This can be frustrating for someone who just wants me to use my external eye and tell them what’s going wrong.  Speaking with a client recently, I joked that he is both the cause of and the solution to his frustrations at work.  He smiled.  I made a similar point in an earlier article about systems (the cause of and solution to a business’ problems).  The point I was trying to make was that we are often the most significant authors of our frustrations and misfortunes and I was less likely to know his inner workings than he was.  I could, however, act as an auxiliary who would help him probe, wherein he might find solutions.

With a little more self-awakeness, we can begin to uncover the solutions to the things that stump us, and then generate a little more freedom for ourselves.  While I believe it is true that we are subject to the systems of which we are part, we cannot completely abdicate ourselves to them.  A little self-awakeness can help us reduce some of the blindness we have to ourselves and the systems in which we operate.  Over time, we become innured to the effects of our workplace cultures, our family systems and our social groupings.  Because it’s just “how things are done”, we become infected with the same virus everyone else in the system is infected with.  How refreshing it is to become unentwined from unhealthy systems; it releases us (even if just a little) to make choices about how to think, feel and act.

If we are more awake, however, we feel the pain of inhuman, unfair or violent systems more keenly.  Our values and aspirations come into conflict with the day-to-day behaviours and attitudes that exemplify the system.  So why bother?  I, myself, sometimes say in moments of exhaustion or frustration, “I wish I could just un-know what I know about myself and be content with a job selling shoes.”  Not that there is anything wrong with selling shoes; I’ve actually done it myself and learnt a lot about how to shop for my own footwear.  What I intend is that developing self-awakeness is like taking the red pill in the film The Matrix.  While it expands consciousness so that we are able to see more of “the real world” or our real selves, it can be challenging.  Stripped of delusion, devoid of frippery and fancifulness, developing awakeness to ourselves can sometimes leave us feeling raw and vulnerable.  We see both the light and the shadow.  Once known, it is hard to un-know ourselves and plug back into the matrix in blissful ignorance.  The pay-off, however, is worth it.  Knowing our values, being familiar with our Achilles’ heels, getting in touch with our prejudices, all give us the power to do something about them.  The knowing of ourselves frees our capabilities to know and serve others.

Do you take a daily blue pill, waking up each day believing what you want to believe about yourself?

…..or do you take a daily red pill, staying in wonderland and finding out just how deep the rabbit hole goes?

For anyone who deals with people in any aspect of their work, this is a key benefit.  When we know how we relate to power and authority, when we know how we embrace or shy away from closer communion (read collaboration) with others, when we know where we lack confidence, we can actually DO something about it.  We can actually learn how to deal with angry people or ineffective staff or dissatisfied customers.  Real and significant learning of interpersonal skills is ensured when we find out about ourselves.   Our intrapersonal skills are inextricably linked to our interpersonal skills.  Self-awakeness is essential if we are to get by in this world.  It’s vital if we are to get by and get on in our work.

One essential discipline is reflection.  This article comes about as a result of an intense period away from my usual work and immersing myself in the meditation that is house renovations.  Once the cacophony of daily life is quietened, we can begin to see ourselves and in the privacy of our minds, we can eventually just observe our thoughts, feelings, values and attitudes.

Another discipline is openness.  Oftentimes, self-awakeness comes when someone has the courage, the caring and the wherewithal to tell us something that we do not see about ourselves.  We can also develop the ability to invite feedback.  This requires a certain level of openness and equanimity.  The root of equanimity is “having an even spirit”.  Being able to hear things about ourselves and make good use of this information requires us to develop composure.  Uncovering our blindspots requires, also, a willingness to admit that we have them.  If you say to me that you like getting feedback from others because it helps you improve, I will believe that when you demonstrate this, not simply tell me.  So when I say in response, “….but you don’t like getting feedback,” and you reply “That’s not true,” the irony is not lost on me.  If you fail in your attempt at equanimity, you fail to make good use of the feedback because you cannot see that first blindspot and you are likely to struggle when people really tell you how you impact on them.  Practice and demonstrate openness to information about you by responding with something like (lose the passive-aggressive attitude…..people see it, feel it and smell it….do it genuinely or not at all)

  • “Wow, what gives you that impression?”
  • “Really, I had no idea, tell me what you see me do (when I get feedback).”
  • “Hmmm, what is it I say or do that makes it seem I (don’t like feedback)?”

….O wad some Power the giftie gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!

It wad frae monie a blunder free us….

If you are not familiar with traditional Scots, it goes: “…Oh, would some power the gift give us, to see ourselves as others see us!  It would from many a blunder free us…”  That clever Rab Burns was onto something.  Feedback from others, when given and received with love and compassion, can go a long way to uncovering hidden gems.

Another useful habit is to get regular supervision.  Anyone who has worked in the fields of counselling, therapy or social work will be familiar with this.  A supervisor is not someone who tells you what you should do; they are a person with super vision.  That is, they hold a bigger picture for you to see.  Ideally, they are external to your business and they listen to you, tune in to you and point the way to things it could be useful to look at: either about yourself or the system in which you work.  They are someone who is “on your side”, but doesn’t collude with your prejudices.  They are a “trusted other” who challenges you, supports you and reveals you to you.  A supervisor is not a coach.  A supervisor will be someone who saves you from the perils of asymmetric insight.  Anyone who works with people would do well to access good supervision and in these days of the social economy, who doesn’t work with people?

The thing about learning about ourselves is that we can’t get it from a book.  We are the content, not a bunch of information about stuff.  We get it from reflection and synthesis:  making meaning of our experiences, relationships and interactions.  We get it from others who care about us enough to tell us what impact we make on them.  We get it from disinterested supervisors who have our growth and best interests at heart.

As always, I welcome and look forward to comments that add to and build on.

14 thoughts on “The Red Pill or the Blue Pill?

  1. i am going to mix a bit from each pill and get a purple one so i can see reality with a nelson mandela like wisdom and not be afraid of what i find in myself ..
    i will take the the purple pill for the strength to believe that you can still be real while constantly recreating your self
    i choose the purple pill because it helps me to wake each morning and see the truth of who i am and the faith that challenges are my friends

    1. Lyndsey, trust you to be different and make up your own pill….good on you! When you say “I choose..” I reckon that’s a damn good start to your day. I’d like to think that choice and freedom are part of more people’s lives.

  2. Good to have you back. Another thoughtful and relevant post.

    Re: Your (rhetorical?) question “why do businesses still pay for training about stuff, but shy away from investing in something where people learn about themselves, who they are, what makes them tick, what they value” – this is exactly the issue that drove me to start Familiar (1997):

    “We exist as a community solely to help as many people as possible come to better understand themselves and what’s important to themselves as individuals; and to help each of them (us) make those important things happen.”

    From the Familiar Credo:

    – Bob

    1. Thanks Bob,
      Your Familiar Credo is superb. I’m in! This is a movement that will resonate with so many folks. The fact that we are beginning to find community around the world, rather than try to address these things in isolation , will be one of the things that ensure momentum grows for a transformation in how we do ‘work’.

  3. Hi John,

    Ah so that’s where you’ve been. Sanding and awakening. Reflecting on the central questions.

    Who am I?
    What am I doing?
    Why am I doing it?
    What do I value?

    I suspect that if most of us truly asked those questions, we’d live in a very different world. And as you say, for business, and for the state of the world, we need to ask those questions. Urgently.

    I suspect we’ve structured our personal, social and work lives to be in a constant state of distraction – blue pills are everywhere. To be awake can hurt. To question our choices, the daily actions of our lives, the sum of what we’ve done so far – can hurt. And because too many of us start with such low EQ, we quickly reach the point of denial and emotional suppression which the cultures we live in happily supply us with temporary, often addictive releases.

    Lately, I’ve begun to feel that much of world culture, especially Western, is experiencing a form of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). As you say, “if we are more awake, however, we feel the pain of inhuman, unfair or violent systems more keenly. Our values and aspirations come into conflict with the day-to-day behaviours and attitudes that exemplify the system.” Our chronic busyness is another big blue pill.

    ” We see both the light and the shadow. Once known, it is hard to un-know ourselves and plug back into the matrix in blissful ignorance.” Another beautiful point. Don’t you think at some level we all know this? We take another blue pill because it’s easy – a lazy way to satisfy body and brain – but never enough for the mind and spirit.

    Rab Burns was on to something deep – and so are you. I’ll leave you to your staining – it’s time for my red pill.


    1. Hi Louise, thanks once again for adding in and expanding. Interested to read your comments about PTSD. Only yesterday I was talking with someone about a harsh workplace and I suggested that it is another symptom of our western, industrial/capitalist society that we have become innured to. The casual interpersonal violence that goes on all around us and which we casually perpetrate (rudeness to waiters and shopkeepers, aggression on the roads, putdowns at school and work, etc…), unaware of the effect on ourselves and others, may mean that we regularly flip into the kind of dissociation that goes with PTSD. Faced with this and unaware of what is going on, it makes sense that we reach for another blue pill. Easier, of course, than the hurt of awakeness sometimes. I will enjoy the sounds of birdsong and our nearby stream as I take my morning red pill; they help to keep me grounded.

  4. Hi John,
    I came here from Tobias Mayer’s Agile Anarchy latest blog post. I love the topic and the metaphor looks really interesting. Now, I’m pretty sure this will sound wrong, but, hey, it’s a feedback and I mean it constructive. Tonight, I don’t have time to read this post. It just looks too long. I expect blog posts to be readable in under 15 minutes. Would it be possible to insert a “summary” next time?


    1. Olivier, as I wrote in this article, my primary motivation to write is to help me digest my thinking and experiences. It takes as long as it takes and my articles, therefore, are as long as they are. I realise that there are many blogs out there that are shorter in length and some people prefer that. I’m fine with that and understand that there are “horses for courses”. I’m honoured when people read what I write and contribute with their comments and I also know that some people will look at mine and decide not to read and I’m comfortable with that, too. Sometimes I read things that stimulate me to think and write but I don’t write with others’ expectations of me in mind. With that in mind, I am not inclined to write a summary. I write what I write, it is what it is.

  5. This is a beautiful, and inspiring post. Self-awakeness! I love that—and this: “If we are more awake, however, we feel the pain of inhuman, unfair or violent systems more keenly.” Oh, yes. You write from the heart, John, and you offer great hope. Thank you for your insights.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s