#134: Keep Going

It’s the 16th of October. We’re approaching the end of an arduous three years.

Last year, Nicholas Christakis’s Apollo’s Arrow helped us explore the coronavirus context. As a reminder, Christakis is the director of The Human Nature Lab at Yale University.

Apollo’s Arrow reviews the history of pandemics. He warned us that we should expect disruption until 2024.

How easy it was to type those words; how difficult it is to live through this time. And still, we have to keep going.

Cape Town is being kind to us. The city is currently blessed with some of the most amazing art exhibits. Magical realism magician Simphiwe Ndzube, who in the past few years has blazed a trail across the US market, opened his show Masemola Road at the Stevenson Gallery. Yinka Shonibare’s Restitution of the Mind and Soul is at the Goodman Gallery. It is his first solo exhibition in Cape Town. Stanislaw Trzebinski’s Solastalgia is at Southern Guild.

If like me, ‘solastalgia’ is new to you, it refers to “a nostalgia for the loss of places that used to give me solace – that made me feel fully human. Our very home, the Earth, is being ruined, despoiled. So much is already lost, and I’m homesick in my own home.”

If you’re in the city in early November, acclaimed playwright Nadia Davids’ Hold Still premieres at the Baxter Theatre (You can read about her book An Imperfect Blessing here).

All the work guides us in the complexity of being human.

Davids takes us into a family shaped by generational trauma; Trzebinski’s works are fantastical sculptures, explorations of a dystopian world rebuilding itself after a climate collapse; Shonibare responds to Picasso, exploring themes of appropriation and Ndzube explores how South Africans are shaping our worlds. They reflect what is required of us at this moment, to acknowledge that life is complex, often permeated with painful loss and still, we must carve new paths.

Ndzube says “Painting has the ability to transform things beyond what they are”. Shonibare comments that by appropriating appropriation, his work seeks to create a ‘third myth’, to point us to “the ability to transform beyond what is expected and therefore compels us to contemplate our world differently”.

They invite us to hold the pain of history and to imagine, create, re-create, and enact new possibilities. Keep reflecting. Keep searching. Keep going. Keep creating.

/strategy 

I had an alternate title for today’s letter, “A Break in Format”.

Some of you have been nudging me to write a little more. I’ve been experimenting and today I’ve taken the plunge and am sharing a very rough first draft with you. It sits mostly in the ‘self’ part of our letter, so I am scaling back on strategy today.

If you’re feeling cheated, read The Twenty Mile March. It’s about keeping going in a business context. Oh, and if you enjoyed the Lessons from Pixar, I shared a few more quotations from Ed Catmull here. And, if you’re new to this letter, you might enjoy the collection on Business Basics.

/self

I’ve been exploring the idea of telling stories about our everyday lives. My hypothesis is that they might help us see more of ourselves, and so be able to make more of our futures and live more peacefully in the present.

So, here goes…a rough first draft…Please let me know what you think…

I occasionally ask clients to imagine a point in the future, that point might be an upcoming meeting, it might be next week, it might be decades in the future. The principle for doing so is rooted in physics, philosophy, and psychology – by having a sense of where we’re going, we’re able to track progress and decide what to do right now.

I occasionally share this story with them and now I am sharing it with you.

There was a time in my life when I did a lot of sea-kayaking. Kayaking is a peculiar thing, you have to be flexible enough to move with the water – in big swells you can be easily lifted and moved metres off course, if you tense up, you capsize – and you need to have control, you need to be able to brace yourself if you start to topple, you need to be able to nudge your little craft down the face of a wave, or paddle furiously to get over a breaking wave before it crushes you. Partly intuitive, partly intentional, to keep going, you feel and guide your way across the ocean.

One morning, whilst still a novice, I paddled out with an exceptionally experienced kayaker. We paddled for over an hour into the waves. The sun was hot, the sea deep blue. I felt weightless, paddling up the face of the swells, being lifted metres in the air and slipping effortlessly down their backs. It was joyous.

Then, we turned around and headed home. Now, the swell was behind us, its power in control, wobbling the kayaks in unpredictable ways. My anxiety started to build. It felt that the sun dimmed a little. The sea seemed to darken.

I knew that we had to still round a point. It’s not hazardous on a calm day, but the water is messy there, waves bounce back off the cliff face, the currents are complex.
Occasionally, a rebounding wave merges with an incoming one and you find yourself sliding across the water with little control. The memories loomed. I was suddenly conscious that I wasn’t wearing neoprene. The Atlantic is cold. As I type I know that sea rescue services are always relatively close by, in that moment I feared hypothermia.

We kept paddling, but I was struggling to breathe. I became convinced that I wasn’t moving. Eventually, in desperation, I called out to Arthur “I think I’m doing something wrong. I’m not moving.”

He turned round comfortably in his boat, his hips rolling easily with the swell and smiled “You are. It’s just the waves are passing you quicker than you can paddle, so you feel like you’re not moving, but you are. Choose a landmark, fix it in your mind, then just pay attention to your paddling, then in a few minutes look to that landmark again.”

I did as I was told. I chose a cliff face just off to my right that seemed memorable, then dropped my gaze to the sun-sparkled swell and pulled my paddle through the water.

It still felt like I wasn’t moving, but I trusted Arthur and he certainly looked like he was moving, and I was more-or-less keeping up with him. The panic was a mild roar, but I was at least remembering to breathe again. Well, gasp every thirty seconds or so.

After a few minutes, I decided I was ready to test Arthur’s theory. I looked up cautiously. No cliff! It wasn’t there! I’d paddled off course! I was lost. Disaster was imminent. Arthur was still paddling steadily a few meters ahead of me, his hips rolling smoothly with the sway of the swell. Still, I knew, without a doubt, that I had gotten hopelessly lost.

Rational me had his moment, “Karl, if you’re lost, why is Arthur is still there?”

Still, where there had been a cliff was now just ocean.

If you are wondering, the answer is “Yes. Yes, I did momentarily wonder whether we’d paddled through some kind of wormhole into a different ocean.”

But Arthur was still there and I knew no stories of kayakers who disappeared because of a morphing of the time-space continuum.  And so, I started to look around. First, just rapid nervous glances that I could manage without turning my body in the kayak. Still, no cliff. And so, I breathed deeply, and, fearful of toppling the kayak, twisted back in the direction we’d come from, and there, some 100 meters behind us, was the cliff.

And so, it went for the next hour.

Pick landmark.

Paddle.

“I’m lost!”

“Another wormhole?”

“Nnnooo, there it is.”

Breathe.

Paddle.

We got home.

The world moves quickly. It moves far quicker than us. Our fears are always lurking ready to pounce. Without landmarks, it is easy to lose perspective. Without perspective, we panic,  we give up, we forget what we know to be true, our fears take over. Then we act from fear, often disastrously so.

Sometimes the most powerful goal is knowing what you want to do in the next ten minutes. The next hour. Today. They will get you to tomorrow, will give tomorrow more possibilities. Keep going.

/soul 

As you’re reading this, thousands of runners are making their way through Cape Town’s streets, participants in the Cape Town Marathon. They’re focused entirely on the next few hours. And within those hours, they’ll be focussed on the next kilometre, the next milestone, sometimes just the next four steps. They’ll keep going.

Retail guru, sustainable fashion champion and ultramarathon athlete, Charles Patterson,  recently told me professional runner Tommy Puzey’s story. Puzey is the embodiment of ‘keep going’.

Talya Minsberg’s story on Puzey starts like this “Almost a year ago to the day, Tommy Rivers Puzey, a professional runner who has won or placed in big city marathons and other endurance events, learned to sit up in bed again.”

In July 2020, Puzey was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lymphoma. He was placed into a medical coma for weeks and remained in hospital until the November.

His wife, Steph Catudal, reflected that “The doctors and everyone acknowledged that his extreme fitness allowed him to endure what he did. Someone that wasn’t training as rigorously as he did would have died.”

It’s an important reminder. We need to build reserves for the moments of extreme bad luck that life inevitably throws at us.

In 2017, Puzey ran the Boston Marathon, averaging 5:17 per mile finishing the race in 2:18:20 to place 16th overall. This year, he reached the finish line in 6:31:54. he was 24,799th out of 24,918 finishers (You can read more about his race here).

He reflects that “I’m one of the lucky ones, with the gift of having another chance, and because of that, I feel morally obligated that there is a responsibility to test the limits of this new potential. I owe that to my family. I owe that to myself. I owe that to my physicians and my nurses. And I also owe that to the tens of thousands of people who have supported me and my family. If I don’t seek out that potential, then it’s a mockery to the people that supported me, and it’s also a mockery to the people who don’t have this opportunity.”

I wish you the courage to test the limits of your potential. Sometimes that is just the next step or the next paddle stroke. You will get back to shore, you will finish the race.

Keep going.

Karl

PS: Please share this letter with someone who keeps you going. You can subscribe here and learn more about my coaching practice here.
PPS: If you want to learn to kayak, the people of Kaskazi Kayaks are wonderful guides.

Strategy, Soul and Self

Register to receive reflections on leadership and life