#146: Living in Complexity

Life is basically unfair. But even in a situation that’s unfair, I think it’s possible to seek out a kind of fairness
– Haruki Murakami


Dear friends

The last three years have been tough and there are a few still ahead of us. It’s ever-changing, complex, tiring. We are living in complexity.

Before we get there, here is a sprinkle of soul food to make you smile.

When I wrote about the astonishing Gregory Porter concert at Kirstenbosch, I’d said that Zolani Mahola was styled in a ‘wonderland of colour’. She posted these photographs this week. Now you can see what I meant.

There is something in the exuberance of her dress that reminded me of the imagination-bending work of famed Nigerian photographer, Samuel Fosso.

/ strategy – positive attention is thirty times more powerful than negative attention

The World Economic Forum’s 2023 Global Risks Report highlights the danger of ‘polycrises’ – complex, concurrent, and interconnected risks. These risks are both unpredictable and hold the potential to cascade triggering a mutually reinforcing loop of intensifying crises. That’s a tough, volatile environment in which to live.

In uncertainty, we feel vulnerable. When we feel vulnerable, and don’t have ways to make sense of the world, we default to flight or fight. Neither helps us to seek out connection, to be creative, or to take risks –the only ways to create a better future. To feel safe enough to be creative, we need consistent communication. We are meaning-making machines.

Wharton Business School’s Adam Grant says “leaders are 9x more likely to be criticized for under-communicating than overcommunicating. Those who say too little come across as unclear and uncaring. When you’re tired of your message, it’s just starting to land”.

And when communicating remember this, “Positive attention is thirty times more powerful than negative attention in creating high performance on a team”.

If you don’t communicate at all, the results are disastrous. With no communication, 95% of your team disengages.

Think about any marathon you’ve ever seen. They’re lined with people cheering the athletes on.

/ self – do what suits you (but do it well)

Best-selling novelist Haruki Murakami’s memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, draws parallels between marathon running, novel-writing, and life.

He writes, “let’s face it: Life is basically unfair. But even in a situation that’s unfair, I think it’s possible to seek out a kind of fairness. Of course, that might take time and effort. And maybe it won’t seem to be worth all that. It’s up to each individual to decide whether or not it is.

Tough, but liberating.

Here is a globally acclaimed author who doesn’t feel like he’s been blessed by the universe, with an ever-unfolding sequence of serendipitous blessings. Nope, he says life is unfair. That feels a bit more like at least some part, of our everyday experience.

And, he reminds us, that should we choose to, with time and effort, we can make it worthwhile.

He cautions us not to rely on willpower,  but to look for the things we are drawn to.

“I don’t think it’s merely willpower that makes you able to do something. The world isn’t that simple. To tell the truth, I don’t even think there’s that much correlation between my running every day and whether or not I have a strong will. I think I’ve been able to run for more than twenty years for a simple reason: It suits me. Or at least because I don’t find it all that painful. Human beings naturally continue doing things they like, and they don’t continue what they don’t like… no matter how strong a will a person has, no matter how much he may hate to lose, if it’s an activity he doesn’t really care for, he won’t keep it up for long. Even if he did, it wouldn’t be good for him.”

He says, for running and writing, we need five ingredients.

We must want to do it. If we’re to make a living from it, we must have some measure of talent. To make the most of our talent, we must focus our effort and persist when it gets tough. And last, we need to know our limitations, for “the methods and directions a writer takes in order to supplement himself becomes part of that writer’s individuality, what makes him special.”

Isn’t that beautiful?

Not only does your uniqueness draw people to you, but the way you supplement for your weaknesses intensifies who you are. You become even more you by getting support.

It is a lesson I am still learning.

/ soul – our lives contain many lives

Our first two letters of the year explored creating hope in complexity. The obvious reason to go there is the threat facing the world.  In the background, something more subtle was going on.

Over December, I read Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, Futhi Ntshingila’s They Got To You Too and Sue Nyathi’s An Angel’s Demise.

Zevin’s book won the 2022 GoodReads Choice Award and Brittle Paper chose Nyathi’s book as one of their notable African books of 2022.

The books are set worlds apart.

Zevin’s book plays out in Los Angeles and Boston, its three protagonists are simultaneously friends and co-founders of a gaming company. Ntshingila takes us into an old-age home in South Africa’s capital city, Pretoria, where a nurse cares for and befriends a resident, who carries with him the memories of murders and tortures he had committed as an agent of the apartheid state. Nyathi sets her book on Belle Acres, a white-owned Zimbabwean farm,  across three decades, incorporating colonialism, systemic racism, the war for independence, the post-independence genocide of the early 1980s, and the farm invasions of the 2000s.

Each book is a different world, in place, in time, in mood, in texture, in fact in every conceivable way bar two.

Each reminds us that one life can hold many lives. They tell of relationships repaired, of hope restored, of the possibilities for redemption.

In Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, Sadie and Sam form a beautiful friendship. Three times. Over thirty years Dov is Sadie’s lecturer, lover, ex-lover, lover, collaborator, and friend.

In They Got to You Too, Hans circles closer and closer to telling the horror of his truth. His greatest fear is that Zoe will get there first. She does, and still there is healing.

At Belle Acres’, Angel gets a surprising inheritance, resetting decades of history. In a single act, Paul shows us the complexity of being human, that no one moment need define us.

I realize that I am not giving much insight into each book, ask Google – there are many far better reviews out there than I could write.

Each of these books was published last year. Three authors writing from three different contexts, all telling us that being human is complex. They ask us to hope. They tell us that despite all the pain, there can be beauty, that we can act to make it so.

It occurred to me that Nyathi, Ntshingila and Zevin might be psychics reading the world’s soul, their words telling us of our desires, or perhaps they are clairvoyants telling us of a world that is emerging. At least that’s my hope.


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