Surviving in a changing, networked world

signpostsI am repeatedly floored by how lucky I am to be alive today. Here, in an era of complete turmoil, where things previously unimaginable are now normal, where old systems are dying and new ones are emerging that enable us to connect and cooperate in fascinating ways. All this, with our planet on the brink — it is all rather heady.

Sometimes, it is important to remind myself of this since there are moments when, confronted by all this turmoil, I slip into feeling frustrated and lost. When I reflect on why, I’m struck by the fact that never in my short lifetime — or, I suspect, in the lifetimes of my parents — have the way points, the path, or even the destinations for our lives been less clear, more uncharted, or simply completely unknown.

For confusing or unknown destinations, I think of my friends who wanted to get into news media, or a close friend who recently confessed that they’d love to sit on the board of the CBC (I can’t think of a better candidate), or colleagues who would like to be a Deputy Minister or even a bank executive. And yet, if you aspired to be the editor of the Globe and Mail when you hit your 40’s or 50’s I’m not sure you should be holding your breath… There may not be a Globe and Mail in 15 years, or a CBC, or even media companies. The role of a deputy minister may be radically altered beyond recognition — and do any of us really want to be bank executives? Worse, still, it’s not even clear what the equivalent of the editor of the Globe will be – it is fine to accept that the job you wanted may not exist, but what do you do when it isn’t even clear how to fulfill the underlying desire or interest?

If your dream was to contribute to national conversations, then the path has rarely been less clear. But it isn’t just the media. No matter what it is you want to do, the steps that were supposed to take you there… the education you are supposed to get, the jobs you were supposed to hold, they are less obvious, occasionally discredited and sometimes not longer in existence. This isn’t to say that newer, different, and I would argue better opportunities are not arising. They are. But they are hidden — hidden among a thousand blind alleys and dead ends. And yes, I even think the career paths of lawyers, doctors and accountants – the safest of professions – could change radically over the next few decades.

And the way points along these thousand paths are also harder to identify. What is progress? How do you know you are moving forward? I struggle with this question constantly: am I doing the right thing with my life? Am I making the world a better place? Am I growing? Developing?

In a bygone era I could have looked at the money I made, or the size of my office, my title, or any number of other things… but I find these metrics less and less helpful or meaningful. We all want to do more, be better, help with the next challenge.

What’s it all this mean? That remains to be seen. But here are two possibilities:

First, when you really don’t know what’s going to happen next you’d better grab that one thing you believe in. Because that value is a guiding light that allows you to keep marching on, even if you don’t know if you are marching forward, backward, up or down. Ultimately it is a leap of faith.

For me, that value is “share.” It’s why I got into negotiating – to enable people (self foremost) to be more effective at playing with others and learn to share ideas, possibilities, resources, anything… more effectively and fairly. It is why I believe in Open Source – that when we share, and build off each others contributions, we build faster, better and more cheaply, to the benefit of all. It’s the value that is at the core of my work in Public Service Sector Renewal – that a government that shares – shares its ideas, its data, in the process – both internally and externally, is a government that will be more responsive, more effective and more efficient.

The second piece is that we need peers. I suspect we are all (me especially) going to fail more than our parents. It is just a simple fact. There are more paths, and the right ones are less clear. So more of us are going to take risks, are going to try the unknown; and many or us, indeed the majority of us, will and should fail at some point. That’s why we need peers. We need friends and colleagues to help us, to pick us up when we fall down, to nurture us intellectually and help us emotionally.

When I look around at my friends I sense that we are blessed and cursed. We live in interesting times. The good news though, is that we are legion. Together, sharing and supporting one another, we are crafting a new world. I don’t know if my contribution is helping. It may all be one big failure – this alley I’m running down may be a dead end. That’s a frustrating, sometimes lonely, and scary reality to face down. But I know if I’m feeling it, someone else out there probably is too, and you should know you are not alone.

One thought on “Surviving in a changing, networked world

  1. Anne Mowat

    David, Here's a story for you: I walk into a Negotiations Class about a year ago, and there were two men, one looking impossibly youthful, a bit younger than our son, who is 33. Oh, he must be in training, I think. Turns out, this young man is the faciliator. The Teacher!!! And he rocked. All of us who attended the course thought he did a GREAT job. That guy was YOU. And I still think of some of the ideas and concepts you taught us. I guarantee that few courses stick in my brain as well as yours did. It goes beyond knowing your stuff. You have the gift of communication, and that is something rare. So….My feeling is that if individuals like you can't realize their potential, no one can, and we are DOOMED. You are well-educated, bilingual, and comfortable working from anywhere at anytime. You're demonstrably fluent in the new Web-based collaboration tools, and you give tons of your own time to help build a more caring, tolerant and just society through your volunteer efforts. I sense that you love ideas, and when people love ideas, they stay open and curious and relaxed about change. If one choice turns out to disappoint or to be underwhelming, you'll work around it, and build on what has worked, while adjusting course. All these things tell me that you cannot FAIL! We all experience the occasional set-back. Also, it is a mistake to think that those of us now in our fifties faced straight-line careers that were a foregone conclusion. Believe me, I am fairly typical of wage-slave boomers, and we had the same doubts, the same questions, just not so well-expressed! The hardest thing to deal with is this: when I was in my thirties, I had to commit to hard choices that, by definition, significantly narrowed my perceived options. But they have compelled me to grow in new, unexpected ways. It's not easy when you want to do what you want when you want. But if you get through it, you actually find you can build a kind of foundation that keeps you anchored in your values. So regardless of the specifics of your choices – in your career, in your mate, in your communities of interest, you can look back on your life and your choices a couple of decades later with a measure of satisfaction. It doesn't have to be perfect. It just has to be YOURS.

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