The world needs more friction

Autumn has arrived in Chicago. On Wednesdays and Saturdays I make my way to the increasingly chilly outdoor farmers’ market in Lincoln Park, which has been enjoying its final days of the season. On each visit I find myself chatting with a man running the dairy stall. I keep going back to his stall because the first time I tried his milk it tasted how milk used to taste. Like the restaurant critic in the movie “Ratatouille” being transported back to his childhood when he tastes the rodent’s recipe, I had forgotten what ‘real’ milk tasted like. The dairy man talks a little about milk; he talks a lot about friction.

When I heard him utter the statement in the title my instinctive response was to challenge his assertion. I look around and see polarization within nations whose very names bear the word “united”, but only as if it were some aspirational label rather than a long neglected statement of fact. I see flame wars on social media acted out in person. And last week in the US we heard of bombs being sent through the mail in the US to those who have expressed strong opposition to the current president. Do we need more friction in the world?

I questioned the dairy man and he smiled. It turns out he sees friction not as conflict but rather as the gentle abrasion of old style interaction. His view is that we’re over-lubricated, not in some over-enthusiastic virgin way but rather that we’re coating too many of life’s processes and interactions with a form of virtual teflon; the free-flowing pendulum needs to swing back the other way.

We interact with people less and less in the flesh: workers are increasingly part of virtual teams, we buy our items online, from an invisible vendor, before they are dropped off at our door by a person who rings the bell and then may even drive off before we get to say hello… and thank you. Everything is convenient and is designed to be low cost and smooth.

The dairy man’s world revolves around the cow and the land. His cows graze on perennial grass pastures. Insects rely on the grasses and flowers. Birds rely on the insects. There is no need for artificial ploughs because worms do that job, bringing nutrients from deeper in the ground to the surface as they work. Friction is everywhere in his dairy world. 

Contrast his approach (and that of the minority of dairy farmers) with the one adopted for more than 90% of US milk production, where cows are housed in barns. Hay is brought in to the barns to feed the cows; there is little need for them to move. They do get a form of exercise when they are walked down to the milking shed before being returned to the barn. The operation is efficient… and is designed to minimize friction.

He and I continued to explore this theme and our conversation turned to teams in business. Most of us would acknowledge that teams with variety are going to be ‘better’. We see this in sport every week. Any team composed of too many players with one skill means a less rounded group; results swiftly illustrate the imbalance. In business, however, where feedback for the team is more opaque, homogeneity can last a long time. Without such direct feedback it can be hard to break our natural inclination to work with people who are just like us. Friction means effort (at least until we’re used to it). And it doesn’t help that we’re also wired to be lazy. 

It’s hard work if you are process-driven, trying to do things the right way as your results-driven colleague is so focused on the end product that concepts like proper method, documentation, and communication are thrown out the window. It’s hard work if you are a lateral thinking creative type but you’re being asked to work in a logical, rigid, structured manner. It’s hard work if you like putting your head down on your own and ploughing through your duties but meetings require everyone to contribute and ‘share’. Varied teams are ripe with friction. Instinctively we avoid it and yet we also acknowledge that varied teams are likely to be more robust, more flexible, and more successful.

These business teams are a microcosm of the dairy man’s dream. In his dream, we have reclaimed our sense of community through increased face to face interaction. We get to see the truth of our being by looking at ourselves through the many eyes of those with perspectives other than our own. 

Too much friction is like slamming on the breaks but a little friction can be enough to generate a spark when we need a small fire. We should challenge a situation if it seems wrong rather than make like an ostrich and bury our head in the sand. And don’t we rub our hands together – like Mr Myagi healing Daniel in “The Karate Kid” – if we’re feeling the cold? Friction can mean warmth, or even healing? Friction means more self-knowledge and a better understanding of one another? Friction means more nutritious milk? Maybe the world does need more friction.

If you are irritated by every rub, how will your mirror be polished?

~ Rumi

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