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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When people willingly tattoo a company logo on their person

Fans of Apple, or Nike can queue for hours, or even days when a new product is released. In addition to the products themselves they might zealously slap stickers with the logo all over their belongings, but even advocates of these brands are unlikely to tattoo the company logo on their person. However, there is one brand where this happens. The company doesn’t pay these zealots, in fact you could even argue the zealots pay the company.

Ironman is an organization that runs endurance events. They are responsible for the Singapore Marathon, the Bordeaux Marathon, and in 2017 they bought the company running the Rock n Roll endurance races. However, it’s for triathlons that they are best known, and their swim-bike-run event in Kona, Hawaii is the race all the top athletes want to enter and win. Merely qualifying for the Hawaii event is a crowning achievement.

The full distance triathlon, with which their name has become synonymous, will usually begin at 7am with an hors’ d’oeuvres of 2.4 miles of open water swimming. You’ve little time to digest that before moving on to the main course, a 112 mile bike ride. Dessert, if you have the stomach, is a full marathon. The total distance is just over 140 miles, or 226 kilometres. Cut-off time is midnight, or 17 hours.

There are plenty of full distance triathlons around the world, but only those run by Ironman can officially call themselves an “Ironman triathlon”. You know a brand has truly made it in the minds of the public when the company name or product line has replaced the more generic noun or verb. Think Scotch tape instead of sticky tape, to Hoover instead of to vacuum, Kleenex, Xerox, etc. If you are a man going through a midlife crisis then you refer to a “full distance triathlon” as an “Ironman” regardless of whether it is run by the Ironman organization. (It trips off the tongue more smoothly than the alternative, and it has the added bonus of sounding Marvel-cool.)

Participants don’t take the event lightly. Anyone who is serious about successfully completing an Ironman triathlon will start formal training for a September event in April, and should already have some base level of fitness. There are days they need to train twice, and as race day nears the weekends become almost wholly given over to ever longer bike rides and ever longer runs. (The swimming will commonly be during the week.) By the time of race day participants might expect to have run over 500 miles in training, and biked in excess of 2,000 miles.

The financial cost is not light either once you’ve paid for: triathlon clothing, a separate wet suit, goggles, bike, bike shoes, bike helmet, replacement bike parts, bike maintenance, running shoes, coaching fees, physical therapy, massage, anti-chlorine shampoo, anti-chaffing cream, expensive go-faster sunglasses, energy bars, energy gels, energy drinks, and probably dental bills as well considering all of that sugar. The race fee itself is not inconsiderable, and since races are rarely on your doorstep you may also need to incur air fare, car rental, bike shipment costs, and accommodation all before the requisite trip to the tattoo parlor. Write out a check for $2,500, but be prepared to pay more.

It’s no wonder, after such commitment, such sacrifice, and such expense, that finishers want to brand themselves with evidence of their achievement. It’s common to find the Ironman logo painted on a bulging calf, but there are many body parts selected for the ink, and even more variations on the logo design, perfectly reflecting the diversity and individuality of those undertaking the journey.

It would be easy to think the participants are all lean, muscled men with too much money, too much time on their hands, and too much testosterone but in truth the participants are a glorious pot pourri of age, gender, race, nationality, faith, political persuasion, ego and physique. What they do all share is their commitment to the journey and a desire to test themselves in this way. I would also speculate that the majority are competitive, over-achievers and I wouldn’t be surprised if even their blood is type A.

However, few compare their finish times — they just want to make the cut-off — because everyone is on their own journey. The support for one another at such events is palpable… and addictive. Although not always visible, it’s understood that each has their own obstacles to navigate and so comparing times is an exercise in futility. Comparing is not the point. Whether you have five children or none, one kidney or two, one leg or two, this diverse group of people just want to come together and see what they themselves are made of; everyone trains and races to the beat of their own drum. There is even room for my friend, Don, who definitely does not have type A blood.

Knowing that my friend Don was doing such an event later in the year, but knowing little about these undertakings at the time, I naively asked him if he had a finish time in mind. He quipped, “I want to cross the line at 11:59pm”.

I had heard the largest cheer is reserved for the last person to make it across the line before the midnight cut-off, but Don is not a seeker of the limelight. I was confused. He continued, “If I finish earlier then I have probably tried too hard.”

He went on with his dry assessment of the day, “There is also the added benefit of value for money; these things are exPENsive! The longer I spend on the course, the more of their food and drink I consume, the more I will have got for my dollar. It’s all about dollars per hour.”

Don didn’t win but he did finish. I don’t know his time either but it was probably too fast for his liking, although in a ranking of value for money I expect he was way up there. When anyone asks him his time he might shrug, or he might tell them, it probably depends on their blood type. The time is irrelevant anyway.

He has earned the label without needing to mark himself. He said it wasn’t necessary because HE knew what he had done, and that was the most important thing. When he said that, I thought about our hidden allegiances, our hidden tribes, and I thought about Don’s humility.

He smiled. “Some of those tattoos are really pretty cool though. They just aren’t for me.” I looked back at him, standing there in his Ironman hat, his Ironman t-shirt and his rather pricy Ironman finishers’ jacket, drinking coffee from his Ironman mug, and I found myself nodding.

Feel the fear and then… err…

Feel the fear and do it anyway. Or, feel the fear, think you’re ok, feel some more fear, and then change your mind entirely. There is a reason I’m not a writer of pithy book titles and there is a reason my inspirational writings are not flying off virtual shelves in virtual stores.

I have always worried what others think of me. This fear is not debilitating, and so I’d not class it as social anxiety disorder, but on many occasions my anticipation of criticism has prevented me from doing things I otherwise might. Getting older has helped, because the older I get the less I care, but unless I am Methuselah incarnate I won’t grow old enough to fully eliminate the worry. 

In this day and age, where more people are judging and being judged, when the outrage bus has standing room only, and where there are entire business models placing the judgement of others at their core, it’s probably something I just need to ‘get over’. Some days I am bewildered by the level of judgement in the world, even though I am a judger myself.

Bombarded by blogs, videos, and images of people whose self-confidence seems stratospheric, I don’t always see the talent to support those levels of enthusiasm. In truth I am captivated by anyone who just ‘goes for it’. I am in awe of them. Their seemingly self-sustaining confidence is a thing of beauty, and it should be cherished. 

These are the people who go to Karaoke, not worrying about finding a song to match their voice, not caring if they end up following someone who sings like Adele or Freddie Mercury. These passionate creatures are bloated with life, bleedingly honest, and I derive energy from having them in this world. 

It was with in a quest for this energy that I posted an unassuming musical video of myself on Youtube. Youtube gave me the coward’s option of privacy, allowed me to sanitize the end product, and happened to be free. Result!

In the video, I played the guitar and sang. Even if I do say so myself, my performance was somewhere between tragic and abysmal, but in my defense I sanitized nothing – that would have been cheating. Through the publication of that raw video I felt noble for pushing past my self-imposed limits. I had taken the advice of Susan Jeffers to heart by ‘feeling the fear and doing it anyway’. I celebrated my success by promptly logging back in, switching off the comments, hiding the link, and pretty much burying the post so deeply that I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to find it again. However, I didn’t delete it – for several days – and so I still allowed myself to feel worthy, at least for that brief time that it was technically ‘available’ to the pubic. I am my own worst critic, and I had found myself wanting.

The same fear of judgement has also shaped my writing. On the one hand my ego wants the attention, and wants to be told that I am a wordsmith descended from Homer and Shakespeare. On the other hand I really don’t want the attention, because I do not have that lineage at all, and I also worry about wasting the time of others. The inner monologue goes something like this:

“Why bother writing it? No one will read it.”

“Yes they will. They might give it a clap.”

“In another context the clap is not a good thing.”

“Don’t be a jerk! Someone might like it.”

 “That sounds a bit desperate… ‘SOMEone’… my last piece got no comments on my blog, and only one ‘like’ on Facebook.”

“Facebook is just an exercise in ego massage and vicarious living for crying out loud. You LIKE writing.”

“But I’m always editing it down so as to head off misunderstanding and minimize the risk of offending. And I don’t like it when people point out spelling errors, factual misstatements, or a lack of creativity. It makes me want to delete the post.”

“Some of the things you’ve done are really cool. People want to hear about that. Nobody is looking for perfection these days. They just want you to be real.”

“I don’t write briefly enough for the short attention spans everyone seems to have these days.”

“You don’t need to be brief. Twitter and Facebook might have brief posts but by the time a person has lost two hours of their lives drowning in a sea of breadcrumb trails, click-bait, and in the forlorn hope that the next item might give them the chemical kick they’re craving, they’d have KILLED for a savior vessel of some quality.” 

“But others have already written something like my stuff… and they’ve probably done a better job?”

That last rebuttal is probably the one that has held me back most frequently. We are bombarded by inspirational people who have overcome great adversity, or shown blinding creativity, or demonstrated acts of such selfless courage that we are truly humbled. Occasionally I’ve been a bit brave, come up with the odd cool idea, and been a bit charitable. I like to think of myself as a selfless, courageous artist but I’m not on the same level as those who inspire me. Why should I bother telling my story when those others have lived and shared more dramatically? It is only recently that I have settled on a response to this question.

Back in 2000 I was having a low moment, as we sometimes do, and was reading one of Richard Carlson’s Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff books. (I was in the middle of self-help book addiction). On this particular day I was reading a message, a life lesson that struck me so deeply I can still remember my emotions and the entirety of my surroundings with perfect clarity nearly 20 years later. 

The message explained that much of what we fear is based on what we imagine will happen and not what actually happens. If we save our energy for dealing what is rather than what we fear we’ll find fewer of our fears come to be realized, and we’ll also have more energy to face them if they do eventually transpire. 

As I read that message back to myself now I am smacking my head in faux drama because the lesson is already known to me. It’s no longer an epiphany, and it seems a waste of time re-sharing it. Of course knowing the words doesn’t mean I can always follow their advice, otherwise I’d be singing more karaoke, but I do have what I need from them. However, that point about smacking my head, about my reaction to something I already know, gave rise to a second lesson I’m only just beginning to digest.

If Richard Carlson had not written that book, even though what he was saying may have been said by others, if I had not been reading it on that day, and even though I may have already heard the message before, I would not have absorbed what I needed. There is a saying that when the student is ready the teacher appears. 

This second lesson is one of the biggest catalysts to me writing now. I strongly suspect that other articles have addressed the point of anxiety in relation to putting yourself out there. They have, with more energy, encouraged you to share your story, find your voice, be ok with being you and damn what anyone else thinks. But maybe there was too much vernacular, or too little in them with which you could identify. Maybe you didn’t read their post when you were ready.

I am writing to say that your voice is important. As you begin, you might find yourself worried by what others think and you might, in the early days, choose to round the sharp edges and smooth the rough surfaces of your writing. Over time you will learn that people crave texture but it’s ok to take your time as you work up to revealing that to the world. Like any new sculptor in search of the art within the stone, you will inadvertently hit the marble at the wrong point and end up with something limbless or headless, but we still want to see that authentically crafted torso. Maybe torsos will become your thing, and that’s ok too.

And so as you ease your tender are cheeks into the hot bath of public opinion, you may may feel the heat upon contact with the water. It’s ok to swiftly lift your buttocks lest they be irreparably burned. It’s ok to take time to build up your courage again. And it’s ok to repeat the process of lowering and raising, all while letting out weird wheezing and whooping noises, until you have acclimatized your unmentionables. 

As I leave you with far too many mixed and disturbing metaphors, presumably of someone performing a noisy up-thrusting routine above a  torso and buttock soup, please know that you do not need to write for everyone, you only need to write for someone. That ‘someone’ might be you but it might also be someone else who needs to hear your voice. Maybe you are the one who has the right words for them. Maybe it’s your message that will be delivered to them at the right time. Or maybe they just love passionate karaoke, authentic torsos, or hot buns.

Cool books:

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