A story about taking a walk

I offer walking mentoring sessions. This piece about taking a walk with me arrived in my inbox, I wanted to share. Its by Richard Brophy. Original post on Medium

Walk with me. It’s the warmest of invitations. Without judgment or agenda. No plan. No KPIs. No whiteboards here. What’s the ROI on a walk in the country?

Walk with me. Join me in the half-life of my trust. And as we walk, we will talk through the terrain, the landscapes of our memory, left fallow, unkempt, frightening sometimes. Walk with me, because more than one will be needed to cut a path through this mass. We need a legion.

So I responded to Alan Moore’s invitation. It was not an invitation to me you understand, not direct in any case, but to whoever was caught in his virtual orbit that day. Nevertheless, someone invites you for a walk, God gave you legs, what else are you going to do? Politely decline? Claw at excuses, pull up that tissue thin edifice you use to hide your true face from the world? Because it isn’t working, you know.

In truth, the invitation received, at that time and place, sorely needed though it was, was not entirely the result of serendipity. The algorithm knows. It can detect where your head is at, as cookie is handed off to cookie, building a deepfake of your accumulated anxieties and desires. Absent father, absent mother, two hundred miles from my sisters, but still standing at the lip of our shared well of loss and pain, and guilty of the burden by proxy that weighs heavy on those nearest to me. My loves.

Sure, a walk will do me good.

I dug out some walking boots. Boots that have only ever sniffed at battles long done, leapt from Roman wall to Viking escarpment, to the tea-room and the gift shop shuffle before home. Heritage junkies. But they’ll do. And I joined Alan and his dog Piper for a long walk through the fens.

What do you even call this? Mentoring, coaching, personal development? Consultancy? Or therapy? A hazing, perhaps. Tough love. Out here, on the flat lands, still with enough contour, enough shape to surface the ricochets of Alan’s searing honesty. Silence against such a canvas can be deafening and there are moments of silence. But somewhere between AC/DC and the teachings of the Buddha — our A to B — there is also humour, challenge, gentle provocation and storytelling. Always storytelling.

Familiar themes are recalled from Alan’s central thesis — the notion that all business, all life, can and should aspire to be more beautiful. That beauty is not a repose, suspended in aspic or framed in gilt-edged mahogany, time-bound and discretionary. It is democratic. It is motion. Beauty is a verb. In aspiring to be beautiful, as Alan says, ‘Why would you want you to do it any other way?’, business will also be more sustainable, more sympathetic, more responsive to the needs of its employees, customers and communities and ultimately, yes, more profitable.

Each will find the story that sticks. Perhaps that of Brunello Cucinelli, the CEO of the luxury Italian fashion brand that carries his name. Cucinelli’s is likely the only such business that carries quotes from Dostoyevsky (‘Beauty will save the world’) and Kant on its home page and that runs a heavily oversubscribed arts and craft school on the side, invoking the philosophies of Ruskin and Morris. Or the studio of artist Olafur Eliasson where each day he and his assistants religiously sit down together to eat meals that are cooked on site and where, as Eliasson says, “Cooking is caring for others, a gesture of generosity that functions as social glue.”

I wonder, could such gestures as making, cooking, eating, doing together, crucially always together, be scaled? Into what we call, sometimes pejoratively, the ‘mainstream’. Taking a lance to that fixed, solitary, unfeeling reflection, the screen that gazes back, coldly judging your choice of sandwich. Office ruminants, open plan and free range, but how free? What a difference such gestures might make to their productivity and purpose.

Each story draws on the importance of craft, of making, rooted in Alan’s own background in art, design and innovation. But it’s not an exclusive or affected space, reserved only for those who are handy with a lathe. It’s about proximity, being as close to the product as possible, designing out its imperfections and negative externalities and creating products and services that have both utility and aesthetic value. It’s through this method that products that could easily be so anodyne, think carpet tiles and accounting software, are elevated to something so much more in the approach adopted by pioneering companies like Interface or Xero.

The landscape along our walk shifts from glade, to riverside, to farm, through darkness and light, small seasons on a jagged arc tending toward some hoped for resolution. Or a decent lunch at least. The track is at times too narrow to talk side by side. These are the moments when the silence creeps in, save for Alan’s gentle rebuke of the four-legged mischief seeker just ahead, always lunging between danger and rescue. Then the path widens again to reveal a rich seam of new prompts ready to be mined. Breathe in, breathe out. This is meditation, for sure, but upright and in welcome company.

From the practical to the personal, the line we draw (never a straight one) from these stories — of business and craft — to our own is really then about proximity, being close to one’s own story. Owning it and drawing on it.

Recently my own story has been one of unsettled remorse, of the Earth knocked off its axis for far too long and into a collapsing star I have struggled to escape. I have, I realise, craved a return to a different story — of humour, family, friendship, conversation and love — anchor points or counterweights to the gravitational pull of grief and loss. I think many people share that craving. Businesses too in their renewed engagement with the concept of purpose, a timely reminder that we are all on license from the future in which we hope to remembered.

The journey back to the riches we seek, to an origin story we can own and draw on with the necessary force, starts with walking, talking, listening, each a craft in and of itself. I had forgotten that and so I resolve to do this more often. Feel free to join me.:

For Piper, RIP — ‘Not all those who wander are lost’, J.R.R. Tolkien

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