Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Boundaries and horizons

with 2 comments

James Carse once said, “It is the freedom we all know we have that terrifies us.” 

So deep is this terror that we do not want to acknowledge our freedom.  As a result, we play within boundaries defined by fear.

–x–

Some time ago, I bumped into a student who had taken a couple of classes that I taught some years ago. Over a coffee, we got talking about his workplace, a large somewhat bureaucratic organisation.

At one point he asked, “We need to change the way we think about and work with data, but I’m not a manager and have no authority to do what needs to be done.”

“Why don’t you demonstrate what you are capable of without waiting for permission?” I replied. “Since you are familiar with your data, it should be easy enough to frame and solve a small problem that makes a difference.”

“My manager will not like that,” he said.

“It is easier to beg forgiveness than seek permission,” I countered.

“He might feel threatened and make life difficult for me.”

“On the other hand, he might appreciate your efforts.”

“You don’t know him,” he replied.

“If you’re not appreciated, you are always free to leave.  Moreover, the skills you have learnt in the last two years should give you confidence to exercise that freedom.”

“I’m comfortable where I am,” he said sheepishly, “with my mortgage and all this uncertainty in the economy, I can ill-afford any risk.”

I didn’t say so at the time, but thought it unfortunate that he had set boundaries for himself.

–x–

Boundaries are characteristic of what Carse calls finite games: games that are played with the purpose of winning. These are the games of convention, those that we are familiar with. He contrasts these with infinite games: those whose purpose is the continuation of play.

As a corollary, an infinite game has no winner (or loser) because the game never ends.

Finite games are bounded, both temporally (they last a finite time) and spatially (they are played within a bounded region). As Carse notes in his book, “finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries.”

And then a bit later, he tells us how to play with boundaries. “What will undo any boundary is the awareness that it is our vision, and not what we are viewing, that is limited.”

–x–

“I’m resigning,” he said, before launching into an explanation. As he talked, the thing that came to mind was the contrast between his attitude and the student’s. 

His explanation was completely unnecessary. I understood.

There comes a tide in the affairs of humans etc…and often that tide is evident only to those who are able and willing to look up and see the possibilities on the distant horizon.

–x–

In contrast to boundaries, horizons are not fixed. As you move towards a horizon it moves away from you. As Carse tells us:

One never reaches a horizon. It is not a line; it has no place; it encloses no field; its location is always relative to the view. To move toward a horizon is simply to have a new horizon.

Much of the talk about lifelong learning (which now has its own Wikipedia entry!) is really about taking a horizonal view of life. It has less to do with “staying current” or “learning employable skills” than with gaining new perspectives.

But that does not mean one has to take in the entire vista in one glance. Some new things…no, most new things, take time.

–x–

“I can’t handle failure,” she said. “I’ve always been at the top of my class.”

She was being unduly hard on herself. With little programming experience or background in math, machine learning was always going to be hard going.  “Put that aside for now,” I replied. “Just focus on understanding and working your way through it, one step at a time. In four weeks, you’ll see the difference.”

“OK,” she said, “I’ll try.”

She did not sound convinced but to her credit, that’s exactly what she did. Two months later she completed the course with a distinction.

“You did it!” I said when I met her a few weeks after the grades were announced.

“I did,” she grinned. “Do you want to know what the made the difference?”

Yes, I nodded.

“I stopped treating it like a game I had to win,” she said, “and that took the pressure right off.  I then started to enjoy learning.”

–x–

For many, success in work…or even in life… is largely a matter of appearances: if one’s career is not marked by a series of increasingly impressive titles then one is likely to be labelled an also-ran, if not an outright failure.

But what is a title? Carse tells us the following:

What one wins in a finite game is a title. A title is the acknowledgment of others that one has been the winner of a particular game. Titles are public. They are for others to notice. I expect others to address me according to my titles, but I do not address myself with them – unless, of course, I address myself as another. The effectiveness of a title depends on its visibility, its noticeability, to others.”

In these lines, Carse makes some important points. Firstly, a title has to be given to us by others.  Secondly, the effectiveness of a title depends on others paying attention to it.  That is, its significance lies in the significance that others give it. This is the reason why titles matter to those who compete for them.

–x–

A couple of weeks ago, I invited an ex-student to give a talk to my machine learning class. As I had expected, he did a brilliant job, introducing the class to some tools that they are likely to find useful the future. But the gold lay in something he said in the Q and A session that followed.

“How do you stay up to date in this field?” a student asked.

“Yes, this is a question I struggled with when I started out, ” said Jose. “Data science is a rapidly expanding field and it is impossible to keep pace with it…but let me show you something.” He navigated to his LinkedIn profile and started scrolling through his list of certifications.

It was a long list.

“When I started out,” he continued, “I constantly felt this fear that I was missing out. So, what did I do? I tried to learn everything I could, collecting a bunch of certifications that I kept adding to my profile. One day, I woke up feeling burnt out and asked myself why I was doing this. The only honest answer was because others seemed to think it necessary and even important. That shook me. I started thinking deeply about what I thought was important for myself, what my purpose is. I realised I did not have one; I was running like crazy down a path set by others, not my own.  That realisation changed everything for me.”

–x–

Life’s too short to play games and chase titles that others deem important. We are free to play our own game and keep playing it as long as we wish to.

Yes, that can be terrifying.

It can also be liberating.

—-xx—-

Written by K

May 3, 2021 at 7:58 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    Glyn Davies

    May 5, 2021 at 8:15 am

  2. You are the sage for our times. Lovely stories illustrating essential life lessons. The part about titles had a particular resonance because of a long conversation, I had had with a report some years ago. It was a promotion to a senior rank that I had held back as I had felt that he was not ready for it. He was very upset that he had not got it for he was very keen for the validation (the company also believes in titles as validation) and as a well deserved reward for hard work of the previous year. Not for him the simpler joys of seeing a product developed by him and his team finding its way into production and customer appreciation. In the hardscrabble life in our country, where, from childhood one is drilled into believing that coming at the top of the class is the only reason for existence, it is very difficult for many to disassociate titles from ideas of success in life or happiness itself.

    Liked by 1 person

    ravin kurian

    May 11, 2021 at 7:47 pm


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