The Unbearable Madness Of Being: An Exploration

At a breakfast conversation this morning, talking about the challenges of managing in our current environment, one of my table-mates voiced the perspective that many of us share in our minds, but few of us have dared to articulate: “I feel like we are dealing with this massive, relentless pace of change. We’re moving past the ability of people to absorb it, to cope with it. We are all just completely overwhelmed.”

Wherever I look, this is arguably true. People ARE overwhelmed. Virtually everyone I have met with in the last few months complains of being insanely, mind-numbingly busy. The workload is all-consuming, and wherever one turns there is more of it. Change is inexorable, interminable and grinding. The demands of today’s business environment are insanely demanding, and what scares people most is that there seems to be no end in sight.

The question we have to ask is a very simple one: “Why?”

Really, how did it get like this? Are all of our organizations, all of our departments, all of our teams so unremittingly bad at what we do that they have to be completely overhauled? Is our performance so challenged that we are compelled to radically change? Does it actually have to be this way?

Depending upon my perspective, my answers are “yes”, “no” and “maybe”. And that’s perhaps what is so challenging about the environment that we find ourselves in today. It appears totally unjustifiable that our collective workplaces selves should feel this completely overwhelmed, and yet—when looked at through a particular lens, or from a specific perspective—there is a twistedly compelling logic to it. What’s worse, no one is doing this to us. We are, in fact, doing this to ourselves.

There is always the ‘other’, of course. The ubiquitous ‘they’. Faceless, nameless, watching, observing, assessing, judging. With a voice that says “more”, “better”, “faster”, “not enough”, “never enough”. We hear the voice. Our bosses hear the voice. Our boards of directors hear the voice. And we react to it. We panic, we double-down, we drive ourselves further. We compare ourselves to what we see of others, and we drive ourselves even harder to measure up.

There are many causes of this, I believe, some of them visible and others less so. The largest cause, however, is that we don’t name the problem. We don’t have an objective conversation about where we are, and how we are feeling, and what this constant pace of change is actually doing to us. We don’t even talk about, except in the most tangential of turns, what the pace of change requires in order to keep up. We talk about being overwhelmingly busy, but that’s half complaint and half pride. There is a boastfulness to the madness, as well as a psychological cost.

Looking at the underlying influences, I think that there are several. There may be more, but my starting list of chief suspects is outlined below. Each one is an essay in its own right. To do them justice, that’s how I’m going to treat them. So this particular post is a starting point, not an ending one. I’m trying to frame a problem, and to explore it; to examine these themes properly, though, takes time. And I’m actually going to take that time.

What I see as fundamental to understanding what is driving our current obsessive emphasis on constant change and unrelenting upheaval derives four factors:

  • Technological transformation. We live in a digital world. Why this is so is fascinating in and of itself, but the fact remains that technology drives much of our existence. Technological growth is quite literally exponential; processing capacity is exploding, memory is cheap, and the amount of sheer data that exists in the world is enormous, and growing in leaps and bounds. We seem to feel the need to keep pace. We must constantly upgrade, we must be constantly on, and we must be constantly contributing. Not doing so, we fear, is to let the world pass us by. Technology never sleeps, so we struggle to do more with less as well. We are not our computers, but we try to be.
  • Improvement imperative. We need to get better. The human condition is one that is driven by a constant focus on improvement. We strive to improve our leadership abilities, our managerial skills, our communication skills, and our presentations skills. We aspire to higher IQ, and higher EQ. Our goal is to be constantly better than we have been in the past, and the fear of our past failures drives us inexorably forward.
  • Obsession with measurement. What gets measured gets managed. Arguably, this is true, in that our attention tells people what we are interested in, which implies where we would like people to focus. Ever since researchers discovered discovered that whatever you paid attention to got better, managers have tried to figure out how to measure the things they care about. That would appear to be pretty much everything. We live in a world that seemingly wants to quantify everything, and the more we quantify, the more we relentlessly try to beat the numbers from last week, last month, last year. And the last hour.
  • Avoidance of risk. Better, stronger, faster. This is the mantra of our day and age. None of which has anything to do with poorer, harder, more difficult. Or, to be clear, with failing. Risk is a four-letter-word that has become, well, a four-letter-word. Risk is to be identified, managed and mitigated. The idea that is central to risk—that things can and will go wrong—is what is considered to be unacceptable today. The more the world becomes complex, ambiguous and uncertain, the more we endeavour to manage it. While the future becomes more tenuous, we try harder to control it. Our attitude towards risk—and its unacceptability—has the potential to drive us mad.

That’s my thesis, as far as I’ve taken it thus far. They are my stakes in the ground. I suspect there may be more contributors, but these are the factors that stand out most strikingly from where I stand today. Over the next few posts, I’m going to entertain each in turn (as well as anything else that emerges along the way). I’ll endeavour to understand why each factor is in fact having an influence, how it fits, and what we might begin to do to manage it.

Perhaps you might take some time out of your busy schedule to explore with me.

One Comment to “The Unbearable Madness Of Being: An Exploration”

  1. […] the first column of this series, I identify a number of key reasons underlying our current state of overwhelmed busy-ness. First […]

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