Relaxed urgency

As an American with a type-A personality that can border on crusading, I have sometimes found living in Asia frustrating. 18 years in China, with its stultifying bureaucracy and a cultural aversion to decision making, taught me a lot about the power of persistence, as opposed to being forceful. In Northern Thailand, where everything seems to move in slow motion, instead of applying constant pressure, I find myself adopting the local mindset that things will eventually work themselves out. Yet the apparent choice between driving hard or sitting back and waiting isn’t really a choice, it’s a dilemma that we can transcend.

I'll spank you smartly with my spank ray
I'll spank you smartly with my spank ray

I’m sure it has something to do with my personality but to a large extent it’s cultural. I’ve always tended to look at the world from the perspective that things can always be improved. It’s a kind of eternal restlessness and gnawing dissatisfaction with the status quo. There’s always a goal to work toward, a mission to accomplish. I want to make things better; almost compulsively so. Oh, and by ‘better’ I mean my version of how the world should work.

As a friend once told me, albeit slurred and punctuated by hiccups (we had been drinking Super Bock and playing fussball all afternoon at Fernando’s in in Macau), “Barclay, you know…you know what you are? You…you’re….you’re a man of action!!” I remember this very clearly, as it was the same day that I was attacked by Fernando’s pet monkey, a deceptively strong macaque, whose chain was slightly longer than I’d estimated. I am a man of action, I thought. I like that; a man of action.

Action is all about doing and I love the doing; envisioning, planning, designing, sourcing, cultivating, overseeing and implementing. In my rush to do things, I sometimes forget who I am being in the process. When things aren’t working out, it’s usually because I’m being obsessive about detail, fixated on process and generally domineering. I used to think this was the best way to get things done. But as Abraham Maslow said, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.”

This is in stark contrast to the traditional Eastern mindset where things are believed to be much more complex. Unseen forces act upon us in unpredictable ways, so the best way to deal with problems is to wait until “the time is right”, which in my experience, can mean never. If you wait long enough, (ie; years), the problem becomes irrelevant. Case in point: one of my clients in China was a Chinese woman that had risen to head of global HR for a Fortune 100 company and whose strategy to handle her hundreds of e-mail messages daily was to ignore them, unless they came from her boss or other senior executive. She figured rightly that if people wanted something from her, they could call her or talk to one of her subordinates.

What I have sought through introspection, is to see beyond the narrow trade-off between passivity and control. This is an inclusive mindset that both channels energy toward results, while at the same time accepting the inevitability that things are going to “unfold exactly as they should.” The goal is a state of disciplined, single-minded attention with complete openness to constant change. It’s an artful balancing act that requires extraordinary self-awareness.

I once saw a documentary on the Israeli Air Force’s F-16 pilots, where the narrator described the atmosphere at their air base as one of relaxed urgency. I thought this was a profound observation that beautifully captures the state I’m constantly striving for: ready for anything and sweating nothing.

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