Be lazy. Abandon all purpose. Remember who you are…

Find a beach of no particular beauty (like this one from flickr / national archives)

A Sunday at an un-exiting beach with one of my oldest friends reminded me of the importance of just hanging out. I used to be so good at it, just sitting somewhere with a good friend, talking about god and the world (as we say in German – which means: about everything and then some…), no reason to impress, no rush to pick up the kids, no “this is just a lunch meeting on a busy day at the office” feeling. Just meander down a path of interest, talk about something until you have gotten somewhere, or nowhere, or until something else comes to your mind. Looking onto the water is an added benefit.

I don’t know where and how you live, but in Washington, DC, where I live and work, I have the feeling that everyone (and I am one of them, don’t get me wrong…) is here with a purpose. We work for NGOs, government agencies, political parties, lobby groups.People move here from all over the world to make a mark, have an impact, push this agenda or that.  And most of the times I enjoy that, it means people are passionate about something beyond their pay-check, they want to change the world. But it also means that few people leave their work at the office and everybody knows how important it is to network. So we lunch, have coffee, do happy hour, make friends and “friends” and work hard – in the office and at the coffee shop. We run around, say clever things (or at least try), keep our purpose in mind, try to impress and wear uncomfortable shoes (if we are women, that is).

If you recognize yourself and your friends and “friends” in this description, I tell you: Take an old friend you don’t work with to a place of moderate natural beauty (nothing so spectacular that it will require a long drive, high entrance fee, be crowded with tourists or that the beauty will distract you from just hanging out). Leave your kids, dogs, snakes and other dependants in the hands of someone who doesn’t charge by the hour. Bring some simple food and water. Switch off the gadgets. And hang out. Sit there beyond the point where you worry “Is this boring? For me? Or for my friend?”. If your brain feels like ticking off a list of important things you could accomplish instead of just sitting there, that’s just a buzzing fly in the background, don’t listen. If you feel like you could at least exercise, go for a run or bike ride, to get some use out of this time, don’t. Abandon all purpose.

And one last thing: You are not doing this with the purpose of being more productive on Monday. Just do it, because it’s fun. And because, every once in a while, you want to remember who you are, not who you are supposed to be.

A knife, a ball, a piece of paper

These are a few of my favorite things… (O.k., I also like raindrops on roses, as in the song, but that’s a different story…)

Because when I want to do stuff, a knife, a ball and a piece of paper are perfect. “Why?” you wonder. And even more confusing: “What kind of stuff is she planning to do? Do we have to be scared???” My answer is: “Anything!” And that’s why I like them, because these are the kinds of things that you can do about anything with. I love cooking and do a lot of it. That’s why it drives me crazy when people try to convince me that I need all kind of specialized gadgetery: Egg boiler, rice cooker, bread baker, lemon zester, asparagus pot… No I don’t. I need a good knife, a cutting board, two pots, a good pan. Now let’s get cooking, I’m hungry.

Knife Sharpeners in Kashgar, China (copyright by watchsmart on Flickr)

A ball? Well, the anthropologist John Fox has written a whole book about it (The Ball: Discovering the object of the game) and in this entertaining interview on NPR he explains how the mix of predictability and unpredictability and the fact that you can play so many different games with a ball, has made playing ball an important past-time from rather brutal ballgames of the Aztecs to Soccer World Cups of today.

A piece of paper? I don’t even have to do there, do I? You can write ANYTHING on a piece of paper, no limitations, or draw something, keep a table from wobbling, start a fire, even crumble it up and use it as a ball.

Now, where do all these thoughts come from? I recently attended a summer clinic of the World Bank Institute’sGreater than Leadership” program. They showed us a 5 day training course for civil servants around the world that aims at making them more effective leaders and making their reform efforts more successful. And while I was sitting their listening, discussing, giving feedback on tools, concepts and methodologies, I realized: The tools I find most useful are those that work like a knife, a ball, a piece of paper. And I guess that’s why I’m still hooked on Social Network Analysis – because it’s not a rice cooker or banana slicer, specialized for just one situation. But any situation where you have many different actors (individuals, groups, organizations), who are somehow connected (formal, informal, flow of goods or money, friendship or hatered…), Social Network Analysis can tell you something interesting about the situation and give you insights in the system dynamics which you would have missed without…