Do not follow where the path may lead.
Go, instead, where there is no path and leave a trail.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Just a few days after I returned from Australia and Papua New Guinea at the end of March I heard that I’d been shortlisted for a Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellowship. In between re-adjusting to everyday life back in the urban developed first world (from being in a remote village on PNG’s Rai Coast) – I suddenly found myself having to consider two critical questions in fine detail : what, ideally, would I like to do with such a fellowship and the resources it offers; and, how would this be a step-change in my career that would propel me towards a different future?
Its not often that such open-ended opportunities come up – where the constraint is truly on the scope and scale of your aspiration and imagination rather than on the project itself. The brief for the fellowships is refreshingly open – but terrifyingly so! In answering this challenge it is essential to step off the treadmill of routines, to turn aside from the path you are following – blindly or otherwise; to stop and survey the whole landscape of your life from as many perspectives as possible.
There followed a month of close scrutiny of myself and my ambitions, of reviewing the period of change that I initiated at the beginning of 2014 and how this has been a slow transformation as I have unwound habits, patterns of behaviour, settled beliefs and practices. After focusing my energies on creating, building and sustaining an organisation for nearly 20 years, the past couple of years have involved a tumultuous reorientation that has invoked feelings of relief and release, emptiness and the desire to cling on. It feels very much as though I have been cocooned in a kind of creative chrysalis – effecting a slow transformation as I try to reimagine what kind of work I want to do, what kind of communities I wish to be part of and what I want to achieve. This process is by no means complete. But in preparing, writing and editing my proposal for the fellowship I have been forced to reconsider how different routes to those I have taken before might now offer me the step change in developing my aspirations that is clearly required.
Emerson’s oft-quoted saying (above) has, perhaps, been emblematic of the path I have been making over the last 25 years, weaving a collaborative trail through disciplines and sectors that most likely seems random and confused to those who encounter my work through individual projects and do not see the long term trajectory. But there comes a time when its necessary to consider stepping off the idiosyncratic trail you have been creating yourself to be able to perceive new kinds of opportunities. There are moments when it becomes important to see that doggedly pursuing your own individual course and modus operandi can be as constraining as following a channel laid out by others before you. Recognising where your personal trail intersects with a larger trail and allowing yourself to be drawn along; merging your effort with that of others. For a while; or perhaps longer.
Having submitted my proposal a few weeks ago I am now in the strange limbo of waiting to hear whether or not I will make it to the next round of interviews. The trick will be maintaining my resolve to pursue this new trajectory irrespective of the outcome of the selection procedure for these fellowships. Attuning myself to a new beat without reverting to older rhythms. I have written before about my ethic of trying to stimulate public agency in my work (here) and on the nature of pioneering as a way of life rather than a career choice (here). The habit of dissenting, the role of the outsider, is as much a self-selecting, self-limiting groove to become funnelled in as any other. It is time for a different suppleness of character to take hold, to bend as the reed in the wind without becoming like the gnarled and hardened oak. I think that the aim of this creative chrysalis of the past couple of years is to emerge out of the cocoon of self-reflection with a different form and to leave out-dated habits in the dry husk that remains.
THE OAK TREE AND THE REED
A story about a reed and an oak, urging us not to rely on strength.
A reed got into an argument with an oak tree. The oak tree marvelled at her own strength, boasting that she could stand her own in a battle against the winds. Meanwhile, she condemned the reed for being weak, since he was naturally inclined to yield to every breeze. The wind then began to blow very fiercely. The oak tree was torn up by her roots and toppled over, while the reed was left bent but unharmed.
Those who adapt to the times will emerge unscathed.
Aesop’s Fables. A new translation by Laura Gibbs. Oxford University Press (World’s Classics): Oxford, 2002