Shifting gears out of ‘neutral’

How much does being comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty benefit me now, as my roots finally start growing deeper into the earth? ~ Niti Bhan, 21.03.21

When I embraced Schaetti’s concept of liminal space as the constant lived in norm for my life, more than 15 years ago, it felt like the right thing to do at that time. Relocating not only geographically from Chicago to San Francisco, but also transitioning from fulltime employment at a university, complete with healthcare benefits and a secure pension plan, clearly I was wholly and completely immersed in the ambiguity and uncertainty of a threshold moment in my life. I was 39 years old, soon enough the landmark age of 40 would arrive, and I found myself single and footloose, without the ties of responsibilities to hold me back from running away to find myself amongst cable cars and steep hills. Sunshine and the seaside beckoned to me like never before and back in 2005, the Bay Area was the liveliest locale of creative fomentation in the world.

Living in liminality – the neutral zone, as Bridges describes the intermediate period of psychological process occurring internally in parallel to tangible changes wrought in our daily life – answered my need for a framework within which to operate in without having to commit myself too early to any particular direction of work. I was not yet ready for simplistic labels that might pigeonhole me too early as I sought this time in my life to figure out who I was going to become and how. Consciously choosing to remain unfettered by fulltime employment, I poured myself into writing and exploring what was then a whole new way of thinking about design – the integration of business and its analytical left brain with the creative fuzziness of the right brain’s aesthetic sensibility and empathy for the other.

Keep in mind, too, the fact that back in 2005, the job titles and descriptions that would have worked to offer me the flexibility and scope to explore my skills and interests as much as I wanted, did not in fact exist. I was becoming who I would become before there were roles and occupation niches for those who could do the kinds of things I was still discovering out loud how to do. One case in point, before I proceed with the rest of what I want to say here, is share with you the squiggle that Damien Newman drew, I’d like to say for me to use ever since then, based as it was on a blogpost or three, and a handful of conversations we had back in that halcyon time. Hello Damien, how are you these days?

We were, all of us, making and creating and building what was still not yet, based only on our conversations with each other, often coming together to make sense of it all, a whole new world that seemed to be borning around new ways of thinking, making and doing. Limnos, the Greek word for threshold, was indeed the best description of that singular period in time, rich as it was with the necessary ambiguity and full of creative potential. Eureka, it seemed to me, lay in the heart of the conversations we were having, both in the real world and in the digital. I was quite happy to wander around aimlessly in ‘Research’ with only the distant horizons of ‘Concept’ to strive for, and building on my innate abilities to ‘dance in between’ cultures meant I could articulate, frame, and interpret patterns and insights from vastly differing contexts and operating conditions in a manner that would best build bridges.

It is this rich, deep, and varied lived experiences of the past 15 years that I am bringing up from the deeps into the light. Living in the ‘neutral zone’ without committing to definitions or descriptions, and thus free from stereotypes and cliches, had long offered me the most empowering fluidity and flexibility of movement, thought, and action.

I was free to explore topics of interest, and I do not believe I could have taken the path down into deeply researching and understanding the rural and urban informal economic ecosystems – based on the original concept of asking why the prepaid business model worked so well for those on irregular incomes – ultimately to focus most of my efforts in the African context, if I had not originally framed my explorations as that of living and operating in liminality.

Today however is my 55th birthday. And, unlike the intensely creative period of discovery characterizing the landmark of my 40th birthday, I am rather obviously at a different stage of life, as I ponder the shift in gear I sense in my state of mind. Do I truly feel the same sense of joyful anticipation of the unknown futures lying ahead, to be tackled head on with the confidence of having lived half of one’s lifetime as a globally mobile competent adult? Probably not.

The latter half of that complex question probably will not change, since one cannot erase one’s lived years and the increasing sense of confidence in one’s own ability to land like a cat on one’s feet in times of turbulence that sheer experience imbues one with. It transmutes itself, eventually, into the body, as I discovered around the age of 50. That is, the accrued competences and skills and abilities that one has reliably relied upon, over time, eventually become visible in the ways one holds one self, stands, or walks, without any conscious efforts on one’s own part to change one’s body language. Emerging from repeated encounters with adversity that requires starting over in new continents and countries communicates itself in subtle unspoken ways whether one wishes to or not. This carries with itself its own price.

The first half of the question, though, on whether there is any joyful anticipation of an unknown future ahead, with many possibilities to explore and discover, is one that already makes me tired just thinking about it. I am not 40 years old anymore, and the thought of starting over from scratch in a new country or city, much less continent, is already exhausting. So, I’m writing now to ask myself what shifting gears out of neutral means for me, at this point in time. Geographically, I knew by my birthday in 2013 that I was ready to settle down in one location and not move again. In Finland by the start of 2014, I knew I’d found my permanent home for the balance of my lifetime.

As I reflect on the recent days of writing and pondering the change in focal length of my mind’s eye; the dissonance this has set up with the very physical sense of growing deeper roots with a sense of underlying uncertainty seems to have its roots in the unquestioned framing of continuing to live in liminal space. From the Greek limnos, meaning “threshold,” liminality describes an in-between time when what was, is no longer, and what will be, is not yet, hence the richness of its value as a creative space for the new (innovation). Whereas, what I seem to be needing is a means to step out of the threshold time characterized now by the sensation of being neither here nor there, into the creation of the what will be moments.

I must commit – internally – to one of the many possible futures that I have always been able to perceive with my mind’s eye when standing on the threshold (limnos) between the past and the future. This then lies at the heart of the dissonance I feel between my bodily sense of having arrived at my life’s destination, and a mindset and worldview that have served me extremely well for the past 15 years.To use Damien’s squiggle above, I must now move out of the uncertainty of the Research to Concept phase to embrace the clarity of the development phase as I focus on Design.

Clarity and Focus, then, must form the basis of my worldview and mindset, rather than the Ambiguity and Uncertainty of the past. I’m not a seeker anymore, so much as I am becoming a thinker. The task at hand is not to go off chasing new insights from patterns as yet undiscovered so much as to ponder those I have already brought to light, over and over it seems, and nurture them – deeply – into fruition.

This realization fits in so well not only with where I’m at in my personal life journey but also where I am at with my doctoral work that it can only be the right answer. And, without commitment, it would not be possible to gain clarity much less figure out where exactly to focus. That is, one can already see that the need to shorten focal length of my mind’s eye requires a commitment to the distance from the lenses based on which to calculate the curvature of the new lens.

Clearly I need more structure and more surety from decisions made, not leaving them open ended the way I have been accustomed to doing to evolve as they may. ‘Design thinking‘ as an experimental, iterative approach to life was truly empowering when I first conceived of it; but now, this very fluidity and flexibility of perspective is hampering my own evolutionary process. Commitment to building and iterating a working prototype, rather than maintaining the uncertainty in conceptual directions yet to be explored, seems to be the key to achieving a more holistic sense of equilibrium. This life work may require the acceptance of new constraints and labels within which to reside. This conversation will continue.

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