Peter Volkofsky | Author & Life Coach

Peter Volkofsky is an author, spoken word poet and life coach. In 2017, Peter published his thriller Mia's Magic Wand. In 2015 he published Beautiful Quest as an Ark House imprint. Peter has been married to his wife Penelope for thirty-three years and together they have reared seven children.

Catalytic (cat•a•lyt•ic)

(adj.) a process that precipitates an event

The Vision

Individuals and teams reaching their goals.

PETE'S BLOG

4 Comments7 Minutes

Motivational Ecosystems

The Byrock Flash

Two words I’ve found helpful in the coaching process are ‘enable’ and ‘galvanize’. To ‘enable’ means to make something possible and to ‘galvanize’ means to ‘shock or excite someone into action’. Interestingly, the word galvanize comes from an old French word meaning to ‘stimulate via electricity’. It’s to do with that mysterious ambience (or presence), which a particular ‘something’ brings to your day, causing you to be energized and to take effective action.

This ‘something’ can be a number of things: it might be your partner, your family, your boss or your team for example. It might also be a symbol, ritual or even your worldview. And yes, of course, it might be your coach.

Unfortunately, our society is obsessed with this aspect of coaching and, as a result, tends to neglect the enabling part. ‘Live your passion’ it says. But what if the ideas in your head, not the passions in your heart, are what will make you or break you? And what if one of those ideas is that we live in a universe that uncannily draws our attention to what is significant about us? Trying hard to do what everyone else is doing could be a great distraction. And complaining that 'they wouldn't let you get your Harvard degree and your nice house' and that 'life hurts and is unfair', starts to look positively embarrassing.

What if a monster called ‘education’ has almost completely killed off the joy of learning in you? What if your parents taught you it was all about putting your head down and working harder? You can’t see where your going when your head is down all the time.

What if you’re the most talented young spin bowler in town but you can’t afford the ticket to a coaching clinic? A team that complains they can’t do without you for that weekend is about as useful as a hole in the head. And so also is a life coach who sits in an office somewhere and wants this young cricketer to pay him $100 (which he can’t afford) to tell him that.

Imagine this. You’re a young boy and your mother has spent hard earned cash on getting you piano lessons in a music conservatorium in Ireland. But piano is not you. One day your mother says, ‘Enough is enough’ and goes down there to terminate your lessons. On the way out of your ‘last ever piano lesson’, and possibly your ‘last ever music lesson’, you hear an old man playing drums.

‘What’s going on in there?’ you say to your mother.
‘Let’s have a look,’ she says.
Your name is Laurence Mullen. Forty-five years have passed since that day at the conservatorium. You are, and have been for a long time, the drummer (Larry Mullen) in the band U2.

A lot happened in that moment at the door. Larry’s mother could have simply kept walking. But like a good coach, she was observant, she noticed something that had caught her son’s attention. And like a good coach she acted as a catalyst. There was no way she was planning to be his personal energy force. She already appreciated ‘enabling’, which is why she had put him in an environment where something like that could happen.

A coach can play a crucial role in assisting individuals or teams to participate in such ‘enabling events’ and thus help them to identify the sweet spots and dead spots in their motivational ecosystem. But we don’t need a coach for this; all we need is a thoughtful (and hopefully prayerful) family, community or tribe of some kind, which knows that ordinary old enabling is one of the secret weapons of life.

Why put prayer in the mix? It’s in there because when it comes to creativity and motivation, there’s strong evidence that prayer journeys can play a powerful role in our experience of learning. Anyone who has ever had to teach a class or train a team knows that if an individual has an unresolved spiritual crisis in their life it’s that much harder for them to learn. It affects everything, all the time.

Such crises could be anything from a bent idea of God to a bitter feud with a family member to something as broad as a ‘crisis of meaning’. Sometimes it’s not even a crisis; it’s simply a nagging question. What if it’s true, for example, that there’s a Higher Power out there who loves you deeply and is hoping to come to a place where you will be happy to be ‘found’ by it? Add to that the supposedly preposterous idea of asking that Higher Power for help with your journey into the universe of creativity.

Enabling is not just about providing opportunities by the way; sometimes it’s about restraint. Too much enabling can ironically disable, putting the brain and the mind to sleep. NRL coaches complain that their players are becoming over-enabled and lacking in the backbone and creativity that thrives when a player faces the pain of deprivation, even repression and criticism, which is of course where galvanizing and enabling overlap.

2 Comments9 Minutes

What if—Especially In Situations Like Ours—The ‘Darkness’ Is Actually The Only Way Ahead?

Captivating Mystery

A link on the net announced, ‘Atheist Stephen Fry delivers incredible answer when asked what he would say if he met God!’ The report goes on to say that Fry delivered a ‘stunning rebuke’. I know grandmothers who would be laughing at this. Steven Fry’s outrage is nothing new and is directed at a God who doesn’t exist—not even for Christians. It’s actually directed at something else.

I can't believe that the interviewer would see Fry's answer as a shock or a 'stunning rebuke'. Whatever worldview they held, anyone who has lived for a while on this planet will have had days or even years of their life where they said things like that to (or about) whatever Higher Power they understood to be responsible for the pain. As the psalmist says ...

‘I’m a black hole in oblivion.
You’ve dropped me into a bottomless pit,
Sunk me in a pitch-black abyss.
I’m battered senseless by your rage,
Relentlessly pounded by your waves of anger.
You turned my friends against me,
Made me horrible to them.
I’m caught in a maze and can’t find my way out,
Blinded by tears of pain and frustration.’1

Fry's answer would actually make a good start to one of those 'psalms of disorientation' as Walter Brueggemann calls them. This 'shaking of the fist at God' has its place in all spiritual journeys but to stay there is dangerous. Josef Stalin, for example, died shaking his fist at God. Only a wealthy and comfortable society like ours, which has made lifestyle preference it's golden cow, would have the nerve to make suffering and pain the single defining issue when it comes to the way it thinks about itself and everyone else. National health is defined primarily in terms of money, a sense of wellbeing, education and economy—and we pat ourselves on the back if it’s going well. ‘The darkness, that “deep dread” crap ain’t gonna get us,’ we might as well be singing.

But what if—especially in situations like ours—the ‘darkness’ is actually the only way ahead? What if Steven Fry’s definition of God has ironically been handed to him warped and broken by the church? A churched world that’s living in denial, that likes to imagine God to be a nice little guy who’s doing his best to make everything nice for us, as in the Secular Enlightenment crowd. But what if things are much more complicated than that?

Brueggemann points out that Christendom is implicated in this denial when he says, ‘It is my judgement that this action of the church is less a defiance guided by faith and founded on the good news, and much more a frightened, numb denial and deception that does not want to experience the disorientation of life. The reason for such relentless affirmation of orientation seems to come not from faith, but from the wishful optimism of our culture. Such a denial and cover-up, which I take it to be, is an odd inclination for passionate bible users, given the large number of psalms that are psalms of lament, protest and complaint about the incoherence that is experienced in the world. At least it is clear that a church that goes on singing “happy songs” in the face of raw reality is doing something very different from what the bible itself does.’2

I would suggest that Fry’s rage is actually more to do with our human frustration and terror at what has been called the ‘deep darkness’. Also known as the ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans’: a dreadful, beautiful and captivating mystery you would spend your life running away from and also chasing after. It’s where one of the earliest words used in primitive language (‘taboo’) comes from.

Brueggemann says that instead of just getting angry at this mysterious darkness, we need to recognise that the it holds a clue to the puzzle. He suggests that the problem with us is that it’s not just that we are afraid of evil, we are afraid of all that is mysterious, awe-inspiring or numinous. And that our society (and even at times our so-called ‘Christianity’) has a vested interest in the elimination of wonder and “abiding astonishment,” because ‘In our modern experience but probably also in every affluent culture it is believed that enough power and knowledge can tame the terror and eliminate the darkness ... The remarkable thing about Israel is that it did not banish or deny the darkness from its religious enterprise. It embraces the darkness as the very stuff of new life. Indeed, Israel seems to know that new life is rooted nowhere else.’3

When you look at who we are: the first ever society in history to completely excise a Higher Power from our way of life and our meaning and purpose, it’s no wonder we are filling up with angry people who—suspecting that their secular dream is over—are venting their spleen (without seeing any irony) at God. ‘How dare God allow this mess!’ we say. But the fact is, we made our bed, now we must lie in it until we are ready to listen: not to the church, not to that bloody-minded preacher who ruined our family, but to that dreadful and captivating mystery.

Walter Brueggemann speaks to this when he says, ‘It is worth considering a “sociology of wonder,” and asking who is open to abiding astonishment,” and who might be compelled to overcome, banish, or deny such astonishment? I submit that “abiding astonishment,” the celebration of enduring miracle, tends not to occur among those who manage writing, who control the state, who create and transmit proper “facts,” who monopolise control, and who explain by cause and effect. The experience and articulation of wonder tends to occur in the midst of oral expression, in simpler social units, among those who yearn for and receive miracle, who live by gift since they have little else by which to live, and who are sustained only by slippage (mystery) and gaps in the dominant system of power. The elimination of wonder from historical reconstruction is (therefore) a drastic decision to read historical memory in the presence and service of one sociological interest, at the great expense of a contrasting social interest.’4

1 Psalm 88:8,9 RSV
2 Brueggemann W. Spirituality of the Psalms p.26 Augsburg Fortress 2002
3 Brueggemann W. Spirituality of the Psalms p.29 Augsburg Fortress 2002

4 Brueggemann W. Abiding Astonishment p. 42 1991 John Knox

0 Comments7 Minutes

Loving Deceit

Then there's Ziggy, who always seems to be out of step with the bigger picture, whose cares and reflections revolve around their point of view and who is not in the habit of thinking about the wider lens of the 'us'. For the purposes of this reflection, 'us'= Zaggy, which might be Ziggy's work team, their partner, their family or their friends who have allowed them to be the 'designated victim' of this so-called wretched team, marriage or social club. Hence Ziggy now occupies the real throne whilst appearing to be the overlooked martyr of the universe.

Ziggy's conversation stabs will henceforth always be untouchable 'lest we speak against the one who is always on the side of the angels'. In reality Zaggy is in collective sigh mode because Ziggy is having their day in court again and just can't seem to ever work with the longer untidy processes of grey and of change and transitions where secret sacrifices are being made by Zaggy but never mentioned, not because Zaggy is a martyr but just because they see it as kind of childish to mention this stuff.

But Ziggy won't be told, as far as they are concerned Zaggy is a joke and to make that perfectly clear Ziggy has mastered the art of waiting until Zaggy indicates a level of contentment with things. Contentment is Ziggy's cue to pounce and launch into this great long list of unhappinesses, implying that Zaggy doesn't love them and that Zaggy must be some kind of imbecile to have not noticed all the 'great troubles'

Sometimes of course Ziggy is right and Zaggy is being irresponsible. But we are not talking about that today, we are talking about a Zaggy whose wider life indicates that in fact they are quite switched on, focussed and aware. So of course this Zaggy will have probably noticed everything that Ziggy is talking about but knows these things are not going to be able to be changed anyway, and maybe shouldn't be.

Usually, because Zaggy doesn't want to hurt Ziggy's feelings, they will even play dumb and apologise for not seeing Ziggy's great revelatory list of grievances, fears and martyrdoms. This is a survival tactic learned from the painful experience of sulking and punishing stunts pulled by Ziggy at some time in the past when Zaggy assumed a more honest and transparent relationship, or, it may have been learned from a parent or grandparent.

The scary thing about this tactic is that no human being can endure this kind of double-carrying of loads and 'loving-deceit' for too long and Zaggy may soon begin to lose their confidence, stammer, become accident-prone or forgetful and actually become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy for Ziggy.

It's much more apparent when Zaggy is a child in a family. This is where the darkness shows its hand—perhaps even in suicide or self-harming—because this lose-win strategy is a suicidal form of conflict management, which has concluded that there is no such thing as conflict resolution. It's a kind of constricting alexythymia1 where Zaggy becomes incapable of expressing deep psychological pain.

In their efforts to love Ziggy, they build a concrete wall between their thoughts and their feelings and live inside an illusion of control. Unfortunately they are in the throes of a constricting vision, which will be telling them that the only way ahead is to keep going in this. Finally the pain will become both unbearable and unspeakable.

The logic of this tunnel vision is that speaking out is the only way to be free of the pain but their indulgent love for Ziggy has robbed them of their ability to speak. Therefore, if they can't speak, the pain will only get worse, therefore the 'only way' out is suicide. At this moment we can almost feel the whole of creation sobbing at such a deep, deep wrong.

The 'only way' is a common mantra of the suicidal mind, which Shneidemann says can be countered by assisting the person to make a list of what he calls, 'lousy other options'. Change is going to be hard for Zaggy—who loves Ziggy so much—and it may be too late to do anything but it is worth a try every now and then for Zaggy to simply say, 'I don't agree with you and neither do a lot of others around here.' Having said that, if Zaggy is an individual, they should postpone any discussion of the reasons behind their statement because Ziggy has the advantage of being loved by them and is thus more likely to win a debate.

This will be an awkward moment for Ziggy because they will be thinking, 'Poor Zaggy, either their facts are wrong or they are deluded.' By saying they don't agree with Ziggy, Zaggy has suggested that Ziggy's loud statement was only an opinion. This is awkward for Ziggy who is adamant that they were reciting a list of objective facts, which it may have been—but that's not the point.

Fact or fiction is beside the point here. Something exciting is happening. For the first time in their life Zaggy has learned how to mess with the mind of a bully—how to love a bully actually. Zaggy still hasn't conquered their alexythymia but they have at least found an alternative to self-harming! When Zaggy said, 'I disagree'—Zaggy didn't care about whether the facts were true or not, Zaggy was smoking Ziggy out and got the sub-conversation onto the table. Basically telling Ziggy, 'I can play games too.'

1 Shneidman Edwin S. - The Suicidal Mind - Oxford University Press 1996 p.28 Loving Deceit Blog plv 17.11.14 1

0 Comments9 Minutes

Having To Be The Smartest Person In The Room—Or Not

strategy's elegance

In his book The Gamble (the story of phase-two of the Iraq War counterinsurgency1), Thomas Ricks reminds us of the importance of carefully building a strategically planned launching pad for our soldiers and leaders. Ricks writes about the delicate process of growing an organisational culture of curiosity and learning. He shows that if leaders are to be approachable and to truly build a team of team-players they need to invite those under them into a decision-making process where robust argumentation and dispute are welcome, even if it does seem to be bordering on rebellion. He also points out the essential stepping stones of good training and an excellent education, especially in human relations and society; anthropology, sociology, history and leadership.

As examples, Ricks points out that General David Petraeus hired Emma Skye (a British peace activist) to be a key adviser with access to confidential briefings. Emma accepted the appointment and was skeptical at first but late in the war she said, 'The US does not deserve to have an army like this.' On another occasion Petraeus had a random conversation about the war with a Palestinian man: they were on their way out of a public toilet in a US city, Petraeus was in civilian clothes and the man had no idea who he was. The general later hired him as his number one interpreter in Iraq.

Ricks points to the necessity for two types of courage. '“Courage takes two forms in war,” observes Hew Strachan, the British military historian and interpreter of Clausewitz. “Courage in the face of personal danger where the effects are felt in the tactical sphere, and courage to take responsibility, a requirement of strategic success.” This second, more elusive form of bravery, (courage in dealing with strategic blindness) asks us to lay our career on the line—bosses will be offended.

The book also makes clear that—having been educated and trained—the soldiers were really only at the same place as everyone else and it's what happens next that matters most, especially when they're being pressured for 'results now' with superiors telling them the same old war stories from Europe and Vietnam and telling them to 'hurry up'. More often than not, this kind of pressure will just get strategically dysfunctional light and sound shows, not patiently thought through and strategically intelligent action.

Ricks makes the following observations. 'The Bush administration's tendency was to paper over differences, substituting loyalty for analysis, so the war continued to stand on a strategic foundation of sand. Nor had the president been well served by his generals, who, with few exceptions didn't seem to pose the necessary questions. “Strategy is about choices,” said one of the exceptions, Maj. Gen. David Fastabend. “Yet,” he lamented, one day in Baghdad two years later, “We don't teach it, we don't recognise it. The army doesn't understand the difference between plans and strategy. When you ask specifically for strategy, you get aspirations.”

Such incompetence can be dangerous. As Eliot Cohen, an academic who would surface repeatedly in the Iraq war as an influential behind-the-scenes figure, commented later in a different context, “Haziness about ends and means, about what to do and how to do it, is a mark of strategic ineptitude; in war it gets people killed.” He quotes Maj. Gen. Fastabend as saying: 'The army doesn't understand the difference between plans and strategy. When you ask specifically for strategy you get aspirations.'

Many times in the book, Ricks shows how some of the senior leaders were inspiring fear instead of trust: one of them did this by always leading mysteriously from behind, always correcting but never making clear what they really wanted, another did this by always having to be the smartest person in the room.

The epidemic of hate, bad morale and casualties had commanders—from the President down— urging loyalty, courage and sacrifice like a cracked record, and even accusing faithful commanders of disloyalty when all that was being done was the citing of factual statistics. The leadership was looking and talking in the wrong places and as a result losing the respect of their soldiers and losing the war. Finally, a small group of men persuaded the President to consider the fact that strategy may be the problem and after years of argument and outrage, the strategy was changed to, 'Protect the local population.'

Remember, in the long run, strategy by definition is the easiest and the best option but in the short term it frequently looks like the hardest or the mad-est. One of the first consequences of the 'protect the locals' strategy was that US casualties rose, as the leaders had anticipated—but the casualty rate of the local population fell and soon large numbers of Arab sheiks were joining the US in the fight against Al-Qaeda.

The problem for leaders (everywhere) is to actually figure out exactly what the problem is and then what the right strategy is, and stick to it. For the senior leaders going into Iraq it was staring them in the face in old military books on counterinsurgency2. If the problem is counterinsurgency then 'protect the local population' the old books said. In the end strategy that's taken everything into consideration is elegant.

 

1 US Army Document on Counterinsurgency 2009 http://fas.org/irp/doddir/army/fmi3-24-2.pdf 'At its heart, a counterinsurgency is an armed struggle for the support of the population. This support can be achieved or lost through information engagement, strong representative government, access to goods and services, fear, or violence.

2 US Army Document on Counterinsurgency 2009 http://fas.org/irp/doddir/army/fmi3-24-2.pdf 'At its heart, a counterinsurgency is an armed struggle for the support of the population. This support can be achieved or lost through information engagement, strong representative government, access to goods and services, fear, or violence. This armed struggle also involves eliminating insurgents who threaten the safety and security of the population. However, military units alone cannot defeat an insurgency. Most of the work involves discovering and solving the population’s underlying issues, that is, the root causes of their dissatisfaction with the current arrangement of political power. Dealing with diverse issues such as land reform, unemployment, oppressive leadership, or ethical tensions places a premium on tactical leaders who can not only close with the enemy, but also negotiate agreements, operate with nonmilitary agencies and other nations, restore basic services, speak the native (a foreign) language, orchestrate political deals, and get "the word" on the street.

0 Comments6 Minutes

Hurt Good

Woiczech (our great uncle in every way)

It's one of those late night chill-out times in our lounge room, a candle burns on the table and the glass of port feels good in the hand and on the throat. #3 son has just gotten home from work and we're talking over the day. He tells me about a dumb job they gave him cause he's new. He explains how he was fully aware that he was being taken advantage of and that they were probably laughing at him but he did it anyway because, as he explained—in their defence—'they were desperate to impress the owners and wanted to make their shop look good, I suppose, an inspection was coming up after all'.

According to one way of thinking he should have quit. 'No one should put up with being treated like that' our world says. If it's unfair, it's bad; if it hurts, it's wrong. Call the 'whoever it is' and they will fix it for you.

But what if this story isn't about that? What if the real world is much more like a mysterious mythology in which heroes are not winners, survivors and celebrities but warriors who are learning to master their pride and see themselves as on a quest in which everything that comes their way has some significance. And rather than asking 'Is it fair?' 'Does it hurt?' we should be asking, 'Is this a temptation or a gift? An opportunity to serve or to grow in grace?'

Thanks to such mythologies entering our imaginations, life becomes much more than a quest for survival, and instead inspires us to expect a thing we might call a 'River of Life' or even a great holy spirit called the Paraclete*: a helper and friend who enables us to become givers of hope and life and grace.

Richard Rohr in his book Falling Upward says that in all the mythologies a deep(and mysterious) wounding is a necessary part of becoming what we are created to be and our refusal to ever allow for anything good in that wounding imperils the possibility of us 'falling down' into the deep and healing magic that was there before time began and which enables us to truly become as Jesus said, 'like gods'.

We are crippled in this journey when we adopt our society's one dimensional posture of being outraged at anything that is unfair or hurts. But that posture is all that a materialist/secular culture has to offer because of its vested interest in 'proving that God is stupid'—witness the string of dummy-spitting obscenities that flow on FB when something hurtful or unfair happens to someone. Imagine the main characters doing that in the Odyssey or the Aeneid or Genesis.

Yes, they hedge, they try to outwit the gods and the monsters and they make excuses but they also face the battle like men, as it tells us in the Odyssey when Odysseus tries to win sympathy from Polyphemos, the Cyclops: 'We are Achaians coming from Troy, beaten off our true course by winds from every direction across the great gulf of the open sea, making for home, by the wrong way, on the wrong courses. So we have come. So it has pleased Zeus to arrange it.'1 Having failed to get sympathy, they plan to fix the problem: ' ... I told the rest of the men to cast lots, to find out which of them must endure with me to take up the great beam and spin it in the Cyclops' eye when sweet sleep had come over him.'2 Rather than sit around and feel sorry for himself, Odysseus got on with the business at hand.

The big spiritual secret is that we don't have to 'maintain the rage' at pain. Yes, let the hurt out, face the monsters, face our sin, make our confessions but then open our hand and our heart and let go: put our sense of 'being shafted' to the sword and quietly allow these inspired myths to go to work in our imagination—for now our friends are Adam and Eve, Abraham, Odysseus and all the others.

If we refuse we will live our entire life with our hand (and our heart) fiercely closed, like Lilith3, and like Lilith, have no idea of the families, oceans, cities and even nations we might be locking up inside that closed hand all because of our demand that things be fair and non-painful.

* John's Gospel Chapter 16

1 Odysseus in the Odyssey 9.259-262

2. Odysseus in the Odyssey 9.331-335
3. MacDonald G. Lilith (a mythopoeic fantasy novel)