An Interview with Steve Unwin author of Letting Go.
Hello Steve. ‘Letting go’ is a book about change. In the style of books such as Animal Farm, it uses animals as a metaphor for human behaviour. However it feels a very personal book, very much written about people and with some profound ideas. I know your background was originally in engineering. That doesn’t seem the natural start point for such a book. Perhaps if you start by telling us a little about yourself.
Steve: Yes the book is the product of a journey, and I guess it begins with me as an engineer. I qualified as a chartered engineer with a degree in electronics and spent my early career writing software in the aerospace business.
Interviewer: It sounds a long way from ‘Letting go’.
Steve: Perhaps, but change is an important part of all of our lives. I think engineers like to understand how things work. That’s certainly how I got into engineering, taking things apart as a child and hoping to put them back together. So we like to question and understand. After ten years of engineering I just started to get more interested in how the business itself worked, how the bits fitted together and how people work.
Interviewer: So you moved away from engineering?
Steve: It might look like that, but I’d like to think I just broadened my perspective. If you want things to work, then you have to look at everything that contributes to that. Sometimes these contributors are a long way from the thing you are focused on. Thinking about it, I guess engineers think about connections, in a piece of electronics for example, and I just began to broaden out the scope of connections.
Interviewer: Connections are a theme of your work. Is this where it started?
Steve: Perhaps it was the first time I began to appreciate how important connections are. Now when I look back, the connections were still quite localised at first, but yes connections began to be very important. I started working with tools like the Excellence Model, which help you look at the connections in an organisation. We were good at using the tools, gaining awards and definitely improving things.
Interviewer: I sense a ‘but’ in your voice.
Steve: Is it that obvious? We were very successful, but I began to see just how successful we could be, if only we really understood change. It was strange, I was giving presentations in the UK and abroad on how good we were, and at the same time thinking that we were nothing compared to what we should be. There were packed audiences writing down everything I said, but it didn’t feel right.
Interviewer: So you felt a tension?
Steve: Yes. I wasn’t quite sure what to do. I knew I’d glimpsed something more, but it didn’t really have a shape at that time. I knew it wasn’t a case of doing what we were doing better or doing more of it. I didn’t know at the time, but it called for a different way of thinking about change. So I decided to leave the aerospace business, not knowing quite what I would do, but knowing that I had to explore this question of a new way of thinking.
Interviewer: Now this sounds more like ‘Letting go’.
Steve: Again it’s a step on the road. One of the things I’ve come to realise is that although the story is about three animals, there’s a part of me in each of them, and the journey of donkey reflects parts of my journey, but that realisation was still a long way in the future. I left paid employment and set off on the next step of my journey, on my own. With my family of course, but on our own.
That must have been quite a challenge.
Steve: I try not to think about it, but I guess it was. I’d had a good job with a pension, healthcare, all those things. Three children, the youngest only one year old. If I chose to think about it I’d frighten myself, but it just felt I had to do it. Perhaps a little like donkey in the story, but it didn’t feel at all clear at the time. In fact it still doesn’t. I knew I couldn’t continue in the same direction, but didn’t see clearly at all the new direction.
Interviewer: So was this when you began to write the book?’
Steve: Not at all. That was still many steps away. At the beginning I was still thinking about organisations and began to explore how tools were widely misunderstood and misused. I started to write a large book on how to use the tools correctly. But as I did, I kept finding connections. Each connection would lead me in a new direction. The challenge kept getting more and more interesting, and bigger and bigger as I found myself exploring the connections.
Interviewer: What kind of connections?
Steve: Well they were leading everywhere. Some were still within engineering and science, but looking at it in new ways. This is where I found the work of Richard Feynman for example. Other connections led into the arts, the work of Picasso, into music, politics, humanities. The connections seemed to lead everywhere.
Interviewer: I can see how it grew.
Steve: It was fascinating. The challenge was becoming unmanageable, but at the same time it felt absolutely correct. If you are trying to understand something, really understand it, then it has to connect to everything else. For something to be real, it must be part of the world, connected to it. So everything real is connected to everything else.
Interviewer: I guess so, but as you say, your book becomes a book of everything.
Steve: That was the problem. There’s a fantastic quotation by Carl Sagan. ‘If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, then first you must make the universe.’ It perfectly captures this challenge.
Interviewer: So what happened with the book?
Steve: I was having real problems with the writing. I’d produced mountains of material, but couldn’t seem to finish anything. Then I had a revelation. It took three years, but when it came it was truly a revelation. It seems obvious now, but I realised that I was trying to write a ‘How to’ book, and of course was trying to explain the whole universe, or as much as I could. It was totally impossible no matter how many rewrites I tried. But this wasn’t the real problem. The real problem was that the reader wanted a ‘How to’ book. Indeed this desire is an affliction of our culture, western culture particularly. We crave being told what to do, to have answers, and in a changing world this is impossible.
Interviewer: Impossible? Help me a little.
Steve: Well imagine a static world where nothing changes. Writing a book of everything in the universe would be a massive job, but perfectly possible, given that you’ve enough time. Billions of years for example. You could imagine starting at one corner of the universe and working your way across to the end. It would take forever, but it’s possible. The thing that makes it impossible, is that everything keeps changing. You’ve no sooner written about something, than it changes and is no longer true. That’s what makes the task impossible. And of course its not just impossible to write about the universe, it becomes impossible to write a ‘How to’ book about anything in a changing world.
Interviewer: I suppose so.
Steve: What you need isn’t a book that describes what is, rather a book that helps you become a learner, helps you understand how things change and how change itself can change. A book that instead of helping you do change, helps you become change.
Once I realised this, then the whole focus of my work switched. It was no longer about organisations with structures and environments to control or manage. The real focus was on the people themselves.
The second part of the revelation came from the connections. As I pieced together my new understanding, I found through the connections that what seemed new to me, was echoed in all sorts of other places, from native cultures, to progressive thinkers in science, great artists and leaders. In fact everywhere I looked I saw the same echoes. What I realised was that I wasn’t discovering something new, rather I was revealing something that I’d known all along. More importantly something that we all already know. The problem is that for many of us, this knowledge lies so deeply buried that we might live our whole lives without ever acknowledging it.
Interviewer: It sounds like you were now ready to write ‘Letting go.’
Steve: Ready, but not yet able. I knew the challenge was to help people release abilities and knowledge they already have, but I didn’t yet know how to start doing this. You see I faced a paradox. I now know this to be a good sign, but didn’t then. I knew the secret was not in what we do, but in who we are being. If you like it’s a shift from answers to questions. But our world craves answers, and we are trained to demand them. Readers want to be told what to do, so how do you tell them not to want this?
Of course you have to first realise that you can’t tell the reader anything, because if you do, you provide an answer, exactly what you want to avoid doing.
Interviewer: I see the challenge. And this is where the idea of using stories came from?
Steve: In hindsight it looks so clear, but again it took months if not years for me to fully understand. We know that stories are a great way of sharing ideas. There are stories we are told as children which don’t just stick in our minds, but shape the way we think. In the introduction to ‘Letting go’ I’ve written about how the story emerged so I won’t repeat that here, but it was a real example of letting go. Letting go of the way I wrote and thought as an engineer and allowing the story to
Interviewer: So it’s another autobiographical element.
Steve: I guess so. I’m a great believer in the abilities of people. ‘Letting go’ is not the kind of book I’d have written ten or even three years ago. Then I’d have tried to show my understanding, rather than help reveal the reader’s understanding. Now I understand how we all have the talent and the knowledge of how to achieve great things. Sadly most of us, spend most of our lives denying this.
And ‘Letting go’ sets out to release this talent?
Steve: One book isn’t going to change the world, but it might start to change one person, and once that happens the world is changed because you can never know where it will lead.
Interviewer: In the introduction to Letting go, you invite the reader to write on the book.
Steve: Oh yes, of course I’m glad you mentioned that. I want the reader to make the book their own. I hope the story captures and shares some ideas, but if they stay my thoughts and ideas I will have failed. The purpose of the book is to release the reader’s ideas to make their own connections. When that happens, that’s when new things are created.
I’ve tried to hint at connections by including quotations from a wide range of people from all sorts of backgrounds, but it’s the connection the reader makes that will change things for them, and that’s what the book is all about.
Interviewer: Are there more books on the way?
Steve: Yes. I had another revelation when I was trying to write a book of everything. I was listening to a song, and realised that songs don’t try to say everything. A song might only be about seeing someone across a crowded room. It’s a very small thing to talk about, but it connects in our minds with lots of other thoughts and emotions. So the simple song is a trigger to lots of other connections. And it does this far better than a song that tries to say everything. So ‘Letting go’, is only one piece. I am near to completing a second book which looks a little more into how the world is shaped by how we see, and I have lots of other projects that I’ve sketched out or started. I guess it will depend on whether people want to read more.
Interviewer: I’m sure they will.
Steve: I like to think of ‘Letting go’ as a piece of coloured glass, a piece of mosaic, not a piece of a jigsaw puzzle. Every reader can pick up the piece and incorporate it into their own picture in different ways. Each picture might be quite unique, with pieces taken from lots of other experiences. If I can offer some pieces of mosaic that people find useful, then I will be very happy.
Interviewer: I like the idea of a mosaic.
Steve: Yes I thought of using a mosaic for the design of the cover, but chose the butterfly as a symbol of change.
Interviewer: I noticed that on the cover you have the butterfly’s wing breaking apart.
Steve: That’s right. We think of the butterfly coming from the caterpillar and representing change. But of course the butterfly doesn’t change, so the picture hints at the need for further change.
Interviewer: Very nice. Well Steve its been a pleasure to speak with you. I wish you every success with what is an exciting project, and I hope we can talk again when the next book in the series is ready.
Steve: It’s been a pleasure for me. Thank you.