Discovering Tomfoolery

I have always called Tomfoolery our unicorn. It’s the ever-elusive goal of rest within an oppressive system, the balance between making money and finding meaning — that mysterious tension amongst the variables of profit, overheads, purpose and human rhythms that are disciplined but still sustainable.

To that end, Tomfoolery might be is the hardest thing I have ever done. Part of me feels so pissed off that I ever even tried! Who would think up the ridiculous idea of redefining work from inside the system? That got me thinking: could a business achieve freedom through excellence? More importantly, how do you do that? What areas would the business need to focus on to create a culture of excellence without compromising on wholeness in a world of standard commercial demands? How would you create a working structure that could tolerate the counter-pull of those two opposite demands? The further in we go, the more it feels like utter foolishness.

We’re entering our fifth year and we have failed more times than I can remember. Sometimes we have gripped our goal by the tail only to have it pulled away moments later. The process has been torturously frustrating; it’s been heartbreaking, wild — yet so, so wonderful. Onwards the prize ever calls us home and so, like crazy men and women, we focus forward to find our goal: rest, purpose and profit in the modern working world.

In 2018 we renew our search for Tomfoolery, but now with Einstein’s age-old adage ringing like church bells in our ears: if we want a different outcome, we’d better change the flipping variables. To achieve that, we’ve sought deeply to understand the mysterious paradox we are dealing with so we can hold the two sides of the tension together more skillfully. To begin planning a better future we need to take a step back and survey the present and all the moving parts of our working world from a bird’s-eye view. Here is a breakdown of those parts as I understand them today:

On the one hand we have profit (the client-facing side of our world). Now this is a beast of its own; it’s unruly, wild and ravenous. Most businesses focus solely on this. On a good day profit eats up time, talents and treasure. On a bad day — which are numerous in our economic climate — it’s just downright gnarly. One of the things that makes profit such a ravenous beast is overheads. To date I haven’t found a way — although I have tried — to make meaningful profit in an hours/output-based business without hiring people.

To solve the profit riddle you need to hire people; to pay people you have to take on work; to have big clients who solve the riddle of consistent profitability, you need to have a host of talented people working for you. This creates a hamster wheel, a self-perpetuating catch-22. There is a variable within overheads that you can tweak however, which is capacity. Be warned, though, that if on the one side of the scale you have capacity, on the other you have cost. Decrease cost and you decrease capacity; decrease capacity and you in turn decrease your ability to service clients consistently.

The same goes for increasing cost and capacity. But you need profit because profit gives you power. I say this unashamedly; it would be ignorant to believe otherwise. Money does make the world go around. Take a glance over your shoulder at any friend or philanthropist in the NGO space who is waiting for the next international donor handout or government grant, and you’ll see that profit gives us power to make decisions about how we’ll shape our future. So in one way or another we need to learn to tame this beast.

Still with me?

Ok, on the other hand of our mysterious tension is understanding our internal worlds and how they speak to our need to create income, wealth and purpose (i.e. the maintenance of Tomfoolery’s figurative and actual four walls, and of its people). This gets slightly complicated, but from what I see in this world there are three tensions at play, constantly pulling at one another.

Firstly, there’s the tension of our basic needs: food, shelter, education etc. To meet these, we trade our time for money. The simplicity of this exchange makes it forgettable. Money for time. Food and housing for money. Easy-Peezy. No further explanation needed.

The second set of needs will sound counterintuitive: we all require fun in our work, in realistic doses. The keyword is realistic. One of our biggest threats to not achieving Tomfoolery is unrealistic expectations. If we expect to do only work that thrills us all the time (a mistake we have made), we set ourselves up for monumental disappointment. Yes, with skill and experience we can create a “brand” for ourselves that commands a premium. But a lot of the time, most of us just need enough of an income to meet our basic needs; this income is determined by our skill set. Therefore in reality we should be fairly loose as to how we do that, as long as there is meaningful consent, clarity and respect in the process.

Tomfoolery is sustainable to the extent that we, the people inside it, can navigate the paradox of being a client-facing, for-profit business that still meets and nurtures people’s need to have fun, dream and create. The right to gratification is not absolute.That probably pisses a lot of people off; maybe you, too, have been fed the line that you can do whatever you want and the world is your oyster (blah blah blah). This is obviously true by exception, but as a rule most inaccurate depictions of work leave out the cost and all the stuff people didn't enjoying doing to get to the place where they enjoy most of what they do.

If you go into a job saying, “I am going to earn money”, your expectation is clear and therefore you are happy to do what you need to achieve your end goal — i.e., money. But if you go into a job saying, “I want to be deliriously happy — oh, and by the way, I want to be paid all the time”, it’s easy to lose your vision and become unhappy when it’s not working out as you expected. To prove this, take a step back from your work and ask yourself, “Would I do all of this for free?” For most of us the answer is no. And that’s ok because we are meeting our basic needs. But obviously we need to be aspiring to meeting more of the second set of needs and enjoying realistic doses of fun with our work.

Finally, and again this is going to sound contradictory, we all need to satisfy our craving for meaning or purpose. As unrealistic as it is to expect to be always happy, it is equally unrealistic for any of us to expect we can just switch off this internal human hunger for purpose while we stop off at the office between eight and five. Our human needs are greater than simply filling our stomachs or keeping sheltered. Even if it is only in the smallest way, we crave a meaning that’s bigger than just surviving. To add further complexity (as if the above wasn’t complex enough), combine an interesting mix of people who value the above in mixed ratios (some value income higher than impact and purpose; some, fun more than money; others, balance more than excellence, and on the permutations go) and you can see how things can easily unravel.

At Tomfoolery we are trying to find a structure that creates a place for people to meet their own needs and make profit in a way that is disciplined and sustainable. Again, paradoxes abound — you need discipline because it honours our abilities and pushes us to grow and become better. Without it, we are flabby and fruitless. But you also need sustainability because it honours our limitations and gives us a framework through which to define what is enough. When we know what enough is, we can say no. Without it we burn out and have no legacy.

So there you have it. Three objectives; three white china plates spinning on spikes. We have defined them as Tomfoolery, work and purpose. Three unique worlds that are connected and co-existing. Three worlds which need boundaries and managers, goals and measurables. These worlds need to be maintained in daily, if not hourly, balance by a finesse of good decision-making that treats each situation and circumstance as unique.

In 2018, our tactics for keeping these worlds spinning happily together are clear and defined so as to strengthen our heart and limbs to once more take up the chase. These tactics’ attributes are:


They are not the full answer, I know. In some ways I think my naivety is profound in this arena, but I am confident these qualities are part of the answer and will take us one step closer to where we can not only chase but ride work in a rhythm of rest and grace.