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March 17, 2014

Asymmetry

Asymmetry is a word I use to describe relationships which have become lopsided, unbalanced or even, unfair. I’m a firm believer that balance and symmetry are not just good design principles, they are also essential components in healthy relationships, especially working relationships, including partnerships, collaborations and other formal associations. The Nature Of Asymmetry A while […]

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Asymmetry is a word I use to describe relationships which have become lopsided, unbalanced or even, unfair. I’m a firm believer that balance and symmetry are not just good design principles, they are also essential components in healthy relationships, especially working relationships, including partnerships, collaborations and other formal associations.

The Nature Of Asymmetry

A while ago I wrote an article, 7 Kinds Of People You Need In Your Creative Universe, trying to outline the kinds of relationships I believe we need to sustain our work. But, even if you have the right relationships in place, things can go wrong and you can might up feeling like you are not well supported.

Asymmetries occur when more is expected of us than is given in return, when we play by certain rules, assuming they will pay off in a certain way, but the benefits are withheld from us, when we offer hospitality that is not reciprocated in return, when we promote the work of others and they refuse to do the same for us and when we forgive, encourage and accept and are do not experience the same in due course.

Not All Asymmetries Are Bad Or Permanent

Some relationships, by definition, are asymmetrical. Master and apprentice, teacher and student, doctor and patient, lawyer and client all have a degree of asymmetry built into them. But, they also have rules which govern the correct way each side should behave and which try to guard against the abuse, or exploitation of either side of the relationship.

Besides, many of these asymmetries should, over time, disappear into equality. As a student learns, the gulf between them and their teacher narrows. A child grows into the same adulthood their parents inhabit. The apprentice may one day supersede the master.

And we should remember, many relationships, maybe most, are periodically asymmetrical. “In sickness and in health” appears in many marriage vows (perhaps fewer now than it once did) and speaks to how in most long term relationships, especially marriages, 50/50 is not always possible because, from time to time, through illness or some other impediment, one partner simply can’t fulfil their responsibilities and needs to lean more heavily on the other.

After all, buried deep within our definitions of marriage, love, friendship, heck even our sense of what it means to have a fair society, is the idea that sometimes people can’t carry their own load, sometimes they need our help, sometimes the right thing to do to show is some grace, make a sacrifice and contribute more than we get back, at least, more than we may get back in the short term, maybe more than we will ever get back.

The Balanced Playing Field

The asymmetries I’m concerned with are different to these. They have, at their core, a measure of exploitation about them, a feeling someone is getting more (and by implication someone is getting less) than they deserve an intentional resistance to what otherwise might be a natural equality between people. Asymmetries can sting because they make us feel like we working hard just to cover another person’s greed, laziness or sense of entitlement.

But, more than feeling hurt or unhappy, an asymmetry’s real harm is the way it can mess with our creative and emotional focus. Every time I talk with someone who is really struggling with an asymmetric relationship, especially a working relationship in the creative field, I’m stunned how easily the asymmetry becomes an obsession!

Think about the effort that goes into trying to impress a boss who is not willing to give you the support they give other employees. Or the time in you invest trying to win over a publisher or other gatekeeper who refuse to open that door of opportunity you. Or the struggles you have to win respect for work that simply isn’t forthcoming.

Yes, you have to earn respect, support, or opportunity. You should have to work for it. But, sometimes, no matter how hard you work, you won’t find the the respect, support, or opportunities waiting for you. Yet, so often, we keep fighting and fighting, with our circumstances, with ourselves, maybe even with the people around us.

That’s when you have to name the asymmetry for what it is. That’s when it’s time to walk.

Social Media Asymmetries

Sometimes I wonder if social media, with its like, share, click, click, click mentality, encourages a form of asymmetry as well. Certainly many clamour to have their latest gig/album/book/event promoted online, yet seem totally unwilling to do the same for those who helped them. It’s alarming and disappointing to see those who were into the social web’s share/connect/contribute dynamic get sucked into a one-way, me-first-me-only approach to being online.

Don’t Burn Your Bridges – Dismantle Them

Discovering asymmetry, especially in relationships we thought were going to be more equal or supportive can be a disappointing, perhaps even maddening experience. In our frustration there is always temptation to burn bridges, to vent our anger and publicly unravel the relationship.

But, the world is a small place, news travels fast and much as we might think it’s right to rant about our plight to the world, we also should stop and think what burning bridges looks like to those around us. It can put our colleagues, our partners, our friends in a difficult situation, forcing their hand, making them take sides and perhaps, building resentment.

Still, some bridges need to be dismantled. Sometimes quietly. Sometimes publicly. But always, in a way consistent with our values, with how we believe people should be treated.

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