Next time you’re out and about, put away your phone and glance around. Is anyone not looking at a device? Smart technology enables a proliferation of applications and we are instantly informed, entertained, and constantly in touch. How did we ever function without?
The capability of our phone expands as we add more apps and, as it gets smarter, by extension, we do too! Yet with a few important and inescapable limitations, that same phone and rich lifeline becomes a dead weight in your pocket when the battery is flat, or the storage is full.
The battery life of our phone, how long we can go without plugging into a power source, depends on our usage. When we run low on storage, that leads to a different issue. Apps either won’t run, or those that can, do so very slowly.
In either case, all that capability, all those “smarts”, is lost to us when capacity runs low.
The realities of modern technology offer a powerful analogy for our experience of life now. I predict that many readers of this Essay have an excess of capability and are depleted in capacity. Smart, busy people with plenty of capable talent and knowledge, access to information and external resources, often live with an internal battery that is undercharged or even hovering near empty. In this state, there is very little clear “headspace”. We feel close to overload or we quickly become overwhelmed.
That level of available charge, that conduit, is what constitutes our capacity.
Capacity is our inner resource, our vitality, our physical, mental, and emotional energies, our adaptability and resilience. Capacity is our state of consciousness, our access to intuition and creative inspiration.
Capacity underpins capability, like a foundation. The deeper and stronger these foundations,
the more available and effective are our capabilities.
The ratio of high capability to low capacity has been normalised in daily life and is very common. It is frequently perceived as a virtue to be “driven”, to push through on will and mental grit even when we are low on energy. Certainly in our current reality, many kinds of everyday demands are up, ever increasing, and changing all the time. And ironically, I observe, the higher the capability to address these demands, the more we are able to cope with or mask depleted capacities — at least for a period of time …
What then of capacity in this context? What does this mean for us? And why is rethinking capacity so relevant and important now? We begin by raising our awareness that there is a difference between capability and capacity for us, and of the inter-relationship between the two.
There’s long been great emphasis on building capability: knowledge acquired, skills learned, life experience gathered. We value our capabilities; we measure and reward them. We present them on our resume, on LinkedIn, and often they come to define us, not only in our professional lives but also in our leisure pursuits and at home. We build our identities around what we’re good at and we strive to be known for these things.
In our workplaces and our centres of learning, we prioritise the acquisition of greater capability. We are established in putting our resources — time, money, and attention — into developing and expanding universally recognised skills and talents.
Capacity, on the other hand, has been increasingly drained or taken for granted. In times gone by we talked of “recharging our batteries” as something we did as if by instinct, a natural balancing process to our routine exertions. We enjoyed a hobby, a day of rest each week, an annual vacation. The demands on our capacity, our reserves, were also much less and so the balance between capability and capacity, in the main, worked unnoticed.
Today, where life’s demands are on the rise and ever-changing, the benefits of increasing capability are only going to be incremental: we might do more, yet we won’t be more. The real prize is in increasing our capacity.
How best to do this? The past few years have seen an upsurge in interest in some of the activities that can cultivate greater capacity, for example, courses in mindfulness and yoga, or disconnecting from our devices for a while, so as to increase physical and mental wellbeing.
Yet what is suggested here goes beyond the baseline of recharging to be well and keep going as before, business as usual. Real benefits are derived when we learn how to restore our capacities and then go beyond; to develop increased capacity.
We begin with a change in mindset so that we can consciously change our actions. A change in mindset is essential if we are to be open to doing different things. Rarely does expanding our capacities come from doing the same things in a more sophisticated way. Almost always, we need to do different things. This requires us to shift our priorities, rework our calendars, and change our patterns of behaviour.
In this shift, we begin to recognize that the development of greater capacity in individuals, and in the collective, is the key to opening up new realms of potential—for what can be experienced and achieved in our workplaces and our communities.
We build our capacities from the inside out, with daily practices that cultivate new foundations within. These include meditation, periods for reflection, reading of texts that inspire and enlighten, and rest. A valuable quietude strengthens with repeated practice. We become more adaptable. Time becomes more elastic and what can begin, as a scheduling challenge, becomes a new, self-supporting rhythm.
Then the prize, the richest rewards come — a new experience of life where increased capacity actually brings greater capability. One leverages off the other, not by increasing capability itself, but by increasing our access to, and the greater application of, the capabilities we already have.
For millennia, cultures have recognised the value in daily practices that cultivate our inner capacity. Now is a new time to consider the ways in which we can bring such practices forward into modern life, to live again from inside out rather than the outside in. In this way we rediscover a constantly replenishing source that supports us, as we move into a richer and more resilient experience of all that we can be and do.