Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Sinking in the rut

05th January 2015

90c52230-7b16-4ecc-bfe2-b832f9be6435-1020x662I came across the same idea expressed differently in two very different novels over the last few weeks and it made me curious about something.

The first book was Patrick O’Brien’s ‘Master and Commander’. In a short passage observing a group of C19th ship’s captains gathered around a dinner table, the author reflects on how the characters of those in authority become defined by the circumstances of their roles. The experiences of life and the routines of leadership are described as becoming a rut in which some individual characteristics are emphasised and others suppressed because of what is expected of them. I can think of many people I’ve worked with for whom this is true.

The second book was Alice Monroe’s searingly honest ‘The View from Castle Rock’. Recounting the story of her father stuck in a snowdrift and fearing for his life, she reports his apparently dying thoughts as being of the family he would leave behind and the work he hadn’t completed. The author wonders why it would be ‘service’ rather than ‘self’ that occupies her father’s mind. Why would he concentrate on ‘failed’ duty rather than an end to self-fulfilment as being the disappointment of his death? It made me think of my own father’s last years and reflect that this was true of him as well.

I’ve long argued against the reductionist tendencies that some psychometric tools drive you towards. It seems to me the richness of human personality can’t be boiled down to some convenient four letter acronym without also becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy: ‘Oh, no, I did it again but I’m an extrovert, what do you expect?’ But these two passages made me wonder about the effect of time and repetition on leaders and question whether some form of self-defining prophesy may be at work. Whether the act of choosing the behaviour most likely to be successful becomes the prison from which the true self can’t escape. Whether the variety and vitality that made up the leader that people wanted to follow is somehow worn down by experience and repetition to become a routine that others work around. There’s something a little bit similar in coaching young sportspeople. You know you have something special in front of you when they ignore the pattern they’ve been taught on the training pitch in favour of an instinct for what will succeed in this game and in this moment. You do, indeed, have to practice for hours to be truly spontaneous.

This may be nonsense, of course. But it made me look again at the list of ‘to do’s’ I’ve not done in favour of things that seemed more urgent at the time. And it made me wonder whether justifying not doing those things in favour of other tasks more pressing or more likely to succeed is just another way of sinking slowly in the rut. And whether there’s just value in being different sometimes.