Poetry in Motion

A few weeks ago, newly enamoured of poetry, I wrote a short ditty to capture what I think increasingly drives my life. It came out quite easily so I guessed it might be quite close. But then I forgot about it. Sat in traffic in the rain today, the last two lines came back to me unbidden. It has clearly lodged in my subconscious. So here it is:

Pay attention to life with bright eyes and keen ears.
Helped by poets and thinkers, refine hopes; master fears.

Embroider each minute and day of my years
with friendship and love and knowledge and ideas.

And the main credits are: for line 1) Montaigne and Aristotle; line 2) Aristotle, Kay, Csikszentmihalyi, Nietzsche, Homer, Armitage, Aquinas, McCabe, Socrates, Stoics, Sceptics; line 3) Me latterly; and line 4) Aristotle, Aquinas, my Friends in Contemplation, my family, reading, writing, work.

I’m not sure I’ll get a poster on the subway for these lines of rhyme, but they are pretty much where Eudaimonia lies for me I think.

Today

I heard Simon Armitage read his poem ‘Knowing what we know now’ on the Today Programme on Radio 4 on Wednesday. It features an Elf who makes the offer of turning the clock back to a man who is 44 – exactly half-way to the end of his life. It has a twist in its tale which I didn’t welcome but it certainly set me thinking. 

As I’ve written before it’s increasingly likely that I’m at, or close to, what Armitage’s elf calls the ‘tipping point’ – the half way mark. On Saturday morning in an unconnected thought I put it to myself, what am I going to do that will be memorable today? Cue 3 year old. I spent 3 hours doing 3 miles and 3 parks on a scooter with my son. We had great fun on what could otherwise have been a grey day. I love that boy.

Pondering it this evening, I thought to myself; what would be different if I counted life more often in days, not halves or years? Tapping 365 into a calculator, I realised that in the last year or so I’ve passed the milestone of living over 15,000 days. It’s a bit like when all the 9s turn over on another 10,000 on your car milage. That’s a lot of days. And since I reckon I have a reasonable hope of living another 15,000 that’s a lot of great days if I make them so.

And this reminded me of Seneca’s: ‘On the shortness of life‘. At the start he gently criticises Aristotle for bemoaning that nature has given man such a short span of life, for our many and great achievements, when animals have so long for so little. Seneca disagrees:

‘It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste so much of it.’

I listened to a very experienced and senior person describe his career on Friday. He had many thought-provoking things to say. But the one that stuck the most for me was a comparatively obvious one; you’ll spend more time working than doing anything else so make sure you do something you enjoy. He used the word ‘fun’ all the time to describe his work – great, enormous, tremendous… fun. Not a word I use anywhere near enough describe my working life.

And that is the thing I’ve been thinking about this weekend: enjoyment, fun and spontaneity. Thinking I’m half way to death makes me sombre and cerebral. Thinking I’ve got another 40 years, and probably another 20 odd of work, makes me think about my career and mortgage and school fees. Thinking I’ve got another 15,000 days makes me think about today – what’s going to be today’s highlight, what’s going to be today’s memory, what’s going to be today’s fun. 

As Seneca has it, the philosopher makes his life long by recollecting the past, using the present and anticipating the future. The most important of these for me though is remembering to have fun – today. 

Playing to win

I’ve been thinking recently about how to ‘be’ at work. Not everything – or everyone – is easy to get along with. Working life has many pressures and frustrations. I’ve often worked too long or too hard in my working life and sometimes got cross, spiky and brittle because of it. So looking after myself better has been part of learning to survive in bigger jobs. But surviving isn’t good enough. Thriving is what I’m after.

One potential solution to overstretch and indignity is Stoicism. It’s certainly better than ‘passive aggression’, or another past favourite of mine ‘victim behaviour’. Stoicism gives you a handy detachment and a heightened ability to endure and ‘not take things personally’. That’s a good ingredient to have in my mix, but it’s not in itself very attractive – enduring is not leading.

So how about ‘attracting’. On my better days I can definitely attract people with concepts and ideas. On my very best days I can stir a bit of passion too. But mostly I’ve been reticent to put myself at the centre of situations or ‘put my chair in the centre of the room’ as a friend of mine puts it. Partly this is fear of everyone looking at me. Partly this is the fear of friends ‘jeering’. Not much of my attraction to attraction is narcissism, but I do like to be liked.

I was reading bits of the Illiad and Odyssey last night and seeing what Achilles would have done. Achilles is the ultimate action hero. In modern managementspeak he’d be a strong ‘shaper’ and ‘personal performer’. He was passionate and incredibly driven, but he was also selfish, undermining and reckless. He was playing for himself not for the team. But he was a hero and he did make and change history.

As Odysseus said to the ghost of Achilles when he encountered him in Hades:

“There is not a man in the world more blessed than you – there never has been, never will be one. Time was, when you were alive, we honoured you as a god, and now down here I see you lord it over the dead in all your power. So grieve no more at dying, great Achilles.”

But in return Achilles protested:

“No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus! By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man – some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive – than rule down here over all the breathless dead.”

Achilles was a great talent, but he played for himself. He burned brightly, briefly. Then he was spent, and died carrying regret. Had he been a Stoic he would never have risen to the anger and fury which propelled him into history. But would he have been more contented in Hades had he stuck around and achieved more with – and for – others?

I will read more about Odysseus – or Ulysees. On first glance, he has a winning combination of courage, guile, teamwork and sustained leadership under pressure. He played to win for the team and the cause, not just for himself.

I re-read a useful piece of research today, which concluded:

“Leaders would do well to use the energy they have to attract people to the vision and purpose of the organisation, rather than themselves. The challenge is to have the organisation’s purpose ‘in your bones’.”

This crystallises the advice I’ve been following recently to consciously put the organisation’s “cause” at the heart of my choices and narrative. I’ve already found it gives me more courage and conviction to do the right things.

‘Playing to win’ means not being reckless, selfish, impatient, kamikaze, intemperate, self-indulgent, defensive or fearful. It means constantly re-focusing myself and those around me on doing better what everyone who works here – on our best days – believes in.

Why? Because what we do really does change people’s lives. And what I do has and can change the organisation greatly. So unlike Achilles, I should use that power for good not for myself.

Corporate Punishment iv) Too much to say

It is a truism that no-one is more interested in what we have to say than ourselves. On the contrary, it is a common misapprehension that the more you say the more influential you are being. It ain’t necessarily so. As so often in life, less is often more.

As the great Roman stoic Seneca said:

It is a great thing to know the season for speech and the season for silence.

Enough said.

The Fridge Door

I read a top neuroscientist’s suggestion last night that our capacity to understand how the human brain works may ultimately be limited by the capacity of our nervous system. This reminds me of a thought I had when studying philosophy of mind at Oxford: if our brain was simple enough to understand we’d probably be too simple to understand it.

One thing I do believe is that the brain is probabilistic and Bayesian. So I was interested to read what Dorothy Rowe, an Australian psychologist had to say about it in a recent article in the New Scientist:

Over the last 20 years or so, neuroscientists have shown that our brain functions in such a way that we cannot see “reality” directly. All we can ever know are the guesses or interpretations our mind creates about what is going on. To create these guesses, we can only draw on basic human neuroanatomy and on our past experience. Since no two people ever have exactly the same neuroanatomy or experience, no two people ever interpret anything in exactly the same way.

I’m increasingly sure this is right and is part of our everyday experience. But as the world becomes more cosmopolitan, we are more and more likely to encounter people with very similar neuroanatomy, but incredibly different experiences. I’ve read before that humans are very poor judges both of probability and coincidence. When we bump into someone we work with on holiday or a friend we’ve not seen in years in an airport we assume fate, a guiding hand or incredible coincidence.

On holidays this year I bumped into a person from work at a village festival in France, the former Chairman of my organisation on a cliff in Devon and crossed within 6 feet of UK’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, each of us barefoot in shorts on a beach in Cornwall. Incredible. But in fact not. Our brains are tuned for the humdrum of a hamlet, village, smallholding or savanna plain not the incredibly interconnected world of 21st century media, Facebook friends, social networks and ubiquitous travel.

Even if we are from the same physical place, we live on tremendously varied diets of interests, TV and work. The massing moments of the 19th and 20th century: factory gates, church, football, movies and network TV, which gave many people common experiences and outlooks, are no more. What chance then you’ll spontaneously see things the same way as the next man or women at work – almost none.

As Dorothy Rowe writes: This is frightening. It means that each of us lives alone, in our own world of meaning. Moreover, if everything we know is a guess, an approximation, events can, and often will, invalidate our ideas.

I have seen a number of very experienced senior people apply for fewer jobs than there are of them this week. I have spoken at length to several of them. Although trying to hide it, each was frightened, alone and in their own world of meaning. They knew to some degree that future events can and probably will invalidate their ideas of themselves, but each of them was to some extent caught in a solipsistic, self-referencing nightmare of wanting to be in control of their destiny and feeling utterly powerless in the face of their perceptions of the views others held of them – the deciders, their peers, their loved ones, the court of organisational opinion.

As new age writer Don Miguel Ruiz writes: “All the sadness and drama you have lived in your life was rooted in making assumptions and taking things personally. The whole world of control between humans is based on that”. Or as the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus said “it is not things in themselves that trouble us, but our opinions of things”.

So: we cannot see reality directly, we are poor judges of probability and coincidence and we are always guessing at what is happening based on snatched perceptions and an experience set which is always different – and sometimes very different – from those we find ourselves working with. As a result we are perpetually making self-limiting assumptions and taking things personally. Thus we are often alone, fearful and perturbed.

Stoicism is one answer. Endure, expect little and shrug off life’s indignities. Being a hermit is another. But if I seek the fulfilment of a public life of Aristotelian virtue – lit by bright flashes of ‘doing the right thing’ with the courage of Achilles – neither of those is enough.

Given the wrapper of how people ‘interpret’ things is all important, this week I’ve tried several times to remember the advice of a friend I spoke to a couple of weeks ago. He has an autistic, teenage stepson. Tricky. He sometimes tries to correct his behaviour and gets a lively reaction. His wife though has a way which works. Instead of saying “you left the fridge door open” she simply says “the fridge door is open”. Nine times out of ten it gets closed without any drama.

Simply saying how things are or how I see them has worked better for me in a very emotionally charged week than assuming, cajoling, second-guessing or taking things too personally.

Simply saying “the fridge door is open” gets it closed more often than not.