Many moons ago, I worked on the project that conceived, developed and launched the world’s first debit card. The initiative was led by a terrific individual, Bill Hislop, now sadly passed away. I was reminded of his verve and vitality as a leader by the background that appeared on booting up Windows 10 earlier this week.
I remember Bill speaking to a group of new graduate entrants and showing two cartoons. The first showed a climber atop a mountain peak with the caption, “It’s now how far you’ve come…” The second showed a broader perspective of the landscape with the climber standing on what could be considered a mere hillock looking out to a Mordor-like mountain range; the caption read, “… it’s how far there is to go.”
The background picture off Windows was this:
It is a shame the picture is spoiled by the script overlay but it’s good at conveying the same message as Bill did almost 30 years’ ago. That “peak” you’re standing on; what lies beyond over the horizon? Or, is that it, are you satisfied by what you’ve achieved? If so, is that okay or should you be criticised for giving up and lounging on your laurels? Is this all too much a binary, too yes / no, up / down, left / right characteristic of contemporary, westernised life in the first quarter of the 21st century? Remembering my A Level Physics about elasticity, there is a point beyond which a material stretches and won’t return to its original shape; I think this is termed the “yield point”? For individuals, is this a good thing or not?
Do we know enough about ourselves; the Oracle at Delphi implores us to “know thyself”? If we’re ignorant of our “self” how can we appreciate where our yield point lies. What are our natural traits, our motives, our values? How do these psychological factors blend or conflict with each other to produce who we are? What mixture makes a good and decent person, what produces an ogre? Search Google for “psychopaths in the workplace” and you get a lengthy list of results. One quote is, “Narcissism, lack of self-regulation, lack of remorse, and lack of conscience have been identified as traits displayed by bullies. … Bullying is used by corporate psychopaths as a tactic to humiliate subordinates.” This sense of indispensability was punctured by something else Bill displayed on his office wall; this short poem by Saxon White Kessinger (the title of and closing line of which I have adjusted slightly).
The Indispensable (Wo)Man
Sometime when you’re feeling important;
Sometime when your ego’s in bloom;
Sometime when you take it for granted,
You’re the best qualified in the room:
Sometime when you feel that your going,
Would leave an unfillable hole,
Just follow these simple instructions,
And see how they humble your soul.
Take a bucket and fill it with water,
Put your hand in it up to the wrist,
Pull it out and the hole that’s remaining,
Is a measure of how much you’ll be missed.
You can splash all you wish when you enter,
You may stir up the water galore,
But stop, and you’ll find that in no time,
It looks quite the same as before.
The moral of this quaint example,
Is to do just the best that you can,
Be proud of yourself but remember,
There’s no indispensable (wo)man.
The conceit of indispensability is frequently monetised through the huge remuneration packages paid to corporate and institutional leaders. One small in stature, huge in arrogance business leader, Bernie Ecclestone, remarked in an interview in the Times in 2013, “Business people really are not there to make money for themselves, it is just a means of keeping score. A sprinter tries to run the 100m quicker than the other fellow. It is the same for a businessman. At the end of the year, you can say: ‘I did well.’ Very rich people can’t spend their wealth. It is just a game.”
If that “game” results in a complete lack of change to the water in the pail, what needs to change to make things different. Is there another way of “keeping score”? Along with oxygen, we humans need water to stay alive. How can we make use of the water for good?
Passion and goodness
Nitesh Gor wrote a marvellous little book called “The Dharma of Capitalism”. In it he distinguished between acting in three different modes, The Mode of Ignorance, The Mode of Passion, The Mode of Goodness. That face of contemporary life I mentioned earlier about continually striving to achieve more is also laced with the ingredient of doing so with passion. Yet, consider this illustration Nitesh includes in his book.
Passion is clearly a two-faced monster. As the old saw says, “Beware what you wish for,” because too much of the wrong sort of passion can prove fatal. Conversely, you can’t have too much of a good thing. But be warned, if it is too good to be true, it is probably passion masquerading as goodness. Do not allow yourself to be seduced by such sirens.