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February 2012

The Question of Humility

Humility is a much neglected virtue in the modern world; everyone wants to be a ‘winner’ and the implicit assumption is that nice people finish last, that understating yourself is a strategic mistake, and that humility, basically, is for wimps. Like the virtue of ‘meekness’ it is perceived as a negative virtue for those lacking what might be termed, colloquially, ‘bottle’. This, I think, is a serious mistake and arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of what humility is.

Humility and humble are etymologically derived from the Latin, humus, which means ‘ground’, and ground is low, as opposed to being high. So to be humble or to practise humility is to be of the round, of the earth. What does that mean?

Three things spring to mind. First, that to be of the earth is to be aware and sensitized to the fact that we live in seasons, and more particularly that there is a time to live and a time to die, paraphrasing Ecclesiastes. It is not resisting the flow of things as they are because this is ‘me’, and I am self-evidently a ‘special’ case. Further, it is not arguing with the nature of the universe and taking
great delight in blaming God or whoever when things go wrong. I am sure you know the sort of thing I mean: where was God when my mother, son, or whoever died? This is a kind of vaunting and defiance against reality; of course, nobody wants or likes death, or any of the other injuries that come to us
through time, but the humble person sees and accepts there are seasons for all things, and that unmitigated joy is not the lot of anyone born on this world.

Second, being of the earth enables one to see the interconnectedness of everything. We need each other if we are to thrive, and not just live or exist; but more than that we need all the living things that the world holds. In reality we are dependent on them; sometimes it is the lowliest creatures which are the most important – the plankton in the oceans, the earthworms in the ground, and so
on. What this means is that the humble person values all creatures, and all living things, recognising the interdependence of everything. When we treat the fruits of the earth as mere commodities, as mere stuff to fuel our fantasies and ambitions, then we are arrogant and proud, and we are not of the earth – we destroy the Earth and in return the Earth gets round to destroying us.

Third, and finally for now, being of the earth means spending less time in our heads, in our minds, thinking. Thinking for most people is a comparative activity and it is relentless and harmful. Comparing themselves with others and concluding we are superior, or even inferior, on an on-going basis puffs up the mind with notions of difference and specialness; it creates barriers between people.

Instead we should spend more time in what the Chinese call the Dan Tien, the point about
two inches below our belly buttons, the centre of gravity of the whole body, and the gut – the place of balance, the point of instinct, and where we direct our breathing when we meditate. This is not to denigrate thinking per se, but to remind us that when we are of the earth we are much more centred, and therefore balanced. Ultimately it means we slow down – smell the roses and actually ‘do’
all the clichés we like to allude to, but often fail to implement.

Humility is not only spiritually good for us, it also has enormous health benefits too, as well as helping us in our relationships with others. Why not be humble, then? Perhaps it’s because of old and bad habits; perhaps it’s to do with poor, early and continuing conditioning; and perhaps it’s because people don’t want to be of the earth when they can aspire to their own private delusions of heaven.


The Right People Need No Motivation

Jim Collins, the world famous management guru, has said that “if you have the right people on your bus, you don’t need to worry about motivating them”. As a friend of mine said, “Does this mean that employee motivation programs are useless?” It would seem so – if only we could get our recruitment right, then we would employ a whole bunch of self-starters who would not need to be motivated by management. Wow, would that save costs? Yes. So this sounds like a good – no, great – idea, but is it?

My own view is that there is a truth in what Jim Collins says, but that he isn't exactly right either.

In the first instance we need to take the problem back a frame. Most people hire on the basis of qualifications and experience, often forgetting that high energy, which is effectively high motivation, is the number one factor for outperformance. So attracting and recruiting these people in the first place makes sense - but how are we to do that? It is not easy to establish in the first instance who are the genuinely motivated types of people; one thing we do know is that most people at interviews appear motivated, and furthermore that being superb at interviews usually means that one is great at interviews rather than being great for the role that one is being interviewed for!

But then having got these people, the notion that they continue to remain motivated if you do nothing about them is lamentable - sure, like the Duracell bunny, they'll run longer and more effectively than the non-motivated people you initially recruited, BUT they still need input - less input than the non-motivated people, but input nevertheless. Furthermore, although it could be
argued that that such very effective people are self-starters, the benefit of inputs is also aligned with reading their minds - if you don't input you are not likely to really find out what is going on inside their head - and bingo, the self-starter up and leaves because there is no engagement with him or her.

Thus it is imperative to provide the most motivated with even more reasons to be motivated; and that leads on to the reason of reasons - namely, the best people always have it in them to want to be better - so helping them really gets them and you up to the very highest levels of performance, and at the same time gets more buy-in, more staying power in the relationship - thereby reducing turnover costs.

The truth is – the obvious truth is – things change, and that includes especially motivation. We all know of high performing, highly motivated men and women who once were outperformers but have now fallen by the wayside, as it were, and become, in some instances, positive liabilities. What
happened to them? Many things can happen to them – simple burnout for one thing; neglect for another; and yet for another just lack of meaning or core purpose – why am I doing this when I never see my family from one month’s end to another?

So, yes, recruit the highly motivated – that’s good advice from Jim Collins. But don’t imagine job done! Motivation is like physical fitness: wherever you are on the scale of it, you need constant and persistent inputs stay fit, to stay motivated. True, the self-motivated can provide a lot of this for themselves, but let’s be sure: management has a lot to offer to keep performance really high.

The Beautiful Disgrace of Burn’s Night

Sometimes one has to admit that something so beautiful can be a disgrace. We have just passed just such a moment for the English. I am referring to Burn’s Night, of course, that marvellous invention of the Scots, celebrated on the 25thJanuary!

To digress a moment, I think it would be true to say that if we think about matchless musical composition we would have to concede, certainly from a Western perspective, that the very highest levels of musical achievement belong to either Italy or Germany. For my money JS Bach is without peer, so Germany would be the pre-eminent musical nation with Italy a very close second. We have had fine composers in Britain – Tallis, Purcell and so on – but not as great as JS Bach and a host of others.

And we could ask the same question about fine art. There we might conclude that the honours for the very greatest painters might be shared between the Italians and the French. And again, we have produced many fine painters, but not Leonardo Da Vinci.

So why labour this point? Because Britain, in the same way as Germany and Italy are pre-eminent in their fields of music and art, is preeminent in literature. This island has produced – and by extension the wider world productions in the English language - a raft of the greatest writers ever known, including one, William Shakespeare, certainly the greatest playwright ever, and arguably the greatest
poet. Of course Scotland has produced many fine writers, but in this instance Shakespeare, and for that matter Milton, Spenser and Chaucer, were all English.

What is disgraceful, then, about this from the English point of view is that England has not had the wit to create or to celebrate its literary heritage in the way of a Burn’s Night. Even Shakespeare’s birthday falls on St George’s Day and so is eclipsed by it. That’s even more frustrating when one considers that the 23rd April is also the anniversary of that quintessentially English, though minor,
poet Rupert Brooke: “Think only this of me, that’s there’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.”

How is it that we cannot celebrate poetry and a poet with haggis, whiskey and good cheer in the way that Scotland can? Of course I wasn’t stopped from such a celebration this year – in fact, had a wonderful time, which led not only to the general recitation of poetry and fine dining, but the spontaneous acts of singing and dancing. In short, the creation of real culture – people getting
together, sharing what is valuable, and really communicating and creating. By analogy, Shakespeare is for the home, not just the theatre.

So if not a criminal offence, it is a disgrace that the English have not got or invented their own version of the Burn’s Night – celebrating whatever poet seems relevant to that event. Perhaps we in England should start a campaign for a Poet’s Night? Any interested?

Homer’s Odyssey and Personal Development

‘Narrative may be regarded as a primary act of mind’, as someone once said, and so it proves true in all great stories: they tell us the primary truths about ourselves, and often what seems to be only an objective narrative is also an internal account of what is going on in the soul of mankind. Nowhere more so than in the really great stories: all sacred literature, and add to that Shakespeare and Homer.

In the latter case, of course, the word ‘odyssey’ has come to mean a journey, and one of the most difficult and profound sort. Heroes – and heroines – can only become so by overcoming immense difficulties like those depicted in Homer’s Odyssey.

If Personal Development is a journey, is an odyssey, then what can we learn from Homer about it?

Firstly, that Odysseus himself is on a mission. Simply put, he wants to get home again and re-join his wife. But the interior mission is much deeper: it is to find the true and real Self, the Self that has been hidden and repressed by ages of civilisation and warfare; it is to be ‘home’ again where home is not just an address on the door, but where you should be and where all life is comfortable and beautiful; and it is where you find again and love ‘Penelope’, who is in reality not just your wife (or husband) but your faithful soul. Finally, it is where you destroy the ‘Suitors’ – the forces of indiscipline and chaos that have been dogging your heels ever since you left home.

There are nine core dangers you will face, and there are nine key tools at your disposal to help you diffuse them. Let me outline a couple of dangers.

The Sirens are a well-known feature of the Odyssey – their fatal song shipwrecks all mariners who pass and hear it. They were, quite literally, the fatal attractions of their day. All of us have experienced fatal attractions and been driven of course as a result. The result of too many fatal attractions is a
surfeit of experience – often expressed as knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing.

What is the cure for the Sirens? Binding – Odysseus bound the ears of his mariners with wax so that they could not hear the temptation, and got them to bind him to the mast so that he could hear, but not respond. In fact he was almost driven mad by desire, as he heard but could not move. This 'binding’ is very similar to the Christian notion of ‘lead us not into temptation’ – avoidance is the key. And along with it the use of friendship – Odysseus could not have succeeded without explaining his plan and gaining the consent of friends on board who could be relied upon not to ‘break’ the pact. So self-limitation and friendship can enable us to survive the Sirens!

A less well-known danger in the Odyssey is the Laestrygonians, who are giants that nearly destroy Odysseus and his men – in fact several of his ships and their crew perish as a result of their rock-throwing. This kind of ‘giant’ meets us in real life in the form of problems: problems too big to handle. Often we valiantly battle on, trying to get a grip on the problem, when any analysis, SWOT or otherwise, would conclude that we should run – escape the problem by exiting it altogether. In other words, not making the mistake of thinking that continued persistence in tackling the ‘giant’ is finally going to wear the giant down; it’s not, get real, and get out!

There are seven other dangers, and there nine key tools that enable us to realise our mission in life, and to get home. I shall be exploring all of this on my Personal Development course on the 24th February, 2012:

I hope to see some of you there and re-committing to your mission, your odyssey in life.