I long ago became convinced about two major things. They simplify the days that pass so quickly. The first conviction is simply about life itself – that we have only one life and that it is infinitely precious and that we had better make the best of it in both work and play and in our personal relationships and not always be hankering after greener pastures, and sweeter times and better circumstances.
Charles Baudelaire, the French poet, in one of his journals writes that life is a hospital in which each patient believes he will recover if he is moved to another bed. So people imagine a curing of all their ills if only, for instance, they move to a new country – or, indeed, to a new government. Unfortunately, it isn’t as easy as that. In the end you are left with yourself, the one bed in which, like it or not, you must always stay.
As always, for me, Samuel Johnson, the great 18th century English writer, critic and dictionary-maker is the best teacher on the human condition. “It is by studying little things,” he wrote, “that we attain the great art of having as much happiness as possible.” And he went on to write: “The main of life is made up of small incidents.” The fact is that too much of any bitterness in our lives comes from impossible expectations.
The great sin to fight is “a refusal to be pleased.” Johnson hated in any man, as we all should, “the cultivation of the power of dislike.” That is one great lesson to learn.
My second conviction is also simple – that none of us should be doing a job if it isn’t worth doing and if it is worth doing it is worth doing well. John Donne, the great 17th century poet and preacher, was a complex, hard, ambitious man very much at home in the politics of his day and the ways of the world. Yet in the end he had a straightforward view of what would make him happy.
Above all, he said, we must put something useful into our own hands and our children’s hands: “put a sword,” he wrote, “put a ship, put a plough, put a trade.” He said that if we do not choose a definite and regular calling, and pursue it unremittingly, we shall simply pass through life as a hand passes through a basin of water, “which may be somewhat fouler for thy washing in it, but retains no other impression of thy having been there.”
Skip a couple of centuries and look into Sigmund Freud’s famous book Civilisation and its Discontents. He wrote this near the end of his life and in it he says that he found that “work and love” were the only ways in which human nature can come close to real satisfaction: “work and love” are the sovereign remedies.
Working well means at least four things:
(a) It means getting to know the mechanics of what you are doing really well, inside out and top to bottom. It means reading the textbooks, it means consulting the authorities, it means picking the brains of the experienced.
It means daily hard practical work.
(b) It involves being enthusiastic as well as knowledgeable. Nothing is so convincing as fresh and keen conviction in what you are doing combined with expertise.
(c) It certainly also involves a willingness to take decisions and pursue new ideas. If you simply sit back and do what you have always done you will stagnate and the work you do will have less and less impact.
(d) It means developing the ability to go on growing in what you do.
In fact you can only do this by making mistakes. And this is where good leadership in any organization is vital – because good leadership recognizes that especially its bright young men and women have to be allowed their quota of mistakes if they are ever going to be top-notch. The art is to err and err and err again but less and less and less.
Hard work, well performed, holds its own deep satisfaction. As for love – that may take a little longer than a Sunday column to explain.