At the ripe old age of eighty-five, when one is very aware that it is time to make sense of what has happened in one’s life, I have become convinced about two major things. They illumine the days that pass far too 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 easier circumstances and better people.
Charles Baudelaire, the French poet, wrote in his journal 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 to a new employer 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 and critic, 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 despised in any man, as we all should, “the cultivation of the power of dislike.” That is one great lesson to learn. “Cease this futile habit of complaining lest it shrivel your spirit to a wrinkled nut.”
My second conviction is also simple – that none of us should be performing a task if it isn’t worth doing and if the task is worth doing it is worth doing very 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 pen, 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 book near the end of his long life and in it he says that he had 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.
And working well means at least five things:
1) It means 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 hard, practical work over an extended period.
2) 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. Be ready to step into the breach of all battles, when summoned.
3) Success at work certainly also involves a willingness to take decisions and pursue new ideas. Putting off decisions and/or delaying their implementation are deadly enemies of effective performance. And 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.
4) Working well means an active willingness to get things done by teamwork. You can’t do everything yourself. And bend over backwards to give credit when someone else has worked well on your behalf.
5) Working well 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 other sovereign remedy? Ah, that is another story. “O tell me the truth about love.” Well, that may take a little longer than a Sunday column to explain.