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Making The Workplace Worthwhile

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Message Steve Denning
Most business books are shallow, superficial and eminently forgettable. Every now and then, a book comes along that is different, fresh, somehow removed from the blur of the business world, a book that is timeless, a book we will read and re-read for years to come. David Whyte's Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity (Riverhead Books, NY, 2001) is such a book.

A Deeper Realm

Most business books deal with the surface - the routine, predictable activities of the human animal""we wake up, we eat, we drink, we go to work, we get our job done, we relax and chatter about this and that, we get tired and go to sleep, perchance to dream, and get the tired mind and body ready for the next day. It is this superficial, routine side of life that we typically present to others in the workaday world.

The business world is often in denial about the realm of deeper feelings""of the joy and exhilaration of being alive, of the desire for loving and being loved, of the pain of realizing that we may not realize all our deepest ambitions, of the dilemmas of balancing our own goals with those of others, of a looming sense of our own mortality.

Although the nature and intensity of these feelings may vary from person to person, the reality of this realm is not in question, even though much organizational energy is spent denying the existence of this realm or masking or suppressing its impact.

It is the contribution of Whyte's book to draw our attention to this realm and show that making sense of the workplace entails recognizing the existence of this deeper realm, coming to terms with it and drawing on its energies and resources.

His book is an invitation to an imaginative conversation about life and work.

Whyte's Own Story

One reason why the book resonates is its authenticity. Thus on one level, the book is an autobiography of David Whyte. It tells the journey he made, beginning his career as student of marine biology, of his work as a naturalist in the Galapagos, then the shift to work in an organization and eventually his decision and struggle to become a full-time poet. In the process, we learn who Whyte is, what drives him, his hopes, his fears, his dreams, his frustrations. He makes himself vulnerable and in the process we learn a great deal about who he is.

His story creates a foundation for the rest of the book, which is a profound meditation the nature of work in our time. Whyte wrestles with two main themes - identity and conversation.

Discovering Who We Are

One theme concerns the continuing struggle to discover of who we are in a deeper sense, our inner desire not only of what we really want to do, but more important, who we really want to be. Whyte is profoundly influenced by Blake whom he quotes: "Then I asked: Does a firm persuasion that a thing is so, make it so? He replied: All poets believe that it does, and in ages of imagination this firm persuasion moved mountains; but many are not capable of firm persuasion of anything." (from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)

Whyte writes: "In Blake's sense, a firm persuasion was a kind of self-knowledge. It was understood as a result, an outcome, a bounty that comes from paying close attention to an astonishing world and the way each of us is made differently and uniquely for that world."

Whyte doesn't deny that much of our work is involves disillusion, daily grind, deadlines met or not met, or targets reached and replaced with larger targets, task after task, work for work sake, more for the sake of more, ever quicker, cheaper, better, without ever knowing why, with our enthusiasms gone, our energies spent, and our imaginations engaged elsewhere. Or even that really showing up is rarer than we like to admit. We know enough of ourselves on a bleak Monday morning, or our co-workers on a bad day, to realize that as human beings, we are one part of creation that can refuse to be itself. Our bodies are present, but our hearts and minds are placed firmly in neutral or even reverse: our imaginations are engaged elsewhere.

Sometimes our hiding from others has been so successful that we can no longer even find ourselves when we want to. We feel submerged, heavy, immovable, stuck forever in the mud of our own making. (p.7) We are like Sisyphus, pushing the boulder over the last incline, only to see it fall back and away, out of our grasp, back to the very bottom of the slope, to be pushed back up with the same despairing effort on Monday morning. (p.12)

We hope we grow. Through the seasons of our existence, we grope towards a better perspective, but any perspective is dearly won. It must be discovered, cultivated, worked at, earned. Whyte views life's work as a hidden journey, a secret code, deciphered in fits and starts. The details achieve meaning from the whole, and the whole is dependent on the detail. (p.8)

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Stephen Denning is the author of several books on leadership and narrative, including The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Action Through Narrative (Jossey-Bass, 2007), which was selected by the Financial Times as one of the best (more...)
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