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This is my personal blog which I began in February 2001. I called it The Obvious? when I wrote anonymously and chose the name to reflect the fact I have to overcome my inhibitions about stating the obvious!

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Thursday
Aug092012

Blogging and the Heart Of Darkness

I sometimes wonder what it is that bugs me. What is it that drives me to do the work I do - because it does feel driven, something I am passionate about. Who or what am I reacting to? What windmills am I tilting at? What itch is it that I am scratching?

A heavy clue lies in the fact that my favourite book is Conrad's Heart Of Darkness and my favourite bit in that book is when he portrays a company man, a bureaucrat, who runs the operation at the head of the river the narrator is about to travel along into the heart of darkness.

“I let him run on, this papier-mache Mephistopheles, and it seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing inside but a little loose dirt, maybe. He, don’t you see, had been planning to be assistant-manager by and by under the present man, and I could see that the coming of that Kurtz had upset them both not a little. He talked precipitately, and I did not try to stop him.

[and later]

You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies—which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world—what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do. Temperament, I suppose.

I often think of that man, the papier-mâché Mephistopheles. I used to think of him a lot when I worked in a large bureaucratic organisation, I think of him often when being shown around client organisations. I once teetered on the brink of becoming like him out of a fear of being different and a desire to fit in. On a bad day I can still envy him.

Sometimes not wanting to be like him feels like running away. Trying too hard to be different, finding too much fault with the norm. When I first read the book as a teenager I wanted to be Kurtz. I wanted to scare myself and others by going deep inside - seeing and understanding things that others backed off from. But Kurtz, who the narrator eventually meets deep in the jungle, has been running away in his own way - indeed has gone mad running away.

My big fear for myself, and my sadness on behalf of others when it happens to them, is the risk of becoming that hollow shell. Being the company man who relies on the outward trappings of power - the title, the office, the salary - and who has lost his soul in the process. But like the narrator in the novel I want to protect myself and others from the heart of darkness, to avoid the chaos and terror of losing all grip of reality.

This might seem gloriously disconnected from the world of blogging but it is not … trust me. Social tools allow us to navigate along the river, to keep talking to each other as we leave the hollow men behind. To build a collective narrative as we go inwards and loosen the grip on a normality that is already crumbling behind us. With any luck it will also help us to stop short of losing our grip, falling apart and not finding our way back.

But who knows - we have a way to go yet ...

Reader Comments (32)

I have read some profoundly insightful blog posts from you Euan - but this is powerful.

"Social tools allow us to navigate along the river, to keep talking to each other as we leave the hollow men behind. To build a collective narrative as we go inwards and loosen the grip on a normality that is already crumbling behind us."

To leave the hollow men behind - how's that for a mission statement?

August 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Thanks Anne Marie - glad it hit the mark.

August 9, 2012 | Registered CommenterEuan

"To leave the hollow men behind - how's that for a mission statement?" - I fear that everyone of us, the hollow men included, would agree with this. Whoever navigates anything with the self-conscious view of being hollow? Who would admit to being hollow, so how are we able to tell? I expect only the cynic nearing retirement safeguarding their pensions. How proud we are that we are not the hollow ones - but how can we be sure when we are ultimately in the same game, at least playing on the same play fields? Does that not bring fear? If it doesn't then maybe we are oblivious to our own hollowness.

August 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Stanbridge

So true Peter - and hence my comment "on a bad day I can still envy him". One of my favourite aphorisms is "to rescue someone is to oppress them" and I am very wary of being too disparaging of others and tried to steer that fine line in the post.

August 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEuan

Hi Euan,

It's easy to become the 'hollow man' you describe. Indeed it's easy, in many large organisations for the job you do to end up serving you, rather than the other way around. There are millions of people who are professional procrastinators, dodging the difficult decision, because they can, looking forward to the few things that can count on to happen regularly, weekends, holidays and pay day. It's easy because to do otherwise is often to swim against a tide.

Peter made a very valid point about the self-conscious viewpoint - and I'm going to continue as someone who believes he is fighting that tide - a good portion, maybe a majority, of the folk that are becoming hollow don't realise it, and don't want it, but don't see the alternative. Excellent leadership and communication can provide the alternative, and social tools are a (relatively) new and important part of that. What doesn't work, and has never worked, is scorn. Mocking people for being part of a machine they can't see the workings of is destructive and self-indulgent.

I'm not accusing you of this here Euan - but it can easily lead that way. A gloriously 'self-aware intellectual elite', as they see themselves, scoffing at the poor dimwits they believe they have left behind. Let's not fall into that trap. Working with everyone, communicating and inspiring, helping leaders to become excellent, that is the way forward.

Best
Chris

August 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChris Weston

Couldn't have put it better myself Chris - thanks. And your final comment is particularly relevant with the buzz around social media and the temptation to split people into those who "get it" and those who don't.

There are times though when being robust is OK. I often see hollow men turn into bullies when they get spooked enough by new ideas that challenge their norms. In fact supporting clients as they face that sort of resistance is a lot of my work.

August 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEuan

We talked about Chris' last point a little while ago Euan and it's good to see it so eloquently put. An assumption in many quarters that they have the answers that we on the outside edge of 'the machine' couldn't hope to have.

Powerful, powerful stuff. Have you had a challenging week? ;-)

August 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Thomas

No, not really. Blog posts are like spots, they fester for a while, develop a head and then just have to burst!

August 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEuan

Nice one Euan.

I can relate to a lot of that. The "on a bad day envy them" is usually coloured by where on Maslow's hierarchy of needs (or is it a network of needs?) I'm feeling I am.

On a good day, the stuff that you, I and others do feels like it's at the pinnacle of self-actualization. On a bad day, the frustrations of lack of impact, and even the siren calls of safety and security begin to come through!

August 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChris Collison

I rarely comment on blog posts, but I got here serendipitously via a Dave Snowden tweet and as my old friend Peter Stanbridge has already chipped in above, I hope you won't mind the intrusion, Euan.

What you describe is very real, and very hard: from teenage years onwards I've been fired inside by the "immoral men" (e.g. Roy Harper - see below), who struggle against Eliot's hollow men, but like so many others I still sit here in a suit, another self-appointed victim of compromise ("we are locked into our suffering, and our pleasures are the seal" - Leonard Cohen) and am increasingly grateful to at least have choices, however overwhelming they may oftentimes feel ("where do all these highways go, now that we are free?")

In reality, as I think your perceptive post suggests, we are usually struggling against the facets of ourselves that have "no poems, no love and no brains", rather than setting ourselves up as illuminati lording it over the mean and huddled unenlightened. Harper, author of all the lines below, and Cohen remain for me pre-eminent guiding lights, but I guess if we're lucky we all know a few who insist on playing in the minor key and there have always been lonely souls in the wilderness trying to ring out Dylan's chimes of freedom.

The answer? Who knows? But starting again each day, ringing the bells that still can ring seems as wise advice as any.

"And you, you are a fantasy, a view
From where you'd like to think the world should see
Be true and you will likely find a few
Building a vision new and justice to our time

And we, we, the immoral men, we dare
Naked and fearless in the elements
And free, carefree of tempting fate, aware
And holding off the moral nightmare at the gates"

"I see the hollow buildings hanging in the winter sun
Throwing empty shadows that hide the hollow men"

"Meanwhile the ticket collectors are punching their holes
Into your memories your journeys and into your souls
Your life sentence starts and the judge hands you down a spare wig
Saying: "Get out of that and goodbye old boy have a good gig"
And the town label makers stare down with their gallery eyes
And point with computer stained fingers each time you arise
To the rules and the codes and the system that keeps them in chains
Which is where they belong with no poems no love and no brains"

August 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDom

Thanks for the comments guys and Dom - thanks for dropping by with such a cracking contribution!

August 9, 2012 | Registered CommenterEuan

" ... it seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing inside but a little loose dirt, maybe."

I'm still stuck here ... such great writing that comes from that deep introspective quiet place writers must visit. But it's a perilous journey into all that quiet and darkness isn't it? There are days you wonder if you can find your way back to the "real" world.

I remember feeling this tension between being well behaved and my chaotic imagination as far back as elementary school. I "got it" that if you kept your little desk tidy and did the stuff they asked, the teacher and everyone else liked you a lot more. They did not find you threatening. School desk, work desk ... they were frighteningly similar.

But if you let loose in school, got up, left your desk behind and ran down the road taking Thomas Hardy's hand, escaping into his world, embracing Tess or Angel, instead of quietly studying your little book and playing nice, you got a lot of people nervous.

I always wondered why they were showing you all this amazing stuff if they didn't want you to jump into it full throttle? Didn't they know the power of it themselves?

So we grow old and most of us are content to still sit at the work desk, heads down until we're so hollow someone could poke a hole ithrough us. Is it enough? Not for me. And obviously not for you.

But are there days we suffer "paycheck envy" and the easier path of doing what the big boss wants? Well, yes.

The big trick is keeping a foot in both worlds and knowing when to spend more time in one than the other, to make this balancing act of a creative, innovative, imaginative life work ... for YOU. It needs to simply serve you. And your family. For me the circle stops there. If others outside of that circle don't understand why that tidy desk doesn't matter to me and want to judge me, they can feel free.

Seems to me you are quite adept at this. And never underestimate how hard it is to maintain that balance in a world of big house, big car, big deal silly people.

August 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHalley Suitt Tucker

Took many years AND much blogging to fill in my own hollow man. I found an entirely new kind of relationships in blogging from the institutional world. Before all had been utilitarian. Now human. Is it this that is the pivot?

August 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRob Paterson

I know this territory too .. some days it feels like "all too well".

Let's see ..

Gave up very promising career 'cuz I realized deep down in my gut I was helping org'ns create hollow men & women as much as helping productivity & effectiveness

Encountered 'nothingness' and lack of my be-suited identity

Wandered about in the (figurative) desert for a while .. but while watching the horizon, and my soul, unfold

Like Rob & so many others .. started blogging

Began the long process of discovering myself, more of the world, and me and others in that now and mostly more human world (as Rob said)

And so on ..

What was that long ago quote somewhere about "leading lives of quiet desperation" (was that Prufrock?)

My similar touchstone is Charles Handy's "The Empty Raincoat".

August 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJon Husband

Jon, I believe that it was Henry David Thoreau who wrote that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. (I was fortunate enough just recently to go to Walden Pond and see the site of Thoreau's cabin, a place of incredible serenity and inspiration.)

August 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDom

Thanks for a beautiful, heartfelt post - I've been there, too, and am still fighting it. The human, poetic way you've identified the problem has clearly resonated, given these amazing comments. And, in a way, you've also identified the solution - it's not about shutting off, Kurtz-like, finding a remote outpost to be king of... well, what? It's really rather about reaching out to others and have them reach out to you - and as you say, social networks are wonderful for doing that.

I think the point about social networks is that there's no hierarchy, it's a flat structure where you can be yourself talking to me, being myself - no roles, no trappings of power and authority.

Perhaps a bigger solution is to work (somehow!) towards institutions which recognise that the real power resides in those same flattened structures, the networks between creative and authentic human beings in whom we invest our trust. I know that's a tricky concept for 'powerful' people whose self-esteem might well come from their position in the hierarchy, but it's making almost nobody happy! Let's change it :-)

August 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBill Miller

Thanks Bill. That prospect of creating institutions that get what is happening and reflect it in their structures is exciting - if not going to happen over night.

August 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEuan

Wow! Haven't laughed so much in ages. Talk about lighting the blue touch paper and standing back. I'm going to tap up Rob Trivers just in case he's got another book on the go.

Euan, really great again! Ta.

August 9, 2012 | Unregistered Commenternospience

Rob Trivers?

August 9, 2012 | Registered CommenterEuan

Would I do what I am doing (coaching leaders, mostly, about their growth as people) if it were truly futile work?

Years ago I came to fork in the road asking this question, after seeing how little at times my work mattered.

I sat up on that mountain, a real one in Wyoming, for a long while mulling it over. Something showed up, and the answer to the question was "yes, I would." Why? That something said I served, and couldn't actually know the outcome of my actions, how large, how small. And besides, I wasn't the change agent for others anyway. The real change agents were a lot bigger: silence, beauty, timelessness, community. Who knows how they might use me as part of what I called Vocation?

This is a fantastic discussion, for all the hollow parts of us.

Flutes are hollow, too.

August 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDan

Thanks, Dom .. yes, Thoreau.

And, I just re-read "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" .. and funnily enough it stirred up some similar thoughts and sentiments as "lead lives of quiet desperation" (at least for me ;-)

August 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJon Husband

Presumably "stirred up" with a coffee spoon Jon ...

August 9, 2012 | Registered CommenterEuan

No doubt (hey, I did qualify it as "at least for me") .. I don't presume anyone thinks as oddly as I sometimes can.

August 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJon Husband

The river is the social tool.

(I love Heart of Darkness too, and you've inspired me to read it again)

August 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChris Corrigan

Thank you for such a great post that keeps it real.

It is very hard to "get real" in many business climates, and this post illustrates the struggle brilliantly.

For those who risk it- there is both great potential peril and great potential reward. The true challenge is that we aren't certain of any formula to steer it to one outcome of the other with any assurance.

It's inspired me to accelerate a few actions in my life. Here's to hoping it pays off. Only taking the risk will tell.

August 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Glow

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