Short and bad

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The email arrived early in the year, in the second week of January 2017. It was from the leadership coach whose skill set and services my employer makes available to members of management. The email provided some background to the world of coaching, and invited me to participate in an exploratory one-on-one session on a completely voluntary basis. I read the attached literature, and figured that it wouldn’t hurt to touch base with someone who could potentially help me define my own sense of place and role at the office, think about my own career in a structured way, improve my conflict management skills, improve my time management and think through one or two particular areas of challenge that I was experiencing. Mainly, though, I was just curious. I emailed back; I said yes please.

The coach confirmed a date and time for our first meeting, and sent me a number of short exercises that I was to complete and bring along with me, to frame and facilitate our discussion. I looked through the exercises: nothing too intense or personal – I was asked to list in various ways what I perceived as my strengths and weaknesses, as a leader and as a colleague, and to identify the kinds of issues and challenges that I wished to explore.

One of these exercises presented the various aspects of one’s life as a wheel with spokes and wedges, or a pizza cut into slices. Each wedge or slice represented one aspect of one’s life, including elements like family life, professional satisfaction, romance, health, finances, recreation and so on. The idea was that I should reflect on my experience of each of these aspects of my life, and then give a score out of 10, indicating how central or satisfactory that particular slice of my life was.

At our first meeting, the coach and I discussed the principles of coaching, what it was and what it was not, and how I might apply it in my professional environment. Before we started, I wanted to clarify the differences between psychotherapy and coaching; the coach explained to me that there may be some areas of overlap, in terms of the issues one wished to discuss, but that I as the person being coached would be in complete control over what we discussed, and how we applied it in my role at work. This reassured me that coaching would not be personally intrusive, or, rather, that it was up to me to moderate and control levels of personal access; our main area of focus would be the world of work, and it was up to me to set the agenda and the pace. This appealed to me, and so I agreed to an initial round of three conversations that would be spread over the course of a few months.

Once we’d established these first principles, we turned to the exercises that I’d completed and brought with me. Together, we identified issues that I wished to explore. It was going well. Then, near the end of our first meeting, we turned to the little wheel of life. The coach had a look at the scores that I had allocated regarding the various aspects of my own life, and made two observations: firstly, the pizza slices or wheel wedges were remarkably aligned; none seemed to be particularly more or less valued than another. I agreed; my interpretation of this was balance and stability. The coach agreed with this, saying that no single part of my life seemed to garner either particular disdain or delight. I was satisfied; this person understood me and approved of my even-keeled existence.

But, then, she pointed out that all the individual scores I’d allocated to each slice (even though their evenness drew a beautifully round circle, indicating that no single aspect of my life was pulling me down or upsetting the shape of my wheel) seemed to congregate around the middle. In a score out of 10, with 1 indicating discontent, and 10 indicating great passion or agreement, all my scores were around 5 or 6. I seemed to describe all the elements of my life as the third bowl of porridge in the tale about the three bears: not too hot, and not too cold. My life, although presented as stable, with few upsets or sharp edges, was not particularly joyful; it lacked passion.

My initial reaction was to agree with this assessment, and to do so proudly. I’d worked hard in my life to keep chaos at bay; I’d curated my adult existence to minimise pain, upset and uncertainty. Was this not something to be proud of, to embrace, for others to emulate? Possibly, yes, the coach said, but is there not also value in feeling the chill and the heat, in remaining open to the uncertainties and the extremities of feelings associated with new things? I wanted the coach to understand me correctly, that what I wanted for myself was not cowardice, or being overly careful (which was how what she was pointing out could be interpreted); I wanted her to admire the roundness of my circle, rather than how tiny it was. I sat looking at her for a bit. She looked back at me. She was not pushing the point. It was clear that it was entirely up to me to continue the discussion about the size of my circle, or to choose to abandon it and all it implied. I deflected, tried a little joke: it always comes down to size, for men, doesn’t it? She smiled, nodded, waited.

I knew she was right.

Alright, I said, what would it mean to increase the size of my wheel? And why would this be useful for work, for what I do at the office? Well, she said, in her experience, people who pursue or allow greater passion into their lives experience very tangible benefits in their places of work: they become more productive, they have greater quality of life, they experience a greater sense of meaning and mattering. Maybe I’m just not a very passionate or joyful person, I countered. Do you really think so? she asked. No, I said, after a moment of reflection. It’s just hard for me to be spontaneous on a moment’s notice, I said – another limp little bit of levity. I continued: in my experience, great variation is disruptive; it upsets, it’s most often destructive. I need to feel safe. I want stability. I want predictability.

She waited.

So, how do I go about increasing joy in my life? I asked. The coach asked me when last I had experienced a moment of complete and utter abandon, of joy – not necessarily sustained ecstasy or a great and prolonged sense of meaningful existence, but just a moment of forgetting about myself, of forgetting about time, of having no intrusive thoughts, of just being in the moment and doing something for the sheer fun of it.

I paused. I had a vague sense of disappointment, of panic. I couldn’t remember any such moment in the recent past – or even in the more distant past. I reflected for a moment, and then told the coach that I supposed different people experience joy or passion with different activities. Sex. Drugs. Alcohol. Skydiving. Sport. Even via engineered chaos in their private lives. The coach nodded, waited for me to bring this line of thought to myself.

Writing, I said. I told the coach that when I was in my early twenties, I had tried my hand at a bit of writing. Fiction – or, rather, creative writing more generally. Some of it was published, but most of it was not. Some of it was good, but most of it was not. While I was doing it, I experienced what she’d just described: a rush, exhilaration, no intrusive thoughts, no watching of the clock, sheer bloody joy. I explained to the coach that although writing gave me joy, it belonged to parts of my own personal history that I did not embrace, which I had actually experienced as destructive. Words and writing were part of my father’s world. I confessed that it would be fun to try my hand at it once again.

The coach told me that she’d done some creative writing workshops with colleagues at other institutions where she’d worked, and that those colleagues tended to find so much joy in this creative activity that it soon blossomed into the rest of their professional lives, increasing their productivity. Even for academics who had been unable to get unstuck in their own academic writing, creative activity (and it could be creative writing, but often it involved other expressions of creativity) often acted as a kind of lubricant for activity and movement throughout their lives.

I met the coach once a month from January until May. We covered a lot of ground. I acquired skills for the areas of challenge that I’d identified going into our very first meeting. And, at the end of every meeting, she asked me how my joy was doing, and whether I’d done any creative writing. At every meeting, she would invite me to send her something, and although I promised her that I would, the task seemed insurmountable: write something good, something meaningful, something to increase my own joy, then share it with her. What if she judged me? What if what I wrote was bad? Or good, but fanciful? Or not long enough? Or not literary? Or it exposed too much about myself?

At last, sometime in May 2017, I shared with the coach these reasons for not writing, and for not sending her anything. Sounds to me like excuses, rather than explanations, she said, smiling. She added that I was overproducing it, in my own mind. She did not want something protracted and good. In fact, she said, she would prefer something short and bad. The shorter and the worse I could make it, the better. I laughed: now, this I could do.

And so, I wrote something. Something short and bad. And I sent it to her. And, when we met just before the winter break, she asked me how I had felt when I had written it.

The point of all of the above is this: I felt wonderful, joyful; but, most importantly, I felt utterly like myself. I felt alive. I felt joy. The content of what I wrote – and its literary merit – were absolutely insignificant; that was not what this was about. At last, I understood the point that the coach was making.

Now, write more, she said. More short and bad things, please.

I will, I said.

And so, for a year, I wrote more or less one piece every week. Sometimes I skipped two or three weeks, and sometimes I wrote two or three bits in one week. But the point was to keep going, and to keep learning how to experience spontaneity, creativity and joy.

It’s now been more than two years since I started, and, by now, I’ve written well over 100 000 words. Some of those words are good; most are bad. It doesn’t matter. It absolutely does not matter. What matters is the joy and the propulsion that it unleashed in my life. Propulsion and dynamism, not towards anything outside of myself, but within myself. Propulsion towards life, risk, sharp edges, discomfort – all those things, but most importantly: joy.

My wheel of life as a whole is now a bit larger than it was in January 2017. This burst of creativity has given me a newfound respect for authenticity, for seeking it out. It has also given me less respect for the maintenance of silence and lies. And, in the process, a few things inside me have become lubricated and thawed: my heart feels a little softer, less hard – more willing to risk vulnerability and hurt. I am less angry, and I feel less inclined to turn anger inwards. I hope that I’ve become more empathetic at work, and in my life. I am more open to inspiration – artistic and other; I am more willing to be surprised. 

I’m not saying the bad stuff stays away, or that some things aren’t just horrible. I have much to learn. But, on the whole, my wheel is larger. I’m less afraid of life’s edges; I’m less afraid of joy. Passion and safety can coexist, after all.

That ain’t so bad, for something that started out short and bad.

*PP Fourie is Professor of Political Science, and Vice-Dean: Teaching and Learning at Stellenbosch University.

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