LEARNING TO BE A GROWNUP
“But I was so much older then,
I’m younger than that now…”
What do you think would happen if you turned off all the computers in your office for 24 hours? Sorry if this question brings you out in a cold sweat, but please reflect on it for a few minutes – I’ll be coming back to it later.
There used to be a children’s programme in the UK called Stump The Scientist presented by James Burke, in which children from the audience asked probing questions of a panel of experts; their notional Holy Grail was that question which no scientist could answer. One episode has always stuck in my mind. In the midst of questions such as “Why does water boil?” and “Why is it cold at the north pole?” a young girl asked: “Why do men have nipples?”
The expert in question was clearly fazed by this enquiry; the best he could come up with was: “for the same reason we all have five fingers.” In the face of such a fatuous response I, doubtless in tandem with many of my contemporaries up and down the country, was bouncing on the sofa shouting: “Got him!” We waited gleefully for James Burke to say “Well done – you’ve stumped the scientist!”
What happened instead was a defining moment in my view of the adult world: Burke turned to the girl and said, menacingly: “Does that answer your question?” His tone did not give scope for anything other than a sheepish nod of the head. (How much more satisfying it would have been had she yelled back “Show us your uterus, then!”) But the young girl had learned a significant lesson. I’m sure she’s been careful ever since not to ask such stupid questions.
The great gift young children bring to the world is curiosity born of naivety. Why can’t I fly like a bird? Where does the world go to when I’m asleep? If I wore your clothes, would I talk like you? But once they’ve received the response: “What kind of a question is that?” more than ten times, they learn to keep quiet and to accept the status quo. This is why the wholesale hiring of fresh faced young managers by organisations is a dubious investment. The expectation is that they will bring an ingenuous freshness to proceedings; but as a rule, adults below the age of thirty are very careful never to ask naïve questions, in case it gives away the fact that they’re young and don’t know everything. Instead they put great effort into never using clear simple language when they can obfuscate impenetrably, making sure all their dealings with others are safe, sensible and grown-up.
In theory, outsiders such as consultants have a licence to be naïve, but it can be hard work. I’ve become immune over the years to the superior smirk which says: “Obviously you don’t have much experience of this sector, otherwise you’d understand that…”, but if I’m honest I regularly feel a pressure to conform. I remember sitting in on a talk given to a group of graduates by the head of one of their divisions. He was a young high-flyer, with Blairesque darting eyes behind a mask-like face; he talked eloquently about the revolution he’d engendered in the division (‘revolution’ is quite an exciting, child-like word, but sadly it translates into adult-speak as “driving costs aggressively out of the business”). His work, he said, was almost done, “Although when I look at the accounting department, for example, I can see there are too many people there, so we still need to lose a few.” Lose a few? I wanted to stick my hand up, the child at the back of the room, and say: “But sir, what if having too many people was a good thing? Since you’re making huge profits anyway, why don’t you use these people to generate new creative ideas, to build something new?”
Of course I said nothing. It would have been a stupid question. Obviously there must be a good reason; otherwise he’d have done it already. Wouldn’t he…?
Which brings me back to my opening question: what would happen if you shut down all your computers for 24 hours? What a wonderful thing it might be: people would leave their desks and talk to each other; you’d save three hours a day email time; you could go for a walk and reflect on the meaning of things without an animated paper clip appearing and saying: “It looks like you’re reflecting on the meaning of things; would you like some help?”. But you only need to think for a moment to realise how naïve I’m being. In reality of course you’d achieve nothing; you’d let your customers down; you’d lose lots of money. What a good job we’re responsible adults and can stop ourselves in time from ever doing anything stupid or dangerous!
© Phil Lowe, 2004. All rights reserved