Infinite capacity, bounded in a nutshell

My garden Sunday 19 May 2013
My garden Sunday 19 May 2013

I’ve just stopped gardening after two and half hours because though there is still masses to do and I’m really enjoying myself, I want to learn from my mentor, The Nellibobs, who has been gardening all week and given himself an excrutiating backache.

‘Genius,’ Thomas Carlyle wrote, ‘is an infinite capacity for taking pains.’ Nellibobs is undoubtedly a genius in many aspects of life  but there’s no genius in the area called  ‘being sensible’, nor ‘opening his mail’. Not house repairs, either. No, nor social life except for Friday Nights. He’s limited himself severely, in order to go deep into the areas which really (X) him. But what does (X) stand for?

Shall we say Excite? Obsess? Move?

Genius areas for the Nellibobs are: his dog, Argy, his reading life, his habits and routines, smoking, his Su Doku (at one point, they reached 150+ per week. He limits it now to about 80), his teaching, a little gardening, and his Friday Nights. That may seem constrained until you know how much he reads, how much goes into his teaching. You can follow Nellibobs or someone very like him on Twitter @nellibobsfriday (he only Tweets on Fridays).

I was thinking of all this while reading Walter Isaacson’s fine biography of Steve Jobs. I know there are lots of things to be said against both Steve Jobs and Apple, but there was genius there and it did manifest itself in that infinite capacity way. For anyone trying to get something done in the world, there’s a lot to learn from that book.

And I have also been thinking of Richard Feynman as I watched two programmes about him on TV this week. Wacky, playful and fuelled by (X) Feynman said, as many of the  greats do, that the most important thing in life is love. I wonder how that connects to the infinite capacity for taking pains, which is a sort of love, isn’t it?

Yet we are creatures of the finite and to reach the infinite there are often terrible costs, as the Jobs story shows. Obsession, single-mindedness, demanded a sort of inhumanity, which in Jobs’ case  was not often mitigated by love, though  Isaacson makes a case for the occasional glimmer. At the end of the book, Isaacson wonders if Steve had to be so  unkind, so rough, so mean with people.

“This is who I am, and you can’t expect me to be someone I’m not,” he replied when I asked him the question. But I think he actually could have controlled himself, if he had wanted. When he hurt people, it was not because he was lacking in emotional awareness. quite the contrary: He could size people up, understand their inner thoughts, and know how to relate to them, cajole them, or hurt them at will. The nasty edge to his personality was not necessary. It hindered him more than it helped him. But it did,at times, serve a purpose. Polite and velvety leaders, who take care to avoid bruising others, are generally not as effective at forcing change. Dozens of the colleagues whom Jobs most abused ended their litany of horror stories by saying he got them to do things they never dreamed possible. And he created a corporation crammed with A players.

As a leader of an ambitious Social Enterprise, which currently employs 70+ staff, I had to keep considering the cost of Steve Jobs’ genius. Most large human organisations, from the teams that built the pyramids onwards, have been  Army-model organisations. Many of them have a  ‘nasty edge’  when necessary and that is how they keep control and make sure that what they want to happen gets to happen.  Command and control structures  may be a good way to do battle, or build pyramids, or  spread the Church, or  create iphones. But we need new organisational shapes now, to do other things, such as liberate human potential, grow creativity, develop empathy.

As  an organisational model, I like ‘orchestra’, each person doing their genius thing, but sharing a score and conducted into one voice. And I like ‘garden’ where each plant gets the right space it needs to fully become itself and yet they all work together to create a whole experience. But there is a big ask here. In both these models so much more is asked of the individual than in ‘command and control’ and that ask is about becoming your genius.  It’s as if I want an organisational shape that’s like a book, where each poem or story has brought itself to be, but the whole thing fits together as one.

The problem then becomes recruitment, doesn’t it? How do you recruit people who come with their own discipline? How do I even have my own?

Feynman’s story  is very different one to Jobs’. In the BBC documentary Feynman’s physicist sister was such a loving presence and you could feel the good genius of the man, living beyond his death, when she said he was a ‘good brother and a good human being.’

Could you have a world of Feynmen? I’d like to try. And one of the keys there seemed to be play. Or pleasure. Which is why I’m going back out the garden now while there is still time. Ah, Nellibobs, your backache beckons.

Infinity on West Kirby Beach
Infinity on West Kirby Beach

2 thoughts on “Infinite capacity, bounded in a nutshell

  1. Margaret A. O'Brien May 26, 2013 / 10:47 am

    Jane, I love your models of organization – orchestra, garden. But also that you acknowledge the challenges they would pose as well.
    Margaret

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