Così è la Vita!

In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.

Robert Frost

When I give a book as a gift, I like to write some form of message or inscription on the flyleaf. To me, it personalises the gift. Offering an insight into why that book might mean something to the recipient. I also much appreciate it when someone gifting me a book does likewise.

For my birthday this year, I received a book with an inscription on mentoring. Its writer offered that, in their opinion, I had been a mentor in several other people’s lives. But they then posed a question. Who might I feel my mentor might have been? That question gave me much pause for thought.

Over my years in business, I acted as a mentor/counsellor/’buddy’ to many people. Advising, cautioning, guiding but most importantly, listening. I found you can often read as much from the body language and tone of voice of someone as what they say. They might choose their words carefully, but hiding their emotions is more of a challenge and thus can often reveal more about their true feelings.

One must be careful as a counsellor. Just because you were successful (or unsuccessful) with an approach to a particular situation does not mean the same process will/will not work for another. You are not them. You can share your path and, more importantly, why you took it. Then you must step back and explore with the individual all the approaches that might work better for them. You can’t teach experience. You can only offer examination and exploration of your experience. I confess that’s a lesson I have on occasion forgotten. Pushing my way sometimes, rather than the right way.

Counselling someone in their private life rather than business life is even more challenging. Emotions play a much more significant role. Sometimes even trampling over the logic of a situation. As the expression goes, some cut off their nose to spite their face. The consequences of personal decisions also last much longer than those in a business situation. For example, in my case, an incident at my father’s funeral led to a family schism from which I had no contact with my brother and sister for some 30 years. We reconciled some 15 years ago, but would some wise counsels have avoided such a long separation when the schism arose?

You’ll gather by now that I have not had what I would call a mentor or counsellor. As expected, my parents were an insightful guide to me in my younger days. The thrust of their guidance for leading a fulfilling life was not to become dependent on another. Don’t ‘lose’ your life within someone else’s. Both parents encouraged me to be independent, so it’s no surprise I left my home in the northeast to live and work in London at seventeen, two weeks after sitting my A Level exams. I was no fortune teller, but I knew my results would not astonish the academic world. As it was, I passed all my A Levels but with average grades.

From my late twenties and for the next 10 years, I worked for someone I respected and from whom I learned much. Together we moved from middle managers to, in his case, MD and, in my case, Operations Director. More than that, we became friends, not just colleagues, joint family outings, etc. However, when the opportunity came to work for him again a few years after our ways parted, I declined. While the job offered was a rewarding challenge at a handsome salary, I felt I would be repeating the past and learning nothing new. That independent streak in me coming to the fore.

The psychological dynamic of a team fascinated me throughout my career. I always grasped the opportunity for personal and psychological development. To help me understand better myself and others. One of the first programmes I attended as a Junior Manager at age 21 focused on personal introspection through interactive group tasks facilitated by psychologists. I recall no ‘talk and chalk’. Some twenty years later, I enjoyed a similar programme of understanding motivations, group discussion, leadership psychology, etc. There was no PowerPoint, Excel, or Word document in sight. Instead, attendees conversed. Those leading the course did not ‘teach’ us; they encouraged us to examine and understand each other’s personalities. Why do we take a particular approach? What do we find motivating/demotivating? How do we measure success in our lives? And yes, who are the influencers in our lives and why? In short, the programme was all about self-examination and reflection. We all approach life with different experiences, expectations, and ‘ambitions’. To better lead a team, one must endeavour to understand the personalities of all in that team.

For my part, and from early in my career, I’ve used personality tests to understand myself better. Such as MBTI, MMPI, and 16PF. If I can better understand myself, I might better understand others (it doesn’t always work). I've remained an ‘ENTJ’ from the MBTIs I’ve done over the years. I’ll let you look it up, but in essence, I’m assertive, pragmatic, rational, logical, and decisive but struggle with empathy for others and their feelings. I recognise that as I internalise my own feelings far too much. I must work hard to understand the needs and feelings of others. My three failed marriages are a testament to the fact I’ve dropped that ball more than I should.

Would my career have developed faster or further if I’d benefited from a mentor/counsellor? Would I have been a better boss, colleague, or subordinate? Would I have had a more settled personal life? Been a better husband? I can’t answer that. No doubt, my life would have been different. But would I have been ‘happier’? I’m not so sure about that. Don’t forget my personality type of ENTJ.

Personal development and fulfilment come from finding a way through life that makes us feel comfortable within that life. I am content with what I achieved in my business life. And that I remain friends with ex-colleagues. Some of those friendships go back over forty years. In my personal life, I feel I’ve done my best for my family(s). Maybe not always the best ‘best’, but we must accept our fallibilities. To be kind to ourselves if you like, as if we aren’t, we will struggle to show kindness to anyone else.

All I can write is that it’s been an interesting life to date, and I’m sure it will continue to be so. And I’m living it, not theorising about it. To paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, I’ve been in the arena and striven valiantly. I’ve erred and come up short repeatedly. I’ve failed but failed while daring greatly. I am not of those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.


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