Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Entering a world of pain

At work this afternoon I was asked to read part of a book in preparation for an imminent project. The book was left on my desk. I was horrified. The mere sight of Stephen R. Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People sent shivers of revulsion down my spine. A few weeks ago I had seen an advert for Anthony Robbins, of whom I had been blissfully unaware until that point. Anyone who pronounces the ‘th’ in Anthony has to be prick anyway, but the idea that success is, by turns, and all at once, square-jawed, fist-pumping and (to go by his ‘tribute’ to the hurricane victims) cloyingly insincere, sickened me. So I handled Covey’s tome with distaste. And I thought: anyone who uses the initial of their middle name …

Anyway, I looked first at the paratexts. I see it was published in 1989 and has sold 15 millon copies. Then there was the biography: Covey was once named one of Time magazine’s twenty-five most influential Americans. (Who then, I wondered, were the other twenty-four of Covey's time? JR Ewing? OJ Simpson? Michael Jackson? Ted Bundy? Mork & Mindy?). Then there’s some extraordinarily indulgent acknowlegdements, and a picture of Covey at a conference. Yes, in the Robbins mould: smart suit, ultra-cleancut, in control with microphone and humanising wooden staff in hand. At this point, I wondered about how one manages one's time in order to write a self-help book on time management? Such glorious reflexivity! I daydreamed of a joint-smoking layabout, like The Dude in The Big Lebowski, rocking back in a chair in a messy office doddling incomprehensible diagrams in between tossing off jargon-ridden paragraphs headed by epigrams swiped from the web.

These were a nice few moments of smiling vacantly. But onward and sideways: I opened to the relevant section of the book. The epigram was enough to stop me in my tracks. It is from that well-known management consultant, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:

Things which matter most
Must never be at the mercy of things which matter least

OK. The first question I asked was: what matters most to me? Is it writing? I have many things I want to write for sure, but is it the most important? Maybe I need find time to think about it? Time needs to be found to write a blog in response to Book World’s challenge. Time also needs to be found for non-writing domestic things, such as re-installing the wireless router I bought this week. Probably not a good purchase for a technophobe. It's gone horribly wrong. And there’s more: time needs to be found to continue the longer writing project that currently relies on the haphazard arrangements of casual employment. Actually, this last is perhaps what matters most. A longer work should surely take priority over the daily distraction of a blog. Arrogant eternity demands it!

Yet it could also matter least. I've finished it three times and abandoned it three times. What is the point of spending hundreds of hours working on something to be read by nobody? I might have spent the time more productively writing hundreds of blindingly good blogs! (It would be good to start somewhere).

There are too many questions begged by these self-help books. Too many to go into tonight. Anyway, after 2040 every day, I look at the wall for an hour and dribble.

And there’s that caesura in the Goethe quotation: it suggests that it is from a poem or a play, which itself suggests it isn't Goethe's personal opinion. So where does it come from? Who says it? Could it be the devil in Faust?


  1. Tony Robbins is a success. Don’t forget it. Hollywood looks, perfect teeth, great hair, suit, loads of money, he’s on TV, he knows famous people, and he sells LOTS? He really is unbelievable. And, on some level, sadly, he symbolizes American culture. Our forefathers would be horrified. But this doesn’t say much about our forefathers. I’m afraid they might be thrilled with that other success story: George Bush…and Governor Arnold for that matter. We are in hell, in a hand basket, with a headache. But there’s hope!!! There’s really not. I’m just saying this to sound American…to sound Tony Robbins-ish.

  2. Strangely, the only relevant Goethe quote I can find says nearly the opposite:

    "It is better to do the most trifling thing in the world than to regard half and hour as a trifle."

    Denis, you remind me of two other authories on the American character:

    It is strange to see with what feverish ardor the Americans pursue their own welfare, and to watch the vague dread that constantly torments them lest they should not have chosen the shortest path which may lead to it.
    — Alexis DeToqueville, America.

    Moss: What's your name?
    Blake: FUCK YOU, that's my name!! You know why, Mister? 'Cause you drove a Hyundai to get here tonight, I drove a eighty thousand dollar BMW. That's my name!! (to Levene) And your name is "you're wanting." And you can't play in a man's game. You can't close them. (at a near whisper) And you go home and tell your wife your troubles. (to everyone again) Because only one thing counts in this life! Get them to sign on the line which is dotted!
    — David Mamet, Glengarry Glen Ross.

  3. Anonymous6:35 am

    In the midst of this neurotic ramble, you ask: "What is the point of spending hundreds of hours working on something to be read by nobody?" This is an astounding question. If you are really sure that what you are writing will be read by nobody, keep at it. Keep the vultures away from the secret man at his desk, and try at least to get to thousands of hours, before worrying about those who have already sealed their own oblivion.

  4. Anonymous10:17 am

    An insightfull post. Will definitely help.

    Karim - Creating Power



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