As Jean-Jacques Rousseau said, “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.”
As you know by now, I spend a lot of time thinking about the purpose of our lives, and what it really means to be.
But recently, three things happened to me that really brought something home. Regardless of how much we think about our lives, our purpose and our being, the context for that being is set by parameters beyond our control. And our identity – something we believe to be so personal to us and so within our control – is determined by rules and frameworks which dictate to us who we are, how to act, and how to be.
Driving off the map
Recently, I went away to Cyprus to play golf. Now, I’ve played there a dozen times before, but only in the southern Greek side of Cyprus. This time, my trip took me to the northern side – the Turkish part of Cyprus. No big deal, I thought – but then, I tried to get there!
As ever, I hired a car and, as usual, planned to use the Sat Nav to find my destination. It had always got me there in the past, so there was no need to make alternative plans. But this time, there was a problem.
I punched the address into the Sat Nav. It couldn’t find it. So I tried again on my phone’s GPS. No luck! All that came up was ‘Northern Cyprus’! When I looked at the map, there was absolutely no detail beyond the border from Southern Cyprus – just a big, empty space surrounded by a coastline. No roads, no villages, no towns. Just an outline.
Of course, this made things a little trickier! I still had to get to my destination, which I knew was on the coast somewhere, so I headed towards that coastline on the map and then just drove north. I called my friend who was already there, but the towns and villages he gave me as pointers were pretty useless seeing as they didn’t exist on my map!
And then it dawned on me. This whole scenario was a perfect metaphor for the context of our being. The reason I got no detail on my map in Northern Cyprus was because, as far as the Western world is concerned, it doesn’t exist. We live in a world that is perfectly mapped by a ‘system’, which details places of relevance, of importance, of recognition to us. But the minute something falls outside of that system, or fails to be recognised, it ceases to be.
Frozen out of the system
The second experience made me realise how, in an increasingly technological world, our being has taken on different significance in a very modern context.
Like most people today, I use online banking to manage my accounts, make payments, check balances – you know, the normal stuff. Well, I recently logged in to my bank online, and realised one of my accounts was missing from my dashboard. I looked in various places, switching between personal and business tabs. I logged in and out several times. But despite my efforts, I couldn’t find it at all.
I jumped onto Barclay’s online chat to speak to an adviser, explaining my problem. Of course it wouldn’t be as straightforward as them being able to tell me there and then what was going on! No, they needed to do a series of checks before we could get to that point – which involved them emailing me, me then going directly to my bank manager, followed by filling out forms and so on. Eventually, I got to the bottom of it.
The account in question related to my properties. It turned out it had been put on hold, as another bank I was dealing with through that account had requested first rights to the money if I ever defaulted on payments to them. Barclays had responded to them, saying that they would need confirmation from me first in writing – but in the meantime, had frozen my account without any notification to me!
What are the possible implications of that? Well, if direct debits were due to go out, they wouldn’t be paid, unbeknownst to me. I could have been sitting blissfully unaware, thinking everything was set up, covered, and under control – the whole time not knowing that a flick of a switch had temporarily ceased the account! For that period of time, the account simply didn’t exist. The money was not there.
What relevance does this have to our being? Well, the bank did not act beyond their remit. They did everything according to their processes. And I would have agreed to this when I signed the small print when I opened that account. In other words, the bank operates to their rules and regulations, which also define my relationship with it. And in a situation like this, I have no say over how they act – and so easily, I can just be switched out of the system.
Whether it’s the bank, the government, or even the workplace, we agree to a set of rules in everything we do. However, little do we know we’re not masters of that game – we’re pawns in that game. And as long as we play by the rules, and our masters play by the rules, we’re fine. But if not, life can change very quickly. For instance, if the global financial system crashed tomorrow, and the bank told you, “You’ve only got £20 in your account,” – that would be it. You’d only have £20 in your account. And you’d have no way to change it.
Taxation without representation
The final experience gave one further example of just how trapped we are in this system, however free we think we are.
Like many of you, I turned out to vote on 8th June, exercising my democratic right as a British citizen, and one that is so very significant to me, particularly as a black man. As normal, I turned up to my polling station and took my ballot paper.
But then I noticed something strange. There were no candidates listed from the Labour Party or Liberal Democrats! I checked it with the clerk, thinking there’d been some kind of error. But I was told that ballot paper was 100% correct.
You see, I live in Buckingham – the constituency represented by Conservative MP and Commons Speaker, John Bercow. And, due to age-old convention, it’s a seat which remains unchallenged by opposition candidates to ensure the Speaker’s return to Parliament. I couldn’t believe it! I understand the sentiment, but this convention completely disenfranchises voters like me from having a real choice in who represents me in the House of Commons – simply because I live where I live. Little surprise Bercow won with a landslide!
Now, when I think about what it means to be a British citizen, some key things come to mind – having the freedom to vote, to earn money, to contribute socially and politically. Yet all these experiences made me realise that my identity is inextricably linked with the rules and guidelines my community, my country, my world has made for me. From how I bank to how I get to places, from how I vote to how I work, it’s all dictated to me by a system beyond my control.
In short, all these things enslave us to the system. Even thinking about my greatest purpose in life – to raise children who would go to school, be educated, and become fine upstanding citizens who would contribute to the GDP – has in turn tagged them to the system.
As Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the great Enlightenment philosopher, said, “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.”
This may all seem rather bleak, but there are some lessons to take from it! Firstly, we need to understand we are in a game dictated by our culture, and we need to buy into it, either consciously or subconsciously. Secondly, each of those experiences offers a lesson you can take with you for life and business.
A lesson from the map
As a business leader, you need to be mindful of the systems you’re creating for your workforce. Do they help, or do they hinder? You create that structure for them to operate in so you need to be sure you’re giving them the right tools for them to succeed in what you’re asking them to do.
After all, you wouldn’t send your employees to a foreign country without a map, so why would you ask them to get something done without giving them the proper tools for the job? Be clear about what you want them to do, and how you want them to get there.
A lesson from the bank
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, whether that’s in life or business. Had all my money been in that one account when it was frozen at the flick of a switch, I would have been snookered!
Assess the risk around you. Have you diversified your portfolio enough, so that if one area were to dry up, you still have enough income from the others? If a system in your business goes down, do you have the tools in place to make sure you don’t go down with it? This is a very real risk in an age of cybercrime. Determine where your risks lie and act now to minimise them.
A lesson from the polling station
I felt disenfranchised on the 8th June, but do your people feel disenfranchised today? We gain a sense of purpose when we know we’re listened to, when we know we have influence. Your workforce needs to know you’ve got their needs and opinions at heart, but many large corporations risk alienating their people by keeping all decisions within the four walls of the boardroom, only later cascading them down to the troops.
Give your people a chance to have their voice heard instead. Even if they don’t get their way, at least they know their opinions were considered. It makes a big difference to them, which makes untold differences to your organisation.