Finding your purpose and passion

October 1, 2015

photo (1) Remember I said that when Megan plays, she collects and then piles up random junk? This week she discovered a box in a cupboard and has been piling it up with odds and ends. She guards her hoard like a Rottweiler and I cannot touch it or clean it up. I never realized kids played like this. I wonder if all little girls do this? I know my niece does. Fascinating! I took a photo of her stash which contains various naked dolls, nappies, puzzle pieces, a towel, some clothes, some books, a shoe, a pouch of baby food and some underpants. Her piles always include undies.

I don’t write this blog for anyone but me. My thoughts often run around in my head like rats in a burning building so writing helps me maintain some control and structure up there. I also write this blog for my girls who will maybe enjoy reading about their younger selves one day.

I want to put in writing some life lessons I’ve learned so far. Hopefully Megan and Jessica will take heed and won’t reinvent the wheel.   Today I want to write about two concepts that fooled me and sent me on a wild goose chase throughout my twenties – finding my purpose and passion.

Purpose oneThe concepts of purpose and passion drive me insane. When I hear people say, ‘find your purpose’ or ask ‘what is your passion?’ I want to bop them over the head with a pickaxe.  I have the urge to fire gun shots in the air or smash metal dustbin lids against a wall.

Our unique, special purpose in life and discovering our passion for some sort of mentally orgasmic activity are the Golden Tickets, aren’t they? They are elusive, fleeting and sometimes downright impossible to pinpoint. The reason people spend so much time trying to find their purpose or passion is probably because they don’t have one.

Purpose and passion are sophisticated lies. We are told we all have a special purpose and some sort of passion so we embark on this treasure hunt trying to find the artist or photographer or dancer or writer or teacher or whatever it is that is apparently hidden deep within us.

chasing tailThe pursuit of our passion and purpose can put us under so much stress. The quest for them wrecked havoc over my career and robbed me of much joy for about eight years after I finished university. Throughout my 20’s I wrestled with my life like it was an out-of-control crocodile. I searched high and low for my purpose and passion and all I have to show for this great big scavenger hunt is a convoluted, non-linear, dog’s breakfast of a CV. The other day I asked Al whether anyone would ever hire me again and he said vaguely, ‘You never know. Maybe some day.’   If I ever need a decent (or any) job some day, I will have to sell potential recruiters with my riveting personality (!?) and then seriously spin my career path in an interview because my resume will do me no favours. Thanks purpose and passion.

I don’t believe everyone has their own unique purpose. I don’t think each individual is destined to do something grand such as develop a cure for cancer or bring about world peace. Some people do, but most don’t. Purpose is simpler and a lot more accessible than we think.  I’ve concluded purpose is morely likely about something we should BE rather than something amazing that we should DO.

I absolutely believe there is purpose to our lives but we all have the same one – something along the lines of to love and be loved. I love Raymond Carver’s quote, ‘And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so? I did. And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.’ Ask anyone on their deathbed what matters most and they will tell you that too.

Another problem with finding an overriding purpose for your life is it forces you to spend a lot of time in the future instead of in the here and now. You spend so much time future tripping that you forget to live in the grace and joy of a day. You don’t live once. You die once. You live every single day.

Purpose threeThe problem with passion and purpose is that they are inherently static and finite. I prefer Joy and Curiosity. Do you know what I have realized throughout this Happiness Jar exercise of 2015? A life well lived is a life well loved. Without fail, our happy moments have been relational. Alastair’s happy moment is often the greeting he receives from Megan and Jessica when he opens the front door after work. Mine is usually a special time shared with family or friends during the day. I rarely have a happy moment that does not involve people. I wish someone had told me when I was 18 that I should pursue my joy rather than my unique purpose. Joy is a lot easier to find. I would have wasted less time searching for something that wasn’t there, hoping to find fulfilment in the wrong workplaces and carrying around my dissatisfaction and bad attitude like it was toilet paper stuck on the end of my shoe.

purpose fiveThe world tells us that life is linear. We go from A to B to C. We should find our passion then study that and choose a career path based on that, all in your early twenties. Life is not like that. It is not linear and your passions can change. When I chose my career, I thought my purpose was to be a rich, high-flying corporate exec. I couldn’t talk the talk in the corporate world and I don’t suffer fools but dealt with it all in quiet, passive-aggressive misery. Then I thought my passion was training. So I studied further and got my honours in Industrial Psychology. I’ve run hundreds of training courses since I decided that was my passion and do you know what? It sucked. I don’t ever want to train another person on anything ever again. Oh dear. Do you now see my dilemma?

That’s why I love Elizabeth Gilbert. She is my favourite writer and I hang on her every utterance. She likes curiosity and not passion. This is what she said about passion in an interview:

I feel so sorry for every college student graduating who ever sat there sweltering under their graduation gowns while somebody at the podium told them to follow their passion. Passion is a really intimidating concept and really hard to find on a Wednesday morning. Passion can also burn hot and it can burn out. Passion’s greedy, in a way. It demands the full commitment from you, demands that you risk everything, that you throw every chip in the pot.

I feel like these are not very humane or accessible ideas for most people in everyday life. Yet curiosity is a generous instinct that just gives. What it gives you are clues. And the clues can be really random and really tiny and seemingly insignificant. But if you can get the humility and the faith to trust them, and to just turn your head a quarter of an inch and look a little bit closer every day at whatever might have caught your attention, no matter how nothing it may seem, then all that stuff is a clue on the great scavenger hunt of life.

It might lead you to your passion, or it might not. It might peter out and lead you nowhere, but you didn’t risk much. All you did was take an afternoon on a Saturday to look into something. It’s not like you sold your house and shaved your head and moved to Nepal.

Sheer brilliance. Man, I wish I had heard that when I was choosing my career.

Purpose twoSo if life is more about joy and curiosity than about purpose and passion, then what career should you choose? Long story and that’s for another blog post. A son of one of my friend’s is studying cartooning because, as she said, ‘he is really passionate about drawing.’ WTF. When I heard that, I searched for more dustbin lids. Drawing better be one hell of a burning passion to sustain him through a lifetime of poverty with that kind of career. I will say now that it is important to choose a career that pays you enough to live well. I didn’t enjoy being a CA but it helped us buy a lot of joy, such as the house I am sitting in now. Accountancy is not really my thing but I still don’t regret the career I chose.  I regret the attitude, naiveté and misconceptions with which I approached it because some idiot told me to find my burning passion and make it my job.


To do list: Nothing

April 20, 2012

My job is one of extremes – I am either manically busy or I have absolutely nothing to do.  As in zero, zippo, diddly squat.  Most of the time I am bored stiff and, when I get up from my office chair, my bones creak and I wonder if my body is slipping into rigour mortis.

I can do the work in my job description in about 3 days so the rest of the month is free.  I try to lend a hand to others but then they just toss over the dregs, the shit, the donkey-work that they have been putting off and no one else wants to do.  I figure, if I am so productive, then why should I be eager to roll up my sleeves and do the work that is the corporate equivalent to cleaning toilets?  So, that is why I am as efficient as possible with the work in my job description, I lend a helping hand when asked and the rest of the time, I just look busy.

The problem with this is that I have too much time to think and some days I will gaze into space and contemplate the almighty hash up that is my career.  I got good marks at school and university and I thought I was destined for great things as a high-flying corporate executive.  My life spun off in the opposite direction and I seem to have climbed down the corporate ladder instead of up it.  I have a decent brain (if I don’t say so myself) but few companies I have worked for are bothered whether I use it or not.  It is such a waste of their money and my time.

Time drags when one has nothing to do.  The days are long.  It is amazing how tiring it is twiddling the thumbs.  The strange thing is that the less I have to do, the more lethargic I become and a task as straightforward as walking to the photocopy machine becomes like coordinating a mission to the Moon.  During spurts of busyness, I have daydreamed about parking off but I realize it is much better to be fully occupied from 9 to 5.  It means the time passes quickly and I have something to show for myself at home time.

I have tried all sorts of techniques to keep busy.  My instinct is to hop on to the internet but I can’t do that for long periods at work.  Every hour, I skim through The Daily Mail website but that is becoming a sick and unhealthy habit as I am starting to live vicariously through the likes of Kim Kardashian and Pippa Middleton.  Most of my colleagues have the dynamism of a corpse so I can’t even kill time with a bit of banter and office chitchat.

I am not much of an entrepreneur but I have considered starting a business aimed at bored individuals in the workplace.  I would sell electronic tools that create an illusion of productivity.  I could make millions because I have noticed every office has bored or lazy people who lurk under the radar.  My target market would be the dead wood in companies.  I could sell books that are formatted into Word or Excel and I would dot a few random, corporatey graphs within every file.  It would appear as if someone is reviewing a strategy document or something equally hard core when, in fact, they are just reading ‘The Soldier’s Wife’ by Johanna Trollope.

People have said that this down time is the perfect opportunity to do what I love – to write.  I struggle to write at home because I am distracted by the internet and it feels as if I am sharing the room with a 100 piece marching band.  In the office, I can stay in the fog of my imagination all day and no one is pressurizing me to come out of it.  So yes, I agree that work is a good place to write.

My predicament is that I can’t write at work.  I have all this free time and I am paralysed.  The irony is that when I am busy and have no spare time, then all I want to do is write.  My mind is alive and wild and my ideas and thoughts want to escape me and jump on to paper like my head is on fire.  When I am not busy and have plenty of time to spare, my Muse will not co-operate.  Maybe it becomes shy when the attention is focused on it.  I have realized I can’t pull out my creativity; it likes to do its own thing.

I think that boredom and stillness has clogged my brain.  My ideas get stuck in my head when my diary is blank and I have ‘nothing’ on my to-do list.  My mind is like an unused pipe and its contents have become stagnant and filled with thick, sticky sediment.

I am reading a great book by Ann Patchett and she said that to unclog a blocked pipe, you need to force a small ocean through the tap.  I should clear out the muck to see if there is anything worthwhile underneath and the way to do this is to write even when I don’t feel like it.  Art and creativity is about practice, practice and more practice which gets the junk out of the system so we can find the good stuff.

Ann Patchett believes that people misunderstand inspiration.  It is not magic.  She says that being creative is more about hoisting the pick than it is about keeping our ears cocked for our Muse.  I realize I have been thinking of writing as some kind of woo-woo, zen-like, whacky artistic process that relies on random inspiration.  Actually writing (or any art) is mostly about work.  It is about grafting even when you don’t feel like it.  Now I have something for my to-do list for tomorrow:  Hoist the pick.

Going underground (temporarily)

February 5, 2012

I have been slack on the blogging front recently.  I need to take a further break from it for about a month and a half.  I’m on a treadmill.  Work is ramping up and I have to travel on and off until the middle of March. This means I will enter a creative wasteland.  As I have mentioned before, work demands me to act as a submissive robot and so, in order to survive this ramp up, I must numb myself and put my soul on ice temporarily.  It is impossible to write decent blog entries in this state.

This will be a tough 8 weeks.  My work environment has become toxic.  In fact, it is the most toxic work environment I have endured so far, which says a lot.  Every morning before work, I stand outside the building and breathe deeply.  I say to myself over and over, ‘Julie you can do this my girl’ and then I put on my mental hazmat suit and enter the building.

I am not the only one who feels like this.  One of my colleagues said work has given him a nervous twitch that he can’t shake off.  I have seen it in action and it is sad to watch.  Another friend bust her leg while skiing and has been off work for three weeks.  She sees her injury as a gift from God.

I called a co-worker and was told she is off sick indefinitely.  I asked why and the answer was, ‘It’s mental.  Burnout and work stress.’  Another colleague has had bronchitis for over a month and she told me tearfully that she thinks her health issues are psychological and work-related.  She told me that when she gets off her antibiotics, she might contact a shaman.

I thought, ‘Why don’t you resign?’  But then again, why don’t I quit?  Why don’t we all?  Why do we sit still and put up with this shit?  The reason is that, in this economic climate, one has to bear a grotty job for the sake of a reliable monthly income.  We swallow our fate like a hard, awful pill because jobs are scarce and there is nowhere else to go.   I have noticed that it is not the job itself that gives people ulcers, depression and consistent flu, but rather the loss of hope in the possibility of finding something better.  People realise they are trapped and there is no way out and it is this despair that crushes people.  Fortunately, if things go according to plan, I have an exit strategy lined up for the summer (more of that in a separate blog) and this hope has made all the difference.

To cut a long story short, our company sees people as a pair of hands.  We are simply robotic cogs in a giant money-spitting machine.  I feel as if I work in a corporate sweatshop.  My work environment is a combination of The Office and Harry Potter.  The head honchos remind me of The Dementors that suck the soul, joy and creativity out of everything in their path.  In the mornings, our 6th sense kicks in and we feel them approaching the building.  Sometimes we will be having a laugh and a good bitch and someone will say, ‘They’re coming’ and we go quiet.  We hear the Jaws music playing quietly in our subconscious – da na da na da na da na – nothing kills a mood quite like an approaching boss.

I am very grateful to have a job at all and the extra money helps.  I just wish that work was not a constant battle to retain my sanity and sense of humour.  I am so grateful that I am not the only one who feels this way.  It is a relief that some of my colleagues understand.  It is cathartic to offload and whine together although it is a slippery slope and we could end up perpetuating dysfunction and misery.  We must be careful.

Bear with me.  I will resurface towards the end of March, bright-eyed and bushy tailed.

The cycle of life = sprint, sit, wait … sprint, sit, wait … sprint, sit, wait

April 12, 2011

Being jobless gives me extra time to think about things.

I have plenty of time to navel gaze and sit at my desk and stare out of the study window and contemplate the meaning of life, world peace, global poverty, nuclear fallout, earthquakes, civil unrest, war – you know, the every day kind of stuff.  I also think a lot about my own life and what I am going to do with it in Switzerland.

Sometimes thinking leaves me as exhausted as a 9am to 5pm slog at work.  Thinking is like putting my foot on the accelerator while the car is in neutral.  It sucks up my fuel and then I feel I haven’t achieved anything with my day.

When I think about my life, it is as if I’m having a conversation with about 8 children at the same time.  These 8 people are my alter egos, the different sides of me, who sit at the back seat of my brain and vie for my attention while I am trying to drive my life.  There’s the Shy Julie, the Confident Julie, the Afraid Julie, the Fun Julie, the Pessimist Julie, the Optimist Julie, the Risk-taking Julie and the Depressed Julie.

My thoughts behave like energetic toddlers so I have learned to belt them tightly into the back seat of my brain.  If I don’t do this, the different Me’s go feral.  They are easily agitated, they regularly fight with each other and love to shout their opinions at me.  The Afraid Julie may start an argument with the Confident Julie and the next minute all hell breaks lose.  I can’t see the road in front of me because I am so distracted by the chaos in my head.

I often turn around and hold my index finger up.  The Me’s look at me, wide-eyed as I say, ‘Enough!  Me’s, listen to me!  Shut up!  Sit still – I am driving, not you.’  Once they’ve calmed down after some good, old-fashioned discipline, I can concentrate on the business of driving my life with a clearer, quieter head.

The only ones who don’t have to be pinned down in the back are the Confident Julie and the Optimist Julie and, more and more often in Switzerland, I’m allowing them to poke their heads through the gap between the front seats and we chat.

One of the things I and the Me’s in my brain think about a lot is patience.  I really need more patience.  I recently read a fascinating discussion between great Christian men Pete Greig, Graham Tomlin and Brenton Brown.  Did you know that waiting is one of the primary experiences of the people of God?

I don’t wait well.  Now that I am in Switzerland, I have said to God, ‘Right, I’m here.  So what’s next?  What do you have in mind?  Let’s get on with it!’  I am positioned and ready.  On your marks, get set … but nothing’s happening.  There is silence in the heavenly realms and no one has boomed ‘Go!’ or laid out any sort of direction or action plan.  Now I am waiting in the take off position, wondering what’s potting and where I should go.

My favourite theologian, Graham Tomlin, wrote a commentary and said that it seems as if God takes his time with most things.  God even took his time over creation by taking 7 days to put things together instead of doing it instantaneously. Waiting and patience is built into the very account of creation itself.  Graham writes, ‘It seems to me that in God’s economy, a process and how things are done are every bit as important as getting the thing done in the long-term. God is more interested in the kind of people we are and become, rather than what we achieve.  Having said that, creation does have a direction in scripture.  It not an aimless circular meandering process, but it does work towards a goal of the new heavens and the new earth and therefore, it wouldn’t be entirely true to say that God has no goal or focus in what He does.  So the destination matters, but how we get there is as important as that we get there.’

At the moment, I am scouring the internet for vacant positions, contacting recruiters and applying for jobs.  I am craving some sort of busyness but am not sure what I want to be busy doing.

My other Christian hero, Pete Greig, writes, ‘There are scriptures about urgency, times when God seems to move fast: Elijah sprints, Christ condenses His ministry into three short years, and right back at the start 6 days to make everything is a pretty efficient use of a week even for God! But, of course, he also spent 30 years as an artisan, delayed visiting Lazarus’ tomb, and seems to be taking His time right now on the whole Second Coming thing too. In my experience, sometimes He seems to be requiring me to sprint and, at others, to sit and wait.  So the question stops being efficiency and inefficiency and becomes trust and obedience.’

My words of the week are: trust and obedience.  Sometimes things go slowly and sometimes they move quickly. This time last year, I would never ever in my wildest dreams have imagined I would be living in Switzerland.  This move has been a sprint from Dec 2010 to March 2011.  Now, I wait.

DO more or BE more?

January 7, 2011

An African parable:

Every morning in Africa, a Gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed.

Every morning a Lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the Gazelle or it will starve to death.

It doesn’t matter whether you are a Lion or a Gazelle. When the sun comes up, you’d better be running.

Many people don’t stand still long enough to figure out whether they are a Lion or a Gazelle.  They wake up every morning and just start running.  I used to be one of those people.

I follow management guru and Oprah’s darling Marcus Buckingham on Twitter and he wrote a questionable status saying, ‘You don’t stand out by who you are but by what you do.’  I’m weary of the obsession society has with doing for the sake of doing and running for the sake of running.

The world doesn’t care who you are – whether you’re a lion or a gazelle – but esteems those who are always running and doing.  Make sure your motor is on but it’s less bothered about the rudder.  It is a poor indictment on modern society if Buckingham is right and people stand out by what they do and not who they are as well.

When I meet someone new, we always use the conversation icebreaker, ‘What do you do?’  When I was a chartered accountant, I didn’t mind this question.  The person would invariably respond with an ‘oooo’ or an ‘aaah’ and I felt like a proud peacock.  As the years went by, I realized that who I am was diverging further and further away from what I did for a living.  I often wanted to say to people, ‘I don’t want to stand out for what I do anymore.  Don’t ask me what I do, ask me who I am.’

Unemployment is scary.  It’s more than scary; I’d never experienced such teeth-grinding, soul-corroding anxiety to find a job and find one quickly. We live in a you-are-what-you-contribute culture and, to keep my CV appealing, I knew I had to keep moving, keep doing, keep running.  Recruiters work in a rigid production line, hammering you into a round hole regardless of what shaped peg you are.  Their job is not to bother whether you’re a lion or a gazelle.  I only stood out if they liked how I had run before and whether I was running now.  They didn’t care about what I was running towards.

People told me,’ who cares what job you get, just get any old job’.  Just run.  Just do.  I sifted through endless dull specs and became more and more nauseated.  I thought we were supposed to have life and life in all its fullness and doing finance at a FTSE company may make me stand out but I knew it wouldn’t fill my cup.

Don’t just do for the sake of doing

I think it was the tycoon Rockefeller who said, ‘I wish someone had told me that when I got to the top, there would be nothing there.’

I tried to climb up the corporate finance ladder and admire the views from above.  I didn’t get to the top like Rockefeller but when I got about a sixth of the way up, I looked at the butts of my superiors above me and thought, ‘This life is for the birds.’  I wonder if Rockefeller and I experienced this, not because there is nothing for us at the top, but because our ladders were leaning against the wrong walls.

There is little point in running and doing a la Buckingham if you are not doing the right thing in the first place.

Do on the outside what resonates with you on the inside

Achievement has been my alcohol and I was an addict.  I’ve learned that you can run and do as much as you want, but if you are not comfortable with who you are and if your doing is not congruent with your being, you won’t sustain the high of success or the high of standing out.

I’ve realized that the work that the most enduringly successful people do on the outside resonates with them on the inside.  Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, once said, ‘The only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work.  And the only way to do great work, is to love what you do.’  If you find your talent and your passion and use them to improve both yourself and the world, then you probably will stand out anyway.

Doing is not as important as being

If you focus on being instead of on doing, you probably won’t care whether you stand out or not.  In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees stood out for their doing but were reprimanded by Jesus for neglecting their being.  He saw the motive not the method.  You’re taking your character to heaven, not your career.

We’re born into relationships, we live in relationship with others and when we die the effects of our relationships live in the hearts and minds of those still living.  You may stand out in the world by what you do but if you want to stand out in the hearts and mind of people, your character, who you are, matters most.

And you were given this swiftness, not for haste

Nor chiefly that you may go where you will,

But in the rush of everything to waste,

That you may have the power of standing still.

(An excerpt from The Master Speed by Robert Frost)

Don’t poo poo a BA degree

October 16, 2010

When I finished school, I decided against doing a BA degree.  My heart said yes but my head put its foot down and said NO WAYS.  I had always worked hard, achieved a lot and I created high expectations of a bright, lucrative future for myself.  Everyone joked that a BA gets you Bugger All in life so I felt that doing one was a bit like going off to join the circus.

In hindsight a BA would have taken me down the path that is more of a reflection of the true me.  I always wanted to be a journalist or a political commentator, an academic, an author or a lawyer.  But when I was 18, I was fed up with thinking, reasoning, reading long books and writing academic essays that were scored based on a marker’s subjective opinion.

Instead I chose to do something right or wrong, black or white, debit or credit and so I became an accountant. Do I regret becoming an accountant?  Yes and no.  I know myself so well.  And one thing I know for sure about myself is that I want what I don’t have.  If I had done an arty farty BA, I would have resented the spending power of my BCom accountant friends who could afford cars with aircon and a 2 bed-roomed house at the tender age of 23.  Now that I have done the CA route, I am jealous of the BA people who lived a relaxed, bohemian student existence for longer and seem to have more colourful, fulfilling and equally well-paying jobs now.

I know I chose to be an accountant for the wrong reasons.  I have always been in awe of famous people and I wanted people to scream ‘Julie, Julie, Julie’ like they did to the celebs at movie premieres.  I was too shy to be an actress so I thought why not do a business degree, climb the corporate ladder, be a high-powered, blindingly successful corporate exec with attentive minions who would adore being in my presence so they could soak up some of the scraps of my reflected glory.

I also wanted the status, respect and financial stability that a premier business degree promised.  I aspired to buy a house that was more solid than the one I grew up in.  I longed for one that didn’t leak when it rained and I didn’t ever again want to see my neighbour’s house through a crack in the study wall.

If someone asked me what high school subject has been most useful to me in my business career, I would say it is in fact the bedrock of a BA degree – English.  If you can master the analysis, reasoning and interpretation required in English, then you can master pretty much anything else you put your mind to.  There is nothing that undercuts the credibility of an accountant more than when they send verbose emails with incoherent sentences.  I have worked with some qualified accountants who aren’t clear on when to use a capital letter or when to use a full stop or comma.  An accountant may have the knowledge of the disclosure required for employee benefits or know the nuances of a discounted cash flow but if they can’t write a decent sentence in an email to a client, it creates a really bad impression.

I recently read a fascinating article by the writer Jennifer Weiner.  She believes that a degree in the Arts is the best preparation for most careers because it teaches you how to read, how to write and how to reason.  You learn how to think creatively and it gives you a framework or context that helps you make sense of the world and your place in it.

I never appreciated that university was a precious opportunity to immerse myself in an interesting subject.  I like the British university system where, for most business qualifications, you can study anything at university and choose to specialise after you graduate.  I was in too much rush to make a lot of money and climb higher up the corporate ladder and I soon wondered if there was more to life than the house of cards that is the finance world.  I didn’t appreciate the stretch of time where I was care free and could explore academia without the burdens of debit orders, mortgages and dependants.

The moral of the story is this – don’t poo poo a BA.  It is not Bugger All and while it may not provide you with a lucrative career straight after university, it prepares you more for life in the real world (and certainly the business world) than most people give it credit.

11 tins of bully beef

September 5, 2010

George Bowling fought in the trenches in France during the First World War. In mid-1917 he was sent back to England and he joined a division of the army called the West Coast Defence Force.  This agency had a vague and disorganized mandate to set up ration stations (called “dump sites”) at various points on the coast of England that would provide supplies for British troops in the event of an enemy invasion.

George’s superiors instructed him to travel to the north coast of Cornwall and assess the existing stock at a station called the ’12 Mile Dump Site’.  It turned out that the only supplies at this site were 11 tins of bully beef and a shelf of books that was abandoned by officers on a previous mission to the area.

Head office wired a message to George.  It said, ‘Take charge of stores.  Remain until further notice.’

George wired back: ‘There are no stores, only 11 tins bully beef’.

He heard nothing in reply.  So he stayed put and did as he was told.

Every month head office sent official documentation asking him to do a stock count and specify quantities of food, medical supplies and building material that were in his storage facility.   George wrote ‘11’ for the quantity of bully beef tins in stock and he put ‘nil’ next to everything else.  Then he sent the forms back.  This procedure happened over and over and all the time the only stock he was allocated was the 11 tins of bully beef.  It appeared that no one read the forms or took any decisive action based on the information George provided.

George Bowling remained at the 12 Mile Dump and guarded 11 tins of bully beef from halfway through 1917 to the end of 1918 when the war was over.  During this time, George read the entire shelf of books that the soldiers had left behind. Occasionally he filled in the odd official form.

George says this was a time of ‘unspeakable meaninglessness’. He remembered the days when he was on the frontline in France, being pounded by bullets.  He imagined his mates not sleeping for three days and smelling like skunks in the trenches.  He remembered when his hands were so cold that he couldn’t even hold a rifle.  He pictured the bullets, the fire, the trenches, the screaming, the agony, the little kids wetting their beds in fright while he sat in his army bolthole next to a warm stove reading novels and babysitting 11 tins of bully beef.

George couldn’t understand why he was drawing monthly pay for a job that didn’t really exist.  The supply station concept was an imaginary idea that somebody had thought up and supposedly implemented.  No one stood up and shouted ‘The Emperor is not wearing any clothes.  He’s NAKED’.

I am reading George Orwell’s partly autobiographical book called ‘Coming Up For Air’.  George Bowling is the main character and this particular incident during the war left me rubbing my solar plexus in the spot where the punch landed.  Why?  Because this is how the modern business world works.  Every day, there are hundreds of people in London who are ‘babysitting 11 tins of bully beef’ and leading the most meaningless and pointless existences below the radar.  The working world is full of loose ends and forgotten corners.

Here’s two examples:

On Friday evening, Al was chuffed.  He had just finished drafting a very complicated Audit Committee Report and wanted me to read it and oooh and aaah a bit.  It was intense and boring.  I asked who would actually read the details.

‘More than likely no-one’ he replied.

Then why the hell is he doing it?  Because he has to.  He must do as he’s told.  There’s a formula and a procedure and he must stick to it.  It’s been done in the past and must be done in the future and that’s that.

One of my friends was very frustrated recently because she is working like a slave while two guys in her office loaf off and pretend to be busy.  They don’t tell management that they are bored and have little to do because they are scared of redundancy.  So they create an illusion of productivity.

Well, I hate bully beef.  It’s unhealthy and fake and made of brisket.  It’s not worth baby-sitting and I’m not afraid to say it!

That may be why the 2 loafers and Alastair have a job … and I don’t.