OK, some of you might look on this post as self-indulgent and confessional. Others might be seeing behind the curtain for the first time (in the “Wizard of Oz” sense) and get an interesting (or at least illuminating) glimpse into the life of the author. Still others might find that the situation described applies to them, too and get some feeling of solidarity from reading this. Whatever you conclude about this post, it’s you own business. Good luck to you. I know why I am writing this so why should I be expected to second guess how you read it and react to it too? I spend enough of my life doing what’s required of me, instead of what I do best, but more of that later.
I am of an age where re-evaluation of one’s life to date takes on not exactly an urgency, but one is certainly aware that time on Earth is finite. For that reason, my mind has recently been filled with regrets, reflections, rethinking and renewed resolve. You find yourself looking at recurrent themes that have appeared, throughout your life, retracing how they played out, each time and how you would have preferred things to work out, instead of how they actually did. If that sounds grave and depressing, it isn’t, but it also isn’t entirely satisfactory, either. But I am getting ahead of myself. Perhaps it’s best if I start at the very beginning.
When you are a child, you assume that everybody thinks the same way that you do. Without an alternative frame of reference, you simply think that everybody’s mind works the same way as your own. Why would you presume otherwise? People are people, right? It takes a while before it dawns on you that there might be something different about your thought patterns, or at least something uncommon. Not everybody has the same way of seeing or approaching the world, but you don’t know that, as a child. It takes some time before your own uniqueness and the special nature of your own gestalt begins to become obvious.
Since childhood, my default way at looking at things has been to ask myself how things can be better. I’ve never thought of the world as being complete, whole, perfect, a given. It always revealed its flaws to me, almost immediately and prompted me to begin thinking about how to improve on the situation. How can it be better? Unusually, it didn’t seem to matter which thing it was. Whether I was thinking about inventions, stories, the electrical supply system, mechanical engineering, music, record production, playing in the dirt, whatever I happened to be fascinated by and curious about at the time, my first thoughts were always about improving what was, to make it into something I imagined could be; something better.
If I took up guitar, I wanted to find a better way to write songs, or record or produce records. I wanted to improve on the design of the guitar, the effects, the amplification and the software tools of recording and performance. In painting, I wanted to find new ways to see, new techniques and new approaches. In politics and economics, I wanted to understand why institutions fail us and what could be done instead. In health and well-being, I wanted to understand how you could achieve better outcomes and actual healing, compared to standard medicine. Whatever fascinated me, I wanted to make improvements with a passion. It was not even a game, for me. Things just occur to me – all the time. I can’t even stop them. They just pop into my head as “better” and from that day forward, I can no longer accept the status quo, because in my imagination, I can already see a better way. I begin to get frustrated and disappointed with the fact that nothing is changing.
This wasn’t some messianic schema of personal self-aggrandisement or belief in the superiority of my own mind. The feeling wasn’t quite as egotistical as that. It was just really clear to me that, with a few simple changes, you could always do better and have better fun. A small reshaping of what was would often (in fact, almost always) yield a better future outcome. When my childhood games were solitary, or involved only my brothers and neighbours, changing the game to a better game was something well within my own power. Eventually, though, the concerns and ideas for improvements began to involve much bigger changes, to things that were not mine alone to change.
You have to understand that this was not a consciously deliberate framework of thought, for me. It was my default setting. It was how I was naturally wired. I couldn’t help it. It wasn’t as if I had to force myself to think about and imagine improvements to all things I got interested in. It just happened. I didn’t know any other way to be. This was just me and how I worked, internally.
I didn’t know, at least for a very long time, that everybody wasn’t like this. I had no conception that there were people who were of a mind to conserve the status quo, because they believed it to be the perfected result of a long process of evolving design, carried out by minds immeasurably superior and authoritative to our own. They saw the world as full of sacrosanct things that shouldn’t be changed and meddled with, whereas I saw everything as needing revision and improvement and felt that every thinking person was qualified to, could and ought to make those changes. This is where the heartache and frustrating conflicts began. I finally understood I was in the minority.
I was and still am all about making things better. I mean that in all senses of the phrase. I wanted to make the world better, but I also wanted to make better things and to be better at making things. I was more than prepared to get my hands dirty and learn the skills I needed, to make better things with my own two hands. I wanted to make better things well. In so doing, it was an article of my faith that making better things well would make everything better, for everyone. That didn’t involve blindness to unintended consequences. “Better” had to avoid those, too. And I did.
You would think that a natural proclivity to see the improvements possible in everything, no matter what the thing happened to be, would turn out to be a valuable and saleable skill, in the world of work. After all, somebody has to invent things, move things forward, be the engine of growth and cause progress. If a company or organisation could find one of these minority people, whose life was all about making things better, you would think that they would possess the secret to increased wealth and prosperity, so long as the person that thought this way was happy to work for such a company. And so it has proven to be, on occasion. There have been people that have retired with millions because of the thoughts I applied to their businesses and products. Sure, I wasn’t the only reason they made their money, but my contribution helped and I have received significant, if token, recognition of those contributions, albeit somewhat grudgingly, I have to say. You see, people that don’t think in terms of making things better the whole time are rather discomforted by people that do, especially if their improvements bring them success. It’s a visceral hurt and resentment that they feel. I’ve never understood why, entirely. It runs counter to enlightened self-interest, at least financially.
But I can’t be any different. I have no choice. If I am resented, ostracised, victimised or punished for being the way I am, I don’t have any natural defences for that. It’s a sleight on my very being and I am powerless to be anything other than who I am, the way I am. I’m a sitting duck.
If there has been one consistent response to my existence, with its bias toward constantly seeking to make things better, it has been that I have almost always encountered the astonishing power of denial. It’s a severe obstacle, actually. It turns out that the power of denial is much stronger than the will to make things better. Essentially, you encounter violent opposition, when all you want to do is offer imaginative, viable, alternative improvements. That can feel quite thankless.
When you present an idea for “better” to a person that doesn’t want to hear about “better”, you get all the standard denial responses: denial that an improvement is possible or required, denial that the improvement suggested will work, that this improvement is the right improvement to make, denial that you are the right person to make the improvement, that it costs too much, takes too long, is too hard, is too easy, won’t return enough on the investment, that it upsets the apple cart, that this is not the right time (both too early and too late), that the suggested improvement is unproven and untested, so uncertain and risky, that we aren’t in that business and simply that we just can’t. The dreary, ritual litany of denial has been replayed, over and over, throughout my life, in response to almost every sizeable change I wanted to make.
All of these denials are simply roadblocks placed on the path, motivated entirely by fear and ego, of course. But it doesn’t mean your improvement will go ahead. In fact, it means it won’t. If your improvement is going to need more resources and time than you, alone, can offer, then it becomes very frustrating to sit on ideas that you know can enrich everybody, for want of the courage of your collaborators to do them. Throughout my career and life, I have seen good ideas eventually come to fruition, but later and by somebody else and their organisation, reaping the rewards. Somebody else more persuasive.
It’s not like I have the capability to bring to life every improvement I have ever proposed. I don’t have that long a lifetime and I am realistic in my improvements. I know how much effort they are going to take, so I never propose something that won’t return much bigger benefits and returns than the effort required to realise them. That’s just a part of my thought process too. Yet, this is the nub of my life’s failure. I love making things better, but I absolutely loathe having to persuade the un-persuadable, with their tired litany of denial. I hate the conflict. I hate having to try to educate those that have no intention of taking on the lessons. I don’t respond well to pig-headed, egotistical, fearful, stubborn people that hold the keys to success, but won’t open the doors. Persuasion isn’t what I am good at. Imaginative improvements is.
Consequently, I have seen a succession of what have subsequently proven to be really good and highly valuable ideas utterly shelved and delayed, because I have become bogged down in trying to get others to see what I see, to see differently and to realise that better is a possibility and more than that, is a reachable actuality. I’ve rarely harvested the value of these ideas, because I simply never succeed at the persuasion part.
It’s not like I lack credibility or experience. Proof is something I’ve delivered time and again. I’ve spent a career coming up with things that never existed before and actually taking them to market, successfully. But I constantly find myself wasting my life, telling yet another doubter that stands in the way about all the possibilities they could grasp and why they should, all the while seeing them shore up their position of square-jawed doubt. Logic and data don’t seem to be persuasive. Glib assurances are not trusted either. There is literally nothing that can change their minds, short of seeing somebody else succeed in the idea, instead of them. By then, it’s too late, of course.
So this is the tragedy of my life, which I have not found the solution to. I don’t know how to be that persuasive person that is wired for persuasion. I’m not that person. I’m the person with the ideas for improvements. I’m the one obsessed, unconsciously, with making things better. I’m not the guy equipped to get others to help. It’s not a way of being that comes naturally to me. Sad, isn’t it? It’s sadder still that I don’t have any ready answers, despite my efforts to crack this nut. I just can’t get into it like I can get into improving music technology or my art. It’s just not as interesting to me.
So am I doomed to repeat this pattern over and over? Will I end my days with thousands of really good ideas that were never brought to life? Will I constantly miss the fruits of these good ideas and live a relatively ascetic life? Will I always drive old cars, for example? I know I have to find a way to break this cycle and it’s what I struggle with most and most constantly. I just have to find a way around needing to persuade, if that’s possible. Is it?
I can just tell that some readers will be seeing this post as arrogant and dripping with a sense of entitlement, but that isn’t what I am about at all. I want to use the things I do best and do without thinking about too much to actually make things better for all, but I just can’t find that path. That’s what the frustration is about. It could really make a difference, in a positive way, to a lot of people and I feel that in not finding a way of persuading others to embrace the ideas, I’m letting all those people down. OK, they might get by quite happily without my contribution, but I can’t help thinking that my contribution could be very good. I might be wrong about that, but my sense is that I am not.
I can’t fight the denials and the doubters single-handedly. There’s too many of them and just me fighting for my ideas, more often than not. I hate fighting. It takes so much energy, it’s so stressful and it’s such a seeming waste of time, when I could be making things. I’m just not very good at it, either, evidently. I can change so much about the world, but I can’t turn denial into acceptance – certainly not single-handedly. And it’s true that if we, as a society, don’t learn to curb our collective denial and doubt, how can it ever be better?
So, that’s my dilemma: how can it be better?