A larger identity

Every now and then my inbox feeds me something unexpected that changes the way I see things. This week it was Matthew Taylor’s RSA Chief Executive’s lecture, The Power to Create:

It came at the right time. Having been made redundant a couple of months ago, I have been thinking a good deal about what I should be doing with my life. It’s not a quick or straightforward process, but neither should it be. It has certainly not come up with a slick answer, but it has been a surprising gift of an opportunity, and has started what I hope will be a long and fruitful train of thought.

The problem is this. In the meantime I am expected to apply for jobs. I have edited and dissected and refined and polished my CV; I have submitted applications by the megabyte. In the process, I am starting to learn some awkward things about what makes employers tick.

As my job applications have flooded out over the last couple of months, and the rejections have flooded back in, I am hearing over and over again, “This is no reflection on you, Ben; it’s just that there are other applicants who are already doing this kind of job, and whose experience matches what we need more exactly.”

For the most part I’m not too disappointed. Many of my applications are for jobs outside my comfort zone, or at least outside my direct experience, on the grounds that I have transferable skills and would welcome a new challenge – although I do and I would.

Equally, however well worded a job description and person specification may be, it’s impossible to gauge from outside what the employer is really looking for, in terms of the focus of the role and the fit with the team. Chalk it up to experience, then; file away the application documents and try to improve on them next time.

Matthew, however, as he has done more that once in the past, forced me to think about what I’m trying to achieve with each of these job applications – beyond the obvious aim of finding gainful employment, that is.

Essentially, applying for jobs is a matter of shoehorning my past experience, skills and strengths into what I believe the employer wants. Indeed, two applications for jobs on the fringes of the Civil Service were admirably clear about the “core competencies” I needed to demonstrate, and I wrote what I thought was a strong response to the qualities they were looking for. (Two straight rejections without interview, for the record.)

Things can get bent out of shape that way.

Reading through some of my past applications, I’m struck that they are all true as far as they go, but not one of them really describes me or the things that make me tick.

That led me back to another life-changing inbox moment, two years ago almost to the day, when a friend sent me this extract from John Eldredge’s book The Sacred Romance. (You know who you are, and if you’re reading this, thank you. Again.)

Starting very early, life has taught all of us to ignore and distrust the deepest yearnings of our heart. Life, for the most part, teaches us to suppress our longing and live only in the external world where efficiency and performance are everything. We have learned from parents and peers, at school, at work, and even from our spiritual mentors that something else is wanted from us other than our heart, which is to say, that which is most deeply us. Very seldom are we ever invited to live out of our heart. If we are wanted, we are often wanted for what we can offer functionally. If rich, we are honored for our wealth; if beautiful, for our looks; if intelligent, for our brains. So we learn to offer only those parts of us that are approved, living out a carefully crafted performance to gain acceptance from those who represent life to us. We divorce ourselves from our heart and begin to live a double life. Frederick Buechner expresses this phenomenon in his biographical work, Telling Secrets:

“[Our] original shimmering self gets buried so deep we hardly live out of it at all . . . rather, we learn to live out of all the other selves which we are constantly putting on and taking off like coats and hats against the world’s weather”

Fine words, you may say (I’ve quoted them before and make no apology for doing so again), but isn’t that a bit much to ask of a job application? I don’t believe so, no. Matthew Taylor cited an alarming statistic: 43% of the workforce, 13 million people in the UK, report that they aren’t using their potential and skills at work. (13:15 in the YouTube clip, if you want to hear the context.) No doubt many of them were thinking of their professional or technical potential and skills; I suspect it applies even more to our real selves, our hearts and souls.

In his book Wild at Heart, Eldredge quotes philosopher and theologian Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” It’s an appealing idea, but not one that features strongly in job descriptions or person specifications. The question “What makes me come alive?” isn’t susceptible to a soundbite answer, though; it is one to which I could easily spend the rest of my life crafting a reply.

Matthew Taylor makes an important point about this. “Our creations,” he says, “…are only possible because of the people around us.” (3:35 on YouTube, and it’s worth listening to that bit.) I come alive, in other words, in response to the people around me, the people whose lives I touch and who touch mine in return. (In specifically creative terms, there is a parallel here with Salley Vickers‘ observation that a book isn’t complete until a reader engages with it.)

In this context I confess that I’m probably more motivated by “Love thy neighbour as thyself” than I am by Matthew’s political arguments. Personal connection is infinitely more powerful than abstract ideals. Human beings were always intended to live in relationship with each other, and it is those relationships that bring meaning, purpose and, yes, happiness – to me at any rate. That is one thing that makes me come alive, in the workplace every bit as much as in the rest of my life.

Seventeen years or so ago, during a job interview, one of the interviewers cut across a rather rambling comment I was making to ask me, “What makes Ben Bennetts tick?” At the time I was lost for words. (I didn’t get the job. They didn’t appoint at all, in fact. The interviewer, on the other hand, went on to become our Chief Executive.) Seventeen years on, I would love to be asked the same question, but I’ve yet to find an employer who will ask it.

I’m beginning to think that for my next job application, alongside my narrow, carefully word-counted response to the “core competencies” and the person specification, I should send in a covering letter about my real self – my passions, my quirks, my love of language and music and human connection, my heartfelt indifference towards football, my distrust of measuring success or achievement or goodness by what can be quantified, my intolerance of life-defying meetings-for-the-sake-of-meetings, the buzz that I get from exploring new ideas. What I am is me, it would say; do you think I could bring anything of value to your organisation? And do you think you have something more to show me about who I really am and what I have to offer? Can you help me to become my best and truest self?

If you can, let’s talk.


Click here for more posts reflecting on aspects of my career.

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6 Responses to A larger identity

  1. margaretskea Author of prize winning historical novel Turn of the Tide says:

    Thank you for this thought-provoking post, Ben.

  2. James Sims Williams says:

    Great post Ben. I thoroughly recommend the book “What Colour is Your Parachute” as a route to finding the answer to “what makes you alive?”

  3. Pingback: Taking responsibility for our words | Things Unrespected

  4. philipparees says:

    Go do exactly that Ben. What have you to lose? The employer that responds to that will be the man/woman who deserves you! Glad to have made a sort of contact again. Courage mon ami!

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