Disruptor or Dancer?

In his best-selling book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, Ken Robinson tells the story of a young girl who simply didn’t fit into society in the way that most of us are expected to fit in. In school she couldn’t settle, constantly chatted and fidgeted, and often disrupted the class. The school decided that she must have had what we would refer to today as ADHD and sent her off to a psychologist. In short, the school was hoping that she would be referred to a ‘special school’ in order to remove her as a distracting influence. The young girl went to the psychologist with her parents. He asked her and her parents lots of questions whilst concentrating on everything she said and did. This made her feel uncomfortable but on some level she knew this man was important to her.

After about 20 minutes the psychologist put on some music and asked the young girl to wait whilst he and her parents went out of the room to talk in private. The young girl, thinking that her parents and the psychologist couldn’t see her (when in fact they could through a small window in the door of the office), began to dance with a grace and expression of pleasure. The psychologist turned to her parents and said ‘She isn’t sick, she’s a dancer. Take her to a dance school!’ This young girl was Gillian Lynne who went on to dance for the Royal Ballet Company and eventually choreographed the Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals Cats and The Phantom of the Opera.

Old ways of thinking and being

I have always been touched by this story (and many others like it) because it says something about our society. A society that continues to insist, albeit more subtly than the days prior to the enlightenment, that we be, think and do things a certain way. This occurs for many reasons. One of those is the need to comply with a narrow set of expectations built around an industrialised and capitalised society, underpinned by a sense of duty to follow rules and the need to live a life of ‘thou shalt / I should’.

Linked to this is the Protestant work ethic. An ethic based upon a premise that salvation and forgiveness can only be found through working hard within a vocation whilst applying severe discipline and demands for obedience. I am sure those who advocated such an ethic meant well 300 years ago, but it doesn’t serve us so well now, even though it still pervades throughout western society.

So why do I raise it?

One of the great privileges of being in senior executive leadership and management for so many years is that I have the opportunity to mentor people, sometimes through formal university executive Masters programs, but more often than not, through chance meetings and unfolding conversations that lead to requests for mentoring.

Without exception, all those that I mentor are incredibly talented people who are genuinely not only trying, but making a difference to the world in which they live.

Whilst all of them are uniquely following their life path and the talents that they bring, they also share a common ethic of caring about what they do, seeking to ensure that they are effective in the world, and perhaps most importantly, having a genuine concern for others.

They also share a common story, a story that very few people ever get to hear. Each one of these great people brought a gift to the world as a young child, but for most of them, the world couldn’t see it. The world was too caught up in ‘thou shalt / I should!’ Often they were told that they were ‘too sensitive’.

One of my dear friends recalls that she took this so seriously that she thought she ‘should’ join the Army to toughen up! (I’m not kidding!). She’s now studying to be a social worker. Another, as a young boy without the skills to master his sensitivity, became bullied and had to fight his way out of his childhood. Ironically, he’s now a firefighter! Go figure!

Don’t give up on realising and sharing your gift

Joseph Campbell often said that if we didn’t follow our ‘bliss’, that thing that makes our heart sing, the thing that brings meaning and purpose to our world, then we were living in the wasteland of ‘thou shalt / I should!’ He also said that if we followed our ‘bliss’ the money would come. That the pursuit of wealth at the expense of meaning and purpose was the wrong path, but that living in accordance with the gift(s) that we brought to this world would eventually lead either to a fulfilling vocation or career, or our vocation or career would support us in achieving our purpose.

In Hinduism, such a gift is referred to as one’s Dharma or purpose in life. The need for, the effect of, and the essence of service and interconnectedness of all life. That is, our capacity, through our unique gifts, to participate meaningfully through everything we think, say or do in the world that presents before us.

For many, this is a deeply held truth that some have had the opportunity to realise, whilst, due to a range of circumstances, others haven’t. Life isn’t always fair and for some, whilst they brought a gift, they feel as though they haven’t had the opportunity to bring it to the world in a way that would benefit themselves and others. If this is you, I would say this. Have another look. I think you’ll find that despite your external circumstances, your gift is still available to the world, although you may not realise it. I’ll say more about it in my next blog, but trust me, external circumstances, including a world that cannot see your gift due to the need for ‘thou shalt’, cannot constrain it.

If you’re not sure what it is, ask a trusted person who knew you well as a child, or even if that isn’t available to you, reflect back on your childhood with wisdom, and you’ll see it. Except this time, rather than denying it or living through ‘thou shalt / I should’, use your wisdom or find a trusted person who can help you to bring it into the world. It is a gift the world desperately needs. It’s never too late, trust me!