Charles Handy says that the lessons to be learned from a dying Frenchman's book may be simple but they are all too often overlooked.
On 8 December 1995 Jean-Dominique Bauby, a 42-year-old father of two and editor-in-chief of Elle magazine in Paris, suffered a massive stroke and slipped into a coma. When he regained consciousness three weeks later, he was speechless and, it appeared, completely paralysed. It was later discovered that in fact he was still able to move just one muscle: his left eyelid. Yet his mind remained as active and alert as ever. Most of us, finding ourselves in such circumstances would despair and hope to die. Not Jean-Do, as his friends called him. He decided to write a book - a mammoth task, given his condition. He 'dictated' the book by blinking to indicate each individual character in each word from an alphabet that was repeatedly read out to him by an incredibly devoted assistant.
It is, as you will well understand, a short book, but one filled with humour as well as poignancy. Trapped within his own body, he had all the time in the world to reflect on life and to observe what was going on around him with a shrewd and philosophical eye. He died a few days after the book was published as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, (Fourth Estate, £9.99), having in the meantime also established the ALIS (Association du Locked-In Syndrome). It is the sort of book that sets one thinking about life and its imponderables, as well as some of the oddities of organisations and the people in them.
My first reflection, after putting the book down, was one of wonder and admiration for someone who could summon up the energy and the determination to accomplish so much with so little.
Those of us who have so much more can too often squander all our time and talents on mere trivialities. But how wise was Jean-Do, for life without a purpose is a sort of living death, even if you can walk and talk and work in ways that he was no longer able to. Some jobs are so designed that they lock their holders into something not too different from Jean-Do's diving bell, turning them into passive 'role occupants' with no chance of influencing their own environment or making any difference to their world. To get through the day is task enough. A purpose and a project of their own must be a distant dream, at least until they get home in the evening. Diving bell jobs may look efficient but they can be a living death for their occupants and therefore ineffective in the long term.
Those who avidly look forward to retirement as being the end of their diving bell job should beware lest they create a new bell when the chance exists to be the butterfly that Jean-Do aspired to. Work in retirement may be different. If I had the power, I would banish the word retirement from the English language and re-christen it independence. Now 65, I am more than happy to describe myself as a pensioner, but retired is something I shall never be. If someone like Jean-Do, in his situation, refused to accept that he could no longer make a difference to the world why, I wonder, should any of us do less?
My second reflection concerns the importance of communication. If we can't communicate, we don't exist and, as a corollary, if we don't let people communicate, we are ignoring their existence.
Jean-Do found one way to communicate but imagine the frustration that he felt when taking telephone calls to which he was unable to respond in any way, or when the nurses ignored his eyelid. His most frustrating moment in hospital occurred when the nurse turned off the television by his bed in the middle of the Marseilles/Munich football match, ignoring his furiously blinking eyelid. Those who don't exercise their right to communicate in organisations are inviting others to forget they exist, and those who ignore attempts by their colleagues to communicate their feelings are effectively saying 'you don't matter around here'. There is nothing more damaging to the human spirit than to feel you don't exist for anyone.
Which brings me to my third reflection, one which concerns those issues that are truly of importance. As Jean-Do reflected on his life, his exciting job, the advertising agency that he had started, the many famous people he had met, the great meals he had eaten - and he tasted each one of those meals again in his memory during the long days and nights - he realised that it was all as dust, that it was, instead, his love for his children and their love for him that mattered more, his father's affection as well as the enduring support of his true friends. In a way, he was lucky, he had 15 months to savour and appreciate them all, and to realise the depth of their fondness for him, an appreciation which made the fact of his existence feel worthwhile. He had enjoyed a kind of sabbatical, albeit an enforced one in far from pleasant conditions.
Many of us think that we have no time, at present, for such niceties and miss ever having these insights until it is all too late.
Purpose and projects, communicate or die, love and friendship - all rather obvious really, but because of that, too readily taken for granted and too often neglected. Let us hope that none of us has to suffer a stroke or awake to find ourselves paralysed in order to be reminded of their critical importance to life and to work.