Having recently spent, what I’d like to consider, a healthy proportion of the school holidays watching cartoons with my children I was struck by the creation that is Never Never Land, depicted by JM Barrie as a dream-like fantasy world inhabited by Peter Pan, the Lost Boys, Captain Hook and a realm of other fascinating characters. It made me think about the whole concept of escapism that all of us, no matter how old, have the urge or need to venture into at some point. And about the role of ‘dreaming’ as opposed to cold, hard logic and realism.
Of course, Never Never Land is also a real place – the remote, largely uninhabited outback Australian regions in the Northern Territory and Queensland. Interestingly, European emigrants had a different interpretation of the name to the Aboriginals. To the Europeans, it was a place you would “never, never” go; the locals, by contrast, saw it as more like a “state of mind and a folk-memory that recalls the pre-settlement outback life with fondness”.
My childish view was that Never Never Land encapsulated a place of dreams, where reality could be challenged and the constraints of logic and seriousness could be suspended. Of course, with that comes the persistent challenge of constraint, tugging at the hem to eventually unravel and reveal what can truly be achieved when adversity is overcome – good versus evil, Pan versus Hook, etc.
So I’d like to allow myself to go to Never Never Land for a moment, and I hope you’ll follow. Think of it as the chance to explore the continuum that moves from self-awareness at one end to a utopian dreamlike state at the other, and let’s explore the risks associated with being totally open to ideas – and the risk of potential self-delusion.
I work every day with leaders of very large organisations. Many of them associate creativity, risk taking, thinking on your feet and self-transcendence as aspects of that utopian destination – a place they may journey to, but mostly in their dreams because the reality of corporate life doesn’t allow them to go there.
Self-awareness vs fixed mind
Am I alone in finding it fascinating that the language that organisations (and I use the term ‘organisations’ in terms of a collective consciousness) use suggests the opposite state of affairs, often promoting creativity and risk-taking and open thinking in their top talent, yet not actually role-modelling it. What is the risk? What’s holding us back? Is taking that step into the unknown, that jump into the unexpected, really that frightening? Organisations often talk about creating environments within their cultures that will move them from compliance to creativity, Are they holding back from doing so more publicly because the destination is (vocally or tacitly) seen as farcical and childish?
Ponder the opposite state of affairs for a moment (if blogs had stage instructions, there would be one here saying “Enter Hook, cackling”): being fixed minded and closed to the possibilities inherent in ideas and – in the broadest sense of the word – dreams. Of course, there’s a benefit: drawing up the shutters to daydreaming and wondering ‘what if I …?’ it protects us from self-delusion. Spend too much time with your head in the clouds and you’ll always be the second star to the right, not the one seen as dependable or realistic. And you can argue that not opening yourself to the risks associated with creative ideas is a way to become more resilient to the ‘real world’, and to remain grown-up and logical in our thinking. However, please consider a quote from Matthew Syed in his book Bounce:
Even if the sparks that ignite us are sometimes enigmatic, lost in the deep and unfathomable mysteries of the mind, one thing is certain: if your chosen destination is within the domain of excellence, you’d better have a growth mindset. Why? Because a spark ignited in a fixed mind is likely to be extinguished at the first sign of failure?”
Those of you who are old enough can whistle a few bars of Supertramp’s “The Logical Song” at this point”. The others among us can perhaps reflect that, while there can be merits to being intractable and maintaining a set position in relation to the world, these merits are also attributes of bollards – not usually considered a role model.
Living whose dream?
Musing aloud, I wondered about other parallels. Self-awareness is a value starting point in both personal and leadership development, but projecting a certain persona or creating a framework within which you present yourself or your ideas or your plan are also part of the development and implementation jigsaw. The balance between reality and projection here can have some significant consequences.
All politicians will have tropes: Tony Blair was ever anxious to promote the ‘new’-ness of everything, while David Cameron rarely completes a sentence without ‘fairness’. But part of self-awareness is recognising that the image you are striving to project – to encourage perception of newness or fairness (or Tinker Bell and a marauding pirate, or …) – has a perception from its audience too. Think of George Orwell’s 1984 and Newspeak: Big Brother (no, not that one) may have hoped – or even believed – that the people collectively agreed with the world as Newspeak framed it, but (as Orwell suggests) that’s not necessarily the case. A ‘collective consciousness’ – whether it’s the ‘proles’ belief in Big Brother, or committed employee engagement in an organisation to a new vision or mission – happens when the audience aren’t thinking ‘fantasist’. Barrie gets excused as he’s writing a kid’s book, not a mission statement – and because we allow our children to dream more wildly than we do ourselves.
The art – for those us of in the working world rather than the children’s library or on the sofa with a DVD and our offspring around us – is in recognising the balance. Too much literalism, and every spark will be still born. Fill your corporate mine shaft with the mental equivalent of carbon monoxide, and presto! Dead canaries, every time. (Remember Matthew Syed?)
Too much daydreaming and the focus on outcomes can be lost, but other things can be more subtly lost too. Projecting a mission or a vision or a framework too far along that realism-fantasy continuom for too long and short-term dividends (such as controlling the scope of the debate) can be lost. And so can the faith and respect of those around you: we may quite like a daydreamer if they have other qualities, but a pathological Walter Mitty isn’t anyone’s idea of the ideal colleague.
And these unrealistic daydreams can become prisons for their creators too: Big Brother had no other way to think beyond Newspeak – there was no flexibility to respond to changes in the world around it, or changes in the reaction of the fictional public. In real life, fantasies tend to fail, get enforced through rigid control and terror (as they are essentially implausible), or restricted to strictly prescribed circumstances (the most printable example off the top of my head is games of Dungeons and Dragons).
I later came across the music of the band U.N.K.L.E .and their album Never, Never, Land (partly inspired by Barrie): those commas in the title changed the meaning of the words completely for me, representing very accurately the fact that nothing is constant: we truly never, never, land.
The challenge, perhaps, is to strike the happy medium while we struggle to remain airborne. Facing a challenging world, we need to be realistic enough to accept the lie of the land for what it is (even if we’re going to Never Never Land, we have to get there from where we are), but not to rigidly anchor ourselves to too many aspects of it. Our world is one of constant flux: unless you know exactly how the tides are going to change, chaining yourself to a rock can be as good a way of drowning as of surviving.
Casting off completely, however, can leave you simply adrift. And blue-sky thinking has a time and a place but try to remember that some visions need medication, not implementation. Nonetheless, encouraging a culture – or space for discussions – that allow ‘what if?’ to be not just asked but answered, and where ideas can circulate and percolate does mean that we don’t necessarily need to trap ourselves in our individual, hyper-realistic personal cages.
Sharing and exploring with others might be more than just a way of bouncing around the ideas till they take shape (and getting feedback and fresh input from others, quietly unlocking themselves from their own little cages): it might be a way of encouraging them to share a more plausible dream – and helping each other to build it.