We are, I’m getting the impression, having a human moment. At least, some of the online commentariat seem to be. Umair Haque – whose Betterness: Economics for Humans was an intriguing read – is pondering the socio-economic reboot most people seem to be muttering about us needing, and directing our thoughts to starting with the purpose. Or, as he put it his Next Big Thing blog post at Harvard Business Review:

I’d bet the farm, the house, and the Apple shares on the following proposition: Our institutions are failing not merely because they’re bankrupting us financially, but because they’re bankrupting us in human terms — that, having become something like Alcatrazes for the human soul, they fail to ignite within us the searing potential for the towering accomplishments necessary to answer today’s titanic challenges.”

This is heady stuff, ripe with the whiff of heavy lifting undertaken in the search for meaning, or ways of creating and unearthing it. Umair is adamant that the first great concern is with what makes us “searingly, painfully, achingly, enduringly, joyously human” – not with enhancing productivity or efficiency. As he argues, we’ve been pretty inventive at those over the centuries – even over the last few years (imagine how bewildering today would look if you stepped directly through a door from, say, 1987) – but it’s a lot less clear-cut as to what we’ve ‘solved’ has been what most needed fixing.

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Our blog has crossed paths – or perhaps run in parallel with – Peter Cook of The Academy of Rock/Human Dynamics/Punk Rock HR on several occasions, and happily so. Closer attention on my part to one of his recent blog postings – Let’s pretend we’re married – Getting engaged – was sparked by what some people now seem to call ‘life events’, in that I’ve recently done the latter and am in the middle of planning what is now being referred to at home as The Big Day™.

For me, the pun of ‘engagement’ is so easy and obvious, but I’m not convinced that I believe the parallel between pro-actively participating at work and pro-actively participating at home is a realistic or fair one. I appreciate that the changes we’ve witnessed in modern life might mean we superficially look as if the opening stages – carefully crafting and positioning an online profile that shows you as the ideal candidate, while simultaneously reviewing the profiles of others to try to read between the lines and ponder the curious omissions – are fairly similar.
But even this overlooks inconvenient differences. Some have been more attractive than others, but no future employer has ever caught my eye across a crowded room and made my heart skip a beat. Nor have any suitors requested that I submit my CV to a third-party consultant for vetting and appraisal, or sit a series of psychometric tests. (Although the latter might have meant that one or two cases of terminal incompatibility came to light before the waiter brought the coffees.)

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Many old sayings have tangled histories or ambiguous meanings that we often overlook. Is it “A friend in need is a friend in deed’, or should it end with ‘a friend indeed’? A subtle difference, you might say, or you might just snort and agree with Benny Hill that ‘a friend in need is a bloody nuisance’? One version of the phrase’s history suggests it came to us from the Latin ‘‘Amicu certus in re incerta cernitur‘, which translates rather less ambiguously as ‘a sure friend is known when in difficulty’ – it is not our ‘friend’ that is in need but us, and their friendship is revealed through their support.

It’s not the only phrase about friendship and relationships that has become a well-worn cliché. Another that springs to mind is “you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family”. And family can be a very loaded word: after all, family relationships are ones that we cannot distance ourselves from lightly, or abandon or move on from without emotional upset to at least one party. And views about the nature, meaning and importance of family are often tightly held and hotly contested.

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It might sound like a service station from a Douglas Adams’ novel, but The Rhetoric-Reality Gap is an old chestnut of working life. I’ll spare their blushes, but I noticed that a module offered by one University’s School of Management has as its aim the intention to:

“develop students’ understanding of the rhetoric and reality of management practice in global firms”.

I read on for any mention that the two may differ or even diverge, but I read in vain. The existence of both entities is one of those things that usually just goes unspoken, I guess. Indeed, in some organisations the gap can be so large that the proverbial service station could easily be accommodated: the bigger issue would be how much of what it offered you would be prepared to swallow. But whenever the concept rears its (two-faced?) head, I always think there’s another ‘R’ missing: Ridicule. As Mel Brooks once said:

Rhetoric does not get you anywhere, because Hitler and Mussolini are just as good at rhetoric. But if you can bring these people down with comedy, they stand no chance.”

(Hitler himself once said that “The broad masses of a population are more amenable to the appeal of rhetoric than to any other force”, which simultaneously belies an unpleasant view of humanity and stakes a claim for one of this difficult figure’s undoubted talents.) There comes a time when too great a gap between rhetoric and reality puts a nasty rip in the speaker’s Emperor’s New Clothes. The resulting flash of Emperor’s Old Buttock understandably inspires the audience to either revulsion or, if the Emperor is more fortunate, satire and mirth. If you’re coming across as the last person in the room to have noticed how big The Gap has got, you certainly won’t be coming across as Inspiring Visionary. Indeed, people may be contemplating having a whip round to get you a white stick and a Labrador.

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Books that take a big picture theme and attempt to explain it clearly, preferably with a sprinkling of anecdotes, are in vogue. Alain de Botton recently brought us Religion for Atheists, while Sunstein and Thaler brought us Nudge, which proposed a ‘third way’ (while trying not to call it that) between paternalism and libertarianism. Amusing us with tales of insects painted onto urinals to encourage a sense of direction, they also took aim – in a more metaphorical sense – at behavioural economics, explaining how a cheese and wine party hosted by ‘Econs’ might turn out. (Fabulously for those who look primarily for efficiency as the sign of a good party, it would appear.)

Masters of Management, a fairly updated version of the earlier The Witch Doctors (an absolute classic, available from Amazon for £0.01 at time of writing, and still eminently readable), shares this ever-so-slightly-down-the-bridge-of-one’s-nose view of the labouring millions, as one might expect from a writer schooled by The Economist. There are one or two things that the reader has to take for granted -not least that this is a by-product of The Economist, and that free market theories will be politely and eruditely defended while egalitarian tendencies can expect criticism. But a few sacred cows are declared fair game along the way, and if not exactly slaughtered then at the least given quite a public carpeting. And the wider world also makes a welcome intrusion. Though it’s not the kind of book to use such a flippant example, were it to view, say, Cabaret through economists’ eyes, it wouldn’t stop at commenting on the skilful deployment of a low-cost pool of creative labour (the turns), the ironic brand-positioning (the band), and the approach to a potentially hostile demographic (selling drinks and ‘services’ to the SS). It would also point out that the rise of fascism and the advent of war was going to have a disastrous impact on more than just the bar’s P&L account.

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Maybe it’s because the news is so heavily dominated by economic issues and the possible fates of European countries – waking up to the Today programme is becoming more and more like having someone murmur a Financial Times leader column at you through your pillow – but the ‘countries are just like companies’ analogy seems to be going viral. There was an example recently at Inc – Understanding the Euro Crisis: Imagine Italy Was Your Business – that was very wittily written, and actually quite a good way of explaining the interconnectedness of the European economic situation to anyone that’s been living under a rock since 2008.

Explaining things in ways that the unfamiliar can readily grasp is a proven pedagogic technique that I’m not decrying. But oversimplifying things so people think they’ve grasped something they’ve completed misunderstood is a different kettle of fish. It can be done comic effect, such as Alan Coren’s commentary on the density of the Belgian population –

For the same reason, the sprout was developed by Brussels agronomists, this being the largest cabbage a housewife could possibly carry through the teeming streets.”

but an awareness of the dangers of being taken seriously is a handy thing in any comedian.

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