There is an article in the newspaper today about how hard it is for people to find work in depressed parts of the UK. It cites the example of Tracy, aged 46. She has applied for 200-300 jobs, 30 in the past week, but has had no interviews. Maybe, she says, “it’s because I have a lack of training and qualifications.”
Or maybe, on the other hand, it is because she has soft-tissue rheumatism and has to use a wheelchair outside the house. She finds email is the best way to apply for jobs, as holding a pen makes her hands stiffen up. Or maybe it is because retail and construction, the two main staple sources of low-skilled jobs are, in the words of a local official, “so,so dead in the water.” Or maybe it’s because in Tracy’s area there are 55 people chasing every vacancy.
In spite of all of this, Tracy says “If you don’t get a job, you have only yourself to blame.”
What’s going on here? It’s an extreme case of a very common problem; refusal or inability to acknowledge the role played by circumstances. I certainly don’t blame Tracy for not finding a job, but she does. I have a horrible feeling that she’s just going to keep plugging away, trying to stay positive, blaming herself for her failure, until she collapses from depression and self-hatred. It’s not a fate I would wish on anybody, but the syndrome is everywhere you look. You see it in people struggling to keep going in a job that just isn’t working for them any more. You see it in companies persisting in markets where they are no longer competitive, or are just dying.
“Staying positive” can, dangerously easily, slide into stubborn devotion to a lost cause. But its opposite, complete fatalism, is hardly an attractive alternative. What to do? The answer, it turns out, has been around for a while. Here is one of my favourite management thinkers:
“..not to extinguish our free will, I hold it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but that she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.”
That makes sense to me. It comes from Machiavelli’s The Prince (published 1532). There’s also some practical advice on how to deal with the fact that the world only partly responds to our actions:
“I conclude therefore that, fortune being changeful and mankind steadfast in their ways, so long as the two are in agreement men are successful, but unsuccessful when they fall out. ”
In summary: be realistic about how much influence you can have on the world. Adapt your plans to the circumstances. Easier said than done, and quite rarely seen.
What’s interesting about Machiavelli is that he is so old he’s actually radically new. He describes the period in which he writes as being characterised by “great changes in affairs which have been seen, and may still be seen, every day, beyond all human conjecture.” Things really mattered then. He was a government official in Florence. After a change in regime he fell out with his new management but instead of being sent on his way with a big payoff he was imprisoned and tortured. Altogether, Machiavelli’s world seems much more like the one we are entering than the one we are leaving today.