Thanks to: Heather Gordon
I have been looking at how small business owners can feel isolated and discovered we maybe need to start a conversation.
My research uncovered Professor Zeldin. Check out this article:
NOBODY would dare describe an encounter with Theodore Zeldin as an interview. The author, historian, philosopher, management consultant, Oxford don and all-round brainbox doesn’t do interviews. Professor Zeldin does conversation. Having written a book on how talk can change your life, he sees every one-to-one discourse as an adventure: a chance to learn a little bit about life from someone else’s perspective. And he has a habit of lobbing questions right back into the interviewer’s court.
“But what do you think?” he says. I’ve just asked about the professor’s role in this week’s SuperHumanism symposium – a cerebral talking shop about creating a more human-centred society, ambitiously billed as “one day to save the world”. And now Zeldin is quizzing me. “You seem like an interesting person. I’d love to hear your ideas.”
Interest, empathy, respect and perhaps a hint of flattery: these are the hallmarks of the conversational style which, seven years ago, inspired two dozen women from around the world to talk openly to Zeldin about their emotional lives as he compiled his seminal book An Intimate History Of Humanity – a radical alternative history of the world. Zeldin truly believes that conversation, the kind in which people are brave enough to open themselves to strangers, can help turn this stress-filled, ego-driven world into a happier, more collaborative place.
Our problem is that society has not kept pace with human evolution. Having conquered the struggle for survival, what we all want now is love, understanding, friendship and respect. All those despots and high-flyers trampling over others in determination to get to the top are, believes Zeldin, simply looking in the wrong place for admiration – craving an outmoded kind of respect which comes from climbing the social hierarchy, earning lots of money and wearing fancy clothes.
“The more we study those who have that kind of success,” he says, in his gentle, slightly un-English sounding voice, “the more we see how lonely and inadequate that success is, and what rotten lives many of these great chief executive officers lead.”
Crucially, it is the emancipation of women which has demonstrated the error of our point-scoring ways by “expanding what the idea of work and existence should be”. Women have always communicated more collaboratively than men; not, Zeldin stresses, because their emotional make-up is genetically different but because of their differing experiences. “Men have been victims of a career world in which they’ve had to pretend to be strong, to know the answers, to avoid questions which might diminish them,” he says. The important new social dynamic is the conversation between men and women who, for the first time in history, are “trying to understand each other without forcing each other to obey or to change themselves”.
Zeldin, a fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford, is a member of the BBC Brains Trust. He featured in The Independent On Sunday’s list of the top 40 world figures whose ideas “are likely to have lasting relevance for the new millennium”, and his intellectual focus on everyday human issues has won him widespread popularity. Currently engaged in EC-funded research into creating a new vision of work, his views are increasingly sought by large corporations seeking to create a more fulfilling working climate.
What’s wrong with the status quo, believes Zeldin, is that existing jobs do not correspond to the kind of human beings we have become. Increasingly, our work and education systems have forced us to specialise. “As you go higher up the scale you narrow and decrease the scope of your knowledge until you know an enormous amount about very little.” Too many of us, he says, feel trapped within uninspiring roles. We are, in effect, wage slaves for huge corporations which were designed in the 19th century. Worst of all, having fallen into our careers when we were too young and inexperienced to know what we wanted, we are expected to keep hacking away at the same unrewarding jobs for 40 years. No wonder we’re miserable. “We need,” says Zeldin, “to invent a new kind of work which suits our aspirations as they change in the course of our lives.”
Zeldin himself is a polymath who refuses to be pigeonholed. Born in British Palestine and schooled in Egypt, he went to Oxford University at just 15. A brilliant historian, he switched his academic focus from French civilisation to human emotions, and has even been a novelist. “During my life, I have thrown away my intellectual capital on several occasions. As an historian, I became a world expert in a small part of history. As a specialist there are all sorts of inducements to turn that into power. But I didn’t want to.”
Now 68, he has reinvented himself again, this time as a kind of management guru with a mission to revolutionise the world of work. He wants to abolish the distinction between work and leisure because it “enables employers to keep workers in lousy jobs by granting them some leisure time”. Instead of seeing work as a difficult, painful activity, he thinks it ought to be “part of the whole business of existence”.
And what, I ask, about the distinction between work and family life? Working mothers in particular struggle to separate the two, inevitably bringing parental anxieties into the office and finding the time they spend with their children is marred by work worries. “You’re saying something very important,” enthuses the arch- conversationalist. “In the past, people’s children were with them while they worked.” Now, he says, we have segregated children – just as we have done with the old. “And the older we get, the more we realise it’s no good having a career up until you retire at 60 only to find there’s nothing more for you to do. You have to reinvent different activities as you go through life. You learn through experience. What you’ve chosen for the first part of your life is not necessarily what you’d choose for the second part.
“Today it’s not enough to live just one life. You want to live several lives. Very soon we’ll all live to 100. How can we imagine being able to do the same job for 50 or 60 years?”
Does Zeldin have a picture of how this new work structure would look? As it happens, he is in the process of inventing a new form of education, designed to help us all become generalists rather than specialists. He has called his intellectual baby the Oxford Muse, and it will offer a completely new kind of postgraduate scholarship to people of all ages who want to find out more about the various branches of human activity – for example agriculture, manufacturing, public health or commerce – from people who have experienced those fields.
“It’s called a muse because it is a source of inspiration rather than education or information in the traditional sense,” he explains. “The aim would not be to become an expert in these fields but to learn the language these people speak so you can see the whole menu of what humans do and therefore become a human in a much wider sense. ”
Into this melting pot would come people from all social classes and all walks of life, who would spend a few weeks or months conversing. The result would be a mutual expansion of horizons where everyone would get the chance to exercise their brain through what Zeldin calls “mental gymnastics”. He thinks we are so absorbed in improving our bodies that we have neglected the potential for training our minds.
Cerebral aerobics aside, Zeldin is a little vague about the details of his Muse – but he’s only been working on the plan for six months. He hopes the institution (he hates that word) will be established within a year, and that eventually similar bodies will spring up all over the world. Right now he is seeking financial support for the idea, but recoils at the notion of public backing lest his brainchild be suffocated at birth by a mountain of form- filling and bureaucracy. “A large number of people” are helping with the plan, but he can’t name names. They are not public figures but ordinary folk, “people like you”.