The need for other people's approval and admiration is so great that executives deny themselves of authentic lives
The faith of the unquestioning reader is lack of courage-The real purpose of study is finally to aid decision making
This prologue is necessary for the series of six essays that are to follow in this column. It begins with Francis Bacon, one of the thought leaders of the time who altered the way thinking happens, research is done and documented – a movement from faith to science, from theocracy to democracy – that finally led to the establishment of the ‘scientific temperament’ aided by Copernicus and Galileo.
The near total destruction of Rome by the Vandals and the Barbarians from Central Asia threw Europe into a quagmire of darkness and superstitious practices that masqueraded as catholic religion’s operation paradigm. Often times referred to as the dark ages, Europe ploughed through this disdainful period with incredible cruelty brought on by the tyrannous but symbiotic relationships between the church and the kind (who was God’s representative on earth and as such whatever he did had the sanction and sacred participation of God himself). Europe forgot the glory and the civilizational acme of Rome and Greece pretty much like how 19th century India forgot its ancient glory until brought forward by the like of Muller, Jones and James Princep.
The crusades -- a 300 year conflict between Christianity and Islam -- accidentally made available the ancient knowledge stored away in the libraries of Persia thus causing a European Renaissance (revival). From there on there was no looking back and Europe went on to win the race to modernity, technology, and social and economic transformation. A more fundamental transformation in thought led to social revolutions that resulted in the modern states of Europe as we experience them.
This prologue is necessary for the series of six essays that are to follow in this column. We begin with one of the thought leaders of the time who altered the way thinking happens, research is done and documented -- a movement from faith to science, from theocracy to democracy — that finally led to the establishment of the ‘scientific temperament’ aided by Copernicus and Galileo. Francis Bacon is our hero here. Of the contributions that Bacon made, to my mind his Essays are the foremost. I will treat three of his any essays -- Of Adversity, Of Ambition and Of Studies. My choice of the three essays is influenced by my desire to make it a trifle more relevant for the corporate executives, although the value of the essays far exceeds my intention.
Adversity refers to that component in our lives that comes unexpected, creates difficulties, leads to pain loss and often times permanent scars too. But Bacon insists it’s like the dues you pay for the greater growth, greater good and finally for the actualization of who you are. A philosophy that encourages you to engage with adversity, nay invite it, is finally intended to bring you face to face with your own authenticity. From Shakespeare we know “Sweet are the uses of adversity” -- not adversity as its uses. “Certainly virtue is like precious odors,” says Bacon, “most fragrant when they are crushed.” While you rush to think what a cliché! Bacon punches his line, “…for prosperity doth best discover vice but adversity doth best discover virtue.” When he insists: “The virtue of prosperity is temperance, the virtue of adversity is in fortitude,” he is commenting on human nature as the one that tends to the path of least resistance but seeks only the path of maximum advantage. Nature allows no such luxury! Therefore seek out adversity. Look for things to get into and not for things to get out of! Do more, be more and become better. All growth happens in the discomfort zone. Habit and routine happen in the comfort zone. For those of us who don’t die early, we will die of smelly diseases.
Ambition: This is the sterner stuff of corporate executives specially those who are expected to be aggressive, go getters, dominant operating in a world of ‘cut-throat competition’ where I am told ‘dogs-eat-dogs’. Failing to do so is seen as one more ‘talent biting the dust’. The need for other people’s approval and admiration is so great that executives deny themselves of authentic lives. Ambition, says Bacon, is a disease and distinguishes it from aspiration in which ambition has something raw and uncompromising about it. The individual is too much at the centre of the universe and over a period of time alienates others and isolates himself. If ambition is stopped or it cannot have its way, observes Bacon, it becomes mal-adjusting and ‘thereby malign and venomous’. While this is just a statement for personal application; it does throw light on those in your team or group who are ambitious but do not have adequate opportunities (inside or outside the organization), will end up sabotaging you and derive private glee from the fact. A VP in an advertising firm points how many senior executives have taken home loans and are committed to an EMI that now dictates their life whether or not they like the work, boss, colleagues. The pathetic visual of a senior executive trapped by the various indulgent loans he has taken is nothing but a kind of a modern-day bonded laborer!
So, if ambitious men be “cheated in their desires, they become secretly discontent, look upon men and matters with an evil eye, and are best pleased when things go backwards.” But if you are an astute student of human behaviors, you may still spare yourself these pitfalls. Not only that, Bacon advises that “ambitious men can be used in pulling down the greatness of any subject that over-tops.”
Finally, what Stephen Covey calls ‘sharpening the say’ -- the seventh habit of successful people - Study. This is to my mind the most quotable of Bacons essays and much of what he said has now entered the proverb domain bordering on the clichéd. But let not that fool you! “Crafty men condemn studies, simple men admire them and wise men use them.” The purpose of study in the finest analysis is ‘use’ or application. They may have multiple uses -- for delight (best for leisure and retiring) and for ornamentation (when in discourse or arguing or teaching). But the chief benefit is “for ability -- for judgment and disposition in businesses.”
Bacon like Aristotle insisted on the golden mean - the middle path, the avoidance of extremes. He says, “To spend too much time in study is sloth; to use them too much for ornamentation is affectation (pretence, showing off), to make judgment wholly by their rules, is the humor of the scholar.” Study perfects nature and it is self perfected by experience. Bacon further warns: “Read not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider.”
Therefore, the joy of the argumentative intellectual is compensatory, the faith of the unquestioning reader is lack of courage -- the real purpose of study is finally to aid decision making. Leaders are all the time making decisions. Those that appear on the cover of Forbes or Time magazines are the ones who have made path breaking decisions -- who are balanced, studied with experience and reflection and who have followed their calling uncompromisingly. Now they can make products that ‘create a dent in the universe’ -- the man who urges you to stay hungry and foolish not sensible and satiated with ponderous fat!
Finally, “reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.” Seek, therefore, thou perfection. Live each day as though it was your last. Live intensely as though your hair was on fire.
Bacon died of pneumonia doing one of his experiments (stuffing a chicken with snow to observe the effect of cold on decaying meat), but not before he had ushered in a period calling ‘enlightenment’ in Europe.