‘I Want To Be An Active Verb’: Striving To Be a Cause, Not an Effect

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, La Blanchisseuse

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, La Blanchisseuse

‘They’re all old here, except you and me…They never do anything: they only discuss whether what other people do is right. Come and give them something to discuss.’

Hypatia, ‘Misalliance’

Just before Christmas I saw ‘Misalliance’, a rarely performed play by George Bernard Shaw (at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond).

This light comedy from 1910 asks us to consider the constraints of class, convention, gender and the generational divide. It features Hypatia Tarleton, the daughter of a successful businessman, who is bored, restless and resentful. She repeatedly voices her frustration with the straitjacket of Edwardian society’s customs and codes:

'Men like conventions because men made them. I didn’t make them: I don’t like them. I won’t keep them.'

At one point Hypatia expresses her annoyance thus:

’I don't want to be good; and I don't want to be bad: I just don't want to be bothered about either good or bad: I want to be an active verb.’

A compelling choice of words. Clearly it’s not enough for Hypatia passively to be seen, admired, desired, chosen, judged. She yearns actively to decide for herself; to experiment and experience; to seek and find; to achieve and sometimes to fail. She wants to be the subject of a verb, not its object; to be a cause, not an effect; to do, not just to be.

We may recognize Hypatia’s frustration from the world of work. Sometimes, particularly when we are young and less powerful within an organization, our objectives, tasks and schedules seem entirely to be determined by others: by the demands of our Clients, the whims of our bosses, the personal passions of our CEO. We may work in an agency, but we have very little agency.

Maybe like Hypatia we should, as far as possible, strive to set the agenda rather than have it set for us; to seize the day rather than let the day seize us; to be an ‘active verb’ in our own careers. Easier said than done perhaps. But you’d be surprised how positively leaders respond to colleagues that have a clear sense of personal mission. And the best businesses thrive by integrating individual and collective goals. So what, I wonder, would you choose as your own active verb?

Brands too would do well to reflect on Hypatia’s theme. Dan Weiden, the co-founder of Weiden+Kennedy, once observed:

'The best brands are verbs. Nike exhorts. IBM solves. Sony dreams.'

I’m sure he was right. Mediocre brands merely exist within a category, in a sector, on a shelf. They respond to events rather than precipitate them; react rather than act. Great brands, by contrast, animate the category, rewrite the rules, make the market.

We should all therefore ask: ‘What fundamentally does our brand do?’ ‘How does it impact on its consumers’ lives?’ ‘What is it seeking to change?’

‘What is our brand’s verb?’

I suspect this would be a more valuable discussion than the hours spent defining brand personality; the earnest debates crafting lists of nuanced traits, tones and characteristics: ‘passionate, warm, witty, friendly, helpful, caring.’ I could go on…

Yes, the best brands are indeed verbs. But Weiden might well have added: ‘The worst brands are adjectives.’

No. 166