Dreams of Leaving: 'It is Easy to See the Beginnings of Things, and Harder to See the Ends’

Joan Didion in the 1970's

Joan Didion in the 1970's

'I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind. I want you to understand exactly what you are getting: you are getting a woman who for some time now has felt radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest people. You are getting a woman who somewhere along the line misplaced whatever slight faith she ever had in the social contract, in the meliorative principle, in the whole grand pattern of human endeavor.’
Joan Didion, 'In the Islands’

I recently watched an excellent documentary about Joan Didion, the essayist and novelist who has described the fragmented American experience from the end of the 1960s to the present day (‘Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold’).

Didion’s elegant hands sketch patterns in space as she speaks. She chooses her words carefully and isn’t afraid of silence. Her birdlike frame seems fragile, but her eyes are penetrating and alert. She is 83.

'People with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called character… Character- the willingness to accept responsibility for one's own life- is the source from which self-respect springs.’
'On Self-Respect'

Each morning Didion would fetch a Coca-Cola from the fridge and settle down to read - with salted almonds, cigarettes and sunglasses. In silence. And then to work.

She wrote with a clear, concise style, making acute observations, revealing melancholy truths. She wrote about all manner of things: about the Californian counter-culture; about Joni Mitchell, the Doors, John Wayne and the Reagans; about power, corruption and lies; grief, self-respect and keeping a notebook; about the special relationship between a mother and her daughter.

‘We get along very well, veterans of a guerrilla war we never understood.’
‘On Going Home’

I was particularly taken with an essay first published in 1967, on falling in and out of love with New York, ‘Goodbye to All That’.

'It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was.'
‘Goodbye to All That’

These words rang true for me - of work, of relationships, of life in general. Beginnings tend to be clean, precise, definite. They can be thrilling, anxious, exciting. The first day at school, the first hello, the first kiss. A new town, new friends, a new job. The sudden realization that summer is here.

But ends seem to creep up on us. The weary nods, the knowing looks, the nagging frustrations. The doubt and dithering, blame and bickering. The fog of uncertainty. The sense of familiarity.

'Everything that was said to me I seemed to have heard before, and I could no longer listen.'
‘Goodbye to All That’

We should be mindful of this when we consider the world of work. We all dream of leaving. It’s just the human condition. But this isn’t necessarily a reason to go. Or at least not right now.

It’s much smarter to focus on beginnings: on reasons to start rather than reasons to stop; on why we should embark on a new venture, rather than why we should depart from our current one; on hope rather than depair.

Choose to join a business, not to leave one.

No. 166

Random Usually Has Its Reasons: The Mystery of the Three Routes Home

Winslow Homer, Boys in a Pasture

Winslow Homer, Boys in a Pasture

I was delighted to have My-Mate-Andy as a friend.

At first glance you wouldn’t imagine we had a lot in common.

My-Mate-Andy was the coolest kid in school. He had a golden tan, artfully ripped jeans, and was a connoisseur of the immaculate white t-shirt. He experimented with Sun-In in his hair and only wore Fu Shoes on his feet. He’d painted a Coca-Cola can in art class and decorated his parka with a replica of The Beat logo. He had a way with words, a lust for life, an enthusiasm for Marks & Spencer prawn cocktail crisps and George Benson records.

I was a swotty kid who helped people with their Latin homework in order to earn affection. I was always carrying books and kit in random Sainsbury’s bags. I was generally awkward, introverted, poorly shod. And my hair was a mess.

One thing we certainly had in common was our walk home from school. Every afternoon we traipsed along the Southend Arterial, past the tatty allotments and through the suburban semis of Cecil Avenue. We’d chat about music, football, politics and telly; about Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King, Boys from the Black Stuff, cold turkey, chips and beans. My-Mate-Andy would recite Jam lyrics and break into impromptu dance moves. He’d run through his impersonations of Ferg, Perc and Tony Papp. He’d tell me about the parties he’d attended, the girls he fancied and more besides. (I wasn’t very advanced in that department.)

My-Mate-Andy lived closer to the school, and so I would be left to walk the latter part of the journey home on my own. He had three slightly different, equidistant routes available to him, and each one required him to say farewell at a different point. With time I became quite fascinated by his choice of these three routes. He seemed to select a different option from one day to the next. But I couldn’t work out why.

Was his preference driven by meteorological conditions, his homework obligations, or what was on the telly? Was it related to road traffic, star signs, or what Jean had planned for dinner that night?

None of my hypotheses quite worked. There didn’t seem to be a particular pattern or logic. My-Mate-Andy’s route home was just completely random.

And then one day I cracked it. I realised that his decision on when to split was determined by the quality of our conversation. If words were flowing freely, and laughs were coming spontaneously, then he’d hang on ‘til the last possible exit. But if I was serving up rather dull discussion, mediocre fare, he’d take the first chance to break free.

This put the pressure on. I wondered: Could I make him select the farthest point of departure more often? Could I sustain his interest with the force of my witty repartee? Each afternoon I embarked on the walk home with a selection of perfectly polished conversational gambits to hand, in hope and expectation. But the harder I tried, the more likely he was to leave early.

I concluded that I ought be more natural with my friends.

But the real lesson was this: that cryptic or mysterious events often have a motive or explanation; that in the midst of seeming disorder there is sometimes shape and design; that random usually has its reasons.

And I think that is the challenge for a Strategist: find connections, causes, method and meaning in the everyday. Where others see chance and happenstance, we should seek rhyme and reason; where others see accident and the arbitrary, we should find patterns and plans.

Why is that sector behaving oddly? Why is the data different at that time of year? Why is that segment out of step with everyone else? Keep asking: Why? Why? Why? There’s usually a perfectly sensible explanation just over the horizon - if you have the instinct and appetite to look.

I’m still very good friends with My-Mate-Andy. We meet occasionally for a non-artisanal beer, and talk about music, football, politics and telly. He still has a healthy glow, and my hair’s still a mess. He denies that there was ever any logic to his route home - he was just ringing the changes. I maintain that he’s suffering from ‘unconscious bias.’

There’s no substitute for old friends. Old school is the best school. Or as George Benson once elegantly put it: ‘Never give up on a good thing.’

‘Never give up on a good thing.
Remember what makes you happy.
Never give up on a good thing.
If love is what you got, you got the lot.’


George Benson, Never Give Up on a Good Thing (Michael Garvin/Tom Shapiro)

No. 153