There were some advantages to growing up in the era before multi-channel TV. Lack of choice corralled you into regularly watching shows about inventions, astronomy, sheep dog trials and show jumping. Back then it seemed perfectly ordinary for a teenager to be sat at home following a snooker game in black and white, estimating the value of an antique chaise longue, guessing the identity of a musical piece played on a soundless keyboard. It was a kind of forced serendipity. In the absence of videogames and the internet, in the era of unheated bedrooms, there was nothing else to do. Sometimes a narrow diet broadens the mind.
My father and I particularly enjoyed watching a BBC series of one-off dramas, ‘Play for Today’. The pieces considered contemporary British life, and were written by the great dramatists of the time – people like Alan Bleasdale, Mike Leigh, Jack Rosenthal and Dennis Potter. ‘Play for Today’ was a window into other people’s worlds. ‘Bar Mitzvah Boy’ related the concerns of a Jewish lad growing up in North London; ‘The Black Stuff’ recounted the adventures of Liverpudlian tarmac layers during the recession; ‘Nuts in May’ told the tale of a nature-loving couple on a camping holiday.
‘Play for Today’ was not easy viewing. It consistently delivered arguments and upsets, temper tantrums and emotional outbursts. Here were families at war, relationships on the edge, jobs on the line.
One day, after a particularly eventful episode, I turned to my father and challenged him:
‘Look, Dad, I love ‘Play for Today’. But most people’s lives are really not this dramatic.’
As a suburban youth, growing up in a happy lower middle class home, I was under the impression that the majority of the population led rather ordinary, uncomplicated lives. I imagined my own unfolding in a simple and seamless way: go to university, get a job, get married, settle down, raise a family, take up gardening…
As I grew older I realised that life’s not like that. With every passing year you find that another illness or career dilemma, another financial challenge or brush with the law, another triumph or disaster, has affected your friends and family - and indeed yourself. Someone close has succumbed to teenage angst, twenty-something stress, a mid-life crisis, the softening of old age. Someone dear has been cursed by a tempestuous relationship, a torrid break-up; is haunted by missed opportunities, disappointed ambitions.
In truth most people’s lives could provide the material for their very own ‘Play for Today’. And indeed, as I reflect on my own childhood, it probably wasn’t so ordinary after all. It explains a good deal about who I am now.
‘Childhood is the bank balance of the writer.’
It’s important to bear this in mind when considering your colleagues. You may regard them as robust, settled and steady. You may feel you’ve got a pretty good appreciation of what makes them tick. But, in my experience, individuals often conceal domestic concerns from the office. They often suppress anxieties, tensions and traumas that date back well before they arrived.
My old boss Nigel Bogle was a firm believer in brand archaeology pointing the way to future business success:
‘If you want to make a brand great again look at what made it great in the first place.’
I suspect this sentiment may be as true of people as it is of brands. If we know our colleagues’ personal narratives, their early struggles and experiences, we can better comprehend what motivates them and stands in their way; their enduring values and character. If we spend time properly listening to the dramas that propelled them through childhood, we’ll better understand the behaviour of their adult selves - and be better equipped to get the best out of them at work. The answer to our future often resides in our past.
So go on. Find a quiet moment, lean over to the person next to you, and gently enquire:
‘Tell me about your childhood.’
'It's not a case of telling the truth.
Some lines just fit the situation.
Call me a liar,
You would anyway.
It's not a case of aiming to please.
You know you're always crying.
It's just your part
In the Play for Today.’