The Age of Unreason

"…the world does not have to be run as it has traditionally been run. Looking at things upside-down, or back to front, or inside out is a way of stimulating the imagination, of spurring our creativity in an Age of Unreason when things are not going to go on working as they have been working, whether we like it or not."

- The Age of Unreason, page 252

This book is about adapting to changes in business through flexibility and open-mindedness. The Age of Unreason by Charles Handy was first published in 1989. Much of the book talks about predictions for how the world is going to change. Twenty-five years later there have been many changes but, as is usually the case with predictions, not exactly the way he envisioned them. Rather than diminishing the validity of his point, the incongruence bolsters it.

This book has three parts:

Part One: Changing

The first part is the underlying theme of the book, “Change, after all, is only another word for growth, another synonym for learning.” Essentially the idea is that change itself is neither good nor bad; you can use it to your advantage be comfortable with it and learn and grow.

Part Two: Working

Handy outlines three types of business models and focuses on how they function and are changing.

First is the Shamrock Organization, a traditional organization, which has three parts. The core, which consists of a few 40+ hour loyal career professionals and managers who may not have the job security they feel they have earned. The Contractual Fringe who gets paid for their time in fees, not wages; they do not have residual company loyalty, and they are not obedient labor. Last, the flexible and often part-time labor force, a market that employers dip into the as they like. These employees receive minimal pay and have minimal training and support. In return, they have minimal loyalty to the company.

Next Handy talks about the Federal Organization. The main component is decentralization and shared power. Structure and overall direction come from the center, but each satellite operation runs on its own, and the decisions are made by those responsible for the outcome. There is more personalization and greater dignity and respect for all employees.

Finally, Handy describes the Triple I Organization. The I’s stand for Intelligence, Information, and Ideas. Together these equal Added Value. This is not necessarily a stand-alone model but a possible benefit to any model. The idea is that self-enlightenment, human skills, continuous learning, and up to date technical expertise of the individuals in the organization add value beyond their individual qualities to the overall worth of the company. The difference is in leadership. For a company to take advantage of these employee qualities they have to lead by persuasion and consent.

Part Three: Living

This part is about how to apply the business concepts about learning to use change to our advantage in the rest of life. Handy talks about the Three P’s—purpose, pattern, and people—which are the heart or meaning of life and the keys to contribution. He also talks about creating a portfolio life or a themed collection of work experience and life experience. The theme is what makes the whole more valuable than its components.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

How to Survive Change

"I argued that because most people do not like change, change is forced upon them by crisis and discontinuity. Thrown up against things, or into new arenas, we confront new possibilities and discover bits of ourselves we never knew were there. Discontinuity is a great learning experience, but only if we survive it."
- The Age of Unreason, page 55

People react in two different ways to change. The first is to adapt. When a crisis happens or comfortable patterns change, sometimes we recognize the difference and realign actions and goals. The second reaction is to look at it as a failure and experience anxiety and depression and become overwhelmed and worried about what might happen. Interestingly the author’s attitude shifts back and forth between these perspectives and I think most people also do as we work through change. Worry about the future keeps us on our toes, but there is a point in which worry turns to inaction. When things change, if we recognize the right attitude to take we stay centered and focused. It is our focus that lets us envision the possibilities and the parts of ourselves we never saw before.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Have a Positive Outlook and Self-Confidence

"Affluence is a matter of mood and self-confidence as much as of economics, for dependency has its own imperatives."
- The Age of Unreason, page 53

Being comfortable with change is what allows learning that leads to success according to Handy. In order to be comfortable with change, we must have a positive outlook and self-confidence. There are three essential qualities to cultivate:

  1. Like yourself, respect yourself. This is empowering. Take responsibility for yourself and your future. Cultivate clarity and have a clear idea of what you want. Be motivated to get it, this is where the hard work comes in. Have the confidence to believe you can.
  2. Reframe your world. Use a creative approach and try new experiments and different ways of thinking and doing things. Be naïve and take a learners perspective even when you are a pro.
  3. Have a “negative capability” or a tolerance for failure. This is embracing imperfection. Forgive yourself and others, and consider mistakes a learning experience. This is the key to growth.

I believe “liking myself” is the key to everything because only when I value myself do I value my personal contributions.  Reminding myself of my contributions gives me a sense of internal stability when things change. This is different from being self-centered because when you are self-centered you do not want to contribute. My contribution is essential because it creates a sense of value greater than I do alone. What do you do to feel good about yourself? How do you contribute?

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Avoid Negative Blocks

"We have made the ‘job’ so essential to a man’s concept of himself, and now to many a woman’s, that the loss of it, often through no fault of their own, can shatter a sense of identity, of personal worth, of self-esteem, for a while at least."
- The Age of Unreason, page 73

Negative personal perception is a block to learning and causes fear of change. A negative change or a major loss such as a job or a key relationship can cause dark feelings of disliking and blaming ourselves. We may feel inadequate and demoted. Sometimes organizations have a structure that promotes negative personal perception they force on employees, and it becomes a way of life and stunts the growth of an organization. There are two main beliefs that diminish personal worth and block the ability to change and learn:

  1. “They syndrome” or feeling our future or our choices are someone else’s responsibility. Handy refers to it as “subsidiary” or stealing decisions. It is the feeling we do not control our future.
  2. “Futility and humility” are feelings caused by four elements. The first is self-sacrificing, feeling the work has no value. The second is self-worth based on someone else’s opinion, the feeling of needing approval. The third is “theft of purpose” when we meet other people’s goals instead of our own. Finally, not forgiving mistakes or blaming. This destroys self-esteem.

Compromise is part of life. We control some things and not others. Power should be a balance. Are there things you control that should be someone else’s choice? Do you have control of your decisions? Do you make people feel worthless by imposing your goals or opinions? Do you value your own time? Restoring your sense of worth and valuing others lifts the obstacles to changing, learning and growing.

The examples in this book are outdated but the ideas are not. I am going through job changes, and I recognized the same paradigm of instability in my job as Handy walks the reader through in this book. The “upside-down” thinking Handy describes is as applicable now as it was when the book was written. Looking at things in different ways and keeping a positive perspective has helped me. I have some sense of fear about my uncertain future, and sometimes I question my personal value. What I took from this book is this is I have an opportunity, not a problem.  I try to maintain a mindset of opportunity as it sparks my creativity, I think of possibilities, and my fear just melts. Without fear, I feel more like a victor than a victim and my sense of worth is restored. The important thing is I can change my perspective and change my life.

Do you have innovative ways you approach problems that turn them into an opportunity?

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Ingrid Urgolites

ABOUT Ingrid Urgolites

I work for Citigroup in operations. I have a varied background, and I enjoy service-oriented work. In addition to business, I have a keen interest in food and nutrition, and I have been vegetarian or vegan my whole life...
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