It would be wrong to say that I’ve fallen out of love with platitudinous exhortations to personal betterment. I always found those self-improvement statements of being the best version of me, awakening the giant within, and pushing yourself to the summit to all be rather fatuous. If “excellence is not a destination; it’s a continuous journey that never ends” then I think that I’ll look for a short cut. It’s a lesson I learnt many years ago at Prep school. Once a year there was a cross-country run, compulsory for all pupils. As one of the senior boys, I started well, sprinted across the field and nipped through a hedge and sneaked out of the race. I ambled back up to the village and then sat outside a café eating an ice cream until much later the other lads came along and I joined back in. Going the extra mile seemed all rather pointless to me (yes, of course, I was caught, and yes, of course, I was caned).

It seems to me that so much of the workplace is now a maelstrom of restlessness. People seem to be constantly engaged in doing things. Everyone seems to be working too hard and to be far too busy. Personalities and egos compete for promotion, leadership roles, and more responsibility and money. Organisations say that they want a purpose-led, happy workforce, but the reality is presenteeism, internal silos, and increased stress and reduced productivity. It’s a zero sum game. No-one, it seems, can afford to tell their line manager that they don’t want to constantly self-improve, or that they’re happy not to be considered for promotion. The workplace encourages ambition and not to be ambitious is to be a failure. And often one of the consequences of this is that the people who get to “the top” are not the most talented, or the best suited; rather, they are the ones who want it most and are prepared to make the greatest sacrifices in order to achieve their all-encompassing ambition (but that’s another story for another blog).

The reason that this topic is on my mind is because of three things that I’ve recently read and one visit that I made.

The first article was a review by former Archbishop, Rowan Williams, in the New Statesman of David Brooks’ latest book The Second Mountain (I’m yet to read it but I do recommend his previous books The Social Animal and The Road to Character) It’s a beautifully written review which builds on the main themes of the book.

The second is the new book by Svend Brinkmann, The Joy of Missing Out. I loved his previous book and this is as good. Whereas Stand Firm was a polemic against self-help, this is more of a manifesto in favour of less being more and not worrying about what others are up to.

The third was an article in the Spectator by the ad guru, @rorysutherland In defence of inaction: why it’s usually best to do nothing. It echoed the sentiments of an old blog of mine when I said that sometimes the best motto is don’t just do something, stand there. His article reminds us that ambitious eager beavers running around businesses are often counter-productive.

And finally, there was the visit that I paid to an elderly relative living in the depths of mid-Wales. He is a brilliant man and by some distance the most contented individual that I’ve encountered for some time. He has spent nearly all his long and rewarding life in the same area. He has rarely left the country (ie Wales. His last trip to London was over 30 years ago) and hasn’t left our islands for many decades. He has fifteen acres of woodland and 80 sheep, and now spends his time turning wood and working on local history (he read History at Oxford in the early ‘50s). As a country parson he touched the lives of countless people, at the beginning and ends of their lives and at significant moments in between. Speaking with him I realised that, unlike many of us, he had never been cursed by ambition. Neither has he pursued happiness. Rather, he has always lived the considered life. As Tolstoy said: “A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbour – such is my idea of happiness.”

So, what does this mean for coaching? It is worth remembering that neither time nor progress follow straight lines. As Elliot says: “And the end of all our exploring, will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.” Coaching is all about helping people to become better: better leaders, better people. And ofttimes, being better means doing less. Beware the curse of ambition.