Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn,
Apple seed and apple thorn,
Wire, briar, limber lock
Three geese in a flock
One flew East
One flew West
And one flew over the cuckoo’s nest

I visited my parents at their home in Bristol this past weekend. Whilst going through some paperwork I came across an old school report of mine from 1981 (I was 10 at that time). My mother and father made enormous personal sacrifices to send myself, my brother and my two sisters to private schools. Their heroics in this regard are perhaps the subject for another post on another day. However, it was a comment from my report that prompted me to write this post, discovering it as I did so soon after writing my previous one.

In my last post I laid out what I believe to be the sort of internal monologue that we all experience to a greater or lesser degree at some points throughout our working lives. It’s not a monologue that makes for comfortable reading but I think it is one we need to acknowledge if we are genuinely to concern ourselves with improving work and the experience of going to work. It is an aim that is seen as so important that the CIPD even has “Championing better work and working lives” as its tagline.

In 1981, my then Headmaster summarised the comments made by all of my other teachers thus: “There is some here that is very good, there is much that is good. However, he tends to switch off or become distracted if the work is dull or uninteresting. He must learn that, for adults, work is often dull or uninteresting.” I liked my Headmaster enormously and he was supportive of me and ensured that the school had a rich pastoral life beyond the confines of the curriculum. It was in these areas of school life that I excelled and found purpose and indeed, passion. But that comment, reflecting the need for 10 year-old children to recognise that work might be dull and uninteresting in adulthood, brought a memory sharply in to focus. I could not reconcile the two states in the one institution; an environment that simultaneously facilitated the development of a rich internal landscape whilst reinforcing the stark reality of the adult future ahead.

At the same school, 6 years later (with my Headmaster’s comment still holding true), I studied Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”. Kesey, a recreational experimenter with LSD, advocated for drug use as a path to individual freedom and the novel deals repeatedly with the subtle and coercive methods used by various authorities to control individuals. I found the central character, McMurphy, distasteful (acquitted of rape and convicted of battery) but the novel thematically inspiring. It did nothing to heal the disconnect I felt in the duality of the school system – the regimentation and simultaneous expansion of the mind, encouraging of critical thought but limiting routes and opportunities for free expression and challenge. Doubtless my shrill and immature attempts at both did nothing to further my cause.

As an adult, I remain unable to completely reconcile certain beliefs.
I believe that for a great many people, work is seen as a necessary evil to be got out of the way as painlessly as possible.
I believe that striving to make the experience of work a happier and more fulfilling one is not a futile ambition.
I believe that we will never entirely free ourselves of dull and uninteresting work.
I believe that we need to teach children moral and social responsibility.
I believe we should not reinforce in children any notion that work might be dull and uninteresting.

It was thought, and hoped, that technology would remove the need for humans to do dull and uninteresting work. The rise of knowledge work merely serving to reinforce that line of thought. Other, different, dull and uninteresting work has rushed in to fill the gaps that technology leaves behind. We struggle to break free. We’ll go email free to claw back time but take to instant messaging with alacrity in its place. We are a generation that was taught by people who were certain that dull and uninteresting work was a foregone conclusion. We did not, or could not, challenge that thinking as children and we have inherited and maintained working practices that ensure it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Might we not break the cycle through starting to help children to a belief that work can be dull and uninteresting if they let it be, but that it need never be, so long as they strive to reclaim work from the past?

Picture credit: Ronald Searle



  1. I like this.

    One of my life lessons learned, slowly, but held as a precious lesson, that what we see as dull and uninteresting when done with the same care and love that we apply to the stuff that excites us, well, it can become fulfilling.

  2. I agree that we need to encourage the belief that the future can and will be better, if we let it. Life is what an individual makes of it. The work patterns of our ancestors were created to support a certain society and way of living – we are different, so it doesn’t have to be replicated. However, humans by nature are controlling and those with the least ability to fight usually end up with the worst deal. That is one of the reasons, in my opinion, why education is so important – it gives people the tools with which to create their desired environment. I am sure that that is one of the reasons why your parents made sacrifices for you and your siblings. Despite your distaste for McMurphy, his attempts not to be constrained by the system and to fight on behalf of others, whom he clearly cared about, are verging on heroic. However, the character who struck a chord for me was the Chief and he says much of what I want to say about the dangers of an individual giving in to the pressures of Society:

    “Chief Bromden: My pop was real big. He did like he pleased. That’s why everybody worked on him. The last time I seen my father, he was blind and diseased from drinking. And every time he put the bottle to his mouth, he didn’t suck out of it, it sucked out of him until he shrunk so wrinkled and yellow even the dogs didn’t know him.

    McMurphy: Killed him, huh?

    Chief Bromden: I’m not saying they killed him. They just worked on him. The way they’re working on you.”

    The best advice we can give to our children is to find ways of achieving their dreams, instead of simply giving in to the pressures of Society as they find it. You are a great example of someone who has realised this – escaping from a life you found demanding but monotonous and dull, to create a career and existence that suits you and those around you. I salute you!

  3. My 1st junior school report. Comment from headmistress “Brian must learn to curb his exuberance”.
    Still not trying to!

  4. Magnificent post, Simon. This is outstanding writing.

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