Enjoying the last days of the holiday, drinking a coffee and listening to “Pick Of The Week” on R4 a few days ago there was a clip of the late parliamentarian Tony Benn talking about his political career. He made an observation which, for me, reverberated widely and deeply. He described how there are two types of political life, the search for status and the search for influence. Aren’t we all faced with similar choice, and isn’t our selection likely to have a dramatic impact on our life?
Reading a book about middle age I am heartened to see it positioned as a phase of life to be celebrated rather than mourned. Received wisdom tells us that one of the most alluring aspects of reaching our fifth and sixth decades is that we are likely to be at the peak of our earning power at a time when our children might be leaving the nest to strike out on their own thus offering a financial and literal freedom absent in the years previous. I have more issues with this broad and patently thin observation than you can shake a stick at, and whilst money and circumstance plays a role in our satisfaction it is the influence we have over our destiny which will always be paramount.
I spent many years of my working life following what might be considered a well trodden path. Stumble into something you can do, try and get better at it, say “yes” to the right people at the right time, use “no” sparingly, work diligently, use your brain if you can and climb up the ladder gathering the trappings of status and power on your way. Of course there is nothing wrong with this at all, in fact I am eternally grateful for all of the experience and material harvest I was able to gather in over twenty five years looking at columns of numbers and trying to work out how to make the numbers bigger. The problem was that my path carried me towards the accruing of power in a space which meant little to me and a gathering of influence which meant even less.
One of the needs we all have to service is that of making a difference. We all want to feel as if we are having some sort of positive impact on the world we inhabit. What creates additional complexity is that we won’t settle for just any old impact, it needs to be something which feels nourishing. Moreover we seek influence over something much closer to home but which seems so easily to elude us as we become caught up in the expectations of modern existence, namely our own life.
The pursuit of status is akin to the excitement we might feel at the size of a gift without giving any thought to what might be inside. Seduced by what we believe to be something of value and significance when we come to unwrap it we find nothing of great interest at all, and we experience deflation and disgruntlement. Status for the sake of status is unlikely to generate much in the way of satisfaction whatever the material jewels it brings along with it.
As we canter into a new year you’ll no doubt have been toying with the idea of resolution. I’ve previously made my general disdain for new year resolutions plain in these pages because of our tendency to be motivated more by a need to change rather than a desire to do so. It’s a subtle difference but a crucial one because whilst we have a realistic shot at achieving something we desire, something “needed” can be far less attractive and dissociated in a way that renders its power limp and lifeless. Most people can identify aspects of their lives that need adjustment or overhaul but it can be much harder to understand what it is which prevents us from grasping the opportunity to change with both hands. Something underneath lurks which undermines but we don’t always know what it is. This is why influence trumps status every single time. To have influence is to have understanding, of our needs, of our motivations and of the most effective ways to keep ourselves satisfied.
By definition if you can truly achieve a position of influence over your own life you will be in control of the levers which underpin your sense of peace and balance. Status can never provide this no matter how big your house, how fat your bank balance and how fast your car. Status is a vanity which fades with age but influence is beautiful forever.
Consider for a moment what it is to have real influence over your own life. Working on something which truly inspires you, spending time with people who truly enrich you, pushing yourself into areas which test you in ways which give you feeling of genuine growth, finding the ability to say “no” when you want to without crippling fear and having sufficient motivation and exuberance to say “yes” and mean it with a level of enthusiasm and exuberance which might just burst out of your chest. This is the feeling of influence and no amount of status can hold a candle to it.
Perhaps one of the saddest realisations we can have about influence is that we had it all along but didn’t really use it. Why does this happen? It’s because using our influence requires courage and a willingness to make mistakes, to take responsibility for our own life into our own hands and risk messing things up. Status is nothing like this because it is all about how the world sees us, adorned with the precious jewels that indicate we’ve made something of ourselves according to external criteria. Status is a coat we wear so that other people admire us. Influence is not about what we look like it is about how we feel, and to have real influence over ourselves we must accept responsibility. We must wholly accept the way things are today or wholly accept that it is our responsibility to change them. If we can do that real influence is ours.
This year, like all others, will be full of challenges. I hope you’ll be able to use the indisputable influence you have to steer your way through in a way which gives you joy and, if not, at least hope that joy will come sometime soon. Regardless of any other change you have decided to make it will be influence which ultimately keeps you on track.