One of my favourite novels is The Glass Bead Game, by Herman Hesse. It was published, I think, sometime in the 1940’s. Basically the plot revolves around a utopian community rather like a posh boarding school, where young boys are sent by their wealthy, influential parents to learn that they need to be tomorrow’s leaders. In most cases, at the end of their study, the boys go back out into the world where they become ‘movers and shakers’. However once in a while, a student does so well in his studies that he’s asked to remain at the school and devote his life to playing the Glass Bead Game.
Now, this game isn’t any ordinary game – indeed as readers, we don’t get a detailed sense of what it really entails. However, through the lens of the novel’s hero, Joseph Knecht, we do learn that it requires wide-ranging skills in areas as diverse as science, music, literature, art, history, western philosophy and eastern spiritualty. Interestingly, the game never has a winner – that is not its purpose after all. Best I remember (it was a long time ago when I last read it), the game is meant to push the players to become ‘all that they can be’ – sounds a good deal like coaching and not surprisingly, our hero, Joseph, does undergo a good deal of coaching.
Once he’s Magister Ludi (head of the school and master of the game), Joseph’s time and attention becomes so much in demand, that he requires a personal coach to help him manage himself. Not so unlike the busy CEO of a Fortune Five Hundred, I should think. He needs to manage his emotions, his people skills, time management, etc. etc.
But something goes wrong along the way (as it does in novels). Maybe the coaches weren’t focused enough or Joseph simply loses his way? Anyway, by the novel’s climax Joseph questions his loyalty both to the school and the game and asks to leave. Unfortunately, he failed to realise that he no longer was prepared for life outside his cloistered world – and only several days after attaining his ‘freedom’, he dies of a heart-attack whilst swimming in a cold mountain lake.
When I first read this novel, the thing that struck me was how narrow Joseph’s focus had become over the years – although he was wildly successful at his game, he seemed to be failing at life. Joseph’s situation is not an isolated case. How many times have you seen professionals so focused on performing well in their jobs that their marriages end, their kids hate them, and/or they end up very ill or dead?
In regards to coaching practice, this highlights something that I’ve been concerned about for some time. I take the point that I’m coaching adults – and hence not responsible for setting their goals. But don’t I still have some duty to my client when I clearly see him/her heading down a path that is all too likely to lead to his/her own cold mountain lake?