The Glass Bead Game / the ultimate in coaching

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.

Unknown-1.jpegOnce 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?

Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed & What It’s Doing to Us

In the western world, you have a duty of self-improvement – to be authentic, competitive,  thin, attractive, and (among many other things) coiffed and couture.

But did you realise that all the standards to which you aspire are culturally determined, even though you are meant to believe you developed them yourself?
shutterstock_514931104Worse, you’re so intent on becoming the hero/heroine of your own story and (after minor setbacks) living happily ever after, that you fail to question what being ‘happy’ really means. Worst of all, being (or pretending to be) ‘happy’ is so integral to 21st century life that when you realise that you’ve failed in any way, you’re bereft.

After all, isn’t it true that if you fail to achieve your dreams, you have no one else to blame but yourself? Isn’t it true that if you only try hard enough (coaching, self-help books, and/or motivational speakers) you’ll bound to succeed? Isn’t it true that there’s nothing that you can’t accomplish if you set your mind to it?

No.

At least, this is the answer provided by Will Storr, in his recent book, Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed & What It’s Doing to Us. According to Storr, the hard, cold reality is that you are imperfect and will stay that way.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t improve yourself. Of course, you can and you should! But it does mean that as long as you keep comparing yourself to an unachievable standard of perfection, you will never be happy. Make no bones about it, the pressure to be perfect (and consequently, happy) is so intense as to make you chronically miserable (or worse).

Positive or Negative – or too hard to tell?

 

Each of us is a unique blend of both positive and negative personality traits, both of which help to satisfy our basic wants and needs.

Interestingly, we tend to focus not on our strengths but on our weaknesses because, let’s face it, it’s human nature to concentrate on what goes wrong. Although it is our strengths that support growth and prosperity and our weaknesses that hold us back, sometimes it’s pretty hard to tell the difference. This is especially the case where the result of our efforts yields results that are considered culturally desirable such as, for example, being self-focused enough to succeed in one’s career.2d449eb70c6b936f67f7a2ec90ab133f--negative-character-traits-positive-and-negative

Not surprisingly, however, because so much of our health and happiness comes down to the quality of our relationships (both personal and professional), it only makes sense it is those personality traits that seem damaging to our relationships are the ones upon which we should concentrate our efforts. But how much self-focus is good and how much is bad and which person in the relationship, if it is to survive, needs to change and how?

 

Consider the following:

Cathy is working hard to make this catering event perfect. It is set to lead to some high-profile referrals. As a perfectionist, she’s dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” for the nth time. Meanwhile, her best friend and new employee, Agnes, is in the kitchen polishing serving trays to enhance presentation. Unfortunately, Agnes is having trouble keeping her focus; she can’t stop thinking about her recent break up with her boyfriend and worrying about whether she’ll ever find the right guy.

When a good-looking waiter invites her outside for a quick smoke, Agnes doesn’t think twice. As the result, the appetizers go out to the guests on stained trays and Cathy is furious. Although Cathy realises her friend has been distraught about men as late, she can’t understand why Agnes couldn’t have tried harder just this one time when the stakes were so high for Cathy. Agnes can’t see what is the fuss; Cathy has always been too fussy and after all, Agnes is trying her best to be a good friend.

  • If you were Cathy’s life coach, what might you ask her to consider?
  • If, on the other hand, you were Agnes’ life coach, what might you suggest she consider?