Bonsai People in a Bonsai Culture?

Bonsai = An ornamental tree or shrub grown in a pot and artificially prevented from reaching its normal size

The bonsai is not a genetic variant but has within it the potential to become a fully grown tree.  However it is carefully cultivated to meet the demanding requirements of the gardener.  It is fed few nutrients, kept in shallow soil, not allowed to form deep roots, continually pruned and kept ‘in proportion’; shaped to the precise requirements of the gardener and the specifications of their profession.

Bonsai People

Bonsai people have had their development limited, distorted and shaped by the influence of their environment rather more than it has been driven by their own potential and aspirations.  To an extent we are all Bonsai People.  But some people have been more bonsaid than others.

And some seem to be very content with their bonsai nature.  While others are frustrated at the sensation that there must be something more in them than this.

Yesterday I was on the phone with Rich Huxley and we were talking about developing musicians. I told him of a mentor in Leeds who had boasted to me about how they had worked with a 14 year old boy whose ambition was ‘to be the best bass guitarist in the world’ and had managed to get them to realise just what a preposterous and unlikely goal this was.  Instead he persuaded the lad that 5 grades A-C was a much more achievable and better ambition.

One of my own daughters was told while studying for GCSEs that she should play less netball and see less of her boyfriend in order to study more as she had the chance to get ‘straight As’.  This of course had much more to do with a teacher and a school under a hard performance management regime than it did the ‘spiritual, mental and physical development’ of my daughter!

I was encouraged to pursue my abilities in maths, physics and biology on the grounds that they were ‘the future’ rather than my then interests in community work, punk and ecology.  Funnily enough community, music and sustainability have proven life-long passions.  Maths? Not so much.

Young people are encouraged in all sorts of ways to drop art, music, drama and so on, in pursuit of ‘more academic’ subjects.   If you are going to spend 39k a year on a degree then you had better make sure it has a job at the end of it etc.   It is as if the sole purpose of education is to get as many employer brownie points as possible.  To produce the perfect Bonsai rather than nurture potential and passion.

We might as well put education in the UK into the hands of the Department for Business for heaven’s sake….

And I have worked with lots of professionals, who tell me that they are ‘not in the right job’, that ‘this is not really me’.  Most were offered ‘training’ (usually in accountancy, management or some other commercial discipline) that would be good for their career.  They might not have been enthusiastic, but never look a gift horse in the mouth etc.  Before they know it they are in finance department earning decent money trapped in job that is just not them.  They are bonsai of themselves.

Sound familiar?

There is a massive difference between schooling – training to conform and meet someone elses specification and educating – drawing out and developing potential, exploring and nurturing individuality.  Much of what we today call education is really little more than schooling.

Living in A Bonsai Culture?

Could we be living in a predominantly bonsai culture, where relatively few people are deeply interested in the potential of themselves, never mind their neighbours.  What passes for a culture of self-improvement now largely focuses on enhancing abs, pecs, other bits of the anatomy and ‘style’ rather than the continual development of character, personality and ‘self’.  The main pre-occupation is less ‘what might I become?’ than ‘how can I fit in’ or ‘how can I get by?’

Or instead of focussing on potential we focus on what we are told are ‘flaws’. Corrections of perceived ‘abnormalities’ rather than a genuine exploration of potential and individuality.

Escaping the Bonsai Culture…

…seems like an almost impossible ask.  Once you start looking the tools of the bonsai gardener are everywhere, in the media, adverts, politicians manifestos indeed just about every external stimulus that we are exposed to is designed to influence us, to shape us to persuade us in some direction.  Even this post…

But we can choose to:

  • Spend more time with people who value us for who we are and not what we might do
  • Reflect more on who we are and what we might become
  • Be comfortable talking about our own development, what it might mean and how it might be approached – rather than relying on the prescriptions of our chosen ‘teachers’
  • and think twice about whether a course of action is likely to make us more like the person that we want to be, or more like the person that someone else wants us to become?

If these themes and possibilities interest you then check out Progress School running in Leeds





6 Replies to “Bonsai People in a Bonsai Culture?”

  1. To anyone who reads this post;

    Progress school, in my opinion,is one of the best events I’ve attended. I was going to say ‘in the past 3 years’, since I’ve been working on a project for that length of time. However, over the years that I’ve had some sort of conscious thinking, I can’t think of anything I’ve been to that has been as self fulfilling for me.

    We all need some help, clarity of our own thoughts and direction. I’ve had a business background for so long now, I meet my peers, I realise that if we can keep an open approach to what we do, take on board that we don’t know everything, (in fact, I’ve a list of things I’m crap at), we have the means to progress.

    This progress school model isn’t about ‘you should think like this’ or ‘you should do this’, it’s more about the freedom to decide for yourself whilst giving the tools to progress in the way you want.

    ‘Bonsai People’ – love it, what a statement, I’d recommend any sector to give progress school a go. I’ve found that I’ve got as much from the people who attend as I have from Mike, I’ve been confident enough to throw in my own thoughts to the group (Mike may argue that that’s not been a problem for me), I’ve got some good feedback and different ways of approach, some really valuable insights.

    I’m deffo a fan.

      1. Mike, I’ve found it’s really easy to critisise, many people do it, Progress school is stunning in its concept and approach.
        As you’ve blogged before on ‘people centred’ delivery, most who say they do actually don’t.
        I’ve used what I’ve gained from progress school. the way it’s delivered especially and have adopted the same format in the Enterprise club.
        I’m going to be more active at passing the word, I’ve let you down on that score.

  2. You are right Mike. I love this concept and have sat on it all night reflecting. I met with a careers advisor whilst at school age 16 who I… for want of a better word p****d off by not conforming to the expectations in the mid 80’s of the gender devide in employment….”why should I become an PA or secretary to some bloke in an office…I want to be a plummer like my dad”…..I was being pedantic at the time…yet was told I was wasting their time, my reply… “you are are wasting mine”.

    2 years later…. eh ho! end of A levels ….another careers advisor whose advice was following my statement “I want to work with young people” ….you have 2 options “teacher or nursery nurse….but you are way to bright to be a nursery nurse” ….this statement haunted me for years!…Both are commendable careers!

    I finally found Youth work after I did a teaching degree (follow careers advice) and retratined and spent 21 passionate years working with young people to help them and me “grow and develop” until April 2011 when I was made redundant from a job I loved……The political and economic climate as culled nation wide youth services and in effect ‘pruned back the roots and branches’ of the opportunities in which I can nuture the future generations growth.

    Over the past 12 months I’ve become a bonzai person in a bonzai culture with restricted growth, but I want I bigger plot of land now to allow my roots to spread and grow allowing my creativity and innovation to develop again!

    I need to get out of my little plant pot and start growing again!

    1. Go for it Diane. Perhaps we could run a Progress School over in the West?
      Careers officers are certainly one of the most visible wielders of the secateurs. However I think they can file the ‘Just following orders’ defence with some credibility. They are just ‘following orders’ or at least conforming to an over-arching utilitarian philosophy of education that is about influencing your role in life based on class, gender and some crude and partial assessments of primarily academic ability. They get involved way too late in the process to start helping us to understand who we are and what potential might lie within us. It is the ‘schoolers’ masquerading as educators who wield the power. But they too have the ‘following orders’ defence. They are just implementing policy. Assessing and sorting, assessing and sorting. Like some educational picking line….
      For me there are 2 parties culpable in the creation of a bonsai culture. The first is the coalition of the politicians and the business folk, the utilitarians and pragmatists who set the educational context. Today I am at the Local Enterprise Partnership Learning Lunch and suspect there will be much discussion of how education fails employers and further refinements to the picking line will be proposed. I suppose I could also ask ourselves why the educators have been so weak in their defence of education in the face of the ‘schooling’ lobby – but let’s face it most professionals have been more or less happy to compromise their processional integrity in order to keep paying their mortgage.
      But the second group I would hold culpable is us, the citizens, who fail to get angry about how education fails so many of our young people. Who are happy to grumble while sitting on our hands and blaming the latest education minister, the latest government as if they have more power over what happens in the school around the corner than we do!
      But, it is not just the education system that has been distorted. As you know the youth service has gone in a similar direction, as has community work which is no longer about developing communities but pursuing departmental policies, primarily for employability and health. Utility and financial services sales teams having to pursue dodgy practices just to hold down their jobs! Yesterday I took a call from Unite the Union and it was a call centre with a dreadfully smarmy script ‘How are you this afternoon Mr Chitty? OK?’ looking to sell me home insurance! The things we choose to do for money…
      Perhaps if we had made different choices to be ourselves earlier on in life we might feel that we had more and more attractive choices today?
      My question is this. What kind of structures and relationships can we put in place that encourages people of all ages to explore what it means to ‘be yourself and be all that you can become’?
      Elsie, Progress School, Disrupting Poverty, Results Factories, Community Conversations are all my best attempts at providing structures where we might be able to explore these things.

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