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 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.
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
- Poverty is not about scarcity – it is not that there is not enough – but that it is not shared
- The challenge is to give more people the power that they need to play a positive and powerful role in markets; This means accessible and relevant processes to develop individual capabilities and power
- Markets will always have a place in our society but not everything can be bought and sold. Care for example is an emotional relationship that cannot be bought and sold.
- Development is a measure of the extent to which individuals have the capabilities to live the life that they choose. It has little to do with standard economic measures such as GDP.
- Helping people to recognise choices and increase the breadth of choices available to them should be a key objective of development.
- Developing the capability and power of individuals provides a key to both development and freedom
- Development must be relevant to lives, contexts, and aspirations
- Development is about more than the alleviation of problems – stamping out anti social behaviour, teenage pregnancies, poor housing and so on.
- It is about helping people to become effective architects in shaping their own lives
- We need practices that value individual identity; avoid lumping people into “communities” they may not want to be part of, and promote a person’s freedom to make her own choices. Promoting identification with ‘community’ risks segregation and violence between communities
- Society must take a serious interest in the overall capabilities that someone has to lead the sort of life they want to lead, and organise itself to support the development and practice of those capabilities
- We should primarily develop an emphasis on individuals as members of the human race rather than as members of ethnic groups, religions or other ‘communities’. Humanity matters.
- We need to make the delivery of public education, more equitable, more efficient and more accessible
If we took this stuff seriously what kind of enterprise development activities would a LEP commission?
How does a community get the leadership that it needs to thrive?
Is it a question of finding an elite cadre of movers and shakers, networking them, hot-housing them and amplifying their power?
Or is it about offering the opportunity for anyone to ‘lead’ on whatever matters most to them, their loved ones and their neighbours?
Can we design leadership development processes that:
- support and reward mass participation?
- are inclusive rather than exclusive?
- respect local starting conditions (values, cultures and issues)?
Certainly this kind of leadership development is possible.
By giving people space to talk about what matters to them and encouraging them to think through what they can do about it and whether they want to move from words to actions we can find ‘leaders’. But they rarely see themselves as such. They don’t see their agenda as being ‘leadership’. They may see it as developing a ‘local community website’, or ‘starting an urban gardening project’ or ‘finding opportunities for young people to learn and earn in our community’. There are plenty of people looking to do plenty of good things and the truth is that what we usually describe as ‘Leadership Development’ is unlikely to help them in their work…