Countless opportunities, access to an infinite flow of information, often the skills and bright mind to turn it all into one big success. And yet.., yet something’s missing.
At least for me something was. Everything seemed perfect on the outside: a solid education, a challenging high status job, an active social life, what else to wish for? Nevertheless after two years of work, I noticed my energy level and enthusiasm were down compared to when I had just finished studying.
Now, after a career change and some time to seriously think through what happened I think I’ve identified the most important reason for what happened. And.., everywhere around me I see other people facing the same challenges.
This is a plea to include the heart again, to develop the full spectrum of our human potential. Because if we don’t, without a clear idea of who we are and how we want things to be, our personal happiness is at risk. What’s more, our collective wellbeing is at risk too.
Bildung as a way to measure our development
A good way to talk about our human development potential and see whether we underperform, is to use the German concept of Bildung. It’s not so easy to define the concept but it means something like ‘coming of age’, ‘education’, or ‘personal growth’. The German philosopher von Humboldt developed the concept and in doing so, strongly influenced the educational system in Germany. One definition describes Bildung as the endless voyage of the individual towards him/herself as part of an ideal humanity. In continuous interplay with the world around us, we are supposed to develop our ‘head’, ‘hands’ and ‘heart’. Or in other words, our knowledge, skills and inner compass. In the ideal case we develop from top to bottom and become a ‘gebildeter Mensch’.
Let me provide a little more context for the different aspects. ‘Head’ is about acquiring information, developing your analytical capabilities and making objective decisions based on the information acquired. Developing your ‘hands’ means building the skills to translate knowledge in real world results. This can mean being able to give a great speech or write an accessible article, but learning the techniques to play the piano, or ride a wave on a surf board are examples of skill too. Developing your ‘heart’ enables you to identify what you feel and stay close to these feelings. In other words, you build character, develop spine, stay true to yourself even in cases of (severe) counter-pressure. On a more abstract level, developing your heart provides you a sense for what’s wrong or right for society as a whole.
The first time I heard about Bildung was in the context of the so-called Bildungsroman, German for a literary genre with at its centre the psychological and moral development of the main character. It became my favourite genre through the books by Hermann Hesse: ‘Siddhartha’, ‘Steppenwolf’, ‘The Glass Bead Game’, ’Narcissus and Goldmund’, all intriguing coming-of-age-stories.
‘Siddhartha’ is Hesse’s most typical Bildungsroman. The story, set in ancient India, deals with the journey of self-discovery of a man named Siddhartha. Leaving his home, Siddhartha first decides to become an ascetic wandering beggar to get spiritually enlightened. He acquires a lot of knowledge and is heavily influenced by the Buddha and his teachings. However, arguing that the individual seeks an absolutely unique and personal meaning that cannot be presented to him by a teacher, he returns to the worldly life. After having fallen for the charm of a beautiful women, Siddhartha becomes a successful businessman to win her as his wife. He succeeds, but eventually leaves her behind just as his fast-paced, spiritually empty life to turn to a more humble way of living again.
The process Siddhartha put himself through is Bildung in practice. He acquires knowledge (‘head’), learns to use his knowledge (‘hands’) and, throughout the entire process, keeps asking himself whether he stays true to himself and the people around him (‘heart’). To be clear, Bildung is much more about the process than it is about a particular outcome. I’m not saying you have to leave your husband or wife and become a monk, your path might very well be a different one.
With the ideal clearly defined (developing head, hands and heart) it’s time to ask how we’re performing. How balanced is your Bildung? Are you on the right way to become a ‘gebildeter Mensch’? Which parts need a little more attention?
I’ll discuss my observations in this regard in part II of this series.