In my first post on Bildung as precondition for an authentic life I tried to explain what it means to develop yourself in a balanced way, Bildung in all its aspects. With the ideal clearly defined -developing head, hands and heart- now it’s time to ask how we’re performing.
When I look around I see heaps of very smart people well trained to gather information (‘hands’), to make objective analyses (‘head’) and to communicate their thoughts (‘hands’ again). Corporates and governments simply love these bright cookies. Hard workers, malleable, driven.
So, we seem to be in good shape when it comes to Bildung of head and hands. However, our world and personal lives are so incredibly complex that strong analytical skills alone are not enough. After we’ve discovered what is, the question remains what ought to be. It is my impression that many of us can’t really answer the second type of question because our heart is underdeveloped. We fall short of self-knowledge, and lack the skill set to answer ethic questions. As a result, both our personal happiness and our ability to make decisions on societal issues are impaired.
It’s easy to drift off and lose touch with your needs and desires in our modern world. (Social) media show us how life is ‘supposed to be’, our friends and colleagues push us in particular directions and we have high expectations. Given this dominant environment, a strong notion of what is right for you personally (heart) is needed to live an authentic life that suits you.
It took me a long time for example to let go of the thought my career could only properly take off by working for a corporate law firm. Then I started at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where I was mainly trying to meet the expectations of others. As a result I lost touch with what I thought important and with the goals I was working for.
A wise person at the Ministry told me several times to watch out for pragmatism without vision. What’s the worth of all your skill if you don’t know where you’re heading and if all you ultimately work for is short term problem solving and recognition? This path eventually only leads to a spiral of negative feelings: from stress caused by the question whether you’re good enough to an estrangement from what you find important, which then leads to exhaustion, which in turn can lead to loneliness and ultimately unhappiness. A neglect of the heart can be quite dangerous.
Is this happening on a grander scale when young people start their first jobs? You might counter that in comparison to previous generations rather than just being able to pay the bills, people nowadays are much more concerned with having a fulfilling job and a happy life. Isn’t that the heart talking? It is. The problem however, is we often don’t have a clue what makes us happy, or how to reach fulfilment. Even if we do know, too often we can’t resist social expectations and other social structures that push us in wrong directions.
On a more macro level, a neglect of the heart also poses challenges when governing our societies. A short illustration in this regard.
The department I worked for at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs coordinates the Dutch position in European Union issues. Topics discussed on a daily basis include:
- How to deal with the EU migration crisis?
- How to deal with the sovereign debt crisis, notably the situation in Greece?
- How to deal with our growing dependence on Russian gas in a time of geopolitical tensions, tight government budgets and environmental stress?
No matter how much expertise you have in sociology, economics, environmental science, or technology, these questions can’t be answered without a normative assessment. In order to come up with just the promise of an answer you’ll have to ask yourself ethical questions like:
- How much am I (or are we) prepared to give up in order to help others?
- When do I (or do we) want to curtail (short term) economic development in the light of environmental concerns?
- Who am I, to answer these questions and take decisions accordingly?
What is right? I admit I grappled with these questions and too often I did not really have an answer. All of a sudden, my ability to carry out objective analyses and to communicate about the results did not suffice anymore. It’s impossible to navigate through world affairs and take a stand if you have not developed your heart.
The road to authenticity
That’s two strong reasons to include the heart in your personal development. The question is whether you figure out what you think is important in your late twenties or only when you dive into a proper mid life crisis. Fact is I see many people working towards the midlife crisis.
All the above has led me down the path of quitting my job at the Ministry and joining a very small company where I work towards a clear goal that I support and can directly contribute to. This does not mean I reject large, complex organizations by the way. I’m convinced that if you are developed and experienced enough it’s always possible to see the goal you’re working towards, decide whether you support it and keep a clear eye on it – you just have to be ready and accept the challenge.
So if anything I’d like to encourage you to keep asking yourself what you are doing and why and let the answer to this question guide your actions!
In the follow-up to this post I explore why our Bildung is out of balance and what to do about it.
And as always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and reach a deeper understanding together!