The value of helplessness

September 6, 2011

Without the experience of helplessness there would be no possibility of the experience of satisfaction.  Without the possibility of satisfaction, life is futile……We can be competent but we are always helpless


I’m re-reading Adam Phillips’ On Balance at the moment and am particularly enjoying his essay on Negative Capabilities (from which the above quote was taken).  Although Phillips is not talking about organizations per se, his insight is particularly relevant to how we think about ‘negative’ emotions in organizations.  I think what Phillips is saying is that without experiences of helplessness (or any kind of emotional experience perceived to be ‘negative’) we can’t hope for its opposite, or at least we can’t hope for the possibility of things being better.  Without that hope then life is meaningless.  In organizational terms this means the we have to include ‘negative’ feelings as well as positive ones or else we don’t have a way of identifying and aspiring to a more satisfying way of being.  If the organizational project is positivity this will inevitably disappoint (it’s not possible to be happy, productive or positive all of the time); and if there is no room for an expression of those less-than-positive feelings then we fail at the project of being human.  Experiencing loss, disappointment, anger and the other feelings of ‘helplessness’ can only assist in the desire for a more satisfying life and a more productive working experience.

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