red tulips | copyright Jill J. Jensen



Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity

David Whyte
New York: Riverhead Books ©2001


England's Yorkshire poet David Whyte may seem a strange sort of consultant to Fortune 500 companies, but that's exactly one of the hats he wears. Since his first bestseller, The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, Whyte has been one of a very few souls attempting to help us cope with the Dilbertized cube farms and computer-driven productivity mills that have become many Americans' home-away-from-home. Like James Autry in Love and Profit: A Manager's Search for Meaning, David Whyte wants us to bring our whole selves to work and for work to make space for those enriched and enlightened people to contribute.

In Crossing the Unknown Sea, Whyte invites us into his journey and explores it as an example for our own. Work, he contends, is not just the job we have or the things we do in exchange for money. Rather, it's "an opportunity for discovering and shaping; the place where the self meets the world." As such, we need not only to have our heads in the game, we need to engage our hearts and our spirits as well. Impossible, you say? Get real? Well, that's precisely where Whyte wants us to be, too.

While he weaves in Keats, Wordsworth, Shakespeare, and his own poems, among others, Whyte connects everything to the path we travel to discover ourselves through our work. He relates a traumatic experience of working as a sailing guide in the Galapagos where he nearly drowned after letting his ego overwhelm his common sense and taking a risk for which his skills did not qualify him. And he shares a story of looking for himself at the time he declared his intent to become a "full-time poet" while working in the speed-driven space of a Manhattan office tower:

One morning, hurtling from my desk toward the photocopier, I passed a roomful of my colleagues just about to start a meeting. There was someone I needed to talk to. I saw immediately that he wasn't among them, but I put my head in the door before they could begin, and in a very loud, urgent voice, I said, "Has anyone seen David?"

There was a moment of stunned incomprehension, which to my amazement, quickly dissolved into table-thumping laughter. My comic timing must have been impeccable, because the whole room was soon helpless, repeating what I had said and generally behaving like the pig-ignorant fools other people seem to be when the joke is at our expense. I looked back at them blankly, the truth dawning as I looked. "Has anyone seen David" might seem an innocuous question in most organizations, but I happened to be the only David who worked under that particular roof. I realized the forlorn and public stupidity of my request and forced myself, after a wide-eyed moment, to laugh with them. Inside, I was dying.

I was looking for David, all right, and I couldn't find him. In fact, I hadn't seen him for a very long time. I was looking for a David who had disappeared under a swampy morass of stress and speed.

Although it was a humiliating experience, it was also an awakening for Whyte, and it's one that may have happened or may be happening to many of us over and over again. Like Whyte, we need to appreciate its message and take the opportunity to learn what it means for us. In his own search after that moment of revelation, Whyte shows his compassion for himself and, therefore, for us, in the serious effort of discovery. And from just such situations that happen to all of us, we are urged to build the connection between our hearts and our work.

It's not as impossible as it may sound. Whyte suggests that "the very confusion around what is virtual and what is real, what is advertising and what is true information, is creating a groundswell of questioning about the realities of human relationships.... Whatever relationships we have in these times, they have to be real and vital to survive. They are contingent on the extent to which we live them out fully and wholeheartedly, the extent to which we can instinctively imagine ourselves in them.... The work is only our work as long [as] it is the right work for us.... If it is true for the individual, it is true for our societies and our organizations. They can no longer survive as outer, hollow forms but must breathe with the life of those who make them up."

Whyte acknowledges that "what we have to confront in the present workplace is the reluctance to engage in conversations that really invite the creative qualities hidden deep inside each human being." But "conversation is the heart of human life and conversation is also the heart of commerce," so "in order to get a real conversation with the world you have to drop artificial language, you have to drop politics, and you have to drop an environment based on fear and hiding. People must be encouraged not only to know their craft, their products, their work and the people they serve, but to know a little of themselves."

Given his experience in corporate America, Whyte is not painting some impossibly naïve picture. He knows the corporation's major problem is that "it has too little poetry, too little humanity, and too little good business sense for the world that lies before us." But he also feels that "sometime over the next fifty years or so, the word manager will disappear from our understanding of leadership... [and] another word will emerge, more alive with possibility, more helpful, hopefully not decided upon by committee, which will describe the new role of leadership now emerging. An image of leadership which embraces the attentive, open-minded, conversationally based, people-minded person who has not given up on her intellect and can still act and act quickly when needed."

Whyte's solution "lies not in our empirical, strategic disciplines but in our artistic traditions. It is the artist in each of us we must now encourage into the world, whether we have worked for the Getty Foundation or for Getty Oil. We must bring our visionary artistic powers into emancipation with our highly trained empirical powers of division and deduction," because the artist creates for future generations, not just the present. Besides, "work is the ground" of our arrival in the world. "To die inside is to rob our outside life of any sense of arrival from that interior. Our work is to make ourselves visible in the world. This is the soul's individual journey, and the soul would much rather fail at its own life than succeed at someone else's."


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