By Pratap Nambiar for Business World People

Social scientist Karl Deutsch observed it as “the ability to afford not to learn”. The greatest challenge that young managers face is that as they grow and become leaders, their power and authority increase and with it begins the depreciation of their intellectual capital.

David Whyte in his book ‘Crossing the Unknown Sea” refers to work as a pilgrimage of identity. A pilgrimage is a journey undertaken often to a distant land in search of a new or expanded meaning about self, or the world, or a higher good through the experience. The human approach to work according to David, can be naïve, fatalistic, power-mad, money-grubbing, unenthusiastic, cynical, detached, and obsessive. It can also be selflessly mature, revelatory and life-giving; mature in its long-reaching effects, and life-giving in the way it gives back to an individual or society as much as it has taken.

When Socrates was asked to distil all of his life learning in the realm of psychology and philosophy, he expressed it in just two words: Know Yourself. It is the foundation on which every individual journey is built. And when we translate that to the many hours of our life we spend at work, it becomes even more pertinent as it contributes significantly to our state of wellbeing.

TS Elliott referred to it as exploration. And the place to start the journey of exploration is with the self. This is an ongoing process because when we are done with all the exploring, we return to the place where we started and know it once again for the first time. Whatever we do at work, managing or leading is a work of art, and for that what we need is vertical development of the self. Horizontal development focuses on learning more skills, but vertical development helps to grow the mind.

Abilities and Attitude 

The ability (skills set) to perform tasks is vital for all at work, and without it, one cannot even line up for the race. But it is not enough to win the race. For that one needs the right attitude (mindset) that will enhance the abilities and bring about the balance between task and relationships. In fact, all abilities are built on the platform of attitude. Without the right attitude, behaviours become self-limiting, and abilities can get derailed.

What I have observed in my coaching journey working to help leaders evolve their thinking, is that rank and humility often are inversely correlated. Social scientist Karl Deutsch observed it as “the ability to afford not to learn”. The greatest challenge that young managers face is that as they grow and become leaders, their power and authority increase and with it begins the depreciation of their intellectual capital. They will reach a level where their position guarantees their superior knowledge validated by their subordinates, so they no longer feel the need to learn and unlearn and renew themselves.

Management guru Gary Hamel feels that over time the focus becomes driving compliance rather than on unleashing the potential and increase the contribution of the people working for them. What they experienced as juniors was a relentless crushing of their humanity, where the soul is trapped by processes that left them devoid of courage, creativity and passion. This is what gets perpetuated as the organization becomes trapped in the continuous web of bureaucracy.

What is needed is to embark on an inner journey, a discovery of what makes us who we are. Our identity as we see it and yet one that must be tested against how those around us experience the way we show up. So much of our way of being in this world is based on our self-image, our identity, the way we see ourselves, our sense of self-worth built on what we consider to be our inner reality.

Blind Spots 

Unfortunately, that is not necessarily the way the world sees us. They see how we show up, based on our behaviours and form judgments on that basis. This is their perception, but it does represent external reality. Quite often there is a disconnect between our self-assessment and the way others around us experience us.

This disconnect is because of the blind spots that we cannot see, what the world knows about us and what we do not know. We are blind to this truth.

Getting to find out what these blind spots are is the beginning of the journey to know ourselves and start a process of self-reflection and development. 

Abraham Maslow points out that we are confronted with an ongoing series of choices throughout life between safety and growth, dependence and independence, regression and progression, immaturity, and maturity.

We grow forward when the delights of growth and anxieties of safety are greater than the anxieties of growth and the delights of safety. 

It becomes clear why so many of us refuse to step out of our comfort zone. We cling to the safety of the known instead of embracing the “delight of growth” that only comes from discovering the unknown, the blind spots that will allow us to embrace change and transform to fulfil our true potential. This requires a growth mindset that is not afraid to make mistakes and learn, not trapped in trying to maintain the status quo of the self-identity that we have so painstakingly created over the years.


Quite often we are blind to our own ways, ignorant of our self-limiting behaviours trapped by the very walls we have built over time to protect us from the day-to-day dangers that can end up hurting the self. In any occupation where we have developed some core abilities, very slowly but steadily we begin to see ourselves as entitled, and irrespective of how high we have reached, the very same corner office with its expensive views will lead to boredom and feel like a gilded cage.

David Whyte refers to Constantine Cavafy’s poem Walls:

Ah why did I not pay attention 

when they were building the walls. 

But I never heard any noise, or sound of builders. 

Imperceptibly they shut me from the outside world. 

Any work that we do holds our attention for a while, and then, if we do not invigorate and reimagine our participation, it begins to enclose us and slowly starve our spirit. Good work done in the same way for too long or done in the wrong way for any amount of time, eats away our sense of being right with the world. It is for this reason that it is necessary to source our inner power and answer our own unique calling, so we may experience greater fulfilment in our lives.

Although many of us hear the call of our inner desires and dreams, it is often difficult to find the path forward to our own awakening. Learning to explore deeply is opening to the ultimate possibility of your life. Your internal awakening opens the door to a truly unimaginable possibility.


When we learn to explore deeply, we uncover our true power & gifts and are able to find meaning in our past failures. This is when we begin to believe in ourselves again and that is when we become powerful beyond belief. Our life purpose is to use our own personal transformation to help transform society. In exploring deeply our own divinity and purposeful gifts, one can find the guidance and resources to bring to life the most extraordinary of dreams.

David Whyte refers to Poet and writer William Blake who wrote about the need for a firm persuasion in our work – to feel that what we do is right for ourselves and good for the world at exactly the same time – which is one of the great triumphs of human existence.

In my coaching conversations, I have found that organizations that keep their purpose front and centre instil in their employees a deep sense of meaning, when they do something for the benefit of many, thereby fulfilling themselves. They feel like they have the capacity to move mountains when they do challenging work that enlarges them, and in those moments they rise well above their worldly limitations irrespective of the size of their income.

Individuals need a sense of belonging in their work, a conversation with something larger than themselves, a felt participation, and a touch of spiritual fulfilment and the mysterious generative nature of that fulfilment.

We must never mistake a good career for good work. Life is a creative, intimate and unpredictable conversation if it is nothing else, spoken or unspoken, and our life and our work are both the result of the particular way we hold that passionate conversation.

In Blake’s sense, a firm persuasion was a form of self-knowledge; it was understood as a result, an outcome, a bounty that came from paying close attention to an astonishing world and the way each of us is made differently and uniquely for that world.


Make the journey, a pilgrimage, a quest undertaken. A homage to self. There is no greater truth than the discovery of self. Being curious about ourselves. Feeling the desire to know who we truly are. Beyond the identity we have carefully created over the years that we now believe to be the truth.

In the words of Robert Kegan, being an adult is not just about getting better at what we do (loading the container), it is about transformation – changing the way we know and understand the world (growing the size of the container).

Knowing our-self. The stories that we are telling ourself that shapes our innermost beliefs, the choices we make, the lens through which we see the world, the behaviours we manifest, the way we show up and as a consequence how the world perceives us.

To transform ourselves, to become a new and higher version of being, with a more evolved structure of mind that enhances our potential for performance.

As human beings we’re set up to grow psychologically, to evolve, to develop. This single biggest cause of work burnout is not working overload but working too long without experiencing your own personal development.

As Kegan says, we do not see two goals or two missions, but one. The relationship between realizing human potential and organization potential is a dialectic, not a trade-off. Adaptive challenges can only be met by people and organizations exceeding themselves.

When we feel our own growth and when we engage in activities that also help others (including helping our colleagues grow), we can experience true wealth in the form of long-term, sustained well-being. After all, we spend most of our waking hours at work, and this form of wealth cannot be obtained from a paycheck.

Pratap Nambiar is the the founder and Chairman of Thought Perfect, a company coaching Leaders to transform themselves to meet adaptive challenges.

(This article was originally published in Business World India)

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