Last week I suffered every consultant’s nightmare. I can hardly bear to talk about it. My whole world collapsed. I wasn’t sure my business could survive such a terrible experience.
I broke my smartphone.
That was bad enough, but even worse was the complete lack of sympathy I received from the world at large. The hoi polloi (don’t write in, classicists, I know that’s a linguistic tautology), with their non-bluetooth mobiles and filofaxes, did not seem to grasp that I was now Samson without his hair, Arthur without Excalibur, Posh without Becks. For goodness sake, I couldn’t send emails! I couldn’t put meetings in my diary! I couldn’t see the ‘caller display’ to decide whether to pretend to be unavailable when a client rang me! Worse still, not being able to review my emails meant I now had an hour extra a day in which I had to entertain myself. For a consultant on the road, that’s the last straw.
But as I sit here now, gazing adoringly at the differently shaped, less droppable smartphone I picked up on the rebound (it’s going well so far, but the mourning process takes time) I can view events in a more reflective light. And I am rather alarmed at how, without really noticing, I seem to have become one of those people we all loathe, unable to function without knowing what’s in my inbox or hanging on the end of a phone at someone else’s whim. Granted, I am proud of the fact I have never whipped out my mobile as my plane arrives on stand, immediately dialled a number and said loudly “Sally? Yah, just arrived – did Hugo ring?” but give it time. (I suppose first I need to meet people called Sally and Hugo). What really galls me is that I rather affectedly refer to myself as ‘independent’, and yet I can’t exist independently of even a small bundle of electronics.
The whole idea of being an ‘independent consultant’ can be misleading, of course. You occasionally have to get off your backside and give Total Client Satisfaction, otherwise you don’t eat. During my years with [insert name of global consulting firm here], being of an anti-institutional bent, I doggedly refused to wear a suit in the office. I was impervious to the sotto voce sardonic comments of the firm’s pinstriped partners as I wandered around in a deep green jacket and non-matching trousers, feeling like a kind of Ghandi figure for all those who resist selling out to The Man. And yet, within two months of becoming an independent, I picked up a piece of training work for an organisation that had a rule ‘all trainers must wear suits’. Puppylike, I went straight out and bought one.
In what way is this ‘independence’? It’s hard to explain. You’re playing the same game, but the rules feel more like yours. There’s something about working independently that makes you feel like a master of your own destiny, even if you do roll over every time a client asks you to do something demeaning for hardly any money. (Note to potential clients: I have a sound ethical principle on this issue. ‘Demeaning’ is charged at time and a half).
This ‘whose rules am I following?’ construct is at the heart of our relationship with our own work, if not the world. The obsessive checking of emails is the behaviour of an addict – it brings no pleasure, but removes the pain of not knowing whether something important is passing you by. Not for nothing are those PDAs known colloquially as ‘Crackberries’. The critical difference lies in whether you see it as your decision to spend hours a day peering at a tiny screen, or whether you believe strange metaphysical powers based in your office are forcing you to do it.
I had a conversation with a workshop participant recently in which she told me how stressful she found the changes going on in her organisation. “In 18 months time,” she confided, “my job might completely change”. I had two immediate thoughts. One was to think how stressed I would be in the opposite situation (knowing that my job would stay exactly the same for 18 months). The other was that she clearly saw herself as having no control over the situation at all; she would wait for the organisation to tell her what her new role would be.
How ‘independent’ you are should not be a function of how predictable your job is, nor how patriarchal your organisation. It is simply a case of being able to look yourself in the mirror and accept you have a free choice in all things. It is the imagined consequences of our choices which cause us to relinquish responsibility over them. Now, if you’ll excuse me, my smartphone is forcing me to answer it.