21 Letters on Life and its Challenges book review (Charles Handy)

Written at 85 years of age, Charles Handy, a British social philosopher, reflects on his life journey and shares with open discussions. In the end of the book, he writes to his grandchildren “When we meet, I’d like to ask you about your hopes of your own story– how you see yourself in 15 years, doing what and living where, with whom perhaps.” He illustrates his perspectives along with anecdotes, yet leaves the questions open for us to search for our own answers, like the open-ended one above. In the 21 letters, Charles Handy shares, but does not lecture; stimulating ideas and leaving the audience to ponder and craft our own life blueprints.

Answers to a well-lived journey are wide-ranging and ever-transcending, unable to be captured into a single conclusion with life stage shifts. At 85 years old, Charles Handy experienced multiple transitions amongst his three selves — “work, passion, and home life.” With his career transitioning from working in a conglomerate, teaching in University as professor, and writing full-time; his family life transcending as bread earner, semi-retirement, to navigating life alone with the passing of his wife; Charles notes that “Life has to be lived forwards but can be best understood backwards. Most learning is experience understood in tranquility.” For me, the entries on his reflections on work, his attitude towards companionship, and life-long pursuit spoke the loudest. These three aspects are aptly classified in his three selves of work, passion, and relationships (he referred to it as home life)some which matter more than others at each life stage.

Reflections on work

Charles’s contemporary perspectives at 85 years of age stood out. At this life stage, some would prefer to comfortably retire, relaxing a bit on keeping up with the fast transformation of the global community. Yet, his viewpoints are on par with workers on the global front facing swift changes in technology, geopolitics, globalization, and shifting business landscapes. “There is no longer a thing as a secure job. You take care of your career — the training you will need, planning for the next move, even pensions and medical care.”, says Charles. When he joined Shell at the start of his career, he assumed that he would be a “lifelong” Shell worker, starting at the bottom of the ladder and retiring with the company. Yet, with swift transformations of the global economy and changes to what calls to him in a career (such as longing for the intimacy of a smaller team, the ability to make more changes and take initiative), he gradually transitioned his career through different geographies and working settings. Despite such changes, he states that “What is here to stay, is that work will be central to our lives. It will dominate adult lives as you get more engrossed in it — either because the demands take your working hours, or you find it so fulfilling to take it down the road of life.” With this note of the important role of work in adulthood, Charles Handy further emphasizes how meaningful work — which could transcend in each life stage is of vital importance.

Charles Handy started his career in Shell and sent a telegram to his parents saying “Life is solved” when he got offered the job. He later realized that the years of foreign field work was great training for his initial years — yet working in a conglomerate was not his calling. “Youngsters nowadays start their careers in big organizations. I see them as graduate schools for work, introducing disciplines, routines, and systems, the details and numbers that matter, the people who can be relied upon. Yet, if your big organization does not provide you with opportunities to take initiative and make a difference, you will soon earn the intimacy of a smaller group. Move on, having finished your graduate internship.”, says Charles Handy. Transitions in career would not go smoothly — it is often uncomfortable to navigate lifestyle changes, invest in training and knowledge required, and navigate challenges of various kinds. What really rang a bell to me was his viewpoint on “The Second Curve” of life. (which is further elaborated in another book of his) “Life has multiple curves. It goes down before it goes up. Nothing lasts forever, but there could be another venture before the previous ended. Find the next curve while you are still climbing, and before you see the endpoint of the first curve.”

Learning curves are extremely steep when juniors enter a new organization or job field in the starting of their career. Technical skills, interpersonal communication, working disciplines, and established systems are all part of the learning. This means investing the entirety of your energy and focus on your job and soak up learnings like a sponge. If we put our hearts into the learning opportunity, observe with a fresh pair of eyes, and are keen to connect with the people around us — our hearts tell us areas we are passionate about and aspects that we dislike. When we start getting comfortable about our duties — either because of familiarity as time passes or seniority as groundwork is delegated to juniors in the team, Charles Handy warns that this might be a dangerous warning sign. “May have stayed in their jobs too long and then found it hard to start a new career. What out for warning signs — Firstly, Complacency (If all is familiar and under control — to be confident is good, to have no doubt and being too comfortable is dangerous) Secondly, A lack of curiosity for anything outside your occupation. (“When my wife told me that I became boring because I became so engrossed in work.”)

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Reflections on Companionship

“Life is a journey, not a race.” Indeed, it is a journey with multiple stages, each with its own excitements and challenges for us to navigate and explore. Charles Handy aptly described life as “a marathon, not a horse race.” “What kind of horse are you? Whom do you compare yourself to — those before or behind? Are you even in the right kind of race? You set your own pace; settle for enjoyment rather than speed; and can choose to run alone or with companions.”

Charles Handy talks about the different forms of companionship — be it marriage, close friends, senior mentors, or friends of the opposite sex. On marriage — “My wife was my best friend for decades — I found the bonds of marriage to be very strengthening. After she passed away, walking alone has been painful.” On close friendships — “ There is no free ride in true togetherness. You can be completely honest with them — so bond them tightly and treat them kindly.” On mentors, “If you are lucky, you may discover an older friend, who spotted the best in you and wants to encourage it.” And lastly, on friends of the opposite sex — “It took me a while to have friendship with a woman without sex in the background. Yet, I found these friendships were the most rewarding, as it helped me to look at the world in very different angles.”

I agree. In my perspective, maintaining treasured relationships as a global nomad requires extra effort, as time and distance are the best teachers. Well goes the saying “You only know how special someone or something is until you have lost it.” You recognize treasured relationships when you are separated by time differences, parallel schedules, or life circumstances. Yet this also means that you invest extra efforts in these companionships — through calls, holiday visits, or correspondence. A few years back, I would have balked at video calls, questioning why people engage in such activity when we could’ve just meet out, face to face. That was back in Taiwan, with friends and family a bus ride or train ride away. With the passage of University years abroad in Hong Kong and right now continuing work in the city, I started getting used to alternative ways of connecting with my day-ones. J*******, J****, and I have video calls regularly — it started impromptu in University days, but later developed into a treasured ritual where we started realizing that despite time differences and life stages miles apart, a laid-back weekend chat filled our hearts with warmth and a snapshot of life in HK, Shanghai, and Boston. G***** and I have maintained correspondence for a few years now — I see her as a mentor who guides the way, and despite ages apart we always find something that clicks — whether literature and film, philosophic reads, foreign language, or nature wonders.

As with family, it is the single most strengthening bond from day one, and I realized that when facing challenges and weaknesses. Bro as a life companion and teacher, with the wisdom and support he blessed was a recent revelation this year. Our life journeys might start similar in childhood yet it starts to diverging from high school — blessing us with life lessons that differ in interactions with different people, cities, and concentrations. There were things that only siblings share, and simple caring words spoken out from them that just strikes right into your heart. It could be a short phone call, an encouraging message, or simply an acknowledgement of gratitude. These are the sources of strength that strengthens and enlivens, in more challenging times.

Final Reflections

With his wealth of experiences in different life stages and professional ventures, Charles Handy struck me as a curious lifelong learner, eager to explore exotic frontiers and out of his comfort zone. I guess it is his zeal and curiosity in learning about the world — technological advancements, globalization impacts, sociological issues, and local ways of life that kept his viewpoints updated and fresh at 85 years of age. There would be not really an age gap, with his penetrating views in contemporary issues. As a curious explorer and serious thinker, he was able to navigate and adapt to the transition of his “3 different life stages”, going through the challenges of exploring out of one’s comfort zone and finding our calling that suits each of our life stage. Those succumbing to familiarity and comfort (not in a negative way, just different life circumstances) might wish to maintain their equilibrium, once they feel that they find enough contentment in their current circumstance.

In addition to the realms of work, Charles Handy as also an avid learner in personal pursuits. “Be sociological tourists — curious travel is one activity that helps you think differently, as long as you are curious, and keen to explore other ways of life in different conditions — the local people, their values, how they live, and how societies work.” Exploring exotic frontiers, observing local ways of life, and reflecting on different conditions stimulates our viewpoint, and it is best when we interact share with the local people — realizing how different perspectives could be shaped with upbringing environments and cultural roots.

In the end of the book, the author gives a few advices to his readers. These include: 1) Learn a foreign language fluently. You can only do this by living and working in the country concerned. You cannot truly know someone unless you speak their tongue. 2) Learn music when you are young. Music and mathematics are international languages. 3) Learn an individual sport when you are young. 4) Fall in love. When you give yourself to another, you will find deeper fulfillment than any ordinary pleasure. You may do it several times — you don’t have to marry the first, or the second, or any at all — although I found the bonds of marriage to be very strengthening. 5) Write a diary. A retrospection will let you see the right priorities for work and life.

This book is recommended — for readers of all ages, navigating through different stages of life, as Charles Handy shares that of his own that would inspire as you navigate along the ride.

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