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  • Writer's pictureSusanne May

Can A Poem Save Your Life?

In my work, I often find that one of the biggest challenges my clients face is staying connected with their true thoughts and feelings. The pressure of fulfilling the organization’s goals and expectations becomes so great they lose track of how those connect to what really matters to them in life. The meaning of their work and their life becomes “lost in corporate translation.” More and more, they find themselves steered by beliefs and ambitions that are not really their own.

In the short run, many people do not notice, but in the long run, this kind of emotional distance often marks the beginning of a life’s downhill slope. After all, how can a leader inspire others if he or she can’t inspire his or herself? Even more sadly, they spend years imitating a person, not sharing those qualities that might have made them truly special.

For years, I searched for an answer to this challenge. The gurus in Fast Company, WIRED and Fortune had some nice tips. Nor did the organizational psychologists I read have any truly satisfying answer. I’d almost started to wonder if Henry David Thoreau got it right, and most people really do lead “lives of quiet desperation,” and we should all just retreat as he did to his cabin on Walden Pond.

Ironically, it was in Boston last year, just a few miles away from where Thoreau wrote those despairing words, that I finally got a positive answer to this question of how to stay true to one self. It arrived when I least expected it, at a Harvard Medical School conference in 2015, from an English marine biologist turned poet named David Whyte.

Whyte’s great subject, as befits someone who studied marine zoology, is the interplay between the individual and the group, or as he puts it in his poem, Start Close In, the way

We shape our self

to fit the world

and by the world

are shaped again.

This interest has won him an unusual following in the business world, where his work includes teaching executives how to use poetry to become better leaders. As he explained in an interview in the Harvard Business Review, he shows executives how to use literature as a way to open up the possibility of having “a real conversation,” which he defines as a conversation that “no matter how slowly, helps you make sense of the world around you.” The goal, he says, is to help executives learn to use the clarity of good poetry and poetic images to cut through jargon and develop “a larger language” to describe their work and stay connected to their own passions.

For me, what resonated especially was a line from one of Whyte’s own poems, “Start Close In”:

Start close in,

don’t take the second step

or the third,

start with the first


close in,

the step

you don’t want to take.

Whyte’s words helped me. Looked at from that point of view, many of the organizational problems my clients face begin to seem less complex, as so often the core problems have to do with self-awareness. We avoid taking an honest and naked look into the mirror as we fear being vulnerable, and fear being judged. I’ve seen again and again how this defensive habit becomes a problem in its own right: Nobody can help you because they don’t know you, and in the end, you can’t even help yourself, trapped as you are inside this persona.

Through his use of poetry and in his own words, Whyte shows us how to unlock what William Blake called those “mind-forg’d manacles”. Having the conversation you don’t want to have, either with yourself or with others leads you instead to face the core challenges of your work and your life.


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