“But I Digress”: What the Modern Workplace Can Learn From Odysseus
March 2, 2018 | Karen Nestor
I never would have predicted that my favorite book of 2017 would be a memoir about teaching The Odyssey. Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic was the perfect combination of a compelling personal story, an interpretive, accessible guide to one of history’s most famous works of literature and a probing reflection on human relationships. The book has opened up many new insights for me about literature and social science and my own experiences in the world.
Early in the book, I learned for the first time about a classical literary technique called ring composition, which was used before writing was even invented. The storyteller begins his tale “only to pause and loop back to some earlier moment that helps explain an aspect of the story he’s telling – a bit of personal or family history, say – and afterward might even loop back to some earlier moment or incident . . . gradually winding his way back to the present moment.” This is the same way we engage in everyday conversation, especially when we are inspired to think creatively and expansively about a topic. Digressions don’t take us away from the conversation at hand so much as they embellish our ideas. We take conversational twists and turns that enrich our understanding and our interactions with each other.
As I read about Ulysses’s journey – his prolonged odyssey – through the lens of ring composition, I began to understand why this epic has endured for millennia. We humans meander through life’s dilemmas and questions as we try to make sense of our stories. We understand that the long side trips we make, either literally or linguistically, offer important insights that lead to individual and collective leaps of understanding.
But in modern times, society has come to prize efficiency and brevity, particularly in our work and social interactions. How often I have heard someone urge a group to cut to the chase or get to the bottom line. As we accelerate the pace of decision-making, digressions are discouraged or even disdained. And yet sometimes a digression is exactly what we need to leap from the incident at hand to a surprising connection that seems totally unrelated. In our highly technological society, digressions can be the very adventures that help us make meaning and get closer to the outcomes we seek, in just the way that Odysseus’s frustrating delays made it possible for him finally to reach his desired destination.
The notion of ring composition gives us new insight into how digressions can lead to powerful outcomes in the workplace. When we take time away from our desks or the task at hand to simply talk with our colleagues – whether it’s an off-topic discussion in a meeting or a discussion about literature – we naturally explore the basic human dilemmas that affect us all. Listening to others and sharing our stories can be cathartic and productive, a way to use our brains in a new way and engage our social muscles. At a pace that is different from ordinary work conversations, we begin to make creative leaps of thinking and express new perspectives without the usual rush to solutions or apologies for going off on a tangent.
The experience of “thinking in circles” increases our capacity to develop shared meaning and new insight at work and beyond. In his book, Mendelsohn weaves and re-weaves his own story, his father’s story and the ancient story of Ulysses in a complicated exploration of identity, relationships, power and suffering. He presents the reader with eternal questions that people have always explored. It reminded me that the exploration of such questions is what brings out the best in our human potential. Like Ulysses, it leads us to new destinations. And ultimately, it brings us back home to the work we do everyday, equipped with new levels of creativity and new ideas.
Image: Valentin Serov, Odyssey and Nausicaa, 1910, [Public Domain] via WikiArt.org