Questionnaires are the last place you should start. Especially if you’re trying to find out something extraordinary about yourself. In fact, no matter how hard they sell themselves, multiple choice questions can’t give you insights into your own life. Can they?
If it’s an online quiz, then I’m delighted to take it. Especially if it will help me find out which Friends character I’d be (Gunther), or if I’m good at grammar (mostly). Anything that might tell me something about myself that goes beyond the superficial? Sorry, no, my scepticism gauge just shot up to 100.
It was because of work that I first encountered Belbin and the realisation that, no, I wasn’t a completer finisher.
Doctor and monster
If you’ve not come across it before, Belbin is a personality test. It’s full title is The Belbin Self-Perception Inventory. Just as many people mistake Frankenstein to be the monster, it was Meredith Belbin who invented the test. Even though it’s the test not Meredith who wears the moniker.
Under normal circumstance I would have looked at its grand title then done some eye-rolling and hurried past. Much in the same way as you do when you see the guy wearing the Free Hugs T-shirt. After all, questionnaires are about finding out whether a website can guess my star sign from 10 simple questions. (It can’t.)
The position I was in though meant I couldn’t just ignore the test. I had just started a new job and they’d paid a lot of money for the training and tests. Like all good psychological insights, it was mandatory.
There’s no need to worry about your results
Calm should be the order of the day. Whatever you do, don’t try and over analyse these results. The trainer spent a lot of time going through this. Don’t panic. After all, Belbin is designed to tell you where you fit in a team. There’s no good or bad; right or wrong.
Then again, completer finisher was my lowest score. In fact, when I got my results, I had to check if the score had even bothered to turn up on the sheet.
It was official: I’m not good at finishing things.
There is something upsetting about finding that out. worse still, this was an answer that had come from myself. It’s not like when your friend says ‘the worst thing about you’ and you can just turn off.
This message was from deep within me. Not from the bit that knows how to work the coffee machine and loves Rachel. Or that knows ‘They’re waiting for their table over there‘ is correct.
No, this news had shot from my own unconscious. This wasn’t a proclamation from the loud, flashy king. It was a whisper from the hidden adviser who sits behind the throne and mutters in the king’s ear.
What I couldn’t work out was why this little bit of knowledge stung.
Stop me and ask
After all, I finish lots of things. If anyone wanted to stop me in the street and ask me to list something I’ve finished then I could get straight on that. Not top ten, admittedly. Five from the top? OK, it could take a little bit of thinking, but main three. Not. A. Problem.
Finishing matters. It’s achievement. It’s not glory. That’s winning. Finishing is wiping the sweat from your forehead and standing back to admire what you’ve created. Not finishing is losing.
At the risk of sounding like one of those pretend school teachers that the Daily Mail imagine cancel sports day, even coming last isn’t losing. You got there; you did it. Look behind you: those guy scratching their balls on the sofa. they’re the real losers.
Damn. While I was looking the other way, I accidentally became a motivational poster. what next: there’s no ‘I’ in team?
I am a finisher. I am, dammit. My top three things I’ve finished are:
- Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
- Underworld, by Don Delillo
- The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni
OK, it’s good and bad that my top three are all vast novels. It means I read a lot, which is generally good, but is that really the height of my achievement?
Surely, it’s a curtailed life if it’s achievements lie in consuming things other people have created? Also, it denies the longer list of books I have abandoned before the final page.
Or worse, let’s look through my computer’s hard drive. It’s an unholy rabble of deserted and forgotten writing projects.
Don’t go through my hard drive
I’m begging. Don’t try to read any of the two-page plays: the curtain falls with the pistol still not fired. Here, there’s a folder full of execrable verse. A whole folder full of poems, each of them half built. You can see the rafters and there’s no glass in any of the windows. All those novels that taper down to sketches and bullet points. One of them gets as far as ‘Once upon a time’ before deciding better and leaving the reader to fill in the rest for themselves.
Fine, I think. Thanks Belbin, you’re right. Look at that mountain of things that I’ve left undone. Every single thing just left to wind down, like a faulty clock.
Yes, okay. I get the point. (Part of me was desperate to just leave this denunciation here. Sort of on that bum note, with everything loose threads and out of shape. Like a badly made sweater.)
So, when I read my questionnaire results, I knew what that burn was. It was my own sense of failure, presented in full colour, on graph paper. Somehow, I’d set myself a task that I was failing at. I couldn’t finish anything other than three books with large page counts.
But looking at the cases where everything fell off isn’t going to change that. That’s just looking at a whole heap of metaphorical ball scratching. You can’t learn anything from that.
Instead, look at the things you have achieved. There are a few finishing lines that I have managed to cross.
And if you’ve crossed them once, you can cross them again without tapering off. Even if it makes you sound like a motivational poster, every now and again.
Written in response to the daily prompt ‘Taper’.
I suspect that the bit of my job that I’m supposed to be good at is actually the bit of the job I’m worst at. so where do my skills lay?
supposedly I was good at poetry. but reading back, 99% of what I wrote was dross. what about the comedy? too chicken do see that through. the marketing stuff I’m proud of: binned by housewife and businessman alike. sometimes I feel trapped. it’s as if reality is wrapped too tightly round me. where I want to be, the things I want to try: remote. they’re distant mountains I climb in my mind. I could do that I think but it’s only based on other people’s stories. it’s easy to climb a picture of everest. impossible to conquer the real thing if the closest you’re going to get to Kathmandu is as a pub quiz answer. what do I want? I want to work for a nice b to c company. somewhere that has a product that gives tangible results tugs real emotions. is that something I could do? I’m good at ideas. good at whimsy. good at talking. weaker on…well to be honest, probably the thing I cherish most: writing. and possibly persuading. sure there are things my mind will baulk at. places my imagination won’t go. and that’s a problem. how can I sell a benefit of something I don’t believe in. is it that I’m impressed by gloss? the car doesn’t have to be fast as long as it’s shiny? so once you’re actually under the bonnet of the thing, and there’s no shine is that what makes it look naff? or am I only interested in the gloss: the sort of narcissist who doesn’t care to think about things too deeply? Satisfied with the easy answer and ince it’s been said there’s no need to say it again. by which I mean, Richard fenyman tells the story of the plating company: they gold plated everything even if the gold wouldn’t bond. I think that’s a confidence trick. a lie. so when I see the faults in the product, how the guy in despatch scratches his arse inside his pants before picking up the goods. when I learn about that bit that wobbles which everyone’s been getting round to fix do I get the feeling that actually what we’re trying to punt is a load of shit? are there any products or services out there that don’t have that wobble or the dirty hands over them at one point? no. probably not. so by that logic I’m never going to find the company that’s the perfect fit. if the glass is always half full, no matter how ornate the glass is, I’m never going to be satisfied with the measure of what I drink.
Hilariously for someone who works in publishing, I’m not a details man. Or that I mistake complexity and long-winded Ness for detail. Given the job of describing a tree I’d instead describe the woods. Easier to skim over details than have to wrack my brains for the perfect words to describe the lizard-skin bark, the waxy green leaves that shine like polish. See the hectic thatch of a bird’s nest snuck into the crook of two branches. It creates a strange stirring of sexy, looking as it does like a public bush. And the way the branches split, each one a cleft. Trees make me think of sex!
My wife is so self-possessed and independent that often it feels like I’m an optional extra. It’s very clear to me that she could get by perfectly fine without. This morning, it was frosty outside and the car windscreens all had a glaze of white frost. Today is my day for staying home from my shitty job because my boss can’t afford to pay me. So there’s no need for me to step out into freezing black of a January morning at all.
Except there’s the frost and I want to help my wife. “There’s no need for you to come down”, she says.
“I know, but I’ll scrape the ice off the windscreens for you.”
The plan that I’d sketched out in my head involved me scraping the ice off the car, while she sat in the car, heaters going. The point was that she didn’t have to go through the strenuous and unpleasant chore of de-icing. But, as I said, my wife doesn’t really need me. So instead, while I vainly chipped away at the ice with the scraper, she fished around in the car’s boot and found the can of de-icing spray.
So now we’re both outside de-icing her car. In fact, she’s used the can to melt the frost from all four side windows and the rear window, while I’m still scuffing off the driver’s side of the front windscreen.
With a flourish of fine liquid chemical spray, she demolishes the icy build up on the passenger side of the front windscreen.
“All done” she says, before lifting the wipers to ensure that they’re not frozen too. I want to say “I’ve done that already”, but she’s ushering me back inside. As I turn to wave to her, I see that she’s rescraping the area that I’ve already de-iced. So, not only are my efforts slower than what she can achieve on her own, they are also substandard.
My realisation that I am to all intents and purposes superfluous is not a giant ice-tipped bolt that stabs me through the skull like frozen urine dropped from a passing airliner. There’s no sudden incredulous gust of understanding that roots my inconsequential self to the spot. This is more like a gentle reminder.
After all, she doesn’t even know that I’ve seen her working over my contribution to ice-free driving vision.
That I don’t bring anything at all useful to our relationship is something that I’ve long been conscious of. Other than companionship, flatulence and a warm place to put cold feet, I don’t really add anything at all. Let’s be frank about the attributes I do bring, these can also supplied by a dog. The only thing that I’ve got that a dog hasn’t is opposable thumbs, so I don’t get trapped behind a closed door quite so often. Although, to say that it never happened would be to stretch the point into fiction.
It’s amazing that this confident, strident and independent woman not only has me hanging around but that she does things with me. More amazing again, quite often she does things for me – things I’m capable of doing myself, but not to the same sort of standard that she expects. Sometime marriage feels like the most comprehensive case of Stockholm Syndrome ever diagnosed. As a husband, I sort of have a sneaky suspicion I know what the kidnappers felt when Patty Hearst was better at robbing banks than them.
It is the perfect place to exercise my considerable herd of what ifs and cultivate a large crop of if onlys. Failure seems to be the endemic end to all the company’s efforts. This gives me lots of time to work up reasons why none of this is actually my fault.
If only the data was better; our landing pages are a disgrace; the website doesn’t communicate our USP; if only we could plan better.
But our return on investment languishes between 0 and 0.01%, so there’s the strong possibility that I am terrible at my job. And if I am incompetent? I am almost 40, and have always seemed to languish. You see I possess the bitter mix of laziness and self-doubt. I will read the 10 ways to ace your copy, but am then too nervous to put this learning in place.
I am convinced that I know my stuff. So why do I struggle to put all this knowledge to work? Am I really too timid to take the advice that I give to others so generously? Or is it because I’m bone idle: full of amazing ideas, as long as others suckers put in the hours? I think, on balance, it’s a generous dollop of each.
You see, this is the fertiliser that I can spread on the neat rows of if onlys. I am busy, weeding out green shots of work. It is great, spending days basking in the loamy stink of wistful plans. stopping constantly to lean on a gate and think maybe some day. But not today.
I’m passive you see. Never one to act upon, instead I am acted upon – the beach, not the sea; the wheat not the wind. As a child indecision would paste me to the spot. I never wanted to go. No. Wait: I want to go…No, wait.
And so it goes on with life. The days have churned on, thickening in to weeks, setting and settling: months. Years. And still I am there in the spot: wait…go…no…wait.
Everything I’ve achieved, that small savings account of successes, was because I tried. And on the whole, trying brought me some success. That should really be the lesson in itself. Was it Woody Allen who said 80% of genius is just turning up? Yet, more often than not, the red cheeked farmer with his lazy crop of perhaps and but if, is there leaning on the fence. He’s happy to chew a piece of stereotypical straw and say why bother, and anyway, it’s not your fault.
See, here again: standing still and polishing up some handy excuse as to why it’s not my fault. Who is this lazy farmer, fat on subsidies and content watching his herds get skinny and blight chew through his crop? Who is this country gent?
It’s me. Of course. Me, hiding behind my imaginary farmer. Me, lavishing twenty minutes on kicking shit off the heels of my boots. It doesn’t seem the best strategy does it. Okay, the company’s problems are not all on me. If that’s the case then maybe it’s time to move. The longer I stay there, the more I seem to be part of the problem.
If what I’m doing isn’t getting results because of poor websites, raged data and bad planning, then go somewhere that isn’t tangled with these problems.
But if suddenly the blocks all get pulled down, but I still struggle to achieve good results?
Well, I’d better find myself another trade, I guess.
If the details change, is it still classed as a recurring dream? Because the intricacies of plot differ, but my friend dream always keeps its theme consistently. The point my subconscious wants to ram home, night after night, is that I am a bad friend.
Other people’s dreams are dull – their inner surrealism is only magical to themselves – so I will avoid giving a detailed account. The précis is this:
I agree to meet an old friend in a familiar place. But when we meet, the old friend’s smiles become jeers. They expose the indifference that I have shown to them and remind me of every unfriendly act, missed appointment or unkind word. They are lyrical on my hypocrisy. Then they disappear. Popping up occasionally to remind me what I prick I am, as I try to navigate through the once familiar place, which has now mutated into a maze.
For years the disdainful friend was D*****. Now it is Rachel.
At university, I shared a flat with Rachel for three years. She was a well spoken, well behaved young lady. An enthusiast, she wore thick, green woolen stockings, fussed, muttered to herself and made coco at bedtime.
Even as a student, Rachel had the air of someone who would eventually make jam and chair WI committees. She was church-going, small c conservative, CofE right down to her range of plaid, knee length kilts and flat soled shoes. Does that sound dismissive? It’s not meant to be. I loved her in a clumsy, brotherly way.
No, not brotherly. She had the practical, enthusiastic charm of a favourite aunt. Or more likely, I did not have the brains required to analyse our relationship, at all. At the time, Rachel simply existed in the twin states of ‘friend’ and ‘house mate’.
I can’t remember what Rachel studied. Whatever it was, she did it with a sense of industry that meant her lectures were all attended, her books got read and her essays arrived on tutors’ desks proofed and on time. Her approach to study sat awkwardly with mine.
In fact, her ethic and elbow grease was a stark contrast to my more loutish, ramshackle approach. In my studies, diligence and hard work were remote destinations. Like Paris or New York, they where places I had heard of, but hadn’t visited.
If I hadn’t been wrapped up in the storm of ego and chemicals that made up my career as a student, I would remember more about Rachel. What she thought, felt or believed in.
Instead my memories of her are defined by her relation to me, rather than as a separate, complex and interesting person in her own right. But who has the time to appreciate others? I had a torrid infatuation to worry about. A pointless and painful obsession with our other flatmate Lisa.
When Rachel returned to University for our final year, she had fallen in love. By the time we graduated, she was engaged. Was she married that summer or the one after? Does it matter; although I accepted the invite, I didn’t go. And that is something I will always fund shameful about myself. Nor did I apologise or explain my absence. I find that even worse, the reprehensible acts of a coward.
This all happened before social media. Rachel got married a year before I even owned a mobile phone.
It’s been 15 years since I last saw Rachel. If there was a big goodbye, the memory hasn’t stuck. It’s the ephemera of the last day at university that remains: piling the flat’s collection of empty wine bottles into an old potato sack; the panic that we’d not be able to empty out a year’s supply of other junk; that no one would get their deposits back. But no goodbyes.
I am sure Rachel is out there, carting well-adjusted, bright children to recitals and drama club. She is in her kitchen, sterilising jars, or in Waitrose buying frozen fruit, for jam. And part of me wants her to stop and suddenly think ‘I wonder whatever happened to James?’. But on the other hand, I’m not sure I deserve her time.
Other people keep hold of their university friends. All over the country, sideboards groan with photographs taken a yearly reunions. But not in my house. As my dreams remind me, I am a friend. not a good friend though – good friends are the one’s you get to keep.