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The Elephant and the Flea – Book Review


The Elephant and the Flea: Looking Backwards to the Future
by Charles Handy
Published by Hutchinson
ISBN: 0 09 179363 7

As a portfolio person myself I was looking forward to reading Charles Handy's latest book and I was certainly not disappointed. It combines a reflective look at the way the business world has evolved, with elements of autobiography which will certainly be of value to any person jumping, or being pushed, into the world of self-employment. The elephants of the title are large hierarchical organisations which move slowly and find it difficult to change. The fleas, by contrast, are much smaller entities, able to move rapidly, combine with other fleas to carry out their work when necessary, and often bring about change by being annoying.

What is particularly striking about the tone of the book is Handy's modesty. He is a successful and well-known figure and yet even now seems to have difficulty in believing that he has much worthwhile or original to say. That this is by no means false modesty is another comfort for the would-be portfolio person. A wonderful example is when Handy's wife, Elizabeth, having appointed herself his agent, manager and general minder, writes to request fees for business-dinner speeches already given by her husband because the idea of charging had not occurred to him. Of course the cash arrives!

Since Handy is autobiographical in the book I shall be the same in this review. I too left full-time salaried employment just before reaching the age of 50 and at first experienced the odd feeling that I was doing something not quite right by going to the supermarket on a weekday morning. The self-employed life is certainly liberating, but as a one-person organisation you are responsible for everything including making the coffee, licking the stamps, going to the post office and answering every piece of correspondence. Handy writes about some of these initial shocks. One of the greatest for me was actually paying five pence for each item of photocopying; I thought that this alone would use up all my income.

Elizabeth is always there if ever Charles needs bringing down to earth: "You may call it portfolio living," she says, "I call it getting on with things." Handy's four-fold division of work is useful to bear in mind. There is, he says, not only paid work, but also home work, gift work and study work. When I first started the portfolio life I found myself handing out a lot of gift work and the number of people willing to accept it seemed to grow frighteningly rapidly, forcing me to take stock and redress the balance.

A good part of the book consists of a critique of capitalism, with Handy giving examples of how it takes different forms in different parts of the world: the US, Singapore and Kerala, India. He concludes that the future lies with capitalism as an economic system, but alerts us to its negative aspects and points to what we can do to ensure that the system serves everyone - rich and poor - rather than allowing it to dominate us. He quotes Lionel Jospin, the Prime Minister of France at the turn of the century, as saying that he wanted a market economy and not a market society.

Handy studied Classics at university and the same subject is now part of my study work. Perhaps the portfolio life naturally leads one to muse about life's meaning in a wider sense. Being responsible to and for oneself leads one to ponder on more than where the next fee is coming from. Socrates said that the unexamined life was not worth living. He maintained that he knew nothing and that he was like a midwife helping to give birth to self-knowledge in others.

The Stoics and the Epicureans developed schools in ancient Greece to teach the art of living and I see Handy - himself a truly Socratic figure - as a great practitioner of that art. If you are looking for a "Ten ways to make loads of money in the shortest possible time" type of book then forget The Elephant and the Flea. If, on the other hand, you are an actual or potential flea who, like Handy, sees life as a continuing search for the truth in yourself then it is certainly the book for you.

Graham Guest

Back to ICPD.


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