I wonder what a time traveller from 500 years ago would make of the modern health club? Ignore the wood veneer walls, the narcissistic mirrors, the corporately-branded reception staff, and it all begins to resemble an engraving of hell by Gustave Doré.  Here are hunched figures walking Sisyphus-like on endless uphill moving walkways; here are tortured souls trapped in bizarre mechanical contraptions, moving their arms as if trying to escape, their faces contorted in agony; while over them stand muscled, grinning servants of evil, pushing them to unimaginable extremes of torment. 

At one level, of course, it’s all a question of context; another example of how the lens one chooses to look through creates one’s own reality.  Surely nobody in their right minds would pay hundreds of pounds gym membership a year to spend time in a room which looks like an interactive Spanish Inquisition museum?  Granted, there are some mollifiers: in my local health club, you can pay double and get a personalised dressing gown and a private lift to and from the changing room, which I don’t think was on Torquemada’s list.  (Did I succumb?  I’ll leave you to guess.).  

I’m struck by how often we frame discomfort in a positive way.  Thousands of holidaymakers each year pay good money to stay on campsites indistinguishable at first glance from UN-run refugee centres.  Many’s the time I’ve emerged from a French campsite toilet expecting to find Kate Adie filming me.  In the age of the Marketing Department, deprivation and suffering are added value qualities.

When God told Eve “In pain shall you bring forth children,” He not only proved He was male, He also established the paradigm that if it doesn’t hurt, it can’t be doing us any good.  This applies not only to such recreational activities as a near-coronary on the running track, or a self-discovery weekend living in a cave and wiping your bottom with moss; it’s prevalent in the workplace as well.  A favourite coffee break pastime on many workshops I run is “My project crisis is bigger than yours.”  (You know the kind of thing: “….And then just as I pressed ‘save’, the whole report was wiped: I was there Christmas and Boxing Day rewriting it with a stubby pencil because all the servers had crashed.”  “Yeah, a similar thing happened to me: I had to spend the first three years of my retirement back in the workplace after one of my team broke his wrist and the client complained.”) If you could harness the energy the average group of managers puts into telling war stories about 4am proof-reading sessions or giving up a best friend’s wedding because of a client deadline, we could halve our reliance on fossil fuels.

Is it based on resentment of an over-demanding job, or on the need to claim a trophy?  “I suffer more and work harder than anyone else, therefore I am worth more.”  It’s the 21st Century equivalent of becoming a saint through martyrdom. Why do we feel the need to be so tortured in order to gain some sense of self-worth?  Maybe because the only time our bosses – or anyone - take notice of us is if we moan.  (I’ve delved into this a little before: see  Or maybe the modern office worker is a tortured artist in the grand tradition.  After all, many great works of art were only produced under conditions of extreme deprivation. More recently, an old friend of mine who is a singer/songwriter told me that since undergoing psychotherapy, he can’t write songs anymore.  And Oliver Sacks in his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat tells the poignant story of Wiccy Ticcy Ray, a sufferer from Tourette’s Syndrome who was also a brilliant jazz drummer.  They cured his Tourette’s – and in the process he lost the edgy timing that made his drumming so remarkable.

And yet….. Before I sanction the palpable negative energy that fills so many workplaces, consider the words of Art Kleiner, from the Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: “If someone can create great work only with constant struggle, we wouldn’t call him or her masterful.  In mastery, there is a sense of effortlessness and joyfulness.  It stems from your ability and willingness to understand and work with the forces around you.” 

Here’s a simple exercise you can try at home:  just watch yourself in the mirror while you’re cleaning your teeth, and count how many unnecessary muscles you involve in the process.  Once you’ve managed to get to the stage where you just bare your teeth and move your wrist, see if you can perform the same miracle in your working life.  And next time you’re at the gym, just smile radiantly at the tortured soul on the treadmill; it might be me.


Copyright © Phil Lowe, 2004.  All rights reserved