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See it like Turner

The Fighting Temeraire - William turner

This article is part of the Writing to Mary and Jack series.

Dear Mary and Jack,

Today’s story does not deal with a nearly avoided disaster. I have some more in store, but it will have to keep. One subject that is very talked about these days is inspiring purpose, or making meaning as Guy Kawasaki so adequately puts it.

Now whilst Guy Kawasaki proposes 3 simple ways something can make meaning, these 3 ways of looking at purpose do not guarantee that said purpose will be strong enough.

You can decide for example that it is meaningful to invent electric cars because of how it will improve the world’s carbon equation. But the fact that it is good in theory doesn’t make that purpose right for you and your team.

Say for example that you strongly believe that we should trend towards total transparency on the content of processed food, and their potential toxicity. That does not make the electric car business wrong or purposeless, it just makes it wrong for you, maybe you could look at doing something around food transparency. There are things that you believe, that have a much stronger impact on your people than “what makes sense”.

Simon Sinek explains this well in his conversations on Start with why. Yes when we hold strong beliefs and we make these known, we create a strong response. Purpose is there. And people follow us because they believe what we believe, not because they get what we think.

After all that, we are still left with how… How do you formulate what you really believe?

Is there a shortcut to realising, among the great variety of opinions, thoughts and beliefs we have, which one are really deeply held, to the point they will shape our life, and inspire strong purpose in us and in others?

I will approach this by writing about a painting that has profoundly touched me. The day I went to see it at the National Gallery in London, I looked for a long time at the William Turner masterpiece The Fighting Temeraire. The real thing looks every bit as imposing as the photo above suggests, and then some.

A ghost-like appearance on a mirror-calm river, that only ripples at the approach of the steam-tug bringing her to her inevitable end, HMS Temeraire is being towed to her last berth, where she will be dismantled and sold for scrap. That is the common destiny of every ship on earth, lest they serve some more years as an anchored museum...

Like several famous paintings of the time, it shows the irruption of new technology in daily life. A steam tug probably was a strange and slightly uncomfortable sight in 1838, when the scene took place. There was then nothing poetic about a steel stack, billowing smoke soot and burning coal. Steam was still new at the time, and the industrial revolution was bringing to mankind a range of noises, smells, textures and images that were in sharp contrast with the previous times.

Yet, though illustrating this new and somewhat unsavoury modernity, the tug shines with vibrant brown, orange and gold colours. It radiates life and energy and, should we be patient enough, will in the end come close to the edge of the painting, enough for us to hear the muffled thumping of its engine. Despite being the bad omen, leading the epic and glorified 98-guns man-of-war to a prosaic end, Turner’s tug is simply beautiful.

The Fighting Temeraire is going to her death. And some day we will too. You Jack, and you Mary, (and I) will one day too, make this last trip. Once our life has ended, we will be put into the earth to rest, in whichever way we have chosen.

There is nothing sexy or appealing it seems in writing about our death, or imagining it as we witness two centuries later the slow towing of HMS Temeraire to her last berth. But if we take step back, we see that on that day of 1838, the last act of the ship's life is what makes it a masterpiece. HMS Temeraire was initially a warship, later converted as a prison ship, then as a receiving ship. A glorious fighter, she was slowly getting old in lacklustre roles. But on that last day, she became a piece of British history. And since William Turner made us the favour of immortalizing her last voyage, she also became part of the immortal collective soul of mankind.

Living aware of our death changes us into painters. Wondering what we'd like people to say about us at our funeral gives us access to our deepest held fears, beliefs, hopes, and gives our everyday gestures the dimension of brushstrokes. Innocent and small when we do it, our life becomes immortal and grand once contemplated from afar. We can, each for our own lives, be like William Turner, artists that speak to the soul of mankind.

As a leader, if you consciously contemplate your life as a finite quantity, and embrace that limited space, recognizing that death is not only the end of your life, but the beginning of your life as a masterpiece, you will create meaning. Meaning will come to you.

At the risk of being provocative, whilst I do not think that death is funny, when I look at it with the eyes of William Turner, I can see beauty in the grandeur it gives us. Can you?

Keep well!


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