Clients frequently describe their goals or problems in metaphorical terms. This week’s theme seems to be a lack of movement – feeling stuck or “in the doldrums” combined with a lack of motivation – just wasting time.
It was the reference to the doldrums that inspired me to consult a favourite book – The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. OK, I confess, it’s a children’s book (as opposed to a weighty coaching manual), but children’s literature is a great source when it comes to metaphor.
If you are not familiar with the book, it tells of the adventures of Milo, a very bored little boy, who receives an unusual package one day: a make- believe tollbooth. When he drives through it in his electric toy car, he is suddenly transported to the Lands Beyond, a fantastic world of imagination where he has many adventures and learns many lessons.
One of the first places Milo is excited to visit is the Land of Expectations which is described as “the place you must always go to before you get to where you are going”. Having left the Land of Expectations, he follows a long and winding path; he loses interest, his mind wanders and he starts to daydream. Without realising it, he wanders into the land of the Doldrums, a land of greyness where nothing happens and nothing ever changes. The Doldrums are inhabited by the Lethargarians who spend all their time being busy doing nothing at all. In fact, it is against the law to “think, think of thinking, surmise, presume, reason, meditate or speculate” while in the Doldrums. When he asks what one is permitted to do in the Doldrums, he is told he can do “anything as long as it is nothing, and everything as long as it isn’t anything”.
KILLING TIME!.. it’s bad enough wasting time without killing it!
Whilst in the Doldrums Milo meets the Watchdog – a dog with the body of a huge alarm clock. The Watchdog’s job is to ensure that no-one wastes time. When he asks Milo what he is doing in the Doldrums, Milo tells him he is just “killing time” and the dog responds furiously “KILLING TIME!.. it’s bad enough wasting time without killing it!”.
The Watchdog tells Milo that if he wants to escape the Doldrums he has to do the opposite of what got him stuck there (not thinking). As Milo starts thinking and using his imagination the car starts to move again, gaining more speed as he continues to “think of all sorts of things; of the many detours and wrong turns that were so easy to take, of how fine it was to be moving along, and most of all, how much could be accomplished with just a little thought.”
So there you have it! When you find yourself wasting time in the doldrums don’t be a lethargarian, do the opposite of what you did to get there – start thinking and using your imagination.
As for Milo, after leaving the doldrums, he went on to have many adventures: he explored the Island of conclusions (a place he magically jumped to when he started to make assumptions about his trip) and climbed the mountains of ignorance – but I’ll leave those for another time…