I have, for years now, been going to physical therapy (PT). Bad shoulders, bad knees, and other parts of me creak. Much of this self-inflicted from years of lifting weights, running, and generally trying to keep this aging meat sack fit and capable.
At the core of physical therapy is the concept that around the large muscles are a number of smaller muscles that support and stabilize them. Exercising the large muscles may not adequately exercise the little muscles and, when stressed, they become tight and ineffective. This of course can lead to pain elsewhere I now have golfer’s elbow (and I would NEVER play golf). This is partially from not exercising my forearm muscles and partly as a consequence of stresses in my back and shoulders.
My rotator cuff is getting stronger, thank you.
But my recent rounds of PT have made me think about it as a metaphor for other things.
Organizations usually have core functions, but also lots of auxiliary functions. Depending on the organization these auxiliary functions may be given the attention they require, but sometimes not. This is where private sector organizations have a huge advantage over government agencies (on which I have a bit more expertise.) Corporate leaders have a great deal more freedom to deploy resources than their public sector leaders. If a corporate head believes human resources is critical and wants to build a great human resources department that can think strategically about the organization’s needs and future and how to build the human capital to meet them – they can do it. They will ultimately have to justify this to their board of course, but if they can demonstrate that this is important to the revenue line they can earn the necessary support.
(There is a significant argument within organizational studies as to whether private sector firms are in fact better at adapting than public sector agencies. It is also possible that rather, private sector firms can go out of business, so that when one becomes too inefficient to survive it dies. Public sector agencies are almost never eliminated.)
In the government, output is more complicated. It is not simply about making money; it is providing a range of services that cannot be withdrawn. Often the service outputs must be balanced against an enormous range of other values – environment, diversity, transparency etc.
Taxpayers and legislatures really like to fund the tip of the spear – Navy ships, law enforcement officers etc. But supporting the back end: human resources, facilities, IT, and logistics are less exciting. These support functions become like my rotator cuff: cramped and unresponsive – ultimately inhibiting the function of the total limb.
This can be extended on a larger scale. A weightlifting champion friend of mine explained that in the U.S. we emphasize the front muscles (particularly the pectorals on the chest.) The Russians in contrast emphasize the back muscles, the latissimus dorsi and rhomboids. Of course both are essential. Bench presses without rows will lead to a major imbalance. In current terms one can think of the perennial State-Defense wrangling. We build one capacity, but not the other. This ultimately leaves us weaker.
Mind as Muscle
But since I’m sliding into middle age, I’m also thinking a bit about you know, me.
In the Robertson Davies (my favorite author) novel World of Wonders, a carnival fortuneteller explains that everyone who comes to her asks essentially the same thing, “Is this all that life has for me?”
Our minds and psyches are similar to our bodies. They contain capabilities we like to exercise and which grow stronger. But th
ey also have capabilities that are less exercised and become weaker. This is something writers think about a great deal since the core ability is so very hard, but leaves little energy for anything else. So that many of our other capabilities are cramped and it is painful to use them.
Someone who diligently does their personal budget, but does not exercise their imagination may find as they enter middle age a certain lapse. With more time and freedom, and a decline in pleasure from whatever was enjoyed before, imagination is needed more than ever – but is too weak for the task. The alternative is also true, an active imagination but inattention to finances could lead one to face a different set of problems.
Of course, someone might have both of these aspects of life in good stead, but there will always be a deficit and weakness. It is inevitable that some part of the person has been underused and in middle age it is cramped, stressed, and needs exercise.
Wouldn’t it be great if there were some sort of PT for the mind and the soul?