Negative capability

My first job was as a journalist working in a highly-stressful editorial office of a leading English newspaper, in which we had to produce four editions of the broadsheet in eight hours. With the amount of news pouring in from the various news agencies and from our roving reporters, there was never any time to eat during the night shift. We survived on hourly cups of tea. I worked here for a decade.

When I became Vice President in a multinational, the pressure of never-ending torrents of emails, phones ringing, meetings and more meetings, videoconferences, recruiting, training and mentoring, took me to new heights, where I was able to operate in a highly stressful environment on a daily basis for six years.

Somewhere amidst these frenzied work environments I had imperceptibly begun to develop coping mechanisms, for example taking an evening walk after office to reflect on the day, before reaching home and spending time with the family. At that time I was not aware of the construct of negativity capability, which apparently includes providing space for reflective inaction while transcending one’s context.

Decision-making in a senior position at a multinational can take place on a minute-to-minute basis, and can be perfected to an art based on years of practice coupled with intuition. But if there was ever a critical report to write, then I would ask for a couple of days to be able to mull over the problem before providing solutions. This stepping back too was a form of negative capability, but again, I had never heard of the term.

When I did hear of this oxymoron from a doctoral scholar, I was quite excited. It was one of those instances in which you have a certain behavioural pattern, but when someone else rationalizes this, it becomes more meaningful. Negative capability, first mentioned by John Keats, is said to consist of components of open-mindedness and suspension of the ego.

Taking negative capability a step further, I choose to move away from the world of work after a 25-year stint, in order to focus on solitary research work. It was as if an overflowing vessel had turned into an empty one, which had to be refilled. It was as if one was wiping clean a slate (tablu rasa, or blank slate, is a term coined by philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau).

Initially this was unnerving, to say the least. The world as you know it no longer exists as a reality for you. No mid-managers clamouring for your advice, no preparation required for an international conference, no hiring to be done, and strangely enough – the all-important year-end targets are no longer your concern.

Stepping off the career ‘treadmill’ leads to the inevitable barrage of questions, including: so which organization have you joined? Doubt rears its head. Was this the right thing to do? While small instances of negative capability within a highly structured work-life as operations head is fine, to have a life with seemingly little structure is like being on a small boat in the middle of the ocean, drifting wherever the tide takes you.

And then almost imperceptibly something happens. Reading become more meaningful, your own creative juices seemingly become more active, and there is a strange, indescribable feeling of contentment. It’s like the stillness after a storm. Years of meting out instructions and advice, turn into hours of solitude and reflection.

Said Castellano (2010), to be able to allow everything, there must first be nothing. In a state of negative capability, a kind of suspended animation, there is a peculiar contentment ‘in drifting with the tide’ and in simply ‘being.’


4 responses to this post.

  1. Thanks for posting Payal, you said it beautifully … letting life happen goes against the grain for a lot of people, myself included often, so takes practice 🙂 … and so helpful to have such an experienced mentor and leader as yourself communicate it in such a powerful and relatable way …

    Change happens they say …




  2. Reblogged this on Don Charisma and commented:
    Thanks for sharing this Payal. I’m sharing with my readers because if something speaks to me, then the chances are it will speak to others too 🙂


  3. Hey there, I found this post through Don’s (Don Charisma). Many thanks for sharing these insights 🙂


  4. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. All the best from Paris. Alexandros Tsachouridis Mondon


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