Have you read the story of Bartleby?

You’ve almost certainly read the Economist’s column of the same name. After 3 years, its founding columnist is retiring. It’s a moment to reflect on a metaphor and a viewpoint that illuminates our working lives.In 1853 Herman Melville anonymously published a short story called “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story About Wall Street” which at the time was hardly noticed but over the course of the next century it became a touchstone for understanding the nature of work and humanity.

The story is of a copyist (scrivener), called Bartleby, who is hired by a Wall Street lawyer and initially shows great aptitude and conscientious devotion his job of making hand-written copies of legal documents. Bartleby’s behavior, however, becomes increasingly bizarre: refusing to take on new work, dismissing his exasperated boss’ instructions with his iconic “I would prefer not to” and staring out a window at a brick wall. His boss, the narrator of the story, is unable to simply fire Bartleby, finding himself caught between compassion for the strange man and frustration at his ineffectual presence. In the end, Bartleby ends up destitute and dies of starvation in a prison – despite the lawyer’s attempts to help him – because he “would prefer not to” eat the food the lawyer sent to him. And his erstwhile boss remains perplexed and disturbed.

Whatever Melville’s original motives were for writing the story, interpretations and musings about its philosophical meaning have become encyclopedic in breadth and depth, ranging from discussions on free will versus determinism and ethics to being used as a slogan of rebellion by some in the Occupy Wall Street movement.

There is a rich tradition of meditations on the story in the business world too. Take for instance the first Bartleby column written by Philip Coggan for the Economist in May 2018. Coggan explains:

“This enigmatic tale can be interpreted as an essay on management failure; the unnamed narrator fails to find a strategy that can motivate his employee. Or it can be seen as an act of human rebellion. Bartleby fails to acquiesce in carrying out his humdrum, tedious tasks. So this column will concern itself with the plight of managers, as they attempt to understand what makes their workers tick. And it will also empathise with the plight of Bartlebys, as they deal with the mundanity of working life and carry out their bosses’ often bewildering orders, even when they would “prefer not to”.
And in his final column, published last week to announce his retirement from journalism after 40 years, Coggan reflected on the flexibility required of our modern work culture and how, like his namesake, he has become too stiff to continue bending and adapting to the continuous demands of the modern working world.”

One could read Coggans’ retirement words as an admission of failure. But this misses the point. His essay is an acknowledgment of human frailty which at the same time shines a light on the monumental effort of a 40-year career spent doing one thing yet adapting to a thousand changes along the way. Retirement hints at one more change, one more opportunity…

Over the course of the last century management has changed fundamentally from being about power – command and control – to a keen focus on “softer” skills – be a coach not a general. And while this has undoubtedly been for the better, the tensions of working life are no less profound and the measurement of management success even harder to determine.

The changing work environment, increasing expectations from both executives and employees and an uncertain future put strain on those whose people skills must bridge the gap between company deliverables and the workforce.

The Bartleby myth is perhaps more potent today than it ever has been. A warning but also a reminder to celebrate all those who carry on learning, developing, encouraging and growing to meet the challenges with the teams they manage. And, when it is time to bow out, to celebrate those whose long service has carried so many through so much tumult.

Here’s to you who carry on, even when you don’t want to.