“What is this life if, full of care, / We have no time to stand and stare” (W.H Davies)
My decision to go to South Korea was spontaneous, exciting and ‘rash’ according to my mother. Without any formal interviews, and only a few documents exchanged, I’d found myself a job teaching English in South Korea’s second largest city, Busan. Just a month passed before I was faced with a class of weary children who had already endured a gruelling day in normal school, expecting to learn English from an under-qualified teacher, after hours.
As with an alarming majority of ‘teachers’ in South Korea, I had no experience or formal training. Apparently a degree in anthropology meant that I was well equipped to teach English. Only on reflection, and following my teaching qualification years later, did I realise my efforts were more akin to that of a glorified babysitter than any language expert.
I worked at a private academy called a ‘Hagwon’, one of the expensive establishments which dominate the extra-curricular activities of students in Korea. Many children attend more than one Hagwon, in addition to the standard education, in order to have a better chance of success. This can mean that pupils as young as five or six are studying from 8am until 11pm at night! Exhaustion was an obvious result of this educational endurance test, but it was something else that caught my attention.
During a conversational practice, I asked the children: “If you could go ANYWHERE in the world, where would it be?”. Most of them replied “Seoul” and a few “Jeju” (a small island near the Korean coastline). I then asked: “What would you like to be when you grow up?” Many responded: “I want to be normal”. I thought perhaps this was a linguistic misunderstanding, or perhaps culturally determined and so rephrased the question: “What job would you like to do?” Almost all said they would like to work in an office.
You could presume that this limited range of aspirations was a reflection of their societal constraints but these were students from wealthy families who had been given an extensive education. I further probed the children’s imaginations with games such as Pictionary or Charades but they really struggled. It seemed they had great difficulty thinking outside the box. My interpretation is that these children weren’t given enough freedom to develop creatively. Their entire days were made up of spoon fed prescribed lessons. The time to daydream simply didn’t exist.
I’m sure most of us recall the hours of fun during school holidays when we were left to our own devices. An imaginary friend and a made-up land to play in was all you needed (if only it were that easy nowadays). It could be argued that as well as being enjoyable, playtime is a crucial element required for the development of imaginative, creative minds.
Children in the UK generally have these extended periods of play where they are free to imagine and dream, but what about adults? Einstein famously said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” He also insisted that he never came up with any of his great ideas by thinking rationally.
This was only one brilliant man’s opinion, but I think he could have been right, and if so then how much time do we allow ourselves to daydream in this fast-paced modern world? Moments of boredom are replaced with Angry Birds or scrolling through tireless posts on social media feeds. We are constantly being entertained in one way or another and therefore by our own hand reducing the possibility for our mind to work independently from other distractions.
9am to 5pm doesn’t seem long enough as jobs creep their way into all hours of the day and night. Our work phones, these technological extensions of our professional self, enable us to obsessively check and send emails. You could argue that we are more dedicated and attached to our work now, but does this make us more productive? Could it be that we are missing the opportunity to dream up wonderful ideas, because we don’t give ourselves the time and space to do so?
Management and team development training courses have often been based on taking people out of their comfort zones into adventure based activities. Perhaps the time away from the technology and the office, allowing the team to dream are as important as the activities themselves?
My speculations are far from scientific, but I believe that it’s important to take time for ourselves, to allow our imaginations to run wild and to dream a little (or a lot).
“A poor life this is, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare” (W.H Davies).
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