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A very handy philosophy

Charles Handy is a writer, broadcaster, thinker and teacher whose books have sold over one million copies. He has also been an oil ...

By Gay Haskins . 01 March 2007

Charles Handy is a writer, broadcaster, thinker and teacher whose books have sold over one million copies. He has also been an oil executive, an economist, a professor at London Business School and the warden of St George’s House in Windsor Castle.
A very handy philosophy

For all that, Handy remains a man focused on others. His latest book is The New Philanthropists, and Gay Haskins expanded that topic to look reflectively at Handy’s achievements as well as his concern with the need for us all – as individuals – to shape our own lives, set an agenda and make a difference.


In The New Philanthropists, you ask each person you interviewed to prepare a still life, five objects and one flower, which symbolize the most important things in their lives. What still life would you create for your own life?

My objects are all in one line. None is more important than the others. They symbolize the things that have been important in my life.

Starting on the left, there is a lens or a camera. That’s for my wife, Elizabeth. She’s a photographer of some distinction, but, more importantly as far as I’m concerned, she’s not only my wife but my guide, philosopher, agent, friend, manager – everything.

She keeps my feet on the ground and helps me to be true to myself. Every time I talk about my life in any way, Elizabeth figures as a key influence.

I often say that I’m on my second marriage, but to the same woman. The first part of my life was very traditional. I was working very hard, mainly at London Business School. Elizabeth was looking after the home and the children and doing some work part-time. So when we met at weekends and late in the evening, we talked about the children and the parents, but when the children and the parents had gone, there wasn’t anything to talk about unless we actually worked together as well as lived together. So that’s what we decided to do. Our lives for the last 30 years have been totally intertwined, which has been very good.

Next, vine leaves stand for Norfolk, which is now our main home. They cover the veranda at the back of our house, where I feel most at peace and most at home. They also symbolize wine, which is a great comfort and a great pleasure.

Moving on, there is a little sculpture, created and designed by my two children for my 70th birthday. It depicts what they call “my two golden seeds”. I have this theory, borrowed from Freud, that one of the great things that you can do for children is give them a seed of confidence in their teenage years, which allows them to grow into something special and to see themselves as the fruits of two golden seeds. So the sculpture stands for my children, and all that matters in a sense is my family and friends. As you grow older, you realize that that’s what really it is all about.

Beside the seeds is a white stone. This is my symbol, borrowed from a verse in the book of Revelations in the Bible: “To the one who prevails,” said the angel, “I will give a white stone on which will be written a name, a name which will be known only to the one who receives it.”

I interpret that to mean that when you finally know what you’re about, you will deserve your name. It’s about coming to terms with who you really are. This has basically been the story of my life, trying to stop pretending and to speak the truth as I see it. Life is a constant journey. I suppose that’s why some people are happy when they’re about to die: their journey is coming to an end.

That’s when people can come to terms with who they are as opposed to who they have been. Success is becoming true to yourself. It’s easy to be seduced by the world and the trappings of so-called success. I talk a lot about that in my books and presentations. The elephant with a little flea on the top of it symbolizes my actual work, which is writing books. One of them was called The Elephant and the Flea, and when I was talking in Kenya about two or three years ago they very sweetly presented me with this, so it also symbolizes my travels around the world, talking about my books.

My work is always challenging. If you write a book or stand up and talk in front of 500 people, you are very exposed. You are open to being criticized, insulted and laughed at. It’s a bit like taking your clothes off in public. I love using words. I love trying to explore the changing trends in the world of work and life. I love trying to pin down the strange assumptions that people bring to their work. I’m a wordsmith, I suppose, and I love it, but at the same time I find it very challenging. All worthwhile jobs are a bit like that. Lastly, there is a bottle of olive oil.

This comes from Italy, which has been a large part of my life for many years. We had a home in Italy, and I grew up learning about the Romans of old, and knowing their language helped me to write good English. I cook with olive oil, and cooking is one of my pleasures. It symbolizes sitting around a table with friends, and talking, eating and drinking, one of my great pleasures in life.

Your new book features a number of philanthropists, particularly in Britain, who talk about the growth of philanthropy. Can you tell us why you chose this topic?


Something is happening in Britain that hasn’t happened for 100 years. We’ve some seriously rich people who’ve not inherited but have made their money, and that really hasn’t happened since the Victorian industrialists. But these people are younger.

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