Plug-in people? You’re more like a Tree than a Toaster

“I’m on the verge of a breakdown.” “I just need to recharge my batteries and I’ll be fine…” “Am I beyond repair?”

These are common enough phrases in life and leadership, and especially prevalent when we are going through major changes or transitions in our lives.They are also common presenting issues in a coaching conversation.

We’ve all been there.

But these simple, familiar lines speak volumes about the way we view ourselves and our place in the modern world. The way we talk about ourselves and others, the metaphors, pictures and words we reach for to explain our experiences, are decidedly and profoundly influenced by our increasingly electronic and mechanical landscape.

We’re talking about ourselves as machines, not humans.

Our ‘Mechanistic Bias’

William Bridges explores this idea in his seminal work, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes.

“In our age of stress, alienation, and burnout, [the need for renewal] is surely a piece of wisdom we need to recover. In keeping with our mechanistic bias, we have tried to make do with recharging and repair, imagining that renewal comes through fixing something defective or supplying something that is missing. But it is only by returning for a time to the formlessness of the primal energy that renewal can take place. […] We need it, just the way that an apple tree needs the cold of winter.”

Bridges’ Transitions p144 and 145

In other words, when we view ourselves as machines, we respond to and try to meet our needs in a mechanical way. We make do with recharge when what we really seek is renewal.

It also means that we interpret our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual signals and symptoms through a mechanical perspective. This is true in our daily, regular rhythms, but really comes to the fore when we make a change or enter transition.

What do I mean?

Mechanical Expectations within an Organic Way of Life

When we look at the machine world, functionality operates within certain parameters; machines are either on or off, working or broken. We expect our devices to fulfil the same function day after day – if they don’t we get frustrated.

And when things start to run slower, we suspect that there’s an issue or problem: faulty memory, a need to upgrade or even to throw out the old and replace with the new. Not only that, but our devices come ready to do the job they were made for. Their whole life span is about doing the same thing. Down time is lost time.

The natural world thrives very differently.

Renewal and restoration are intrinsic aspects of the seasonal cycle. Each phase has a different yet complimentary purpose; the fruitfulness of harvest leads to an autumnal storing up; winter’s rest (heck, some animals even hibernate!) gives way to the life burst of Spring; the glory of Summer’s flowering pushes into a fresh fruitfulness once more.

Nothing bears fruit all year round, but also nothing remains the same either; continual growth through daily, weekly, yearly renewal rhythms of ‘disintegration’ to ‘reintegration’ are a sign of healthiness, not ‘having a breakdown’.

While the natural world has space for maturation, life cycles, seasons and even the wonder of hibernation. Our machines and devices either work or they’re broken.

So, how does this affect our mindset and assumptions of self, especially through change?

When we think of ourselves (or others) as machines…..

  • our tiredness and weariness with work or in life makes us anxious and concerned that we are breaking down
  • running low on energy throws us into panic that we need to plug ourselves back in as soon as possible to keep going and constantly maintain our previous level of activity
  • when we lose our passion for a project that once inspired and motivated us, we secretly start to wonder if we have lost our edge
  • times of transition become a frightening interruption to our functionality. Our devices either work or they’re broken; We begin to believe that we might be broken too.

When the natural world is the navigational framework, our longings, experiences and needs take on a different shape and significance:.

  • our tiredness and weariness is a normal and natural indicator that we need a rest and are an invitation to refresh
  • when we start to run low on energy we look with joyful anticipation to a moment or season of storing back up again before we give out again from these fresh supplies
  • waning passion for a project makes us curious for what has changed within us or around us that means we might have outgrown where we are and need to bring changes to adapt to how things have grown – adapting to change is a natural accompaniment to growth. We expect it, welcome it even.
  • times of transition become a moment to celebrate what we have done before, whilst embracing the invitation to discover who we have become before we emerge, still us yet differently us, into the next season, whatever that might be.

These ideas make sense when we think of ourselves as organic, biological, natural beings; renewal is just part of our nature.

When we see ourselves as mechanical, electrical machines that are either on or off, we don’t have time, space or framework for such an unproductive and illogical seeming approach.

We don’t tell an autumn tree to put its leaves back on. Rather we celebrate what has been and look forward to what will come. In the meantime, we make peace with winter.

What if the times we fear we are broken are actually invitations to a moment of transformational renewal and rediscovery in our own changing seasons?

What practical use is all this?

Consider these questions in light of your own context:

  • What mechanistic expectations do you have of yourself or others?
  • Where might a sense of brokenness in yourself or your team actually indicate a need for change or renewal at a deeper level?
  • Getting through daily life by ‘recharging our batteries’ is often a good working process in the short term. But it might be that renewal becomes essential longer term. How do you ‘recharge’? What is the difference between ‘recharge’ and ‘renewal’ for you?
  • What frustrates you or annoys you about the idea of renewal? What does this tell you about your values and view of yourself and the world?
  • When might a ‘mechanistic bias’ actually be the best approach?

If you want to explore further about where there are organic and natural changes and growth in your life, get in touch to book an explore session with me. Let’s start a coaching conversation about this together.

We are at heart biological, organic beings, NOT mechanisms or machines. Life isn’t so much about plugging ourselves in but rather finding a peace, rhythm and refreshment from a more seasonal way of life.

Making peace with and embracing our humanness is humbling; at times I wish I were more like an appliance: it would make some things simpler.

Funnily enough though, aligning ourselves with more natural rhythms actually helps us to work (and rest) far more optimally and increases our capacity too. We might need to slow down sometimes, but we can learn to see these times not as a frightening interruptions to our functionality, but as times to refresh, reflect, reconnect with our deeper purposes and store up with good things for a new season.

So yes, you’re more like a tree than a toaster!

And that’s a great thing.

Photo thanks to Marvin Meyer, Klim Musalimov, Markus Spiske, Jackson Simmer and Arno Smit on Unsplash

2 Responses

    Aletheia Chan

    What an insightful and evocative piece! How we have dehumanized ourselves unwittingly by being enamoured of the bells and whistles of devices but forget to be in touch with the rhythms of nature. Thank you for this timely reminder!


    Thanks so much for engaging with this. I certainly found it a personally helpful provocation to remember that our humanity is something to celebrate and respond to, and that our many seasons, with their ebb and flow, bring a richness to our lives that a driving expectation of mechanical constancy means we forget.

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