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Lessons on Defeat and Empire Building in Wolf Hall: how to be fired and come out smiling (or not)

27/01/2015 11:25 GMT | Updated 25/03/2015 09:59 GMT

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We all know what a cold, hard world it is out there.

In the 2009 film Up in the Air, the character Ryan Bingham (played by George Clooney) is a 'professional downsizer'. That is, he earns his income by delivering the news to employees that they are being dismissed. To do this difficult task with ease he gives an inspirational speech to the strangers who he is paid to fire:

'Anybody who ever built an empire, or changed the world, sat where you are now. And it's because they sat there that they were able to do it.'

These are fine words. It can be a great motivation to use the narrative of personal and professional failure to move forward. A failure is not a failure when it is a milestone in the process of moving forward and upward.

In contrast to this, however, in Hilary Mantel's book Wolf Hall (also 2009, now a major BBC TV series) we find the story of Cardinal Wolsey, the one time Lord Chancellor of England, and for years the right-hand man of King Henry VIII. He was a fixer for the king, but the one thing he could not fix was the status of Henry's marriage, which the king wanted the Pope to annul. As the most senior Catholic office holder in England at the time, Wolsey could not deliver that.

And so after ten years of dedicated service, Wolsey found himself unceremoniously ousted from his position, from his palatial home (York Place, which was then transformed into the Palace of Whitehall), and onto a downward spiral that ended with his death. Friends and colleagues that had once been close to him turned their backs, or were active in denouncing him.

The story of Wolf Hall tells of how the person who remained most loyal to Wolsey was Thomas Cromwell. Instead of being cast out for this loyalty he went on to replace him as King Henry's chief adviser. Unfortunately, though, the story did not end there. Cromwell himself eventually lost favour with the king, and the final reward for his years of loyal service was execution.

I do not claim to be like either Wolsey or Cromwell. But I think I know how each of them felt at that point when their careers spun from success to failure. I too had that 'York Place' moment, when suddenly I was confronted by people I thought I could trust, as they instructed me to leave my place of work and stripped me of the items of my office.

That was over three years ago, and during that time the descent into the mental and physical decline that finished Wolsey has felt very familiar. Indeed, I am just a few years younger than Wolsey was at the time of his removal from office.

It is a very nasty place to be.

So, the big question is how to respond to (unfair) dismissal and (the sense of) failure in terms of Bingham's 'empire builder' rather than Wolsey's defeated cardinal?

Do we really have the choice?

I often reflect on the ancient story of the Scottish King, Robert the Bruce, hiding in a cave as he watched a spider tenaciously establishing its web - disregarding its many failures until it eventually achieved success. King Robert took it as a metaphor for his own position: no matter how many defeats he may have suffered, he was still able to go forward and fight and achieve his goal.

'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.'

Of course, Thomas Cromwell was killed before he could redeem himself. Unfortunately for him this happened just a short time before King Henry realised his mistake.

Sometimes it simply does kill you.

And sometimes it is all about the long game, not the immediate score. Overcoming a major setback often means recognising the debilitation caused by the inevitable depression and trying to give yourself the chance to heal. And anyone who has walked with the black dog of depression will know that it is not a kind friend, it will be a constant voice in your head picking apart any attempt you make to go out and 'build' a new empire (or just get back to normal).

In this respect, all one can really say is that things happen. Sometimes we get over them and move forward. Very often they define us, for better or worse.

In a world that valourises the 'comeback kid' this is not good news. History is full of people such as Worsley and Cromwell, who were destroyed before they made their comebacks.

We all walk that tightrope, caught between the fear (and sadness) of failure and the desire to move forward.

In fact, rather than rush to be the success after the failure, it is more sobering to remember the apocryphal words of the anonymous Persian mystic that reminds us, whether things be good or bad,

'This too shall pass.'

(Picture credit: George Clooney at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, by Michael Vlasaty (DSC_3336). Reproduced under the Creative Commons BY 2.0)