Lives of Quiet Desperation

A friend of mine was on the radio last week. He’d been invited to debate a simple question: do men have it easier than women?

Blimey, I said, how are you going to argue that one?
– I’m not. I’m just going to wave the white flag
– But you have to stick up for us. Say we do just as much in the house…
– But we don’t, do we? You know it. I know it. Besides, I’m up against a radical feminist. She’ll make mincemeat of me if I try to go down that route

I saw him a couple of days after the programme went out…

How did it go?
– Yeah, really well thanks. I started by explaining that I was just no good at housework, but I got badly beaten up on that one so I changed tack and played the sympathy card
– How did you do that with a radical feminist?
– I said that a lot of men were lonely. You know, ‘lives of quiet desperation.’ Everyone knows that women have better support networks. So she had to sympathise with me – or admit that women aren’t that supportive after all

‘Lives of quiet desperation…’ I’d heard that quote a few times before. When I got home I looked it up. I knew it was from Thoreau and I was pretty sure it was from Walden: yep, there it was: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

But there was a second, similar, quotation from Thoreau’s Essays on Civil Disobedience. And once I’d read it, I couldn’t get it out of my mind:

Most men lead lives of quiet desperation,
And go to the grave with the song still in them

I’ve been repeating that second line to myself all week. And go to the grave with the song still in them. I used to hear people say ‘I missed my children growing up,’ and think it was one of the saddest things you could hear. But that second line runs it close.

What’s more, those two lines – for me – capture what The Alternative Board is all about. Yes, men lead lives of quiet desperation sitting in a traffic jam on the York ring road every morning, going to a job that doesn’t fulfil them, working for a boss who doesn’t appreciate them. But how many people running their own business are leading a life of quiet desperation as well? Not getting the results their time and effort deserve; the life they want to live, close enough to glimpse but tantalisingly out of reach…

I won’t pretend that sitting round an Alternative Board table will magically make things better: join TAB this month, drive away in a Porsche next month. I’m sorry; you have to work at it. But you’ll be working at it with fellow entrepreneurs and business owners, people who understand what you’re going through and people who – in many cases – have solved the problem that’s causing you so much anguish. Above all, people who’ll help you avoid the feeling that you knew the song – but you never got to sing it.



  1. Dick Jennings · March 23, 2012

    You’re just so cultivated, Ed!

    There was I. and countless others of my generation, believing Pink Floyd that “Leading lives of quiet desperation is the English Way” (Dark Side of the Moon) and you point out that it’s the American way all along!

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