The arrival of a puppy causes Charles Handy to reflect on the perils of possession
The big event of the week here has been the arrival for my grandchildren of a new puppy, Ziggy, of indeterminate parentage but very sweet. There’s great competition amongst the kids as to who can cuddle it next.
I said, “be careful as you rush around it. You are falling into the ownership trap.”
“What’s that?” asked Scarlett, the youngest.
“It’s when you think you own something but it turns out that it owns you. See, look at you now. You are rushing around looking after this puppy. You thought you owned it so you could do with it what you want. But actually you have to look after it – ownership brings responsibilities. You have to feed it, exercise it, train it, keep it well, make sure it has the right food and the right medicines as well as the right cuddles. Look at you, you are slaves to this puppy. It owns you.
“But worse, when you get older, you will think that you want to own a house. And then you are going to be slaves to a house. Slaves to a puppy is one thing, but slaves to a house, that’s crazy. But i tell you, when your granny and I first lived here, we rented it from Colin Anderson who owned the place. And if the boiler went wrong, which it often did, I would ring him up and say, ‘Colin, the boiler’s gone again,’ and he would say, ‘oh dear, I will get a plumber and if necessary we’ll put a new boiler in.’
“And I thought, ‘well that’s solved that, doesn’t cost me anything.’ But then I bought the house from him, quite cheaply because he was making no money out of it. And now I own it. So I have to get the plumber and I have to pay for a new boiler, which I did last week. I have to paint the windows, I have to check the drains, I have to repair the roof if it leaks. I am a slave to this house, that’s crazy, why should I be owned by a house when I thought I owned it. So watch out, don’t own anything!
“Your generation seems to understand this. They would rather rent than own. And even better than renting is sharing, because then you share the responsibility and the costs. The new generation – they share houses, they share the school run, they share dogs, they share holidays, they share holiday homes. And I quite understand the point. If you share it, you share the expenses and you share the responsibilities – you are all slaves together.
“But if you don’t share, then you are working for the house – which is crazy. Let somebody else look after it and I’ll just rent, and then I can move if I want to. If I have got a job in Oxford not London, I can then go and rent something in Oxford. I am flexible. I think that’s much better. And if I can do it by sharing then it doesn’t cost me anything.
“This flat that I’m in, Flat 1, has a lawn behind it, a beautiful big lawn, the size of two tennis courts. But when I was renting it, I had to cut the grass, as nobody else did. So in the end I got the other six people who live in the building to come together and I said, ‘let’s redefine the lawn as common space, which means you will own of it as well as me. We will take it in turns to cut the grass.’ One of them said, ‘well no, I would rather that together we paid a part time gardener to cut the grass.’
“And so that was done.
“The next Sunday we had our picnic on the lawn, newly cut by Tom, the part time gardener. And I saw to my pleasure that there were six other picnics going on on the lawn. And that seemed to be quite right, we were all sharing the lawn. And now everybody’s happy. It cost less, and we all share it so we are all friends.
“So please, don’t own anything. Rent it or, if possible, share it – or give it away.”
Charles Handy’s books on management have sold over a million copies and have changed the way we view business and society. His latest book, 21 Letters, is now available in paperback and on audiobook. Read more here. Charles suffered a stroke in 2019 following the death of his wife in a car crash in 2018. This piece was dictated to his carer.