Throwing the Book at Reality #13 #cong23 #reality


An invitation to consider the place and power of language, and particularly literature, in our understanding of reality. Before we can act intentionally and create a changed reality, we must think. Before influencing others with our thinking, we must translate it into language. And the more dramatic and lyrical that language is, the more significant the impact.

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Key Takeaways:

  1. Words inspire action that creates a new reality
  2. Words give us a new perspective on reality
  3. Words create a new inclusive worldview out of two opposing realities
  4. Language forms a bridge between our inner and outer realities

About Anne Tannam:

Anne is a creative coach and poet. And, as you may have guessed, always has her head stuck in a book! For more on Anne’s coaching, visit For more on her poetry, visit

Contacting Anne Tannam:

You can connect with Anne via email or read her poetry and find out her coaching work.

By Anne Tannam

In thirteen years, Alexander the Great created one of the world’s largest empires that stretched from Greece to northwestern India. The story goes that throughout his military campaign, the youthful general slept with a box under his pillow. In the box was the dagger of his vanquished enemy, Darius, and a copy of Homer’s Iliad. At the beginning of his campaign, he even takes the same route to battle as Achilles in Homer’s epic poem. Inspired by another’s stirring words, Alexander shaped a new geographical and political reality that formed the basis of our modern Western culture. Because of the words of an 8th-century poet and his influence on a 3rd-century general, the 21st-century culture that shapes our Western reality exists.

Of course, this is provocatively simple, and it’s not meant to be an argument but rather an invitation to consider the place and power of language, and particularly literature, in our understanding of reality. Before we can act intentionally and create a changed reality, we must think. Before influencing others with our thinking, we must translate it into language. And the more dramatic and lyrical that language is, the more significant the impact. It’s why presidents employ poets to recite at their inaugurations, and politicians pepper their speeches with lines from literature. Words have always mattered. Empires and nations have risen and fallen because of words. New realities are born and die because of stories.

‘If he made a good recovery, Boxer might expect to live another three years,
and he looked forward to the peaceful days that he would spend in the corner
of the big pasture. It would be the first time that he had had leisure to study
and improve his mind. He intended, he said, to devote the rest of his life to
learning the remaining twenty-two letters of the alphabet.’

It’s years since I read George Orwell’s Animal Farm, but even now, when I think of Boxer, the hardworking and loyal farm horse, being driven away in a van with the words’ Alfred Simmonds, Horse Slaughterer and Glue Boiler, Willingdon.’ (which, tragically, Boxer and many of the other animals couldn’t read), I feel viscerally the cruelty and mercilessness of the Russian Revolution under Stalin. I can’t imagine what the book’s impact was for those living with the aftermath of that reality. Fiction can give us a new perspective on reality, allow us to see the bigger picture, connect the dots of cause and effect, and, hopefully, give us a blueprint of how to design a new, better reality.

This leads me to the world’s first known author, Enheduanna, born in ancient Mesopotamia, around the 23rd century BC, 1,500 years before Homer. The daughter of King Sargon the Great, the first empire builder who conquered the independent city-states of Mesopotamia under a unified banner. He spoke Akkadian, and the cities in the south, who spoke Sumerian, viewed him as a foreign invader and revolted. To bridge the gap between the two cultures, he set up his only daughter, Enheduanna, as high priestess in the city of Ur’s most important temple. A brilliant strategist and writer, she set about writing in Akkadian and Sumerian forty-two religious hymns that combined both culture’s deities and mythologies into a unified cosmic reality. What had previously been experienced as two distinct and opposing realities, through the power of words, became a prosperous and inclusive new reality.

Words allow humans to express what’s happening internally and thus influence what is happening in the external world. In Jungian thinking, much of how we experience reality comes from projecting earlier realities onto our current situations. As the diarist and essayist Anais Nin says, ‘we don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.’ This isn’t to say that there is no objective reality. Still, our experience of reality is constructed from both what is objectively real and how we subjectively experience it. One of the properties and powers of literature is to provide a bridge between the outer and inner world of reality and a way of navigating the relationship between both. As readers and writers, books can help us to embrace the complexity of our lived reality and to find innovative ways to shape new realities.

What are the books or stories that have helped shape your reality?

To Kindle a Light #24 #cong22


If the purpose of life is individuation and the pursuit of one’s own vision of the truth, when our true nature is realised, our purpose manifests through our behaviours and actions.

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Key Takeaways:

  1. No other sentient being needs to ask what its purpose is. They’re too busy getting on with the business of surviving.
  2. If the purpose of life (according to Jung), is individuation, then the journey to purpose is first and foremost an inward journey.
  3. The seeds of our purpose have always been there, but it often takes years for us to become aware of them.
  4. Little purposes lead to Big Purpose.

About Anne Tannam

Born, bred, and buttered in Dublin, my time is spent coaching, writing poetry, reading, watching films, listening to podcasts, avoiding housework, and lepping about the place to stop from seizing up.

Contacting Anne Tannam

You can connect with Anne on LinkedIn, see her on Creative Coaching or send her an email

By Anne Tannam

We humans have made things very complicated for ourselves. With our oversized brains and endless overthinking, we tie ourselves in knots. What is our purpose, we ask over and over again, what are we here for?

All other sentient beings get on with the business of staying alive and propagating, unencumbered by late-night tossing and turning. Dogs are busy being dogs. Elephants are busy being elephants. Whales are wonderfully adept at being whales. Not us. We’re hardwired to seek a sense of purpose beyond our biological programming. When we’re lucky enough to find it, it gives our lives depth and meaning that is profound and enriching.

Where to Find our Purpose?

Carl Jung, the famous psychoanalyst, believed that the purpose of life was individuation, which is the pursuit of one’s own vision of the truth, and in doing so, realise our full potential as human beings. In his last days he wrote in a letter ‘As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being’.

If we take Jung’s view, then this purpose we seek is already within us, waiting to be realised. It’s not about seeking an answer out in the world; rather it’s about giving ourselves time and space to look inwards, to notice, as we live our lives day by day, what brings us joy and satisfaction. Our purpose is not something imposed from without; rather it’s an intimate calling from deep within, insistent we listen and take action.

It took me until my forties to tune into that inner voice and to manifest in the world what it was directing me to do; to speak my truth and make space for others to speak theirs. Nothing earth-shattering about that. But in defining my purpose clearly, I came to realise that the seeds were always there: a respect for and sensitivity to language, a desire for authentic connection, a love of shared wisdom, and a willingness to stay open to vulnerability. My purpose drives how I choose to turn up in the world, personally and professionally.

Little Purposes lead to Big Purpose

Often clients come to coaching searching for a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives. They use language like ‘aimless’ or ‘lost’ or ‘stranded’, their energy often low, their vitality dimmed. They have a sense of a parallel life to their current one, a parallel life that’s filled with purpose, lived by a version of themselves that is brimming with confidence and focus. They want to know how to get from where they are to where they want to be. In looking for purpose with a capital ‘P’, they often miss what’s already there, all those little ‘p’s quietly manifesting just under the radar. Some questions that can help us raise those ‘p’s up are:

  • Growing up, what did you love doing?
  • Was there ever a period of time when you felt you had a sense of purpose? What was happening to give you that sense of purpose?
  • What is currently bringing you joy/satisfaction in your life? What’s giving you energy?
  • When are you in flow, totally focused on something, unaware of time passing by?
  • Where is your curiosity taking you these days?
  • When do you feel most like your true self? Describe what it feels like to be your true self.
  • What positive difference are you currently making in the lives of others? (think home, work, hobbies, etc)

And suddenly we realise that there are lots of little and not-so-little purposes in there. We’re already quite good at being ourselves and that, according to Jung, is what we’re here for. Our innate purpose is organically realised when we’re true to our own nature and joyfully manifest it through our behaviours and actions.

And finally, some words of inspiration from Mary Oliver, a poet who lived her own purpose with a clarity and focus that allowed her to move from the darkness of unspeakable childhood abuse and trauma into the light of her true self.

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean–
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down —
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver

Leadership Is Dead. Long Live Leadership #18 #cong21


The world is holding its breath, waiting for a strong leader to come and rescue us. The time for this passive stance, this lack of belief in the power within ourselves, is over. The model of the heroic leader, the one with all the answers, the one that relies only on them self, has had its day. Sorry, lads, your time is officially up!  Our global community needs something very different to tackle the unique problems facing our planet. A leadership model that recognises the power of collaboration and understands that the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts, has to hand collective wisdom and problem solving. We are all called to share the responsibility and empowerment that collaborative leadership calls for. When it’s our turn (and it’s always our turn) have we the courage to turn up and be counted?

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Key Takeaways:

  1. We’ve been holding out for a hero, singing at the top of our lungs; ‘he’s gotta be strong and he’s gotta be fast and he’s gotta be fresh from the fight’. It’s time to stop holding on.
  2. Leadership is dead. Long live leadership. As part of a global community, we look to a model of leadership that moves beyond the concept of the heroic leader on a solo run to save humanity.
  3. Collaborative leadership is the answer. The power of collaboration lies in ‘the whole being greater than the sum of its parts’.
  4. Are we ready to join in the collaboration and lead from the ground up? Will we be ready when its our turn (and it’s always our turn)?

About Anne Tannam:

Anne Tannam is a Creative Coach supporting people who are blocked or stuck creatively professionally or personally; helping them find their flow again. To find out more about Creative Coaching, visit Anne is also half of Coaching Collaboration, where alongside her coaching colleague Liz Barron, she supports teams to work more effectively through collaboration. For more, visit She’s also the author of three poetry collections; the third, ‘Twenty-six Letters of a New Alphabet’ published in July 2021. For more on Anne’s poetry, visit

Contacting Anne Tannam:

You can follow Anne by email.

By Anne Tannam

Are we ready to move beyond the redundant model of the heroic leader and embrace collaborative leadership, where we’re all called to play an active role in leading ourselves into a fairer and safer future?

I’m holding out for a hero

I remember the first time I listened at the age of nine or ten to Genesis’ classic track ‘One for the Vine’, from their album ‘Wind and Wuthering’, released in 1976. ‘One for the Vine’ tells the story of a reluctant young soldier sent into battle, alongside fifty thousand other men, to do the will of the Chosen One.

In his name they could slaughter, for his name they could die.
Though many there were believed in him, still more were sure he lied,
But they’ll fight the battle on.

As they’re crossing a snowy mountain range our reluctant young soldier turns and flees, loses his footing, and falls headlong onto a wilderness of ice. For the simple people living on that part of the mountain, the sight of him falling through the low clouds tells them that he’s God’s Chosen One, come to save them and lead them into battle with their oppressors. Reluctantly he decides to play the role of the Chosen One and gathers an army around him, heads up the mountain range, urges them on,

Then, on a distant slope,
He observed one without hope
Flee back up the mountainside.
He thought he recognized him by his walk,
And by the way he fell,
And by the way he
Stood up, and vanished into air.

That song blew my little ten year old head off and it’s stuck with me ever since. For me, it says a lot about the arbitrary nature of power and leadership, and how often it is legacy and circumstance that form a leader. It also says a lot about our deep desire to be rescued by a strong hero. As Bonnie Tyler warbled in the 1980’s:

I need a hero
I’m holding out for a hero ’til the end of the night
He’s gotta be strong, and he’s gotta be fast
And he’s gotta be fresh from the fight

But we’re not living in the 1980’s anymore and history has taught us that the time of the heroic leader is over. The time for running solo, carrying the weight of responsibility and garnering all the accolades, has past.

Strength in numbers

Over the course of the pandemic, we have seen what happens when the old model of leadership faces a global crisis. Sadly, it turns in on itself, relying on rhetoric and bluster to hide its fear and ignorance. It refuses to listen to experts, believing it a sign of weakness to say you don’t understand or know everything. In sharp contrast, the pandemic showed us what happens when experts across many different scientific disciplines collaborate, share knowledge and together lead the fight against the virus. A vaccine was found so quickly because the scientific community knew, like Aristotle, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

In my own field, coaching, there is a growing awareness of the power of a team to effectively lead itself, once the right tools, training and supports are at their disposal. Of course there will always be the need for a leader role, but that role can be played by more than one person. We have all been in the situation, whether at work or a home, when the one who is in charge cannot, for whatever reason, do their job, and lo and behold, someone else on the team or in the family, steps in and discovers they’re more than up to the task. They just never saw themselves as leaders before.

When it’s our turn (and it’s always our turn)

Borrowing from the title of Seth Godin’s book ‘What To Do When It’s Your Turn (and it’s always your turn)’, the question of leadership is one of self-empowerment and courage. It’s really hard to step up and lead alone. Take the example of Annie Kenney that Godin writes about – Annie was a millworker and early suffragette in England who stood up to a member of Parliament, causing a ruckus, and was thrown into jail for three days. Her courage amplified a movement that ended up changing the world. Annie didn’t change the world on her own; she was part of a wider, collaborative movement, but she played her pivotal part. That’s what collaborative leadership looks like. Another woman who springs to mind is our own Catherine Corless, the most unlikely leader; painfully shy, quiet and softly spoken, she has stood up to church, government and detractors, because she believes in justice for the mothers and babies of the Tuam Mother and Baby Homes.

And now, back to us. If it is our turn (and it’s always our turn), what collaborative leadership are we called to be part of? What kind of leadership are we ready to embody? The world needs ordinary, everyday heroes pulling together, fighting the good fight, side by side

I’ll Meet You There #24 #cong20


Before we can hope to shape the next iteration of our society, we need first to acknowledge the work of those that have gone before us, and accept our current society as it is —warts and all— in order to bring about lasting and inclusive change.

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Key Takeaways:

  1. Society, like every system, is dynamic and evolving
  2. Acknowledge those that came before us, and be grateful for what they’ve contributed
  3. Focus on changing ourselves. It’s the only starting point
  4. When we see clearly what currently is, the way forward will present itself

About Anne Tannam

Anne Tannam is a Creative Coach and Writer. Through her coaching business she helps clients harness their creativity across all areas of their lives. Anne is the author of two poetry collections with a third forthcoming from Salmon Poetry in 2021.

Contacting Anne Tannam:

You can contact Anne through her coaching website Creative Coaching, her poetry website Anne Tannan Poetry, or on Linkedin

By Anne Tannam.

‘The only true constant is change’


Everything in the universe is in a state of constant flux, from the biggest galaxy to the smallest organism. The same rules apply to society. We live in a dynamic, sprawling system that defies our notions of neat truths and clear cut beginnings and endings. Of course our linear brain is begging us for the certainty that after 1:0 comes 2:0, and after 2:0 comes 3:0, but our lateral brain comfortably sits with the messiness of two steps forward, one step back, and a little shimmy to the side.

‘Well we know where we’re going, but we don’t know where we’ve been’

Talking Heads

I remember as a child hearing the story of the traveller who sought directions from an old man sitting on a bridge. On hearing where the traveller wanted to go he said ‘Well, I wouldn’t start from here.’ Even as I laughed along with the teller, I knew there was something in the story that touched on something important. How many times have we done that – wished somehow that we could begin from a different place than where we actually are? But where we are is the only place to start from. Society 3:0 can only begin to slowly evolve if we are clear about what society 2:0 is, and how it evolved from earlier iterations. That’s not always easy when we’re impatient to move on and leave behind what’s not working. But as anyone involved in systemic work will tell you, the first step to moving forward is to first acknowledge what is, and to recognise the contributions of those that came before us. Only then can we see clearly what we need to leave behind, and what we’ll gratefully bring forward with us. Otherwise we may end up making similar mistakes to our predecessors. As Mark Twain reminds us ‘History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.’

‘Yesterday I was cleaver. I wanted to change the world.

Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.’


I’ve been thinking about this a lot since the pandemic hit; about the part I play, and the decisions I make that contribute to shaping society and the world I inhabit. If there’s one positive that’s come out of this year is that it’s forced me to assess how I’m spending the very short time I have on this precious earth. As a woman I’m acutely conscious of the incredible work and effort of those that have gone before me that allow us enjoy freedoms and privileges that even our grandmothers could not have imagined. And we still have a long way to go, not just on issues of gender, but on issues of race and class, and the pressing issues around sustainable and responsible co-existence with the rest of life on earth.

The question I’ve been posing for myself is: how can I, to paraphrase Gandhi, ‘be the change I want to see in the world’? That question is keeping me up some nights, but then I’m reminded that I’m already standing on the shoulders of giants, and I’m not alone— there are so many people doing what they can to take small steps towards a better society. Congregation and the values it embodies is one such step. Writing this article and gaining insight from what others have shared in their articles, is one such step for me this week. The woman I saw earlier along the canal, scooping up rubbish so that passers-by could enjoy a clean path to walk on, was taking one such step. It feels good to take small steps. They build momentum and point us in the direction of better. And the days that I struggle to take any steps I reach for the words of Brenè Brown ‘Sometimes the bravest and most important thing you can do is just show up.’

Acknowledging what is. Recognising the contributions of those that came before us. Leaving behind what’s no longer useful. Showing up. Taking one small step towards better. Then another. And another. Building momentum. Building a better society. Are you in?

‘Out beyond ideas of right and wrong, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.’


Note: Thanks to John Whittington and all at Coaching Constellations for their teaching on systems, which I’ve used as the basis for some of this article.

Creating Community Through Language and Stories #39 #cong19


The glue that holds a community together is our ability to connect with each other on a social level. That social connection depends on our capacity to communicate with each other through language. Language allowed us as a species to form close knit communities, but it’s our imagination and ability to tell stories that grew these small communities to the global communities of millions and even billions that exist today. We can build and strengthen community with the language we choose to use and the stories we choose to tell.

4 Key Takeaways:

  1. We all need to feel we belong
  2. Our ability to form close social ties is the basis for all community building
  3. Language and stories are powerful tools to build (or destroy) community
  4.  Let’s choose to use language and tell stories that create community

About Anne Tannam:

Anne Tannam is the author of two collections of poetry ‘Take This Life’ (Wordonthestreet 2011) and ‘Tides Shifting Across My Sitting Room Floor’, (Salmon Poetry 2017). Her third collection is forthcoming in summer 2020. Also a spoken word poet, she has performed her work at Electric Picnic, Bloom, Lingo, The Craw Festival (Berlin) and the Kosovo International Poetry Festival.

An accredited coach (ACC) with the International Coaching Federation, Anne set up her business ‘Creative Coaching’ in 2017, and works with individuals and organisations to successfully harness the power of creativity across all areas of life.

Keeping it in the family, Anne also works part-time with her brother Gerard Tannam in his business ‘Islandbridge Brand Development’, in her role as brand researcher where she gathers the stories and key insights that sit behind every great brand.

Contacting Anne Tannam:

You can connect follow Anne on Twitter, connect with her on LinkedIn or see her work in Creative Coaching

By Anne Tannam

‘Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.
‘Pooh’ he whispered.
‘Yes Piglet?’
‘Nothing’ said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw,’ I just wanted to be sure of you.’

To feel alone in the world is unbearable. We all need to feel we belong. Our survival as a species depends on our ability to form connection within a tribe or community that accepts us and shares, or at least accepts, our values and beliefs. Being exiled from a community may no longer mean death, as it did for our ancient ancestors who could not physically survive outside the warmth of the campfire, but it can feel that way. Remember back to those moments in childhood when we were left out of a game, either by siblings or classmates, and that feeling of being invisible, of being on the outside looking in. Think of poor Romeo who, when forced into exile by the Prince exclaimed Ha, banishment! Be merciful say ‘death’.

The glue that holds a community together is our ability to connect with each other on a social level. That social connection depends on our capacity to communicate with each other through language. According to one theory, homo sapiens, just one of the many branches of the human race, survived as a species because we developed a language so complex and supple we could inform each other in detailed ways about our surrounding environment and where food could be found or what dangers might lie in store for us. Vital information, shared amongst those in a particular tribe, meant the difference between life and death. A second theory is we developed language sophisticated enough to allow us to gossip effectively, thus tracking the ever-changing relationships within our tribe which facilitates social co-operation. You can just imagine us back then, standing around the water hole during our morning break from hunting and gathering, spilling the beans on what was overheard at the back of the cave the night before.

Whichever theory we go with, our survival has always depended on how well we can communicate and how effectively we build those essential social ties that bind us together as a unified group.

Language allowed us as a species to form close knit communities, but it’s our imagination and ability to tell stories that grew those communities from small tribes of up to one hundred and fifty people (the number of people that can co-exisit without a unifying story to bond them together), to the global communities of millions and even billions that exist today.

Hardwired to make sense of the world through story, humans have evolved and sometimes have been destroyed on the basis of the stories they tell. Every civilization began with an origin myth that bound that particular community together; stories of how the universe came into existence, of the pantheon of gods that protect and punish, and the laws handed down that set them apart from other tribes. With the advent of written language stories could pass more accurately from generation to generation. The printing press was a quantum leap in how quickly stories and ideas could spread and the advent of the internet means a community can spring up, or be destroyed, almost overnight. Our methods of storytelling may have become more sophisticated as the millennia or centuries have passed, but the power of story to influence how we live as communities has stayed the same.

In the past few years we’ve seen language and stories used as weapons to break down communities. It’s always been so but the level and speed it’s happening today is mind blowing. Whether it’s fake news, dehumanizing, polarising language spreading across print and online media, or the stories that Cambridge Analytica were paid to spread across Facebook to create a narrative of ‘them’ and ‘us, communities are under attack from all sides.

Fight fire with fire. Share stories of belonging. We might need to look harder for them, but they’re there. ‘Humans of New York’ springs to mind, a project that perfectly illustrates how the telling of individual stories told through the lens of respect and inclusivity, creates community. Closer to home, tell and share stories of what it means to belong to an Ireland that seeks to embrace and celebrate our diverse population. If we don’t tell these stories, those that seek to divide will continue to shout theirs.

Choose language that seeks to engage respectfully with others that do not always share our views. Choose language that points towards what we have in common, not what sets us apart. Choose language that daily builds community, whether that community is sitting around the kitchen table, or in huddles across a West of Ireland village, or scattered across five continents. Choose to belong. Choose to take another’s hand. Choose what story defines us.

Note: “Sapiens’ by Yuval Noah Harari and ‘The Written World’ by Martin Puchner gave me some of the background information for this blog.

Fresh into Ideas #12 #cong18


Where does the word idea come from? What does the word idea mean? What does it mean to have an idea?

What about the tantalising idea or question as to whether there’s such a thing as an original idea. Does an idea come from within the individual mind or our collective consciousness?

Throughout history there have been countless examples of individuals or groups apparently coming up with the same idea independent of one another.

Our ability to have ideas about what ideas are, have ideas and execute those ideas to bring about new physical and social realities is what makes us unique as a species on this earth.

4 Key Takeaways:

  1. How we think about and define ideas evolves over time
  2. Are ideas birthed in the individual mind or in our collective consciousness?
  3. Our ability to develop ideas and execute them makes us unique as a species
  4. Ideas are both our greatest power and our greatest responsibility

About Anne Tannam:

Anne Tannam is a Creative Coach and the author of two poetry collections ‘Take This Life’ (2011 WordOnTheStreet) and ‘Tides Shifting Across My Sitting Room Floor’ (2017 Salmon Poetry). Her third collection is forthcoming in 2020. Also a Spoken Word Artist, Anne has performed at festivals and events including Electric Picnic, Bloom, Craw Festival (Berlin) and Lingo. She travelled in 2016 to take up a writers’ residency in Chennai, India. Anne is co-founder of the weekly Dublin Writers’ Forum, an open and inclusive group that welcomes writers of all styles and levels of experience to share their work and expertise with one another.

Contacting Anne Tannam:

You can follow Anne on Twitter, connect with her on LinkedIn, browse her thoughts on her website or send her an email.

By Anne Tannam

Any ideas about how to write about ideas? What is an idea? No idea? Where does the word ‘idea’ come from? Like so many words we use in English, its origin can be traced back to ancient Greek – Idein, meaning ‘to see’ and still in Greek, ‘Idea’, meaning ‘form or pattern’, then into Latin before finally turning up in Late Middle English.

What does it mean to have an idea? The word ‘idea’ has subtly different definitions and usages, which gives us some idea of how difficult it can be to talk about ideas without our head hurting a little. Here’s some of the definitions of the noun ‘an idea’:

1. A thought or suggestion as to a possible course of action
2. A mental impression
3. An opinion or belief
4. The aim or purpose

To confuse us even further, the concept of an idea was explored by philosophers who came up with their own definitions of what an idea is (where did they get the idea they could even do that?). For Plato an idea is defined as ‘an eternally existing pattern of which individual things in any class are imperfect copies’, and for Kant an idea is ‘a concept of pure reason, not empirically based in experience.’

We also have lots of informal phrases in English we use that put another slant on the idea of what an idea is. We have the classic usage so beloved of the Irish: ‘Whose your wan, getting ideas about herself? ‘ Or ‘Don’t be putting ideas into that fella’s head.’ Then there’s the ‘I’ve no idea what I’m talking about’ and the This is not my idea of a good time!’

What about the tantalising idea of whether there’s such a thing as an original idea. Does an idea come from within the individual mind or our collective consciousness? Throughout history there have been countless examples of individuals or groups apparently coming up with the same idea independent of one another. We’re all familiar with is the idea of taking an oral language and devising an alphabet to record it, and later, the idea of developing or devising a technology that would allow a people to print and publish those recordings (which allowed for the first time in human history ideas to spread far beyond the confines of one place or culture).

At different times and in different places, the written word emerged because someone who thought of the idea, stuck with it and ran with it. Or an idea, like a baton, is passed from one person to the next, each adding their own spin to it, before passing it on to the next person, often decades or even centuries later, until finally the idea is perfected and executed.

Of course there may have been many more who thought of the idea and didn’t run with it, just left it hanging there, unarticulated and unrealized.

Thinking about ideas can leave us feeling dizzy but our ability to have ideas about what ideas are, have ideas and execute those ideas to bring about new physical and social realities is what makes us unique as a species on this earth. ‘With great power comes great responsibility’ (see, I robbed that idea from a bloke called Stan Lee!).

As to the question of whether there is such a thing as a brand new idea; me, I like the idea that ideas can be both original and hand-me-downs at the same time. Take these blogs we’re writing: Eoin comes up with the idea of Ideas for the theme of this year’s Congregation (an idea that Eoin came up with a good few years ago, based on, but also departing from other people’s idea of what a conference is). We all came up with ideas for our blogs, drawing our inspiration from our own experiences and from the collective experiences of others. Many of us will have overlapping ideas but hopefully in our approach and execution we’ll bring something original to the table. Not a bad idea, eh?