A Lesson about Change from a Poet Who Died in 1827

For the British poet William Blake, many aspects of life in the late 1700s and early 1800s were bleak. In one of his favorite poems of mine, simply titled “London,” he wrote of such bleakness. It’s a short poem, only 16 lines, but it’s rather deep. Here it is:

London

I wander through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every man,
In every infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear:

How the chimney-sweeper's cry
Every blackening church appals,
And the hapless soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down palace-walls.

But most, through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot's curse
Blasts the new-born infant's tear,
And blights with plagues the marriage-hearse.

What’s not to love about a poem that integrates chimney maintenance, prostitution, sexually transmitted disease and the river Thames?

The best part for me, however, is the concept he poses in the eighth line: “The mind-forged manacles I hear.”

What are “mind-forged manacles” and what do they have to do with how we approach change in our lives, in our organizations? To begin, manacles are, quite simply, handcuffs. They are restraints that inhibit movement, they paralyze.

But Blake doesn’t suggest that these manacles are normal handcuffs. He states that they are psychological; they are “mind-forged.” In fact, the implication seems to be that they are self-imposed. Are our limitations sometimes—if not frequently—self-imposed?

Mind-forged manacles, in my observation, are an important reason why we fail to change, help others change or lead change within our communities or organizations. We have self-imposed limits, an inability to see the possible, a natural inclination to bind ourselves to what we have come to know and accept.

Recognizing the possibility that our circumstances are in part forged by our minds is rather profound. It means that we aren’t simply observers of reality or characters acting out a role. It means that we have the ability to co-create reality.

We can be the change we wish to see.

Clearly, there are plenty of interesting themes in Blake’s poetry. But I think that a little bit of introspection about the potential presence of “mind-forged manacles” is a small step that can have a big impact.

Because if we are capable of creating our own psychological prisons, we are also capable of setting ourselves free and creating a better world.

What “mind-forged manacles” do you see around you? Do we have the ability to impact our environments, or are we victims of circumstance? Leave a comment below!

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About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. More at www.benbaran.com and www.agilityconsulting.com.