The Age of Unreason - Charles Handy

The Age of Unreason - Charles Handy

This summary will explain to you why you should avoid discontinuous change and how you can do it in order to leverage your results.

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Could you tell me why we seek to change only when something bad happens? It's even ironic how we are always susceptible to change, but, at the same time, we get stuck when things are going well. Charles Handy explores this human behavior in the book "The Age of Unreason".

In fact, the most appropriate time to make a difference is when we already have something good and want to make it better. And not when we want to save ourselves from drowning.

The application of continuous improvement also has a strong impact on the structure and functioning of organizations. The concept of work, nowadays, also undergoes changes.

These changes can be beneficial to both the business world and society, making those environments more flexible and deconstructed. Got interested to learn more about and then apply it in your life? Stay with us in this summary and discover more!

About the book "The Age of Unreason"

"The Age of Unreason" is a book about how changes are transforming the business world. Acclaimed by Business Week, the book offers insights that make us reflect on how these changes are linked to the world we live in, outside organizations.

The book was originally published in 1989 in Britain by Business Books Ltd. A year later, it was published in the United States by Harvard Business School Press.

About the author Charles Handy

Charles Handy is a philosopher and writer who specialized in organizational management. He writes about the changes in work and society that impact the way we live and the way organizations operate.

During his career, he was a business economist and worked for big companies and institutions such as Shell. He was also a professor at the London Business School, and president of the Royal Society of Arts (London).

Born in 1932, today Charles is one of the top names in the list of Thinkers Fifty focused on administration thinkers.

To whom is this book indicated?

This book is suitable for anyone who wants to know how to deal with life and work in the 21st century. It's also recommended for organizations that wish to reflect their actions of change as a company and element in society.

Main ideas of the book "The Age of Unreason"

  • Understand the changes around us;
  • Discontinuous changes are something we must avoid;
  • What is the essence of learning;
  • Why should we pay more attention to other intelligence besides the analytical one?

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[Book Summary] The Age Of Unreason - Charles Handy

Overview: The act of changing

The continuous change is a comfortable change. However, people don't like change. That's why, every time a crisis happens, a drastic attitude is taken trying to change the whole scenario.

"The past is the guide of the future."

Charles Handy expresses that the purpose of his work is to promote a better understanding of the changes that are already present in and around us.

Such as understanding, it makes us suffer less and improve more throughout our changes.

"Change, above all, is just another word for growth, another synonym for learning."

In chapter one, Charles Handy starts with three assumptions:

  • Today's changes are discontinuous and non-standard;
  • The small changes that generate big differences in the way we live and the way work is organized;
  • Discontinuous changes must be handled with discontinuous thoughts.

To think discontinuously means to rethink the way we can learn things. And when we rethink the way we learn, learning becomes a tempting invitation to explore, question, and experiment.

To assume that changes occur in a discontinuous manner is to "accuse" the authority of monopolizing all power and knowledge. For those in charge, continuous thinking is comfortable, because they prefer to believe that things will be the way they always were.

Charles questions the same sequence of "change" that is followed by most organizations:

  • A collapse happens or is about to happen, so new people are placed in leadership positions. Then, there is an investigation of the old method of the organization and studies for a new method, generating changes in structures. Finally, new goals and standards are set.

Do we really have to go through a difficult time to change? If we change our habits, attitude, and organizations, we can enter an era full of discovery and freedom - "an era of true learning".

Technology and economics are linked as the causes of this discontinuous thinking, what the author calls upside-down thinking. Thinking in reverse suggests that we stop talking and thinking about "employees and jobs" and start thinking of work as an activity that is paid for.

If everyone was considered self-employed, no one would be unemployed. The word "unemployment", according to Handy, only serves to emphasize (contractual) employment as something useful.

The Theory of Learning

If you want to develop personally, take learning seriously. The Learning Theory is a method created by the author that consists of a four-part cycle wheel: questions, theories, tests, and reflections.

"Necessity is the mother of invention, but curiosity is the mother of discovery."

A few remarks about learning:

  • It's not about knowing the answers;
  • It's not the same as studying or training;
  • It's not automatic, it requires power, dexterity, and support;
  • It's not just for intellectuals (who shine in theory, but are not at all curious and fearless);
  • It's not about finding out what people already know;
  • It's about the way we think;
  • It's about solving your own problems within your own motives.

Who learns more and better, usually:

  • Take responsibility for themselves and their future;
  • Have a clear vision of what the future is;
  • They want to make sure you understand;
  • They believe they can.

However, you must be motivated continuously: it is easier for you to stop the wheel than to keep it running. Some of the main barriers that may prevent us from learning elucidated by the author are:

  • The "they" syndrome: stop comparing yourself to others, do it for yourself;
  • Futility: trust yourself and what you believe in. Those who don't trust themselves fear success;
  • The thief of reasons: denying one's own reason to follow another's reason takes away all motivation to learn;
  • Do not forgive: if we emphasize the good and ignore or forgive the bad, the good things will happen more often, while the bad things will disappear.

If you want to change comfortably, you must spin that wheel!

Overview: The act of working

The work is going through changes. This is because the structures of the organizations are also changing. And vice versa. Charles Handy talks about three ways of thinking that companies are adopting:

The Shamrock Organization

This type of organization uses the symbolic representation of clover with the three workforces. Each leaf represents a force:

  • The first leaf represents the core composed of qualified professionals such as technicians and managers;
  • The second leaf represents the contractual margin, composed of individuals and organizations;
  • The third leaf represents flexible work made up of temporary workers.

The concept of this organization was elaborated by the author of the book, Charles Handy. He believes that, in the future, all companies will be clover organizations.

What about the fourth leaf (the lucky leaf)? The customers.

Clients are essential in organizations but don't represent strength by themselves in formal representation. This is because they are not paid by the organizations. In any case, it's an existing category that is part of the contract margin (second leaf).

The author says that organizations of this type are growing because they have realized that it isn't necessary to hire everyone at the same time to have their work-ready.

Some challenges that this organization may face are:

  • Each leaf needs to be managed differently and individually, but in a way that is part of a whole;
  • Another controversy is knowing how to identify who is or is not part of the core. Such a leaf is crucial for the connection of the organization. You need to know how to select the professionals well and manage them well too.

The Federal Organization

This type of organization aims to do more for less, or at least independently. Imagine a donut. Now imagine an inverted donut: just the filled center. That's where the power of these organizations is concentrated.

Financial decisions, where and when to relocate new people come from the center; while the action itself comes from the rest delimited by the outline of the donut.

But don't confuse federalism with decentralization. Misunderstanding about federalism can lead to inefficient decentralization and abuse of authority. Federalism needs to be a place of persuasion, of discussions that lead to consensus. Leadership is necessary, but not to reconcile personalities, but ideas.

A leader of a federal organization must learn new habits, trust more, and control less. A leader's vision must:

  • Be different a replica is not a vision;
  • Make sense to others: explore people's imaginations within the limits of possibilities;
  • Be understandable: analogies and metaphors help to see an idea better;
  • Be lived by the leader: to live and believe in their vision to be able to transform;
  • Have followers: a vision is only a dream when only the leader believes in it. Choose a team that can do the job. Their trust is paid by the trust they will have in you.

Federal organizations are horizontal, and to function, it's necessary for the organization to rely on people's ability to learn continuously.

An opposite thought, however, is that this learning can be non-linear and even discontinuous. Some people may spend their whole lives without being aware of their other potentials, based only on past performance.

The Triple I Organization

Triple I represents the formula for success: Intelligence, Information, and Ideas.

These organizations look at places where knowledge has always been the key to success and where the brain is more important than physical effort. Universities are examples of triple I.

To succeed, smart organizations should be obsessed with quality. They use the intelligence of the machines and qualified people to carry out the activities. Machines can even replace humans in certain functions, but this isn't the vision of smart companies. They use machines as helpers.

Their workers are recognized as specialists, professionals, executives, or leaders. They cherish shared knowledge. In these organizations, people are not only valued for the way they act but are also paid for thinking.

The most important difference between Triple I and other organizations is the perception that everyone in the core should be managers, while nobody should be just a manager.

This requires more flexibility and responsibility from professionals. Moreover, it causes further expansion and exploitation of the potential of professionals. Charles says a person's intelligence can only be consented to, not commanded. You can't demand someone to obey you. Smart people would rather agree than obey.

That way, there's no one to run the smart organizations. Its structure is horizontal. But don't think that adopting this culture of consent, or working with smart people and machines, is easy to apply. Authority in these organizations is not easy and must be earned.

A Triple I leader must not only do better than his past but also encourage others to improve their skills and organize their work more effectively.

Overview: The act of living

An absolute truth is that the organizations will never be the same. Moreover, the change from within organizations affects the way we deal with externally.

Our sense of identity, our family, our way of life, in general, is changing, sometimes even upside down. We must be concerned that the world doesn't become an inflexible and divided place. We have to make the world a less dominant and more helpful place.

In addition to social nature, this transition tends to happen in companies, because it also has an economic advantage.


So that we can reinvent the work, the portfolio is a way to describe how the talent of a professional can be distinguished in various forms of performance.

The author expresses, in this chapter, that his objective is to instigate executives and other professionals from organizations since independent professionals are familiar with portfolios to present their work and skills.

The author cites the main portfolio categories:

  • Salaried and paid work: salaried represents money paid for time worked (employees); paid work is paid for results given (freelancers);
  • Homework: includes all kinds of work that is done at home;
  • Gift work: voluntary work;
  • Study work: for the author, a serious study is a job and not recreation. Training a skill, learning a new language, etc.

Today, it's more common to have more than one category in our portfolio.

Reinventing Education

If change is really happening, education also needs to be reinvented. An alternative proposed by Charles, based on his organizational philosophy, is the Clover Schools.

The author explains that his method would bring flexibility to schools. In addition, it would change the student/teacher relationship, being more seen as a "contract partnership" and less seen as a guardian/prisoner.

It's also necessary to give more importance to other types of intelligence, not only to determine the analytical intelligence of students through evaluative tests.

Exploring other fields of intelligence generates discoveries of new talent. Some other kinds of intelligence are:

  • Standard intelligence;
  • Musical intelligence;
  • Physical intelligence;
  • Practical intelligence;
  • Intrapersonal intelligence;
  • Interpersonal intelligence.

An inverted society

If work has the power to change our lives, it also has an impact on government and societal norms.

Handy points out that the government should recognize that are changes that make a difference, and not just mere adjustments. This requires a new way of thinking to solve these discontinuities.

If we are committed to learning and changing, then we must not struggle with these discontinuities, but use them to our advantage.

Society needs to stop classifying people as unemployed/employed. The author says that more independent people make unemployment and retirement just technical terms.

In this way, the government will have to deal directly with the people and not with an organization. The consequence of this is that a new form of organization will have to be considered.

Charles still expresses his expectations for the future:

  • That people have more time outside the organizations;
  • That they can choose where to live;
  • That a diverse society can generate more successful models;
  • And that human nature is less insecure and more self-confident.

Then, at last, we will stop shaping ourselves to be accepted. And then, the Age of Irrationality will be transformed into the Age of Greatness.

What do other authors say about it?

In "Unlimited Power", Tony Robbins explains that, generally, a successful person walks in a higher and more imposing way, demonstrating self-esteem. One of the ways to be successful, therefore, would be to replicate this behavior and begin to walk in the same way, in a more imposing way.

Daniel Goleman, author of "Emotional Intelligence", explains that IQ contributes only 20% to his success in life. The rest is the result of emotional intelligence, which includes factors such as the ability to motivate yourself, persistence, impulse control, mood regulation, empathy, and hope.

Brené Brown, in "Dare to Lead", says that a leader must take responsibility for recognizing the potential of people and their ideas and encouraging them to develop that potential. He knows that the true power is the one shared with all.

Okay, but how can I apply this to my life?

  • If we want a comfortable and continuous change, we must adopt the Theory of Learning and spin our own learning wheel;
  • Know your purposes, your goals, ask questions. Don't be afraid to make a mistake. Be afraid of not doing it. Learning comes to everyone;
  • Get help if you need it. The author says that we should move from the dominant pole to a more generous pole;
  • Making choices means responsibility. As much as it is easier to accept what you have been told, it is important that you make your own decisions;
  • Always keep the flame of change burning: change your habits, your way of living, and observe the world constantly. Allow yourself to be a walking metamorphosis;
  • We have seen that each individual has the power to change the world in which they live. Don't wait for a catastrophe to happen before you take action.

Did you like this summary of the book "The Age of Unreason"?

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Book 'The Age of Unreason'