The Engineer and the Actor: Enthusiasm, Alexander Technique, and New Year’s Resolutions


Over the Christmas holidays, I took some visiting family to see the SS Great Britain, a local tourist attraction. It is a remarkable ship designed and built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in the 1840s, the world’s first iron-hulled screw-propeller steamship. It is not only beautiful, but a marvel of engineering and a monument to enthusiasm and experimentation.

Brunel first designed the Great Britain to be a paddle steamer, and building began with the paddle-wheel design in July 1839. But when Brunel saw the SS Archimedes arrive in Bristol in early 1840, things were destined to change. The Archimedes was a prototype vessel with screw-propulsion, and the new technology excited Brunel. Even as the Great Britain was under construction, Brunel began experimenting with designs for screw propellers. In December 1840, fully 18 months after construction had begun on the Great Britain, Brunel made a major change in the design, and made engineering history.

This story fascinates me because it reminds me so much of FM Alexander. FM had different reasons for beginning the experimentation that led to his creation of the work we now call the Alexander Technique (Alexander was motivated by the prospect of giving up his acting career). But both men were experimenters. Both men had a passion – one for engineering, the other for acting – and it was their passion that drove them to continue experimenting, even in the face of external difficulty or apparent failure. Both men had enthusiasm in spades.

But both men also used their heads. To quote FM, “as to enthusiasm, I will claim that no one is a greater enthusiast than I am myself, but I will not permit my enthusiasm to dominate my reason.” *

FM spent a long time experimenting, testing out different ideas and watching himself in a mirror. His account of his creation of the Technique in his book Use of the Self is full of references to time passing. Similarly, Brunel didn’t see the Archimedes, get excited, and run straight to the dry dock to halt the construction of the Great Britain. Rather, he spent months working on designs and testing them.


Enthusiasm, Reason, and New Year’s Resolutions

In January most of us do some sort of udit of the previous year, and make goals, wishes or resolutions on how we are going to change our lives for the better in the year to come. We begin full of enthusiasm. But how often does our enthusiasm wane under the pressure of trying to implement our resolution before we know how best to go about it?

My advice today is to follow the examples of Brunel and Alexander. Enthusiasm is great. But the likelihood that we will be able to make major changes in our lives instantly and perfectly is low. So let’s not go down that route this year. Instead, try this:

  • Make a goal/wish/resolution
  • Do a bit of research around it. For example, if your goal is losing weight, read some books on the subject. Look at different types of diet.
  • When you feel you are ready, either make a plan of how to achieve your goal, or experiment with using a ready-made one (like a diet book). Experiment. Try it out. See if it is workable for you.

And most important of all…

  • Be prepared to fail, get things wrong, or backslide occasionally. This is normal and understandable. And completely human!
  • Hold on to your enthusiasm. This is your dream. Don’t let it be taken from you.

Do you have a goal or resolution for the year? How are you going to go about making it a reality?


*FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.90.