Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a (Christmas) cracker of a book. When I first read it as a young teenager I didn't share my older brother’s conviction that it came from a brain affected by psychedelic drugs, but saw it instead as a religious allegory that ‘spoke’ to my adolescent Christian leanings.
But the author Richard Bach was adamant that neither drugs nor religious fervour inspired his story of the seagull obsessed with pushing the limits of everything about flying, which had a record-breaking run at the top of the best seller list in the early 1970s.
Rather, he intended it as a parable for those seeking ‘enlightenment’, or a state of pure bliss: in the case of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, enlightenment would only come from being the best version of himself, and from flying higher, faster and better than any other seagull in the sky.
Picking this little gem of a book up again as an adult, I was struck by the life lessons it can teach us, and its relevance to the purpose and process of coaching.
Jonathan is wholly focused on learning more and more about something that all the other seagulls take for granted. He pushes himself onwards despite the high personal cost (he is regarded as a “disrupter” and cast out of the Flock), in search of new and greater knowledge.
His story tells us that it is brave and insightful to challenge the boundaries of what we are capable of. To learn more, grow more, and to open ourselves to new truths.
Jonathan succeeds in finding a higher level of existence, where he searches out and finds the most wise and advanced seagull and is able to learn even greater truths. Like all the best coaches, this seagull does not tell him outright what these truths are but rather points him in the right direction and supports and guides him. Under this guidance, Jonathan “took in new ideas like a streamlined feathered computer” and practices and practices the art of flying until eventually he becomes the best he can be.
There are plenty of other life and coaching lessons in Jonathan Livingston Seagull, from the importance of tackling obstacles one at a time (“…we are trying to overcome our limitations in order, patiently. We don’t tackle flying through rock until a little later in the programme”), to striving to forgive those who have treated you badly (“You have to practice and see the real gull, the good in every one of them, and to help them see it in themselves”), but the big lesson, for me, is that if we can just focus on our desire, capacity and capability to be our ‘best self’ for more of the time, we are capable of much more than we imagine.