The Imitation Game – Strengths and Diversity

Meeting Alan Turing today, would you see a brilliantly talented man or a weird eccentric loner?

For those of you who haven’t seen this film, it is about a brilliantly clever mathematician who breaks an ‘impossible’ encrypted German code, ultimately leading to the Allies winning the war.  It is estimated that the breaking of the “enigma” code led to the war being shortened by 2 years saving 14 million lives.  Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Alan Turing, the man who is credited for breaking the code.

The mood of the film was uplifting and inspirational and for me, there were central themes of strength, resilience and diversity.   It also made me wonder about the price of being different, gifted or genius?

Alan Turing is a man who has traits often associated with conditions such as Aspergers or Autism.   He admits he cannot read social cues and he responds quite literally to peoples words;  for instance his colleague says to him one day; “we’re going to lunch” in a tone indicating he is asking Alan to join them.   After repeating the statement two or three times, without Alan answering, he asks if he has offended Alan.   Alan looks surprised and replies no and explains that because no-one asked him a question , he didn’t offer a reply.   In many ways, a logical response to the words being said in the situation.   In Alan’s life his love of codes and solving puzzles came from his ability to understand the clarity of words, within the confusion that came when he tried to translate subtle nuances like social cues which are often unclear to him.  Alan loves the logic of codes and words.

Somewhere along the line, despite all the bullying and loneliness of his childhood, Alan still finds the courage to find out who he is, what he is good at and what he loves to do.   He learnt code at a young age and he and his friend, Christopher used to pass notes in code in class.   His ability to persevere, focus solely on one task and get lost in puzzles as kind of flow-type experiences, led to him to excel at Maths, attend Cambridge University and talk his way into a job at Bletchley Park with a team who are trying to break the German Enigma Code and so win the war by interpreting German war strategy.

Alan is lacking social skills, a loner and seen as eccentric, rude and arrogant.   But he is also mathematically brilliant, authentic, logical, and doggedly perseverant to his goal of cracking the code.  It takes others to recognise these strengths for Alan to thrive and flourish which he does when working at Bletchley. Commander Denniston (played by Charles Dance) and Joan Clarke (played by Keira Knightly) both saw the genius in Alan although especially for the Commander it was hard to accept Alan at times as he wasn’t always easy to like.    For Alan, working on the hardest puzzle in the world was the most enjoyable task and we see how he experiences Flow type experiences during this time, where the challenge of the task was equal to his skill (Csikszentmihalyi, 1989).  We see him working on the £100K Home Office funded code cracking machine called Christopher, for hours on end, totally focussed and engaged on the task in hand.

It is clear whilst working at Bletchley, his resilience and perseverance are strong because he is doing what he loves.  We see him flourish, able to face and overcome some of his weaknesses such as learning to work with others, and harness his strengths fully in work where he is fully engaged.   He does not stop until he has solved the puzzle and whatever gets in his way, he bounces back and perseveres until the job is complete.

Later in the film after the code is cracked and he has left the Bletchley team we see him arrested for homosexuality, chemically castrated and find out that he committed suicide at the age of 41.   There is a touching scene at the end between him and Joan (Keira Knightly) where he is suffering physically due to the medication for chemical castration, as well as emotionally and seems to have lost any joy or purpose in his life.    I wondered at this point whether his resilience was weakened to that extent before he commits suicide mainly because he is no longer doing what he loves and so feels no sense of purpose or contribution – he is unable to work in his field anymore after his arrest.  He admits to Joan he has chosen chemical castration over prison because in prison he cannot work.

Perhaps it is difficult for society to see people’s strength when the person is difficult to like. His lack of social skills made him unpopular and he also lacked empathy and connection to others.  We see him ruthlessly firing two members of his team, deciding not to intervene when his co-worker’s brother is being sent to his death, and terminating his engagement to his fiancé Joan, fairly brutally.

I wondered, does a person need to be liked for them to be allowed to contribute in the best way they can?  Is popularity more important than authenticity and allowing people to be who they are and contribute in the best way they can?.    Also in the modern 21st century, would Alan even have got the job giving him the chance to crack one of the hardest codes of all time?  I suspect these days if he didn’t get on with his team or superiors or display the social intelligence and teamwork desired by corporations, he wouldn’t get a look-in.  The political and media driven context of many modern corporations mean saying the right thing at the right time is even more important to big organizations and Alan would have struggled with these confusing political environments, which means in this day and age we may have never watched a film about the brilliance of Alan Turing.

I felt so much empathy for Alan in the film and it made me wonder what makes us happy and what could have made him happy?  It made me think about other geniuses like Robin Williams who also committed suicide recently and wonder why they committed suicide?   I wonder was there something that we could have done either individually or as a society to prevent their suffering and early deaths?     Diener & Seligman (2002) found that one factor that was different in very happy people compared with less happy people was their involvement in social relationships.  So what if someone’s strength is not their ability to form social relationships?  What then?  Is it best to help them get better at what is not a natural strength or to create a society which embraces a variety of strengths and accepts peoples strengths and limitations?  There is a point in the film where Joan encourages Alan to try a little harder at being likeable and he manages to win over his team who ultimately help Alan to crack the code.   Perhaps we need to also manage our weaknesses if they are getting in the way of us being able to utilize our strengths and achieve our dreams.

I think if we can learn to recognize strength in self and others, it will help us to embrace difference.  It’s about accepting that we all have different strengths and we need to try and value what people bring, more than what they don’t bring.   Although this story was back in 1941 when homosexuality was illegal, but chemical castration was legal, I still don’t feel we would treat Alan much differently in 2015.  The laws might be different but until we recognise how much people can offer, that we are all different and start to realise that people have strengths and weaknesses, thousands of people like Alan will feel totally alone and alienated and unable to offer and contribute to the world as Alan Turing did in this story.

Perhaps it is a shift in focus.  Perhaps we can start by doing small things.   Don’t judge too quickly.  See if you can find at least one strength in someone you don’t like.   Consciously look for strengths instead of weakness and change the proportion of strengths you notice compared to weaknesses.  I know, with some people if feels difficult!   Try and think of situations where people’s weaknesses could be a strength.  For instance lacking empathy was helpful to Alan when he fired 2 members of the team that were holding them back and recruited people who helped to lead them to success.

If you meet an Alan today, look for his strength and value and situations where he could make a positive difference.  Notice if he’s happy and engaged, because if he’s not he’s probably not using his strengths.  If he appears “odd” look for the strength that comes with that difference.     Be the person that brings out the brilliance and potential in people like Alan.  We’re not going to change how we interact overnight but a small change in focus could make a big difference.


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