Lessons from The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

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Books / Tuesday

When you hear Jeff Bezos talk about making decisions using a regret minimization framework in one breath, and mention Nobel prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day in another, it’s hard to not make the connections. The novel, based in post WW1 England, reads like a journal of its main character, the old-fashioned butler Stevens. Stevens embarks on a journey along the English countryside and reflects upon his life as a butler – specifically the actions of his old employer, Lord Darlington. At this points, I should mention that while some elements of the book are based on reality, it is a work of fiction.

Stevens use a ton of techniques to mask his regret in having served someone who offends his sense of a good man. While most of us are not going to be an English butler, these are techniques we all use to cover up regrets we have. If you see these popping up in your life too often, it might be time to reflect upon the root causes.

Justifications in hindsight

Stevens recognizes that Lord Darlington’s actions had disastrous effects on the world peace – he was one of the nobility who supported the relaxation of punishments imposed on Germany post The Treaty of Versailles. In the words of Mr. Cardinal, a columnist specializing in witty comments on international affairs, “His lordship (referring to Lord Darlington) has been the most useful pawn Herr Hitler has had in this country for his propaganda tricks”. Yet Steven masks his regret in having served Lord Darlington under the garb of “dignity” and “greatness”.

I refer to that strand of opinion in the profession which suggested that any butler with serious aspirations should make it his business to be forever reappraising his employer – scrutinizing the latter’s motives, analyzing the implication of his views. One need only look at butlers who attempted to put such an approach into practice, and one that will see that their careers came to nothing as a direct consequence. … One simply needs to accept an inescapable truth: that the likes of you and I will never be in a position to comprehend the great affairs of today’s world, and our best course will always be to put our trust in an employer we judge to be wise and honourable.

Of course, Lord Darlington is not “honourable” or “wise”. He continues to act in a way that is dishonorable. When dignitaries from Germany are about to arrive at a conference held at Darlington Hall, Lord Darlington asks Stevens to fire any Jewish staff. And Stevens does so.

Stevens use these justifications to mask the deep regret he feels from having been loyal to a dishonorable man like Lord Darlington. He never challenges his employer, even when he knows his employer is wrong. It reminds me of the Nassim Taleb motto: “If you see fraud and don’t shout fraud, you are a fraud.” You need to be okay with the everyday decisions you are making.

Extreme personal sacrifices in the name of duty

This perhaps hits too close to home for some of the readers. But it’s important to remember that for most people, work is only a part of your life and at the end of the day, your family and your friends are most important. Unfortunately, Stevens fell on the wrong side of this. When his dad (also a butler) is on his deathbed in the middle of a conference at Darlington Hall, Stevens says, “This is most distressing. Nevertheless, I must now return downstairs” Soon after, his dad passed away. His response upon hearing the news? “I see”. He later reasons how he ‘leveled-up’ in his profession that day:

If you consider the pressures contingent on me that night, you may not think I delude myself unduly if I go so far as to suggest that I did perhaps display, in the face of everything, at least in some modest degree a ‘dignity’ worth of someone like Mr Marshall (a famous butler in Stevens’ time). For all its sad associations, whenever I recall that evening today, I find I do so with a large sense of triumph.

What he did shouldn’t be recalled with a sense of triumph – it’s a moment of failure. Failure to recognize what’s truly important.

Another part of this is getting rid of any and all source of joy from your life. When Miss Kenton, another member of Darlington Hall’s staff, catches Stevens reading a romance novel, he’s quick to justify:

The book was, true enough, what might be described as a ‘sentimental romance’. There was a simple reason for my having taken to perusing such works; it was an extremely efficient way to maintain and develop one’s command of the English language. I would not have wasted one moment on them were it not for these aforementioned benefits.

Dammit – it’s okay to be reading a romance novel!

There are several such moments in the book when Stevens makes large sacrifices in the name of his profession/duty.


While it’s easy to identify these in a book, I know that they are hard to practice. I’ve made similar mistakes. But hopefully having these at the back of our heads helps us catch them out early and nip them in the bud.

Thanks for reading today’s post! Tomorrow, I’ll be back with a guest post from one of my friends – can’t wait to share their story with you!

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Lessons from Scott Norton – A Summer of Learning

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