Picture this: a dark office room with the lights turned off, a bunch of people sitting in a circle, mostly ladies in their forties, and me, a seventeen-year-old. The room is silent, everyone in the circle all seemingly rapt in concentration.

And the object of our focused attention? A flickering candle.

The candle is in the centre of our circle. We are trying, or at least supposed to be trying, to put the flame of the candle out from where we're sitting with the power of our minds. This was what the lady in charge told us to do before she turned off the lights.

We are not in a cult or even a psychic society of some sort. We are, in fact, in a Marks and Spencer* training exercise, part of what was apparently an award-winning training programme.

This actually happened to me several years ago. I applied for a job as store assistant at M&S and passed the interview. A week of training was required before the job, and this candle was part of that training. We were told to sit in a circle by the lady in charge, who then placed the candle in the centre, lit it, and as i mentioned above, told us to put it out from where we were sitting with the power of our minds. Ignoring our looks and murmurs of incomprehension she told us to be quiet and focus, then proceeded to turn off the lights and left us to it.

I'm sure at this point the same thoughts crossed all our trainee minds: what on earth is happening? We were training to be store assistants. Even if it wasn't written explicitly in the job description, we understood our job to involve monotonous labour and beaming at customers while they hurl abuses at you, and numbers and tills and prices and S, M, L and XL. This was what we signed up for. We knew our places in the food chain and The Machine, we knew what our jobs would be. So, and I would say understandably, we did not expect to have to employ our psychic powers. I do believe it wasn't in the job description.

By the flickering light of the candle we could just about make out each other's eyebrows climbing over our foreheads with astonishment at what we had just been asked to do. We waited for someone to say it was just a joke, but no one did. The atmosphere was somewhat eerie.

Maybe a cult has taken over M&S, I thought. Maybe we've been chosen for our untapped supernatural abilities, and we've been thrown together in a room to wreak psychic havoc on the world. Or the stock market - M&S wasn't doing that well at this point. Maybe M&S was just a front all along, like that law firm in Angel...

I broke from my reverie and looked up to see that everybody else seemed to have settled down and got on with the task. They looked focused, these ladies. And a group of forty-year-old ladies - that's a lot of power there. I had to respect that and stop sending out negative vibes. I didn't know if they were familiar with The Force. Perhaps they were. I should not disrupt its flow.

Besides, I was an agnostic. I'd always liked to believe that there's something supernatural out there. Who was I to say it's impossible?

With a shrug, I too started to focus. I wanted this flame to go out. We wanted this flame to go out. Our will would triumph.

The flame did not go out. It danced its flickering dance on the tip of the candle, as if taunting us, but it did not go out.

This went on for about fifteen minutes. It might have been longer - it did feel like a long time passed us by - but when you're engaging in psychic activities you do not pay attention to such trivial concepts as time. The Lady In Charge (I feel I somehow ought to capitalise her by this point) then turned on the light. "You should've done this," she said. She then proceeded to demonstrate what we should've done.

She walked up to the candle and blew the fucking flame out.

As we stared at her in disbelief, she explained. "Here at Marks and Spencers we like you to take your own initiative and not simply follow orders blindly. To think outside the box.**" She had on her usual charming smile as she said this, but you could see, sense, the smugness. You could see her thinking, another bunch of idiots.

I do not know the point of this story. I do not know the point of the exercise. I do not know to this day whether I was stupid or the exercise was stupid, or both.

Maybe you'd like to think you would've acted differently. Regardless, you've read this and now you are prepared - should you face this training exercise in the future, and I'm sure many companies use it - it's an award-winning training exercise, remember? - you can walk right up to the flame and blow the fucker out with a flourish and not look like an idiot. Hell, maybe they'll even promote you to manager straightaway.***



*I've nothing against M&S - they were very understanding when I started having some personal problems which meant I didn't even make it past the training week. Plus they make great cold meals. They had a silly training scheme, that is all.

**That phrase should be banned from the English language.

***I'm not bitter.

oakling says that's some fucked up shit! the first time i read that, i was like "ok, weird corporate mind tricks. good to know." now i think probably if someone blew the candle out they'd be pissed off at whoever exposed their little trick. i read that writeup to a friend of mine and she commented on the weird messages involved in "we're TELLING you to think outside the box." like, everything they really did in that exercise was to teach you that they have weird expectations and that even doing what they say isn't good enough; they don't really want you to think outside any box.

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