Forged In Crisis

Nothing will ever be the same again. How we think about ourselves, our families, our friends. How we connect, how we work. What we value, whom we value. What we’re prepared to sacrifice or forego, and what fulfils a basic need.

This will be how our time is remembered. Everything will be pre- or post- in a way that we can’t comprehend and could never have imagined. Any more than people living in the 1920s and 1930s could have imagined their time would be talked about as “between the wars”. [Imagine the dread, if they had known – that after the devastation of “The Great War” as they knew it, there was another to come…]

With such a seismic shift, and a world economy that will take years to recover, the business decisions we make will also change. Businesses that have just hung on will find the road ahead a tough and bumpy one. Even seemingly strong organisations may find that their customers have moved on, priorities changed. Jobs that seemed “essential” in their own way before may simply cease to exist.

Across our country we are already seeing that small businesses are really struggling. The independent coffee shop which may not ever open their doors again, the small theatre, the local pub.

And even the big boys will creak, across the board. Of course we’ll lose a couple of high street stores which were holding on by their fingertips anyway; maybe an airline or two won’t make it back. But every business will be affected. There will be unemployment – already we see people who used to walk down the aisles of intercontinental aeroplanes stacking shelves in the aisles of the local supermarket.

It doesn’t feel like a time for trying something new, for innovation. Certainly not a time for risk. It’s a fact of life that, in times of financial struggle, many companies – big and small – will be tempted, encouraged, mandated even, to “play safe until things settle down”.

Let’s go with what we know. Don’t rock the boat. Low risk, yeah?

In this context, is there time or space to be thinking about this diversity stuff? Really, shouldn’t we just come back to that when things are a little more settled?

Especially when it was kind of hard to practically implement anyway…

And we’ve all done the unconscious bias training and had those rainbow flags up for Pride month…

Hmm…

In her book Forged In Crisis [it’s very good, I’d read it if I were you] Harvard history professor, Nancy Koehn, describes crisis as a “crucible” for courageous leadership in turbulent times, where the means may be flexible but the end has more dedication and determination than ever. Great leaders are born from necessity in a crisis.

And innovation is born from crisis and tension too. The Renaissance (French for “re-birth”, of course), an explosion of art, literature, and learning across Europe, came out of the crucible of a culturally barren and brutally war-torn Middle Ages. The incredible advanced of the second half of the last century came, in part at least, out of the crucible of a world decimated by two wars.

Our world is shaped by its crises. Always has been. Ask the dinosaurs.

Perhaps in a world where everything is new and different and nothing will ever be the same again… perhaps that’s actually somewhere that we need new thinking, new ideas? New ways of solving new problems?

So in this context, isn’t the real risk in trying to recreate the old? In reverting to what used to work, what used to make sense, before everything changed?

When everything is up in the air, the ability to adapt to ambiguity is the most precious quality we can hope to find. Innovation isn’t about sameness, it’s about newness – new thinking, new outlooks, new ideas. You don’t get that by trying to recreate, reverting to conservative, non-inclusive, type. You get that by embracing inclusive thinking, creating the environment for a diversity of ideas to flourish.

We all know that it’s difficult to make room for diverse thinking – it takes time, and effort, and active decisions, and it often comes down to committed individuals driving initiatives on their own time, crowd-sourcing/funding their activities, using their own energy.

So this is a time that those committed individuals should look to assemble like-minded people around them, to connect, convince and then collaborate in new ways. To lead us out from this crucible.

A clever dude with a beard* once said:

It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change

*Sir Charles Darwin, On the Origin of the Species, 1859

Responsive to change, eh?

Hmm.

Feels like right now we might actually need a bunch of people with different ways of seeing the world to help shape a new world, doesn’t it?

Now, dear leader… go and lead.

We are all animals

Imagine the situation – you’re in a whimsical conversation with a group of people, and someone asks “If you were an animal, what animal would you be?”. It’s a classic question. What’s your answer? A bear, because you’re strong but cuddly? An eagle, because you’d like to float over the world seeing things from on high? A sloth, because you’re incurably lazy and haven’t cut your fingernails for a year?

Well when I’m asked this question, I’ve developed a habit of saying “I’d be a 40-something male human”.

Partly I give this answer because I’m a clever-dick/smart ass [delete as appropriate for your geography] and take a kind of weird pleasure in being pedantic and low-level irritating [a trait I inherited from my old man along with various other things including gout – thanks so much Dad!], but partly I give it because it reveals a simple, irrefutable truth that we often choose to forget about ourselves:

We are animals.

And that’s what our current crazy situation has reminded me. That when you strip it all away, in a way that we tend not to do, you land on perhaps the plainest truth of all.

We are all just animals.

We are strategically shaved monkeys, and despite everything we have built up around ourselves over the last few thousand years we’re at the whim of a miniscule little virus. We can’t see it, we can’t fight it.

We have little computers in our pocket which can tell us any fact on earth within a minute or two [just think about that for a second – it really is incredible isn’t it?] and we’ve developed a society where we all know where to stand on the escalator and how to order a very, very particular kind of coffee with a particular kind of milk and even a particular way to make that milk hot and put it in the coffee.

But all of that means nothing in the face of that fact that we are the same animals we always were, just as vulnerable to a tiny little virus as our ancestors were thousands of years ago. As our descendants will be in thousands of years to come.

And as animals – simple, needs-driven animals – Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tell us we first need food and shelter, then safety (personal, economic, psychological) and so on.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs | Simply Psychology
Maslow, A.H. (1943). “A theory of human motivation”. Psychological Review. 50(4): 370–96.

But in a developed country today the lower levels are, for most at least, all ticked off. Not only do we have “shelter”, we have spare rooms, underfloor heating, an app to turn on the heating before we get home.

So we create a new world of needs around us. We convince ourselves that we ‘need’ a pizza with cheese in the crust, a haircut, that new pair of Nikes, a phone with a better camera. Faster wifi, better holidays, a bigger house.

And then it’s all stripped away, by a tiny little invisible virus that closes our society down within a matter of weeks. Can’t get the pizza delivered. No point in the new Nikes if there’s nowhere to go and no one to show.

If this weird time has done anything for us, it’s taken us back to basics, exposing the real needs in our lives.

The need to get out of our homes, if only for an hour a day, to get our fix of fresh air, exercise, nature.

The need to connect with friends or families, virtually as we can’t do it in person.

The need to show our support for each other, be that through clapping into the quiet night air or by singing across balconies or by picking up medicines for those who can’t get out.

Think about these – they’re all, in their own way, a little rebellion against the feeling of having our freedom curtailed. Like any animal, we’re not happy in a cage – even an imaginary cage made of social responsibility and societal peer pressure which is protecting us from potential danger.

As animals, there’s no question that we’ve got too big for our boots. Drugged by the intoxicating idea that we are special – as individuals and as a species – and have some kind of right to have whatever we want.

So this is a unique time to reassess what is really valuable to us, and re-evaluate how we’ve been living our lives. To really establish what our true needs are, as communal animals. Because we’ve been shown that we only function as part of a wider society.

And we all need that society. In its true sense: the word comes from the Latin ‘socius’ meaning companion. Companionship, togetherness, collaborative association with others.

Surely we can come out of this with more balance than we came into it, right?

Less hubris, more humility. Less ‘me’, more ‘we’.

Yes we are all animals. Yes, individually we are vulnerable, weak, susceptible. But together, we have shown we can love and protect each other and build civilisations the like of which our ancestors could never have imagined.

And what we build from here? Well, that’s down to us to decide from this point on. Let’s not forget what feels important to us right now.

Take care. Be safe. Stay inside. Stop touching your face.

A new normal?

We’re all feeling it. That feeling that the world has got smaller. All it takes is a couple of weeks of self-isolation and suddenly the idea of meeting some friends, or out to see a gig, or even to go further than walking distance from your house… it all seems like a wild dream after too much blue cheese [true story – started happening to me about 5 years ago].

The restrictions on our lives, the lack of human contact, the worry about what might happen if we were to venture out: it’s all-consuming and there doesn’t seem like there’s an end in sight.

Week one was all about adjusting to the “new normal”.

Week two and the novelty has worn off a bit as we realise that we’re going to be like this for a while.

But there’s no way it can last more than a few weeks, right? I mean, people just won’t put up with it for much longer, right?

Every high street in Britain, every day

That’s the narrative we’re hearing. Even if leaving the house might endanger people’s lives or the lives of the people they love, it’s become an accepted truth that those people simply will not comply for very long at all. They’ll get bored. Stir crazy.

Just a couple of weeks into all this, with the prospect of many, many more to come, and we’re all going nuts about a situation which some people have to deal with all the time.

Millions of people around the world are effectively house-bound for all kinds of reasons – old age, chronic illness or injury, mental health – all the time. Not for a couple of weeks, but for weeks and weeks and weeks on end. Even for ever.

That’s isolation.

Some people don’t ever get visitors. Some people can’t ever go for a walk. Some people can’t ever even face the idea of human contact, or even going outside at all.

Here’s what this made me think of…

A couple of years back, the New York office of the agency for which I work (CDM) did an amazing project for a young boy called Peyton. He was 10 at the time, and because of a rare skin condition he couldn’t go out in sunlight without developing skin cancer. Imagine that, for a 10-year-old kid, unable to go outside with his friends? Never able to go to the open-air swimming pool with everyone else?

What they did for this kid was incredible. Working with all the residents of the small Midwest town in which Peyton lives, they “turned night into day” – without him knowing, they organised the whole town to come out as a sun went down to show their support for this one small boy – a huge barbeque, a marching band, high fives from the local pastor [feelin’ American Midwest enough for ya?] an announcement from the mayor, and the swimming pool floodlit and open to Peyton and all his friends, playing up to the camera just like every other 10-year-old in the world.

Once you’ve finished reading this [and not before – I am watching you] I urge you to go and watch the film of this here – it’s just beautiful, heart-wrenching stuff and if you don’t shed a single tear whilst watching it you have no soul.

They did this to highlight that people living with rare diseases – people like Peyton – have restrictions every single day. They will have for his whole life. We can’t go to the shops for a couple of weeks and we’re freaking out.

This crazy time has changed a lot of things – about how we’re working, how we’re connecting, how we’re becoming part of our communities.

If someone had said they wanted to work from home because of a disability a month or two ago I know for a fact that most employers would have totally discounted it as completely unworkable. Today we’re all doing it.

If someone had said that we should be looking out for the vulnerable in our community, checking in with them, offering to shop for them or just ring for a chat, I know that most of us would have thought “yeah, but I don’t really have the time myself”. Today, we’re creating community WhatsApp groups to make sure everyone’s covered.

Maybe, just maybe, this shitty little virus will have left us with something more than antibodies. Maybe we’ll be left with a new sense of empathy, and even some important new ways of working and connecting along the way.

Maybe when all this eventually blows over – and for sure, this too shall pass – maybe we’ll remember the feeling of having our lives, our choices impacted by something we couldn’t control.

And maybe we’ll give a little more thought to those for whom this isn’t the “new normal”: this is the same old normal as ever, just without being able to get a food delivery or any bog roll.

Now go watch “Good Morning Peyton”, and y’all stay safe now, y’hear?

Going viral

Last week as a birthday treat to myself [yeah, last Friday actually – not too late to send me a thoughtful yet expensive gift – I also accept PayPal] I got the new book The Rules of Contagion which has (totally coincidentally) just come out. It’s about how viruses spread. I know, right?

[In fact, it’s such a perfect time to publish a book like this that you can’t help wondering if it’s either a) someone very very quickly cashing in on a global pandemic/panic or b) that they actually started coronavirus in order to ensure people bought their book. But apparently neither are the case.]

Anyway, the book focuses around the concept of the R value, standing for the ‘reproductive value’, which basically mean the number of people that a single person with an infection will subsequently infect. Once the R value is below 1 – so that each infected person infects less than one other person (on average) – the virus starts to disappear.

For our new chum the coronavirus, that number is apparently somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5, the lower end of which is about the same as our normal seasonal flu. One seems to be that people can have mild (or even, as in the case of Idris Elba, pretty much no) symptoms which makes it more likely to get about, and old or infirm people get it really bad. But all in all, 1.5-3.5 is where it lands. There is a massive impact in the difference between those numbers, but that’s for another time…

[It does make me wonder about that guy who managed to infect 28 other people in New York – what was he doing, licking their eyes right after playing with his pet bat?]

The other part of the book – the part that gets really interesting for a behavioural scientist like me [posh name for a Psychology degree but hey, it’s my blog, right?] is that it’s not just a virus itself that will spread through contagion. So can information (or misinformation) about that virus can too, just in the same way, this time not through handshakes but through our “social” connections online, leading to worry and panic and eventually supermarkets being stripped clear of toilet paper like a corn field after a plague of locusts.

This got me thinking about the “super-spreader” of harmful misinformation that is Andrew Wakefield the ex-Etonian [really, again? What do they teach in that bloody place??] now disgraced and struck-off doctor who published a paper in 1998 claiming a link between the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine and autism.

It’s now claimed the whole thing was a money-making scam (he allegedly had his own patent for a ‘rival vaccine’) but regardless of his motives his research has been totally discredited and outside of a weird anti-vax bubble he’s a pariah… and yet the anti-vax movement is still raging, 22 years later, with overall vaccination rates (which need to be at 95% to protect us from outbreaks) down to 90.3% in 2018-19 in the UK. In some communities – more middle class and supposedly educated – it’s way lower. And guess what? Yep, measles is back. Measles can leave kids blind. It can kill. For immunosuppressed adults, it’s bloody dangerous. Well done dickhead.

Disinformation is a virus.

So is hate, abuse, division. And now our “social” networks spread these just as a handshake might spread coronavirus.

Look at Twitter (and Facebook to some degree, but as it’s less anonymous it’s less poisonous) and you’ll see the viruses being spread. They infect our world based on someone’s R value.

Which is why the Donald’s and Piers’ of this world are super-spreaders too. In their own selfish little way.

But wait…

If these “social” places do spread these negative feelings like viruses… couldn’t they also be used to spread something positive?

Over the last few days, Facebook has been full of people looking out for each other, setting up groups to offer help to strangers, sharing links to resources. As well as the cesspool which will always be full of shite on Twitter, there are pockets of love and kindness and connection between people who’ve never met.

This is community. This is society. There’s no time for division when we’re under attack from something we can’t see.

So let’s connect more, care more, include more than we ever have before. Isolate, sure, but do it with open arms and big hearts. Build bridges. Build connections. Seek to understand, to empathise.

See how compassionate you dare to be today.

What’s your R value? Go, spread love.

This too shall pass

Since Tuesday of last week, I’ve been in “self-isolation”. It started with having a high temperature on Tuesday morning, followed by generally feeling pretty crap for the next few days, including an annoying [dare I say “persistent”?!] cough for a couple of days too as well as feeling ridiculously tired all the time. It went from just ‘having a cold’ to “being in self-isolation” on about Thursday when the advice from the UK government around coronavirus changed…

So, have I had coronavirus?

Honestly, I haven’t a clue. If I had to put money on it I’d say ‘no’ because I really don’t think I’ve been that ill. But if this new virus chum of ours isn’t that bad for [relatively!] fit and healthy people under 60 then maybe I have. But I reckon probably not.

But suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, we’re in the middle of a disaster movie from the mid-noughties, where things seem to be changing so quickly and really no one knows what the hell is going to happen.

Suddenly it doesn’t matter who you are or where you live. It doesn’t matter how much hand sanitizer you haven’t got or how much toilet paper you have. It doesn’t matter whether you think this is all going to go away like bird flu or smash through us like Spanish flu, because you’re going to be on the receiving end of what happens. Just like me, just like everyone.

[I’m sorely tempted to go down a rabbit hole where I point out that the virus doesn’t discriminate between gender, race, sexual preference, etc etc and that this show’s we’re all fundamentally just people, but I think that could end up with me celebrating a killer virus for its inclusivity credentials and whilst somewhat entertaining and whimsical I’m not sure that’s helpful for anyone…]

Okay, before I get too nihilistic, let’s consider something else, shall we?

The very first of the three Universal Truths in Buddhist teaching* is that everything is impermanent and ever-changing. To me, that seems pretty irrefutable for every possible subject: societal, social, biological, ecological, intellectual. Everything is changing, and will always change. Nothing is permanent.

Yet we wander through this world like we’re the end of evolution; like this society we’ve created around us represents civilisation is at its peak.

We’re not. And it’s not.

In evolutionary terms, our wonderful, fascinating, challenging civilisation doesn’t even register.

One day all the cities we’ve built will be found by the archaeologists of the future. Don’t believe me? Ask the Pharaohs, or the Greeks, or the Aztecs.

In fifty years the idea of social media will be laughable. I mean, we already raise a smile about MySpace or AskJeeves and they were only a few years back.

And next year we’ll look back at coronavirus, or COVID19 [sounds scarier but less interesting to me] and say “that was crazy, wasn’t it”.

“So what’s the point of all this Bartlett”, I hear you cry, “are you saying all life is ultimately futile because we’re all just dust in the wind?”

No. No I’m not.

I’m saying that whatever difficulties lie ahead – and difficulties there will be, of that we can be certain – you should just remember that impermanence, summed up so beautifully by one simple old Middle Eastern saying:

This too shall pass

This too shall pass – in Persian [apparently – blame Google if this isn’t right]

There will be a day when we look back at all this.

Perhaps we’ll sigh and say “remember all the fuss and nonsense about how it was going to end the world?”. Perhaps we’ll say “do you remember when we thought we’d be starting up sporting events in just a few weeks?”. And there will definitely be people who say “we’re never going to get through all this toilet paper”.

But until that day comes all we can do is remember to look out for each other, trust each other, care about each other. It’s how we’ve all got to where we are, and it’s how we’ll get from here to wherever the hell we’re going from here.

Take care x

*If you’re interested in learning a bit about Buddhism, you couldn’t do much better in my view than reading the fascinating book Why Buddism Is True by Robert Wright. It’s all about how ancient Buddhist teachings about the idea of ‘self’ align with modern neuroscience and psychology, and gave me an interesting perspective that’s allowed me to let go of a little of my personal angst along the way. Yes, this is the kind of shit I read for fun. Yes I know that’s a bit weird.

Time flies

We all know the feeling of time just flying past. Every year, around September, offices all over the world are filled with conversations about how they can’t believe that it’s September already and hasn’t the year gone quickly and it’ll be Autumn/Spring soon (deleted as geographically appropriate).

And I know I’m not alone feeling like this January went way beyond 31 days. When asked, a friend of mine claimed it was the 87th of January with everyone around giving a “I know, right?” sigh or tut or roll of the eyes.

A meeting about the timeline for a project which seems to go on FOR EVER.

That same project a month later when there’s suddenly a week to go and where the hell did all the time go?

And it’s something we’ve all experienced since we were kids – the extra half an hour before bed that goes by in a split second; the car journey where it feels like you’re going to get to bloody Greenland before you get to the next motorway junction on the way to the Highlands of Scotland from Cheshire when your dad piled you into the Vauxhall Carlton before dawn to “beat the traffic” [sorry got carried away for a second there].

So how come we all still have an unshakeable certainty in the “fact” that time is this constant, steady, objectively measurable thing? When every single one of us has personally experienced something different to that? It’s the exact opposite of faith – rather than believing in something we can’t prove, here we are disbelieving something we have personal proof of, in our own lives…

I know that according to Einstein time is relative (see here for proof that he was actually right) but I’m talking about a more personal relativity here – time being related to an individual’s own experience of a situation.

[By the way, I do believe that one day people look back at our beliefs about constant, linear time with as much derision as we look at the idea of the flat Earth – as something that people used to believe before we knew more and left such fantasies behind us… wait, what? Seriously?? Oh. Oh dear.]

And here’s the thing – my experience of time isn’t the same as yours. Your hour isn’t the same as mine. It depends on what we’re doing. That’s true even if we’re in the same room.

If I find the subject fascinating and wide-reaching and challenging, then the time we’ve got to talk about it goes way too fast. If you’re thinking it’s all bullshit and you’ve got something more important to be doing, then you can’t believe we haven’t ended yet.

It all related to a single, human truth – something that defines every interaction we have with the world in which we live and the people within it:

Perception is reality.

If I think it’s difficult, it’s difficult for me. The fact that you get it really easily doesn’t change that (and you telling me that really doesn’t help!)

If I think it’s hot in here, I’m hot. The fact that you are cold doesn’t change that.

[If anything, it probably reflects that I’ve spent the last twenty-odd years surrounding myself in a protective layer of fat just in case I fall into the North Sea. Always prepared, that’s me.]

If I think it’s boring, then I’m bored. The fact that you think it’s interesting doesn’t change that

And lo and behold if I’m not silently judging you for not thinking it’s boring when it clearly is because that’s my perception and [all together now]…

Perception is reality

I’m not sure that’s getting us anywhere. So let’s rewind, shall we?

Instead of accepting our own, personal perception as the only reality, how about accepting that everyone has their own perception. Their own reality.

Then how about considering what someone else’s perception might be? Trying to see the things from their perspective, understanding their view of the world?

You have to stop for a moment. It’s not always easy to take a step back from your own reality. It’s not always easy, and it takes a good deal of imagination.

But that’s the start. The start of of connection, of empathy, and ultimately of trust. It’s the start of inclusive thinking, and seeking out diverse perspectives on the world. Not less challenge, but more.

So here’s a call to action for you.

Think of a conflict you’re in at the moment. Find that person and take a minute to ask them to share their perception of the world – without judgement. Accept that, for them, that perception is 100% real and, to them, 100% right. Then share your own.

I can’t promise that it’ll solve things in a minute. But I can promise that it’ll open up a much better conversation than the one you were (or more likely weren’t) having.

And I reckon that’s worth a minute of anyone’s time, right?

My generation

I’ve worked in pharmaceutical and healthcare advertising for 20 years this year. It’s a funny niche of advertising that I sort of stumbled upon, and ever since I did, I’ve been excited and engaged by the challenge of having to create impactful, surprising, charming and beautiful creative advertising and communication… AND do it whilst telling the truth. In a highly regulated market you can’t say you’re “The Real Thing” without proving it, and that intellectual rigour is something that has kept me interested all along the way. 

It’s also meant that over the years I’ve met some of the most fascinating people I could imagine – people who can balance deep understanding of science on one side of the brain and passionate creativity on the other. Working with people in whom the left brain and right brain work in harmony has been one of the great pleasures of my working life.

Twenty years is a long time, and yet it’s always surprising when I realise that somehow I’ve gone from being part of a new up-and-coming generation to being part of the establishment, to the point that now many of the leading agencies are led by my contemporaries and former colleagues. 

Just as you don’t notice your own ageing process until you look down at your hands and for a second you see your father’s hands [true story], the shifting of the work generations is imperceptible and gradual but inexorable nonetheless

My actual hand

[Wow that was an unnecessarily complicated sentence wasn’t it? I must squander less time perusing the thesaurus]

It occurs to me that the people I knew from ‘back then’ were people I spent many a long hour chatting with in local pubs putting the world to rights, saying how we’d do things differently when we were in charge.

And now we’re in charge. What are we going to do with that… well… power?

We call it seniority, or authority, or influence, but these are words we use because we shy away from the word… POWER.

We shy away because it’s a word which feels bigger and somehow darker than it should; that it’s more likely to be abused rather than be put to good use. That’s because we know that throughout history, as long as stories have been written, those in positions of power have been intoxicated by it, only thinking how they keep their power, increase it, use it for their own gain.

But you ask my young sons about great power, and they’ll tell you the truth:

Now the idea of “With great power comes great responsibility” probably didn’t start with Spider-Man (if you’re interested it likely dates back to decrees from the French National Convention in 1793) but it’s been repeated over the years by Presidents, Prime Ministers and more recently superheroes because there’s inherent truth in it.

Now I don’t have any superpowers [that I’m going to admit here, anyway] but I do feel the responsibility keenly.

I think we all do.

It’s something to be respected, and lived up to. Now we have that responsibility. There’s no excuse not to do the right thing if the right thing is there to be done. We said we’d do things differently if it were down to us, and now it is. Let’s make these places into the places we’ve always wanted to work, shall we?

I look at my contemporaries and see the leaders of our industry in the future. I see the people coming through and I know they see the value of an inclusive, caring, supportive environment where individuality is celebrated because that’s the stuff we all talked about back then.

And I don’t just mean the people I personally spent time in the pub with (although there are a fair few of those) but the people of my generation.

We are coming through and we are bringing with us new thinking and new ideas that are coming, slowly and surely, just as my hands turn into my father’s and his hands turn into his father’s [again, true story].

An idea whose time has come eh?

That’s quite some responsibility.

One I’d be happy to chat over any time.

What the hell am I doing here?

If you want an example of not ‘belonging’ [see previous blog] then you’d be hard-pressed to get something more heartfelt, more forlorn, than the words of Radiohead’s quietly building then scorchingly angst-ridden debut single released in the autumn of 1992.

[If you don’t know it then a) shame on you and b) please take a few minutes to acquaint yourself with a cracking example of early 90’s defiant melancholy here]. 

I was 17 when it came out, and I can remember smashing around crap nightclubs on the outskirts of Stoke-on-Trent with my mate Nobby (amongst other reprobates) singing the words out like they had been written for us.

Ironically, that was somewhere we did feel we belonged – where we did ‘dance like nobody’s watching’ (whilst probably secretly hoping that people were actually watching – I was 17, remember?).

But “I don’t belong here” is a phrase we all recognise. Something we all know.

You can call it imposter syndrome if you like – that feeling that one day someone’s going to work out that you’re actually pretty new to all this, and you probably don’t know as much as other people do who might actually have experienced something of the world and whilst we’re on the subject what makes you think you have the right to have a point of view anyway when you should just be minding your privilege and leaning out rather than taking centre stage again and again and again like the bloody egotist you are…

[Whoops, I think my own insecurities might have slipped out for a second there. Do excuse me]

It’s a fact that despite all the work I’ve done, all the conversations, all the learning, I’m still not really feeling I belong in this arena of inclusivity and diversity. Despite the fact that everyone I’ve met along the way have been bloody lovely, and that more recently I’m being asked for my opinion about things, I still don’t feel like I know enough to have an opinion really.

Part of that is because there’s an inherent tension in giving a point of view about a subject which you observe from the outside. I’ve talked before about my privilege and how I see my role in inclusivity conversations in relation to that, but just because I’ve got my head round it doesn’t mean that the tension just goes away. I just have to push through it.

But by doing that, I can find myself in conversations that I don’t just think I know nothing about, I can find myself in conversations that I actually don’t know anything about.

I can’t begin to know how years of feeling like the world is stacked up in the favour of another group that isn’t you slowly starts to build up, getting heavier and heavier with every thoughtless question or comment or look until you’re carrying around the whole thing all the time and it’s just… fucking… exhausting.

I can only imagine what that must be like.

But I can imagine.

I might not know anything about what it is that you’re going through, but I do know that imagination is the start of empathy, and empathy is the start of compassion, and compassion is really the only thing that is going to make our world a better place. That’s what makes us reach out, and connect.

I can only imagine.

And perhaps that, my friend, is what the hell I’m doing here.

So maybe, just maybe, because of that… maybe I actually do belong here too.

Time To Talk Day: my anxiety

Today is Time To Talk day in the UK. It’s part of the Time To Change campaign (https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/) which aims to change the way people think and act about mental health problem, led by the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness.

It does what it says on the tin really – a day where people are encouraged to be more open about their own mental health, talk about the mental health of others and try, piece by piece, to remove the stigma that exists around mental health issues. At home and at work.

I’ve always been able to handle a lot of stress. Even when things are kicking off, I can get through okay. Maybe a bit tetchy with people at work, snappy or grumpy (or just plain exhausted) at home, perhaps lose a bit of sleep here and there. Still able to have a joke and a laugh, just maybe a little unpredictable I guess. I’m sure I’m like a lot of people in that when I’ve got a lot on it’s tough to turn off or relax, especially when you’re going through all the possible scenarios in your head and they get worse each time you do it! Nothing a couple of glasses of wine before bed won’t help eh?

Yup. That’s been me, for as long as I can remember.

Sometimes it takes something big to change the way you see the world. A birth, a death. Perhaps love.  For me it was a little post on Facebook whilst on a business trip somewhere in Germany.

A little context…

For a good few months, I’d been rolling through the mantra at the top – I’m fine, just got a lot on, nothing I can’t handle, etc etc, you know the drill.  I was almost snapped out of that one morning early last year.  I’d woken up in the middle of the night, work stuff rattling through my head like an old train, unable to get back to sleep and getting more annoyed about the fact that I couldn’t sleep because I was thinking about work and all that. So rather than wrestling with the bed clothes and waking my wife I decided to just quietly get up, get dressed in the dark, and go to work. 

I live about 90 minutes from the office door to desk, and I was at that desk by about half 6. God knows what time I woke up originally, but by mid-afternoon I was grumpy as hell and dead on my feet.  I got home that evening and my wife asked me what time I’d left and I’d explained the night time scenario. I could see her worried face and tried to reassure her.

“I’m not stressed out, I just can’t stop thinking about things and I’m finding it hard to sleep”.

To which she quite rightly replied: “that is stress, you idiot”.

Hmm. Maybe I’ll have a think about that.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and I’m sitting on a perfectly on-time, quiet and non-rattling train going through the German countryside, alongside a colleague and [dare I say it] friend [yes I dare]. It’s the end of a long day and I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed, wondering why I’m friends with people on Facebook with whom I’m not actually friends in real life, and wondering if I should just immediately unfriend anyone who uses #hashtags on Facebook post (#holiday #celebrate #blessed #lovemylife) when I come across this…

It’s like I’ve been slapped in the face.

I read the list again. I can tick off maybe a dozen of these without thinking about it. Another handful if I do.

I turn to my amigo/co-worker and show him.

“This is me”, I say.

Those words, on that train, were the start of a journey of my own. The very first step was admitting to myself that being really, really good at dealing with lots of stress whilst simultaneously hiding it isn’t the superpower that I thought it was. 

In fact, it’s bloody Kryptonite.

Left unacknowledged, unspoken and undercover, that stress can damage everything I hold dear – my work, my family and ultimately my life.

I won’t bore you with the details of precisely what happened next, but the first step for me was talking. Talking to colleagues, friends, my wife [hey honey – how’s your day going?], then my GP, then a counsellor. Then back to my GP and since the beginning of last year I’ve been on some medication which I’ve found really helps.

[By the way, it’s still a massive deal to “admit” that I’m on medication to help with my anxiety, because of some weird stigma and shame that exists about it. Perhaps I’ll unpack that in a separate post…]

Nearly 2 years on I’m a lot more content, more calm, more connected with the world around me, with myself and with my emotions than I ever thought possible. Sure, I still get nervous about things, and I still get pissed off about things – I’m human, not superhuman, remember? – but I know I’ll never confuse a superpower with Kryptonite so easily again.

And every single person I’ve told has been totally supportive. Just like I would be if it were the other way round. Turns out quite a few people feel the same. I know, right?

So over time, I’ve started talking about it more openly with my agency friends and family too. Because if I can show that I struggle sometimes, it makes it “okay to not be okay” and, hopefully, we can support each other through all the stressful times with a bit more honesty and vulnerability.

And I know I’m still on the journey I started that day, and that I probably always will be. That’s okay. That’s my decision and something I’m proud of, in a weird way.

But what I will say is this:

If you’re reading any of this thinking “fuck, that’s me”, then this is your slap in the face. From me to you.

You’re welcome.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Remember that the very first step is to talk.

And given that it’s #TimeToTalk day, maybe that’s something you might consider doing today?

Talk to someone who cares about you – a friend, a partner, a colleague – and you’ll find that they will be just as kind and thoughtful as you would be if they came to you.

Best of luck, and please, do take care of yourself.

The Four Conversations

And so it came pass that on Friday of last week I went to the PM [Pharmaceutical Marketing] Society Awards 2020 – the biggest annual awards show for my bit of the industry, where clients and agencies come together at a posh London hotel, dampen their Dry January, listen to the celeb compère and comedy turn who’ve been booked for the afternoon and then wander round catching up with former colleagues and co-workers. 

And the winner is…

This is an event I’ve been going to for twenty years [more on the seismic generational shift of that in a future blog!], but this is the first time when there’s been an explicit focus in my job, my title and my role, on inclusivity and diversity… and the first time since I’ve been writing this blog and sharing my thoughts out into the world. Perhaps unsurprising then, that all of this became the focus of so many conversations I had in the day.

What was surprising was the kind of conversations – or more accurately, the themes those conversations fell into. Four clear, distinct themes, with four distinct groups.

I’ll call them The Supporter, The Convert, The Cynic, and The Conspirator. Let me introduce you to them… and the four conversations that came with them…

The Supporter Conversation

This was heart-warming. A diverse mix of people – in age, race, background and gender – who were kind enough to tell me that they had seen what I’ve been doing and wanted to offer me their encouragement and support. Some I knew well, some less so. But all passionate and enthusiastic and earnest, and many saying that they had been reading some of this stuff over the last couple of months.

Every time I spoke to a Supporter I had a wide-ranging and thoughtful conversation full of determination about the future. Without fail, they made my day better.

The Convert Conversation

Not sure if the nomenclature is quite right, but The Convert is part of a group of people whom I’ve known for a while, since we were in less inclusive, less forward-thinking times and organisations. When we were led by the generation before us, some of whom held beliefs and exhibited behaviours then which would be totally unacceptable and inappropriate now.

The Convert Conversations were about what life used to be like. Men and women, we talked about our past lives with bewilderment really – the stuff we saw or heard but didn’t say anything. About how much we should judge our younger selves for not doing or saying more at the time. How we had grown and learnt and how we would do things now we had the opportunity.

Again, they were good conversations. Mutually supportive and full of care for each other. Full of optimism too about where we’ve come from and where we’re going.

The Cynic Conversation

This one I’ve come across before. Usually male (although in my experience not exclusively), and usually a little older (although again not exclusively), and usually someone I don’t really know that well. Or perhaps thinks they know me better than they actually do…

The Cynic Conversation usually starts with a “I’ve seen you doing all this diversity stuff…?” type of non-question, and from there it develops into them saying how inclusivity is a “very clever move”, or a “good thing to align yourself with”, or good for my “personal brand”. All with a nod and a wink, like getting into this was all part of a career master plan. Perhaps something I’m interested in, but more for self-serving reasons than anything else. Distrustful and disparaging.

This, I find, is the bloody difficult part of being an “ally” – particularly one who is the “Default Man” (from Grayson Perry’s book I mentioned in a previous blog). Usually it’s people who are from a minority group who are interested in minority groups, right? So there must be an angle I’m working… an ulterior motive. Right?

I know this is a conversation that’s going nowhere because it’s not for me to convert The Cynic. But it is an opportunity for me to reaffirm my beliefs. I know why I’m passionate about this – personally and for my agency – and inclusive, authentic and vulnerable leadership is where I’m going anyway.

The Co-Conspirator Conversation

The Conspirator (or to be precise, The Mistaken Would-Be Co-Conspirator) exclusively male, exclusively white, usually a little older (but not necessarily), usually someone I used to work with in some capacity and who (usually a few of drinks in, when the alcohol has thinned the blood just enough) feel they can put a sweaty arm round the neck, pull me in and say something like:

“What’s all this diversity crap about? What a load of old bollocks eh? I suppose we all have to do it now don’t we? But bloody hell, everyone’s a minority nowadays aren’t they – except us white middle-aged men?! Can’t say anything to anyone now with all this political correctness stuff – I guess you haven’t got a choice eh? But we know what’s really important, don’t we? Anyway see you later yeah?”

Like I’m going to agree. Agree that it’s all just a show. That I’m playing the game whilst thinking the opposite. I mean, who the hell would do that?

And even if they did, would they write a bloody blog about it every week to double down on the deception??

I never say anything in this one. I’m not there as part of a conversation, I’m there as a leaning post. I’m not sure anything I could say would make a blind bit of difference. Perhaps in time I’ll find the right words, but right now all I’ve got is “why don’t you just fuck off?” and I’m not sure that level of confrontation is a good look in front of the whole industry. So I just wait for the end, and let them barrel off somewhere else.

It’s a mixed bag, I think you’ll agree! 

From the life-affirming and motivating, the forward-looking and hopeful to the saddening and infuriating, the downright annoying and prickly. The whole spectrum of ideas in one afternoon, in a posh hotel somewhere in London.

But do you want to know the good part?

There were a hell of a lot more Supporters and Converts than anything else. Only a couple of Cynics, and about the same of Conspirator. Much more positive energy than anything else. And that wouldn’t have been the case even three years ago, let alone twenty.

Yes, we are moving forward. Yes there’s a long way to go on all this, and yes, sometimes it feels like things are moving glacially slowly. But we are moving forward.

Thanks for reading. Let’s crack on shall we?