Time waits for no man – part one

So there I am. Poised, ready. Coiled like a leopard ready to leap out onto an unsuspecting prey, every muscle tightened in anticipation. I know I’ve planned everything just perfectly, nothing left to chance after weeks – months even – of analysis and adjustment. And as the moment approaches, I can see the people around me shifting uncomfortably, the realisation dawning on them as slowly yet inexorably as the sun rises, that I am the one whose preparation has paid off; who will, today at least, be triumphant. And almost like it was written in the stars, inch by inch the world seems to shift around us all until the inevitable happens.

For in that moment, I am the man who is standing on the exact spot directly where the train door opens. I need not take a single step to my left nor to my right, but simply step forward and in and find the double seat (the golden ticket!!) that my diligence and meticulousness have earned.

Just a few more metres…

And if you’re thinking that is any train door then bless you, dear reader, but you are naïvely mistaken. For that is the train door which, on the other side of the train, will also be the train door nearest to the escalator when I arrive at my destination station.

Prized seconds have been saved ladies and gentlemen! Perhaps even as many as 30 seconds! That’s half a minute!

Until the world stopped last year, this was only one tiny part of my daily military operation.

Every single second accounted for.

If I leave the house at this time and take this route, I can make the station car park in around 16 minutes (depending on traffic, with 14 minutes as my personal best), then park here rather than there because whilst it’s a little further away from the entrance there’s more space to park quickly so it’s actually quicker. Then, if I have 90 seconds or more before the train is scheduled to arrive, that’s just enough grab a coffee from the coffee shop because the guy recognises me and starts making my “flat white, two sweeteners” as I walk towards him and then I tap and go and still make ‘my spot’ on the platform, this time walking up as the train slows to a halt and almost nonchalantly hit my mark so it looks like it’s coincidence (ha!) but you know, dear reader, that this is anything but.

From the train station to the office I pick the route with the least potential for human traffic, and my pass is in the pocket of my rucksack that I can reach without breaking stride and I’m through the revolving door, quick hello to the security guard and through the gate thing and before I press the button for the lift I see if I can check to see if one of the lifts has my floor illuminated so I can just jump in at the last minute.

Another 40 seconds saved! Hallelujah and praise be to the master of time!

All this in order to get to our office space about 45 minutes before the start of the official working day. Nice to be one of the first in, to say hi to the early morning crew and get myself settled in before the rush of the day to come.

And on the way home, I do it all in reverse.

I know that from the time I come out through the doors I can be on a train (not at the station, actually on the train) if I have 13 minutes. Any less than that and I’m into a weird walk-jog-walk-jog thing which I’m not fond of but will resort to if needed because the next train isn’t for twenty minutes or something monstrous like that and time waits for no man and time flies and yes of course time is money people time is money.

(Yeah, but is it?)

The week before last, I went into our offices in Central London for the first time since the 9th of March last year. Exactly 1.2 years since I’d done the trip which used to be my daily grind. Something that felt so familiar and so alien at the same time.

To be honest I’d forgotten some of the timings, and I didn’t know how long it would take to get a ticket at the station (season ticket having run out last year of course) so this time I left myself a bit longer.

I drove the same route, but without one eye on the clock.

I parked closer to the entrance because the car park was pretty empty. No need to do my weird walk-jog-walk-jog thing anyway, because I had a bit more time.

It was the same guy at the coffee shop as it had been 14 months and 12 days previously, but as I had more than 90 seconds we had time to chat about how long it had been and laugh about how he’d forgotten everyone’s “regular” because no one came in regularly any more.

I didn’t bother walking to “my spot” on the platform.

My home station on May 18th, 1961 – exactly 60 years and 2 days before my most recent trip on May 20th this year. Honestly hasn’t changed that much really.

The train ride itself was somewhat dystopian but then it was always going to be wasn’t it? The weirdest bit was coming into London and seeing all the landmarks which in times past would have told me precisely where I was and when I needed to get up to get to the doors at the right time, but not really being sure of the order of them. And it didn’t really matter anyway, because the train was empty of course.

Then from the station to the office, it was like nothing had changed.

That massive building still not finished – not that anyone is going to want Central London office space anyway nowadays…
That human traffic zigzagging across the road and pavement, magically avoiding each other like it was a film and we’d all rehearsed our marks and movements to avoid being within the magical (coincidental or conditioned?) 2 metres of each other…
That homeless guy re-selling copies of the Big Issue. In the same place as he ever was. Wait, has he been there every one of those 438 days…?

[Can that be right? That the world stopped for so many, but for so many others it just… didn’t? I think I’ll come back to that one another time…]

My experience of 10 days back brought something sharply to mind, which I’ve been thinking about a lot since. It’s probably obvious to you, of course

What the hell was I thinking, putting so much self-inflicted time-related stress into my life? So much unnecessary tension thinking so intently about the seconds here and there? So much pressure to get it all so tight that the smallest distraction, diversion or delay would scupper the whole thing?

The car driving too slow on my route, the kids taking my spot on the platform by fluke not by hard graft and painstaking preparation; the tourist with the rolling suitcase going across the flow of human traffic. All purposefully messing with my time.

Turning me into the walking tension headache that needed 45 minutes in the office before work started just to unwind, right?

I’m embarrassed at my own stupidity. I know that anxiety can take hold of me sometimes, yet I created this perfect recipe for stress and gobbled it down willingly every day. I guess it took 1.2 years of not doing it to make me realise that I’d been doing it, in some way or another, for the previous 20 years.

Joni Mitchell once sang that

Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?

Joni Mitchell – Big Yellow Taxi

Too true Joni, too true. And once in a while you notice that the thing that’s gone shouldn’t have been something you were holding onto so tightly in the first place.

So from here I’m going to take the pressure out of my own relationship with time. Less saving and making up, and more ensuring I have a some to spare, so if I lose a little here and there I’ll still have enough.

They say that time waits for no man, but it’s waited 20 years to work that out I probably have as much as I need, and more than I gave myself. I’d love it if you could learn from my mistakes a little quicker than that.

Post-COVID uncertainty and the Rumsfeld Paradox

Okay, before I go on, I’m not going to be able to solve all the uncertainty that we all have about the world that will emerge from COVID, like a young polar bear emerging for the first time from the only home it has known, born through a winter of hibernation and squinting at the sunlight reflecting from the pure, blinding nothingness of the frozen tundra tumbling off as far as the eye can see… and further than the mind can imagine.

If anything, I’m going to add in another level of uncertainty. Sorry.

Anyone who tells you they know how these things are going to play out is a charlatan or a confidence trickster. Or possibly a ‘futurist” [I wonder how many of them predicted this eh?]. We’ve never been in anything like this (obviously) and there has been too much change (obviously) and so even if you’re in the “we’ll probably go back to pretty much how things were with maybe a little more working from home” then sorry, but you’re making it up too.

Right now, I probably have about three or four conversations a week with someone about what we think might happen. I don’t mind having them because each one helps me a little to work out what I think I would like to happen, and perhaps give me another couple of questions which I need to ask or answer which would add to the information I’ve got.

But I’m also okay with the fact that I will never have enough information. I can read every article out there and listen to every bit of gossip about what so-and-so agency are doing (most of which turn out to be nothing more than gossip) and do another loads of employee surveys and fill in a thousand templates for the network [true story] and I’d have all the information and it still won’t be enough. Because it won’t be relevant to me, and my team, because we’re not anyone else. As the Smiths once said:

“This one is different because it’s us.”

The Smiths, Hand In Glove

I don’t know about you, but I think a good segue from a 1980s indie band from Manchester would be to immediately cut to a former two-time US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld. Let’s do it!

I’m not going to comment here on the politics of old “Rummy” (as he was affectionately known by people who knew him affectionately) because I don’t know much about them and I’m too lazy to find out. I’m also not going to comment on the fact that between serving as the youngest ever Secretary of Defence under Gerald Ford he worked for various big US pharma companies (my particular niche area of advertising) before then becoming the second oldest Secretary of Defence under George Bush. Again, I know not enough, and care not to find out.

What I am going to pick out from such a busy boy is a comment he made to the US press about the existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq.

[Bear with me we are getting somewhere I promise.]

Rummy said the following:

As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns: the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Do me a favour and read that again. I grant you, it’s tough not to get dragged down by the context and by the fact that it’s another politician avoiding answering another question. But give it another read for me.

There’s actually an incredibly astute, and almost philosophical point. And it’s something I’ve been coming back to quite a lot in the conversations about the future world [you remember, the baby polar bear thing].

Because yes, there’s stuff we know.

We know we can work remotely, and do bloody good work. Arguably we’re more efficient, and if we could all have got rid of the real estate sitting dormant in every major city, we’d have been a shitload more profitable.
We know that we can build, nurture and maintain authentic relationships, with each other and with our clients, despite not being (sometimes never having been) in the same room.
We know that this has taken a toll on people’s mental health and wellbeing and boundaries and the flow from home to work (I don’t like “balance”, but that’s another blog).

And there’s some stuff we know that we don’t know

We know that we don’t know how we’ll feel on inevitably crowded public transport.
We know that we don’t know who’s going to want to work where, and how that’s going to affect how we work as teams together.
We know that we don’t know how we’re going to react to the polar bear situation

But hell, if there isn’t also a load of stuff we don’t know we don’t know.

There are problems that haven’t happened yet.
There are opportunities that we can’t imagine yet.
There might even be new kinds of feelings which come about precisely because of this meta-uncertainty.

We’re not good with uncertainty. It causes stress and as animals we’re not good at dealing with that because the society we’ve built up around us is bigger and more complex than, as animals, we have evolved to deal with.

But I think the existence of the “unknown unknowns” can actually be a source of calm. Forget about the things I don’t know about, there are things that I don’t even know I don’t know yet! Yes it demands that we “adjust the sails” and deal with ambiguity, but is there anything more ambiguous than the year we’ve just done?

Yes it was hard, and remains hard, but we did do it. We made it this far, battered and tired but still we made it. And that tells me that we’ll make it again.

It won’t be how we think it’ll be. But there’s a bit of me that’s interested in finding out what I don’t know.

Routine, in every sense.

Our little habits and routines are crucial parts of our lives. Once we’ve done something the same way a few times, our brains create a kind of short-cut, low-energy running mode which means we can do things whilst only using the minimum of our internal working brain. Brushing your teeth, making a cup of tea, packing the dishwasher. It’s all done on your brain’s equivalent of standby mode.

This can even kick in when we’re doing quite complicated things, too. I’m sure you’ve experienced driving a route you know well “on autopilot” and arriving at the station or your Mum’s house or wherever and thinking “I didn’t really concentrate through any of that” and wondering how it all just happened.

But just happened it did. We’re actually bloody good at it, and it’s really useful, because if we had to think about everything all the time our overworked little ape brains would, without any shadow of a doubt, explode within 30-45 minutes, maximum.

30-45 minutes later…

That routine, that habit, just doing something without thinking – that does more than just save our brain power. It’s that same sense of being on ‘autopilot’ which can bring an element of stability to our lives. The familiarity of getting a coffee at the station every morning, standing in the same place on the platform, walking the same route to the office: yes it’s because “who wants to think about that stuff”, but it’s also familiar, and comfortable. We like that, us humans. We’re simple animals, and we like things to be the same. Same is simple. Same is known. Same is safe.

Ooh, hang on. SAFE. That’s quite a big word, isn’t it? [And I don’t mean just because I put it in ALL CAPS, although I concede that does indeed make it bigger, well done if you spotted that, you get a cash prize of 10p please contact me on MySpace for details].

Feeling safe is really basic to us as animals. Right down towards the bottom of good old Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it’s a foundation of the pyramid, something we need before we can start to think about more lofty ideas. So much so, that once we have that safety, the idea of giving it up can actually make us feel very uncomfortable, very unsure.

Perhaps, when the world is so uncertain, it’s even more important? Because when the world is uncertain that means nothing is the same and won’t be the same again. And if same is safe and the world will never be the same again then that means…

Especially when the world – that place out there, full of masked strangers and signage and arrows and rules and fear – is actually full on proper actually scary in its own right.

So we close in. Our new routines, our new habits, become our new safe. Get it right and it can actually get quite comfortable really. At a stretch you could even convince yourself that it was your decision somehow. A smaller life, more constricted. Habits that keep you safe when the world cannot.

And so we lower our expectations, to the point when the only expectation is to make it through the day, the week. To cope, somehow. To get to the weekend… where we do the same things, in the same places. We stop living and we exist from day to day, week to week. We drink too much, or stop drinking completely because we worry about drinking too much. We wait for something new on Netflix but and we feel the grief of TV bereavement when we finish something we like because that was a habit for a bit and habits make us feel safe.

We didn’t get any snow last week. Not a fucking flake. My social media feeds were full of bloody snowmen and sledges and sublime scenery and we got drizzle, for two days. I was livid. Not because I’m desperate to throw a snowball which by chance hits my younger son Jack right in the face so he starts crying immediately and we have to go home and everyone hates me for the rest of the day (true story) but because it would have been different. A break from the norm. A break from coping, getting by, managing.

Oh brilliant, snow selfie is it mate? Yeah yeah whatever

But then, the same day that every other bugger in the whole country got the snow, we had a power cut. A proper, old fashioned, 1980s power cut!! I was genuinely giddy with excitement! The strange “oh my God where are the candles??” excitement of a power cut! What would we do? Maybe read by candlelight or play a board game? Is it out all over the village – yes look it is, not a light anywhere, I wonder what’s happened…

And then, in the time it’d taken me to find a match and light the first candles, it all came back on. The TV hummed into life; the lights all over the house [All together now: “It’s like Blackpool bloody illuminations in here!”]. Like a cruel joke, the house lights of normality chased the dramatic darkness of difference into the corners and away under the chairs.

And there we all were again, all the people in the village, suddenly right back where we started. In the old routines.

Coping. Getting by. Managing.

Is this life in 2021?

I say this is not good enough.

I say we deserve more than just coping.

I say that the habits we have built may keep us safe but they limit our expectations of life.

If we let our routines become our lives then we let our lives become… routine.

But make the choice to break your habits, to bend your routine, and that life can rush back in. Because it’s always there, ready for you. Life’s dependable like that.

If you’re a regular reader [what, nothing better to do with your time than read the latest emanation from my fragile psyche? You’re very kind, thank you I do appreciate it.], you’ll know that last week I went for a walk in the woods with my friend Joe. Well since then I’ve walked most mornings – this morning with the good doctor once again [hi Joe!].

I don’t go every morning, partly because sometimes it’s pissing it down and I’m not a total maniac, and partly because it’s the lack of routine to it that makes it so refreshing. As well as filling my lungs and getting my blood pumping around my increasingly corpulent carcass first thing [still proudly “Gym Free Since ’93”], it allows me to see the world at a different time of day, in a different light, with different smells and sounds. It makes me want to paint a picture or write a poem [neither of which I can do, but a boy can dream, right?]. It’s pulled me out of my routine, and made things less routine.

And in case you’re wondering, I haven’t done the same route twice.

Listen, I can’t tell you how to live your life. What I can tell you is that those new routines, and habits – the ones that aren’t just about keeping your brain free but more about keeping your soul safe – they will need to be challenged at some point. Because whatever comes next [and trust me when I tell you that although everything seems uncertain, this too shall pass] we both know it will need you to let go of some of those new things… just like the situation we’re all in at the moment forced us to let go of all the old things, in a single moment.

We didn’t have a choice before. And we didn’t have the chance to prepare.

Now we do have a choice, and we do have the chance.

So, tell me: what’s today going to be like?

[As a small post script, I just want to say how much I fucking love our crazy language. That one word – “routine” – can as a noun mean those commonplace things we regularly do, and as an adjective means dull, conventional and unremarkable is fascinating and joyous to me. I love the idea that our language is so furtile and full that we can push it around and play with it, like a cat toys with a ball of string, lost in a world of simple pleasures. Sorry if I lost you in the double meaning anywhere – I couldn’t help myself.]

Hope, optimism and faith

First thing yesterday morning, for a change of routine*, I went for a walk with a friend who lives down the road. We walked and talked for an hour or so before the working day began, through the woods, down the hill, round and back up; squelching through the mud and breathing in the cold, damp air as the day woke up around us, the mist lifting from the ground, as the sun strained to force its way through the early morning cloud.

The woods over the road

[* The ‘change of routine’ was, in and of itself, so important, and made such a difference to my mental state. Worth diving into that in more detail another time for sure. Watch this space.]

My friend happens to be a clinical psychologist, which always makes for a fascinating and introspective conversation. So as we walked we talked about the world and how, as simple, habitual creatures, we’re uniquely unable to process or handle the situation in which we find ourselves. Like many domesticated animals we have become defined by routine of one kind or another – and we build our lives around those routines.

Day by day and week by week we have the commute, the office, that place we go for lunch, the coffee shop, the takeaway on a Thursday night, the drinks after work, the visit to the Grandparents, the pub lunch on a Sunday.

Those fit within a more expansive set of routines, too. A couple of weeks somewhere in the Summer, a camping trip with friends, maybe a festival, gigs and plays and birthdays and traditions, getting together for the holidays.

And we’re so caught up in these routines we can’t help but hope and even plan for their return, despite the fact that this planning is a pointless and possibly damaging exercise. Because every time we plan, we create too much hope, and hold that hope tighter and tighter as the plans threaten to break apart once again.

Wondering if the plans for the wedding will go ahead. Plans to visit the family for Christmas. Plans to get the kids back to school. The holiday postponed from last year to this, and now… who knows?

Each time we hope that this milestone or that will be the one. We’ll be out of this by Easter. We might be back in the office by July. Surely it’ll all be over when the kids go back in September. Christmas is still a way away, surely…

And now we’re wondering about half term, and bloody Easter again. Do we just go round again? Keep on rolling the dice? Keep on predicting the future, and feeling so disappointed when we get it so wrong. Perhaps even feeling a bit stupid and bit naïve for thinking it’d be that simple…

As we walked through the woods [perhaps a little out of breath on the big hills] my psychologist friend told me a tale of an American airman by the name of Jim Stockdale, who was shot down over Vietnam in 1965, captured and sent to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” – a prisoner-of-war prison where American prisoners were held through the Vietnam War. Stockdale was kept in a windowless cell with a bare light bulb on 24 hours a day. Routinely tortured for information, during his time in captivity he had his leg broken twice. Every night he was locked in leg irons.

Yet where many of his fellow POWs died, he survived. For 8 years until his release, he refused to give up hope. In his words:

“I never lost faith in the end of the story… that I would prevail in the end”

Stockdale, L-R: just hours before his ill-fated flight; being greeted by his son on his return; and later in his career as a highly decorated war veteran

But this isn’t a story about keeping hope. It’s a story about how to keep hold of a kind of hope that doesn’t destroy you bit by bit; piece by piece.

Because when asked in an interview with author Jim Collins about those who didn’t make it, Stockdale was quick to reply:

Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart. This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

US Navy Vice Adm. James B. Stockdale

Personally, I don’t mind a bit of optimism. When we all went to festivals back in the day I was always the one who would always look up at a cloudy morning sky and say “I reckon the sun will burn this off”. Sometimes I was right, too. But I didn’t pin all hope on it, and so if it didn’t that was okay. We had a lot of fun dancing in the rain.

But having the discipline, the fortitude and conviction, to confront the brutal facts? Right now, I think that’s as true for us as individuals as it is for any of us as family members or business leaders; as simple, social animals, desperately missing our connections in ways we cannot comprehend.

Maybe the brutal fact is that this, in some form, is going to be part of life for longer than any of us could possibly have imagined, and rather than predicting the future we must accept the situation as it is and make the very, very best of it, keeping faith that we will prevail in the end.

Maybe the brutal fact is that those most valued friendships will just have to be nurtured over video calls. Yes, young children you’ve known so well will be growing up and changing and you will miss some of that. Maybe the wedding isn’t going to be able to go ahead this year, either; at least, not as it was planned. But remember that you can stay connected, that love is patient; and keep faith you will prevail in the end.

Maybe the brutal fact is that the work will suffer in some way, or change in a way you weren’t expecting, or develop into something that you don’t understand. But be authentic and genuine, keep your integrity, stick to your values. And keep faith you will prevail in the end.

As a leader in times like this, getting the balance right is really important. Mentioned in these pages before, Harvard professor Nancy Koehn ran a webinar last year [when we thought we were in the middle of things but in retrospect perhaps were only at the beginning] about leadership in crisis. In this she talked about getting the balance between brutal honesty and credible hope.

The brutal honesty [interesting that it’s the same visceral, violent word – brutal – as Stockdale used] is that we cannot be certain. That we are at the whim of an enemy we cannot see. That predicting the future is a fools errand, as it always is. That we may yet find even darker days.

The credible hope comes from our dependable dedication to the values and ideas we hold most dear. We show up, every day, in service to the mission we have set. And yes, we can paint a picture of the future, whenever it may come, that has meaning and, yes, even brightness.

Because a bright, fresh, new dawn will come, as sure as day follows night. Perhaps not the one we imagined, or hoped for. But it will come.

So keep faith in the end of the story. We will prevail, in the end.

On Incompetence

There I was, all ready with an uplifting, Happy New Year, “things can only get better” post- something to clear away the cobwebs of 2020 and look forward into 2021 with renewed hope and excitement, eyes wide with the freshness of opportunity that only a brand, shiny new year can bring.

Then, like a young faun stumbling into a forest clearing and for the first time seeing the unlimited expanse of the sky above, suddenly I didn’t feel excited and fresh with anticipation; I felt overwhelmed, stunned into inaction by the vastness of the world, by things I couldn’t comprehend much less control, the sudden realisation of my own helplessness weighing heavy. The weight of another national lockdown on my shoulders, shoulders that slumped still further as I sat wondering if I was watching the beginning of the end of Western “civilisation” on 24-hour news from across the pond.

Gill Scott Heron was wrong, it appears – the revolution will be televised. It’ll even be selfied and streamed live on the social media channel of your choice. Who knew it would involve such a lot of milling around?

I’m not going to get into the politics of all this, you’ll be pleased to hear. You’re probably about as interested in my political views as I am in yours, so let’s keep those to ourselves.

But you won’t be amazed to hear that I find myself sitting and considering the idea of ego, self-assuredness, entitlement and narcissism, and how these can so often quite happily co-exist alongside such rank incompetence.

Incompetence on it’s own isn’t the worst thing in the world, and I’m not against it per se – in fact I’m very comfortable with it. We all have it, to some degree or other, in some areas. Either you’re good at something or you’re okay at it or you’re a bit rubbish at it.

The key is knowing which. That’s the really, really important bit. Having the self-awareness and humility to admit to yourself, and to others, when you really don’t know what you’re doing.

If you know you’re crap at something, that’s conscious incompetence, and that’s okay. I happily accept the idea that I’m consciously incompetent at some things. I know what I’m not good at, and I do one of three things about it…

The first (and let’s admit the least mature) is I deride it as being “crap anyway”. Things that fall into this category include golf (can’t play, don’t want to anyway because it’s crap anyway, crap clothers), ice skating (can’t do it, bloody cold, potentially dangerous, crap anyway), DIY generally (waste of time, total crap), and ballroom dancing (I love to dance but I don’t follow steps as I refuse to wear the chains of conformity on any dancefloor. And it’s crap anyway).

Some crap things

The second is a lot more grown up than that, but it also takes a bit more time and effort and energy. Because the next thing I do if I’m not good at something – or not as good as I think I could or should or want to be – is that I work on it, bit by bit, moment by moment, day by day.

In this bucket goes things like being a better human being. Being the best dad or husband I can be. Being a good friend, a good neighbour. Being a good leader, a kind and thoughtful boss. I sometimes ask myself a simple question which gets to the heart of this.., thinking about all the people in my life, in every facet, and asking simply:

If they could choose someone, would they choose you?

Big question, right? But a challenge to get a bit better, every day.

The third thing I do to overcome my conscious incompetence in an area is perhaps the most sensible, and there’s no coincidence that it’s the one that’s proved itself time and time and time again. If I can’t do something, or can’t do it as well as it needs to be done, then I’ll find someone who can.

That sounds obvious with something like DIY – I’m much better getting someone to fix something than mess it up myself first and then pay someone to fix that whilst openly judging me for the horrible mess I’ve made as I make them a cup of incredibly sweet tea.

Perhaps it’s less obvious when we’re talking work stuff. I mean, who wants to openly admit – to themselves, let alone anyone else – that they’re a bit crap at something?

Well, me, actually.

By admitting that to myself and to others I can surround myself with people who can do stuff I can’t do – or who can do it better than I could – and then let them get on with it. In fact my role then becomes very simple. I’m there to make sure they can do their best work. To remove any barriers that might make things harder for them. To make sure they feel valued, and trusted, and supported to do the thing that they’re so good at doing. It’s become maybe the most important thing I can do.

But to do any of these things – perhaps apart from the first – you have to first admit to yourself that you don’t know what you’re doing. And that takes self-awareness and humility in equal measure.

And if you’ve got the opposite – someone with a refusal or inability to know or admit that they don’t know what they’re doing, coupled with self-assuredness, rampant ego, unconstrained entitlement, misplaced confidence… well then we’re in trouble my friend. Especially if they surround themselves with other people like that too.

Not that anyone like that would ever get in charge anywhere. I mean, imagine a situation where your country were run by people like that?! Imagine how poor the decision making would be?

[Sorry I did say I wouldn’t get into the politics didn’t I? Whoops]

Imagine where it could end up.

Happy lockdown to my UK friends, with the hope of an end on the distant horizon.

Love and peace to my US friends, with the knowledge that your wonderful country will come back even stronger.

Happy New Year folks. It’s been quite a trip so far, right?

Fighting fires

When I was a kid, I watched my father [hi Dad!] walk into a burning building. I was maybe 8 I guess? Our house backed onto a farm and (so the tale goes) some local kids had been smoking in the barn in the evening and it caught fire. Next to the barn was a little cottage where an old lady lived, with a load of cats – like a dozen or something – and she had refused to leave the cottage before all of them were found and she couldn’t find one and “what if it’s still in the house??!!”…

My dad wouldn’t claim to be “brave”, I don’t think. I imagine he’d consider himself much too sensible for daft ideas like that [he reads The Times, for crying out loud] but on that evening [probably with an “oh for fuck’s sake” under his breath if I know him] he walked into the burning cottage to ‘convince’ the lady she really should think about making her way out of the building sometime soon if turning into a roast old lady wasn’t in her immediate life plans.

Anyway, you’ll be pleased to hear that he came out, jostling the old lady in front of him. You’ll be delighted to know that all the cats had, of course, left the cottage some time before, because as we all know cats only care about themselves. My old man [who, come to think of it, would have been younger then then I am now: what a mind fuck that is!] was coughing and his face was black from the smoke and soot and my mum was really cross with him which at the time I thought seemed a bit unfair, because, you know, he was a bloody hero and all that.

And then the fire brigade turned up and we got to watch them putting the fire out, and it was very late and very exciting and I think I got to wear a fireman’s hat [although I might have imagined that because I’ve watched too much TV in my life and that’s the kind of thing that happens in a montage at the end of a TV program about a fire isn’t it?].

My fake memory

Up to now, I haven’t had the opportunity to save an old lady from a burning building [although I did have my bravery tested once – perhaps one for another time!] but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t had fires to put out in my own way over the years. Oh no!

Because that’s what leaders have to do, right? Solving problems, making things better, fixing things. Filling gaps, plugging holes, and “putting out fires” [See what I did there?].

To be honest, I’ve never really liked the phrase “fire-fighting” when talking about work problems. It feels too reactive to me, like you’re forced to jump from the hottest, most urgent thing to the next, constantly on edge, constantly turning to find something else threatening to burn out of control. And so I think the phrase actually makes things worse, somehow.  But I do get the association of course.

Because we know that, left unattended, problems are more likely get bigger and less easy to deal with, just like a fire, until they’re totally unmanageable. And because we know deep within us, through thousands of years of generations upon generations from our earliest times on our planet, that fire has huge power and fearsome energy. Not just in what it does – how it destroys all in its path – but in what it does to us as people.

Just like our ancestors before us, we’re drawn towards fire. It’s deep within us to fan it or fight it, and so all too often we find ourselves simply gazing into it, transfixed, lost in its dancing light.

Nature’s cimena

And just like fire jumping from tree to tree and house to house, the closest possible proximity in which we’re forced to work in our overstuffed offices mean than even the smallest spark can catch, and grow and draw people in to fan or fight or stand and gaze once again.

But as much as we are mesmerised by fire, no matter how wondrous and fearful we find it, what we tend to forget is that the following day the ashes hold only a memory of the fire that once was, and hold no one’s interest for more than a fleeting moment before the winds of time disperse them.  Every fire that ever was ended up as ash in the wind.

And so perhaps one positive thing that I’ve experienced through the maelstrom of Bloody 2020™ is that the forced virtual nature of work has meant that when problems do arise there’s more space for consideration.

I don’t mean there’s more time, of course; not when the line between home and work has completely blurred to the point that it’s not actually visible any more, and I’m working earlier and later than I have in many years because it’s not like I’m going anywhere, and yes it’s getting physically and emotionally exhausting, as the stark sharp split between the imitation intimacy of a video call and the silence when it ends is jarring in a way that as simple, social animals we were never designed to be able to comprehend so we feel somehow empty in the moment, like we’re mourning the human connection that felt so real just a few moments before… [shit, sorry, where was I?]

No, I mean that there’s more physical and emotional space between us – space between the trees, if you like, so fires don’t spread so inexorably. With a watchful eye, some even die out all on their own.

Because with that space, people can consider their actions and consider what they might have done differently. The shared experience of lockdown and everything that’s gone with it means there’s more space for considering what someone else might be going through as well.

And so it seems people find it harder to hold a grudge from afar. People realise that they miss each other, individually and as the office buzz in the background as they work.

Starved of the oxygen of incidental interaction, disagreements become distant, irritations become irrelevant, niggles become nothing. And thus the flames of conflict are dampened, free to fizzle out naturally, quietly, simply.

There’s a lovely quotation I saw recently from a French writer/Aristocrat which goes:

L’absence est à l’amour ce qu’est au feu le vent. Il éteint le petit, il allume le grand.

Roger de Bussy-Rabutin

Which (as I’m sure you know) means:

Absence is to love what the wind is to fire: it extinguishes the small, it inflames the big.

I think that’s true, not just of romantic love but also of the companionship we all miss from our working relationships. The wind of absence has made the ones that were important to us before even more important now.

But perhaps the very same wind can blow out a lot of little fires of little inconsequential problems, too.

All without a fire-fighter to be seen…

A post-office world?

When my wife [hi Sarah!] and I made the decision to move out of South East London [big up big up Crystal Palace massive] three years back, I planned to work from home for “at least” a day a week. I was going from a 45-minute commute to one which would take an hour and a half, and anyway it’s not like I actually need to be physically ‘in the office’ every day…

Needless to say, that didn’t happen. Most weeks I was in every day, with perhaps a day working from home every couple of weeks. And when I did, I made it very clear what I would be working on…

Because tradition states that work is something that was done… well… at work. And everyone knows that all this newfangled “working from home” nonsense really just means dossing around doing nothing. No way that someone could be as productive from home, or that they could really be trusted to do their work instead of drifting off and playing computer games or watching daytime TV.

“Oh yeah right working from home mate yeah? Like nice one yeah?!”

Of course I knew that wasn’t the case: if anything I tended to work longer hours, with less distractions, fewer interruptions and less breaks than I did at the office. Without my friendly neighbourhood Finance Director [hi Jonny!] sitting next to me ready to wander off and grab a coffee, I was smashing through my to-do-list at quite a pace.

In fact, if I had organised a bunch of things to put on my WHF to-do-list which might have taken me a whole day to get done in the office, I might even find that I was through it by early afternoon and freeing up time to get to some of the important stuff that often got bumped by the urgent stuff.

But I always felt I had to check in with people too to prove I wasn’t off doing what I thought people might think I was doing instead of work. Call it “virtual presenteeism” if you like – an email, a text, just to say “I am still here, and I am still working”.

And I was also conscious that it was all very well for me to be working from home, because I’m in the privileged position of being the boss of the agency and thus a) largely setting my own work timetable and b) having no one to tell me what to do or where to be (in London, anyway!). Not so easy if you’re the Account Manager with the client on the phone all day, or the Planner with a creative team to brief…

Within a matter of days, lockdown meant that “WFH” was the norm. And soon everyone showed that they can work just as hard, just as effectively, just as productively from wherever their laptop was set up.

We’ve still had some issues – of course we have. The blurring of lines between work space and home space has meant that hours become blurred too; sometimes too much. I still have the occasional twitch which pushes me into digital presenteeism… now using Teams or WhatsApp as much as the other channels I used to use. “Video calls” where instead of a load of faces it’s just a sea of initials or avatars made everything feel very cold and unnatural [luckily we’ve pulled ourselves up on this and have made a real effort over recent weeks – it’s made a massive difference].

Stolen from my cousin Nick’s post [hi mate!]

And I’ve written recently about the lack of opportunity for ad hoc, in person, informal learning from colleagues and co-workers which I found so valuable in my formative years.

So there’s stuff to fix, but surely the stigma around working from home will have been the one victim of this virus that we can be positive about?

Hmm. I’m not sure.

When our office spaces are back to something like normality, will the assumption return that work is done “at work”? If we don’t need to work from home, wouldn’t it just be better if most of the people were in one place most of the time?

I think there are various truths about this whole thing that we’re going to need to reconsider, and possibly reconcile, over the coming weeks and months…

  1. There is no substitute for personal, face-to-face interaction. None.
  2. I would not have the relationships that I have with the people with whom I work had I not spent a lot of time with them in the same place [specifically “the office”, in case you’re wondering].
  3. Building an organisational culture without being physically together as a group would be really, really difficult. Not impossible, but tough.
  4. A strong organisational culture makes a company more resilient to a crisis, with shared values acting as the strongest foundation for honest, genuine working relationships.
  5. Some people have been more productive working virtually, with associated benefits in their mental wellbeing and emotional and physical energy
  6. Some people have found working virtually incredibly difficult, with the blurred lines between work and home feeling both draining and isolating at the same time.
  7. Some people will work like a dog no matter where you put them.
  8. Some people will do as little as possible no matter how much faith you put in them.
  9. Virtual hugs are not as good as actual hugs. Especially from me, as I am a world-class hugger [N.B. this is not my personal opinion – I have a full trophy room to prove it].
  10. It’s all about trust.

Yeah I know, I funnelled you into that last one. But it really is.

And so before you do anything else, assume positive intent. I know it’s obvious, and I know it’s not always easy. But it’s also surprisingly uplifting.

Assume that people are trustworthy. That they care about their work and their colleagues. That they want to do a good job, every day.

That they trust you to do the same.

Let’s all assume that we’re all doing our best, unless specifically proven otherwise, and a lot of this “new normal” [aaaarrrrgggghhh that phrase again] planning will be a lot easier. Start with trust and we can crack on making a new kind of totally flexible working – flexible around you as an individual with specific requirements and specific responsibilities, in all parts of your life, like never before – really work. For all of us.

From Lockdown to Learning

My two young boys went back to school today. For the first time since March, I am in my home without the noise of one or other of them going about their day. It’s been very quiet, and may take a little getting used to. But they’re off, happy to be amongst friends again. Happy to be back to a place they can learn.

And soon enough, other parts of life may well start to change, as we begin to emerge from our self-isolated work cocoons and converge on the physical space that once seemed so crucial to our lives. “THE OFFICE” had such a gravitational pull for so many reasons and held such importance and such reverence as “the place where we work”. But will that place still have the same pull now some of our old certainties about how and where we work have been unlearned?

For some, release from the horror of the daily commute from the suburbs to the epicentre of our biggest cities has been financially and emotionally liberating. For others, time to work and think without the distractions of an open plan battery farm of desks has meant a more productive, more focussed working day. And for others, more time at home has allowed them to experience a greater connection into family life than ever.

And then…

For some, the need for social stimulus coupled with the ubiquitous but still unnatural video calls has meant that working days are both lonely and tiring at the same time. For others, the lack of ad hoc interactions has actually made work more difficult, more complex, and more formalised than it would ideally be. And for others, a lack of suitable structured workspace in shared accommodation has blurred the line between work and non-work way too much.

All of these are real for those who experience them. Just as you and I have experienced some of them in the last few months.

Before I go on, I’ve talked about being conscious of my privilege on these pages before. And so I realise very keenly that my experience of all this is privileged too, because of where I am in my life, my career and my home situation.

For this next bit you can delete as appropriate…

Like many in their early/mid/late-40s, my wife/husband/life partner/pets and I decided to give up the hustle and bustle of South-East/South-West/South/West/North/East London/other major conurbation a few/couple of years back and move out to Kent/Hertfordshire/Surrey/Other home counties/Scotland. As a result we got a slightly/quite a bit/much bigger house with the space to make working from home quite pleasant/bearable/a magical Nirvana.

Some else’s perfect home set-up

Don’t get me wrong, lockdown has been super weird for me, as it has for you. But I’ve not been doing video calls from my bedroom in a shared house. I have some space to think, and to divide between work-life and home-life. I can even wander into my garden on a call. And quite apart from the practicalities of space, I’m also very aware of the more intangible things that I’m not missing out on, which others might be…

Imagine, if you will, a much younger man than the one I am today. Less beard, smaller clothes sizes. New to office life. Keen, confident; with potential but very raw. Someone in need of guidance; of people who believe in him to unlock that potential and pull him up on things when needed.

Would young Mr B [you guessed right, that young man was indeed me] have prospered working from home, from his messy bedroom in a shared house one the edge of Brixton? On video calls (which, let’s be honest, would have seemed like sci-fi back in 2000) which offer an odd kind of pseudo-contact followed by sudden quiet isolation?

Honestly, I don’t think so. 

At the earliest time, I was very fortunate to have some amazing people around me from whom I absorbed ideas, attitudes and skills. Seeing how people like Mike Walker approached a problem; how Melissa de Lusignan helped to solve it. How Elise Shepherd handled herself in a crisis; how Tara Page handled the clients. From that point on I’ve been surrounded by remarkable creative talent, passionate culture building, enlightened strategic thinking, and dedicated client management.

The person I was 20 years ago when I started in the world of advertising agencies needed to experience all of these things to learn. Hell, I still do, and have continued to learn from people right through – at all levels of seniority.

None if it is formal training or coaching, but informal watching, listening, questioning. Logging silently that next time I should maybe not do this but do that instead. Picking up a turn of phrase; a tone of voice.

Incidental coaching. Accidental learning. Essential education.

The office isn’t important. We’ve shown over the last 6 months that human connection between us can survive a lack of human contact. It’s not about the physical space we occupy, but more about the place we hold in each other’s minds, and yes, even hearts. I’ve long believed that the strongest organisations are those that really aim to build genuine, authentic, honest, human connections and this year has, I believe, continued to prove that belief to be true.

But for those early in their careers, the office is a place of learning that cannot be underestimated or effectively recreated in a virtual world.

And so as I look at the weeks and months to come, I must consider not only my own needs, based on my new experience of work, but also the needs of the younger me. As a leader, I have a responsibility to ensure whatever working world we create is one in which our young talent – the future of our agency and industry – have the opportunity to absorb, to learn, and to thrive, just as I did.

As I do, I have a feeling I’ll probably learn a few new things for myself, too.

What’s past is prologue…

It’s been a long time since my last post. To me, anyway. We all know that time sometimes go fast, sometimes slow, but it’s rare that this happens at the same time. But this summer, well. You don’t need me to tell you that this summer has been different, in every way. Days drift into weeks and February in an office in the middle of London seems not just like another time but almost another place, in another life we once had.

This has felt like a strange interlude – like we’re all living in the interval in the middle of a play: discussing what we made of how the first half went – which characters seemed the most plausible, which plot lines might develop – and waiting for the second half to begin when we can see how things turn out. Except we’re not just the audience, we’re also part of the play too: expected to know how to act and where to stand and what to say, even though we have never read the script and don’t know the plot.


Act One was all about reacting to this unknown something that forced us to change everything overnight and question everything. How to live, how to work, how to feed ourselves even. It was punchy and powerful, leaving us dazed and confused.

Act Two was learning to live with a new situation, settling down, understanding how this might work. Learning more about the unknown, too – how it might affect us and our loved ones; learning to understand statistics and judge risk. And it was about settling into some kind of solidarity through our shared experience. All in this together.

Act Three, just before the interval, was about conflict. Disagreement on what was right and what wasn’t. One rule for them, another for you. And then more conflict, even more visceral. Disbelief, disruption and demonstration. Tumultuous turmoil.

And then the interval.

From here, it’s about some kind of return to some kind of something which isn’t really normality but rather a new kind of normality seen through a distorted lens. It might look similar, but it will never be the same.

My own experience of the good and bad of lockdown is unique to me, of course. Yours is unique to you, too. But the next Act is coming, and just as this year has played with time so uniquely thus far, it will again, and now the bell has rung and the curtain is going to rise once again whilst you’re still grabbing one of those tiny ice cream tubs with a spoon in the lid.

So before the lights dim, just take a moment to look around. Remember the crazy time we’ve all gone through, good and bad, and consider what’s worked for you during this enforced performance and what you want to leave behind.

Because this feels very different to every other time, and if you’re one of the lucky ones with a job to go back to, and a company with a vision for the future, then for the first time in the history of people working in offices you might just be able to have a say in what part you might want to play from here.

What’s past is prologue; and what to come, in yours and my discharge.

William Shakespeare, The Tempest: Act II, Scene I

Double Down

My wife’s grandfather [not he from my earlier story – her other one. She’s lucky enough to have both grandfathers and one grandmother still around to drop a good amount of wisdom] once told me a story – possibly apocryphal, but no less of a story for that. As with all great stories, the subject was something each of us have a connection with in our own, unique way, which transcends time and connects us back to a place where we were more innocent… more carefree… more elemental.

Yes that’s right, we’re talking about ice cream.

The story went something like this…

It’s the mid-1970s, and in the small seaside town just down from the Garw Valley where the family lived in South Wales are two ice cream parlours. And in the ice cream trade, times are tough.

Because this isn’t the glitter-filled shiny 1970s of disco, platforms and Space Hoppers, this is the grey 1970s of economic struggle in underpaid mining communities, toiling to make ends meet between the three-day week and the Winter of Discontent.  Times are tough for everyone, but tougher still when you’re selling something as intrinsically non-essential as ice-cream.

The 1970s in South Wales

So, with ice-cream quite a way down on the priority list, one of the ice-cream parlours decides to do the prudent thing.

They cut back a bit.

They cut back on their local advertising. They put off the paint job they were going to do. They even start using some cheaper suppliers for the ice cream ingredients. Individually all small things, which people probably won’t notice, or perhaps even forgive as a ‘sign of the times’.

Except…

The other ice-cream parlour has another idea.

They double down.

They don’t advertise less, they advertise more. They do up the front of the parlour, repaint the chairs and tables out front and get some umbrellas in case of the sun or (because this is South Wales, remember) the rain. They source even better ingredients for their ice cream, from local suppliers wherever possible.

At every opportunity, they recommit to the service of their customers; double down on what an ice cream parlour should all be about. If it’s going to be an occasional treat, then let’s make it the best experience it can be.

You know the rest, of course. Only one of the parlours survived the tough times and came out the other side.

Now I’m very aware that this story is almost too perfect – like a fable almost. But hey, let’s not let the truth get in the way of a good story, right? [Did I mention I work in advertising?]

Times are tough, right now. We’re going into probably the biggest recession in living memory, with unemployment sky-high and well-known companies adding to the lay-offs every week. We may not have a 3-day week – if anything, working from home has blurred the lines of work & home more than ever – but make no mistake, this is going to be tougher than anything most of us have experienced.

And on top of our economic outlook, we’re right in the middle of a social shift too. Something that sparked from what we saw in Central Park and Minneapolis and enflamed in Bristol and London and every other part of the world. It’s not the first time the world has been rocked and shocked by racial inequality – even by police brutality – but this time does feel different.

Perhaps it’s because for the first time we’ve all had a shared collective experience of lockdown and isolation and fear, that now that’s translated into a shared collective determination to make a change in the world? Perhaps it’s just because it’s all been there, shot on shaky iPhone, for us all to see, our heads shaking slowly in disbelief? Perhaps it’s just because without the daily commute there’s more time and headspace for the daily trawl through the daily news? Wherever it comes from, this feels like a time of change.

Tough times. Uncertain times. No idea of what the times to come will look like.

So what are you going to do about it? Play it safe, or double down?

Double down comes from Blackjack – after seeing what you’ve got in your first 2 cards, you can double your bet and get one more card, so you have twice the money on the table and thus twice the winnings (if you do win, of course). Based on what’s in front of you, you can make a decision to take more risk with potentially a higher reward.

Apparently this is when to “Double Down” in Blackjack, but please bear in mind I know nothing about gambling apart from the fact that “the house always wins” (which I guess is the only one I really need to know in order to know I don’t want to know anything more about gambling)

And so in common parlance it’s taken to mean “to engage in risky behaviour, especially when one is already in a dangerous situation” (according to the Oxford English Dictionary).

But who decides what is “risky”? Perhaps now, like in South Wales in the 1970s, the risk lies in shadows: doubting, worried, holding back. Perhaps by doubling down on an idea, a belief, a course of action you believe in… perhaps this is about conviction and commitment; resilience and resolve. 

That’s an illusion of risk – something that seems risky or even reckless to the people on the outside, but only because they don’t know what you know, what you believe, how you feel, or how deep your commitment goes.

Consider what you have committed to – as an individual, as a group of people, as a company – and have no doubt that this is the time to recommit, to go even further and deeper.

If you have committed to being part of a group – whether that’s at work or outside – then this is the time to really, really be a part of that group. Give more of yourself. Be open, and brave, and authentically yourself, and get more out of it than you ever thought you could.

If you’ve committed to being a caring, thoughtful, open and honest leader or manager… go further. Push yourself to care more than you expected you’d have to – more than the people who work alongside you would have ever expected from you.

If you’ve committed to the belief that that culture and values can really mean something for your business, then recommit to that culture and those values being the most solid foundation possible for whatever you build out of the situation we’re in.

Times may be tough, difficult, strange, “unprecedented”. But it’s precisely because of that uncertainty that this is the time to work out what you really care about, what you really believe in, and double down. Go out and be the ice cream parlour with the fancy paint job and the delicious flavours, and the pride of knowing that you refused to go down without a fight.

Now, who wants to double down on a double cone 99 with sprinkles and raspberry sauce? I’m buying.