Three lessons from a Zen Taxi Driver.

Driving in London isn’t fun. Sometimes it’s bearable, but most of the time it’s crap. Too many cars, too many vans, too many bikes, too many humans. Unending lines of traffic, all trying to get from A to B, perhaps via C and D; all in their own heads and all wishing all the other people would just disappear and leave the roads to them and them alone.

In one of the opening scenes of Danny Boyle’s 2002 zombie classic 28 Days Later, the main character walks across a deserted Westminster Bridge and around a London without a single vehicle. It’s meant to seem like some unreal and eerie waking dystopian nightmare, but for anyone who’s driven or worked around London much it’s an exquisite daydream.

Looks bloody perfect

I drove the streets of London myself for a while in the late 1990s, working as a medical sales rep. Every day I would hammer around the North West of the city trying to speak to doctors about some drug or other. They gave me five minutes of their time; I’d give them some branded tissues, or a car-care kit, or a pen.

I hated it, to be honest. I wasn’t very good at it for a start, because the whole thing – for me at least – seemed so fake. I pretended to be cheerful and chirpy [I know, not really my vibe] to the receptionists who pretended (sometimes) not to hate everything I stood for, hoping eventually that I might be allowed a few moments with doctors who were only after the branded foldable halogen desk lamp. Sometimes they pretended that they would try the drug I was talking about if they got the chance, and I’d pretend to believe them. I was talking to people all day, but not one conversation was authentic. I don’t think I’ve ever been so lonely in my life, and it ended up being quite depressing really – ironic as I had a load of sample anti-depressants in the boot of the Vauxhall Vectra 1.8 16v LS [that’s correct, I had the wheels to match the vibe]

Oh yeah, and the traffic.

On top of everything else, I had to pick my way around Kilburn and Camden, Neasden and North Farm, Holloway and Hampstead, Edgeware and Islington. Traffic everywhere. Every main road blocked, every back road full of people like me, desparately trying to balance a map on their knee as they checked the road signs. For this was a time before Sat Nav or GPS – I had a paper copy of the London A to Z, thumbed to death, covered in the fluff from Wotsits mixed with my own hot, despairing tears.

Okay the late 1990s wasn’t that long ago but this was the same tech

And I guess for a long time I carried that frustration with me whenever I drove around London, the tension I held in my shoulders and chest making my neck ache and my head pound. And I assumed everyone else did too.

And then, one evening, I met a man who changed all that. I met the Zen Taxi Driver.

It was a few years back now, not long after I’d joined CDM. After a long day of authentic and open leadership, I got a taxi back from the office – a car company taxi rather than a black cab – and struck up a conversation with the driver that has stuck with me ever since.

It started when he stopped for a young couple at a zebra crossing, and they moved like aged tortoises actually getting across the road, without acknowledging or even seeming to notice the fact that he had stopped to wait for them. I remarked that this kind of thing must be frustrating for someone driving all day, and rather than giving me the (probably expected) low energy agreement, he disagreed, for three very clear reasons. You may even consider them lessons, if you like…

This is a zebra crossing

The first lesson the driver talked of was about empathy, and honestly I felt a bit embarrassed that he had to point out the very obvious to me: that I had no idea what was going on in the lives of that couple, or the driver who was desperately trying to overtake in those one way, two lane roads through Hammersmith, the lady dithering about whether to turn right, or anyone else you could mention.

Maybe the couple had just had bad news about someone in their family.
Maybe the guy in a hurry was trying to get to his wife who’d gone into labour.
Maybe the lady was trying to remember the road where she had lived during the war.

Or maybe none of those big things. Maybe they just weren’t having the best few minutes, or hour, or day.

Whatever it was, none of them even realised that for that fleeting moment your lives intersected, and you were never relevant to any of them, any more than they should really be relevant to you. You have no right to judge them, nor should you feel the need to do so.

Which led on to the next lesson. My guide had hundreds, perhaps thousands of these micro-meetings every day… ephemeral encounters between people who may well never, ever cross paths again. And his philosophy on this was simple – that none of these people should willingly be given the power to influence your mood or feelings. You have it in yourself to decide what you will allow to affect you and what you will not. So have some respect for yourself, and don’t be so keen to give every passing person access to your emotions and the ability to affect your day. They have no right to affect you, any more than you have any right to judge them.

The third lesson that our teacher talked to me about was the individual experience of time. The way he put it was simplicity itself: “everyone walks to a different beat”. Some people’s internal metronome runs really fast – you’ve seen them doing a walk-jog-walk-jog thing down the pavement just to be half an hour early to work; you’ve seen them frustrated when things are ‘derailed’ or not going fast enough for them. And other people move at a much slower pace. Strolling rather than marching; always time for a ‘by the way’. Everyone has their own pace, one no better or worse than the other: just… different. Except for you, of course: just perfect in the middle, right? Hmm. Perhaps the truth is that to some people you seem incredibly impatient, and to others you’re glacially slow?

Empathy, and acceptance. People walk to a different beat. It’s not for you to judge.

By the time I got back home, I’d had one of the most in depth, introspective and interesting conversations I’d ever had. There was nothing I didn’t already know, as such, but damn if it didn’t make me consider how I was moving through the world.

I won’t say it was an epiphany, because there were so many other things happening in my life at that time which had such a profound effect on me too – new job, new baby, newly without a mum, to name but three [those and many others are in some of the blogs here too, somewhere, if you care to have a look around].

But here I am, probably seven years on, and I’ve decided to sit and write about that man, and the zen-like wisdom that he patiently and clearly articulated like it was all so very simple.

Lessons of self-control, self-respect. Of acceptance, of humility, of empathy. Crucial lessons for a life lived well, and I don’t know about you but I’ll take those with sincere gratitude from wherever I can get them.

In that spirit, I’ll leave you with a couple of thoughts which I’ve carried with me from that moment and likely will continue to carry with me for as long as I wander (and wonder) around this planet of ours.

First, I still have to catch myself sometimes, so I let myself off about that. We are all in our own minds, our own worlds, and so it’s human nature (literally and figuratively) to be wrapped up in what we’re doing and where we are going. We are all the lead actors in our own biopic, and those people whose paths we cross are the extras [and given special effects techonology nowadays they could actually all be CGI and you probably wouldn’t notice]. But still, I make the effort to catch myself; to remind myself that they are in their own world too, that their fleeting actions shouldn’t influence my emotions, and that my beat (at that moment) is different to theirs.

And it’s a simple, kind of daft thing… but since that day, I’ve never said that “I’m in traffic”. Because I’m not in traffic, I am traffic. Okay, it’s not life-changing. But I promise you, it does change one’s attitude to all the other cars around. They’re not deliberately in your way, making you late, any more than you are deliberately in theirs. You’re together, at this moment, just trying to get somewhere.

And here’s the [probably quite obvious to you, dear reader] next bit… none of this is really just about traffic. I don’t think I got that at first, so I make no apologies for holding your hand through it.

Because the truth is that we are all traffic, of course. Human traffic, thrown together into lives that we often don’t really understand and certainly aren’t evolved to be able to manage. But together, fellow travellers, all just trying to get somewhere. Along the way you try to surround yourself with the people and situations that help you along and give you energy, and avoid those which drain you or bring you down. And thus you make your own way, making it up as you go sometimes, but hopefully with some broad idea of where you’re heading, and you criss-cross with other people doing the same. We are all traffic.

Who knows, we might need to ask one another for directions one day. In the meantime, safe travels. Make sure you text me when you get there, okay?

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.

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.]

Sorry

No, really. I’m really sorry. I know I was wrong and I take full responsibility for the impact this has had. I can probably have a go at trying to explain to you why I acted the way I did, but I am not trying to make excuses and appreciate that, whatever my intention, the actual impact is something for which I must take responsibility.

I’m sorry.

Elton was right – sometimes sorry does seem to be the hardest word.

But bloody hell, isn’t it powerful?

Sorry takes the wind out of the sails of any argument, any conflict. In seconds, it lays the foundation on which reconciliation can be built.

It has to be sincere of course. An insincere apology can be worse than no apology at all. And ‘The Power of But’ is more dangerous here than anywhere else. “I’m sorry, but…” means that actually I’m not really sorry at all.

[In case ‘The Power of But’ is  a new one on you, the word “but” has the power to make anything that came before irrelevant. “I think we’re going to make it but it’s going to be incredibly difficult” makes you think how difficult it’s going to be; “It’s going to be incredibly difficult, but I think we’re going to make it” fills you full of hope and and motivation. Tread ye carefully, for The Power of But can wreak havoc in the wrong place in a sentence.]

I’m not talking about the “sorry” that every British person says when someone bumps into them and it’s not their fault but they’re very British and that’s just what we do. The German stand-up comedian Henning When once said something along the lines that that the way to know someone’s nationality is to take a run up and deliberately ram into them with a shopping trolley. If they turn round and say sorry to you, they’re British.

“Sorry”

And I’m really not talking about the sly and sneaky non- apology politicians and other kinds of sociopaths and egotists tend to use, which usually goes something like “I’m sorry if you were upset by my actions”. This actually puts the blame on you for your stupid and unnecessary feelings rather than taking the blame for the actions. “I’m sorry you feel that way” fits into that same weaselly passive aggressive bucket. Ugh, and just in case that’s not enough disgust, may I also add UGH.

Ugh

No, I am sorry. I am very sorry.

Sorry says that you accept your part of the conflict, and want the conflict to end. You take responsibility for your own actions.

The best thing about sorry is that it doesn’t mean that you weren’t wronged in some way yourself. There are nearly always two sides to any conflict, with each person sure, in the moment at least, of their own position. But the magic is that it doesn’t matter if you can say sorry. And you always have that simple word with you, ready to drop into the middle of a storm and watch as the wind dies in a second, sails empty and flapping in the memory of the gales that threatened to destroy just a few moments ago.

There’s a powerful phrase I heard a few weeks back which has stuck with me. For the life of me I can’t remember where I heard it, and Google can’t help me which makes me think I actually might have misheard it, but as it exists in my memory it’s perfect….

Leaving aside the wrongdoings of others, we ask ourselves “how was I at fault?”

Clearly it has its roots in counselling or therapy of some kind, because even the phrasing of it is beautifully inclusive: “we ask ourselves” not “you must ask yourself”.

And the simplicity of it really gets me. Yes other people may have done the wrong thing. Yes they need to take responsibility and consider how their words or actions may have affected you or exacerbated an already difficult situation. No one is denying any of that.

But let’s put those things to one side for a moment, take a breath, and consider the idea that we weren’t perfect. That we were at fault in some way – how we phrased something, how we reacted… how we were perceived as a result (because, lest we forget, perception is reality of course).

Find your own fault. And then apologise, sincerely and without expectation or hope of reciprocity.

It’s truthful, and disarming, and vulnerable (that word again) and incredibly, uniquely powerful. It’s the start of the rebuilding process. The first step towards a brighter place.

Give it a try. You know that your mistake was just that – a mistake. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, just that (leaving aside the wrongdoings of others, remember?) you’ve examined where you were at fault.

Admit you were wrong, Maybe have a bit of a plan for how you might start to fix things. Ask for forgiveness.

Start with sorry, and you’re making a start.

And if it doesn’t go the way you hope…

I’m really, truly sorry.

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.

Being kind

This week is Mental Health Awareness week in the UK. The theme of their activities is ‘kindness’. Isn’t that just the most perfect, simple expression of all that’s good in the world rolled up into a word that means just as much to my 6-year-old as it would to his 92-year-old Great Grandfather? [on my wife’s side – my grandfathers both having long since departed I’m sorry to say]

Kindness doesn’t expect anything in return. Kindness is selfless, honest, truthful. If it’s not… well actually then it’s not kindness at all, it’s something else.

For young Jack [6 and a half, to be accurate – and that half is VERY important] being kind is about helping someone who’s fallen over; sharing a particularly good stick; giving his big brother Ben [10 now – I know, I can’t believe it either] one of his sweets. It’s different to helpful (tidying up) or nice (an unexpected hug) – it means doing something for someone else simply because you can.

[No, these are not my two boys but I know it would have been such an unbearable hassle getting them to pose for a picture without attacking each other that I only really considered it for a second before dismissing it as a fool’s errand. I feel good about that decision.]

For Bob [92 and change] in his little village in the South Wales valleys, kindness is just as simple, and probably not even considered anything out of the ordinary. If someone’s fence needs fixing, you help fix it. Not because your fence might need fixing (trust me, Bob’s fence is pristine) but because that’s what you do. Simple, small acts of kindness, as a way of life.

[As a side note, I’ve always been fascinated by Bob’s little community where a whole chain of give and take has developed over the years. Check this out: Bob grows tomatoes – not because he particularly likes tomatoes, but because the bloke down the road does and he has chickens, so Bob gives him tomatoes for some eggs… not because he particularly likes eggs, but because the lady up the road needs eggs to make her cakes. And Bob does like cake.]

The word ‘kind’ actually comes from an old Middle English word meaning ‘nature’. It used to be that if someone was kind it was because Mother Nature had done a really bloody good job with them. Hundreds of years later, and we still talk about someone being “good natured”. And then as the words travelled like a stream through time, diverging into different meanings all from the same source, the same word that became “kind” also became “kin” – our tribe, our family. Kindness and human connection interlinked through language, over centuries.

Research from The Mental Health Foundation (which you can find here) has shown that the idea of kindness and mental health are deeply connected – that kindness is “an antidote to isolation and creates a sense of belonging”. There are proven connections to stress reduction, improved relationships. And kindness to ourselves allows self-esteem, optimism and resilience to blossom.

All just through kindness. Kindness always has an effect.

So perhaps we can think of every small act of kindness like a pebble being thrown into a lake, with the ripples of that kindness spreading far wider than the little pebble ever could have imagined.

Perhaps kindness has an energy that can pass from person to person, ripple by ripple, across geographies, across cultures, across every difference you can imagine. Even across time, for ever.

If you want to hear the most exquisite explanation of kindness, then I implore you to watch this 2 minute clip of the poet Maya Angelou, who sadly left us in 2014. She talks about kindness as trying to be “a rainbow in someone else’s cloud” and I promise you’ll catch your breath with the beauty of her words.

130 Best Poetry images in 2020 | Poetry, Poems, Words
Maya Angelou, 1928-2014

And so until next time, I thank you for the kindness of reading these words of mine, and leave you with some worthy words of another poet: this time an Englishman who came from a simpler time perhaps, but who nevertheless sums things up just right.

“The best portion of a good man’s life is his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.”

William Wordsworth

Sending you kindness and love, this week and in those to come, too.

[For more information about Mental Health Awareness Week, visit https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/mental-health-awareness-week. And remember, kindness still does all that good stuff every week.]

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?

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.

A friend of a friend

This morning I was going to post a blog about something else. But the last hour has changed a lot. Changed my mood, changed the moods of those I’ve spoken to, changed the moods of many people around the area in which I live.

That’s because on Sunday night, a friend of a friend took his own life.

A man about my age, perhaps a bit younger. Married with a young family. Not going to be here for Christmas.

He really isn’t someone I know well at all. I’m not sure I’ve ever said more than a word or two to him at the bar or in passing. But he’s a recognisable face. The friend of mine who knows him is a good friend…

(Hang on , do I now use the past tense and say “he was” instead? Seems too soon; a bit cold. But he lives in the past now I guess?)

It’s a familiar story – former armed forces, struggling with his demons. We’ve heard it all before.

And now he’s not around any more. The world around him shattered into a million little pieces. The impact going further than he ever would have imagined.

The ‘former armed forces’ bit is all too familiar of course, but it’s not a prerequisite.

Just a few days back, I read a long, heartfelt post from an old school friend on Facebook, talking about his struggles after having surgery which has left him with a stoma to manage. Mental struggles. Really tough mental struggles. The kind of thing that makes people wonder if it’s worth it.

And another distant family member sometimes posts stuff that feels a bit like a cry for help. So does a mate of mine from Uni. I never really know what to do or say, or if it’s my place to do or say anything.

None of them have ever met each other, and the only thing they have in common is that they’ve all met me at some point (in varying degrees).

Oh hang on, there is one other thing.

They’re all men.

According to the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK. 75% of all suicides are men.

Click on the pic above to access the CALM website

Some of the reasons they give that men and boys can be more vulnerable to taking their own life are:

They feel a pressure to be a winner and can more easily feel like the opposite.

They feel a pressure to look strong and feel ashamed of showing any signs of weakness.

They feel a pressure to appear in control of themselves and their lives at all times.

CALM website

What a fucking mess. This is the other side of masculinity. The flipside of the patriarchy.

In his book “The Mask of Masculinity“, Lewis Howe talks about all the stereotypes that as men we feel we have to live up to. Aggression, invincibility, alpha, knowledgable. It’s all bullshit and yet sometimes as men we end up in weird situations where we feel we have to be more of something we’re not.

Stoicism is the first of these masks in the book. For me it’s the most destructive and dangerous.

Boy’s don’t cry. Grow a pair. Man up. Take it on the chin (literally about being punched in the face). Be a man about it. Don’t be such a girl.

It’s sexist bullshit.

Translation: emotions are female. Females are weak. Ergo, showing, talking about, even having emotions is weak, weak, weak.

That’s why men don’t talk about how they’re feeling. Try to pretend they’re not feeling. Judge themselves for feeling. Shame, shame, shame.

Is there a better demonstration that sexism is bad for everyone?

In that context – with all the masks of masculinity weighing down – it is incredibly brave for a man to show his emotions. It takes incredible strength and courage to admit you’re not okay. Because that vulnerability is something we learnt to hide in the playground, and everything we’ve heard and seen since has reinforced that.

I’ve got two boys, and I’m doing my damnedest to raise them to understand their emotions and those of the people around them. I don’t hide from them when I’m feeling sad (particularly around this time of year when the loss of my Mum a few years back is keenly felt). If they’re sad, or nervous, or unsure, I tell them that’s totally understandable.

I sometimes even bore the daylights out of them by explaining the evolutionary reasons for the ‘flight or fight’ physiological response. Super dull, sure… but they know why they get butterflies. They’ve told their friends about it. It’s something they can talk about.

I’ve done this because I want them to know that it’s okay to not be okay. So they can talk to their friends – if they need it or their friend does. To grow up to be well-adjusted, open, vulnerable, incredible young men. All a parent wants if for their child to be safe. And this is my way of making them emotionally safe.

Being a modern man is about dropping all the masks. Let it all go. Bravery is about opening up, not shutting down. We all get better for it.

So speak up. Or check in. It is your place, as much as it’s anyone’s.

Boys do cry sometimes.

Love and peace.

Please take time to visit the CALM website and share around the place – there’s loads of good stuff in there. And if you’re wondering how to start helping, try following the simple mnenomic below…