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?

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.]