Not drowning, but waving

There’s a wonderful poem by a British poet called Stevie Smith called “Not Waving, But Drowning”*, about a man swimming out of his depth and his friends on the shore thinking he was mucking around. The feelings of the man in question are too horrific to think about, but imagine for a moment the feelings those friends they must have gone through, waving to him as he panicked, laughing to each other about how daft their friend is, then realising one by one that they had it wrong. We can all imagine the blood running cold, the hole in the pit of the abdomen which seems to have some kind of gravitational pull for the rest of the body.

That feeling of realisation – specifically realisation of something negative – is something we’ve all experienced. Forgetting someone’s birthday gets you a little hit of it. Remembering you promised to do something or [in the olden days] actually physically be somewhere [remember that??], it’s all part of the same realisation. When the brain catches up, the body stays still and cold and heavy. On varying levels of seriousness, in my mind it’s the “oh…bollocks” [Please feel free to insert your own geographic or linguistic alternative here] moment.

Okay, let’s park that for a moment.

This time of year is always a weird one for me. My mum died nearly seven years ago, and it’s this time of year when the empty space she left in my world is felt most keenly. Actually, perhaps not ‘felt’ the most, but certainly brought to mind the most.

My work anniversary lands on March 8th, and I know it’s then because it was meant to be the 1st but I moved it back a week so I could go back home to go with Mum to a hospital appointment. Then her birthday is (was?) March 13th, and Mother’s Day [sorry to my arch pedant father for not calling it the “correct” title of ‘Mothering Sunday’ but I do not give enough of a shit x] is usually around the same time, then my birthday on March 20th [very nice thanks, my second in lockdown yet I had a lovely time and felt very spoilt], and then my wedding anniversary is April 5th and that’s the day she had her first round of chemo and then after that we’re on to May 4th and that’s the day she died, and the reason I remember that date so clearly is because it’s my wife’s birthday on May the 5th.

I can’t help connecting those dates, any more than you could. Take a moment and say your mum’s birthday out loud. We both know that if someone happened to say that date, your brain would automatically, without you asking it to do anything, pop up and go “that’s my mum’s birthday”.

[While we’re on that, isn’t it funny that you simply cannot help saying that very phrase out loud if someone else happens to mention that they have their birthday on that day? “Really?” you exclaim excitedly, “That’s my mum’s birthday!”. And they always say “really?!” and somehow from that moment on you’ve got a little connection with that person that you didn’t have before.]

So for around 8-10 weeks of every year, there’s a constant little reminder round the corner. Those are the dates and every day they will always be connected to a time in 2014 when my Mum went from a bit ill to very ill to very not here any more in the space of 3 or 4 months.

Okay, let me guide you back to the waves.

When my mum died, a friend of mine who runs another healthcare agency [hi Ed!] called me to “offer his condolences” [what an odd phrase we all use there. It’s the only time, just like the only time we talk about “legal tender” is when we end up with a Scottish tenner], and in our conversation he said that in his experience grief was like swimming in the surf. As you go out from the beach you jump or dive through each wave, but occasionally the waves are too close together and before you’ve got your feet or your breath you’re hit by another, and suddenly you’re under the surf and the bubbles are in your face and BANG you’re panicked and your heart rate shoots up and you just get your breath before the next one and so on.

But if you keep going, the further you go the smaller the surf becomes, until bit by bit you feel calmer and more able to ride the waves as they come. And sometimes a big one will hit you, but you have time to adjust after and so it’s not as overwhelming.

It was almost a “by the way” story, but I found it incredibly helpful in enabling me to believe that what I was in the middle of would get easier. No, wait, that’s not right. Not getting easier, but me getting more used to it and thus better at understanding it and riding the wave. It’s been so helpful that I’ve also shared it with friends who have lost someone [through death or also through break-up – the grief that comes from the end of a relationship is just as real and just as powerful as any other].

I’m talking about grief here, but honestly I think this is true for most things we’re going through. Churchill said:

“If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

And whilst that may seem a little glib, there’s damn good advice in there too. This too shall pass, and if you keep going out the waves will calm.

But here’s the hack for you.

Because I’ve learnt that at this time of year there are some chunky looking waves building on the horizon, I’ve also learnt to tell people I care about, and who care about me, that they’re coming. Not to excuse any behaviour, but because talking about the waves actually makes them a bit smaller when they arrive.

The people around you, who care about you, would want you to talk to them about your struggles, just as you would listen with love and care and consideration if they were to talk to you. It’s not always easy, but then nor is getting smashed by waves.

As for me, well I’m doing okay thanks. Surrounded by the right kind of people.

Definitely not drowning, but waving.

[*If you want to hear Stevie Smith talking about the poem and then reciting it (and I encourage you to do so), then you can find a recording here. It’s also in Loyle Carner’s recent album which shares its title with her poem, and if you like poetic, socially conscious hip hop then I also encourage you to check that out too, here on Spotify (and available on your music streaming choice too I’m sure) as I seem to be in the encouraging mood.]

We are all animals

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

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

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

We are animals.

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

We are all just animals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new normal?

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

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

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

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

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

Every high street in Britain, every day

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

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

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

That’s isolation.

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

Here’s what this made me think of…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going viral

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disinformation is a virus.

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

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

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

But wait…

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

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

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

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

See how compassionate you dare to be today.

What’s your R value? Go, spread love.

This too shall pass

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

So, have I had coronavirus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re not. And it’s not.

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

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

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

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

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

No. No I’m not.

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

This too shall pass

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

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

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

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

Take care x

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

Time flies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perception is reality.

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

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

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

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

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

Perception is reality

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

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

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

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

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

So here’s a call to action for you.

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

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

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

My generation

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

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

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

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

My actual hand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think we all do.

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

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

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

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

An idea whose time has come eh?

That’s quite some responsibility.

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

What the hell am I doing here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can only imagine what that must be like.

But I can imagine.

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

I can only imagine.

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

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

Longing for belonging

Culture is a funny thing to put so much time and energy into really, because really it’s totally intangible. Impossible to measure the return on the emotional and intellectual investment. The investment of time, and brain power. The books, the articles, the conversations. How are we really doing? And… whisper this quietly… what good is it really doing?

The dictionary definition of faith is:

…firm belief in something for which there is no proof.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Personally I’m not a religious person. I don’t have faith in that sense. Yet I do have incredible faith in the value of creating a really inclusive working environment.

How is that faith so strong, so unshakeable?

Well perhaps it’s because the end point is something we all recognise. Something we all know exists even if we could never touch it or see it or put a number against it on a spreadsheet.

We’re trying to get to a feeling. A feeling that can make us feel safe; that in its absence makes us feel exposed.

Think back to a time when you really didn’t feel you belonged. Maybe it was at school, or at a company where you felt you had to pretend to be someone you weren’t to fit in. Perhaps it’s when you find yourself in certain conversations, or in certain situations, or certain places.

It’s a bloody horrible feeling, isn’t it? Making you feel uncomfortable and uneasy and kind of small. And it stays with you.

So let’s leave that behind and go somewhere much nicer, shall we? Because the positive flipside is just as powerful as a connective tissue.

When was that time when you really did feel you belonged?

Perhaps it’s that time with that group of colleagues when it all just clicked. Perhaps it’s right in the middle of the dance floor, surrounded by strangers, when the beat’s just about to drop. Perhaps it’s just sitting with your closest friends, laughing in that weird way you laugh sometimes with the little piggy snort at the end (you know who you are).

Belonging means you feel safe. It means you can just be yourself, dancing like nobody’s watching… when everyone’s watching.

That’s something to aim for, right?

And that’s why I’m doing this work in inclusivity and diversity: so that people can feel like they belong. And when they belong they will feel free to be creative and innovative and unique and weird in all their weird and wonderful ways.

Because (and promise you won’t tell anyone this), I’m actually quite weird too, in my own way.  So are you. We all are. And we all need to belong, for reasons that are hundreds of thousands of years old.

Human beings are pack animals. Strategically shaved monkeys really. We have created a civilisation more complex and complicated and confusing than any in the history of our planet – way more complex than we are designed for, in evolutionary terms. Which is why we are conditioned to yearn for belonging – so we are part of the tribe – protected and safe. Close to the camp fire.

I don’t care that it’s not measurable to be honest – I’ve got evolutionary psychology on my side.

So yes, let’s aim for belonging, and let’s have faith in its value through culture, and values, and connection, and love, and all the other stuff you can’t put a number on.

Just because you can’t measure something doesn’t mean it’s not real.

Happy New Year brothers and sisters. Love and peace.

Why this, why now?

I’ve always loved writing. When I was a kid, I read everything I could get my hands on, and then when I’d read everything I wrote stories and collected interesting quotations. When I was a teenager, I wrote poetry (of course). When I was in my twenties, I wrote a whole novel (which I only ever showed to one editor because they didn’t like it and I didn’t like them not liking it – not exactly JK Rowling levels of thick skin and determination).

And I’ve always been fascinated by the power of words. The power to move people, to support or cajole or challenge. To connect and to divide. To rise up or crush down.

Over the last few years, my own words are something that have started to bring more responsibility too. Whether that’s presenting to my clients about brand strategy or creative, talking to the agency about our values and vision, coaching or mentoring individuals to be their best, or (increasingly) talking to large groups of strangers about gender equality and building an inclusive workplace… my words have some of their own power of influence too.

Speaking at WACL Gather in May 2019 (picture ©BronacMcNeill)

It occurs to me that pretty much all of the people in the above groups kind of have to listen to me whether they want to or not – be that through politeness or payment. But you don’t have to read any of this, so if you’ve got this far I reckon you’re doing pretty well already.

Here I’m going to be using my words to try to make the world of work and life a better place. At heart I’m a dreamer and an optimist, and that has its strengths and weaknesses – all of which will be on these pages somewhere, asking questions and challenging on how we take things forward.

I’ll be blogging about things that make me want to speak up, but only things where I’ve got a perspective or something to add. None of us need more words about some certain subjects. I’m interested in asking questions and giving food for thought – how can we build truly inclusive working environments where people can be their best and do their best work? How can a shift towards modern masculinity improve the lives of both men and women? How do we turn the theory of all this into practicality?

Through doing this, I’d like to give people pause to think, and perhaps some positive ideas to take forward. If I can connect with some like-minded people then that would be great too.

Please note, there’s a decent chance I might swear a bit here and there, so if that’s not your cup of tea then I apologise in advance and suggest you quietly look away as I take the opportunity to shout #$@&%*! at the absolute top of my voice.

So without further ado, you’re reading, I’m writing… shall we?