Time flies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perception is reality.

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

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

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

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

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

Perception is reality

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

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

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

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

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

So here’s a call to action for you.

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

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

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

My generation

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

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

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

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

My actual hand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think we all do.

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

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

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

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

An idea whose time has come eh?

That’s quite some responsibility.

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

What the hell am I doing here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can only imagine what that must be like.

But I can imagine.

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

I can only imagine.

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

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

Time To Talk Day: my anxiety

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

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

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

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

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

A little context…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is me”, I say.

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

In fact, it’s bloody Kryptonite.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what I will say is this:

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

You’re welcome.

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

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

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

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

The Four Conversations

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

And the winner is…

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

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

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

The Supporter Conversation

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

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

The Convert Conversation

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

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

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

The Cynic Conversation

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

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

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

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

The Co-Conspirator Conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But do you want to know the good part?

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

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

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

The more you know…

Diversity. Inclusivity. Intersectionality. So much to get your head round (especially from the perspective of being The Man – see previous blog), and just when you think you’ve got your head round one bit you realise that while you were playing catch up everything wasn’t just standing still waiting for you and now the conversation has already moved on; the language is different.

Like walking up a mountain and thinking that at long last you’re reaching the summit only to see even higher hazy hilltops climbing into the clouds, there’s a distinct sense that the more you know, the more you realise how little you know.

Weirdly it can sometimes actually feel quite ex-clusive. Especially when you’re really trying to do and say the right thing: both because it’s important to say the right thing for all the good reasons and because you want to show you’re someone who knows what the right thing is to say.

And as I’ve got deeper and deeper into a world of inclusivity, I’ve found that there are things that only D&I ‘novices’ say, which the vanguard might even scoff at. You quite often hear something along the lines of “it’s not about concept X anymore, it’s all about concept Y” – and I’m pretty much always thinking “I’ve only just worked out what I think about concept X, and I’ve never even heard of concept Y”.

As an example, I always thought that getting people to understand their own biases seemed like a good thing, but increasingly I find myself in conversations where the ubiquitous “unconscious bias training” is derided for being “Diversity 101” – the thing that corporations do to say they’ve done something. Or in the (approximate!) words of Ruth Hunt, erstwhile CEO of Stonewall, it’s where people can realise they’re a little bit racist but it’s not their fault…

Not everyone would agree with that of course, but when you haven’t quite worked out what you think about it yet it’s easy to feel… well, uneasy. Like you should know what you think, about everything, even if it’s constantly metamorphosing into the next thing…

And of course the discourse around Diversity & Inclusion isn’t standing still either.

Diversity is the thing we all understand, but that’s just facts and numbers – how diverse an organisation is can be measured today. And when it’s Diversity 101, all too often it’s just visual. We’ve all seen diversity used tokenistically in corporate communications (if you didn’t last time, check out Diverse-ish – it really sums this up perfectly).

Inclusivity is more forward-looking: a mindset, a set of choices and decisions and associated actions and behaviours. Because of that increasingly you can start to see the initials D&I flip places to I&D, where a focus on building an inclusive culture comes first so that the diversity that it drives has a chance to thrive the right environment.

But even with the seismic shift from D&I to I&D (so innovative Phil, you must be very proud on how you picked up on that one) I’m still constantly feeling that I’m behind the curve. Or certainly a curve.

It’s not a comfortable feeling really. Perhaps if I were a different person it might be too uncomfortable – to constantly being shown my own ignorance; constantly learning more about how little I know. Constantly seeing another peak loom into view…

What I have learnt, is actually what keeps me climbing.

I’ve learnt that everyone is on their own journey or understanding. Some are a little further on, have read a little more or had to challenge their initial thinking a little more deeply, but nobody is at the summit, looking down.

From that point it becomes clear that it’s really about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Because knowledge is less important than inquisitiveness; pretending you’ve considered all the possible angles and thus have all the answers is less authentic than discussing your ignorance and asking all the searching questions.

And authenticity is everything.

Who am I to argue?

And so it turns out knowing nothing is the first step in any journey of discovery.

Who knew?

Pussy Galore

Feels awkward to read, doesn’t it? Certainly feels awkward to write and even more awkward to press ‘Publish’ on this post. But as I desperately hope you are aware, that was the name of the female lead in the James Bond film Goldfinger, played by Honor Blackman.

Honor Blackman is…

(By the way, do you remember her in that UK sitcom in the early 90’s with one of the McGann brothers? I do, but can’t really remember anything about it apart from the fact that they seemed to live in a basement flat and it dripped with sexual tension. Anyway that’s not important now…)

If you could put that character name to one side for a second, I think you’d agree that Goldfinger is a bloody good example of the JB genre, with Sean Connery at his louche best, a great narrative, a suitably unpleasant baddy and arguably the most memorable theme tune of all time sung by the inimitable Dame Shirley (the Unofficial Queen of Wales™).

And Pussy Galore actually kicked ass too – when Bond tried to manhandle her he ended up on his arse in a hay barn. Okay, so then she ended up “succumbing” to Bond’s dubious “charms” but by 1964 standards you could argue she was a strong female character.

But wow, how uncomfortable did I feel when my two young boys (aged 5 and 9) were watching their latest Bond film a few days back and that name came up?

I’ll tell you how uncomfortable.

THIS UNCOMFORTABLE.

Because whilst they don’t know what it means, or would understand the concept of a double entendre (or, in this case, a crap single entendre), it does show a general lack of respect for women which feels very out of place. Add into that the idea of a ‘Bond Girl’ who is there to be kissed and potentially to die horribly before Bond goes on to force himself on someone else and suddenly I’m sitting next to two young boys and it’s like 50 years of feminism never happened…

So how do I reconcile the fact that some of the old films I grew up with are horribly misogynistic (especially is you go back to the 1980s and earlier) against the values I hold today? Here I am, a proud and outspoken advocate of gender equality, not knowing what to say at that part where Bond backhands a young woman or casually smacks another on the backside?

I don’t think I can just put it down to “different times” or “different context”? Because as far as my boys are concerned, the fact that I’m allowing them to watch it means it’s all okay, right?  And I’m not even sure they realise Bond (or whatever old film or show we’re watching) isn’t current anyway, come to think of it. It’s new to them, so in their world it’s new! 

“But dear old Bartlett” I hear you cry, “why not just stop showing them crap films and shows from times of yore and show them something more forward-thinking?”

Yeah I could do that. And of course it’s not exclusive “old stuff Dad likes” on the TV. But I think just avoiding it could be kind of a cop out…?

I don’t think I can hide them from the mistakes of the past, because they will find them themselves one way or another. And let’s be honest, it’s not like racism or sexism are things of the past (I know, shock horror, right?). People just don’t always say them out loud any more.

No, I think what I have to do is hit the pause button and say, “Listen boys, what just happened is shocking, and I hope you felt as uncomfortable watching it as I did. You should know that people used to think women could be treated like that, but we know better now. Now we treat women with respect and dignity, right?”

But honestly I know that they will just nod dutifully whilst hoping I shut up and hit the play button. 

So I’m not sure about this one.

What would you do? What do you do?

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.

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…

Hold the line – a message for the Inclusivity Warriors on their knees

There are people you meet by involving yourself in D&I whom you wouldn’t necessarily meet otherwise. Interesting people (almost without exception): passionate, thoughtful.  Often kind and generous with their input, advice and time. People who are determined and resourceful, strong and inspiring.

Most of them do it in their spare time. I say “spare”. They do it in their own time. On top of the day job.

But when I’ve spoken to some of those same people recently, I’ve noticed that there are other adjectives that I could use which I hadn’t seen before.

Dejected.

Disillusioned.

Exhausted.

“It feels like I’m getting nowhere”

“I’m just so tired of having the same conversation over and over”

“I can’t do this on my own”

“I’m not sure any of this is making any difference”

I know how they feel. Because I’ve felt the same recently as well. Too many to-do-lists where the urgent pushes the important to the bottom. Too many Too many conversations where people are agreeing because they feel they have to, not because they actually, truly believe what I’m saying. Too little actually changing.

In a twisted way I think it might have been easier before #MeToo, when lazy sexism (or any -ism you care to mention) just got blurted out by thoughtless idiots and was there, right in the open, to be challenged and argued. But only the most aggressive provocateur or mindless bigot (or arrogant, power-crazed sociopath like you-know-who) would blurt it out now. And as a life rule I try to make a point of avoiding people like that.

And now I’m constantly wondering if I’m having a conversation with someone who gets where I’m coming from, or someone who knows they have to pretend to.

There are tell-tale signs of course. Any mention that their organisation is fulfilling all legal requirements, or that they’re “looking into D&I really carefully”. Anyone who talks about the ‘unconscious bias training’ that everyone had to do… as though understanding bias actually changes anything…

If you haven’t seen the amazing “Diverseish” work done by some of my colleagues at AMVBBDO for #Valuable500 then check it out below – it’s a demonstration of the conversations across D&I that we’re having all the time…

And we’re all impatient. For others to see the world the way we see the world. When you have conviction in what you’re doing it’s incredibly difficult to see the other person’s world – it’s like having to explain to someone why you believe the grass is green or the sky is blue. You run out of words. Out of energy.

So what words do I have for those people who feel like they’re fighting a losing battle. Good people feeling isolated and small, confidence rocked, idealism shot to shit?

I say this…

Hold the line.

Hold the line and don’t take a single step back.  And know that I am here, alongside you. Arms locked, standing strong. We are all locked together, across geographies and oceans, and our strength comes from one another because in spirit we are as one.

Don’t doubt for a single second that you are making a difference, and even if you have to change the world one person at a time then every single second to that end will be a second well spent.

Listen, I know nothing will change overnight, but believe me, it’s changing. And we’re on the right side of that change, right now.