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 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?

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.

Checking my privilege

I am The Man. By that I don’t mean that I am totally ace in every way, because I’m totally not. I’m not going for a “You’re the man!” vibe. Rather, I am The Man as in “stick it to The Man”. Because on the face of it, I am the classic authority figure, crossing pretty much every box on a diversity list. 

Male, white, straight, middle-aged, middle-class, able-bodied, cisgender, neurotypical. Hell, I’m even privately educated. I’ve got a few mental health bits and bobs I’m bumbling through (more of that in a post in due course, methinks!) but on face value I am the establishment; an embodiment of The Patriarchy.

I am “THE MAN”.

Each one of those has got me some kind of advantage, in some way, big or small, that I didn’t earn in any way. All of it was just handed to me by nature or nurture. All of it is a privilege in some way.

I’ve always been aware of that privilege to a degree, but it’s not until I’ve found myself in more and more conversations around different areas of diversity that it’s been clear that I’m pretty much always in the majority rather than the minority. And on the whole it’s not the majority who get beaten down or overlooked or oppressed.

In Grayson Perry’s book “The Descent of Man” (read it, it’s good) he calls it “Default Man” – the ‘norm’ around which the world is forced to adapt.

That’s what privilege does for you. All of which sometimes makes for some interesting introspection. When you’re THE MAN, you’re the bloody problem – can you be part of the solution too…?

On top of that, there’s an interesting nuance to show that even if you don’t cross all the boxes, there might still be privilege, because it’s fluid and relative, as demonstrated by a story a good friend told me recently of his own experience.

He’s a highly intelligent and highly educated man who happens to be gay and decided to get involved in his work Pride event. At the first meeting, and for the first time in his life, he was faced with the idea that actually being a middle-class, white, gay man is a bloody breeze when you don’t have to layer on racial stereotypes or cultural expectations, or being transgender, or being disabled.

Suddenly “just being a gay man without anything else to worry about” was a privilege in itself: a new perspective, and one that was both surprising and humbling.

Cards designed by Fabiola Lara https://www.instagram.com/fabiolitadraws

Now, I’m hyper-aware of my privilege, across all the parameters outlined and probably a few more too. But rather than let it hold me back and be a reason not to have a point of view, I think it drives me on. Some of the advantages I’ve had have, in some way, got me to where I am today, with a point of view and a social conscience, outwardly confident, usually erudite (if a little verbose) and, now in my life and career, with something to say.

And so I believe I’ve got a responsibility – a duty even – to stand up and speak up. Because if I can’t speak up, with all the privilege I benefit from, then who can?

All any of us can do is be aware of our own privilege, and be respectful of the advantage that gives us. And, whatever privilege you have, use it for good if you can. 

Because from someone else’s perspective, there’s a good chance that you really are the lucky one.

Why the hell do we need International Men’s Day??

Chances are you’ve probably heard of International Women’s Day. It lands on March 8th, and always has a celebratory feel – women celebrating other women, supporting each other and championing gender equality.  Big events, talks, commentary – all positive and future-focussed.

But also on International Women’s Day, there’s always an undercurrent from a certain type of man; a dismissive, faux-outrage “what a load of nonsense” response which is summed up by…

“Oh great, when is International Men’s Day??!!”

The comedian Richard Herring (https://twitter.com/Herring1967) actually dedicates his entire day on March 8th replying to all the men who tweet something like that and replying to them with “It’s on November 19th” or similar. Such a lovely, very British (read: passive aggressive!) retort, highlighting the lazy fatuousness of the question…

Just one of several hundred examples…

So to all those men, I say Happy International Men’s Day today. Hope you’re out celebrating and putting up bunting. But I’m guessing probably not. Probably something else to be outraged about today…

Whilst we’re on the subject of faux-outrage and backlash, there’s no better example than the reaction to at the beginning of this year we also had the Gillette ad which ran, trying to point out that traditional, old-school views of ‘masculinity’ don’t really fit with a modern world, and could end up being ‘toxic’.

This time the outrage came from all sides at the idea that Gillette dare suggest that masculinity is toxic.  Which of course wasn’t the point at all. But it did give people who like to be shocked and appalled by things like this something to be shocked and appalled about for a bit.

Someone being shocked and appalled whilst their co-worker pulls a face of incredulity.

That misunderstanding (deliberate or otherwise) did hurt Gillette – especially in the US where debate is increasingly divisive and “if you’re not with us you’re against us” indignation seems like a national pastime.

But whilst Gillette’s reasons were self-serving (their business model is under huge threat from online suppliers), the execution was underwhelming (the whole thing looked like the client had just gone for the first draft of the ‘manifesto film’) and the response to the inevitable backlash was disappointing (once sales dropped initially the whole idea was quickly dropped), there was an important inflection point in there too.

Because all the “traditional” ways that masculinity is meant to represent – that’s not me. It never has been (although, like most men, I’ve bluffed it so many times over the years).  It starts with the idea that boys don’t cry, and from that moment on we have the vulnerability drummed out of us to be replaced with stoicism.

To re-use some words from a talk I gave at the Omniwomen Summit on International Women’s Day last year:

Bravery is lauded. Confidence and strength still often defines social status. We’re not taught empathy we’re taught resilience.

That is why I think International Men’s Day is important.

Not to push men forward – God knows that happens pretty much every other day of the year anyway – but to have a space where forward-thinking men can set a vision of the future where men have the right to be all the things they want to be without judgement. To be free of the expectations of a society built around rules that none of us signed up for but all of us – men and women – are expected to play by.

Grayson Perry puts it best…

Men’s rights: The right to be vulnerable The right to be weak The right to be wrong The right to be intuitive The right not to know The right to be uncertain The right to be flexible The right not to be ashamed of any of these.

Grayson Perry – The Descent of Man

That’s real masculinity for me – nuanced and thoughtful. And strong with it. It takes a shitload more strength to admit that you’re weak sometimes than it does to pretend that you’re strong all the time.

And by doing that we create space for others.

Inclusivity starts when those in positions of power or influence have the self-assurance to take a step back, perhaps even admit some of their vulnerabilities. Without that there’s no air for inclusivity to breathe and thrive.

So a very happy International Men’s Day to all the men out there. Use it to be the best friend, colleague, brother, son, husband and dad you can be. On your terms, with honesty and truthfulness.

You owe it to yourself. In fact, perhaps you even owe it to your true self.

Solidarity brother!

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?