A post-office world?

When my wife [hi Sarah!] and I made the decision to move out of South East London [big up big up Crystal Palace massive] three years back, I planned to work from home for “at least” a day a week. I was going from a 45-minute commute to one which would take an hour and a half, and anyway it’s not like I actually need to be physically ‘in the office’ every day…

Needless to say, that didn’t happen. Most weeks I was in every day, with perhaps a day working from home every couple of weeks. And when I did, I made it very clear what I would be working on…

Because tradition states that work is something that was done… well… at work. And everyone knows that all this newfangled “working from home” nonsense really just means dossing around doing nothing. No way that someone could be as productive from home, or that they could really be trusted to do their work instead of drifting off and playing computer games or watching daytime TV.

“Oh yeah right working from home mate yeah? Like nice one yeah?!”

Of course I knew that wasn’t the case: if anything I tended to work longer hours, with less distractions, fewer interruptions and less breaks than I did at the office. Without my friendly neighbourhood Finance Director [hi Jonny!] sitting next to me ready to wander off and grab a coffee, I was smashing through my to-do-list at quite a pace.

In fact, if I had organised a bunch of things to put on my WHF to-do-list which might have taken me a whole day to get done in the office, I might even find that I was through it by early afternoon and freeing up time to get to some of the important stuff that often got bumped by the urgent stuff.

But I always felt I had to check in with people too to prove I wasn’t off doing what I thought people might think I was doing instead of work. Call it “virtual presenteeism” if you like – an email, a text, just to say “I am still here, and I am still working”.

And I was also conscious that it was all very well for me to be working from home, because I’m in the privileged position of being the boss of the agency and thus a) largely setting my own work timetable and b) having no one to tell me what to do or where to be (in London, anyway!). Not so easy if you’re the Account Manager with the client on the phone all day, or the Planner with a creative team to brief…

Within a matter of days, lockdown meant that “WFH” was the norm. And soon everyone showed that they can work just as hard, just as effectively, just as productively from wherever their laptop was set up.

We’ve still had some issues – of course we have. The blurring of lines between work space and home space has meant that hours become blurred too; sometimes too much. I still have the occasional twitch which pushes me into digital presenteeism… now using Teams or WhatsApp as much as the other channels I used to use. “Video calls” where instead of a load of faces it’s just a sea of initials or avatars made everything feel very cold and unnatural [luckily we’ve pulled ourselves up on this and have made a real effort over recent weeks – it’s made a massive difference].

Stolen from my cousin Nick’s post [hi mate!]

And I’ve written recently about the lack of opportunity for ad hoc, in person, informal learning from colleagues and co-workers which I found so valuable in my formative years.

So there’s stuff to fix, but surely the stigma around working from home will have been the one victim of this virus that we can be positive about?

Hmm. I’m not sure.

When our office spaces are back to something like normality, will the assumption return that work is done “at work”? If we don’t need to work from home, wouldn’t it just be better if most of the people were in one place most of the time?

I think there are various truths about this whole thing that we’re going to need to reconsider, and possibly reconcile, over the coming weeks and months…

  1. There is no substitute for personal, face-to-face interaction. None.
  2. I would not have the relationships that I have with the people with whom I work had I not spent a lot of time with them in the same place [specifically “the office”, in case you’re wondering].
  3. Building an organisational culture without being physically together as a group would be really, really difficult. Not impossible, but tough.
  4. A strong organisational culture makes a company more resilient to a crisis, with shared values acting as the strongest foundation for honest, genuine working relationships.
  5. Some people have been more productive working virtually, with associated benefits in their mental wellbeing and emotional and physical energy
  6. Some people have found working virtually incredibly difficult, with the blurred lines between work and home feeling both draining and isolating at the same time.
  7. Some people will work like a dog no matter where you put them.
  8. Some people will do as little as possible no matter how much faith you put in them.
  9. Virtual hugs are not as good as actual hugs. Especially from me, as I am a world-class hugger [N.B. this is not my personal opinion – I have a full trophy room to prove it].
  10. It’s all about trust.

Yeah I know, I funnelled you into that last one. But it really is.

And so before you do anything else, assume positive intent. I know it’s obvious, and I know it’s not always easy. But it’s also surprisingly uplifting.

Assume that people are trustworthy. That they care about their work and their colleagues. That they want to do a good job, every day.

That they trust you to do the same.

Let’s all assume that we’re all doing our best, unless specifically proven otherwise, and a lot of this “new normal” [aaaarrrrgggghhh that phrase again] planning will be a lot easier. Start with trust and we can crack on making a new kind of totally flexible working – flexible around you as an individual with specific requirements and specific responsibilities, in all parts of your life, like never before – really work. For all of us.

What’s past is prologue…

It’s been a long time since my last post. To me, anyway. We all know that time sometimes go fast, sometimes slow, but it’s rare that this happens at the same time. But this summer, well. You don’t need me to tell you that this summer has been different, in every way. Days drift into weeks and February in an office in the middle of London seems not just like another time but almost another place, in another life we once had.

This has felt like a strange interlude – like we’re all living in the interval in the middle of a play: discussing what we made of how the first half went – which characters seemed the most plausible, which plot lines might develop – and waiting for the second half to begin when we can see how things turn out. Except we’re not just the audience, we’re also part of the play too: expected to know how to act and where to stand and what to say, even though we have never read the script and don’t know the plot.


Act One was all about reacting to this unknown something that forced us to change everything overnight and question everything. How to live, how to work, how to feed ourselves even. It was punchy and powerful, leaving us dazed and confused.

Act Two was learning to live with a new situation, settling down, understanding how this might work. Learning more about the unknown, too – how it might affect us and our loved ones; learning to understand statistics and judge risk. And it was about settling into some kind of solidarity through our shared experience. All in this together.

Act Three, just before the interval, was about conflict. Disagreement on what was right and what wasn’t. One rule for them, another for you. And then more conflict, even more visceral. Disbelief, disruption and demonstration. Tumultuous turmoil.

And then the interval.

From here, it’s about some kind of return to some kind of something which isn’t really normality but rather a new kind of normality seen through a distorted lens. It might look similar, but it will never be the same.

My own experience of the good and bad of lockdown is unique to me, of course. Yours is unique to you, too. But the next Act is coming, and just as this year has played with time so uniquely thus far, it will again, and now the bell has rung and the curtain is going to rise once again whilst you’re still grabbing one of those tiny ice cream tubs with a spoon in the lid.

So before the lights dim, just take a moment to look around. Remember the crazy time we’ve all gone through, good and bad, and consider what’s worked for you during this enforced performance and what you want to leave behind.

Because this feels very different to every other time, and if you’re one of the lucky ones with a job to go back to, and a company with a vision for the future, then for the first time in the history of people working in offices you might just be able to have a say in what part you might want to play from here.

What’s past is prologue; and what to come, in yours and my discharge.

William Shakespeare, The Tempest: Act II, Scene I

Where the hell do I start?

With the incredible sense of entitlement that allows someone to feel vindicated in doing pretty much whatever they like because their situation is so much more nuanced and complex than your situation and anyway they’re actually more important and intelligent than you and really you wouldn’t understand?

With the strategy to combat a deadly virus conflated with partisan politics?

With lies openly told by governments but everyone too exhausted or bored or disengaged to bother to do anything but sigh?

With full on, simple, bare-faced racism which has never been addressed with truth and honesty but just ignored and constantly re-booted in big and little ways because it’s too difficult and uncomfortable to unpick?

With peacefully protesting citizens being tear gassed by police to make way for their own fucking president on his way to a photo opp?

Wait, what??

With the leader of the free world using language inextricably linked to historical, racist police brutality (oh but “that’s not what I meant” so don’t worry that’s okay)?

With deliberately provocative groups of white vigilantes armed with golf clubs and baseball bats taking to the streets seemingly without challenge from the police?

With the systematic militarisation of police resulting almost inevitably in dehumanisation of the individuals dressed like something out of an unrealistic dystopian film?

With members of the UK Parliament currently unable to vote on behalf of their constituents because a very small amount of very entitled people need that parliament to look, sound and act more like a public school common room than a place where important decisions need to be made?

With the hypocrisy of people who voted for years against actual policies that might have supported “our” NHS, clapping and banging outside their houses every week in areas where front line NHS workers could not afford to live and will never hear the empty noise echoing into the dusky evening?

Spotted in a town in Northern England. Not selling anything.

With corporations around the world talking about their inclusive culture whilst actively failing to actively support or actually invest in inclusivity programmes which might actually do something… or worse, actually actively and openly putting D&I on the back burner in “these unprecedented times”?

With video after video being shown of police hitting unarmed protestors as hard as they possibly can, protestors who were standing still, or trying to cycle home, or reacting to being groped, or just getting ‘too close’?

With the retort of “yeah, but don’t all lives matter?” glibly thrown like a smarmy, clever little hand grenade full of deliberate ignorance?   

With a growing dread that because every media outlet has some kind of agenda, it’s getting harder and harder to find objective truth beyond hastily shot iPhone footage?

With the sense that no one really cares about truth anyway, they just want to hear from sources who reinforce what they already think?

With the horrible feeling that your faith that kindness and love will ultimately conquer all might just be a naïve fantasy?

Okay, wait a minute.

Yeah, maybe I’ll start with the last one.

Because I’ve seen white cops taking off helmets and laying down batons and walking alongside their communities.

Sheriff Christopher Swanson, Genesee County Michigan

Because I know that the outpouring of sadness for what’s happening in America is real, and that sadness comes from a good place.

Because we may not know what to do, but knowing something has to be done is the first step.

Because the further things go, the more people will decide that enough is enough.

Because regardless of political or social predilections, I do think that the idea of “fairness” is one that transcends most divisions, and there’s nothing fair about what’s happening at the moment.

Because there’s a fine line between frustration and injustice, which drive action, and dejection and gloom, which make you give up. And I need to actively keep myself on the right side of that.

Because I do believe, with all my heart and soul, that hope and love are stronger than despair and hate. That the light side of the force will ultimately overcome the dark side of the force. Even if it takes 9 feature films to get there.

Unusual that I turn to Rocky for wise words, but just this once…

“The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It is a very mean and nasty place It will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me or nobody is going to hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit, it is about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much can you take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done”

Rocky Balboa, 2006, written & directed by Sylvester Stallone.

Because we will move forward.

Love and peace x

Now, more than ever…

Now, more than ever, in these difficult times, we are all in this together. In such uncertain times, we have to reset normal, be well, and now, more than ever, find a new normal. Because now, more than ever, we must stay strong and stay safe in what are (in case you missed it) unprecedented times. We’re here for you.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been drowning in cliché: soundbites that may have started with sincerity but seem less so every time you hear them, especially when they’re espoused by billionaire CEOs or massive multinationals. All trying to show they have heart, soul, and that most ethereal, most zeitgeist of brand essentials… a PURPOSE.

My colleague, collaborator and [dare I say it?] bloody good chum and all round top chap [ooh that was a little more than expected!] Mr Oliver Caporn wrote a blog recently (which you can find here – he’s very good) about how every single piece of consumer advertising is following the same exact formula (check out the film that proves this point here) and how actually, in searching for a way to show “purpose” when no one wants ads that say “buy more stuff”, consumer brands have actually ended up looking and sounding a lot like brands in healthcare used to look and sound (before they got a bit more sophisticated and less samey).

but now, more than ever, in these uncertain times etc etc

Working in healthcare marketing, as Olly and I do, the ‘purpose’ bit is a lot more simple as you might imagine, even in these difficult times. Our clients make things that, one way or another, are designed to help people. Whether that’s by developing drugs that actually save or prolong or otherwise change the lives of patients, or by creating cutting edge materials, products and services that enable laboratories to do some good science [did I ever mention I don’t have a science background?] they’re all there to do good, to help, to improve lives.

[I’m not going to deep into the “big pharma” argument here, but just to cover it off quickly: I’ve worked for the pharmaceutical industry in some capacity for the last 20-odd years and the vast, vast majority of people I’ve met have been genuinely committed to improving the lives of patients, not the bank balances of investors. I’m sure there are exceptions, and I’m sure some companies are better than others, and I know some mistakes have been made over the years… but I get a little tired of the negative press that pharma always, always fail to effectively counter. If you want to slag someone off, try cigarette or weapons manufacturers. Or Über of course – if you’re not sure why, listen to this podcast.]

So from a brand perspective, I think we probably know a good deal more about what purpose is all about, and how to talk about very general positive intentions without getting quite so generic and seeming so self-serving.

Which, of course, is precisely where the big consumer brands end up. Because as much as they want to be authentic, and say something nice, no one really gives a fuck if “Big Multinational Brand X have been here for you for X number of years and are still here for you, now more than ever, in these trying times”.

It’s self-serving because it’s just a desperate attempt to say something, to stay relevant when you’re just not.

“But we’re Nike – we need to have a POV about these unprecedented times”.

No. No, you don’t.

No one is buying new trainers, because we’re trying to survive a global pandemic. [Even me. And I bloody love trainers.]

And trust me, now, more than ever, no one is looking to huge multinational corporations for moral support.

But the desire to be relevant? That I do get. Because there’s no question that being an inclusive, emotional business leader in these crazy times is really, really weird.

How can you lead people anywhere if you don’t see them? Do people even really need leadership if that leader can’t really do anything practical to make things different or better? A leader can’t home school your kids, or sort your wi-fi, or get you to see your parents.

So what’s the purpose of leadership in these difficult times?

Well, it starts with showing the desire to double down on the things that can actually carry an organisation through such unprecedented times – intangible, uncountable and often overlooked things like shared values, belonging, togetherness.

Sometimes all this stuff gets called the “soft measures”. And it’s true, none of these pay the bills on their own. But when we come out of the far end of this [and rest assured, this too shall pass] trust me when I say that it’ll be the organisations with a clear sense of collective strength that do the best.

And the leaders who can come out of this into a new normal with the emotional integrity of the group perhaps even stronger than when they went in? Well, that would be something special.

With that aim in mind, it becomes crucial to really embrace the juxtapositions that are inherent in the concept of emotional leadership. To show resilience alongside vulnerability. To balance total honesty with credible optimism and hope. To be the cheerleader and the counsellor. To pull people together, and to push them on.

And, to do all that with an openness, transparency and authenticity that’s so obvious that it doesn’t matter if a couple of clichés get dropped in now and then because there’s purpose behind them.

None of this is about being in an office. It’s about enabling and then truly being part of something that doesn’t have to have a physical home, a neural network of people disparate in geography but united in their determination and connected by their values.

Soft measures my arse – these things are as solid as the big, brash, barren buildings we once made our way to every day.

People don’t need leadership per se, they need genuine, honest connections with other people. The leader is just there to help make that a possibility, a shared passion and a collective aim, and then get out of the way and let things happen.

That’s leadership with purpose, and that’s relevant not just in these unprecedented times, but always. The constant drive to be building something that doesn’t just exist in a building.

Hmm, that’s kind of catchy. Perhaps I might do an ad myself. I’m sure Nike are waiting to hear that now, more than ever, I’m here for them.

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

Maintaining Momentum

Sometimes starting is actually the easiest part. It’s not so hard to get people to commit to action on a particular issue when everything is pretty crap and therefore kind of embarrassing, especially if that embarrassment could be linked back to some kind of innate injustice or wrongdoing or privilege that makes us feel uncomfortable…

Take any issue you like. If on a scale of 1 (bad) to 10 (great) we’re all basically somewhere between 1 and 3, then it’s clear that we need to do something and do it right now then there’s energy and action and movement. People get involved because 2 “just isn’t good enough” and “we have a responsibility to do something” and “it’s only by pulling together that we can shift the needle on this crucial issue”…

But if we’re getting up to 5, or 6 (or even 7 on a good day)… well, do we really need to carry on making such a fuss?

“From a scale of 0 to 10, how crap are things currently?”

“I know it’s not perfect but it’s a damn sight better than it used to be…”

Oh, no. Not this. I know where this is going…

“Okay, so we’re not where we want to be on gender equality but you should have seen us two years ago…”

“We’ve done a load of outreach stuff to bring in more people from different ethnic backgrounds but it’s not really landed yet… we’ll just have to wait and see how that goes…”

“I think we’re really accepting of gay people already – I don’t see we can do much more…”

They’re not direct quotations but there’s an underlying feeling that we’ve kind of “done” some of these things. Gender, some stuff on race, maybe LGBTQI+ in some vague way. Used to be a 2, now we’re a strong 5 aspiring for a 6 or even 7!

The moment we think this stuff is in any way done is the moment we lose any momentum we’ve built up.

There’s no question that things have moved on in the last few years – particularly on gender equality (which was given real impetus through the #MeToo movement) but we’re only just starting to see the slightest movement on anything that will allow good intentions to result in lasting change.

The vast majority of D&I work is still done effectively voluntarily – by people giving their own time, energy, thinking and effort for nothing. That’s not just true for charities, that’s true for some of the biggest, richest corporations on the planet.

Good will and personal energy will get things moving and keep them going for a couple of years; perhaps more for people whose passion and resilience mean they refuse to give up.

But finding the energy to start again, from scratch, every year? Always on top of the day job? That’s tough. Especially when the momentum isn’t there.

Events that used to sell out in minutes suddenly find they’re only just breaking even.

There used to be 10 or 15 people who said they wanted to help, then suddenly you’re down to the same 3 or 4.

Movements that started with passion and energy and forward movement suddenly slow to almost glacial levels, so slow that any movement is imperceptible to the naked eye. Is it moving or is it… dead?

This is happening. I know it’s happening because I’m seeing it with some of the people, organisations and events I’m close to personally, and that can’t be a coincidence. [Unless… wait, am I the bloody bad luck charm??!!]

That’s why I believe this is a crucial moment in the shift towards a more inclusive world of work.

The initial shift from things being totally crap to being kind of okay has brought with it a low level of complacency which threatens to bring the whole thing to a grinding halt.

Just when things have started moving up is not the time to stop pushing. It’s the time to find more people to help with the push. By bringing together not just individuals but groups of like-minded people the effort is shared and the energy amplified.

And there’s no better time for that than right now.

If this crazy time we’re in the middle of has done anything, it’s re-established what’s important to people – or at least amplified the sound of what’s important. Connection, community, co-operation – it’s all been amplified along with the sound of balcony singing in Milan and Thursday night clapping in Manchester, and pans bashed in Manhattan.

By being forced apart we’ve ended up more together than ever. More thoughtful, more empathetic. And that, my friends, is where inclusivity starts.

We’re going to have a hiatus this year because of coronavirus – no question of that. No marches, no conferences, smaller meetings. So let’s use that time to regroup, recharge, and find our groups of like-minded, committed, stubborn idealists.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead, Cultural Anthropologist
 (December 16, 1901 – November 15, 1978) 

Find your group, make your mark. Push harder, aim higher. Never settle.

Hold the line.

Who’s with me?

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

Forged In Crisis

Nothing will ever be the same again. How we think about ourselves, our families, our friends. How we connect, how we work. What we value, whom we value. What we’re prepared to sacrifice or forego, and what fulfils a basic need.

This will be how our time is remembered. Everything will be pre- or post- in a way that we can’t comprehend and could never have imagined. Any more than people living in the 1920s and 1930s could have imagined their time would be talked about as “between the wars”. [Imagine the dread, if they had known – that after the devastation of “The Great War” as they knew it, there was another to come…]

With such a seismic shift, and a world economy that will take years to recover, the business decisions we make will also change. Businesses that have just hung on will find the road ahead a tough and bumpy one. Even seemingly strong organisations may find that their customers have moved on, priorities changed. Jobs that seemed “essential” in their own way before may simply cease to exist.

Across our country we are already seeing that small businesses are really struggling. The independent coffee shop which may not ever open their doors again, the small theatre, the local pub.

And even the big boys will creak, across the board. Of course we’ll lose a couple of high street stores which were holding on by their fingertips anyway; maybe an airline or two won’t make it back. But every business will be affected. There will be unemployment – already we see people who used to walk down the aisles of intercontinental aeroplanes stacking shelves in the aisles of the local supermarket.

It doesn’t feel like a time for trying something new, for innovation. Certainly not a time for risk. It’s a fact of life that, in times of financial struggle, many companies – big and small – will be tempted, encouraged, mandated even, to “play safe until things settle down”.

Let’s go with what we know. Don’t rock the boat. Low risk, yeah?

In this context, is there time or space to be thinking about this diversity stuff? Really, shouldn’t we just come back to that when things are a little more settled?

Especially when it was kind of hard to practically implement anyway…

And we’ve all done the unconscious bias training and had those rainbow flags up for Pride month…

Hmm…

In her book Forged In Crisis [it’s very good, I’d read it if I were you] Harvard history professor, Nancy Koehn, describes crisis as a “crucible” for courageous leadership in turbulent times, where the means may be flexible but the end has more dedication and determination than ever. Great leaders are born from necessity in a crisis.

And innovation is born from crisis and tension too. The Renaissance (French for “re-birth”, of course), an explosion of art, literature, and learning across Europe, came out of the crucible of a culturally barren and brutally war-torn Middle Ages. The incredible advanced of the second half of the last century came, in part at least, out of the crucible of a world decimated by two wars.

Our world is shaped by its crises. Always has been. Ask the dinosaurs.

Perhaps in a world where everything is new and different and nothing will ever be the same again… perhaps that’s actually somewhere that we need new thinking, new ideas? New ways of solving new problems?

So in this context, isn’t the real risk in trying to recreate the old? In reverting to what used to work, what used to make sense, before everything changed?

When everything is up in the air, the ability to adapt to ambiguity is the most precious quality we can hope to find. Innovation isn’t about sameness, it’s about newness – new thinking, new outlooks, new ideas. You don’t get that by trying to recreate, reverting to conservative, non-inclusive, type. You get that by embracing inclusive thinking, creating the environment for a diversity of ideas to flourish.

We all know that it’s difficult to make room for diverse thinking – it takes time, and effort, and active decisions, and it often comes down to committed individuals driving initiatives on their own time, crowd-sourcing/funding their activities, using their own energy.

So this is a time that those committed individuals should look to assemble like-minded people around them, to connect, convince and then collaborate in new ways. To lead us out from this crucible.

A clever dude with a beard* once said:

It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change

*Sir Charles Darwin, On the Origin of the Species, 1859

Responsive to change, eh?

Hmm.

Feels like right now we might actually need a bunch of people with different ways of seeing the world to help shape a new world, doesn’t it?

Now, dear leader… go and lead.

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.

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.