Green Shoots

Spring feels like it’s almost here. Green shoots, buds, birds twittering – and the sun high enough in the sky, yesterday, to get over the building line; lighting up and warming a corner the quadrangle where I work. I stood in that couple of metres squared of sun yesterday – for a minute or two – which warmed my face and the cockles of my heart.

Green Fingers: 

A couple of weekends ago (adding to my Christmas bonsai and January’s tiny cactuses from Amazon) I potted up some tiny fragments from a tray of forgotten succulents. They were struggling through the winter under a tree, in our slightly unloved back garden. 

All five of them have taken root. Now they are catching stray photons of weak sunlight on top of a chest of drawers, happily converting carbon dioxide into sugars and plumping up nicely. 

Much like children; I’m learning – helping a few plants to grow near you is a constant joy.

Green Socks: 

Sat on the Tube, in a bit of a rush, I spotted a smartly dressed chap opposite; a little older than me, he had a very smart pair of turquoise/green socks on display. 

Following Thich Naht Hahn’s advice I reflected on ‘interdependence’ – all the things that had gone into those socks… 

The dye, the chemists from Du Pont who almost certainly created the colour and the designers who adopted that shade; the makers, buyers and then the retailers who chose to make and stock them; the man himself – probably on the internet – who thought they were a particularly fetching shade… And that’s just the colour. 

From my time in branding and advertising, I know that colour was probably selected for this year’s palate about 7 years ago somewhere in Paris. And that’s before we get into the myriad machines, the power sources materials (natural and man-made) lorries, ships, trains and more which made and moved them. 
The whole world in a pair of socks… Then screech, beep, swoosh, ‘mind the gap’ and back out into London life.

Green Run

We packed off my daughter (at 3am) this morning on her first ever ski trip – which as I was dozing back off made me think of mine… Almost the same age, I remember the flight: reading Smash Hits with Annie Lenox on the cover, listening to my (vast) Sanyo Walkman, wearing my silver C&A ski jacket as we flew over the Alps about 35 years ago. 

As my dad reminded me this morning the catch phrases of my Italian ski instructor have become family lore: “Hey Disaster Boy!”, “Don’t bend your botham”, “Knees to the mountain, shoulders to the vaa-lley.” It’s bitter sweet seeing her all grown up, but it certainly brings back memories. 

As the book I’m reading points out – you don’t need to be sat in silence to really notice and enjoy what’s going on around you. Especially at this time of year.

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The Wonders of Walking…

My surprise discover of the last month is the wonder of walking…

For over 15 years I’ve routinely cycled to work; rain or shine, hot or cold – but not freezing cold. My one rule is not to cycle when it’s near freezing or snowing. Too slippy all round.

At the same time I’ve realised – thanks to my FitBit – that I burn about 130 calories on a half hour cycle to work. And sometimes as low as 95 calories when in traffic; a 20 minute walk burns more…

All that faffing about getting changed and locking up and remembering keys and lights and all the paraphernalia – and then a perilous ride dodging tipper tricks, taxis, buses; not to mention ‘friendly fire’ from Lycra louts whizzing inside and out on racing bikes. Plus the handful of times I’ve fallen off, it REALLY hurts. 

So instead, given the cold weather I’m walking – 20 to 35 mins – then either hop on a bus or sometimes a hire bike for the last bit to work. When you factor in locking up and getting changed same time taken; but lots more done…

  • More calories burnt (wards off the spare tyre) 
  • More phone calls made (extra mileage and running repairs with people at work) 
  • More music listened to (additional joy and nostalgia in the tank)
  • More thinking time (clearer view of the road ahead)

At the Science Museum (for work) this week, I briefly took in their lovely new Robot exhibition – 300 years of trying to make human-like machines. Some of them are wonderful, some spooky; one in particular heartbreakingly engaging – she gives you a fist bump and twinkles at you when you lay your hands on hers. 

But the one thing the roboticists struggle with the most is the human foot – it’s too clever by half. Given it’s so surprisingly special, good to make full use of it. All roads lead to more walking. 

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Groundhog Day

A simple but profound insight from both the Arbinger Institute and Chris Croft; time is much better spent making things go well in the first place, than trying to correct them when they’ve gone wrong.

Simply said. Harder done. But when the same thing keeps on going wrong, every single day, it’s well worth investing some time and thought on how to make it go better.

One such transformation has been wrought in my lovely son. No more confusion and cross words of a morning; he now falls out of bed straight into his clothes. 

And better still on weekdays, he arrives at the breakfast table to his homework which he now silently and efficiently cracks on with! Less than two months ago you would not have thought it possible.

By simply laying the right things out the night before, everything goes better – for everyone. So much so that on the one occasion the other week that I was out, he laid out his own school clothes for the morning. Unbelievable.

All the upset, anger, shouting, door slamming and plain old misery of the years of everyone trying and failing to ‘correct’ everyone else… Gone. 

No more Groundhog Day! 

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Knots, Seeds and Red Lights

I’ve just finished Thich Nhat Hanh’s ‘Peace is Every Step’. 

It’s never a bad idea to have a Buddhist book on the go in the pile by the bedside. The basic precepts of living in the moment, breathing and mindfulness are always a good antidote to the hurry and rush of modern life.

This one is a little twee in places, but the Vietnamese Monk is as deep as he is light, and there are some memorable ideas in here.

Three that have stuck with me: 

1) Breathe when you see Red Lights – Thich Nhat Hahn points out that ‘while we are driving we only think of arriving’. So every time we see a red light (and in suburban London that’s every 10 seconds) as he gently puts it ‘we are not very happy’. Not half. His tip is to take a red light as a cue to focus on your breathing – and it really works… And not just in the car. I’ve found a couple of times on a bus this week that just as I’m starting to get het up at the queue of red brake light in front of us, a turn inwards and a consciously deep breath – and peace miraculously breaks out in my previously troubled soul.

2) Avoid Knots – any time something bad happens that we don’t understand Thich Nhat Hahn suggests a ‘knot’ is tied in us. If we deal with it – through reflection and understanding – the knot is easily untied. If we leave them though, the knots get stronger and tighter. And this is particularly the case with those we spend most time with. The best thing we can do for those closest to us is to help them untie their knots, but if you’re all tied up yourself the odds are you’ll be making them more not less knotty.

3) Think about the seeds you’re planting – like a pot of peaty soil we all readily grow the ’emotional seeds’ which are planted in us. Plant a healthy, ‘happy’ seed and more will spring from it – let a hostile, angry seed sprout and Thich Nhat Hahn assures us the seeds of hostility and anger will spread. 

A deep breath on the bus, a few of my own knots untied; but the most important things I did this week were to stop seeds of hostility sprouting in a few places at work. 

My top New Year’s Time Management resolution from Chris Croft has been to have a daily diary reminder titled ‘biggest problem’ as my first job of the day. 

Thanks to Thich Naht Hahn I changed it this week to ‘Biggest Problem/Most Difficult Thing’. And one of them was to email, while walking into work, to explain and apologise to someone I’d talked at and talked over in a large forum. 

Knot untied, seeds of future trouble nipped in the bud and onto a bus; red light – relax and breathe. Life is good.

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Scienceing the sh1t out of it

I met some old professional friends for an annual reunion yesterday; and was pressed (as we all were) to recount my year. This made me think. 

First what did I want to say, why and to what purpose? Second, write it down (good old Chris Croft at work here again).

So I chose to describe my last year/18 months through five books:

1) Fierce Conversations

Gifted me by some free coaching from my previous employer, I was far more honest than I normally would be in workplace assessment; and was suitably diagnosed as: perfectionist, passive/aggressive and chronically unassertive with a strong tendency to take the problems of the world on my slender shoulders.  

Prescription: more ‘fierce conversations’ to assert my needs and proactively and reasonably manage the expectations of others.  

2) Depressive Illness – The curse of the strong

Faced with the first sight of what my new job entailed, I realised I’d made a horrible mistake… Massive construction projects with big problems, chronically unhappy people, no status, no power, no levers and probably hired as a fall guy. 

A very deep and sudden slump in my mood was explained and then arrested by this priceless little book. And since I’ve helped three other people by buying it for them. 

The essence: if you always work harder when more pressure comes on, and you don’t feel you can escape, you will blow a fuse. Simple and unavoidable; your body does for you what your mind won’t and cuts the power.

Prescription: ‘leave the Hoover in the middle of the room’ as I’ve written before; learn to deliberately leave some tasks undone, and some people potentially disappointed, as the inevitable reality of more demands than you can possibly meet.

3) Learned Optimism

Now this has been a BIG change… having written on it before I won’t rehearse it again.

Prescription: unless you are an Air Traffic Controller or a Loss Adjuster, as Eric Idle famously sang ‘always look on the bright side of life…’

4) The Anatomy of Peace

The simple if obvious discovery, that, nearly everything that happens to you, spirals out from your own attitudes and behaviour towards others. Correcting the behaviour of other people directly (however selfish, antagonistic or hurtful) is impossible; the only way to change things in others is by startling with yourself. 

As I said to someone this week, quoting Oogway from the marvellous Kung Foo Panda: “a man often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it” as here

But I have discovered progressively (since an epiphany half way through this book on our family holiday in Italy last summer) change how you yourself are ‘being’ and everything else changes for the better. 

Prescription: stop trying to correct things in others and invest in listening, understanding and accommodating them.

5) The BIG Book of Happiness – 87 Practical Ideas

My current favourite – there’s just so much to learn from this as here

Having reeled of my five books and the linking story, one of my pals said: ‘it’s quite impressive how you’ve analysed, researched and read stuff and figured out a way through all this.’

That struck me as very kind. I’d simply thought of it as ‘installing new upgrades’ and a few ‘power ups’ as my son would say. 

But on reflection later in the day, I concluded I’ve largely followed Matt Damon’s advice from ‘The Martian’ when he was faced with a hostile climate and a low apparent chance of survival – I’ve scienced the sh1t out of it. 

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Little Black Book

Among the numerous insights in Chris Croft’s excellent Happiness canon is this one – write everything down…

In my constant reinventions, modernisations and innovations I’d stopped doing this; at least with pen and paper. I gave up my A4 pad at work in the mid-2000s and gave up paper altogether a couple of years ago. But at what cost? According to Chris, a valuable contribution to productivity and achievement from my subconscious…

Although I’m not short of digital reminders, they’re somehow less real. Much like the realisation that reading on a Kindle leaves you with no sense of where you are in a book, similarly digital reminders feel more ethereal – they register in a different way than taking a pen and writing an action down.

Perhaps its a generational thing… albeit my Philosophy degree notes fitted comfortably in a co-op plastic bag, at least I’d written them down. I learned by writing. Perhaps I still do.

But the bigger idea is to harness the self-conscious; so the 95% of our brain which does stuff automatically without troubling us for permission, is harnessed to a purpose and to more purposeful action. And it works!

I’ve dug out the little Moleskine black books I used to use when travelling for work, plus a nice pen and I’m writing things down. Productivity up, fear of forgetting down and a reconnection with deeply human artefacts – an ink pen and nice little black book. Lovely.

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Happy Christmas

I’ve had a Happy Christmas and a joyful start to 2017; not thanks to Santa, but a dead sensible British bloke who has written a book I’d recommend to anyone.

‘The Big Book of Happiness 87 Practical Ideas’ is a no-nonsense guide to how to live.

The point of it all, self limiting beliefs and behaviours, getting organised, writing down and pursuing your goals – and the value of dabbling in things. It’s a cracker.

If you read nothing else this year read this… If Aristotle were around today, it’s the book he’d write.

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Ain’t that the truth

“From the moment in our lives at which we learn to speak we are taught that what we say must be true. What is meant by “telling the truth”? What does it demand of us?

In the first place it is our parents who regulate our relation to themselves by this demand for truthfulness; but this demand cannot simply be reversed. The life of the small child lies open before the parents, and what the child says should reveal to them everything that is hidden and secret, but in the converse relationship this cannot possibly be the case. In the matter of truthfulness, the parents’ claim on the child is different from the child’s claim on the parents.

From this it emerges that “telling the truth” means something different according to the particular situation in which one stands. Account must be taken of one’s relationships at each particular time. The question must be asked whether and in what way a man is entitled to demand truthful speech in others. Speech between parents and children is, in the nature of the case, different from speech between man and wife, between friends, between teacher and pupil, government and subject, friend and foe.

“Telling the truth,” therefore, is not solely a matter of moral character; it is also a correct appreciation of real situations and of serious reflection upon them. The more complex the actual situations of a man’s life, the more responsible and the more difficult will be his task of “telling the truth.” 

Telling the truth is, therefore, something which must be learnt. This will sound very shocking to anyone who thinks that it must all depend on moral character and that if this is blameless, the rest is child’s play. But the simple fact is that the ethical cannot be detached from reality, and consequently continual progress in learning to appreciate reality is a necessary ingredient in ethical action.

It is only the cynic who claims to “speak the truth” at all times and in all places to all men in the same way. Every utterance or word lives and has its home in a particular environment. The word in the family is different from the word in business or in public. The word which has come to life in the warmth of personal relationships is frozen to death in the cold air of public existence. The word of command, which has its place in public service, would sever the bonds of mutual confidence if it was spoken in the family. Each word must have its own place and keep to it.”

This final chapter of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics (my edits) came as a surprise indeed, given the absolute absolutism of his Christianity. I’d have had him down for advocating eye-watering honesty in every encounter…

But perhaps I shouldn’t have. Throughout the book there are limpid, concise, practical and very worldly takes on ethics; alongside pages and pages of dense, impenetrable and almost ranting theology. 

When it comes to “the truth” this is about the best account I’ve read of how I’ve intuitively ‘felt’ about it for years – with work being the hardest place of all to strike the right balance.

Many people in the public service workplaces I’ve worked in for the last fifteen years feel they are owed – and regularly demand – a full account of everything which is known and under consideration by the senior management. I’ve often felt I couldn’t, in good conscience, give them that. Some truths have to be held tightly to oneself, however uncomfortable that feels.

Bonhoeffer has eloquently put into words for me why.

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Classical mistakes: Quantum Biology

Hard to know where to begin, but picking up a copy of this book is a good start… Very well written, pretty accessible; and utterly mind-blowing.

Given recent forays into maths I just about get Erwin Schrödinger’s puzzlement in 1944 at this central question of heredity: “how could identical copies of genes be passed virtually unchanged from one generation to the next?”

As Life on the Edge explains – all the laws of classical physics and chemistry are statistical laws; which means they are only true on average and are only reliable because they involve very large numbers of particles interacting. 

Knock billiard balls around on a table for an hour and you can predict most will end up in the pockets. Thermodynamics works like this and predicts the average behaviour of lots of particles, not the behaviour of an individual molecule. 

As Schrödinger pointed out all the laws of classical physics and chemistry – including all those relating to fluids and chemical reactions – are based on this principle of averaging large numbers. ‘Order’ emerges from ‘disorder’.

Schrödinger not only observed that the statistical laws of classical physics couldn’t be relied on at the microscopic level; he quantified the decline in accuracy. The size of deviations from the classical laws is inversely proportional to the square root of the number of particles involved.

A normal balloon filled with a trillion particles deviates from the ‘gas laws’ by only one millionth. But a tiny balloon filled with only one hundred particles will deviate from ‘orderly’ behaviour by one in ten.

And here is where Schrödinger locates the problem – the ‘order from disorder’ principle of classical laws cannot govern life, because some of the tiniest biological machines are just too small to be governed by classical laws.

At the time Schrödinger was writing his book What Is Life? he calculated that a single gene might contain about a million atoms. The square root of a million is one thousand. So the level of noise and inaccuracy in genes should be one in a thousand – or 0.1%. And yet genes can be faithfully transmitted with mutation rates of less than one in one billion.

Schrödinger concluded that the machinery of life could not be founded on the ‘order from disorder’ of classical laws – but must be subject to the strange, but strangely orderly rules of quantum mechanics.

This is just the most abstract of the arguments and examples for quantum effects in life. Life on the Edge gives us the science of smells, migrating birds, the extraordinary efficiency of photosynthesis, the relevant complexity of the mind and more. Enough to completely persuade me that Schrödinger was right – quantum effects are everywhere in life’s most basic processes.

I’ve always thought the quantum realm was abstract and perhaps just a little unreal – Life on the Edge will persuade you that it’s quantum mechanics not clockwork, that makes all living things tick.

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War and Peace

Two good books came to my aid this week – ‘Fierce Conversations’ and ‘The Anatomy of Peace’.

The first argues persuasively that there isn’t a relationship you can’t improve (or set back) with your next conversation. 

The thesis is that the conversation is the relationship – and you’re relationship only as good as the conversation you’re having. Stop talking and your relationship is automatically going backwards; start talking and you’re in with a shout of improving things.

The further argument is; some conversations need having – even if you really don’t want to have them. I had one like that this week. 

The second book ‘Anatomy of Peace’ and the related ‘Outward Mindset’ are very simple too. But being simple doesn’t make them easy. These say that what’s happening around us (and to us) is often far more of our own making than any of us would like to recognise. 

The thesis of both: is that the essence of what we create around us flows from whether we are seeing and treating people as people. Most of our problems are caused by our heart subtly and quietly hardening against people – and consequently seeing individuals and groups (even whole countries) as obstacles or vehicles. 

Stop seeing the person, or start focusing more on your own needs – and we start the self-reinforcing process of pushing, shoving and self-justification.

This week I stopped pushing on the cusp of starting shoving, and had a frank and open ‘fierce conversation’ instead. An important work relationship is improved; I’m much happier and a whole slew of future problems feel suddenly more tractable – we will tackle them together not push them at each other.

Going to war with people is always easier than making peace; but the consequences rip and ripple out, and are endless either way. 

Separately, coming somewhat ‘shell shocked’ from a downbeat meeting on problems with a major building project, someone kindly asked if was alright. I stopped a moment and said: “Yes, I was quiet because I was thinking.” A white lie, but partially true.

And then I mentioned the stoicism of Germany’s ‘brick women’ after WWII whom I’d read about in Neil MacGregor’s Germany: Memories of a Nation’

As Wikipedia has it, the Trümmerfrau (literally ruins woman or rubble woman) helped clear and reconstruct bombed cities where 4 million homes had been destroyed and another 4 million damaged – half of all homes – plus half of all schools and 40% of all infrastructure; they collectively tackled 400 million cubic metres of ruins.

Puts a few of my work ‘infrastructure problems’ in perspective. But it also speaks to the power of people to objectify, justify, hate, fight and destroy each other – and very often the same people to come together in a testament to the indomitable human spirit: to restore, recover, rebuild and recreate. 

We have the capacity for both in us all.

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