Water, Work and Eels 

Crossing Waterloo Bridge – against a tide of people walking to work – the thought came to me: how much in food, cars, goods and services have I and each of these people consumed so far in our lives?

And how much would that all add up to (by volume) if you piled it all together? 

And further; would it be greater or lesser in size than some of the buildings and landmarks, which make Waterloo Bridge the best view in London?

How many people’s piles of lifetime consumption would it take to fill a flat in the block on the south-west approach to Waterloo Bridge? 

How much to fill one of the South Bank theatres or galleries? How many people’s piles to fill County Hall or The Shard?

Then if you think about it in terms of the elixir of life itself – water – from which all that consumption is derived: either directly, or through steam turbines and factory processes; what would all that stuff we’ve each consumed translate into, by volume of water? It’d be huge.

And that’s just the thirty, forty, fifty odd people walking towards me on the bridge. What about all 30,000 or so in the university I help run? Or the city I live in? Would the 10-13m people of London be greater or lesser, by volume of water consumed, than the volume of all the buildings we all inhabit in London? 

And how much water directly or indirectly went into the power, people and materials that built all those buildings..?

But then I’m over the bridge, and into yet another meeting, and working life kicks in… The benefit of a job which makes you walk though, is the frequent gift of time to contemplate. 

And the benefit of a job which is about ‘keeping the show on the road’, is you don’t have time to worry about stuff too much – I’m incessantly busy: fixing and sorting and organising; and walking!

All of this adds to the growing sense that much water has now passed under the bridge of my life. 

And talking to people who are older than me, there’s a lot to be said for letting go of some of the things which have subtly driven me hitherto. That inner need to be ‘the youngest to do things’, ‘the hardest working’, ‘the best regarded’, ‘the most senior’; albeit I gave up on being ‘the best paid’ at least a decade ago.

Consumption and chasing more consumption; money and chasing more money, status and chasing more status – these are traps for the middle aged mind, soul and body.

So nice to have lunch this week with a splendid person I know, who is drawing, debating, walking and contemplating – and counting eels in the salty transitional waters of the Thames – a philosopher, cartographer, artist and citizen scientist in his first year of proper retirement. 

The river of life is long. Perhaps all those struggles to be ‘going places’ fractionally faster than the natural flow of things is – at this stage in life’s course – a genuine mugs game or maybe an eel’s.

Bees

http://www.flickr.com/photos/autanex/I was talking to a very good friend yesterday about bees. It came up in a digression about the very different ways some people find to live a life.

He described the case of a foal, born prematurely, who had imprinted on the people who’d nurtured it. Spurning other horses, the foal considered itself eminently human and preferred the company of people. A problem for it and them.

More remarkable was the solution – a horse-whispering woman – who makes a living going round the country brokering misguided premature foals back into the world of horses. She eases their separation from the two-legged world back to four.

In exchange, I told him about my conversation with a nomadic beekeeper this spring. Bee keeping, it appears, is all about titivating, then tempering, the hive’s desire to swarm. A healthy, happy, busy hive is a productive hive. But a productive hive is also an unstable one.

Experienced workers get itchy feet and start looking for new opportunities. Young upstart queens start getting restive, fancying their own realms. The hive is dripping with honey, but disaster threatens – 60% of the hive swarming off with a new queen – leaving a remnant hive which will take a year to produce again. No honey for the autumn pot.

Separating queens, creating sub-hives, clipping wings are all recognised measures. But the more the beekeeper gambles, the more risk that several queens buzz off. Or worse, the entire hive ‘absconds’ in the vernacular. Ouch. My nomadic beekeeper had about five queens on the go, in three sub-hives, all itching to swarm and pumping honey like a Texas gusher. He lives his beekeeping on the edge.

In olden days they worried less. Beekeepers trusted to chance and mother nature. Wikipedia offers the wisdom of a gentler era:

Old fashioned laissez-faire beekeeping depended upon the capture of swarms to replenish beekeeper colonies and early swarms were especially valued. An old English poem says:

A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay;
A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon;
But a swarm of bees in July isn’t worth a fly.

The world of bees has moved on from the buzz and burr of rural idyll. Much like the world of work, it’s all more organised now. Productivity and efficiency are to the fore not serendipity and chance.

My friend and I agreed, with bees – as in working life – keeping the hive busy and productive is a fine art. Swarming costs you honey and money. Disturbing the hive gets you stung. One of my golden rules for work, is never whack too many beehives at once.

There is evidence, the nomadic beekeeper told me, that honey bees followed humans out of Africa. Who was following whom and who got more from it I wonder? Bees are eusocial – they work together. Humans are social and selfish simultaneously, only very careful beekeeping keeps a human hive happy. There’s a lot we can learn from bees.

Obituary

We had another big leaving do at work this week. Hard to do justice to over 30 years (by my rough estimate 8,000 or so working days) of a person’s working life in 15 minutes of speeches, but it felt a bit flat all told.

A friend of mine I spoke to at the event, put me onto the ‘QI Book of the Dead’ before Christmas. Several dozen great men and women, of all times and places, types and backgrounds. From Ghengis Khan to Henry Ford, Florence Nightingale to Emma, Lady Hamilton (left). They are a remarkable bunch. It’s an easy and enjoyable read. I won’t spoil its many surprises here. But three things stood out for me:

1) You absolutely can’t write your own epitaph

2) Many of the most famous and powerful people died in disgrace, despair or destitution – but often didn’t care so much about it in the end.

3) Most of the thinkers we revere today were completely ignored in their own lifetimes.

It summed up for me to: enjoy the day, follow your passions, have fun, and, if any of it is remembered, it probably won’t be what you expected. I think I’ll let go of my obituary, it won’t be me who writes it – either in work or life.

Personas

I’ve had several prompts recently to think about multiple personas. I’ve got a few different ones, and I was wondering the other morning whether this is good, bad or inevitable. First the prompts – and they are an eclectic bunch 1) Kierkegaard 2) venn diagrams and voluntary redundancy 3) the Portuguese writer Pessoa 4) the iPad 5) a Civil Servant I admire 6) cufflinks 7) a theory of very old age 8) a friend at work

Basically my question to myself as I walked into the office was: “Would I be happier if I was exactly the same person at work as I am at home?” My conclusion is not yet, but maybe one day. Here’s a veritable magpies nest of ideas in support of that thesis:

1) I am almost certainly in Kierkegaard’s ‘Ethical’ stage of life. Kierkegaard defines three stages of life in ‘Stages on life’s way‘: the Aesthetic, the Ethical and the Religious. He writes:

The aesthetic sphere is the sphere of immediacy, the ethical the sphere of requirement (and this requirement is so infinite that the individual always goes bankrupt), the religious the sphere of fulfilment.

In the ethical phase of life we seek to find ourselves in the jobs and roles we hold: father, manager, dog owner, minor pillar of the local community. Each of these roles requires things of us. To be the ‘ideal form’ of any of these roles is hard – to achieve the ideal in all simultaneously is impossible – hence Kierkegaard’s infinite requirement and inevitable bankruptcy. Thus, as I read him, we either reduce the number of roles (Kierkegaard I note spurned his true love to focus on writing) or we face varying degrees of falling short and dissatisfaction, until we give up trying please everyone and find solace in a one to one with God.

2) I’ve written about the salutary experience of seeing senior people leaving my organisation and realising the organisation defines their identity more than anything else in their lives. I conclude it is not wise to find one’s identity in a single role – especially one as fickle as a salaried job.

3) I read this week that Pessoa seemed to be a pretty uninteresting chap until a large chest of papers was discovered after his death with myriad texts written in myriad different identities – his heteronyms as he called them.

4) I don’t take my iPad to work. Partly, given they are still considered ostentatious, to avoid the ‘jeering’, which Epictetus invites us to brace ourselves for when attempting any self improvement. The prime reason though is it has pictures of my kids, my private thoughts and Apps which reveal my passions, idiosyncrasies and neuroses. It’s me and that’s my business not my work’s business.

5) The UK Civil Service distorted me as a person. It made me introverted, glum and bleak. A Civil Servant I admire always keeps his glass half full, despite the burden of being substantially responsible for the criminal justice system. I talked to him about trying blogging the other day – I blog at work too – and then immediately stopped myself. There’s no way he could blog in his job. He’d be leaked, misconstrued and pilloried in the press within hours if he wrote anything interesting. The ‘ideal type’ of the true Civil Servant cannot be entirely candid. The ‘ethical phase’ of his life requires great patience and careful manoeuvring to serve his higher purpose.

6) My daughter chose some heart shaped cufflinks for me for Christmas. I felt bad because I thought they were inappropriate for work. I asked a friend, he agreed. I asked another. He said: “Wear them, it’s who you are”. I wore them to our Management Board this week. Nothing bad happened.

7) My mother-in-law says that, in her experience of others, beyond 90 years of age people become the very essence of themselves. She had a friend who worked in fashion who beyond 90 became interested only in the appearance of others. A friend at work told me a relative who had been a spy became absorbed in a deeply secret mission in her final years. Neither was doolally, both simply became the essence of their prime persona in very old age.

8) A close friend advised me to be ‘me’ first and derive my work persona from the true ‘me’.

My synthesis from these prompts is this:

I have lived through my ‘Aesthetic stage’ and pursued beauty, booze and hedonism. I am now firmly in my ‘Ethical stage’. I have chosen to take on many roles: life partner, dog owner, father, director, volunteer, committee man, ascetic, philosopher and I am seeking fulfilment by chasing the ‘ideal’ in each. At times the demands and circumstances of one jostles the others. And some roles don’t fit me or mess up the others – being a Senior Civil Servant did. But mostly, despite Kierkegaard’s warning, their requirements are being met. I am not yet bankrupted by their demands and thanks to Aristotle and others I’m optimistic I can keep to a modest overdraft in meeting the needs of most of my ecosystem most of the time.

I suspect, at this stage of my life, seeking to fulfil all these roles is an essential part of finding my own essence. None of these entirely define the person I am or will become, some will fit me more or less well. If any of them excessively distort or damage the others I need to redefine the ‘terms of trade’ or stop doing it. Let them all get out of hand and I’ll dip into fatigue or get ill. Let one get too far out of step and dominate, and the others will suffer. Cordon off a secret role and some of what I’m about will disappear into a Pessoan private trunk. And that would be bad, because Kierkegaard advises that the guiding light in the ‘Ethical Stage’ is honesty and transparency.

So who am I? At the moment I am my multiple personas. The essence will be revealed in time, but for now I am simply the sum of my roles, no more no less. And given how important some of those roles are to me, I think that feels fine for now.

Today

I heard Simon Armitage read his poem ‘Knowing what we know now’ on the Today Programme on Radio 4 on Wednesday. It features an Elf who makes the offer of turning the clock back to a man who is 44 – exactly half-way to the end of his life. It has a twist in its tale which I didn’t welcome but it certainly set me thinking. 

As I’ve written before it’s increasingly likely that I’m at, or close to, what Armitage’s elf calls the ‘tipping point’ – the half way mark. On Saturday morning in an unconnected thought I put it to myself, what am I going to do that will be memorable today? Cue 3 year old. I spent 3 hours doing 3 miles and 3 parks on a scooter with my son. We had great fun on what could otherwise have been a grey day. I love that boy.

Pondering it this evening, I thought to myself; what would be different if I counted life more often in days, not halves or years? Tapping 365 into a calculator, I realised that in the last year or so I’ve passed the milestone of living over 15,000 days. It’s a bit like when all the 9s turn over on another 10,000 on your car milage. That’s a lot of days. And since I reckon I have a reasonable hope of living another 15,000 that’s a lot of great days if I make them so.

And this reminded me of Seneca’s: ‘On the shortness of life‘. At the start he gently criticises Aristotle for bemoaning that nature has given man such a short span of life, for our many and great achievements, when animals have so long for so little. Seneca disagrees:

‘It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste so much of it.’

I listened to a very experienced and senior person describe his career on Friday. He had many thought-provoking things to say. But the one that stuck the most for me was a comparatively obvious one; you’ll spend more time working than doing anything else so make sure you do something you enjoy. He used the word ‘fun’ all the time to describe his work – great, enormous, tremendous… fun. Not a word I use anywhere near enough describe my working life.

And that is the thing I’ve been thinking about this weekend: enjoyment, fun and spontaneity. Thinking I’m half way to death makes me sombre and cerebral. Thinking I’ve got another 40 years, and probably another 20 odd of work, makes me think about my career and mortgage and school fees. Thinking I’ve got another 15,000 days makes me think about today – what’s going to be today’s highlight, what’s going to be today’s memory, what’s going to be today’s fun. 

As Seneca has it, the philosopher makes his life long by recollecting the past, using the present and anticipating the future. The most important of these for me though is remembering to have fun – today. 

Corporate Punishment v) Bad Behaviour

All organisations struggle with performance management. But in my experience, none more so than long-service public bodies.

I found this particularly acute as a Senior Civil Servant in UK Government. The main issue is often not capability, or even performance per se, but attitudes and behaviours which bring everyone and everything down.

Perhaps frustrated ambition is a factor. Being constantly overlooked for promotion and not ‘progressing’ can sour anyone over time – not least as promotion is usually the only way to get a pay rise. There are also those with rose-tinted memories of happier times who lament what they perceive, rightly or wrongly, as the ever degrading psychological contract between employer and employee.

Tidying up the other day, I found this list of ‘frequently encountered behaviours’ from my time in central Government. I worked with other senior people and developed a handy guide to tackling each too. That helped. Or at least helped me remain sane.

Re-reading them I’m so glad to be out of that context:

MANAGING BEHAVIOURS

The stereotypes below are behaviours that people can display and do not describe people themselves. Your own behaviour can elicit different reactions and you should be aware of the styles and behaviours you display before challenging them in others. People may adopt a mixture of these behaviours, switch or deploy several at once. Nevertheless, these stereotypes are based on real life situations people have described when managing the behaviour of civil servants.

1) AFFABLE – happily acknowledge shortcomings and performance issues, but either say that’s just the way they are and they can’t really change or say they might try to do something different but don’t follow through.

2) CHOOSY – enthusiastically focus on the list of things they have done, like to do or can do and make you feel guilty about challenging them on other aspects of the job or performance.

3) PLODDING/JOB’S WORTH – argue for narrow definitions of their role, justify performance on historic grounds – “I’ve always done it this way and no-one has complained”, may stress they work to live not live to work.

4) HYPOCHONDRIAC – focused only on themselves and their own workload, don’t recognise context or pressures others face, often refuse offers of help or resource as no-one else is sufficiently able or knowledgeable. (Often comes with Perfectionism as below)

5) HIJACKERS – often deployed by hoarders of information, relationships, skills, processes or technologies, hijacking is implicitly or explicitly threatening withdrawal of key ‘know-how’ with catastrophic consequences.

6) EMOTIONAL BLACKMAIL – using emotions and sometimes tears to stop a discussion on performance and in extreme cases displaying their upset to colleagues and other team members to rebuke you.

7) SUMO WRESTLING – coming back at you hard, challenging or criticising your style or behaviour to try to knock you back and barge you out of the ring.

8 ) PERFECTIONISM – often backed by great delivery, but often at great cost either to the person or those around them, aggressive defensiveness about excessive, exclusive or obsessive focus on their own work.

9) PAIN IN THE @RSE – antagonistic, argumentative, dogged, ignoring your context and time pressures often ultra-critical of the organisation, people or processes.

10) STAR QUALITIES – listening, taking responsibility, offering to help, making suggestions for improvement and change, sharing pressures, offering to lead and deliver. Make time to recognise, nurture, support and reward any of these behaviours at all costs.

Adjacent Possible

I read recently that all successful innovation expands into the ‘adjacent possible’. Whether it’s spines becoming feathers, swords becoming ploughshares or mobiles becoming smartphones, successful innovation depends on adapting technology to expand into an adjacent – and sometimes very different niche.

It’s also a useful metaphor for work and life. It’s a dangerous business trying to change everything all at once or trying to leap from one paradigm to a completely different one. I worked for two organisations which set out to change their whole market in the 1990s. In one we got it right, by applying an ‘adjacent’ idea from the restaurant business to mobile phones. The other had exactly the right strategy – cloud computing – just ten years too early. That organisation largely destroyed itself trying to create a new ‘non-adjacent’ future before people or the technology were ready.

Charles Babbage’s Victorian computer was way before it’s time. But despite its potential people stayed wedded to the steam age. A friend told me in ancient Alexandria an inventor allegedly created a tiny table top steam engine, but considered it a mere curiosity – who needs steam power when you have slave labour.

So what of the iPad? Steve Jobs famously failed with the Apple Newton: too big, too slow, too expensive, no market. I bought an iPad in September more out of a sense of duty than belief. I wasn’t sure I needed one, but discovered I more or less do. For me the most amazing ‘adjacent possible’ that lies latent in the iPad is the ability to span all ages. My pre-school son can use it happily and so can his grandmother. We bought my parents an iPad for Christmas and she is now sending email.

Seizing the ‘adjacent possible’ doesn’t necessarily mean incrementalism – there are huge advances to be made by looking at the opportunity next door or putting familiar ideas and capabilities in new configurations. I learnt some years after applying ‘set menus’ to mobile phones that there is a well established marketing creativity trick called ‘related worlds’; namely, looking for new product ideas and inspiration in other sectors. As I emailed back to my mum this morning, she has leapt from the computing stone age to the 21st century in one graceful bound. She’s surfing the web and connected for the first time in her life – thanks to the re-imagined and simplified interface of iPad.

‘Think different’ was Apple’s strapline in the 1990s. It’s good advice. Neither a big phone nor a small computer, iPad is less than either. But it is more than both combined in getting my mum online. Hats off to Steve Jobs – he’s not ‘man of the year’ for nothing.

As soon as iPad became adjacent Steve Jobs made it possible and created new adjacent possibilities for millions of people. I’m writing on one now.

Corporate Punishment iv) Too much to say

It is a truism that no-one is more interested in what we have to say than ourselves. On the contrary, it is a common misapprehension that the more you say the more influential you are being. It ain’t necessarily so. As so often in life, less is often more.

As the great Roman stoic Seneca said:

It is a great thing to know the season for speech and the season for silence.

Enough said.

Smiling

Against the grain today I put on a smiling face. In so doing I added measurably to the sum of human happiness. So simple, yet sometimes so hard. Why don’t we all do it more?

I can’t take all the credit. I was kickstarted by two people – one I know well, one I don’t. After a shirty start and shouting at each other, my son and I made it to nursery on a cold, grey, damp morning. He was glum, I was in a bit of a rush. As I turned to leave he asked for a cuddle and I knelt down and gave him a big all body hug. We smiled. He was ok, I was ok. The cascade of smiles began. 

I smiled at my daughter in the schoolyard and at the teachers who smiled back. I chose a smiley stripy shirt for work and then whistled Christmas tunes through the drizzle on my bike in. I went to buy a coffee and as I waited the friendly young foreigner behind the counter gave me a winning smile and asked me how I was. It was such a winning smile, I gave him a winning smile back and exchanged jovial small talk about the coming snow and all the customers and servers joined in. We all smiled.

I walked round the corner to work whistling ‘Walking in a winter wonderland’. Once in the office I smiled at the security guards and receptionists and walked past the lifts to the seven flights of stairs I hack up every morning. I decided to whistle ‘Walking in a winter wonderland’ as I climbed the stairs to see if I could a) not be embarrassed or cowed by reproachful looks into glumness and b) get a smile out of the random selection of people I might pass.

Tricky start. First up I bumped into a chap who hasn’t made eye contact with me for 6 weeks since my new organisational strategy consigned his section and personal passion to frozen assets and deep cuts. He’s furious with me, and how ever much I’ve tried he won’t acknowledge me if we pass in the building. The whistling got him though. He looked, I captured his curious and unsuspecting gaze and flashed him a winning smile and a cheery salutation. He couldn’t resist smiling back and finally saying hello.

Next I whistled past another urgent faced, rushing, anxious looking senior colleague. He was equally surprised and switched from frowning to smiling. I passed another person I don’t know who also by the alchemy of Christmas went from neutral to smiling within nine whistled notes ‘Walk-ing in a win-ter won-der-land’. 

By the fourth flight of stairs my whistling was getting a bit uneven as I ran out of breath. By the fifth I gave up. On the sixth I bumped into another colleague and told him what I’d been up to. He was both bemused and amused. But it got him smiling. Onto the seventh flight and into my office and I was full of good cheer. The day started well, I performed well, did some important things and remained cheerful throughout. 

I ended the day with a woman I work with who can be challenging and confrontational. She is also a person of genuine conviction and intelligence. We were on the topic of making an impact and being true to yourself whilst speaking the truth to power. I told her that whilst being far from the finished product myself on this, sometimes a lot hinges on how you decide to ‘be’. If you decide to be high energy you can bring energy, if you decide to be aggressive you can scare people, if you decide to be warm you can attract, if you decide to be cold you can chill. 

We are all affected by how others are ‘being’ too but to some degree we have a choice about how we are. She had been open, supportive, thoughtful and measured when we met in an important meeting earlier in the day. She had got much of what she wanted without confrontation or a furrowed brow. As I said to her, when I was asked, my main memory of her in the meeting was relaxed and open with a smooth forehead, high eyebrows and a smile. We had all warmed to her. Maybe I had helped a little as I gave her a big encouraging smile when she came in the room.

If so, it had all started with a big hug from a small boy and a smile from a complete stranger. Smiling, it’s powerful stuff.

Corporate Punishment iii) Ducking and diving

I used to work in UK Government. Quite rightly it is the lot of government in democratic societies to be scrutinised and held to account. The negative side effect is it tends to create a climate of fear of saying anything and a tendency to obfuscate and hide things.

This is not unreasonable. Most political careers end in the 36 hour media storm of three ‘news cycles’: discovery, pursuit and resignation. “S/he has my full support” is the sure sign it’s coming to the end.

What costs UK politicians their jobs? Scandal? Affairs? Corruption? Incompetence? Bad luck? More often than not none of these, more than indirectly.

What costs most of them their jobs in modern times is ‘rapid rebuttal’. 24/7 media pressure forces a hasty and strident statement which then turns out to be factually wrong or doesn’t pass the common-sense test. Confidence in honesty and competence vanishes and the end comes in being shown to have misled or misspoken in front of parliament or the public.

Public servants always want to avoid giving precise facts and figures, not least because they are so hard to get right. So when the Minister or Political Adviser gets their Q&A on a tricky subject, invariably the killer question either has been omitted or has blather and obfuscation as the answer.

So what to do when you are asked a direct question about a difficult thing – for which you are accountable – to which you know the answer but wish you didn’t, or worse don’t know the answer but feel you should? Lie, make it up, bluster, waffle or blurt?

The answer lies in ‘ring-craft’ as the BBC’s Nick Robinson calls it. Successful politicians like boxers know how to jab, cover and move. They know how to say what they know and what they don’t in a way that makes sense, sounds in control but doesn’t overreach. It is an art not a science, involving luck and chutzpah as well as craft.

But having seen it close up (both when it goes right and wrong) I have learnt that sometimes in working life, as in politics, you just have to take a deep breath, say what you know, and what you don’t, and invite people to trust you and accept that.

As a Russian proverb says: With lies you may get ahead in the world – but you can never go back. Or the other way round: a lie may take care of the present, but it has no future.

Concealing, avoiding, dissembling, not answering, obfuscating or misleading makes things worse. And they make you feel worse.

I’ve found quite a few times in the last few years that sometimes you can’t avoid the punch. So better to stand your ground and roll with it than run away and hide.