A night to remember last evening, at surely the greatest musical of our times – ‘Hamilton’.

We’ve been humming it and singing it all day (as we have for the last two years). But apart from the lesser known Founding Father’s tale of the (once) almost unlimited possibilities of America (as his final words bill it “that great unfinished symphony…”) Hamilton’s other message is the transcendent importance of time.

Alexander Hamilton lives like he’s running out of it; the other main protagonist, Aaron Burr ‘waits and he waits’.

As for me, absolutely shattered at the end of last week, I returned to “The Big Book of Happiness: 87 Practical Ideas” for solace and some new impetus.

Good old Chris Croft reminds us the external world is fickle (As George Washington cautions twice in Hamilton, no one decides ‘who lives, who dies, who tells our story), so the only resources we really have are money and time.

Separately, another excellent post from Eric Barker slam dunks the idea that anyone can multi-task well. I’d persuaded myself I can. But no… Multi-tasking Barker highlights, is just a rather ineffective and inefficient ‘dopamine rush’.

So, balancing the choice between work, money and time, my conclusion is: I’m working too hard and somewhat ineffectively; disproportionately meeting the needs of others, and not my own.

My Easter epiphany is to realise time is my most precious resource – and I’ve been being pretty careless with it. Looking on the bright side, it’s good to clock it.

The magic of Hamilton helped.

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 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.


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.


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.