Monthly Archives: December 2016

My Nuts and Bolts

It’s nearly that time of year again, Xmas and the New Year, and one that I look forward to greatly. It’s very much a family time for me and I am lucky to have this extended clan which, until last year, included my wife’s mum, Nancy. Fortunately, it’s also important to my wife and youngest daughter who feel the same way and are much given to ensuring that all goes according to plan. For which I’m extremely grateful. Both are Xmas preparers par excellence, Ellie having learned it from her mum who learnt it from her parents.

So, we have an advent calendar and stocking for Ellie; the former to set the tone and the latter for bits and bobs on Xmas day, along with the larger presents. Gaynor, you see, has been brought up to celebrate the occasion which requires an adherence to these rituals. For someone who hadn’t had much experience of these as a child, I find them a delight. No experience, you see, meant that, much as I tried, I wasn’t very good at “Xmas”. Therefore, when someone takes so much trouble to do it for you, it’s especially pleasurable.

So, why is this all so important to me? Well, I think it represents, among my extended family, that sharing and caring world that I write and talk about. It also demonstrates personally that, even if there are some things that are, somewhat, alien to you, that doesn’t mean that you don’t want them. It just means that, like me, you didn’t know how to do it. Well, now I do and, like much else in life, the devil is in the detail. That means that, although the grand gestures may look good, it’s the nuts and bolts that really make things work.

So, here’s to my family, the nuts and bolts of my life.

The Pleasure of Perseverance

It has always seemed to me that, although options are not evenly spread throughout society, there is one that you can exercise. That  is to keep going. In my case, with what my wife calls “my amazing perseverance” and I call “Just getting on with it”. Interestingly, she never considers her own similar characteristic. It may not always be easy; in fact, it’s usually far from it. However, it always beats the alternative. It can also reap rewards that you never thought possible and that certainly wouldn’t have been available if you hadn’t kept going.

So, when I my contract was terminated just before Xmas, Gaynor asked how we would manage. I assured her that we would. Not that I had any idea of how my new self employed status would pan out. That was 16 years ago. With little idea of when the next pay cheque would come in, the same logic was applied to the extension we planned to build to provide an office, conservatory and bedroom. That summer we celebrated with a take away and a bottle of wine. Well, more than one, if I’m honest. When, about 12 years ago Gaynor decided that she wanted to become a teacher but had to get a degree first, she worked part time while she studied. How would we manage? Well, we did. When, some years later, she opted for supply work so that she could study for an RHS Diploma in Horticulture, the same question brought the same answer. When I finally got down to writing that book that I threatened to do for 25 years, I never thought that there would be that one and two others published (so far). When our daughter, Ellie, decided to stay on at university and study for her Masters, she applied the same logic. You see, Ellie exhibits that characteristic too. Demonstrated by the fact that she applied for 80 jobs to help pay her way. There were 79 “no thank you’s” before she was successful.  She is now at the end of her first term and working in a Smoothie Bar in her spare time.

Lastly, I have been trying to drum up some work, as a speaker and coach, on a special project that I’ve drawn up for schools. With that in mind, I wrote to over 200 secondary schools in London. The response, shall we say, was somewhat underwhelming. So, on the advice and with the guidance of a fellow speaker, I decided to ring them instead. One teacher explained that she gets over 200 e mails a day which helps to explain why mine had slipped between the cracks. When I explained what I was trying to do, her response was, “That’s perfect. Just what we’re looking for. Can you please get back to me directly after the Xmas holidays when we can talk about it?”

That gave me great pleasure. In fact, it gave me the pleasure of perseverance.

The Other Side of the Doors

Many years ago my son, Matt and I went out for a drink.  During the conversation, he said how true that line from a Joe Jackson song, about “pretty girls going out with gorillas”, was. I think the conversation went further (we were, after all, out for a drink and commiserating) and we discussed setting up a dating agency where we matched lovely women with lovely men and vice versa. I think we even talked of people we knew, in each category, to be matched in this way and were rather taken with the idea that, at least those in the vice versa group would only make each other unhappy. It has been an idea in my head for many years when I’ve met couples who seemed, somewhat, ill matched. As, I’m sure we’d both agree, were my first wife and I. After 16 years together, we separated and, 13 years later, I met, and subsequently married, someone who has become my best friend. We have now been together for 27 years.  So, I think I have some experience in this matter. So, my point is?

Well, we only have one life so, it seems to me that, it’s not a bad idea to make the most of it. From where I’m sitting that’s about making it fulfilling because, along with that, are likely to come many of the other things that you want without a great deal of extra effort.  If I can make an analogy. I used to see my life very much like a spinning top. By that I mean that a deal of effort had to be maintained to keep that top spinning and in a state of equilibrium. I now act and see things differently. That top, with its central “pole of problems” removed has been turned upside down and is now sat on its base in a very stable manner. As a result, all the effort that I used to put in is now put to better effect elsewhere. In my case in a caring and mutually supportive relationship in which what I give and what I receive are one and the same thing and that feels good. I also now have a career that I long dreamt of but, never expected.

So, if you’re in a situation in which what you do for others makes you happy. Well, that’s great. However, it’s not so great if most of the effort is coming from one direction. Ask yourself what it is that makes you happy in these circumstances and why. What you do about it then is up to you. And, yes, I’m very aware that life isn’t always that simple. However, please remember that the only time when it really is too late is when they nail the coffin lid down. So, ask yourself whether there could be for you, as there was for me, a life on “The Other Side of The Doors”.

Physician, Heal Thyself

This is a follow up to my recent blog, “No Excuses Any More”.

During my 35 years in the voluntary sector, often working with community groups who had an idea but little in the way of experience or resources, I have helped people in some very difficult circumstances. I now try to do something similar in my writing and speaking career.

What this usually comprises is looking at what is intended, identifying what is to be achieved and drawing up very detailed, step by step, plans to do this. This latter central as it allows those who have never done anything like this before to reach their goals as they learn the ropes.  It is, in fact, very simple and straightforward as well as effective. It has, along the way, helped to create city farms and community gardens from scratch and for people who were homeless and unemployed to build their own sustainable homes. So, how come, I find it difficult to follow that approach myself?

Well, actually, I do try to do just that. However, what I don’t do is ask for help. As I’ve previously mentioned, the thought has been there in my head although the words wouldn’t  form in my mouth.

So, I’m now somewhat taken aback by the response that this asking has generated. Including from someone who mentioned how welcoming and helpful I had been to him and that he wanted to reciprocate. Not as a favour but because that’s what you do, isn’t it? So, nearly 70 years of behaviour has been confounded and I feel both humbled an a little unsure. This latter because I’m in uncharted waters. Above all, though, it feels extremely comforting, reinforcing, as it does, my belief in the inherent decency of the great majority of humanity.

So, if things need to change, start with yourself. Even if you’re not a physician!

Realising Talent

I am fascinated by what makes people tick. I always have been as, it seems to me, central to who we are and what we do in life. Some are especially academic, some creative, some practical and some have a diversity of abilities.  Unfortunately, for many, life gets in the way and they never flower as they might have done. Yet, if education is to be about anything, surely, it has to be about availing as many as possible of the opportunity to develop their  talents and enable them to live fulfilling, worthwhile and satisfying lives. That doesn’t seem too much to ask. Yet we still seem to have a society of “haves” and “have nots” with the engine of social mobility seemingly grinding to a halt. The world as I’d hoped it might be is as far away as ever. Moreover, on a personal basis, I see the icons and mavericks of my youth leaving the stage in increasing numbers. So, why am I writing this today?

Well it seems that some recent research by a group of Scandinavian scientists have identified what a high “football IQ” comprises. And, no, that isn’t an oxymoron.  It seems that they tested men and woman footballers of similar ages and education levels to determine each player’s executive functions that are their skills in such areas as problem solving, planning, multitasking, cognitive flexibility and the ability to deal with novelty. During one such test, players were assessed for their design fluency, an examination of their creativity under pressure. This something that, to my mind, is central to imaginative, flowing football and something we could extrapolate to the wider world.

In this research, two of the most creative of world footballers were among those tested; one of them turned out to be in the top 0.1% for design fluency and scored extremely well in the ability to alter learned behavioural responses, while the other had very high scores involving analysis and imagination.  Tasks that appear to be central to their footballing talents. What is important in this is that one psychologist was prompted to ask whether a 16 year old with similar footballing intelligence might be muscled out of the, more physical, nature of English or Swedish football. Something that, to me, seems a metaphor for life.

Now, as someone for whom life really did get in the way and who didn’t discover his writing talents until very late on, this research would seem to have some relevance. The satisfaction I get, for example, of using words to paint pictures is immense. So much so that, even I am prompted to ask, “Where did that come from?” That realisation of a talent should be more readily available to everyone; the world would be a better place if it was and the society that I’d like to see might get just a little nearer.

No Excuses Any More

Very few are the times that I’ve ever asked anyone for help in my life. It’s just something I found impossible to do; the words just wouldn’t come out, so I ploughed my own furrow. Whereas, without sounding too sanctimonious, helping others was what gave me great satisfaction. Perhaps that’s why I operated so well in the voluntary sector that was my home for over 30 years. Interestingly in this work, I took on, and made a success of, difficult jobs that others had previously failed at; something that only confirmed to me the validity of my approach. So, I made my own way in life according to a template developed very early on.

So when I became a speaker and joined the Professional Speaking Association, I continued in this vein. This despite being told, “Mike, if you don’t ask, the answer is always “No””. I took that on board but was still unable to put it into practice. The offers of help were actually there, however, I didn’t recognise them for what they were; something that continued for quite some time.

Well, recently, getting rather frustrated with the situation, that is, that I am not bad at what I do and have a real story to tell, I wasn’t getting anywhere. As a result, I decided to break the habit of a lifetime and actually ask. First with the small circle that is my speaking Mastermind group and then beyond.  The beyond being that solid barrier that I had to get though. The response, I have to say has confounded me and left me feeling, well I’m not really sure what. Except to say that it feels very, very good, if a little disconcerting. Indeed, I do know what it feels like. It’s humbling.

You see, one of the things I like to believe is that the vast majority of people on the planet are good, decent and honest and, these last few weeks in my small world, that has been proven to me in abundance.  Surely something to be applauded in these trying times when “Sod you, Jack” seems to be the fuel in society’s engine.

So, many thanks to my colleagues for their, very practical, response. It is appreciated more than you will ever know.  Also, I have no excuses any more.