It’s Friday afternoon. It’s raining. After summer arrived with a sudden vengeance this week, this is rather pleasant, despite the rainy monstrosity that was May.
The familiar sound of the guy two houses up talking on his phone carries through to me, pierced by the occasional ringing of bottles, as the glass recycling truck makes its way around the neighbourhood.
I’m thinking about writing more regularly. Hence this post I suppose. Putting thoughts down on paper. So that they’re real, tangible. I often find myself in the middle of a work day, just staring out of the window in thought about something very random. Sometimes not so random.
Today was no different. As it often does, my mind ventured into the realm of my own career, and what the next five to ten years had in store. I’ve also spent an unreasonable amount of time lately wondering what I’m truly good at. What are my natural abilities? How well do I even know this?
I was in someone’s house the other day, and they had this old vintage violin. Just sitting there like an ornament. I wanted to pick it up, but I dared not. It looked quite expensive. But it did make me realise that I’d never held a violin in my life.
In terms of talent I could be the greatest violinist in the world. Probably not. Definitely not.
But I’d never know, would I? And then I thought of all these parallel universes looking at us. Doorways and pathways untravelled. Talents unfound.
Do we have a natural ability to sense what our true talents are? Or is it entirely dependent on us trying it out? It’s scary to think of what we might be missing out on.
So much of life is just reaching out to something in front of you and hoping it works. Following some perceived north star, if you’re lucky. While seas crash around us we come into this life and throw the dice, hoping for the best. Living in mud huts while the ghosts of mansions cast shadows all over.
The rain’s still coming down outside. And I’ll keep wondering about this.
Leading up to September, many thousands (possibly millions) of learners in the UK and around the world will be making decisions around which field of study to pursue in college or university. For learners going through the clearing process in the UK around August, the pressure increases slightly as quick decisions are required around career and institution.
I suppose it’s easy in the heat of decision making to think along the lines of “Well, it’s just a course, it’s not my life.” But is it? The degree or programme you choose ultimately decides your initial employment opportunities. Then once in a job, your employment and daily routine of employment influence your livelihood, wellness and general happiness. Through a couple of quick Google searches it seems generally accepted that around 30% of adult life is spent working. So in many respects that qualification isn’t just a qualification, it becomes a large aspect of your life.
I suppose the other reason I feel passionately about this is because finding the right career can largely be an expression of who you are. An extension of your true self applied daily to your tasks. Getting into the wrong career on the other hand, can be somewhat oppressive. Expression vs oppression. That’s why the choice is so big.
Thinking back on some of my own experiences, and having worked within education providers for a number of years, I thought I’d put a few thoughts down on this to help young people make the right choices.
Specifically, I want to highlight some of the mistakes you can easily make when looking for a career path. There are four very clear potential mistakes.
Basing your decision entirely on passion
It’s important to feel strongly about what you do. Some people are lucky enough to have a real deep rooted passion for their career choice. But passion for a certain path can blind you from some glaring issues.
Like all decisions, choosing a career needs a combination of the rational and the emotive. Underwater basket weaving might be your thing, but the real world demand for this profession should be a guide to your thinking. That, and maybe the lack of underwater weaver millionaires out there.
Passion is a dangerous beast. Not only because it can cloud your judgement, but because it can be very temporary. It can burn out. Be extinguished. Die.
A better rule to follow is probably more along the lines of what you’re actually good at and weighing that up against demand. It’s about finding that sweet spot between three things – what you can do well, whether there’s actual opportunities in it, and whether you can tolerate doing it for years.
Even if you don’t necessarily love a certain vocation, if you’re good at it this builds confidence. In my experience confidence is an important part of long term happiness. And of course, if you’re good at something, rising to the top of that field is a little easier.
Doing it because others are
I suppose I made this mistake in some ways. I went into university studying an accounting degree – with the aspiration of becoming a chartered accountant. This decision becomes more absurd to me as the years pass.
In my high school in Port Elizabeth, South Africa around the early 2000’s there was this weird popularity around chartered accounting. I use the term “weird” because it’s strange to look back now at how many young people felt accounting was what they wanted to do with their lives. No offense to accountants.
Maybe it was because we didn’t know what the hell else we wanted to do, so it became a bit of a default for many. Maybe because the hallowed title of chartered accountant, although far off on the horizon, was a promise of a hefty salary and lifestyle we dreamed of. Consequently the term “chartered accountant” was always a revered one.
I was lucky enough to be able to switch degrees after one semester to something I was far more interested in – marketing. With a clever enough re-shuffle of modules I was still able to finish within three years. Some aren’t so lucky, and the process of changing qualifications can cost an entire year. That’s an entire year of earnings potential, job experience etc.
The bottom line is that following the crowds is never a good idea. Particularly with career choice. This is one time in your life where you really do need to think as an independent individual. Who are you? What’s right for you? What your mates are doing shouldn’t come into the equation at all. In a few years they may not even be your mates anymore.
Friendships that have run their course can be discarded easily. Bad career choices stick with you a little longer.
Getting into a career without a solid understanding of it
I had a friend in my first year of university who started studying law. But he just didn’t seem the type. As the year drew one I could tell he liked it less and less. Eventually he just dropped out of it, and started year two in a completely unrelated field. Talking to him over a few beers one night I realised just how misinformed he was.
His idea of being a lawyer was the glam courtroom stuff you saw on Law & Order, or LA Law or something like that. You know, the hotshot attorney making impassioned, eloquent arguments in front of a jury and packed courtroom.
I couldn’t believe it – how could someone be this naive? Maybe because my own father was an attorney, I knew what it was and what it certainly wasn’t. But even if that weren’t the case, I’d surely know that the legal profession is largely an unglamorous one, filled with paperwork, contracts and documentation.
Due diligence is key here – excuse the appropriate legal term. It’s more important to see the gritty underside of a certain career rather than the glamorous public idea of one. The internet should have all of this if you search well enough. Even better would be using your networks to talk to people in roles. And don’t ask them what they do, ask them what a typical day looks like.
Asking someone what they do is like asking for a highlights reel. Asking what their typical day looks like will get you closer to the good and the bad. The exciting and the mundane
The nature of “work” and its roles within society is changing quicker than ever before. That is such a clichéd statement, I can’t believe I wrote it. It’s always been a bit of a given. But Covid is changing the way we interact with the world, and each other – particularly in the work space. On top of all this, technology continues to surge forward, embracing AI, crypto and all kinds of new technologies – some gimmicky, some no doubt here to stay.
When I studied marketing around 2004/2005, the term “social media” literally didn’t exist. Blackberries, now outdated and uncool mobile phones, were still just fruit, and nothing else. Facebook didn’t exist. Twitter was still just the sound of birds chirping. SEO, Apps and content marketing? What on earth is that?
In the space of 15 years, I’ve seen the concept of marketing become something completely different. The great digitisation of marketing has led to the emergence of a number of new job titles, roles and careers. In other industries job titles have disappeared. What are compilers of the old yellow phone books doing nowadays?
The internet is full of trend reports on careers – what’s becoming obsolete and what will come into higher demand. And as with everything in life, even if you don’t follow the road signs, make sure you take note of them. Who knows, those two skills you’re really good at could be key in a trending or high potential career route.
Even taking all the above into account, you could still make the wrong decision. And that’s ok. It really is. A study from a few years ago in the UK suggested that half the working population in the UK are in roles unrelated to their field of study.
It’s life after all, and nobody should be wedded to a career forever if it’s not working for them. Sometimes you learn most by making wrong decisions. But in your first ten years of work, it really does help if you’re doing something you’re good at.
And if you’re going to spend good money and valuable years going through college or university, it might as well be worth it.
I can’t claim to have a large amount of friends. Almost intentionally I’ve always kept my friend base low – quality over quantity. That’s the introvert in me. Nevertheless, down the years I’ve found myself visiting countless homes. Homes of friends, homes of my wife’s friends, homes of friends of friends and of course in-laws and family.
Whenever I visited their houses, there was always something that stuck in my head, even though I might not have paid immediate attention to it. I knew it was there. And it was this – the fact that hardly any of them seemed to own any books. Or at least if they did, they were really well hidden.
It’s been done a thousand times – how people don’t read anymore. Or how the novel is dead, or dying, or something. It’s an interesting thing for me to observe, being a keen reader myself.
A good friend of mine even said to me last year that since he’d started using smartphones, he’d hardly read a single book. Yes, smartphones are largely to blame, but the decline was well underway before the Nokia 3310 was replaced by fancy Samsungs and iPhones.
The stats seem to back this up, of course. It’s all there when you research it. It’s easy to blame the youth, and indeed, they’re not reading much these days. Yet the biggest declines in reading are in the older age groups.
It seems to me that self-help non-fiction still does well in many circles. The genre that has suffered the most it seems, is perhaps the most important genre of them all – the classic novel. The literary novel. Call it what you like – the stories that make us think. The ones that make us question ourselves and our place in the world.
Men in particular don’t seem to read fiction anymore. Women are better at the practise of reading novels, although I notice it’s often your sort of “book club” books. You know the ones. The female lead, sucked into an adventure or saga of sorts. There’s a mysterious male character. Not overly good looking, but definitely ruggedly good looking, with kind eyes. Don’t forget those. It plays out, there’s a fairly happy ending and the two of them get together. Or the alternative – they get together for a while but it’s a painful ending – often with the male character dying at the end. You know the type. But at least someone is reading something.
The effects of these reading declines seem clear to me. When I look at the world I see it in an increasing state of division. People doubling down into their echo chambers, acquaintances and friends unable to speak to eachother for difference of opinion. Family members estranged because of a different outlook on the world. Constant arguing on Twitter with strangers. It’s all rather pathetic.
Because we don’t read anymore. Or, should I say, we don’t read things that stimulate our sense of critical thought. And if you think that’s overly simplistic, consider this – the classic novel put you in the shoes of the character. You were forced to investigate ideas from all sides, and forced to go along for the ride. Through different characters you were able to see things from different points of view.
Then there’s the difficult or contrarian ideas – something our society seems to struggle with. All great novels of the past would be based through the lens of the lead character, and through this the reader would be forced to understand the thought process and inner dialogue of the character. Right or wrong. Comfortable or uncomfortable. Simple or complex.
Modern headline culture merely tells people what media companies want them to hear, in a few words. No need to think critically at all. You’re already told what to think.
The decline of the novel has coincided with a strange period in society as a whole, and perhaps contributed to this element of a dumbed down world.
Instant gratification. Bite sized content. The classic novel takes time and effort.
Perhaps the saddest part isn’t even about the critical thinking element, or the intelligence part of it, but it’s in just how much the youth are missing out on in terms of enjoyment. Indeed, society as a whole. One of the greatest pleasures in life is the reading of great novels. In my case it wasn’t merely the reading of them, but more in all the thinking that they’d made me do afterwards.
Sometimes I still page through parts of the Grand Inquisitor chapter of the Brothers Karamazov and marvel at the incredible insightfulness of the ideas and conversation
Or the end of Gates of Fire, or snippets of Anna Karenina, or my favourite parts of East of Eden, or Geissler and Sivert talking at the end of Growth of the Soil. Or the chilling conversations between Winston and O’Brien in 1984. A few of many examples.
It feels like we’re losing something great. I sometimes think of 1880’s Russia, and how they hung on every new chapter Dostoevsky put out. How it would stimulate dinner conversations. How it would help define the zeitgeist of their time. Now the zeitgeist lurks in Tik Tok videos or celebrity Instagram posts. The great novelists resigned to their seat at the back, as society hurtles on indifferently.
My advice to young people is simple – you haven’t lived properly until you’ve read the great novels. Seek out the great novels and give them your time investment. If non-fiction helps us find answers, it’s in the classic fiction that we find the questions. And in this modern world of ours, it’s the questions that are essential – the questions we’re forced to consider about life. About the world. About living. About ourselves.
In these Covid times, the term “new normal” has been used extensively. I personally hate the term. I want to smash the term “new normal” against the wall until it never gets used again. Like many others, I feel that if this is the new normal, I don’t want much part of it. I was highly skeptical of the world being shut down like it was, and as this lockdown has progressed I’ve become more and more vocal and angry about the massive economic disaster it’s creating.
But I’m not going to argue that point. The internet, and Twitter in particular are rife with opposing takes on our reaction to the virus. There’s enough discussion about this out there.
One of the key talking points coming out of this ‘crisis’ is around the future of work. Specifically, the future of where we work. Working from home was obviously very topical in the early weeks of the lockdown, as if some people weren’t doing that once or twice a week anyway. As time went on the narrative has shifted to when, how and if we’ll ever work in the office again.
A piece from the Atlantic on 19 May ominously suggested that The coronavirus killed corporate culture. Get used to working from home.
A new report conducted by access-management company Okta among 6,000 office workers across Europe has found that just one in four UK respondents are keen to go back to the workplace full time.
A CNBC report through survey monkey of 9000 US workers showed that 44% are happier working from home since this pandemic began. 38% of respondents want to continue working from home once things go back to some element of normality.
An article in the UK’s Campaign Magazine on 20 May quotes Barclays chief executive Jes Staley saying that large numbers of people working together in a central office could become “a thing of the past.” The article also mentions French carmaker Groupe PSA saying that remote working will become the “benchmark” for any activities not directly related to production.
So the appetite is there. Not just from companies but from workers themselves. There’s a lot more of this research and sentiment out there. So much so that it almost seems a little too . . . co-ordinated. Now that the initial shock has worn off, people and companies alike are clearly getting into habits and understandably becoming more partial to the situation.
Yet I can’t help but wonder if much of this is incredibly shortsighted. I’m enjoying the more leisurely mornings and the absence of crowded tube rides just as much as anyone, but I don’t believe this is the world we want to be creating.
For the sake of my argument let’s ignore the property market meltdown which would result from a work-from-home world. Let’s also ignore the fact that many workers would suddenly now be competing with a worldwide talent pool, since it wouldn’t matter where someone is based anymore. I’m going to focus a little more on the human aspect of this.
It’s been a fear of mine for a long time. This fear that slowly but surely the world is moving into a state where humans are overly controlled. Where individuality is almost outlawed. A world where we all follow the prevailing narrative and rules like robots. A world where life’s character is extinguished. So of course I fear that a world forced to work from home would be a world that has shifted ever closer to this state of affairs.
Aside from the Dystopian fear, I have a very deep concern for the nature of the corporate world, and indeed humanity itself.
So much of life itself exists within the realm of the office walls. The clichéd idea of conversations around the water cooler are in fact a very real thing, and important. Even if they don’t involve an actual water cooler. It’s a chance to let off steam, have a laugh, connect with people and enjoy the fact that work isn’t just about work. Maybe grab beer every now and then with a couple of colleagues you get on well with. This is what life is about.
Since the beginning of our species humans have been social creatures. From birth we require that human bond, and as we grow it’s the social interactions which grow us. If we stop going to work among other people face to face, we stand to lose part of a major pillar which makes us human. We thrive around other humans, we need it whether we like it or not, and the best moments in life are experienced with other people. This cannot happen behind a screen. Spending a career working from home will likely lose many of us a wealth of valued experiences.
I’ve met some of my most important friends at work through the years. These are friendships which would never have developed in a purely virtual working world. The reason for this is pretty simple – in virtual work environments, the only time people talk to each other are scheduled meeting calls. That’s it. There’s also the small fact that I also met my own wife in the office environment.
Of course, it’s easy to sit there at home working and keep up the good relationships you already have with colleagues through chat and call. But that’s the point – you already have these relationships. I’ve seen the other side of this. I joined a new company on 1 April, during the lockdown. To date I haven’t met a colleague face-to-face. I haven’t had a side conversation with any of them about life, family, sport, my country of origin . . . nothing. It hasn’t been pleasant in that regard. How do you build a decent company environment this way?
One of the more prominent trends that has grown in the corporate world in the last ten years or so is that of company culture. It’s become a pretty big deal, with companies spending large amounts of time, resources and money into building great company cultures. In reality, I’ve always said that good company cultures grow organically. They grow through people of complementary types working well together, and given the platform to work well together from leadership. And yes, often this involves friendships. They aren’t created by posters on the wall, catch phrases or expensive employee programmes. And they certainly can’t be created virtually. Any company that thinks it can have a culture virtually is sorely mistaken. What you’ll find is that all companies will end up having the same company culture . . . none.
I’ve been on one or two of these ‘social calls’ where a number of employees get together in a virtual meeting, over a drink. It turns into a mess. Four people end up talking over each other, conversation is stunted, and I found I missed a few opportunities to get a word in, because I was too slow. It just doesn’t work.
We’re human. We’re social animals, even us introverts. Let’s not be too eager to give that up in favour of Big Brother Covid. As I keep saying, let’s take our chances in a Covid world, rather than exist in a world not worth living in. Count me out of this dystopian Brave New World.
During this lockdown I’ve tried to take my four year old daughter to the local cricket ground every day. Once there we both enjoy it. A bit of fresh air and sunshine are very effective treatments for the sense of frustration and brain fog that continual working from home brings.
It’s beautiful there, surrounded by trees leading into the forest. I’ve watched them turn from bare to full green blossom in the last month. It’s in these moments that I’m grateful that my daughter and I have each other. The rather weighty inconvenience of trying to work during lockdown with a young child are quickly whisked away by the afternoon breeze, the purity of the company and the serenity of the environment.
On one particular afternoon I was reminded of how many sad stories this Covid crisis must have created. One of the small benches on the edge of the field was taken by an old man. He sat on his own. It was a bench we’d usually sit at when we went to the field. We obviously avoided him and the bench and went about our playful business. We eventually sat on a bench on the other side of the field. After a while I noticed the old man get up. With his walking stick he slowly ambled his way across the field toward the main road, walking past a small boy playing ball with his mom. Did I note a smile and a nod from him to them? An old lonely man out for a small drop of society and company.
I couldn’t help but imagine him making his way home to a quiet room where he lived alone. Perhaps a wife long passed. No kids or grandkids visiting. No lazy late afternoons in the pub, chatting to his few fellow old regulars, no making some chit chat with the bar ladies. Nothing. Nothing but an old man on his own.
I had work to do, and we made our way home. Together.
A couple of weeks ago our next door neighbor explained to my wife that her mother was close to 90, and lived in a nursing home with a dementia condition. Her mother kept asking why she wasn’t visiting, with no understanding of what was going on. That particular situation is close to home for me, so I’ve thought about it more than once. An old woman in a home, perhaps not knowing anything other than the light that was her daughter. That light suddenly not there anymore. Where is my daughter? I imagine her asking the nursing staff, with no comprehension of their answers.
One afternoon I walked slowly up to the corner shop for milk. There’s something lonely about a windy Saturday that seems to fill your mind and soul with a sense of desolation. As I walked I stared over the rooftops at the trees rustling. Even the birds seem to stay away. Not a raven or pigeon in sight. A beer can rolled down the street.
I walked past a man standing well away from a front door where a very old woman looked out. As he said something his hand movements seemed apologetic. And the distance he kept suggested a desire to not be obtrusive. I only caught a few words from the old woman as I walked. “I’m 85. My husband is 86, and he has a heart condition.” There was a quiet desperation on her face. A morbid fear of the outside world had clearly overtaken her.
Old and young alike. Putting my child in front of Netflix while my wife and I try to get work done is more sad than frustrating for me. What must she be making of this? Abruptly dragged from her preschool where she loved friends and teachers alike. She’s a single child. No interaction with kids for a month now. We try our best, but I as I watch her re-create Paw Patrol episodes with small figurines on the living room mat, I want to shake my fist at the world. There’s a tragedy even in this.
Back in South Africa I read a story about a young man shot in the leg by police. It was in a township. The story went that he was stealing food one night for his family. I once again imagined a very possible scenario. Perhaps he was a waiter in a Sandton restaurant. Perhaps that meager income was all that his family relied on. With the lockdown his income was suddenly brought to an abrupt halt. Within days his family of 5 in their shack starving. Desperate. What was he to do? Now he’ll never walk again.
Finally something has come along and affected us all, wherever we may be in the world. And instead of bringing us together, once again humans have found that within the crisis of the virus, we still have to argue among ourselves. And while I watch with disdain as this virus forces the ugly side of human nature play itself out in its usual style, looking for scapegoats, laying the blame, and ramping up politics, I’m reminded of all the millions of stories not making it into newspapers and TV news. Maybe not even newspaper worthy, but tragic in their own sense.
Some tragedies don’t make headlines. Some rapid declines don’t make the front page of the financial section. And while some work themselves into a frenzy about governments, economies, politics, someone else sits alone at home. Hearing the window blinds clink against the window in the breeze. Watching silently yet again as the day darkens into night. Waiting for the phone to ring.
I myself have much to be dejected about. My beloved football team were marching towards a title I thought would never happen. That got stopped in its tracks. Worse than this, my father was set to visit at the end of April. I’d been looking forward to it for months. I had it all planned out. The walks we would take, the pubs we would visit in between. This morning I went for one of the walks I would have done with him. And of course, it was a beautiful morning. The sun slanted through the trees of the forest and all I heard was the sound of birds. The kind of morning where one finds it hard to believe that bad people or bad events may indeed exist in the world. What a time of year this is. The morning seemed to mock me in a strange way as I walked alone.
Still, what can we do? One can still enjoy the sun rising. Birds singing during a calm dusk. Flowers opening as the seasons change. They can’t take the spring from us. Or out of us.
I was in the queue outside at Waitrose, wearing shorts for the first time this spring and the gentle breeze reminded me of a Mediterranean beach, with that undercurrent of cold in it. Seeming to tell you that you are in fact still in the cold continent of Europe. Every now and then a pleasant burst of greeting pierced the quiet. Green shoots were showing on the trees. A fat ginger cat sauntered up to the blonde woman in front of me. Two metres away, of course. She was pleased to see it and played with it. She watched as it came to me. She smiled. We smiled at each other, and shared a pleasant word about it. I gazed back to the sky and let the sun wash my face. The world keeps turning. And even in strange times, spring still comes around, and we can still smile at cats. And each other.
Back in the 1600’s, distinguished French inventor and physicist Blaise Pascal wrote “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
As some of you may know, I moved to the UK from South Africa during the early part of 2019. Life is of course different here, most notably in the realm of commuting. I’ve written a little about this here, but as time has gone on my increase in people watching has led to one or two interesting, and disturbing observations.
The quote from Pascal has always resonated with me, and I’ve sensed it to be true, but nothing has reaffirmed this more than navigating the London transport system and walking the streets of the city.
Being reasonably observant, what struck me quite early on in my time in London was the sheer scale of mindless distraction that people require. What do I mean by this? One can’t help but notice the people around you and what they’re doing. And what they’re doing is everything they can to distract themselves. I mean, I could excuse a lot of this if they were doing things to grow themselves like reading intelligent books, but this is rarely the case. No, they’re on their phones scrolling. They’re playing mindless Tetris-type phone games. They’re watching some TV programme. They have earphones stuck in their ears with strains of loud beats audible to you next to them. Or they’re having long, mindless conversations. The types where you start wondering whether there is in fact anyone on the other end of the line.
I get the distinct impression that these people don’t ever switch off the constant buzz of distraction occupying their time and minds. It’s a constant stream of phone calls, social media, Netflix and more. From the tube station it’s a ten to fifteen minute walk home for me through quiet streets. I always embrace this as a great chance to just gather my thoughts and enjoy the quiet walk, taking in the birdsong and reflecting on the day and life in general. Yet I’ll walk past countless people walking home with earphones in, engaged in an ongoing dialogue. At other times I’ll continually observe people jogging or gyming with headphones on, seemingly incapable of doing it with their own minds as company. Yes, everyone is different, and maybe I’m sounding overly critical. But I can’t help but think what I observe are symptoms of a societal problem, and makes me think that Pascal was spot on in how to solve humanity’s problems.
Of course, I’m guilty of some of these behaviours. The ride on the tube is long. It gets boring. You need distraction sometimes. I do a lot of this. I read, I scroll social media. Yet it seems to me that for many people, their entire lives are a distraction. Or more accurately, their entire sense of self is drowned in a sea of over stimulus. Watching all of this I get the distinct feeling that people are unable to spend time in their own minds, so to speak.
This reminds me of something I’ve observed with many directors and managers I’ve worked under down the years in the corporate world. People who would literally run from meeting to meeting for an entire day, day after day, complaining of busyness whenever you’d speak to them. When I’ve observed this in the past I’ve always thought these business managers and leaders would have done well to find an hour of alone time every day to close their office door and basically do nothing other than sit, think and reflect on the business.
I’m an introvert who doesn’t need that much conversation in daily life. Certainly not of the mundane type. So I recognise that most people need to talk more than I do. Yet I can’t help but watch people talk endlessly on a tube ride for 20 minutes at a time . . . about nothing in particular. I guess some things are hard to understand for people like me. I can’t help but wonder whether they’re not maybe adding unnecessary clutter into their minds, and lives. These people are obviously doing whatever works for them, but when I look at this I see a generation that needs constant external stimulation. Who can never be alone. Who can never exist without mindless entertainment. Who can never, god forbid, sit quietly in a room alone. We’ve created a society of individuals in touch with everything and everyone, but out of touch with their own selves.
Why is this? This constant need to be entertained – is it a form of papering over the cracks? A refusal of sorts to look below the surface? Are people afraid of their true selves? Perhaps not afraid. Maybe it’s more a sense of unease with true self-reflection and self-observation. Or is it simply a case of them not understanding mindfulness?
Sitting quietly in a room for a while as a habit is incredibly good advice. I look at the world and sometimes despair at the lack of self-reflection and self-awareness. I see a society so sure about its convictions. So reluctant to question beliefs and opinions. So reluctant to peel the layers off the ‘self’.
Sitting quietly in a room does many positive things, for starters:
It allows you to observe your thoughts, and thinking patterns
It gives you a chance to reflect on your own thoughts, behaviour, and ideas
It allows you to question yourself, your biases and opinions
It allows you to just calm down and be
Even if it’s not full on meditation, a practise of quiet time alone with no stimuli can only be good thing in the long term, and from observation, is an incredibly rare thing. We could all benefit from it.
Mindfulness and self-exploration are concepts handed down through millennia. Pascal’s point is just another take on this, but a particularly relevant one. Advice from the 1600’s more relevant than ever.
I had two heavy shopping bags and I needed to get a bus home. It was a short journey that took less than ten minutes. I waited for the pedestrian green light and made my way across the road to the bus stop. Reaching into my pocket I immediately got the CityMapper app out to see when the next bus would come. Fifteen minutes. Goddammit.
With two heavy bags I could do nothing but take a seat and wait. An old woman was sitting on the bench.
“Just the minimum for me today,” she said, referring to her shopping bag. I lamented the fact that I had a talker next to me. I’m always polite and pleasant enough, but making small talk with strangers is never my thing. “No more sherry for me. Had too much in January,” she continued with a cackle.
I smiled and looked out at the passing cars. The grey skies. The variations of people on the opposite sidewalk.
“I don’t even look at the bus times anymore,” she said. “It will come when it comes.”
I nodded my head, deciding not to tell her I’d just looked at my app and knew exactly when the next one would arrive. She went on to talk about the weather, laugh at the shock of blonde hair on a boy who walked past, and even commented on football. I guess she was somewhat entertaining. And she seemed happy – a point which made me thoughtful.
Another elderly woman arrived at the bus stop. I got up to allow her to sit, and was magically relieved of conversation duty, as the two started a conversation off as if they knew each other.
This tendency to talk to make conversation with strangers – it seems to be very much more the realm of older people. I stood on the edge of the road and wondered, not for the first time, whether people get more talkative to strangers as they get older, or were people just more open and talkative back in the day? Is it a case of loneliness forcing old people to talk, or has the society changed? A world turned inward on itself.
Finally the bus came and we all got on. I stood. Finally I could get home and relax with family. As the bus made its way closer to my road and my stop I gazed at her, sitting two rows in front of me. She had some sort of condition that made her head jerk slightly every few seconds. At my stop I got off and made my way home.
There’s a peculiar beauty with old age, I reflected. Even though I never really want to get as old as the woman on the bus, some strange part of me envied her. She’d done her innings. No one relied on her or expected anything of her anymore. She was free to stare death in the face and smile with a sherry.
For the past two years or so I’ve got into the steady habit of lifting weights. I’ve delved into it temporarily once or twice before, but this has been the first time I’ve really been able to embrace it over the longer term and make it sustainable.
Yes, I’ve seen results. And yes, there’s still a lot more I want to achieve. There will always be more to do in front of me in this regard. It’s an ongoing journey. There’s no end goal. This has just become something that I do – something that I am.
Oddly enough it was a philosophy quote by Marcus Aurelius that helped me build this weight lifting habit and make it stick.
“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.”
This quote obviously has nothing to do with fitness or lifting weights. I doubt the Roman Emperor was much of a gym bro. But this can be translated into so much in life.
How much time do we obsess over things but not do anything? How often do we make big goals for ourselves without even starting? How many of us wait for some sort of divine inspiration to commence on a journey of fitness, learning, career change, or whatever, without even doing step one?
Aurelius’s advice is simple. Stop thinking about it, just do it. Implement it. Be it.
The way I’ve translated that advice has helped me change the frame of why I lift weights, and this has made all the difference.
Instead of waking up in the morning and thinking I have to lift weights, my thinking is rather I lift weights. That’s what I do. Instead of having some vague fitness goal, I lift weights because I know that’s who I am.
This has made all the difference. The key words in that Marcus Aurelius quote are Be one. His point is that we fixate over some distant goal or ideal, instead of being the person that will get there.
If you are able to be that person, the goal should become irrelevant.
I watched the movie Factotum a couple of months ago. It’s based on a Charles Bukowski novel. Matt Dillon does a surprisingly good job of playing a young Henry Chinaski, Bukowski’s alter ego, as he goes job to job, trying to make it through life while attempting to build a writing career. The film ends off with the famous Bukowski quote about sticking to your dream through thick and thin.
“If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery–isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.”
These lines seem to have stuck with me since then. Maybe because I’ve slowly come to understand the power of playing the ‘long game’. Or maybe it made me think of myself. Here I am, stuck in career that no longer really appeals to me. Often I think back on the last ten years, wondering why I hadn’t just started pursuing a different, more enjoyable direction in life sooner. Something like writing, for example. If I did I might have found myself in a much more favourable position right now. Perhaps even on the verge of doing it for a living.
But life doesn’t work in hindsight. It works in the moment. And when you stack multitudes of moments on top of each other, you find life’s moved on and you haven’t. Well, not exactly as much as you wanted to.
While I can’t encourage the lack of eating for three or four days, or sleeping on a park bench, there’s a vital lesson in these words for any young person. Any person at all, for that matter. Or any company.
About ten years ago I became friends with a young guy who had started as a creative intern at the ad agency I worked for. By this time he’d established himself as a rising star in the creative and design department. I liked his sense of humour, and we knew how to have a good time.
But what always stood out about him was his sheer passion for advertising. He lived and breathed it. He spent endless hours on websites that exhibited great advertising. He knew the ins and outs of the industry. He devoured content around advertising awards shows. He loved it all.
By the time I left the ad agency a couple of years later he was at creative director level. I moved cities and we lost touch completely. Through friends, Twitter and LinkedIn I stayed loosely informed of his career path, which seemed to just grow and grow. From humble Port Elizabeth in South Africa, to creative director in large UK agencies. The last I heard about a month ago, he had just started at a world famous agency in New York City as a creative director.
I was happy for him. When I heard the news I couldn’t help but reflect that when he started at the ad agency we met at years before, I was considerably more senior to him. Yet in the space of a decade he’d surpassed me. He’s massively talented, yes. But at the heart of it I knew there was something deeper. He loved what he did. He had a clear picture in his head of what he wanted to achieve. Of this I have no doubt. From day one back in the agency a decade ago, he had a long game.
It’s worth telling another story of a friend of mine back in Johannesburg, South Africa. His wife has a high level executive job, which affords him the chance to work for himself. Here’s the thing . . . he’s good at everything. Well, almost everything. I’m not exaggerating either.
He cooks majestically. He can make a gourmet meal out of nothing. He could probably fix any electrical issue in your house. He’s a master of sound and speaker installations. He’s an excellent sound engineer, and even plays instruments fairly well. He knows carpentry, and could probably put together pretty much anything you wanted. In addition to this he knows how to fish, how to hunt, how to boat. He could skin an animal and cure the meat better than a butcher.
He’s dabbled in business in some of these areas. Yet for all his expertise, nothing has ever taken off. Often something he was heavily into would be forgotten six months later. He drifts from one thing to the next, all of which he is very capable, hoping something sticks. Hoping for a magic moment, when the money starts pouring in.
It never does. His situation hasn’t really changed from when we met him back in 2012. It’s a pity because I like him, and he’s good at so much. But he’s never played the long game.
Then there’s the story of the company I joined when I left the agency I spoke of. They ran a group of colleges around the country. No company is perfect, and neither were they, but I loved working for them. They were decent, down to earth people. They gave me a healthy dose of accountability, and I generally had fun while there. I badly wanted the company to ‘win’ and grow exponentially. But it never happened. We never grew anywhere near as much as I wanted us to, and at times we struggled. After five years I felt I’d outgrown much of the company and left for a bigger name.
Looking back now I sometimes wonder what held us back. Why couldn’t we grow like we wanted to? We had small budgets, yes. But we had a decent footprint and access to a large market. Our product was well developed and very relevant. Our campuses were well equipped and clean.
But we never stuck to anything. And because we never stuck to anything, we weren’t known for anything. Every year we seemed to latch onto a new direction in terms of what we stood for. One year it revolved around technology, then it revolved around delivery model. Then rested on appealing to a corporate market. There was never a defined sense of “This is who we are and this is what we’ll be known for” – that ingrained vision that you stand by, even in the face of one or two flat years while you build. It always seemed to be a moveable feast. No long game.
How many other companies fall into this trap? My guess is many. Company strategy is essentially an incredibly simple thing. Decide on a direction that makes market sense and that is in line with company strengths, and stick to it. Yet this seems incredibly difficult for many companies. Playing the long game doesn’t come naturally to us humans. New managers come in and want to make their mark. They want something visible to justify themselves, so the long game is often the casualty.
The most successful companies generally played the long game . . . and won.
Anyone who knows Bukowski’s story knows why that quote of his has so much relevance. Essentially Bukowski played the ultimate long game. For decades he suffered through life, trying to make it as a writer. Through hardships, poverty, failed jobs and bad living, he never stopped writing. Finally he got his break in the depths of middle age, and went on to be of the most famous American poets of the 20th century. He truly fought the long fight for his passion.
I myself sit at 35, regretting that I haven’t played the long game. I too am guilty of starting things and never progressing. Yet here I am. It’s not too late. It never its. But I know now more than ever that for people and companies alike: if you’re going to try . . . go all the way.
I hate small talk. One of the worst possible torture treatments you could hand me would be to put me in a room with strangers for a whole day and ask me to make small talk with them. Over the years I’ve come to avoid it as much as possible.
Extroverts won’t really understand, but as an introvert, that act of making conversations with a bunch of unknowns is a taxing one. It’s not to say that as introverts we can’t do it. Indeed, sometimes introverts make the best conversationalists. It just sucks the energy out of us, and leaves us drained.
Yet it’s everywhere, isn’t it. Being fairly new to a job and sitting down in the lunch area with colleagues. Weekend barbecues with a bunch of new people. Weddings. Work functions. All occasions that at times have made me roll my eyes and wish for home in the past. Going to a kids party, you’re forced to engage with those around you in meaningless chit chat. People you’re likely to never see again. So you think, what’s the point? Yet there you are, asking the questions you need to ask to fill the terrifying silences. What work do you do? What area do you stay in? How crazy has this weather been? How long have you been in this city? How good was the rugby last weekend? Bleh.
There’s something about the act that strikes me as . . . insincere. Basically feigning interest in someone just to get through a certain occasion and to avoid awkward silences. My stance is typically along the lines of me feeling like I don’t care enough about people to want to know the little things about their lives. I’m just . . not . . . that . . . interested. But then things changed a bit.
With 2019 came a great deal of self-reflection. A lot of it, I suppose, was due to changing countries and trying (at times) to fit into new work environments and cultures. I started realizing that I was perhaps a little too “in my shell” so to speak. Over time I suppose I’ve embraced this contrarian stance to small talk a little too much. With all of this in mind some realisations slowly hit me. I watched people. Successful people. I took note of one thing in particular – how at ease they were with just talking.
I reached a simple conclusion that I need a change of mindset about this. For three primary reasons:
It’s the basis for all human connection
Humans are social animals. That applies even to us introverts of this world. We need connection, and that sense of belonging. Yet the only way to reach that point is to start by small talk. There are obviously some people you never really build a sense of rapport with. Often they’re about as interesting as a government issued tax guide. But with some people, after chatting for a while you find you click in some ways. Yet you only find that out through trading some light conversation.
It’s more than that. Successful people seem to have a knack for small talk, and using it to lead them where they want to go.
Great sales people have perfected the art of finding rapport, which ultimately builds trust and connection. Landing the job you want often depends on how well you come across regardless of your interview questions. This depends on how well you hold your own in conversation. Charm is something you hone over time through conversation. It’s almost impossible to turn it on and off.
To find an ideal romantic partner for yourself, you have to be able to engage in small talk. Men, in particular who often shoulder the responsibility of the first move in a potential relationship generally fare better if they’re able to be funny and engaging in the arts of small talk. Again, this requires practice, and learning the hard way.
There’s something to learn from everyone
The best way to become a better conversationalist is to listen better. It sounds counterintuitive but by listening more you pick up on the interesting things someone says. And yes, there is something to learn from everyone.
It could be an interesting world event you never knew about. It could be a piece of gossip you were out of the loop on. It could be a bit of parenting insight that makes you think Hmm, I should try that. It could be news of a new online service you’re interested in. And so on.
Sometimes, in the right circumstances people give away a little too much. Alcohol does that. So the unfortunate curse I have of a high tolerance to alcohol has resulted in one or two interesting experiences. I can drink a bottle of wine and still have all my wits about me. Some people have two glasses and lose all inhibition in conversation.
A few years ago I was new to a company. In celebration of my arrival, the big boss hosted an evening at his house with a host of key staff. I got into a conversation with a woman in her 30’s who, it turns out, was the head of IT. Or something like that. After giving me the inside scoop of the company and how to handle certain personalities, she proceeded to tell me how tantric sexual practices were saving her marriage.
Not that I’d use this type of information against anyone, but often having the patience to stay in a conversation with someone leads to some interesting insights about company culture, company leadership styles and so forth.
What about that annoying guy who’s just cringe worthy? Well, perhaps there’s something to learn from him too. Even if, like David Brent in The Office, it’s merely to remind you of what you don’t want to be.
For introverts, talking is a skill that needs continual practice
It isn’t like riding a bike. If you want to be great at communication, you have to work at it, continually. I’ve been guilty at times in the past of going into my shell and avoiding talk as much as possible. Understandable, isn’t it? Yet whenever this has happened I’ve noticed a marked decline at how well I communicate. Is it just me, or is this a universal human truth? Or, more likely, this is true of us introverts.
If I spend an entire day talking to people or doing presentations, by the end of the day the ease at which I’m talking is remarkable. It stuns even me. However, if I were to spend a week at home with no company, my communication skills would suffer. I’d be tripping over my sentences. My pitch would be poor. There’d be a faulty connection between my brain and my words.
Embracing opportunities to talk to people helps keep your conversation skills sharp. Some people are natural talkers, but many are not. For many, like myself, it’s a skill that needs constant sharpening.
What choice do we have but to deal with people in this life? Might as well become as good as possible at talking to them. Some things in life just can’t be avoided. Small talk is one of them.
I’m not suggesting that I’m suddenly going to love engaging in small talk. My natural instinct will still be to avoid it. Yet part of me now knows it is something to be embraced (sort of). What’s the worst thing that can happen?
We’re human. We need connection. We need . . . things. To make things happen and build our own success sometimes we have to do what is not entirely comfortable.
I’ll drag myself to work on this in the coming year. Let’s see how it goes.