Giving something back

I am nothing
becoming nothing
and nothing’s to be done

The longer the foggy, undulating road into my career, it is easy to feel ever more disconnected from why I started on the journey in the first place, and how it felt at the time. No doubt it did not feel like the start of a journey at all, it seemed like something to do that may just lead somewhere, or may lead somewhere else entirely.

At varying, sporadic times, but never more than now, I have wished to “give something back”. It would be easier if I actually knew what that meant: probably to help those at the start of their own journey to discover whether its a route they wish to take at all, and if so to impart the benefit of a little wisdom I wish I had received at a similar time in my life. Something of that “I wish I knew then what I know now”.

A few years ago a number of my peers and I set out to collectively do this, until it was railroaded (all too soon) by the fee-earners into just another self-important consultancy vehicle to crystalball the future of the workplace.

So I recently committed to support the graduate programme in my current role, and am off to Sheffield University shortly to give a lecture (my first ever) to a group of students that will be part “my story” and part “workplace is fantastic, you should do this”. I am not sure that’s quite enough yet, but its a start.

Giving something back is the least we can do. It defines us, and helps those coming after us to define themselves. On our own journey, at a juncture that feels right, we need to start getting out of the way to let the emerging talent through. We shouldn’t disappear into the fog along with the stories we have to tell, mumbling them over to ourselves. They need to be told. Or it will swallow us, and we will be nothing.

Your career has been good to you. Give something back.


“The Nausea has not left me and I don’t believe it will leave me so soon; but I no longer have to bear it, it is no longer an illness or a passing fit: it is I.” (Sartre)

I have offered before that work is an existential matter – that we can only know and define it according to our own experiences. It did not have too many takers – after all, its uncomfortable, its not someone else’s job or responsibility. In the corporate world, everything is by definition always someone else’s job or responsibility. There is no-one to blame, no-one to hold to account, no-one’s plan that was misconceived or badly executed. Its not a process that’s broken, or a panacea that needs dismantling, or a solution yet to be defined or named (because we love naming things, don’t we?). Nothing about which to rail “something must be done!”

In reflecting on some of my less pleasant times at work over the last decade, the feeling of nausea was akin to that felt by Antoine Roquentin in Sartre’s novella. At the lowest points, dreading switching on my devices in the morning, expecting the very worst in correspondence from certain individuals, sensing a tightening circle from those measuring their career advance on my undoing, wondering if everything I had dedicated so many hours to over the years had made any difference at all, and doubting that I could change anything worthwhile, I felt the “sweetish sickness”. Of course we are supposed to “man up” and not feel like that. So we internalise, and it festers in our gut.

The intensification of Roquentin’s nausea finally leads him to the acceptance of his freedom and the opportunity it presents, and an understanding of the commitments he must make to give his life meaning and allow for creativity. Essentially, it was all down to him – not others, nor the inanimate world around him. The nausea was a pre-requisite to recognising this, not unlike Dostoevsky’s assertion that suffering is the root of consciousness.

I had read Nausea long before I felt as I did at work, probably therefore long before I needed it -like most of the philosophy and literature I soaked up in my twenties but only seems relevant today. It seems on reflection that I needed to understand locks before I knew what to do with the keys.

Many of us experience Roquentin’s nausea, and similarly cannot explain why. Perhaps like for he, dawns a moment of realisation of the burden and opportunity of our freedom and the responsibility it confers. Perhaps we wait for it to pass, and seek answers elsewhere – only for it to return over and over.

I remain convinced that work is an existential matter. Only we can ascribe meaning to it, and see its potential. It is not the responsibility of other individuals, or the ethereal amalgams that constitute the organisations within which they gather. Nor does the clue lie in our social domain, or Big Ideas. While the nausea occasionally hints, at least I recognise and know it for what it is.

The implications are far reaching – a gargantuan misdirection of thought, energy, resources and angst towards ideas and institutions unable to resolve the nausea. A consideration that the clues to understanding work lie within our consciousness of ourselves are terrifying.

It means we actually have to do something about it.

When did we become so helpless?

My eyes already touch the sunny hill,
going far ahead of the road I have begun

from “The Walk”, Rilke (1924)

Blame is everywhere. It is easier to assign blame than take responsibility. And its easier to blame something that is merely a personification than it is a person – there is less likelihood of retribution. The “organisation”, that amorphous, gaseous collection of individuals to which we assign an identity and character (and heaven help us, a culture), takes the most. Rarely accepting that we are a thin sliver of the character we impose, we hold it accountable all the same.

We blame it for our lack of opportunity, when we could create our own by learning something new, volunteering for something different, stepping along the lattice, or stepping outside. We could cast off the shackles we have imagined for ourselves.

We blame it for the perceived lack of meaning in our work, when we are perfectly capable of ascribing meaning to it, or creating it ourselves. An existential position holds that fundamentally only we can create this meaning anyway, that no other being real or imaginary can do so. We could look at our work anew.

We blame it for not making our workplace more engaging, interesting or fun, when we and our colleagues have the possibility of a richer life experience to share, and more social channels at our disposal, than ever before. We could step out of our own shadow.

We blame it for making us fat, sick, sickly, stressed, aching and pained, even though what we eat and drink, how much we exercise, how we move, when we take breaks – are all down to us. They are our choices: we could make better.

Quite when did we become so helpless?

In our complex and socially interwoven world we have never had so much information and ability with which to influence outcomes outside of normal structures, channels or hierarchy – yet we have seemingly succumbed to the ascription of an equal and opposite sense of abandonment.

Unfortunately many within organisations who ought to know better actually serve to reinforce our helplessness, perpetuating the notion that “it”should do more to alleviate our apparently unfortunate condition. We would do so much better to encourage and enable individual and collective self-reliance and responsibility, and instil an ownership of our present and future.

Cassius might today reflect that “the fault dear Brutus lies not in our organisation but in ourselves”.


Having just been “socially recruited” I need to declare at the outset that my position in regard to LinkedIn is extremely positive. I no longer need convincing. Not of the myriad of anodyne, sales-infested discussion groups, where everyone is talking and no-one is listening, but in respect of its use as a connecting tool, on both sides of the supply line.

There is a caveat. Of course, otherwise it wouldn’t be a blog post. Not with LinkedIn per se, but in regard to ourselves.

Under a decade ago, when we finally decided that we wanted to change job – usually too late, as these realisations often are – we thought about updating our CV. We scrabbled around looking for the last one, thought about how we might position ourselves differently this time, and double checked the spelling of one of the few bits of Latin we ever bothered with, Curriculum Vitae. We dusted down our self-impression, bought a new outfit or two, painted our nightmares as dreams, and readied ourselves to be commoditised, judged, ignored and rejected. All part of the accepted fun of job seeking.

We (in the broadest, all inclusive sense) answered advertisements looking for “excellent communicators at all levels, team players with a strong leadership style, influencers, innovators and self-starters with a track record of achievement”, avidly claiming to be all of these things – when what they wanted was a reliable and trustworthy middle manager prepared to deal with the usual limited opportunities – feeling apprehensive about our claims because “we” were a reliable and trustworthy middle manager prepared to deal with the usual limited opportunity. We just knew that if we secured a chance to show ourselves, the reality would reveal itself on both sides and we could set aside how we came to be there.

Fortunately it was occasional – and for the most part, when we excitedly squeezed through the cracks of a chance, we locked it all away – emotional scars included – until next time. We had sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in a bathtub and made it to dry land, one up on Vasco de Gama. We laughed about the experience, for all its flaws, but were happy with the eventual outcome. For the rest of the time we just….got on with it.

Through LinkedIn we now live with our personal brand taped to our foreheads, a 24/7 CV. You cannot afford not to be on it. There are training courses in using it, photographers for your profile pic, SEO advisors and consultants for maximising your appearance in search results, abundant subtle hints, tricks and tips all in video blogs, and a host of technical tools designed to find, analyse and process you. In fact, you appeared in 347 searches today. It may have beneficially changed the experience of both recruiters and of ourselves as employees (and recruiters are employees too), but I would like to ask – is it also fundamentally changing us human beings, if we are not careful?

Do you recognise any of these “LinkedOut” conditions?

  • We are always on, always there – so we have to think about it all the time, tinker, tweak, update. We are forever getting ready to go out. And so we don’t and can’t keep up, because sometimes we just want to put a sweatshirt on, and stay in. [Hopefully you don’t put a sweatshirt on to go out].
  • We are changing our beliefs about ourselves, writing ourselves a new sanitised identity and starting to believe it. In doing so, we set a trap for ourselves and fall right in. So we start to behave like our new self.
  • We feel compelled to use the language of “business” – paradoxically bland, over-complicated and empty – because that’s what we think the searches reveal. We don’t assume that they may be looking for our real self, beneath the guff. And so in using business-speak here, we use it ever more beyond. It becomes our natural patter. We become optimised, synergised, rightsized. LinkedIn – it’s a paradigm shift, right?
  • We find being honest about ourselves in formal settings more difficult, and more frightening. We are scared of the consequences of being open. The searches may dry up. No one will connect with us, or endorse us. In painting ourself as ourself, we suddenly don’t look like everyone else anymore – we are naked, exposed. So we get dressed again. As they say in the Incredibles – “when everyone is super – no-one will be”.
  • We find ourselves constantly appealing to everyone and no-one – a benign depiction that covers all bases, is all things to all people just in case – like Sisyphus perpetually responding to the same blanket cliché-stuffed job advertisement as everyone else. And so we exist in the general, and not the particular. The general is a lonely place.

If you recognise any of the above, take a look again at your LinkedIn profile. Is it really you? Would your Mum recognise you? Is it how you would really want to be seen and known – and the impression you would want to give to those who may want to know you? If not, re-write it. Honestly and openly. It’s not about it being perfect, it’s just about it being you.

Because if you’re not interested in you, who else will be?

Work – ridiculous beginnings?

If, as the last post asked, we are not sure what work is, is the nature of “work” an existential question?

The favoured analogy of the existentialist in understanding the burden of our freedom, and the angst it creates, is being perched on a precipice. Not only are we fearful of falling per se, but we are acutely aware of our freedom to fall of our own accord, if we wish.

Existentialists hold that life can only be known and understood by our own experience, rather than anything theoretical or empirical. As “existence precedes essence” (essence meaning character) it follows that only the individual gives meaning to their life. The absurdity of our predicament is therefore that the only meaning to be found in anything is that which we ourselves attribute.

Decisions – including whether to jump off the cliff – are therefore made on the basis of the meaning of the situation to us, rather than by applying reason or imposing any other artificial structure. “Bad faith” arises from any attempt to impose such a construct or framework on a world of unpredictability. These suppressant structures prevent us from finding meaning in our freedom.

It’s quite a scary prospect. If we cannot impose meaning on a word that offers us none, and we are burdened with a terrible freedom, what can we do?

One can view work in the same way. We know work only by our own experience, and we impose our own meaning upon it. We are forever hearing about the drive to make work “meaningful” and “purposeful” to combat the perceived anomie of our complex adaptive world.

Yet we may be looking at this in the wrong way entirely. What we perhaps need to equip ourselves and others with is the understanding that only we can create meaning in what we do, recognising that it is not the job of others to do so through constructs that will drive an inauthentic engagement. In the same way that only we create a meaning in our lives, only we create meaning in our work.

The solution that the existentialists offered to the conundrum, of life may equally apply to work. At the point of becoming aware of our freedom, we are free to create. Albert Camus understood how this related:

“All great deeds and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning. Great works are often born on a street corner or in a restaurant’s revolving door.” 

Freedom. What will you do with yours?


So this is permanence?

Oh how I realised how I wanted time,
Put into perspective, tried so hard to find,
Just for one moment, thought I’d found my way.
Destiny unfolded, I watched it slip away

(Twenty Four Hours, Joy Division)

My opening was going to be “What’s it to be, legacy or…?” when I realised that there is no opposite of legacy, which is rather odd in itself. The closest I got in my own mind was the now, the present.

I have been encouraged by several people to put all my poetry of the last couple of years in one place. These are works that were presented “live” and where I had specifically requested not to be filmed or streamed when delivering the work, instead preferring a “be-there-or-miss-it” approach.

In essence, I have been playing to the original idea of a “gig” as a one-time performance, a term first used in Melody Maker in 1926. Interestingly the word gig is actually an abbreviation of engagement – another angle on performing poetry rather than publishing it.

So I assembled the work, and then thought – so what? I abandoned the idea.

In the notion of the gig, the only legacy is the memory and stories of the experience. The beauty and magic is in the moment, and we interpret and recant that at a later stage. No amount of recording or playback can capture the experience. Live (official) recordings and unsanctioned bootlegs just don’t come close. Our stories may in themselves become myth, told and re-told until the event resembles something else entirely. But that hardly matters – who is looking for accuracy?

I then read FlipchartRick’s article on Genghis Khan, a leader whose legacy was nothing other than the waste he laid to the empire he forged, and the very few stories handed down over centuries. He clearly wasn’t at all bothered about leaving a physical or written record of his time on the planet. He was busy getting on with it. He was one leader who is all myth, and no substance.

So why are we so focussed on – and overburdened by the prospect of creating – a legacy?Are we not satisfied enough with the moment? Why do we feel the need to leave something behind, for when we are not here? Is our ego that tyrannical that we believe we might derive some satisfaction from being remembered for something even when we will have no ability to experience that recognition?

Nietzsche and Kierkegaard both drew on and agreed with Heraclitus in that reality is not a state of being, but of becoming – perpetual transformation. Conceptually, therefore, legacy is an absurdity.

Perhaps therefore the ideal legacy is the story, not the thing itself – a story that changes and twists over time, told and re-told, coloured and re-touched, a life of its own – and so never at the point of actually being a legacy, as it lives on. It is always becoming.

In the human sphere, there is no such thing as permanence. Unburdened by legacy, imagine what we might achieve?


Resurrection (Joe) Blog

I took this blog down after publishing it, as I wasn’t happy with it – but folowing a massive Twitter campaign (by @ChangeContinuum) it has been digitally re-mastered from previously lost tapes….

In over four years of sourcing and reading children’s stories, most have seemed to offer a fairly acceptable and benign morality. At that age, discussion of contentious moral questions is of limited appeal.

But one book has caused me considerable angst – The Rainbow Fish. It was no surprise when I started doing a little digging that its interpretation has been varied and controversial.

The Rainbow Fish, the most beautiful in the ocean, is covered in wonderful shiny scales. It is proud, and protective of its gift. One day a small insignificantly-adorned blue fish approaches it and asks for a scale. It receives short shrift from the technicolor porpoise and so spreads the word of its treatment, and secures an ostracism. The Rainbow Fish visits a “wise” octopus, whose guidance is for the shimmery one to give its scales away, in order to find true happiness. When the blue fish asks again, it reluctantly gives it a scale – and just like a free latte at Starbucks, soon every fish wants one and it is giving them all away – bar one. The ocean is filled with fish with a single shiny scale, and of course the Rainbow Fish is welcomed back into the fold, relieved (and relieved of what made it special).

Is it a cautionary tale of the dangers of vanity and selfishness, and the happiness and acceptance that comes from sharing – or a submission to envy, and justification of bullying and the use of emotional blackmail? Is it teaching children the value of sacrifice and selfless generosity  – or encouraging them to give away their gifts in order to fit in, submitting themselves to the safety and insignificance of the mediocracy? Is the story really about attributes, or attitude?

The most ridiculous interpretation is that the octopus is a rampant socialist, and is encouraging homogeneity as an end in itself. This clearly ignores Marx’s recognition of the necessity of diverse talents and abilities, and the contribution to society they are able to make, in the famous phrase “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” from his Critique of the Gotha Programme of 1875.  You will notice from the story summary that the blue fish didn’t need a scale. It just wanted one.

What, therefore, of recognising the gifts you have, seeking to make the best of them for both your own and a wider good, while preserving and displaying a generosity of spirit, recognising that we necessarily all bring something different?

So two questions for you to ponder:

  1. You are the wise octopus – what would you have told the Rainbow Fish?
  2. Witnessing the incident, what would you have subsequently told the octopus about its advice?

My view? Let’s just say, the book is in the paper recycling. There is already enough mediocrity in the world. Next, we’ll be told it’s the taking part that counts.

The wonder & wisdom of King Thistle

You can’t work in an organisation of any sort without conflict, tension and affront. The tendency when seemingly wronged is to confront or vent. When complete, the feeling is like two bars of chocolate in the afternoon – an instant, delectable high, followed swiftly by overly prolonged remorse and a battle with the consequences.

Wisdom comes from many sources. Like it or not I get to spend a lot of time watching children’s TV. Overly moral as most of it tends to now be, occasionally the simplicity of a message cuts through decades of igneous coaching. And what a joy that is.

Step forward King Thistle, the absolute monarch whose Royal See is Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom of elves and fairies, where everyone is rather small. He is not the brightest, but never claims to be. He is charismatic but unkempt. In a lazy, underwhelmed and mildly cynical manner, his minimal laissez faire style creates a relaxed and respectful society, where the fairies dispense enchanting (and sometimes calamitous) magic while the humble yet resourceful elves delight in repetitive but dignified, happy toil. His pleasures are simple, but he clearly enjoys the trappings of his office. When called upon – for he could be considered reactive – he exercises judgment underpinned with common sense, and is very happy to acknowledge the expertise and contribution of others. Even when irritated, he remains dignified. In many respects, he is a decent manager.

So when a relatively harmless witch turned his arrogant and opinionated resident Nanny Plum to stone for one too many needless insults, he almost decides to let it pass believing she probably deserved it. When it is pointed out by his daughter Holly that this may mean not being served his favourite evening meal, he reluctantly pays the witch a visit to retrieve the situation. With exceptional manners and calm, a gentle charm and a healthy dose of flattery upon the warty stereotype, Nanny Plum is returned to life.

When Holly asks why he didn’t deal with the witch with all the vengeful force his office entitles, he responds:  “there’s a time for telling someone they’re smelly and ugly, and a time for being just – nice” – reflecting a little further that “saying nice things about people goes a long way”.

If you can take a deep breath when the red mist rises and construct a more sensible response, just imagine what might be possible. When faced with such a situation just ask yourself – what would King Thistle do now?


One step BYOD

We hear a lot about BYOD – Bring Your Own Device. Yet it strikes me that in twenty seven years of working I have had to bring far more in my own man-bag (yes, I was an early adopter) than just a device.

Other than a piece of glass covered in fingerprints, what else do we have to bring that we can’t rely on our organisations to provide?

  • Inspiration: we talk about it a lot, we oft claim that our achievements were a result of it. Inspiration is a personal, experiential ghost in our machine. Lack of inspiration is often externalised, a handy deflection of personal responsibility. It’s not in the induction pack, or on the tea trolley. We need to actively seek the sources of our own inspiration – they are all around us.
  • Network: we need people around us, too. In turn we are all in some way one of the people around others. We need their ideas, their inspiration, their contribution, and sometimes just the knowing that they are there. Yet there is another need – it was Anne Marie McEwan who last year made the excellent point that when an organisation hires someone, it hires their entire network. This stresses the importance of developing a diverse, informed and active diaspora. If you think you can do it on your own, you are missing your EQ. which brings me on to….
  • Emotional intelligence: in an age of governance, tape of various colours and the need for a corporate stab-vest under your non-iron shirt, it is tempting to see all activity around us through a technical frame, forgetting that all that compliance – even brilliance – is almost useless without EQ and self-awareness. If you can recite Byron perfectly but are not moved or changed by it, did you really read it at all?
  • Personal development: how many times, early in our careers, did we say we wished to join an organisation that would provide training and development? As it became apparent that this was a Careers Office deception, and with changes in our access to information, the ubiquity of the hyperlink (real and metaphorical), and the ability to selectively create networks that can inspire and stretch us, personal development rests ever more in our own hands.
  • Patience: in a world of instant gratification and information on demand, it is a paradox that organisational change seems to take ever longer, and be harder fought for than at any time since the Romans came ashore to play football. No-one teaches you to be patient, yet it is expected and often demanded. It is – truly – a virtue.
  • Open mind: think you’ve seen it all? The longer we serve in an organisation, and if we do not bring our own of the above, the narrower our field of vision becomes, and our mind closes like a sated flytrap. New day, new surprises. Don’t miss them.
  • Flexibility: you know how you work best. You know the place, the times and the methods that suit you. You can behave as convention would have you do, or you can demonstrate how much more productive you can be if you determine your own patterns – and share your experience, to provide others with enough confidence to do so too.
  • Deviance: not in the “naughty, 150 lines” sense, as some may interpret it, but as the will to consider alternatives, try different things and to do things differently – and talk about it all openly – that is, enough courage to beneficially break a habit or two. In community activity it is often called “positive deviance” – because every idea is claimed by someone – but I like to think of it simply as a spark.
  • Donuts: well, you have to, don’t you?

And of course you can bring your own device too. If you want to.

Gogol, the monks and me: a true story about growing up

I am enjoying Euan Semple’s book Organisations don’t tweet, people do immensely. You won’t find a better, more accessible read about the value and potential of social media anywhere.

When I came to a short section talking about his inability to keep a journal or diary, I found I had put my kindle down and was staring out of the bus window.

I recalled when – starting as a teenage – I kept a diary – one page, every day, written last thing before bed – for fully five years. I somehow believed at the time that I was doing what blogging now does for so many, “writing myself into existence”. We all recall the angst and suffering in those teenage years, the emotional struggle of growing into our own skin, and if we don’t we can listen to early Cure albums to remind ourselves. Perhaps I expected that one day when I was famous for a string of philosophical and emotionally engaging novels that they would be discovered deep in the recesses of a dusty store and marvelled at for the formative thinking that defined my later literary prowess.

Anyone that knows me will be aware that the novels have not yet arrived as a rather consuming career in property and workplace took over, and that the chances of my obsessively tidy approach to everything in front of – and often behind – me would render a dusty storeroom a physical impossibility.

Yet the diaries did not get a chance to be discovered. The tales of my misadventure, normal and understandable for someone of my age and curiosity, were read by my parents who were unable to contain their own wonder, despite my having hidden the book. Nowadays it’s all on Facebook and anyone can see it. Strange how times have changed.

So I decided to incinerate them. Like Gogol throwing his only draft of Dead Souls onto the fire for fear it was hopeless, I placed them in a metal dustbin and set them alight. Five years of journal keeping, literally up in flames. I managed to burn my Dad’s broom handle in the process, making sure they were all destroyed (no easy feat) – he was more upset about that than the ceremonial and tragic literary sacrifice I had made, depriving the world of my unique “memories, dreams and reflections”.

The fact that they were crap and would now be embarrassing renders it a relief to me that that they were put to the flame.

Some years later I saw an article in a newspaper about a group of Buddhist monks on a visit to the UK, creating an incredible carving of a large boat from balsa wood – and then promptly setting it alight on the Thames and watching it burn. They did so to remind us of the transitory nature of all things.

I wondered as I reflected on Euan’s comment whether with our blogs, tweets and other social comments, we have the chance any longer to destroy what we have created, as I and the monks were able. We are indeed writing ourselves into existence, but can we ever write ourselves out of it if we choose to? We are free in this day and age to create, but the freedom to extract is no longer present.

For some weeks after I burned my diaries I kept finding small scraps in the garden that had caught in the thermals from the pyre, and drifted into bushes and flowerbeds. Fragments of my reflections, in their own way looking to take root and grow again. Now, with this blog, they do.