Reinventing the performance review…

Its that time of year… mulled wine, Christmas songs in every store, and…. the dreaded annual review – as archaic an HR practice as one could possibly find!

A few years ago now I had the pleasure of listening to Ashley Goodall  SVP of Leadership and Team Intelligence at Cisco (formerly of Deloitte) speak about reinventing performance management and today, two years later I’m still wondering how many firms can honestly say they do this well!?  

The premise of Goodall’s initiatives to change the dreaded annual review process was that to fuel performance we first need to recognise it, and then truly see it, reliably. The challenge with this is naturally performance reviews are subjective, and if this is the case how do we generate reliable data, reliable information against which to measure performance?

Goodall’s response – look at what is happening in the best teams, the ones that are excelling, the ones with low turnover, the ones with higher productivity, as what we have truly been missing in the performance measurement paradigm is at the team level. In his words ‘we have missed teams in performance measurement, we do lots of individual stuff, and lots of organisational stuff’.

Think about your motivation, does it come from the actions you set following your traditional, staid review, a throwback to the days of mechanistic management techniques. I would suggest not. According to Goodall’s experiences at the time in Deloitte, the most powerful predictor of performance is when employees have the chance to use their skills every day. To you and I, as well as most employees, this means FULFILMENT! It trumps everything else.

From a motivation point of view fulfilment is closely followed by EXCITEMENT, being enthusiastic about the mission, and then ALIGNMENT, knowing what is expected of you. Given we want to make more teams like our best teams, if we look at what drives their performance and replicate these conditions then we might be going some way towards fuelling performance across other teams in the business.

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So how do we do this? Goodall argues we should put all the data about the experiences and motivators of the team in the hands of the person who can do most about it – the team leaders! Their power to positively impact team productivity just by moving away from the past focussed feedback to forward focussed recognition took even Goodall by surprise in Deloitte when studies showed increased engagement across all teams in the pilot at the time.

Two years later I’m still thinking about his parting shot… ‘A career is doing your best work over and over again’. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all focus on what makes our best work our best work rather than the annual cycle of looking at what we didn’t do quite so well.

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Being well at work…

In today’s hyper-competitive market, where we are ‘always on’ and connected and the demands of work often stretch beyond the traditional ‘9-5’, workplace stress is ever more prevalent. As Jeffrey Pfeffer wrote recently in an article for McKinsey “workplace stress…costs US employers $200 billion a year”. Given this figure we cannot help but be surprised that there is any question at all about the return on investment (ROI) in having a happy and healthy workforce. After all, happy people are more engaged, more productive and both mentally and physically healthier.

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It is no wonder then that to counterbalance the rising costs of an unhappy workforce there is a growing trend toward ‘workplace wellness’ in many organisations.  Attention is not only being given to how to better design jobs, but also how to provide workspaces that offer an engaging employee experience and positively contribute to employees being happy and healthy at work.

When it comes to innovating with space the coworking and ‘space as a service’ industry is leaps and bounds ahead of many corporate organisations.  This is perhaps not surprising given the space itself IS the product and to attract and retain members they need to do more than just provide a desk and some coffee.

It was wonderful therefore to hear some of this innovation and best practice showcased at the recent Global Coworking Unconference Conference UK (or GCUC), with an afternoon dedicated to the role that workspace can play in supporting individuals to flourish.

We prefaced the discussion by talking a little about the research being conducted by organisations like The International WELL Building Institute showing that productivity and happiness in a space can be positively impacted through things like air quality, noise, kinetics (simply the ability to get up and move around) and having plants nearby or access to nature (known as biophilia). Coworking and ‘space as a service’ providers are taking this new understanding of how we interact with the space around us and running with it!

For example, Kwerk, a Paris based coworking centre has coined the term ‘wellworking’ with its therapeutic workstations with ergonomically designed desks and chairs, a specially designed wellness programme with an on-site psychologist, and an immersive design that ‘awakens the senses’. Uncommon, a London based coworking company has wall to wall plants in its spaces, with biophilia a core tenant of its ethos and ‘vibe’. Both of these spaces, and many more, cater not just to the need for a place to work, but also for the physical and emotional wellbeing of the individual while he or she is working there.

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The appearance of these spaces and the broader debate on workplace wellness coincides with a mindset shift in how we work, where we work and when we work. Not only are employees placing more importance on their physical and mental wellbeing, but as they are exposed to more different environments in their personal and working lives, they become more attuned to what they need in a workspace in order to be productive, healthy, and happy.

With greater opportunity than ever to personalise our lifestyle choices, it is natural we want to extend this freedom of choice to our working lives. If we can better understand and capture the subjective value of workplace wellness to the individual this could herald the start of a new relationship between worker and workspace. A more bespoke relationship with happiness and wellbeing at its core, and one that supports individuals to do their best work, anytime, anywhere.

 

Harbour84 is an online platform to connect business travellers with workspaces that can help them be their best. Curation is key to our success. We carefully select spaces that offer connectivity, community and comfort based on the belief that workplace wellbeing and productivity go hand in hand. We then enable our customers to discover the workspaces they are looking for in a quick, simple and easy way.

 

This Blog was first published on www.gcuc.co 

Corporates and Coworking, the secret sauce.

At Harbour84 we like to describe coworking spaces as eclectic environments where people from different businesses and backgrounds come and work side by side, regularly resulting in increased levels of collaboration, innovation, and often an enhanced sense of workplace wellbeing. The best spaces exude an energy that not only attracts people to work there but makes them want to pay for it as well.

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Melissa Marsh, of social research firm Plastarc, captured this brilliantly in her moderation of a recent panel at the Global Coworking Unconference Conference (GCUC) in London by saying ‘Coworking spaces are places where people are paying to work rather than having to be paid to sit at desks’.  This means coworking centres and spaces are creating environments and workspaces that have all the ingredients of a ‘secret sauce’ and a perceived value beyond just being one of the tools (alongside technology and coffee for example…) through which people achieve their business objectives of the day.

This is a real departure from the traditional worker-workspace-employer dynamic.  Many corporate organisations are now lifting their heads out of their own Real Estate portfolios to see just how they can capitalise on the perceived benefits of these new working spaces. Increasingly corporates are collaborating and learning from coworking and ‘space as a service’ providers to AMPLIFY their NETWORKS, ENCOURAGE INNOVATION and SUPPORT EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT.

AMPLIFYING NETWORKS

At the organisational level one core motivation for corporate organisations to work with coworking providers is the benefit of amplifying their networks. Nick Livigne, Manager of Workplace Strategy at Telecoms giant Verizon described their partnership with coworking business Work.Life as “a meaningful platform through which Verizon business teams can interact with and within the dynamic communities and ecosystems that exist within coworking centres”. He goes on to say, “the days of big R&D happening behind closed doors are gone” and large corporate organisations need to tap into new networks and communities out in the big wide world without having to put a costly and risky Real Estate stake in the sand in every market.

ENCOURAGING INNOVATION

Whereas previously our workspace was seen as a means to an end and not worthy of thought beyond desk – check, chair- check, grey cubicle walls – check, now we talk about workspace as a key component in driving collaboration and productivity at a team level. This shift has occurred in line with a broader shift in how we construct our roles with collaboration replacing individualism and team goals replacing individual objectives.

At both the individual and team level, numerous studies have shown that a change in environment can often unlock new ways of thinking, not to mention result in chance bump-ins with other co-located workers who may have worthy insights to share. Additionally, in working from workspaces that cater to our preferences (physically, acoustically, technologically) we often feel happier and more productive, unlocking a level of discretionary effort that can serve to reinforce the social and psychological contract between employee and employer.

SUPPORTING EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT

As Elliot Gold of coworking business Work.Life put it at the GCUC UK conference “the way we work is changing…what we expect as employees is changing. We want more from work, from employers, from workspaces”. As our expectations change and grow so too does our disappointment if they are not met. Increased choice in our personal lives has turned each employee into a discerning customer and workplace strategists are having to look outside their own real estate portfolios to create and offer working environments that unlock that discretionary effort in work that only a happy employee can give.

As an extension of engaging the current workforce, a challenge for many organisations is attracting new talent to join. Many organisations are exploring the benefits of leveraging workspace as a tool for attracting new staff. Some organisations choose to interview from coworking spaces to enhance their employer brand and draw in the best talent by offering them a glimpse of workspace that is as compelling as the job they are interviewing for (perhaps even moreso in some cases!). Organisations like Google have elevated the role of workspace as a talent attraction tool to such an extent it is now inextricable from culture in their employer brand.

In addition to these perceived benefits above there are many other motivating factors for corporate organisations to collaborate with coworking spaces, rather than try and re-create the coworking ‘secret sauce’ themselves. Opportunities abound for these more innovative corporate organisations who understand how workspace can be leveraged to create a more compelling employee experience…and that the workspace in question does not need to be their own.

 

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Harbour84 is an online platform to connect business travellers with workspaces that can help them be their best. Curation is key to our success. We carefully select spaces that offer connectivity, community and comfort based on the belief that workplace wellbeing and productivity go hand in hand. We then enable our customers to discover the workspaces they are looking for in a quick, simple and easy way.

Blog first published on www.gcuc.co 

Finding Her… …a festival for working women…

57E56DF9-E18E-4315-A45E-86C90178F2FBI recently discovered a new network, one that feels more like a tribe than any other I have previously come across – and that is saying something for someone who constantly seeks out opportunities to broaden and strengthen her network. This ‘tribe’, made up of strong female founders has its HQ at The Allbright in London, a private members club where women come together to collaborate, create, and thrive in an environment where words like ‘support’, ‘challenge’, ‘growth’ and ‘drive’ are like a musical backdrop to daily life.

I came across this particular group through the course of finding a framework to help me launch and grow my own business, and I have to say, I am hooked. I am hooked on the vibe, the drive, the intensity with which these women charge ahead with their businesses and careers, and in turn support me in mine.

Most recently the ‘red threads’ running through The Allbright have come together in the shape of the #FoundHER festival, a 5 day program of events over three cities, celebrating women, the businesses they create, and the glass ceilings they can smash! I was lucky enough to attend two days, in two cities, London and Glasgow, taking part in such a variety of conversations that my mind is still spinning with all the great tips, tricks, mantras, affirmations, and advice that flowed through and from all the participants.

A few thoughts that keep floating back to the surface concern topics including purpose, funding, and mental health and wellbeing – a topic particularly close to my heart. Distilling these thoughts down and I’m left with something like this:

FINDING PURPOSE – I want it, purpose with a little ‘p’ and with a big ‘P’. I want to feel like I am working towards a larger goal, that I and my business might make just one person’s life a little better through alleviating the loneliness and frustration that those with no fixed office abode can sometimes feel – this is the big ‘P’. As for little ‘p’, I want to live my life purposefully, every day I want to feel like I am working for and in a business that holds true to its core values, that treats its employees and customers well and that, like Ronseal, does exactly what it says on the tin.

It’s not surprising that ‘purpose’ has sprung up to fill a perceived trust deficit, to address sustainability imperatives and to give us something to hold on to as we try to tackle the threats and opportunities presented by the digitization of everything. But we cannot have purpose without profit. Businesses must make money and so it is important for purpose-driven entrepreneurs like myself to make sure we have one eye always on the profit, and not over-correct thinking that the two are mutually exclusive. Hold true to your purpose yes, but the more profit, the more power you have to amplify your purpose and drive its impact. Purpose ultimately should be seen as a holistic set of behaviours and execution that drives profit in a way that can, and does, have a positive impact on everyone the business comes into contact with – at least that is the idea.

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MONEY TALKS – here’s an interesting fact for you – women start businesses with typically 1/3 of the amount of capital than men do. We also ask for less when going out and seeking funding. We’ve all heard the soundbites that women value themselves less in job negotiations resulting in a chronic and perpetuating pay-gap, but it seems the same is also true when we go out and seek investment for our businesses. Remember, an idea is not worth anything – but the execution is, and so learning how to value the ability to MAKE SHIT HAPPEN is, ironically, invaluable. I am self-funding my business and quite wary of the day when I might need to go out there and convince someone to give me money to scale it since relinquishing control is not something I am historically very good at. BUT, I now have the advice of a wonderful Angel investor ringing in my ear:
1. Keep it simple,
2. Demonstrate you can solve a problem other people are willing to pay you to solve,
3. Demonstrate your ROI,
This advice came bookended with some fabulous tips from female founders who had run the funding gauntlet already; always ask for more, make sure you are not under-capitalized, fund to your plan….and then double it, and find the smart money. While no less nervous about this part of my journey to come, thanks to the stories from the FoundHER tribe I am no longer terrified by it and as long as I know the numbers and draw on the experiences of my fellow entrepreneurs I too can run this gauntlet and survive.

STAY MENTALLY HEALTHY – more and more we hear horror stories of burnout, stress, and general malaise with the state of the working world. Since we spend more than half our lives ‘at work’ it is so important we understand what it is doing to us, how it makes us feel, and how in this time of constant connection we can put ourselves first. Honestly, deep down we know that if we take care of ourselves, we flourish at work and everyone wins. So why is this so hard to do? Words like presenteeism are so well known but actually tackling them seems a bit of a joke… we all know it happening but we are doing nothing to change it.

Enter FoundHer session ‘Running on Empty’ where we began with a 10 minute mindfulness meditation. Now hold on a minute… don’t switch off immediately, I too was mindfully skeptical for a while, but as I realized that I was actually experiencing burn-out instead of just thinking of it as something that afflicted others I began to tune in more to my mind and body and guess what… positive results ensued. So, I am totally drinking the coolaid and will be making sure that as my business grows we have a culture that actively promotes ‘mental fitness’ rather than just paying lip service to ‘mental illness’. We may even borrow a trick from Wire (Glasgow based Digital Agency) who have monthly Professional, Emotional, Physical talks, or PEP for short. Who doesn’t love a good PEP talk?.

So, when all is said and done what advice will I give myself as I continue down this slightly rocky, but promising entrepreneurial path?
1. Run a GOOD business with GOOD VALUES,
2. Understand what your investment requirement is and ASK FOR IT when you need it, and
3. Don’t live in the past, or the future, be in the PRESENT and every now and then and give yourself an ‘internal cuddle’…

Thriving, with mentoring…

Let me preface this piece by saying I have always been, and will always be, a HUGE fan of mentoring. As a tool for growth, development and self-reflection is it, in my humble opinion, unparalleled. It is also wonderfully flexible, personal, and cost-effective.

I was lucky that from an early time in my career I was able to identify strong, confident, high-achieving women from whom I could learn, and for some inexplicable reason wanted to take the time to support my growth. All of my mentoring relationships in the past had grown organically, through an introduction or a shared objective and there are few areas of my personal and professional growth and success in which one, or all of these women have not had a hand in helping me cultivate.

This was all well and good when I was in the UK, my home country, with a robust network built up over many years and a job that allowed me to go out and meet so many different people. But having relocated 18 months ago to a new city, I woke up every day feeling like I was starting over and suddenly, like losing an arm or my iPhone, I found that my Rolodex was empty and I was living through a whole new set of challenges for which  I felt wholly unprepared.  This was when it really hit me just how instrumental to my success and professional well-being my mentors had been, and gave me just the kick up the backside I needed to get back out there!

Enter Thrive with Mentoring, a formal network of mentors and mentees that is exploding across the world quickly from humble beginnings in Zurich at the end of last year. I was at first reluctant to take part in a formal programme; as I said above, mentoring had always been very organic for me, not just in terms of finding my mentors, but also in turn mentoring other women in my social and professional sphere. But it has been, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most rewarding experiences I could have hoped for.

For those unfamiliar with the concept of formal mentoring, think speed dating, but without the awkward ‘will they won’t they’ vibe. In committing to being part of the programme you become a member of a cohort of women all interested in the same thing you are…growth. You are matched with a mentor or mentee with whom you commit to working over the course of a year and you and she are in charge of how that develops. It’s empowering, and exciting at the same time.

My mentor and I have met once a month, usually early in the morning when we are both fresh and full of energy. I come prepared with some broad topics I want to discuss and then we take a meander through her experience, my experience and I come away inspired, full of ideas that I am eager to put into practice. And you know what… I think she does too!

Reflecting on the experience so far, there are a few things that I feel confident have made this particular mentoring journey a joy thus far…

– Preparation…I’ve come to enjoy taking time the evening before our sessions reading over my notes from prior sessions, focusing on my actions, what I have actually taken away and used from the last session…. this way I can feed this back to her and make sure my mentor knows her advice and guidance is valued, and applied!

– Honesty… I’m super lucky that my mentor has also been open to helping me navigate some pretty treacherous emotional waters these last few months as I have transitioned out of corporate life and into my own venture. No matter what I throw at her, she reflects back to me in an honest and open way, without judgement. This psychological safety is a gift.

– Reflection…our conversations reverberate round my head long after we have parted ways, and I often find myself jotting down additional reflections in the days after our meeetings as I integrate my learnings into my life. For mentoring to work, in my humble opinion, it cannot be something you just do for one hour a month…

Fun… We just click, she and I. Our conversations are interesting, we share book suggestions, we talk about business broadly, we connect each other into our broader networks. All of this gives rise to a feeling of fun and learning that I had worried would be missing from a formal mentoring programme.

Although we are only half way through the year I already know my mentor and I will remain in touch afterwards. That she will call on me for support and guidance when she feels I can help, and that long past the end of our formal Thrive with Mentoring relationship she will be influencing and impacting how I grow, learn, develop, do. You can’t put a price on this.

New Perspectives?

Yesterday I indulged in one of my favorite pastimes, heading out to a collaborative event between two institutions I respect hugely (one a large Swiss bank and the other a top tier university) to engage in a little networking and a lot of learning. The event, ‘Voices of Experience – Perspectives on Leadership and Career Growth’, was an opportunity for the women of Zurich to come together and hear from one of our city’s very successful women. I thought to myself, this is exactly the kind of company I want to keep.

Before I get swept away again in the daily tide of life and work I wanted to try and capture some of the things I took away from yesterday evening, and reflect on what this might mean for me as I (try to!) cultivate my personal brand of leadership and develop and grow my career in this still unfamiliar city.

Firstly, I found my belief in human resources leadership reinforced. It seems our speaker and I share the view that Human Resources can and should be a real catalyst for change, cultural and behavioural, in an organisation. My ears perked up. She talked about how their organisation encouraged and measured people not only on ‘change and results leadership’ (getting things done) but also on ‘behavioural leadership’ (how we do them). Whilst certainly not a new concept, this was still music to my ears.

She described culture as ‘the thing that employees do when no one is watching’, and like the proverbial tree in the forest, questioned whether we condone bad behaviour if no one is around to see, hear or be impacted by it. Again, it seems we share the view that NO we do not. One bad apple ruins the barrel and organisations that believe or act like culture is some abstract concept removed from the day to day lives of its employees will pay the price. Culture is the PRODUCT of the day to day (working) lives and interactions of the employees. It is precious, should be nurtured, and should not just be trotted out as a set of values or principles once a year for the dreaded annual review process.

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Of all the topics covered yesterday; diversity, inclusion, pay negotiations, balancing life and work, this red thread of culture was to me the most powerful message – as it is the system within which all of these other ‘things’ happen. I had hoped to ask our speaker to elaborate more on the informal mechanisms for culture change that she had seen through the course of her career, as a woman yes, but also as a business leader. We must make sure we continue to challenge ourselves and hold ourselves accountable for creating the kind of culture we want to exist in at work. I know it is cliché but ‘be the change you want to see in the world’ seems fitting to pop in here.

I should note however that it was not all wine and roses last night. Sometimes I feel when we have a powerful and clearly successful woman on  a stage (and a roving mic) we fall into the trap of seeing the wood for the trees – that is to say, asking the granular questions about how to negotiate a salary, or whether men should be involved in the diversity agenda (OF COURSE, everyone should!) and often miss the chance to discuss this system within which all of these things are happening, and from which all of these questions are arising.

But if we listened closely, and stripped away some of the more obvious questions around gender and diversity then there were some real gender agnostic nuggets in there that could and should be considered by anyone growing their career. For example;

  • Let’s not decry the value of the old ‘up or out’ management approach to development – it may just be the push we need to challenge ourselves and do the things that we didn’t think we could – after all, if we are honest we learn the most when we are uncomfortable don’t we!?
  • Qualities seen in strong performers and leaders are not gender specific – we can, and should relish and revere both the hard and soft styles – after all, this is what diversity is really about – celebrating and valuing differences.
  • When approaching a new challenge think about ‘who could do it better’ – NOT from the point of view of ‘I can’t do it’ but more so ‘what is it about them that makes me feel they could and how can I build those skills/experiences/behaviours’.
  • Be comfortable with your deliberate sacrifices. Yes, building a life and a career is a stretch, emotionally and logistically, but you need to own your choices and their consequences.
  • finally, SHOW UP. Set positive examples and show strong commitment to your values and the corporate culture you want to be a part of and at the same time are complicit in creating.

This last point is perhaps the most important when thinking about how we influence the culture around us. Coming back to the idea of informal mechanisms for culture change I have to believe it is the collective effort of all of us to lead by example, to be authentic, to genuinely like people, and to be able to see professional and personal satisfaction in the development and successes of others we have supported and empowered. All this is couched in setting clear guidelines and direction, holding others accountable for their results and behaviours as well as ourselves.

So, new perspectives?… perhaps not. However yesterday served as a very valuable and gentle reminder to me that how we talk about culture change, and the role WE play in shaping, leading and encouraging it, is often underrated and that in fact we have a lot more power than we think we do to move the needle. So let’s move it.

Serendipitous learning

It’s the end of the summer break, interns everywhere are getting ready to hang up their ties for another semester, unpack their Toms shoes and head back into the classroom. Meanwhile those of us whose offices have harboured these erstwhile workers are left with an odd sense of loss, like a longtime colleague has moved on or our favourite Moleskin is suddenly full and we don’t quite feel ready yet to crack open the spine of a new one.

Very poetic I know, but I had the very good fortune this year of getting to work with an intern who I can see now with a bit of hindsight, let me learn as much from her as I hope she learned from me. In truth, she reverse mentored the hell out of me!

Reverse mentoring, as the name suggests,  allows for a (more) experienced individual to learn from a more junior colleague – like a classic mentoring relationship turned upside down. Most intentional reverse mentoring programs involve being ‘taught’ about social media, or next generation analytics, or how to do all of one’s work from one’s iPhone from the cloudy thing. In my case however I ended up with new perspectives, a heightened sense of purpose, and a feeling that no matter how far down the career road I am, my choices about ME, my development, my behaviour, my successes and how I choose to deal with my failures, still mean that every day can be just as exciting as it was at the start of my career. And just as scary!

Let me take you back a step, because I need to make it clear that this was not an intentional set-up. Our intern, for argument lets call her MC , just found herself sitting next to me by a wicked twist of fate, namely, that there were no other desks. For the first week or so she was quiet as a mouse, but clearly was up for getting totally stuck in during the short time she was to spend with us. When I reflected on one of the many conversations we had towards the end of our time as desk neighbours I realised what was going on… I was learning from her… not the other way around.

So what did I learn, or re-learn?

  • good grace and patience when someone is sharing their experiences with you goes A LONG WAY (thanks for humouring me MC),
  • no job is too big or too small, they just need different timeframes and tools to complete,
  • doing something very different one day to the next is exhilarating – an inquisitive and dedicated mind can ALWAYS get to grips with new content,
  • everyone has a different manner and approach. Whilst you might like some more than others, if you remain positive, professional and friendly to everyone eventually you will get it back in spades,
  • do not be afraid to ask questions, any questions, if they will help you do a better job,

These are just some of many ‘McNuggets’ (excuse the pun) I have found popping into my mind in the last few weeks since we became once again intern-less, but the fact that these keep popping up got me thinking about learning in general; learning journeys, stretch assignments, mentoring, sponsoring and all that other great stuff we know we need to cultivate in our working lives to continue to progress and develop.

When you are an intern you are fundamentally there to learn. It is an opportunity to try on all the knowledge you have been building and experiment with by delivering work in the real world (sorry students, academia is not the real world!). When you are an intern there is no such phrase as ‘that is not my job’ and let’s face it, I think we could ALL take that one on board a little more…

I had forgotten how to experiment at work, how to learn from everyone around me, not just the ones I thought would teach me the most. This has been a revelation for me and has encouraged me to recapture some of my old interests, polish off some of my old skills and find a new use for them in my new role, and think creatively about my impact beyond the linear relationship between myself and my manager.

So for this, MC, thanks! Hopefully one day another intern will pay it forwards for you.

 

To being old and young… hurrah

This time last week I was getting ready to dash back over to the UK, to London to be precise, to spend some quality time feeling 12 years old again… quite a tall order I set myself since I look and feel every one of my 32 years (although sometimes of course I do act and speak like it to the chagrin of my nearest and dearest!).

Let me explain, 12 years old, to me, is sitting at home, snatching some all too rare quality time with my dad in between his super-important-dad-work-bacon-home-bringing-projects (as I knew them at the time), listening to music. YEP, I know a lot of people say the same, but for me and my dad, some of our best times were sitting listening to music made far away and by, in my view at the time, old guys with weird dress sense, bad hair and beards.

Earlier on in his life my dad had spent some time living in America, and brought home with him an affinity for all kinds of music, but what he shared with me most was of the folk and rock persuasion. Fortunately or unfortunately for me, this has meant that although a good 35 years separates us, I am as at home at a concert with my dad than he is in an outdoor store trying on trousers that zip off into shorts.

So there we were last Sunday, in Hyde Park, dad in his zip off trews and me wearing a playsuit from M&S that made me look every bit like my mum did the first time she went to a gig (everything comes back around doesn’t it!) rocking out with 64,997 other people to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

To those of you who don’t know Tom Petty, check because i’m pretty sure you do….those of you who still don’t after double checking, shame on you. This particular  band has been together creating amazing music for longer than I have been alive, but that is not what makes them special to me… that accolade goes to how they make me feel…

From the opening chord I felt simultaneously 12 again and very very old. It has been a while now since I have brought the average age of a concert down, which is great in a way because it shows that good music never gets old, but this gig in particular will stick with me as it made me realise how we change and don’t change, grow and don’t grow, forget and don’t forget. Age becomes irrelevant.

Much like my last post where I talked about how we could be better at borrowing from some of religions rites and rituals to add another colour or dimension to our secular ways of life, so too can music help us recapture some of the feelings of joy, sadness, hope, love, that sometimes we are too busy to really FEEL. I know I rush through life, trying to savour the moments but mostly failing miserably as I push myself more and more to do, achieve, live – all sometimes without really living.

Not much these days transports me in such a vivid way back to my past as that concert did last week. So carving out a Sunday afternoon to watch my dad’s sunhat bobbing up and down, keeping time to the same tunes we were listening to together from the relative discomfort of our Ercol sofa in the 1990’s was time very well spent. It reminded me of what is important, like family, and of the girl I was when I was 12, full of dreams, hope, joy and of course some wicked dance moves.

So, now that I am out in the great wide open, under them skies so blue… and have been for a while, I realise I need to take more care to keep that 12 year old and her attitude with me.  With my dad’s knee tapping keeping the beat in the background I’m sure life can be as vivid as ever.

Back to Basics…being a better agnostic

As you might imagine from a geek like me, I love to read. The result of this is a supply of books that grows faster than I can read them… and I read pretty fast!

Anyway, whilst most of the time these books sit and tantalize me from their designated place on my bookshelf waiting for the day I can crack their spines (Yes, I still read REAL books, they smell better), sometimes one manages to leapfrog the others, it catches my eye, and suddenly I can’t put it down.

With Alain De Botton’s ‘Religion for Atheists’ this happened. It literally rocked my literary world. 

The premise of the book is that perhaps we (the the atheists among us) should take a moment in our secular lives, to explore and acquaint ourselves with some of the powerful underlying tenets of the worlds great religions and appreciate that, whilst we do not have to believe everything they teach (or preach), we also perhaps do not need to continually convince ourselves that everything about them is nonsense.

I LOVE this idea.

I should preface the rest of this post by saying I was brought up as a Christian and baptized in the Church of Scotland. I attended Sunday school every week as a child, read bible stories and sang hymns when I was told to. Latterly, this dedication lapsed, or was it that when I could choose what to do with my Sunday so many other things came further up the list?. Either way, I gravitated towards the school of ‘I believe in hope and faith and choice but beyond that, each to their own’.

Looking back now, I do feel like through this attitude I lost something along the way. In my desperation to rid myself of the awful ruffles of my Sunday best I forgot many of the lessons I learnt that go straight to the heart of what it means to be human; the power of community, how to take care of the soul as well as the physical needs, the insignificance of my travails relative to the greater suffering of others…. and here I name only a few.

This idea that we can ignore the doctrine and dogma but preserve some of the wonderful celebrations and rituals of religion, adapting them to our modern way of living and thinking struck me as a very powerful win-win for someone like me. Someone a little lost, but not interested in the argument that only ‘religion’ can help me be ‘found’.

As well as making this bold overarching argument, de Botton also looks at this question through the lens of the institutions and activities common to all, irrespective of religion; namely art, architecture, education and even, institutions themselves. For example, how can we curate art galleries to help us understand and reconnect with the whole range of human emotions?; and can we be comfortable with the fact that the art in front of us might be trying to make us feel something or teach us something? Perhaps not. Instead, it seems, we find ourselves in galleries arranged by something so plain as date so scared are we that religious art in particular might Trojan horse religious ideas into us against our will.

Our Education institutions are another example where, de Botton argues, we could really  borrow from some of the successes religions have had in spreading their teachings far and wide. We could have our minds opened not just to new knowledge, but how to think about that knowledge and engage with it regularly and through discussing it with others.  Rather, our secular institutions often simply ‘educate’ us, and as mere recipients of this information we mentally file it away for a test rather than using and testing it in how we live our every day lives.

These are but two examples of the dimensions de Botton explores in his essay book and I could cite many more. Every page turned gave me a small ah ha moment, each little epiphany giving me a little clarity on how I can merge my religious childhood and my atheist present and future. De Botton ends by talking about how we might use some of the good ideas we find threaded through religious teachings and rituals to build better businesses that take care of our emotional needs as well as our physical needs. This resonates with me. I feel I spend far too much time taking care of my physical needs under the illusion this will satisfy my emotional needs, but as I grow older, and work harder, and buy more things, I realise this is not the case. I have been neglecting my soul.

We do not all need to be religious, but we should have a profound respect for religion as a concept, for the hope and connection it gives people – to one another and to hope itself. If I can borrow anything from de Botton’s book is that ironically, in being devoutly agnostic or atheist we may be missing some easy and very non threatening ideas on how we could live and shape our secular societies.

I’ll leave you all with that while I go and re-read my Sunday school stories and ‘steal with pride’.

 

The trials of a trailer…

You know when you are told something by your partner, and want nothing more than to be supportive and so you go along with it not ever expecting it to get anywhere… yes?… well that recently happened to me and two short months later I am in Zurich.

I guess I should elaborate a little…a job search, a great offer, a few interviews, a visit to Zurich to meet the new boss, packing up a house to rent out, getting it shipped (although not arrived yet, a challenge we will come to), quitting my job and saying goodbye to all my friends went by in the blink of an eye this summer and I now sit on a very sunny balcony in Seefeld, Zurich, wondering what to do with myself next.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for supporting my husband, it is his time to shine having been in a job that, whilst he liked, he did not LOVE. I have always had jobs I loved, so it was time for a ‘luck transfer’ within our relationship. He had also been looking for a new job for a while and not had much luck (luck again, we underestimate how important it is in our journeys!), whereas I have only every applied for the jobs I ended up getting – although now 2 weeks later my perfect 4-0 record stands in tatters!.

Its funny as well because I had been all for a move, I wanted to go somewhere French speaking so I could practice the language (which I have some knowledge of already) and generally figure out how to be stylishly bilingual. My husband had other plans however, and we have ended up in the German speaking part of Switzerland, nay, the Swiss-German speaking part (which i’m told is even harder to learn and understand) where my chat and witty reparté, which until now had held me in very good stead, is a little less of a golden asset!

So, what to do? Only one option really isn’t there…. GET ON WITH IT!. Yes, I know about 4 words of german and one of those is Hallo!, yes I haven’t even managed the simple task of getting my groceries delivered at a time I can receive them (although that is more Migros’ fault than mine!), and yes, I keep drawing a tut from those swiss lips every time I walk across the road without waiting for the little amplemann, HOWEVER I do know how lucky I am, to get to start over in a city as beautiful as Zurich.

Zurich has everything you could want; the lake and the limmat where you can swim even now in September, vibrant culture, amazing food and stunning art. Perhaps most exciting of all for me with by business hat on,  Zurich it seems is just bursting with entrepreneurs, which gives it a really special vibe and does make me feel a little like I’m still in Edinburgh (*sigh).

So now that I have given myself a good talking to, I’ll go and take my own advice…

Ciao, Bis Bald!