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My university friend has retired.  And I am in shock. 

It was one of those days today.  A milestone moment. I’d been away to a friend’s mum’s funeral yesterday.  Today I had arranged to meet up with an old university friend for breakfast, as she lived nearby.  That was a great move, it always is.  Each time it is a pleasure. 

We met when I was barely 18 and she was just turning 21.  That was quite some time ago, I might add.  We both studied the same degree and spent hours together eating, drinking, partying, debating, and dancing.  Getting together doesn’t happen very often, but like all good friends, we are okay with that, we pick up where we were last time very easily indeed.  with a little less dancing.      

There was news to share, and updates to be given.  Children, careers, volunteering, hobbies, pastimes, art, pandemic responses, health, marriages, and squaring the circle her child at university, quite the list.  Then like a bolt out of the blue, she said she had retired, and so had her husband.  Wow.  I did not see that coming.  I probably should’ve. 

This woman, with whom I shared my early adult years, and I still see through that lens, was the physical embodiment of that life stage I been contemplating and writing about.  A real person, a contemporary, and one of my own generation.  Up to that point all I had been doing was imagining, thinking ahead, and pondering concepts of retirement.  Everyone who has retired around me so far has been quite a bit older, and not one of my inner circle.

Now retirement, and whatever other stages of career and life choices, had crossed that line that separates fantasy from reality.  And I am left to deal with the thoughts and feelings it has generated.  There are many questions.  Am I envious or jealous?  I don’t think so, I have a sort of plan.  Do I want the same or the opposite?  I mean, do I want to retire early or work much later?  Has it made me feel younger or older?  It has undeniably made me feel retirement adjacent!  Has it derailed my ideas of all of this?  Let’s wait and see.  One thing for sure, this is now a reality and not the stuff of dreams.    

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COVID-19 is changing what we want out of life and work.

Survey after survey is asking our workforce about their future intentions. They are finding a groundswell of thinking of career change, home relocation, and fantasies of quitting the rat-race. Is this a good thing? Or is it a sign of a crisis of confidence? We need to tread carefully.

We need to ask ourselves if we really do want all this change.  And what change anyway?  Because let’s face it, most people fear change and prefer the status quo.  And it has been pretty common that once a big move has been completed the grass has been found to be no greener.  Change can be as stressful and the things that cause it. 

Perhaps the pandemic has lifted the lid off lots of deeply held unhappiness in life and work.  Maybe it has done us all a huge favour by rebooting our thinking, our aims, and our ambitions.  Whatever, we need to focus on what is important.  No amount of pressure causing stress is acceptable.  And stress can be caused by all aspects of the pandemic, overworking (by holding together a business or role in adverse circumstances), under working (by being at home on furlough), and through uncertainty, and all types of change (when coping with the after-effects and a return to ‘normal’). 

It is important to recognise this and counter the causes and the effects, as soon as possible.  As we consider the possible diminishing of the pandemic, the pressure points shift and change as we recover personally and reconstruct ourselves professionally.  These effects will not just disappear as fast as they arrived, they will indeed reverberate for many years, possibly even generations to come.

The next steps are exciting and entirely possible.  Remember, you have taken many decisions before that have resulted in actions and direction.  All of them have brought you here.  You therefore have the tools in your box to make the decisions for now and next.  If you don’t feel like you have, talk to a trusted friend and colleague who can help you navigate the fog.

There are lots of things to work through, if this is sounding anything like you.

Firstly, we need to focus on our thoughts and feelings. What are they, can you name them? You may need help to recognise them, but this is worth the work. Timing is everything, how long you’ve been feeling like this is important, the feelings may have pre-dated COVID-19, or they may have been prompted or exacerbated by it. It is possible and totally understandable if unhealthy behaviours have been adopted or have been maintained. Now is the time to name them, then let go of them, one by one.

Your instincts may be to freeze, fight or fly. This classic stress reflex model helps us to understand what may be going on, and which impulses we are triggering. It is revealing. Doing nothing (freezing) isn’t very helpful in the medium to long terms if you want things to change. It may help us feel better in the short-term though. Conflict (flight) can be destructive and could cause a whole mess. And running (flight) literally runs the risk of leaving lots of value behind, only to regret it later. Remember that the grass isn’t always greener. We must think carefully.

Goal setting can help describe want you want in life and work in the short-term, medium-term, and long-terms.  It offers the chance to help identify what must happen right away, steps towards the dream, and what the end goal actually is.  The outcome might surprise you.

You are the best agent of change. It is crucial you pinpoint the changes you can make happen right here, right now. As is naming which of these changes you can take control or ownership yourself right away. If they aren’t happening, what is stopping you then? It might be that to gain change you need to be willing to let go of something. And this should not always be a solitary business. It is entirely likely you will need the support of others, your partner, family, friends, colleague or boss. What do you need them to do to help – and have you asked?

Who knows, your changes could change not only yourself, but the goals and dreams of those around you.  That is something worth celebrating.   

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We all live on the streets.

Yesterday I learned my local Big Issue seller had died.  A man my age, he was a familiar sight to many in the city.  I would usually, not always, remember to carry some cash to give to him.  If we did see each other, we would mostly stop and catch up on news.  Sometimes I would think I was too busy to stop.  Sometimes I didn’t. 

I was upset to hear the news of his passing, but alas, I was not shocked nor surprised. Over the past difficult year, I (like many others) had watched how his health had deteriorated.  I had urged him to go to the doctors.  He told me he would or he was. 

The last time I saw him, some two weeks before he died, was an event I had shared with friends and colleagues since.  We had bumped into each other in a part of town that now has its pavements, and it has to be said roads, crowded with chairs and tables as the cafes, restaurants, and bars work to secure their businesses.  One cannot walk in straight line on these streets anymore, instead one has to weave in and out whilst trying not to get in anyone’s way.  Before being asked, I searched for change.  There was none.  No problem, I have my card machine, he said.  A development I thoroughly approved of, not only for my convenience, but for the business opportunity now so few of us carry cash. 

He placed his pack of magazines on an empty table so he could manage the transaction.  Then came the complaint.  Two diners on a table a little further along tutted and gasped at how their lunch had been spoiled by having to share the streets with beggars and I was only encouraging them.  I picked up his pack, suggested we moved along, and helped him with the card machine – as he was struggling with it at that time.  We chatted and I asked about his health.  He told me he was off to the day shelter where he could get a shower and a shave.  We agreed to walk along the road for a little while as we were going in the same general direction.  He said he would go to the doctor again.  I was sceptical. 

The couple called over a waiter and continued their complaining.

We said goodbye.  And that was it.  The last time. 

That event stuck with me.  Being homeless or experiencing fragile housing, various addictions, or other issues, is a familiar situation for too many.  It is something that enters all our lives, if we are prepared to fully engage with people in our families, friendship circles, society in general, and when walking the streets of towns and cities.  It is something none of us can ignore. 

Those diners need to understand these streets belong to all of us.  Not just the few.  Streets are our society.  They are not just for those who choose to sit outside a restaurant and eat a meal on them.  For some, the streets are home, it is where they spend all their day walking up and down, asking for small change or selling The Big Issue.  It is where they sleep. 

These busy spaces are lonely places.  Over the past year or so they have been much quieter and far lonelier.  There simply hasn’t been enough people around for life to carry on as it had before.  Those diners most likely considered him to be invading their space.  The one they temporarily occupied for an hour or two.  My friend, might have considered them an intrusion into his streets.  He showed no sense of why they may be complaining about the use of the table, questioning me as to why I thought we should move along.  He had most probably got used to blocking out much of the unpleasant things said and done to him over the years. 

Now we are coming to live with the after-effects of COVID-19, we must all do more to be tolerant and understand how we can share these spaces and our lives.  We should not fall into old or bad habits.  Instead, we owe it to everyone to think again about how we rebuild our society, and our streets, for the best. 

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Embrace the average.

I loved, loved, loved it when in Meet the Fockers (2004), Gaylord Focker’s parents sex therapist Roz and retiree Bernie (played by Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman) revealed their ‘wall of Gaylord’ displaying all of his lack-lustre ‘achievements’. 

There were no gold medals, no first prizes.  Gaylord, expertly played by Ben Stiller, was clearly an ‘also ran’ and was embarrassed, awkward, and confused by his parents’ unquestioning and unwavering pride in him.  Especially as he was at that very moment failing in his attempts to impress Jack, his rigid and high-performing potential father-in-law, (Robert de Niro, no less), who observed he “didn’t know they made ninth place ribbons”.  His loss I say.  Jack never had to imagine them.  He no doubt came in first place or at least the top three.  That’s privilege that is. 

For the rest of us, it’s reality.  Meanwhile, Bernie tells us it “isn’t about winning or losing, it is about passion.  We just wanted him to love what he is doing.”  Well said that father.  Maybe we should all be more Bernie.  Champions don’t need medals or trophies.  They achieve in life, in championing for other people, or for a good cause. 

That was also one of my take-aways from Marcus Rashford’s book (You Are A Champion).  Champions take the honourable role of caring for those around them, or changing the world for the better, rather than the compliance of measuring against previously set standards or records. 

I wish they gave out prizes at school for absence, defiance, rebellion, innovation – not qualities welcomed at school, (especially some of the secondary schools I have visited).  These qualities are highly desirable in life and at work and should be encouraged not stifled.  For the record, there were no sports prizes in my bedroom – but there were art, class, and year prizes (I brag). 

This can all sit awkwardly with modern twenty-first century life.  And that’s not just a problem, it feels like a conspiracy.  We are all living in stretch-goal-orientated, self-publishing, social-media-filtered, fast-moving, hyphenated-times.  Too much of this frenetic activity is causing us to overlook, underappreciate, or devalue the middle. 

I say embrace the average. That’s the real winning language of champions.

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The don’ts in leadership

I have had the pleasure of writing this column for over six years.  There have been scores of articles all about best practice in leadership and management.  It continues to be a privilege to do so. 

In a change of tack this issue, I’ve ditched the approach of sharing advice on all the good things to do, and instead have decided to focus upon all the bad things to do. If you really want to be the worst boss ever that is. These ideas can really help you by looking at things from a negative perspective – trust me, it works. Be honest, how many of these traits do you recognise? Read it and challenge yourself, please don’t blame yourself, but I urge you to make changes if they need to happen. Here is the leaders’ job description from hell…

First make sure that no decision is allowed to be made without your direct input, even if your view changes like the wind.  One day you want one thing, the next (maybe because you forgot what you said yesterday) you prefer another option.  Don’t allow anyone in the team to decide for themselves at whatever cost.

Never make the mistake of giving feedback whether it is positive or negative.  Stay silent at all times, and keep people speculating.  Force everyone to second guess your body language, or to analyse ‘how’ you said things rather than ‘what’ you said. 

Never miss an opportunity to correct even the smallest mistakes.  I mean, how could someone not notice that misplaced apostrophe anyway?

Always be unreliable when it comes to time management.  Be late, be early, generally never be on time.  Don’t wear a watch.  Bring deadlines forward at a moment’s notice.  Set deadlines, then forget about them – and leave all of that hard work hanging.    Be predictable in your unpredictability. 

Even if you are happy with things make sure there is always something you can express your disappointment about.  Develop a culture where nothing is right. 

Build a barrier around yourself that makes you unapproachable and makes everyone around you think you are too busy to be interested in them or their work.  You are much more important than anything after all.

Create a boundaryless culture and expect everyone else to be the same.  Over share your personal and professional dilemmas.  Ask too much of colleagues, don’t respect their privacy or their private lives or timetables.  Ask them to work early, over the weekend, or when they have booked holidays.  Invade people’s personal and professional spaces at work, online, on social media and on the ‘phone.  Email people at all times of the day and night. 

And never, ever say sorry.  Why should you?

Follow all this advice and you will achieve the status of becoming one of the worst people to work with.  And in reward, you will find plenty of opportunities to be working on your own, and then you can do what you like for a while.  Perhaps not for long though.

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