What do I do when my body tells me I’m old?

ageing clockI had a lot of fun turning 40 last year.  I reckon it’s a good age – young enough to feel time is still on your side, but old enough for experience to (mostly) have your back too.

Trouble is, my body seems to be telling me something different.  I do a slightly faster or longer run than normal and I get shin splints.  I move a pile of logs and put my back out.  I choose booze, biscuits and late nights and I get spots a teenager would cringe at and black eyes a panda would kill for.

What’s a girl to do – it’s either grab the gin and head for the oven; do a Gwyneth and go all juice, gym and jimjams by 9; or ignore it all and go hell for leather, life’s short so who cares.

I say there’s another way.

No longer can we rely on ‘use and abuse’ (so 20s).  The ‘I’m just too exhausted by kids/work/life’ doesn’t cut it (so 30s).  We need a new mantra for our 40s:  Suck it up, take the dull on the chin.  Care to live.  Insert your own version as you wish.

Whereas in my 20s I scoffed at the dentist preaching to me about flossing habits, now I both floss and visit the hygienist religiously – better that than massive dental bills or falsies gnashing in a bedside glass by 50.  I don’t want old lady dribble issues, so those pelvic floors will just have to fit into my daily life.   I do my best to resist the siren call of the daily post bedtime glass of wine and chocolate (yeah, that one might need some more work), and I’ve finally signed up to a weekly pilates class – by all accounts  the best (if boring) way to strengthen my body in ways that help as I get older.  I take make-up off every night, I’m finally paying more attention to sitting properly at my desk, I exercise regularly, etc, etc.

Yes, our bodies get old.  I say, deal with it.  We weren’t designed to live so long and evolution will take a damn long time to catch up.  Accept it, take the boring self-care routines on the chin and get on with enjoying the precarious and precious life we are lucky to have.

That said, I’m keeping the gin and oven close at hand.  Much as she glows, the Gwyneth route is far too dull, and ignoring it all just makes my head hurt.   So if my resolve fails, you know where to find me…

Brilliant. Just brilliant. Dinovember has my vote

A friend sent me this blog link and I had to post it.

My daughter and I had a tooth fairy mishap a few weeks back.  

130722 iphone (12)

When she lost the tooth, I made a tiny envelope with a tiny poem on it to explain the tooth fairy’s taking of the tooth, sealed with a sticker. Two months later, as I rifled through our collection of stickers, I was startled by a triumphant, breathless shriek “It was YOU, Mummy.  I KNEW IT. I KNEW IT WAS YOU!”

Cue Mummy looking utterly confused – sorry, what darling? Yup, you guessed it, she clocked the very same tooth fairy stickers and so down came the house of cards I had flimsily built around magical and mysterious beings doing magical and mysterious things.  Father Christmas hangs on a thread, purely because the potential consequences are too dire to admit unbelief without physical proof and a capitulating parent.

But Dinovember, it’s awesome.  Truly a wondrous dedication to the magic of childhood.  And how fun it must be to create dino scenes of mischief your children couldn’t possibly believe you would actually do yourselves.

Can I take it on?  At this point I’m not sure we have dinosaurs big enough.  Santa might be able to see to that though.  Roll on Dinovember 2014…

 

 

What is going on with our country?

In a recent OECD report, England came 22nd out of 24 western countries for literacy in 16-24 year olds (21st for numeracy).  In another OECD / EC report, we top the list of most obese nations in Europe.

What on earth is going on with our country that our basic education and self-care is failing so badly?  What sort of preparation are we giving our children to have active, healthy, productive adult lives?

I was particularly shocked by last weekend’s Sunday Times feature on literacy providing the above OECD report figures (NB link will only show the full article if you are a subscriber).  I am incredulous that some (native English-speaking) 16-24 year olds can’t answer three questions my seven year old or even four year old could (e.g. Match the image (of an ear) to one of four words: ear egg lip or jar).  How can young people be so failed by our education system, and, dare I say it, their parents?

The article talks about a new free school opening in east London, with families flocking to sign up their children.  Most were so-called immigrant families, very few were white working class.  The article comments that in the latter children are growing up contemptuous of education, an attitude instilled by their non-working parents living in areas lacking jobs.

When I read things like this in the media, I immediately caution myself to keep perspective and remember that newspapers want to sell copy, or take a politically nuanced stance that may emphasise certain facts while ignoring others.   Why are those parents not working and resenting the system so completely – did it fail them too?  How many people are we talking about here – aren’t the vast majority of families full of parents working hard to give their kids opportunities, often in very difficult economic and social environments?  Does the report factor in language fluency? Is the picture as bad as the stats paint it?

22nd out of 24 though.  Hard to explain that away.

I’m as shocked when I read that one in three of our children don’t own a single book, about 4 million of them (see thisarticle).  Given research shows a strong correlation between book ownership and literacy, this too is truly terrible for our society, now and in the future.  What chances do these illiterate young people have without basic life skills?  From society’s standpoint, what is the impact on economic growth, how much time, effort and money will need to be pumped into these individuals to try to redress this start in life or deal with its consequences?  What does it mean for the next generation?

As a person who believes passionately in education as a life-long means and end in itself for a fulfilling life, I don’t quite know what to do with this information.  I love this country and I want my children to love being British while they equally love experiencing and getting to know the wider world.  But these statistics, these quality of life indicators – is this really a healthy and positive society for them to live in?

Japan is top of the literacy table.  I don’t think our answer is tiger mothers, rote learning and cramming schools.  Finland is number two – I also can’t see the Scandinavian model of massive taxation and public services translating well here either.  I imagine it’s hard to cherry pick policies from a very different culture and expect them to work without a lot of investment and commitment.

Apparently, after a world tour of educational approaches and outcomes, top of the action list is that we need better teachers.  “Under-qualified, under-motivated teachers and sub-standard schools are at least partly to blame for England’s poor performance” said Richard Cairns, head of Brighton College and the man doing the world touring.  And yet today sees our junior school among many others across the UK closed due to the teacher’s strike against performance-related pay and other aspects of Michael Gove’s latest reforms.

Really?  I admire and respect all the teachers I know for the jobs they do: it’s a lot of work, full-on days, and often incredibly challenging. It doesn’t look to me like the pay or pay increase potential is particularly motivating and I know zero teachers who do it for the money.  But I don’t understand why performance related pay isn’t a given.  Why would we not incentivise our teachers to do their best to receive greater rewards? And make it less attractive to do a poor job of it?  Surely no teacher except a poor one wants a system that allows poor teachers to get the same rewards as teachers doing a brilliant, or even average, job.

Perhaps the gripe is about the way the performance aspect is implemented or the percentage value.  I’m sure there will always be things that could be done better and I don’t pretend to know the details. Irrespective, it seems to me that fundamental change is needed when the outcomes being delivered are so poor.

I see many examples in life of how small changes make big differences.  The big picture is important, but it’s nothing without the small steps that create it.  I feel hopeful that the changes discussed in this particular article might start to make a dent in this problem.  And I’m relieved that the UK scores better on other quality of life indices (see this helpful OECD site).

As so often when I read articles about issues that touch me, I also feel a little helpless and at sea with what to do with the strength of my feelings.  It feels wrong to read it, react to it, put it aside and go back to life as normal.  But what can I do about it?   The issues are complex, my time is limited, and the options to influence or get involved are so often not realistic, let alone choosing which of society’s issues I believe most passionately in helping address.

Spot the person well beyond the single-minded idealism of youth.

My awareness may be an important first step, choosing my politics and bringing up my own children according to my beliefs two others.  But none of those make a blind bit of different to the illiterate or obese young people in our country today.

I know this is not the England I want to live in.  The question is, what can I, will I do about it.

Wanted: answers to my personal job ad

In response to my last, rather heartfelt, blog post a friend recommended a practical little book called ‘How to find fulfilling work’ by Roman Krznaric.  So far it’s proving a gem.  Not great for bedtime reading, as every few pages there is a question to consider or an exercise to complete, but perfect for that almost-back to school twitchiness and the re-emergence of evenings spent doing things other than quaffing wine to recover from full-on days with the kids or being somewhere else (or both).

One of the exercises to help look wider than the obvious is to write your own personal job ad and ask ten people you know from different careers and backgrounds to suggest two or three jobs for you – the more specific the better (so more ‘volunteer project work with street kids in Rio de Janeiro’ than ‘work with children’).

Where better to find a diverse group of people than right here.  Ideas anyone?

 

Personal qualities

Thrive on variety

Optimist

Highly analytical

Quick to pick up new things

Highly goal- and action-oriented

Dislike uncertainty and risk but willing to take them on

Like to be in control

Don’t like to fail

Emotional & expressive

Care a lot about what other people think of me

Determined

WANTED:

A JOB MADE FOR ME

 Annabel Deuchar close up crop

Talents

Communication

Generating ideas

Making connections

Planning, organising & structuring

Researching & analysing

Being a sounding board

Using my imagination

Creative problem solving

Spatial awareness

Staying focused

 

Passions

The great outdoors – hiking, cycling, camping, running, snowboarding, sailing

Experiencing life & the world

Singing my heart out

Writing

Thinking

Reading

My family & friends

Other important info

Career needs the flexibility to fit with family commitments

Causes/values I care about

Education

Gender equality

Being true to oneself

Living healthily and taking care of our planet

Being a good person

Lost: One sense of purpose and identity

Lost identity and purpose image

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I know it’s hot, I know it’s nearly the end of term and I know everyone is tired and grumpy.  But underneath all that, I feel a bit lost.

When Master H started nursery last Autumn, I started writing picture book stories.  It felt purposeful, and more simply, I enjoyed the creative process and feeling I created something I was proud of and could enjoy with the kids.  I knew, however, that it probably wouldn’t be a career for me – writing is too solitary.  Starting up a business with a friend in January brought home to me how much I thrive on working with others, and how much I enjoy business stuff.  The process was a delight – often difficult but also completely energising to be purposefully engaging my brain on something outside my domestic enclave, that had potential, and with a good friend to boot.   Sadly it came to an end as my partner had to pull out in May.

But not to worry, that freed my time to focus on training for my first triathlon, which I completed on 30 June and really enjoyed.  So far, so purposeful, albeit in different directions.  But, now what?

Nothing.

Well, not quite nothing.  Organising social engagements, managing the kid’s logistics, keeping on top of the garden/house/allotment, trying to find ways to manage Master H’s belligerence and anger without running to the hills to hide and cry.  Yada, yada, yada.  Same old, same old.  Make a list, cross them off, make a new one.

It’s just not enough.  I don’t have the right balance – I am losing the joy of what I have because I don’t have an ‘other’ to help me appreciate it.

But what ‘other’ should it be?  I’m back, yet again, to the same old question of work / family balance.  With Master H starting big school next term, the challenge looms large.

I feel like I’m on the cusp of turning into someone I don’t want to be.  A kept woman – one of those Stepford wives with perfect hair, perfect home, perhaps doing good work for charities and her local community, lots of hobbies (probably tennis), always baking / making / doing with her kids, always there at school.

AARRRGGGHHHH.  I’m not even 40 for goodness sake.  I have a fantastic education.  I have a decent brain that I feel best when using.  Was it all for this?

No, it wasn’t.  But I am in need of a different perspective to help me see through the morass of options and considerations in a clear and structured way.  I need to tell myself to JFDI, whatever ‘it’ is.

I feel helpless in the face of the school year waxing and waning, the innumerous occasions to be present, the inevitability of the next break in the school term fast approaching and the competing desires to be a present mother and a fulfilled, purposeful person.

After 18 months not working I have come full circle.   I feel a reluctance to give up being the person who takes the kids to and from school, friends, activities and occasions every day and the flexibility that affords us to make the week work whichever way we want to.

So there we are.  I don’t want to give up being a full time mother, although I often think it would improve the time I spend with them and patience I have for it.  I don’t want to do a job just for the sake of it without actually enjoying what I am doing.  I don’t want to be a stereotype of a middle class stay at home mother filling her time with doing good and domestic bliss.

Clearly what I want is best said by Queen.

“I want it all, I want it all”

On the face of it setting up my own business would be the way to go.  I know from watching friends doing it that it has many challenges, and taking on a job around family life puts pressure on everything else.  But I still want to pursue it.

Sounds like I might have answered my own ad.  Except that I need a decent business proposition. I have had one, but at this point it doesn’t look viable.  I haven’t given up on it just yet, but I might have to.

Back to the drawing board.  It feels like the most used drawing board ever over the past year.  Let’s hope it has some life in it yet.

How do you discover good books for your kids?

130624 ella readingLittle Miss E is a six year old with an addiction.  It’s one I am extremely happy to encourage, but am struggling to feed. 

Where, oh where can I easily get good children’s book recommendations?  How can I hone in on books she’s likely to appreciate without wasting too much money and storage space on titles she doesn’t like the look of, will never read again or whose stereotypical stories / characters or poor writing make me cringe at what they are telling her? 

And much more importantly, where should someone look who isn’t at all interested in the book industry, so doesn’t spend their time surfing for relevant blogs, websites, twitterati, etc.?

When Miss E’s skill and interest in reading blossomed on starting school, she inevitably pounced on the ubiquitous Rainbow Fairies series – unsurprising given they and Horrid Henry were the only real choice in her school reading boxes that weren’t Biff and Chip or factual D&K books.  It’s a great series to get girls reading, but goodness me I disliked those books – as I talked about in a post last year on gender-divided children’s books.

More importantly, I was also at a loss as to where to look for good ‘next steps’ to offer her at her level or just beyond.

The library?  Ah, yes, the library.  I’ve done my best with it, but I can’t say it’s been a brilliant experience.  Hard to browse, zero recommendations, a terrible online service, popular series’ rarely in stock, let alone anything a bit different, two kids scattering loudly to the four winds if I actually tried to look for something.  Oh, and the inevitable email reminders of books overdue and carrying said books in the car for weeks before guiltily slipping in to scan them at the furthest point from the librarian I can find.

Our local bookshop?  Our Waterstones is great, but I never have time to properly browse the spine-only shelves or find a member of staff mosying about to ask for recommendations.  Let alone the challenge of managing Master T past the stands without him swiping copies that his cross-ness at me not giving them to him risks bending so much I have to buy them anyway (good strategy Master T).

Friends?  The gold dust.  But most people I know have the same problems as me.

Amazon? Probably the option I go for most.  I can do it at home, there are loads of reviews and, though I hate to admit it, the books come at a cost that means if she doesn’t like it I haven’t wasted too much money.  But I have a nagging feeling the recommendations are pretty limited.  So often the same titles come up – usually the first page of which are other titles in the same series.

And yet, Amazon says it has over 113,000 paperback children’s books for 5-8 year olds, and a further 85,000 for 9-11 year olds.  On browsing a substantial publisher’s children’s book catalogue, I found a whole slew of series, let alone individual titles, I’ve never even seen.  When I came across the publisher Nosy Crow, I had never heard of their books and now their Rescue Princess and Goddess Girl series are two of Miss E’s favourites, re-read time and time again.  Had I not interacted with Nosy Crow I wouldn’t have found them, and that feels wrong.  Not to mention all the other amazing books we might be missing before she’s past the stage of appreciating them.

And don’t even get me started on finding books for advanced readers with age-appropriate themes.  I’m sure it’s the same for the opposite way around too.

So what’s the answer?  Hours in the bookshop?  More requesting of specific titles or asking for advice at the library?  Book review sections of newspapers?  Signing up to lots of book blogs?  Constantly asking every parent I meet?  Putting this into the ‘too hard’ bucket and sticking with same old, same old?

I guess in reality it’s some combination of those.  I’m keen to find the smartest way though – time is a precious commodity and there’s always plenty more on the to-do list.  Below are some sources I’ve discovered for myself – I’d love to add anyone else’s suggestions.

I recently came across www.lovereading4kids.co.uk, which seems like a good start.  Easy to navigate by age range, a mix of best sellers and classic reads, it seems to offer what I’m looking for.

Some of the children’s book blogs I’ve discovered are very helpful for reviews, although I’ve found more that are focused on picture books and ‘YA’ than on primary school age.  Here’s a few:

http://bookauhubooknook.wordpress.com/ (children’s book reviews, helpfully organised by age band)

http://didyoueverstoptothink.wordpress.com/ (children’s book reviews)

http://girlsheartbooks.com/ (book lover blog for girls aged 8-14 years)

http://storyseekersuk.wordpress.com/ (mostly picture book reviews)

Nosy Crow’s blog has been great for recommendation lists, such as the ones below (check out the comments for even more suggestions).

http://nosycrow.com/blog/kate-s-twelve-favourite-children-s-books-because-it-s-still-121212

http://nosycrow.com/blog/and-now-best-books-for-10-year-old-boys

http://nosycrow.com/blog/books-for-girls-and-books-for-boys-gender-skewed-packaging-and-content-in-children-s-publishing

http://nosycrow.com/blog/best-books-for-seven-year-old-boys

http://nosycrow.com/blog/best-books-for-10-year-old-girls

I’m not sure if sites like Goodreads might help.  I posted a broad recommendation request earlier and have had a few come in, but it doesn’t appear to be the site’s main purpose.

Any ideas anyone?

Fly, Bella, fly…Oh, goddang, I swallowed a fly

This weekend held three firsts for me.  One was my first at-speed insect-swallowing incident while out bike riding.

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ew.  A protein shake would have sufficed.  Nearly had a sting in the ear too.  Perhaps these mishaps go along with my second first: cycling on a road bike. A bright yellow one at that.  Check out my gratefully borrowed steed:

Road bike

 

 

 

 

 

 

I announced the intention to do a triathlon on my blog last summer.  I haven’t talked about it much on here since – other people’s exercise is pretty dull, really – but I can’t help myself today, because of my third first: feeling officially excited about doing it.

I’ve spent the winter steeling myself for road rides on my sluggish mountain bike, and doggedly trudging to the local pool twice a week, alternating struggling for breath with struggling against my inner giver-upper: “Why the hell did I take this on, why can’t I just stop, I’m never going to be able to do this, why am I so crap.”

Copyright memoirsofagrasshopper.blogspot.com

Copyright memoirsofagrasshopper.blogspot.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But this weekend I told the gremlin where to go.  Flying along like a yellow she-devil knocked down the last-but-one hurdle to feeling like the event is do-able.  Cycling on roads CAN be fun and I CAN go fast. I nearly laughed aloud with glee at the difference this skinny whippet of a bike made.  It was like swapping a 2CV pulling a tractor for a Ferrari.  Well, maybe that’s stretching it, but you get my drift.

But what was the final hurdle you might wonder.  A very female one, I’m embarrassed to admit: what to wear.

I’ve been having mild what-to-wear panic attacks as I’ve started to think through the practicalities of the event.  Wear a sports bra under my swim suit and then add cycling shorts over the top?  Could that look any less attractive?  Short and crop top combo?  Not for this Mummy-tummy.

triathlon suitI solved the problem this weekend.  I succumbed to my first tri-specific kit purchase, a tri-suit.  This one here, in fact, at a vastly reduced rate I couldn’t possibly turn down.  Yes, it means I’ll be in all-in-one lycra (time to ease up on the cakes and pies), but at least I don’t have to worry about silly combinations or changing clothes.

 

The trouble is, each of these advances limit my ability to excuse a poor show on the day.  I have kit that shouldn’t take me too long to transition between the three disciplines, I have a bike that shouldn’t hold me up.  Goddamn, it’s all down to me and my mental battles in training and on the day.  The giver-upper gremlin’s perfect hunting ground.

The gremlin has been with me throughout my life, particularly for physical challenges.  I like exercising, but only to a point.  If it ever gets beyond that point and actually gets hard, the gremlin wakes up and spends really quite a lot of energy trying to convince me to stop.  Is it just me that does this?  I hope not.  I risked sharing this weirdness with a friend and she told me her husband has a similar gremlin, which made me feel a bit better.  Weirdness shared is weirdness halved and all that.

In learning to swim front crawl for this event, I’ve realised it’s a really, really long time since I put myself in a situation where I genuinely can’t do something and struggle hugely to learn.  It’s not easy.  Duh.  Statement of the obvious.  But experiencing in practice what you intellectually know in theory still feels revelationary, even at nearly forty years old.

Do children feel a similar way about all the things they learn from scratch?  It’s so easy as an adult to avoid situations that truly push you. You almost need to seek them out – life can get stuck in a comfortable groove very easily, which feels, well, comfortable.

For children, by contrast, doing and learning new things is life.  How brilliant is that – new experiences and discoveries being your daily life.  We adults could learn from that.  Maybe one New Year’s resolution each year to do a completely new, out of comfort zone thing would do it.

I read an article in Red magazine recently about a well-being theory called ‘flourishing’ from an eminent psychologist, Martin Seligman (apparently he’s a positive psychology guru).  He thinks it’s no longer enough just to consider human happiness, we need to consider four other dimensions to life fulfillment and wellbeing on top of positive feelings: our engagement with the people and world around us (our flow), the quality of our relationships, finding meaning and purpose in our lives and accomplishment of goals we set ourselves.  Each element has to satisfy three criteria: it contributes to wellbeing; many people pursue it for its own sake (not just in pursuit of other elements); and it can be defined and measured independently of the others.

I like this idea – fulfillment and life satisfaction is about more than feeling happy.  Do I feel happy when I go swimming? No, mostly not, I still find it hard work and nowhere near as pleasurable as running or cycling, but it is satisfying because it contributes to achieving a goal and makes me feel proud of myself for doing something hard.

Making choices I can feel proud of, doing hard things, positive interactions with people, helping a friend, being a good parent and a good partner – these are things that make me happy with who I am.  I know it’s a teeny tiny small thing next to the realities so many people face in the world, but taking on this triathlon is contributing to my ‘flourishing’.

Of course I haven’t actually completed the event yet, nor indeed the training, so the gremlin has plenty of time to do its worst.  It’s a tad late for a New Year’s resolution, but, nonetheless, I think mine is to build an enormous mental mallet that bashes the hell out of the gremlin as soon as it appears.  Without it on my shoulder who knows what I could be capable of.

Ps If you’re interested in the theory of flourishing, check out Martin Seligman’s talk about it on The RSA , or this Guardian article,  or this excerpt from his book. . Or buy the June issue of the UK’s Red magazine.

Starting a new business: From sticky mud to soaring kite

Starting a business is a fascinating, challenging and exciting process.   There are so many unknowns, so much at stake, and yet also so much potential.  Grand dreams and ideas on the one hand, comfort zone-breaking wobbles on the other: do we have what it takes to launch, market and deliver something tangible and valuable? 

blog post 36 images

Mud by Birdisart.com; Kite by Clappingsimon at en.wikipedia from Wikimedia Commons

At times it feels like wading through gloopy, sticky mud (will we ever get this thing launched, and even then, will it succeed?) and other times exhilarating – like feeling a kite pull up and soar into the sky or a boat heel up to the wind, lift and rush forwards and onwards.

Nearly every weekday at the moment we chat with someone new who could help deliver the service or otherwise help us get off the ground.  The positive energy of these meetings is uplifting.  There is so much support and encouragement within the small business community for others making the leap.  Just as useful and important are the words of caution and realism, mainly resulting from our contacts’ own experiences.  And then there are the many ideas, suggested resources or pointers to similar services and business models of which we need to be aware if we are to position ourselves as best we can in our market.

It is difficult to balance staying focused on our core proposition with ensuring we keep our ears open to any serious alarm bells or game-changing perspectives that should change our approach.   It feels like we are constantly going back to our core ideas to double check we still believe they are the way we need to go.  That’s the bit that can feel like sticky, gloopy mud.

As a result of that process, the core proposition has flexed.  We’ve shifted our business model and brought forward services to test at launch rather than later.  What’s interesting, and hopeful, is that the fundamentals haven’t changed – who we are targeting, the need we fulfil, the way we want to grow.  That helps me feel confident we have something worth trying, however tough or crowded the market might be. 

Take our brand name.  I won’t reveal it now, as we aren’t at the right point to do that, but it’s been a bit Marmite with those we’ve tested it on – you either love it or hate it.  We wanted something that stands out, that reflects the brand identity we want to have and is relevant to the target market.  But getting mixed feedback forced us to decide if its ‘Marmite-ness’ was a risk we were willing to take.  We said it was. 

Then last week a wonderfully positive introductory meeting opened my eyes to another section of our target market to whom our name may not resonate at all. My heart sank – firstly had I lost all the credibility I’d built up through the conversation by demonstrating we hadn’t thought through this part of our market and brand, and secondly, did this mean we needed to start again?

Back to the core once more. Back to feeling relieved to have a fabulous business partner with whom to share the highs and lows – the difficult decisions, the workload, the potential and the fun of the process. 

As for our brand, we are sticking with it.  Most of our strategic conversations end in the same place: if we don’t try, we will never know.   It is our own, tiny-scale version of one of Richard Branson’s nuggets of wisdom in his book of advice for entrepreneurs, ‘Business Stripped Bare’:

“Failure is not giving things a go in the first place. People who fail are those who don’t have a go and don’t make an effort.”

I haven’t written this blog for quite some time, mostly because the effort of finishing our house extension has taken my time, and setting up the business my energy.  I lost the habit of writing, but not the desire.  Today is my first attempt to get back on the horse. Hopefully I’ll be on for a good long gallop through the rest of 2013.

*******

PS. For anyone else interested in learning from the secrets of Mr Branson’s success, here are some other nuggets he imparts in his book ‘Business Stripped Bare, illustrated through his stories from his own and Virgin Group’s journey.  It’s a good read, and inspiring stuff for any budding entrepreneur, even if Virgin’s story feels somewhat in another league! 

  • Always protect against the downside
  • [As a business], remember who you are and what you’re there for
  • Trust your instincts.  Have the courage of your convictions.  The world is full of people who want to put you right, who want to play the realist to your wide-eyed innocent.  Gather people you trust and get them to play devil’s advocate.
  • Protect your reputation but don’t be afraid of making mistakes.
  • Remember to communicate.
  • Attention to detail defines great business delivery.  Delivery is never rocket science.  However complex a business is, you should be able to boil it down to a proposition ordinary people can understand.
  • Brand is key. A brand always means something, and ultimately you can only control the meaning of your brand through what you deliver to the customer.  Whatever your brand stands for, you have to deliver on the promise. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver and deliver everything you promise. 
  • Keep a cool head. You’re in business to deliver change, and if you succeed, the chances that no one will get hurt are virtually zero.  Be sportsmanlike, play to win and stay friends wherever possible. Befriend your enemies.
  • Innovate your way out of trouble.  When your very existence is threatened, you have to change.  The best way out of a crisis in a changing market is through experiment and adaptation.
  • People who fail are those who don’t have a go and don’t make an effort.  If you’re hurt, lick your wounds and get back up.  If you’ve given it your absolute best, it’s time to move forward.
  • Innovation is what you get when you capitalise on luck, when you get up from behind your desk and go and see where ideas and people lead you.

Can a book discombobulate you? “The Fault In Our Stars” certainly can

dis·com·bob·u·late  [dis-kuhm-bob-yuh-leyt]. verb: to confuse or disconcert; upset; frustrate

The fault in our stars coverYesterday morning I finished reading ‘The Fault In Our Stars’ by John Green.  “Insightful, bold, irreverent, and raw” shouts the back cover in bold, narrow, handwritten type.  If I take the “disconcert” and “upset” parts of the definition above, this book most certainly discombobulated me.

Sundays are my ‘morning off’, which usually means I snooze for a while before sneaking in some reading.  Not so yesterday.  As soon as Mr H had reluctantly succumbed to Littlest H’s insistent and boisterous ‘I’m HUNGRY, Daddy’, on went the light and out came the book.  I’ve been tired all week from staying up late to read it, and yesterday I wasn’t leaving my bed until I was finished.

At which point I gathered myself, wiped away the tears and re-engaged with family life.  But I was unexplainably snippy with Mr H, and then, while on my bike, straining up a hill in open countryside (usually a positive experience of ‘yay I’m exercising’ and ‘yay, I’m on my own’), I found myself full-on bawling for no obvious reason.  Yes, I was exhausted from the effort of more uphills than I anticipated; yes I was frustrated with my recklessness in planning a route I didn’t know when I had a finite amount of time to get back to pick up Littlest H from a birthday party; but neither of those would usually be reason enough for such an uncontrollable emotional outburst, even for me.  So I can only conclude I was letting out the emotion this book created in me.

Why did this book affect me so much?  Its subject matter was never going to be light and fluffy – it’s about children with cancer.  But I don’t think the awfulness of childhood cancer was what got me.  It was the real-ness of the characters and their emotions, the breathtakingly intelligent banter of the teenage protagonists, so beautifully observed and written, and the power of the writing to put me right there in the lives of the families and the truly awful situation they were in.

I want to read it again, to take it more slowly, to savour the bits I didn’t stop to fully take in.  There are no wasted words in this book.  I remember reading Thomas Hardy at school, skipping the first one to two pages of every chapter with their lengthy, flowery descriptions of place and time.  None of that here.  I am in awe of John Green and his skill.

No, this is not light and fluffy.  Yes, I cried tears of anguish more than once.  But mostly, I found it incredibly uplifting – how these teenagers and their families function in a terrible and terrifying situation.  How they find a path to life, rather than giving up on it or focusing on death, however close it may be.

To me, books or any other art form, work if they make me feel.   This book made me feel on every page.  I feel the privilege of life, the privilege and preciousness of healthy children, family and friends, and the temporary nature of that privilege.  I feel the truth of how humour, ‘real-ness’ and a lack of melodrama or sentimentality could help make cancer or other disease more bearable. I have a new perspective on how my and others’ behaviour could look or feel to people suffering with cancer or other disease.  That point struck me in particular reading how some family members acted around someone dying – remembering them to their face while still alive, using the past tense, being sentimental.  It is beautifully handled in the book.  I have a tendency to melodrama and sentimentality, and I hope I managed to avoid making my father’s two years with cancer more difficult by acting as these people do, however understandable the reaction is.  Even if I did, I can’t change it now, but perhaps I can handle it differently if, god forbid, I’m in the situation again.

I completely agree with the proclamation on the back cover of this book.  It is insightful, bold, irreverent and, more than anything, raw.  The irreverence is its brilliance in my view.   I’m sure it wouldn’t work for everyone going through cancer, nor do all the main characters manage it in this book, but it is a real, unsentimental coping mechanism that I can relate to.

In Western society we are increasingly used to the expectation of long life.  Our politicians and finance gurus discuss the problem of pensioners living longer.  More and more  diseases are eradicated or managed with sophisticated drugs. The vast majority of us are used to clean water, sanitation, heat, excellent medical care, jobs that won’t lead us to early death, limited immediate threat of war.  Long gone are the days of high infant mortality and fifty being a ripe old age.

Watching historical drama or current documentaries about Africa or other areas of the world where life is less certain, I wonder at that sense of living with death.  Parents of the past expected some of their children to die – I’m certain it was still hugely traumatic, but perhaps one felt helplessness and inevitability about it compared to the shocking, terrifying, gut-wrenching feelings towards it today.  We believe it will never be us.  We expect to live until we’re old, crinkly and bad-tempered, necking gin at 10am and pushing to the front of the queue because we can.

I do think cancer is changing that perception in current generations though.  More and more of us experience it ourselves or in our close family and friends, and it makes long life feel less certain.  Many cancers are survivable, yes, but it is a disease we fear because it strikes hard and indiscriminately – there is little we can do in our lifestyles to manage our risk of getting it, or indeed, to not be the wrong side of the survivor statistics.  How the teenagers and families in this book handle that process in the extreme, is a lesson for me and no doubt any other readers.

If you read one book this year, read this one.

Random musings on 40 year old teenage angst and uncertainty

Golden_Eagle-Soaring

Some days I feel grounded in myself, my family, my friendships.  I soar, wings wide, feeling secure and confident in who I am, in knowing I have the emotional intelligence and control to handle feelings and situations as befit a nearly 40 year old adult.

Other days, I falter.  I feel like my wings don’t work.  I feel blown by the winds of emotion and uncertainty; like a teenager, unsure of myself and lacking the life experience and perspective needed to ground my behaviour and feelings in an intelligence of any sort.

Why is it that I so often find myself taken back to those teenage feelings of angst and uncertainty?  Sure, now, I recognise them for what they are; I know I can mostly control them and rationalise them and they feel far less raw or all-consuming.  But still, they are there.  Do we ever escape them?

Parenting is harder on days I falter.  Not to mention on days when the children demand more of me than I can give them; when tasks need doing that aren’t about them and that need my thoughts focused elsewhere and their presence where they don’t want to be.  I question my own judgement.  My self-control falters.  My mental energy is not sufficiently focused.

Those days need all my effort to manage.  And when I have some space, I employ the tactics I have learnt work for me to bring my feelings to the fore, analyse them and pick my way through them to the things I need to do to move past them.  I work hard to stop myself wanting to run away from the feelings and the implications – the often uncomfortable-feeling actions needed to sort things out with others, big or small as those things might be.

I have often wished I wasn’t so analytical – approaching life with more levity and less reflection.

But the reality is that I am who I am.  There is little value in wishing I were otherwise. Nor will mentally running away from hard things, small or large, solve anything.  Strength of character and self-esteem come from facing and dealing with situations, even if they don’t feel comfortable.

Just recognising the feelings, and what I need to do about them, allows my wings to spread once more, to feel the lift of the currents.

And as always, tomorrow is a new day, a new opportunity.  Parenting, more than anything else in my life, has taught me that.  We are not perfect, we will always be flawed, but each day we can strive to be the best we can be and pick ourselves up again when we don’t quite make it.