Human Connections

There is much talk these days of the future world of work, whether it’s from the perspective of the 100-year life or humans versus AI. Different studies tell us different things, give us different theories as to what our future world will look like; and whilst no hypothesis is conclusive, I am pleased that it is being discussed and ideas shared. What is more frightening than walking blindfold into a future where an acceptance of ‘this is how things are’ takes us to a place we really wouldn’t want to go.

 One thing that is certain is that the children of today are critical in determining the world of tomorrow. For me that means equipping our young people with curious minds, collaborative mind-sets, the ability to keep growing and developing and, importantly, having resilience; the ability not only to cope with change but to thrive on it. Yet all the studies tell us that mental ill health amongst children and young people is on the rise. Wherever we point the finger of blame for this growing epidemic, we need to do something about it now: to provide the right support and the right interventions.

 Recent involvement in a local campaign took me into schools and community centres in my local city. There I heard stories of young people’s challenging experiences. I also met some amazing women (and yes they were all women) working tirelessly, with limited resources, to support children and young people in a myriad of different ways. Their dedication humbled me. One of these women was a school counsellor who worked in schools in some of my city’s more deprived areas. Today is world mental health day and today’s guest blog is from that school counsellor.

In order to write this blog, I have to answer the question presented to me, which was “What is it like to work with mental health in young children?” and the truth is, that despite several attempts at writing and re writing…I have no definitive answer.

It’s a hundred different things and countless individual little moments. It’s politics and money and funding and frustration and exhilaration and exhaustion, and so much more. I am a school counsellor working with children and young people from 5-18 years of age with a background of 19 years as a private nanny; and yet there really was no amount of experience of working with children or training for a degree in psychotherapy that could prepare me for this role….

I knew the moment I walked into the school that it was where I wanted to be, but it was a steep learning curve for me to disseminate the roles of nannying and counselling. I was no longer able to give these children a hug, or confide in their parents that I had concerns about their friendships. I was suddenly in a position where the child had the autonomy; the child made the decision whether or not to engage, and whether or not to trust me. I had little control and was not able to influence them in any way. Which meant learning a new way.

Being in that school, in an area of deprivation and poverty and with a demographic that presented multi-faceted and complex needs on a weekly, if not daily basis, was truly a baptism of fire. Within a very short time I had learnt the hard way how to make safeguarding referrals, the importance of accurate note taking, the absolute need for immediate communication with other professionals when the circumstance called for it and the unendingly intricate balance of maintaining a client’s confidentiality versus keeping them safe.

I learnt to trust my gut. And to check it. And check it again.

I’ll never forget one of the very first sessions I had with a young man who came into my room, and literally choked on his words. Unable to breathe, or talk, and with tears streaming down his face, he stuttered his way through a disclosure of such awful childhood trauma that it was all I could do to stay in the moment with him, hear him, allow space for this regurgitation of details that left me with my first experience of vicarious trauma. Afterwards I reflected on what an incredibly courageous thing it had been for him to divulge his most feared memories and wondered what I had done to deserve the honour of being trusted with them.

It was in those early sessions that I sincerely learnt to listen, and more significantly I learnt the importance of patience. I remember one client who came to me for 4 weeks straight, for 40 minutes every week, and each time there was nothing but silence. Completely stonewalled – no way in, no way out. I sat with her and listened to her censorship of self. I watched the clock. I wondered. I worried. I hung on in there. She kept returning, she stayed mute and then she left.

Two years later she walked in, sat down and told me what hurt. I cried, she cried… all she had needed was for me to prove that I wasn’t going anywhere. That I accepted her in her silence, and that I didn’t give up. In those interminable minutes of silence when my head had been going all over the place and I was doubting my ability, all she had needed was for me to sit tight.

That one girl taught me so much.

Another young person I once worked with suffered severe depression and was a regular self-harmer. It was not uncommon for this person to reach such depths of despair that they felt the only way out was to die. Frequently we would be contracting around whether or not they felt they would be alive for the next session. Those moments are terrifying. Like, genuinely scary. I questioned for hours afterwards whether the words I had chosen were the right ones. I picked apart every moment of that 40-minute session to see if I’d covered all bases, trying to find anything I may have missed. But week after week and month after month this person stayed alive and kept returning.

I marvelled at the strength, determination and courage it took for them to do that. And when life began to change, when things began to look not only manageable but enjoyable for this person, when they could start to see a future for themselves, we would reflect back on how far we had come together and I would ask how they thought counselling had helped, and they answered “You never tried to fix me, you just let me be me.”

It sounds so incredibly simple when you write it down on paper, and in many ways it is.

Sometimes I leave work and I am railing against the utter lack of resources available to us, the complete annihilation of funding in a world that is ever increasing need of mental health support. I feel like I’m in an industry where increasingly all we as a collective are managing to do is keep the tide at bay, placing ill equipped sticking plasters over problems that need serious investment and an overhaul of the entire education system to include, no, prioritise, mental health awareness.

But that’s not the real answer to the question posed. The real answer lies somewhere within those precious shared moments with a person who has been brave enough to share their pain with you. The answer lies within those moments when I leave work knowing that I made a difference. The answer, I think, is to do with human connection.

Katrina Foord is a qualified counsellor and psychotherapist working in primary and secondary schools in and around Brighton. With almost 20 years of experience working with children in various capacities, Katrina is passionate about bringing awareness of mental health into schools from very early on in order to promote, encourage and sustain a mentally healthy and resilient future generation.

A strategist, consultant and mother to two daughters, Sam Whittaker is a lover of stories with a passion for connecting people with ideas. Sam also cares deeply about driving progressive change in the world, however, seemingly ‘small’. She (& others) blog at the-change.blog. You can follow her on twitter @itsSamActually.

Trust me…I’m a Leader

Despite its size (only 5 letters long) trust is a very big word. Yet in today’s world it seems to be becoming a scarce commodity. And this matters. We only need to look around us at our politicians, the media, large corporates, the professions, to know that trust has been, and continues to be, eroded.

Trust is vital in all societies. Trust allows us to flourish, to innovate, to collaborate, to build our resilience and wellbeing; attributes that we need now more than ever. Trust is about maintaining positive relationships despite operating with uncertainty and risk. The management professor Denise Rousseau defined trust as ‘a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behaviour of another’. The world we live in is full of change and ambiguity and this makes us feel vulnerable. Psychology and neuroscience tells us that when we feel vulnerable we ‘close down’. Feeling less psychologically safe makes us retreat into ourselves, makes us become more cautious, heightens our anxiety and stress levels – traits that are not conducive to a flourishing, productive society.

So what does this mean for our organisations, both large and small? What does this mean for leaders who are steering their organisations through the choppy (and sometimes tsunami-like) seas of change that has become the new normal? How do leaders lead successful companies where employee engagement is high, talent is nurtured and developed, creativity and innovation thrives and collaboration and team work is the order of the day? How do leaders, when the people in their organisations are suffering from ‘change fatigue’ and are feeling uncertain and vulnerable, engender the traits that are needed to enable their people to innovate and collaborate, despite the unsettling realities of our current world? Building trust is one of those ways.

Of course, higher levels of ambiguity and uncertainty means that people want to trust their leaders more than ever before. As noted by Professor and Dean of the School of Management at the University of Bath, Veronica Hope Hailey, the perceived trust crisis may instead be because people need a more overt demonstration of trust from their leaders to enable them to become comfortable with the uncomfortable.

So how can leaders invest in more overt demonstrations of their trustworthiness? What does the research tell us are the characteristics of trustworthy leaders? In many ways, it mirrors the characteristics we expect from the professions, be they doctors, lawyers or accountants (we wouldn’t be very happy, in fact we’d be rather scared (!), if we didn’t have faith in the experience and expertise of the surgeon about to operate on us). Having the right level of competence and capability and the belief from the organization that you can ‘get the job done’ therefore goes without saying.

Another important characteristic is found in the somewhat over-used expression of ‘walking the talk’. Am I, as a leader, being consistent in doing what I say I am going to do? Am I predictable? Of course, external factors and new findings can and will change a course of direction, but being consistent in the values and behaviours you demonstrate to lead this change go along way in building trust. Do you model the behaviour you expect of others?

When you go to see your doctor or seek the advice of a lawyer or accountant, you assume that their standing as a professional means that they will go beyond their own self interest and act with integrity. There is an asymmetry of power in this relationship, as they inevitably know more than you do, so you have to trust them. The research shows that integrity is an important pillar in being a trustworthy leader too: including being open, honest and transparent. In recent times it is the leaders who have been seen acting without integrity who have hit the news headlines. Clearly many do operate with a strong moral compass. In these uncertain times, consistently showing high levels of integrity is paramount.

And finally, another key characteristic is benevolence. I choose to trust someone when I can see that they have my best interests at heart. I choose to trust someone when, even at times of challenge and difficulty, they act respectfully and compassionately towards me. I choose to trust someone when they put relationships between human beings at the heart of what they do.

As leaders we need to know when to dial up and dial down these different attributes; focusing on one more than another could, paradoxically, risk the very trust people have in us. For example, making a decision based on compassion for a close colleague may compromise the integrity of our decision-making and show inconsistencies in our actions towards the wider group.

Nurturing and building trust within organisations and seeing it as a vital and necessary contributor to success is more important today than it has ever been. We want customers to trust our brands and wise companies do much to build and protect them. Similarly, we want our people to trust their leaders. Wise leaders do much to openly build and evidence that trust; they value it as an equally important business asset, one to be nurtured and developed.

Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundation principle that holds all relationships.”   Stephen Covey

This image shows two of artist Hans Holbein’s portraits, both of which hang in The Frick Collection in New York. The one on the left is a portrait of Sir Thomas More and the one on the right is Thomas Cromwell. Both More and Cromwell served in the English court of King Henry VIII. Whatever history (and Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall) tells us about both men, it is clear which leader Holbein trusted!

A strategist, consultant and mother to two daughters, Sam Whittaker is a lover of stories with a passion for connecting people with ideas. Sam also cares deeply about driving progressive change in the world, however, seemingly ‘small’. She (& others) blog at the-change.blog. You can follow her on twitter @itsSamActually.

Life in all its fullness

This is one of those silly, wonderful photos you have from your youth; like those ‘photo booth’ photos you take posing with your friends or when you’re all dressed up in some ridiculous fancy dress costume. This is a picture, probably dating back nearly 30 years or so, of my good friend, Moose (aka Dave Trelawny-Ross). I have known Moose for 28 years.  And for 15 of those 28 years he’s been ill. He was the friend I would drink good red wine with (those big, heavy reds that leave viscous wine tears around the bowl of the glass) and talk, somewhat precociously, about the novels we’d read.  I remember visiting him ‘up North’ with my first daughter when she was six months old and he organised a baby sitter and we went out, drank wine, and he played jazz piano at a local bar. And then he went quiet. And, slowly, I learnt that he was poorly. 

A lot of my blog posts in recent months have talked about how we can drive change in the world; change for good. And how we can respond to the disruptive change that is happening all around us. But how do we respond when change happens to our very physical being? When, things we took for granted break down and we have to adapt and adjust our lives in quite fundamental ways? So I asked my lovely friend, with whom I still, very, very occasionally drink red wine, and with whom I still discuss books (via email) to speak to his experience of change.

In my youth, during those long late night conversations about life and the meaning and purpose of life, I would offer one of my favourite lines from the New Testament, ‘I have come that you may have life, life in all its fullness’ (John 10:10). This seemed to offer as good a contender as any in the search for purpose and fulfilment; to live life to the full. Somehow then, in the mid-eighties, that seemed a fresh or radical thing to suggest. After all, many of my contemporaries were off to jobs in the City, in a quest for wealth, status and power.

Aspiring to live life to the full seemed a good thing. I wanted to seize each day. I wanted to grab as many rich and amazing experiences as I could. I wanted to make every hour count, to squeeze as much life as I could out of each moment. It was a good way to create a life that felt meaningful, and to feel that my life had significance and weight.

For many years I think I did quite a good job of putting this article of faith into practice. I ran the English department in a ‘challenging’ inner city comprehensive school, I took students on creative writing trips, I wrote books, I climbed mountains on every possible free weekend, I played jazz regularly with a quartet in local clubs and bars, I enjoyed cooking for friends and even reading the occasional book. I wasn’t very good at saying no to things or ‘doing nothing’.

And then I got ill. And for the last fifteen years I have been trying to make sense of what it might mean to live life to the full when my body stubbornly refuses to let me do all those things that had previously constituted fullness. For long periods of time, climbing the stairs has been more strenuous than any mountain I climbed. On my worst days, simply getting to the window of my bedroom, to lean out and feel the sun on my face would be a hard won achievement. A ten minute conversation can still exhaust me.

I used to quantify fullness of life by the arithmetic of rich life experiences; travelling to an exotic country, playing a good performance at a gig, completing a climb from the top of my tick list, having a deep conversation with mates over a bottle of red wine. Add up enough of these and I have a full life well lived.

Now I need a different metric. Instead of filling up my life with momentous significant experiences, I want to live fully in each moment, however insignificant or commonplace. Right now, Charlie the cat is nestled against my leg as I type, snoring gently. Earlier, I listened to two magpies, a pigeon and a blackbird all sitting on TV aerials above my street, competing in an avian X factor. I have exchanged texts with friends variously at a wedding, stuck in an airport, sitting at work. With a tiny piano keyboard on my lap, I have worked on some music, surprising myself with a new groove to an old tune. None of these are big significant life shaping moments. And taken together they add up to maybe an hour of my attention out of the whole day. But it is these things that make up ‘the million petalled flower of being here’, (Phillip Larkin, The Old fools). Cumulatively, they weave a fabric with colour and pattern and texture, a fully woven fabric.

If living life to the full means seeking out and cramming in as many amazing experiences as possible, I am not sure how healthy that is. I think part of the motivation for me for living like this was to make me feel good about myself. It gave me a sense of achievement. When I couldn’t live like that, because of illness, there was a corresponding sense of failure, that I was not living a good enough life.

Living a full life by living fully in each moment is less self-focused, it is less self-indulgent. This kind of living is about paying attention to what is happening outside of myself as perceived by my senses. It is the act of noticing each detail so that something small becomes intricate, multi-faceted. Our craving for those rich experiences from the ‘100 things to do before you die’ lists is a craving for intensity of sensual experience; the different, the extreme, the exotic, make a deeper impression on our minds and memories because they are different and unusual and rare. If I can find that exotic rarity in the everyday that surrounds me, maybe I can experience that same thrill of vitality. If I can pay full attention with all my senses to the ordinary and the mundane, maybe I can feel that same intensity of being and experiencing.

I still long to climb mountains and play music with other people. Noticing a beautiful rose or the smell of fresh baked bread does not quite compensate for those things. But I am determined to find fullness and vitality and authenticity in the every day and to know that this is to live a life that is fully and uniquely human.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand 

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 

And Eternity in an hour

(William Blake, Auguries of Innocence)

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David Trelawny-Ross was Head of English at a Sheffield comprehensive school until his life was detoured by illness fifteen years ago. He has been a sometime writer, jazz pianist and rock climber. Currently, he is committed to enjoying the small things. He enjoys sharing his house with interesting foreign students and his cat, Charlie. You can hear his most recent music by searching for “david trelawny ross” on Bandcamp or Soundcloud, and you can find his book ‘A dream of white horses’ on lulu.com.

A strategist, consultant and mother to two daughters, Sam Whittaker is a lover of stories with a passion for connecting people with ideas. Sam also cares deeply about driving progressive change in the world, however, seemingly ‘small’. She (& others) blog at the-change.blog. You can follow her on twitter @itsSamActually.

Searching for the F word…

Last year, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary  feminism was the most searched for term online. That same dictionary describes it as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” and “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.” Analysing the data, the website cites spikes in searches following news of such things as the Women’s March on Washington, DC in January last year, in addition to television dramas such as The Handmaid’s Tale and the film, Wonder Woman. Revelations of sexual harassment and the #MeToo and Time to Rise movements also sparked searches.

I remember in the 90s and 00s being told by other women that we no longer needed feminism, in fact, it was all seen as a bit of an embarrassment. I used to worry that I sounded too strident, too ‘political’ (although women across the political divide are often united in equal rights for women). There was a sense, from women, that talking about feminism would damage their career prospects. Or, a sense that if they were successful then, somehow, discussing feminism would undermine the ‘merit’ that had got them there. Even more recently I recall being on a business trip with colleagues, including two more senior men. Chatting in the hotel bar after a successful day about the usual non-work things such as families and holidays, I found myself re-telling a story about my then 14-year-old daughter who had chosen sociology as one of the subjects she wanted to study. She’d connected with the idea of feminism because, as she remarked, ‘you’re a feminist aren’t you mum?’ At this remark both men looked more than a little aghast, with one commenting at how surprised he was, and that clearly, I was one of those ‘reasonable’ ones. Thank goodness for that!

So, feminism is now firmly back on the agenda.

Of course, a blog about feminism can’t leave out mention of Germaine Greer. In a speech she gave a couple of months ago (on International Women’s Day) she wonderfully argued that ‘equality is a profoundly conservative goal for women’

Greer argues:

What everybody has accepted is the idea of equality feminism. It will change nothing … women are drawing level with men in this profoundly destructive world that we live in and, as far as I’m concerned, it’s the wrong way. We’re getting nowhere.

“If we’re going to change things I think we’re going to have to start creating a women’s polity that is strong, that has its own way of operating, that makes contact with women in places like Syria, and that challenges the right of destructive nations. Women needed to aim higher and achieve more than simply drawing level with men and entering into traditionally male-dominated fields.”

 I have a lot of sympathy with this. As I wrote in an earlier post, we live in a world where the overarching narrative is male. So are we asking for equality within these existing structures, or something completely new? If we look around us: war, Trump, poverty, populism and the rise of the Right, Carillion, executive pay, Russia, Palestine, the UK railway system, Grenfell Tower, an NHS on its knees…the existing structures aren’t working very well, are they?

I recognise that Greer isn’t everyone’s ‘cup of tea’ (too out-spoken, too strident, too radical) and her comments about trans women have not made her any less controversial, but let’s not forget that the women who got us the vote in the UK needed to be strident, out-spoken and radical in order to allow us the democracy that we enjoy today. Aren’t we pleased that Rosa Parks refused to give up that seat? Aren’t we pleased that Eleanor Roosevelt didn’t become a typical ‘first lady’? Aren’t we pleased that Tarana Burke founded the ‘MeToo’ movement over a decade ago?

Simone de Beauvoir famously said that women are the second sex, made and not born. Society is what makes us. So how do we make a society that enables true equality, one that empowers women to be who they are, confident and bold and talented and amazing, not people tip-toeing around, nudging gently on a door of so-called respectability for a share of the status-quo? As the radical feminist Jessa Crispin argues in her recent book:

“The feminism I support is a full on revolution. Where women are not simply allowed to participate in the world as it already exists … but are actively able to reshape it.”

So, in the spirit of not being apologetic, or tip-toeing around making a case that is seen as acceptable; rather than being seen as one of those ‘reasonable ones’ I will end this blog with some lines of poetry I found in the book Fifty Shades of Feminism by the scalpel-sharp poet, Laurie Penney:

There are more of us than you think, kicking off our high-heeled shoes to run and being told not so fast . . . who dared to dance until dawn and were drugged and raped by men in clean T-shirts and woke up scared and sore to be told it was our fault . . . who were told all our lives that we were too loud, too risky, too fat, too ugly, too scruffy, too selfish, too much . . .”

I say, let’s continue to be too much!

Image: Watch out cartoon (from a postcard pinned to my kitchen notice board for the last 21 years) by the brilliant cartoonist Jacky Fleming. Jacky is also author of the wonderful The Trouble with Women.

A strategist, consultant and mother to two daughters, Sam Whittaker is a lover of stories with a passion for connecting people with ideas. Sam also cares deeply about driving progressive change in the world, however, seemingly ‘small’. She (& others) blog at the-change.blog. You can follow her on twitter @itsSamActually.

 

Emotional taxation, but not much representation

In my last blog post I spoke about the importance of stories in connecting us to people and in forming a bridge to others’ lived experiences.  So far, 2018 seems to be a year when the experiences of women have started to have voice and, I’m hoping, that voice will continue to get louder and stronger.  In this blog post, friend and colleague, Laura Harrison, has chosen to give voice to some of her experiences.

Perhaps 2018 will become known as the year when Time was really Up. When the fight for equality became supercharged. In fact, when it came into its own as a fight rather than a bashful, polite request.

It’s a weird time. I’ve found the openness of apparently powerful women thought provoking. Female actors, leaders, ‘celebrities’ are revealing that despite their fame, money and accolades, their power is limited by context and structure. Their stories have poked at buried memories from my own education and career. Buried perhaps because I normalised them. These incidents are painful to re-encounter. And I wonder how many other women are going through the same: Oh god, yes, me too.

I’m going to describe some of these recollections. All of them leave me feeling vulnerable. None of them are in any way as bad in the humiliation they aroused or the harm they did as many women suffer daily at work. But what they have in common is that I’m sure I suffered emotionally way more than the other party or parties concerned. I paid the emotional taxes for the incident. Why did I bear the larger tax bill? Because my gender is under-represented and is too often treated as the imposter or the exception to the masculine norm.

So, some stories:

I was preparing for an important client meeting that I was due to attend with two, more senior, male colleagues. ‘Don’t worry,’ one said, ‘you’re just the eye candy…’ What was the emotional tax I paid? Ten minutes of seething anger? Boredom at the effort of having to put two antediluvian colleagues straight on this crazy thing called sex discrimination? Nope. The tax was hours agonising that they were taking the mickey out of me because obviously I wasn’t pretty enough to be ‘eye candy.’ My anxiety was that I was being demeaned, objectified and called ugly all at once. I was a professional woman with a good job, but my inner thirteen year old had been needled and I was mortified. My attractiveness, or lack of it, was an issue, and I was ashamed.

A university lecturer offered to coach me. ‘You’re very bright, but you’ve a lot to learn.’ His hand was on my knee and his arm around was my shoulders at the time. The tax I paid was to avoid him for the rest of the academic year, missing all his classes and diving into the loos if I saw him coming down the corridor – and of course to only scrape through his class. Had I ‘led him on?’ by asking for his help? Was I pathetic because I’d freaked out and (literally) run away at his advances? Months more of anxiety. I imagine the tax he paid was the effort involved in shrugging his shoulders; you win some, you lose some. Who was she again?

A trusted male colleague, senior to me, took me out for a drink to commiserate over a project gone sour. At about 4pm, after a lot of wine had been consumed, he lunged over the table at me, grabbed the back of my head. It was not a romantic moment. My tax – horror and shame. Is that what you’re asking for if you agree to go for a drink, alone, with a male colleague? The next day I couldn’t look this man in the eye, nor could I, properly, again. He had no problem. After all – you win some, you lose some.

I was the only girl in my physics class for A’level. The teachers and the other students bantered and joshed – football, sex. The not-very-subtle subtext was exclusion – this isn’t for you. That was a different kind of tax, a time tax, I taught myself physics A’level from the text book. And arrived at university to study science to be greeted by a wall of photographs of the departmental lecturers. Every one of them was male.

Worse perhaps, the empathy taxes, where you want to help but can’t. Because all the channels involve revealing vulnerability, hurt and sometimes shame, which at work must be held at bay. A dear friend was shocked – I guess in the physiological sense – by being sent a digital photo of the back view of a naked woman bent over an office desk. The email came from her male boss. She never complained, she was too embarrassed, was worried she’d done something to ‘ask for it.’ I shudder and feel sick on her behalf at the memory. She was once criticised for not having a sense of humour. A friend was passed over for a promotion she clearly deserved. Her colleagues and team were behind her. An unqualified man, deeply embroiled in a bromance with the male leadership team, got the job. What can you say? Don’t fret, don’t spend money drowning your sorrows over pinot grigio or on retail therapy? See a lawyer? Speak to someone? Resign? Find another job? Whichever way you look at it, the tax bill’s too high.

I’m wondering – and hoping – that the burden of emotional taxation is becoming more evenly distributed. That those with more-than-adequate representation are reflecting on past behaviours and present attitudes and challenging themselves to be better. The media at the moment is full of men apologising. An apology isn’t a tax. The tax would be to take the time to feel the shame or horror or regret at what’s gone before and to resolve to change. And to fight for a reduced burden of emotional taxation on women, and better representation for them too. No taxation without representation.

Laura Harrison is a senior leader in the fields of business transformation and organisation development. Her career has spanned consulting and corporate roles as well as working in the non profit sector.  Most recently she was Strategy and Transformation Director at CIPD. You can follow her on twitter @LazMazHarry.

A strategist, consultant and mother to two daughters, Sam Whittaker is a lover of stories with a passion for connecting people with ideas. Sam also cares deeply about driving progressive change in the world, however, seemingly ‘small’. She (& others) blog at the-change.blog. You can follow her on twitter @itsSamActually.

 

Once upon a time…

Death is probably the thing we fear the most: for ourselves, for our loved ones. When ‘nothingness’ becomes permanent; the ultimate, irreversible change. It’s a terrifying thought. So, of course, we don’t talk about it. But perhaps we should.

I was struck by an article I recently read by the journalist Owen Jones, which talked about the death of his father to cancer four months earlier. As he says, “Our culture doesn’t give us the vocabulary to talk to the grieving”; and it’s true. How often in these circumstances do we hear ourselves confess to not knowing what to say? Words fail us. I usually seek out a poem. For me, a poem is the most perfect form of words selected to express the inexpressible.

The truth is that there is no dodging the pain of the death of a loved one. Sometimes it will be a dull, dull ache and other times it will come at you hard and fast and sharp. But, as noted by Jones in that same article, recalling the memories, telling the stories of those we loved, captures the very powerful, very unique ‘something’ of those people. Their ‘being in the world’ is remembered and re-told and, in turn, these stories give us the meaning of those people’s lives. Take this very powerful example of the Guardian newspaper’s front page on 14th May this year.

Humans have a necessary desire to make meaning. As humans, our brains are hardwired to want to answer unknown questions. Our brains don’t like being in ‘unknowing’. This is what drives us forward to keep learning and keep discovering. But, of course, there are some things we can’t know. So how do we deal with this ‘unknowing’? Well, of course, we create stories. For some, when it comes to death, this can take the form of an all-knowing, omnipotent God. For others, it’s the reality of science (although that always answers the ‘how’ and not the ‘why’ for me). But, in reality, we tell stories about our lives all the time with us as the central protagonist. As noted by the psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, our brains are naturally story processors, not logical processors; stories allow us to understand the world and create meaning for ourselves and for others.

So, who would have thought that stories were such powerful things; they are not facts or data or ‘truths’. They are the subjective telling of things. Yet, as advances in neuroscience and psychology is revealing, there is so much more to stories. Think about how, the world over, we read bedtime stories to our children. Child psychologists show how story making and story-hearing develops naturally in young children. Academic and author, Jonathan Gottschall argues that storytelling has evolved to ensure our survival; nature has shaped us to be ultra-social, and hence to be sharply attentive to character and plot.

Stories are also powerful in helping us place ourselves in somebody else’s shoes. As a white, middle-class woman living in the West, how can I possibly imagine what it is like to be a refugee? How can I possibly imagine what it is like to feel like I am trapped in the ‘wrong’ body? How can I possibly imagine what it is like to have witnessed my community decimated by years of under-investment and neglect? By reading and listening, by opening myself up to the experiences of others and hearing their story, their voice.

Yes, we can use stories to put up walls and create hatred towards ‘others’ (that Brexit poster anyone?!). Or we can allow people to tell us their story, not one spun by people in power for their own ends.

Whilst they may not always finish with a ‘happy ever after’, stories can fulfil many different needs and help us navigate and make sense of the world; in that sense they are deeply human.

This photograph is a picture of my dad, William Bowker Whittaker, taken at one of his summer jobs during his student years. Here he’s working as a barman at a hotel in Newquay. According to mum he chose summer jobs in nice places. One year he was a bus conductor on the Isle of Wight, another he sold ice creams at Old Trafford cricket ground. He looks happy. Friends, when they see this photo, say that I look like him, although my brother is the spitting image. He died when I was very young and so I didn’t really get to know him. Stories from my mum, of their courting days, sound fun and romantic. (They met when they both worked at Dunlops in London, where he would find any excuse to visit mum at her desk.) He wrote her poems – there’s one called The Elephant  & Castle Blues! She still has an Oliver theatre programme with dad’s romantic notes scribbled in the margin, which she keeps alongside his love letters. My dad died when he was very young and these stories, and many others, in addition to piecing together more about his childhood (he was fostered and then adopted) have become an important way for me to connect with him.

A strategist, consultant and mother to two daughters, Sam Whittaker is a lover of stories with a passion for connecting people with ideas. Sam also cares deeply about driving progressive change in the world, however, seemingly ‘small’. She (& others) blog at the-change.blog. You can follow her on twitter @itsSamActually.

When I grow up I want to be…

A couple of months ago a colleague of old asked me to contribute some words to a blog she was writing on what I would say now to my 16 year old self (you can find her fab blog here)  Since then, I’ve been reflecting on those words, that blog and my own experience observing my teenage daughters and their friends as they navigate the rollercoaster of revision, exams, new GCSEs, (already) worrying about student debt and looking a bit embarrassed as relatives and friends ask them what they want to do ‘when they grow up’. (With the rise of automation and reports saying 85% of future jobs aren’t yet created, how do they answer that?) For me, one way to equip our young people for the future world of work is to give them the opportunity to build those critical thinking and creative skills, to be great with people and to be resilient – probably far more than I have ever had to be (and the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtue at the University of Birmingham is doing some fantastic research into building the skills needed for the future). But it’s tough when you’re 16 to know all of this. As noted by experts, young people are under more pressure now than they have ever been before. Increasing numbers of under-18s are suffering from anxiety, depression, eating disorders and other conditions. In addition, more are self-harming and attempting suicide. School stress, social media and pressures to “succeed” are among the key reasons behind this rise.

As the next generation contemplate the reality of the 100 year life and the notion that they will most likely have multiple jobs, doing many different things, and with the need to constantly retrain and learn, we need to give them every opportunity and support as they start out on their working lives.

But I also recognise, as a middle-aged woman, that it’s not really for me to speak on what I think young people need. So, for this guest blog, I invited an amazing young woman, Rose, to tell her story. I met Rose via a terrific organisation, Further my Future, and they, as was I, were impressed by her tenacity, her desire to grow and learn and her bright, enquiring mind.

At 16 years old, I was in my last year of school; juggling GCSE exams, revision, college interviews and career options. I didn’t know where I wanted to be or what I wanted to do and I felt like the only option I had was to do what everyone else was doing, and go to college and then university. A few more exams down the line – and after countless all-nighters, I hated the education system, I was stressed, anxious and highly irritable! I wanted any way out and couldn’t stand the thought of going through the same repetitive process again in college.

Summer of that year came around and with exams finally done, I had some time to myself. I thought about my future and the career choices that I had made and it just didn’t feel right. It was that uncertainty that motivated my intensive research and desperate visit to the school’s careers advisor. During my meeting with her, we came to the conclusion that school, college, and uni were definitely not for me. In fact, none of the typical and “accepted” paths of education suited me. We explored other options together, one of which was apprenticeships. That idea really stuck!

I loved the idea of being hands-on with my learning and getting the training that I wanted at a young age. So, I spent my summer holidays filling out applications and preparing for interviews, but to no avail. The majority of my applications were unsuccessful, and for those that were, I didn’t get further than the interview. The worst part was that I wasn’t getting any real feedback. All the employers would say that they were looking for someone who’s older and think that I’m too young… but that’s it. I felt as though all my hard work was going to waste and that I should stop trying because my age wasn’t something that I could change. But through that process, I learned more about myself than I did throughout my entire time at school. I learned what my strengths and weaknesses are, what I enjoy and what I’m good at, and finally what I would like to improve. I didn’t let people’s stereotypical opinions of me, as a hormonal teenage girl, stop me from accomplishing my goals.

October ’17 through to March ’18, I did a traineeship in order to gain the experience that is so valued by employers. Within those short 6 months, I learned everything from incredibly important life skills such as money budgeting, to event organisation and employability. Along with that, though, came a fear of not knowing what will happen next. For those that went to college, they knew that they would most likely be in college for the next 2 to 3 years, whereas my schedule changed every week and one phone call could flip everything on its head. I worked 6 days a week at one point, at 4 different work placements, trying to learn and grow in as many ways as I could. Although I was hardly getting paid, I persevered and made myself realise that the experience that I was gaining was way more valuable and that it wasn’t all about the money. And that is what got me here, 10 months later. Having met the most incredible people, gained heaps of experience and finally secured my dream apprenticeship with absolutely amazing employers, I think it’s safe to say that it was all totally worth it!

There’s a lot of pressure on young people to achieve. The new 9-1 GCSE specification proves just that, as the A* is no longer the highest grade. Many students, including myself, feel as though they have under-achieved because of this, when in reality, they’ve obtained very good grades!

I think that so many people are at a disadvantage with their learning due to there being only one method of teaching. In my case, I can’t learn the traditional way: sitting down with someone talking at me for an hour is just tedious.

Others, like myself, were completely unaware of what’s available to them. I didn’t know what traineeships or apprenticeships were until I reached out to the careers advisor. Nor did I know that I could get help and advice on employment, education and training through the Youth Employability Service and the National Careers Service for free. In my opinion, no practical and genuinely helpful sessions were offered at school to inform about the many services available to young people.

If you are a student, take the time to know the different paths and options open to you. If your school or college has a careers advisor, I strongly suggest organising a meeting with them. If not, get in contact with your local youth support services but most importantly, believe in yourself! Be persistent and follow your dreams – even when people tell you that you can’t.

We need workplaces with people from diverse backgrounds and that includes education as well as race, gender and age. You’ll be surprised at just what young people are capable of!

Rose is currently doing an apprenticeship in digital marketing at Liftmusic which combines hands-on work in the workplace with one day a week training.
 A strategist, consultant and mother to two daughters, Sam Whittaker is a lover of stories with a passion for connecting people with ideas. Sam also cares deeply about driving progressive change in the world, however, seemingly ‘small’. She (& others) blog at the-change.blog. You can follow her on twitter @itsSamActually