I grew up in a dictatorship…

I grew up in a military dictatorship.

I grew up in a country at war with itself.

I have been hit by stones thrown at me by children who used to be my friends because their parents saw my parents as the enemy.

I saw refugees carrying bundles lining the roads walking slowly, heads down away from the conflict.

I saw people with missing limps and bandaged heads begging for food in the town.

I have been in a car surrounded by demonstrators, the car was rocked, people were angry, it was close to a riot, we were fearful that we may not see the next day.

People close to us were hacked to death with machetes in their homes.

Older friends of mine went to fight proudly in their uniforms as soon as they were old enough.

As a child, the thing that made all of this real was when our dog was shot by a soldier.

Looking for Sally…

At high school, Sally was brilliant at pure maths. When the teacher raised a topic, she would research it in depth, she would learn complex proofs. She could create multi-dimensional worlds based on the maths that she read, she would play there, testing the work of geniuses.

Sally went to university to study maths. It was so boring! In her first exams, she came third out of 120. But she had done no work! She had soon realised that almost every lecture was about a topic she had already mastered, so why work? In her second set of exams, she came 10th, she had done no work and was still on course for a 1st but borderline.

Her third set of exams were a shock, 91st and borderline fail!

Sally was determined not to fail, her dreams depended on getting a doctorate, she needed to do research. What had she done for 3 years, had she day dreamed her future away?

Sally chose subjects she knew nothing about for her final year, that way she would be interested. She worked every hour she could until her final exams – 2:2 … borderline 2:1 – no doctorate for Sally.

The job market, Sally got jobs because she was clever. She lost jobs because she was too clever for her bosses. She belittled her colleagues by being so much faster and better. She was a maverick, her appraisals would say that she was “unmanageable”.

But she did learn. Sally learned about living in the real world as well as her dream world. She learned how to be patient and let others knowledge grow slowly. She learned how to be non-threatening. She learned how to be valuable to others. She learned how to help other very clever people give value to the world outside academia.

She saw an advert with the line “weirdos from William Gibson novels like that girl hired by Bigend as a brand ‘diviner’ who feels sick at the sight of Tommy Hilfiger“. She had never read William Gibson so she had no idea what this meant but she liked the sound of it. She wanted to be that girl.

Sally was that girl. She found herself in a place she had never dreamed of. The author of the advert was not clever enough to know what he would unleash…

A chip… (alternative ending)

Son

This is a difficult letter to write.

Please do not speak to your mother or your brother of its contents.

I am writing to you because of the work that you did before the war.

You were working in a noble cause to find treatments for cancer.

You are now working in a more noble cause to save the lives of many of our brave soldiers.

I know that you are sometimes abused for not fighting, the common man cannot see that some must fight at home using their brains.

You will have guessed now the subject of this letter.

You were right to tell me to visit the doctor.

Your suspicions, although you did not speak of them, were right.

He referred me to have a photograph taken of my lungs.

There is a spot, a small spot.

I am advised that it will grow, with it’s growth my cough will pass from being a mild irritant to being painful and distressing.

The greatest distress will be for those around me who will see my body gradually shrivel, they will see the pain that I am in, they will see my weakness, I will become dependent for the most basic of human needs.

I will continue working for as long as possible.

I will hide away from your mother and brother for as long as I can.

The effects of the war give me enough cause to work long hours and to sleep in the office from time to time, I am thankful for the role that I have.

And now for the real purpose of my letter.

I asked my doctor if there was a way to prevent me becoming a burden, of preventing the distress that the erosion of my health will cause.

He said that his oath prevents him from acting, but he will overlook the act of another.

The terrible purpose of my letter is to ask you to be that other.

The doctor will send for you and give you the signal.

Destroy this letter, just wait for the doctor, your actions will be clear at the time.

For what you will do, you are forgiven.

Your father

34 years later…

Brother

I went home last weekend, father is ill, seriously ill.

You need to go home and visit.

This could be the last time you see him looking healthy.

Catherine

A week later…

Son

I need to ask you to do a terrible thing.

I am dying, I saw my father die a slow lingering death, he became ashamed of the burden he put on the family and he asked me to do a terrible thing.

I am on the same path and I must ask the same of you.

I asked the doctor to help me on my way, he didn’t reply, he just changed the subject and then left. I don’t want your mother to have to cope with me as a deteriorate. If I need help, please help me. For what you will do, you are forgiven.

Six months later…

Son

It is time…

The next day…

I arrived, father was in sitting in his favourite chair, he was in pain, he acknowledged me with a weak smile.

He told me he had called the doctor to get something to ease the pain.

That night he went to sleep, the doctor said that he may not wake.

I sat with him for several hours.

I got up to go to stretch and have a short walk around the garden.

As I left the room there was a low wet cackle, he was gone.

I was spared…

A chip…

Son

This is a difficult letter to write.

Please do not speak to your mother or your brother of its contents.

I am writing to you because of the work that you did before the war.

You were working in a noble cause to find treatments for cancer.

You are now working in a more noble cause to save the lives of many of our brave soldiers.

I know that you are sometimes abused for not fighting, the common man cannot see that some must fight at home using their brains.

You will have guessed now the subject of this letter.

You were right to tell me to visit the doctor.

Your suspicions, although you did not speak of them, were right.

He referred me to have a photograph taken of my lungs.

There is a spot, a small spot.

I am advised that it will grow, with it’s growth my cough will pass from being a mild irritant to being painful and distressing.

The greatest distress will be for those around me who will see my body gradually shrivel, they will see the pain that I am in, they will see my weakness, I will become dependent for the most basic of human needs.

I will continue working for as long as possible.

I will hide away from your mother and brother for as long as I can.

The effects of the war give me enough cause to work long hours and to sleep in the office from time to time, I am thankful for the role that I have.

And now for the real purpose of my letter.

I asked my doctor if there was a way to prevent me becoming a burden, of preventing the distress that the erosion of my health will cause.

He said that his oath prevents him from acting, but he will overlook the act of another.

The terrible purpose of my letter is to ask you to be that other.

The doctor will send for you and give you the signal.

Destroy this letter, just wait for the doctor, your actions will be clear at the time.

For what you will do, you are forgiven.

Your father

34 years later…

Brother

I went home last weekend, father is ill, seriously ill.

You need to go home and visit.

This could be the last time you see him looking healthy.

Catherine

A week later…

Son

I need to ask you to do a terrible thing.

I am dying, I saw my father die a slow lingering death, he became ashamed of the burden he put on the family and he asked me to do a terrible thing.

I am on the same path and I must ask the same of you.

I asked the doctor to help me on my way, he didn’t reply, he just changed the subject and then left. I don’t want your mother to have to cope with me as a deteriorate. If I need help, please help me. For what you will do, you are forgiven.

A year later…

Brother

You need to go home and visit now

This could be the last time you talk to father.

Catherine

The next day…

I arrived, father was in bed, barely conscious, I think he acknowledged me.

I felt guilty.

That night he went to sleep, the doctor said that he may not wake.

I sat with him for several hours.

I got up to go to stretch and have a short walk around the garden.

As I left the room there was a low wet cackle, he was gone.

33 years later…

I am coughing, there is a dull ache in my chest.

Style vs substance

A major source of frustration of many professionals is the tragedy of the victory of style over substance. Many of us fail to get our key messages over to those that matter.

We fail to articulate our message in way that others understand:

  • Our message is too complex
  • We provide too much depth and detail
  • Our presentation skills are weak
  • We don’t connect to the concerns of our audience
  • We are blocked from communicating by others
  • The implications of our points are simplified and trivialised
  • We don’t understand the decision making process 
  • Our audience “gives up” before we get to the message

It is clear that we often need to work on our presentation skills. However, I want to make an appeal to our intended audience and those that block us from reaching them.

The key point is that we have a lot of important and sometimes critical things to say. By not hearing these messages you may be damaging your own organisations and your own careers. For this reason, it is worth hearing us out. It is worth helping us to get to the point. It is worth wading through the detail. It is worth joining the dots from our points to the key issues that you face.

Will we always have a message worth listening to? No! Should you persevere? Yes! Why? The professional mindset is generally apolitical. It is more interested in doing what is right. The underlying motivation will be sound. 

Compare this to the backstabbing cronies who have climbed the greasy pole by stamping on the backs of others. Compare this to the highly polished presentation of half truths and flawed logic aimed at gaining personal kudos rather than furthering the greater good. 

I would rather make the effort to understand the message from an inarticulate but competent person with the right motivation than try to deconstruct the motivation for giving me information of a slick politician with suspect capability.

Double glazing

J and D had a good day at the market, they shifted a lot of gear. They were successful together.

Tired with money in their pockets they packed up the stall, locked the van away and went for a drink.

The Old Duke was a quite traditional, a few dark and secluded spots away from the bar, a good selection of real ales and European lagers. The highlight was the small plates menu.

J and D sat down with some food and drink and started to relax.

Murmuring from a nearby table started to get louder, odd words started to make themselves clear above the background noise. There was some menace in the words, a sharpness, an edge, a need to create pain.

D looked over. The words stopped. Eyes were fixed on J and D. It was not comfortable. D looked away.

The group got up and walked slowly over to J and D, one of the group poked D in the arm, it was almost a punch, enough to bruise.

J said, “We’re going now”. The group said nothing.

J and D got up and pushed past the group as gently as they could.

D’s foot touched one of the group’s feet. He was shoved hard towards the door, he blundered into J. The foot’s owner quietly said, “You’ll pay for that!”

J and D started walking fast as soon as they got out of the door. They heard footsteps behind them getting louder. They started to run, the group did too.

D fell, the group were on him kicking and spitting. J turned and shouted, they stopped for a moment, D got up and ran. The group didn’t follow.

They ran home to their 19th floor flat, threw themselves down on the sofa shaking.

They didn’t say a word for 30 minutes.

J got up and said “tea?”, D nodded.

While the kettle boiled, J washed some dishes in the sink and stared out at the other blocks of flats. He didn’t really see the countryside in the distance. He did briefly notice some movement on a roof top – kids doing drugs, he thought.

A small hole appeared in the outer pane of glass, cracks radiated from it, a bullet dropped inside the double glazing.

Gateway to the Sahara

They were the only non-white family in the village. Although they all had British passports, they were foreigners in their own country. 25% of their genetics was from West Africa which meant, in an isolated country area where everyone else was pasty white, they stood out.

The locals could never remember his name. “N***r”, “s***o” and “j****e b***y” became familiar terms of endearment. The adults would never use the first two if they thought he could hear them, but he heard them. The children weren’t so careful.

He was desperate to play so he lived with it. And he played hard which meant that he gained some sort of respect. He was reasonably good at football and cricket which meant that they eventually wanted him on their side, he got picked ahead of the “fat” kid. His brother didn’t like sports, so he had a harder time.

At his school, which had around 600 children, there were only two others who “stood out”. One was in his class, he had darker skin and got most of the attention. Everyone called him “Sam”, even the teachers. Maybe they forgot his real name.

Strangely, he grew to like the term “j****e b***y”. He had grown up 100 miles south of the Sahara. The ground was mainly a thin sand coloured dust layered over hard sandy coloured ground with an occasional bush or tree. There was a small tributary of the Niger nearby which meant that every now and again the water table would be close enough to the surface to allow a few trees to grow. When the wind blew, and it did in the Harmattan season, the dust rose in the dry wind and created a haze that diffused the light and desiccated your skin. Not really like a jungle. And to be likened to a cute rabbit, well, what is bad about that?

You don’t fight if you have eaten together

This post as political!

I had dinner with friends. Unremarkable!

There were people who were born in 6 countries, spoke 12 languages, had 3 religions and none. They were aged from 12 years old to nearly sixty.

We chatted as any group of friends chat. As we chat we learn about each other’s backgrounds, food, education, cultures and beliefs. We created understanding that we will take into our workplaces and into other discussions.

I’m not going to explain because others do it better…

This transcript explains

People just feel closer to people who are eating the same food as they do.

National Public Radio

Ewan Aiken, CEO of the charity for those at risk of homelessness, writes

The Scottish philosopher John MacMurray argued that we can build peace only through deepened relationships. It is something that happens through how well we are willing to get to know those we are already close to and those we see as strangers and different. Peace is built through relationships, person by person, community by community. It cannot be built alone.

Ewan Aiken, CEO of the Cyrenians

Feast of Peace organiser Kay Johnson explains

If we can eat together we can live together.

Kay Johnson

This is a product of people being able to travel, live together, work together and learn about each other.

We are all the same, we are just people.

Clever child …

The child pointed and said “she’s a n****r”.

The child was about 3 years old sitting in a shopping trolley pushed by her mother.

The mother shushed the child harshly.

The woman that the child pointed at turned around and looked at the child.

She smiled and spoke to her kindly and with love in her eyes

“You are a clever child. I was born in Africa, in a country called Ghana. I have brown skin like many people who are born there. Ghana is a long way from here. The sun shines a lot. We wear colourful clothes with reds and greens and yellows. The sea is near where I grew up, my brothers went fishing in small boats and caught huge fish which were delicious to eat. I live here now and I am happy here because I can meet lovely children like you.”

She turned around, pushed her trolley to the counter, paid and disappeared.

Gravitas – my mother …

I failed the job interview. The recruiter told me I lacked the gravitas required to do the job.

A blank confused look came to me. What do I do with that? Where can I get gravitas? What is gravitas? I was told I will know it when I see it.

So I looked it up:

In the British education system, gravitas was seen as one of the pillars of the moral formation of the English gentleman during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. It is partly derived from the notion of aristocratic pedigree, indicating polish, grace in manner as well as dignity in outward appearance.

Wikipedia

There are other definitions:

seriousness and importance of mannercausing feelings of respect and trust in others

Cambridge Dictionary

I particularly like:

A hidden, invisible but extremely palpable, perceptible Dark Jedi Power

Urban Dictionary

I took an intense course over several weeks entitled “Gravitas” where I examined my motivations, I examined what it is to be me. It taught me a huge amount and helped me be myself at work. It also helped me leave my job when I found that being myself and working with that company with those people incentivised to act in those ways were incompatible. But I still couldn’t define gravitas in a meaningful way.

It took my mother to teach me!

I used to imagine gravitas embodied in a middle aged white man with a paunch dressed in a suit smoking a large cigar. His shirt would be starched, the suit would have chalk stripes, the shoes shiny. His face would be slightly red, his nose a bit swollen, may be he enjoys a glass or two of port. But he would command the room, his voice would boom and everyone would say “yes sir”. I remember this guy walking around my school when I was about 14.

A much better image of gravitas came to me when I saw my mother’s way with people.

Suppose you saw a group of young people, late teens and early twenties outside your house apparently eyeing up the premises opposite, running in and out quickly, possibly looking to break in or steal a vehicle. What would you do?

Would you call the police? Would you call the owner? Would you confront them and warn them off? Would you be afraid? Would you be aggressive?

My mother was 5 feet 4 inches (1.62 metres) tall, in her 70s, slightly built, wearing a head scarf. She went out and spoke to them as the grandma everyone would want. She had a chat like she was chatting to her own grandchildren. She didn’t lecture them. She was calm. She soothed them. She respected them and they respected her. She was interested in them. She charmed them and made them feel that they should be respectful. I suspect they went away feeling they had been bewitched. They had changed their actions without knowing why and without being able to control themselves. She worked her special magic.

That is gravitas.