Shiny Happy People

28 01 2010

Pretending that everyone can get what they want so long as they believe in it enough is not only nonsense but potentially damaging.

It absolves us all from tackling the injustice, inequality and unfairness that still exist in our societies.

It places the responsibility for failure entirely with the failed individual and fails to acknowledge the part others may have played in individual success.

Surely there is a debate to be had about how much individuals are responsible for creating the good life and how much is down to us all. Or as Margeret Thatcher would have had us believe, is there no such thing as society?

There is a balance to be had between, for example, providing uplifting articles about how to find time to build a businees from home while juggling the conflicting demand of business/hom,e/family and obliging us all to lobby for decent maternity/paternity leave and payments.

Please don’t misunderstand, I think that we should celebrate success, after all the3rdi magazine which I co-founded and edit, is full of inspirational stories from magnificent women, but my concerns are threefold

1) that because obstacles have been overcome by one individual in order to achieve success we as a society are tacitly given permission to ignore the persistence and even the very existence of those obstacles. For example a black man is now president of the United States of America and rather than this being an opportunity to look more closely at the obstacles that have kept black people away from high office for so long it has allowed America to continue to turn a blind eye to inequality…if Obama can do it any black man can and, more worryingly, anyone who can’t must be stupid or lazy or both. In this way predudice is reinforced.

And as President Obama, the YES WE CAN president is himself finding out, at least in Minn??, No you can’t or at least not all of the time.

2) We undervalue the success for real stars. If all that is needed to succeed is to offer up your desires to the universe and the universe will deliver the positive attributes also needed to succeed, such as hard work and perseverance are undermined.

At the risk of offending the hundreds of self-styled patriots that have sprung up recently, our soldiers are not all heroes. Most of them are just young men whose job it is to be part of the army. Some of them behave appallingly and there are many cases of torture by British troops of the citizens of Iraq under investigation. Most do the job that they are paid for without incident and some do something heroic. They undertake an act of selfless bravery above that which is required or expected as part of that job. To call all soldiers heroes is inaccurate but worse it undervalues the actions of the real heroes amongst them.

3) It assigns those in society who are not at the very top, who are not shiny, happy people to the eternal role as second class citizens and makes it their own fault. Surely this cannot be right.

And so much of the tyranny of the positive soundbite socity is that it smacks of the celebrity obsession that pervades our whole society. I dream a dream is all well and good and it is fantastic to see the success of Susan Brown, but it also spawns Jedward, where fame and fortune are entirely uncoupled from talent.

Neither am I advocating a Victor Meldrew style pessimism and curmudgeonism that holds sway in a some parts of British society. What I am proposing is a return to reason.

A positive attitude may be a better starting point from which to change your life for the better than determined defeatism but it should not be used as an excuse not to tackle the basic inequalities that do still exist in our society.

You cannot reverse the effects of climate change, for example, simply by thinking positively about the problem. A positive attitude may allow you to believe that it is worth the effort of trying to make a difference but it is the action that we take that will actually make the difference.

And finally, it is all relative. I might look at any of the fine yachts in Inverkip harbour and think that it is big. Roman Abramovich would look at the same yacht and, in all likelihood, think it small. It is only when we get out a tape measure and see just how big it is that the yacht is removed from the subjective to the actual. We have restored some reason. And it is only when we look at the job we need that yacht to do, sail the high seas or manoeuvre through the twist and turns of the Crinan Canal that the value of each yacht is revealed!

The Tyranny of Twitter

20 01 2010

Pretty much my first ever blog was entitle Twitter Ye Not.  At that time I was unpersuaded that I needed to know what everyone in the world had for breakfast or where they were off to for lunch.

In the months that have passed I have been forced to reconsider my stance as having a presence on social media sites such as twitter and facebook is, I am assured by people who are paid to know these things, essential to the growth of my business.

So I now have a twitter acoount, which I am probably contractually obliged to ask you to follow at, and have been shocked/amazed/horrified to discover how enslaving it is. There is a constant, nagging need to check for tweets. It is becoming increasingly difficult to control the urge to check to see if anything has changed since I last looked.  And it is not just me.  My bedroom is below that of my son and most nights I drift off to sleep to the electronic bleep of new messages arriving into his laptop from MSN.

And with social media being used more and more as a tool to promote businesses, the boundaries between work and home are becoming increasingly blurred. It was bad enough in the days when the pager made it possible to be called into work at the weekend but now the mobile phone means many of us are on call 24/7 and the laptop means that our work is always with us.

Technology, as presented in the old BBC programme Tomorrow’s World, was going to make our lives better. But has it?

Certainly it is hard to argue against labour saving devices such as the automatic washing machine over the washtub and mangle but are we endangering the quality of life by ceding so much control of our lives to technology.  Well, people today experience more depression than previous generations and there is a wealth of papers to suggest that people who place value on material goals are unhappier than those that don’t and that lack of a clear division between our home and work environments damage our personal relationships.

Here’s a personal observation. When I was a youngster I would head off in the morning and play out all day, just round and about with friends, maybe coming home for lunch, maybe not. As long as we were home before it got dark my mum didn’t worry. It’s not that she didn’t care but knowing that we were out playing, that we would stay close-ish to home, were pretty sensible and that we’d come home when we were hungry, was enough information. My son, in common with the vast majority of teenagers,  has a mobile phone and we can keep in touch whenever he is away from the house. This should make us modern mums feel more  secure about the safety of our children, knowing that they can get in touch if there is a problem. In fact it has made most of us feel less secure as because they can keep in touch we think that they should and we feel compelled to check for messages all of the time. We feel less secure as we have less control.

It is my belief that, if we are going to take control of our lives we need to take control of the technology we need to think more clinically about what we need to know.

We are available via laptop, phone and via TV 24/7. Most of us will not be able to change that basic situation but it is essential for our mental health that we become better at responding to the valuable and dismissing the useless rather than reacting to each stimulus that the technology sends us as if everything had equal merit.

While I have been writing this I have received 5 new e-mails and 2 linkedin messages. There were 54 additions to my facebook live feed and 78 tweets.

It is up to me what I do with all that information.

Mind The Gap

13 01 2010

Think of all of the people that you know, or know of.

Visualise a scale from 1 to 10 and give the person you admire the most a 10.

Now score yourself. Less than 10? Am I right?

Pretty much everyone has this gap between how they see themselves and how they would like to be and most of us work to close that gap. But no matter how hard we try to close it the gap persists as our ambitions alter,  our aspirations shift  and our circumstances change.

So, how realistic is it to think that the gap can ever be closed completely?

Completely unrealistic in my opinion, so does this mean that we shouldn’t try to close the gap?

Absolutely not, as the gap between where/who we are and where/who we would like to be is what keeps us motivated to try new things….it keeps us moving forward with our lives.

And here’s the thing.  While the goal is important it is not as important as the journey.  Ursula K LeGuin put it beautifully when she said “it is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters in the end”.

This is a way of thinking that I find particularly helpful in my yoga practice and a lesson that I take into my life.  Here’s an example I used to give my yoga students to help them understand the difference between the destination and the journey.  If you decide that you are going to walk to the park you set out, head down, brisk strides and sometime later you get to the park. That’s fine. If you decide to go out for a walk then you enjoy the walk, you experience the walk, feeling the sun, the breeze, smelling the air, hearing the sounds of the birds or the traffic. Some time later you may find yourself in the park. The end point is the same but experience will have been completely different.

Whatever your goals, whatever your destination, however big the gap is between where you are and where you want to be, make sure that you experience the journey.

Be careful what you wish for

11 01 2010

My grandfather was a railwayman on the Liverpool Docks.  He worked from being 14 to a very short retirement as death came quickly brought about by years of hard labour and inhalation of all manner of industrial pollutants.

He could see that those better educated than him had an easier time, working in offices out of the cold and rain and away from the banks of the Mersey. So he made sure that his children studied hard so that they would not have to do the “ignorant” work required of him.

My father left school and went to work, as my grandfather hoped, in a white-collar job as an industrial chemist. He was very good at his job and a very able manager. He worked his way up through supervisory and junior management posts and was in charge of the whole factory by his mid-twenties. He became a hugely successful businessman, with several directorships and was able to take a planned, very comfortable, early retirement aged just 53.  Twenty years later he and my mum are still enjoying that comfortable retirement.

However, throughout his career he could see that people with degrees were able to miss out the first few steps of the ladder, coming straight into business at management level. While he valued the experience he had gained by working up from the bottom he, like his father before him,  wanted his children to have things easier than he’d had.

So I studied, got great exam results, a fantastic degree and started work a couple of steps up the ladder. While I worked I took an MBA and further qualifications along the way but I soon realised that now everyone had degrees.  I was on the board of an international pharmaceutical company by the time I was 29 but decided that the way to make real progress was to work for myself. And this is what I have done, from running an advertising agency to writing a novel, from selling paintings and sculptures to running an internet retail company. My success has come from being prepared to try something new and not from my long list of qualifications.

So why am I telling you this?

I think it is only natural, as I have shown in my own potted family history, to want better for your children. So naturally, this is what I wanted for my son; that he would have the self-confidence to make his own decisions and to chose his own path. He is intelligent, personable, artistic, articulate and charming. As he has been growing up he has done his homework but I haven’t pushed him to study.  After all, I don’t think his future success or otherwise will be built upon exam results, do I?

So now most of my friends are preparing to send their children off to University. Their kids have hundreds of standard grades and highers and higher stills. I don’t think it will make any difference to the future careers of all but the lawyers and doctors amongst them but, and it’s a big but, their kids will be settled in a college and no reason for their parents to worry about their futures for at least 4 years!

The downside of having an adventurous child, who isn’t likely to take the road well travelled, is that while he is comfortable with the uncertainty I,  suddenly, am not. How much easier it must be for parents who have a child who knows that they want to be a teacher in their home town school!

So, while it is impossible not to let your own experiences and beliefs influence the way you bring up your children, and while I wouldn’t change a single moment …be careful what you wish for as it might just come true …..and it will bring it’s own, unexpected, consequences.

Do what you say you will do.

6 01 2010

When Phil and I set up the3rdi magazine we were keen that the business was built on ethical foundations.

We are committed to giving 10% of subscription and advertising revenue to charity. We feature champions in this area of business alongside entrepreneurs and millionaires.

We feature regular input from businesses who in large and small ways are trying to have a positive global impact.

This is very important. That the business looks at the big picture and makes a firm statement as to it’s ethical position.

But what of the day to day operation of a business?

According to wikipedia, business ethics is a form of applied ethics that examines ethical principles and moral or ethical problems that arise in a business environment. It applies to all aspects of business conduct and is relevant to the conduct of individuals and business organizations as a whole.

The key thing in the definition, I think, is that business ethics “applies to all aspects of business conduct.”

While I think that it is important that every business re-visits its vision and mission statements regularly this is not why have I been thinking particularly about business ethics right now.

Over the past few weeks I have been looking around, using my networks and social-networks, to find companies able and willing to help with various aspects of our business growth. Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, as well as providing great ways to keep in contact with friends and with what’s going on in the world, are great places to promote a business, so I’m told.

And on the face of it that is true. The world of social media is crammed full of companies and individuals promising that they can do anything…and do most of that for nothing.

However my experience is, in the words of the Bard of Avon, “ all that glisters is not gold “ and that those that promise most deliver least.

I have been amazed at the number of broken promises. Quotations that don’t arrive and those that do are late and even those are little more than standard sentences cut from a bland list of options and pasted together to look like a personalised quotation.

And the lack of urgency is mind boggling. We are supposed to be in a recession yet the phrase…”I’ll get that to you by the end of the week” is starting to haunt me. Unless it is a Thursday, in which case the end of the week is fine, what is wrong with “I’ll have that to you by the end of the day” or “I’ll have that to you by tomorrow”.

And when the quotation finally arrives…….nothing! No follow up call. Nothing.

Now, I know that this could be parcelled up as poor business practice rather than poor business ethics but my point is that these things are the same. Poor business practice is poor business conduct.

Good business ethics are not something that should be written in the mission statement and then forgotten about. It is something that should be an integral part of the day to day operation of the business.

In a nutshell if you promise to deliver then you had better deliver. If you post on every social network that you are “the best” then you had better be prepared to be the best, or at least to TRY to be the best.

Good business ethics is simply doing what you say you will do.

Women and Body Image 2010

4 01 2010

Until starting the third magazine some six months ago I wasn’t a great reader of women’s magazines. I might thumb through a copy of Cosmopolitan in the dentists waiting room or Hello at the hairdressers but that was about it.

Over the last few months, unsurprisingly, I have spent a lot of time looking at women’s magazines and websites and have become increasingly struck by the uniformity of the women as presented in the press, film, tv and video. The overriding image is of a white, slim, beautiful, young woman with perfect teeth but vacuous smile. And the image is virtually always overtly sexual.

This is the image that we are portraying to young people – young girls in particular – as being “ideal”. In order to be a success, to be famous, to be a celebrity, this is how you have to look and behave.

The sexualisation is a real problem. More and more clothes for young girls, children not just teenagers, are small versions of adult clothes. You can buy bras for pre-pubescent girls. Tots look like teens and teens look like WAGs. It was not so long ago that children of the working classes had to go out to work to support their families. With changes in society over the past 150 years this is no longer the case but we seem prepared to rob our children of their childhood in a different way, by encouraging them to look grown up too soon.

The body is thin, but not athletic. The body shape is achieved by not doing (not eating) rather than by doing (competing in a sport).

The rise of eating disorders can surely not be unrelated to the body image presented as desirable but with the concomitant rise in childhood obesity, this complex debate will wait for another day. We see very few sportswomen presented as role models and those that develop an athletic physique can be subjected to a whispering campaign, or worse, about their sexuality. Look at the disgraceful way that the case of South African athlete Caster Semenya was handled at the World Athletic Championship.

And it is not just body image that is a uniformly presented in the media. Women are still presented in the media, particularly in advertisements, as superwoman….juggling shopping, husband, kids, cleaning, and hundreds of other tasks. While we have moved on from having to have the house spotless, dinner on the table and a gin and tonic ready for our man walking through the door… OXO mum is alive and well and serving hearty stews to her family some 50 years after she first hit our TV screens..

How many women do you know that look like the women on the front cover of Cosmopolitan? How many women do you know that go to A list parties on the arm of a film star every night? How many women are in the house, car and 2.4 kids perfect family? Judging by the way we are presented we all should know people like that as surely we are all like that?

But we are all, if not guilty, than compliant! I had to get new photographs taken for use in the magazine as the one I had used from launch was a few years old and not great quality. I agonised over which photograph to use so that I didn’t look old. STOP PRESS. I am old, or as Kath Temple put perfectly in last months issue of the magazine, I am in my “wisdom years”. But we all do it, don’t we?

One of the principles of the3rdi magazine is to be inclusive. We ALL have a story to tell. Those of us already successful can inspire and mentor the next generation of female entrepreneurs. Those of us doing a job we love, irrespective of fame and fortune can share their stories here. We are different colours, shapes and sizes with different skills and talents and different targets and dreams. Isn’t it time we took more control over the way we are portrayed in the wider media so that the young women coming up behind us wont be having this same debate in another 50 years time.