There’s always a bigger boat

31 07 2013

It is a truth universally held that money doesn’t buy happiness but lots of people are making lots of money by persuading the unhappy to part with their cash in the pursuit of happiness. There are, so I’m told, more councillors in the UK than there are GP’s and with the creeping privatisation of the NHS the imbalance isn’t likely to get any less profound anytime soon. And life-coaches outnumber all other mammals on the planet by 3:1.

OK, I made that last bit up but there are thousands of them as everyone who isn’t a life-coach, and most of those who are, is searching for happiness. And they want it quickly. How about, “Change your Life in 7 days”, one of a myriad of similarly named self-help books, this one from ex-TV personality Paul McKenna.

At least the books are cheap, a day course with a self-styled life-coach can, and often does, cost hundreds of pounds.  And who are these life-changers? The field is unregulated and includes those with no qualifications. But what qualification would be appropriate for someone who claims to coach you to happiness in a week? Does anyone really believe that they can change another persons life in a course lasting a day, a weekend, a week?

I mean REALLY change that person’s life in a real and permanent way? Not just that sugar-rush of having spent time in a room with someone telling you how wonderful you are and how much you deserve to be happy.

If such instant transformation was tangible and lasting then why do so many people go back for a second course, and a third and so on? And why do coaches boast of their regular clients? Surely if the life-coach could do what they claim to do then they would only ever have one-off clients.

It’s like chiropractor. You go along with a problem, they snap something back into place, you feel better – for a while. But since they have treated the symptoms rather than the cause you’ll be back again a few weeks later. I have a friend who has a bad back and swears blind that her chiropractor is fabulous. She is happy to go along every few weeks to be fixed, at great expense, and happily ignores the fact that very soon after she is broken again.

I don’t doubt that some people, maybe lots of people, are unhappy but is sitting in a smart hotel room with other people who can afford the almost £300 these courses typically cost the right way to find happiness.  I don’t think so.

So what makes people happy? Nobel prizewinner Danial Kahneman showed in his research that we are actually pretty bad at predicting what will make us happy.  Certain things, like being poor, do make you miserable but finding things guaranteed to bring happiness is not as clear-cut.  We adapt to pleasure and will choose things that give us a short feel-good burst: chocolate, buying things, spending a day in a room with a life coach.  But the feeling of happiness quickly wears off. It’s a sugar rush.

So how about this for an idea? And you can have it for free – though it’s OK for you to send £300 if that makes you feel better, after all we are talking about happiness here – caring about other people makes you happier.

To rephrase, to make sure you are getting your moneys worth as you are not getting this message in the comfort of some expensive hotel room from the lips of an expensive presenter and so might doubt its veracity, stop trying to find something to fix inside yourself and look outwards.

One thing that research has shown is that we judge our lives against other people. I remember being in Monte Carlo when I was much younger and more easily impressed by stuff than I am now. There was always a bigger boat. That is, all the boats lined up in the harbour were massive and would have dwarfed those in any other marina in the world. Here these boats were all ranged next to each other and were much less impressive because of it.  And none of the boat owners seemed happy. While their yacht may have turned heads in their home marina here they had just another boat.

So, knowing that we judge ourselves in comparison to others, stop pottering round in your middle-class world feeling that life isn’t as good as it could be, that you are not as happy as you should be, and visit a soup kitchen. You will feel better to have helped someone else and you will have saved £300.

And the biggest impact on happiness is having good relationships, good friends. So rather than spending £300 to sit in a room full of dissatisfied strangers deepen the relationships you have with your friends. Use the money you just saved on a mini-break to the seaside with your pals.

And if you ever feel the need of a life-coach go for a coffee with a mate and send me the remaining £297. I’ll donate it to a really good cause. You’ll feel better, your pal will feel better, I’ll feel better, the good cause will feel better. The only person not feeling so good is the life-coach who has just missed out on £300. But if the life-coach is as good as they say, they can fix themselves.

What if the voters say No?

19 07 2013

In about 14 months time I’ll be able to vote on whether or not I want the Scottish Parliament to separate from the English Parliament. I won’t be just me, of course, millions of Scots will have the same chance. If you are in England you won’t get that opportunity. It’s not like a marriage where both sides goes to relationship counselling and together decide on a separation. It’s more like us in Scotland deciding whether to leave you or not.

I might vote yes, as I tend to feel that decisions should be taken as close as possible to the people who are affected by those decisions. I might vote no if I can be persuaded that the Scottish economy wouldn’t be sufficiently robust on its own. If I see many more comments on facebook like this one,”The majority of the yes bunch are morons that don’t have a clue. Majority are a bunch of racist muppets that don’t want to be associated with England”, I might just move to Canada.

I’m English, so it feels a bit odd to be voting on the future of Scotland. But since I have lived here for the past 25 years and have a Scottish son and intend to live out my days here, moving to Canada notwithstanding, it is actually a vote about my future and the way in which I wish to be governed and not about nationality.

One of the things that has emerged, particularly from those who don’t want independence for Scotland, is the feeling that October 2014 will look just the same for Scotland as August 2014.  It won’t. Nothing will stay the same, whether the vote is yes or no.  The very fact of holding the referendum is like beating egg whites. They are still egg whites at the end of the beating but they look a whole lot different. Scotland will still be Scotland but it will be a whole lot different.

In some ways considering the landscape is easier after a yes vote. All powers will be transferred to the Scottish Parliament. There will be discussions to be made, on Trident and the Pound amongst others, and agreements to be signed, but government will be from Holyrood and power will rest in Edinburgh.

But what if the vote is no. It will not mean carrying on with things in just the same way as we do now. Further powers will, in all likelihood, be devolved to the Scottish Parliament and Scottish MPs will still be elected to seats in the Westminster Parliament. Earlier this year the McKay Committee report concluded that MPs from Scottish constituencies should not be allowed to vote in Westminster Parliament on issues that affect only England and Wales. For example, Scottish MPs should not be allowed to vote on matters affecting English Schools as the education systems are separate, and control over education in Scotland is already in powers devolved to Holyrood. This change would be supported by over 80% of English voters so it will be hard for the coalition, or any future Westminster Government to refuse it in the long-term.

On the face of it, fair enough, since English MPs cannot vote in Holyrood and, therefore, cannot have a say in how Scottish Schools are run why should Scottish MPs have an influence in matters concerning the English education system? But how will this change be handled and what effect will it have? The coalition is suggesting that any Bill that affects only England and Wales will have an extra reading. All MPs will be able to engage in the first three stages but in the final vote Scottish MPs will be excluded.

Again, this seems reasonable and fair at first glance but it will have the effect of creating two different types of MP. Since Scottish MPs would not have the right to vote on all Bills passing through Westminster they would become a second-class member and, since they would be unable to vote on all key issues, it would be unlikely that they could sit at the political top table, the Cabinet. And it also raises the question of who decides which pieces of legislation have impact in England only? Not every issue will be as clear-cut as education or the NHS.

And what about the Labour Party. It relies on the large number of Scottish Labour members that are returned to Westminster to form a majority government. It may very well be that Ed Milliband or his successor could become Prime Minister and have a majority of Labour members of parliament. But if the Scottish members were, in effect, non-voting members any changes he wanted to make could be blocked by English MPs. For example, imagine the Labour Party is elected with a decent majority in the house of some 40 MPs. Now imagine that they want to bring forward a Bill to reverse some of the education measures introduced by Michael Gove. Taken that in a majority Labour government there are likely to be over 50 Scottish MPs, none voting MPs when it comes to education issues, the overall majority of 40 is actually a working majority of -10. Labour will find its English legislation impossible to pass.

When I visit my parents in Cheshire they happily express the opinion, mainly as it is repeated endlessly in the Daily Mail, that England pays too much towards the upkeep of Scotland. My mum firmly believes that her taxes paid in England pay for my free prescriptions in Scotland. When they came up from England to meet me in Edinburgh at the end of a charity walk I completed there it was fun to point out on our way back to my home in Crieff that, thanks to her taxes, there is no longer a toll on the Forth Road Bridge.  Setting aside the vexed question of whether this is true or not, these perceptions mean that English voters are already tending towards the view that Scottish spending should come solely from taxes raised in Scotland.  But it is unlikely that it will go this far, rather that some sort of formula will remain in place to allocate monies to Scotland based upon UK Treasury spend. So the amount that the UK treasury decides to spend will still have an impact in Scotland.

I read a good explanation of how this works and it goes something like this; lets pretend that Holyrood is responsible for just three things and  treasury decides to cut funding for all three of these areas in England by 10%. In this instance the block grant to Scotland for provision of these services will be cut by 10%. If the treasury decides to cut just one of the areas by 10%, leaving the others unaltered, the block grant falls by 3.3%.  In each case it is up to the Holyrood parliament then decides whether to cut the service by an amount equal to the reduction in the block grant or to spread the deficit across the services or to make up the shortfall from elsewhere. This is the way the devolved administration works under a block grant system. The point here though is to see that decisions made in Westminster do affect services in Scotland. To put names to services, imagine they are NHS, education and policing. All devolved services. The treasury will put forward proposals for spending in these areas for England. Westminster MPs will debate the issue but Scottish MPs will be unable to vote as they are English matters. But these English matters do affect Scotland in terms of the allocation of block grant. Do you see the problem here? The relationship between England and Scotland will change from one where we pool our resources then ALL MPs decide how the spending is allocated to one where only English MPs decide on these key issues.

And surely it wouldn’t be too long before the parliament in Westminster started to wonder just what use these second-class Scottish MPs really were? Westminster will be acting as an English Parliament with Scotland having representation but no voting rights.  Perhaps at that point England would be looking to sever relations?

The situation post referendum will not be as it is now, in Scotland or in England. There is a lot of talk about what Scotland might look like after a Yes vote but the debate needs to widen so that there is a better understanding of how the political and constitutional landscape will change should the voters say No.

All in it together?

17 07 2013

So, how’s the coalition’s austerity programme working out for you then?

Chances are, if you are a woman, that the answer is ‘not well’.
Women have been hit hardest by the austerity measures that have been introduced as a response to the meltdown of our financial institutions and subsequent recession.

Women are most disadvantaged by the continued withdrawal of public services, including fewer refuges and refuge places and reductions in support services.

Changes to benefits and tax credits cost women more than twice as much as they cost men, widening the gap between men and women’s income and pushing more women into poverty

Women in low paid jobs and lone-parents, on the whole lone parents are single mums not single dads, bear the brunt of the government’s welfare reforms. Cuts to childcare and reduction of help with childcare costs may push women out of the labour market while cuts to adult social care will increase the burden on unpaid carers. As with lone parents, these unpaid carers are mainly women.

And, like the poor, some things are always with us. Like the persistance of the gender pay gap. In Scotland it is 14% for full-time workers while women in part-time work will be paid a massive 35% less than men.

Women’s jobs have been lost in increasing numbers, primarily as the public sector continues to shrink. Data published by the Local Government Association earlier this month showed that the number of women working in the sector had fallen by 253,600 to 1.43m, while the number of men in local government has fallen by 104,700 to 452,300. Here in Scotland the level of female unemployment is the highest it has been in 24 years. While there may be early signs that growth is returning to some sectors of the economy the jobs lost in the public sector, largely women’s jobs, are likely gone forever.

The shrinking of the public sector is a double whammy for women as it impacts women as workers, and women as service users.

Let’s take as an example the issue of domestic violence, where services for women facing violence are under threat

  • The police and crown prosecution service are both facing budget cuts which may reduce the support available to victims and survivors.
  • Cuts in the police service may lead to even fewer successful investigations and prosecutions
  • The NHS is facing budget cuts which may reduce the level of support available to victims of violence, with more on-going mental, physical and sexual health problems for women
  • Cuts to legal aid reduce the ability of women suffering violence to get the legal help and support they need. Almost two thirds of all legal aid claims are made by women.
  • Cuts to housing benefit make it harder for some women to move area to get away from their attacker, leaving more women trapped in violent relationships

And women are not benefitting fro job creation measures. The proportion of unemployed men is down by 0.5% to 8.2% while the number of women without employment has risen by 0.4% to 7.3% since the coalition government came to power in 2010.

In so many ways the hard won gains for women’s equality are in danger of unravelling. We can argue about the causes of the current economic climate; bankers, hedge funds, reckless lending, but whatever the cause one thing is certain. Women did not cause this crisis but we are paying a disproportionately high price.

Rushing to judgement

16 07 2013

I meditate, generally using my breath as a guide but sometimes using the metta bhavana, or loving-kindness meditation. This is a buddhist meditation where the mind is not cleared but encouraged into kindness, peace and loving thoughts directed first towards self, then to someone close, then to someone you feel neutral about and finally directed towards someone you find challenging. It is a beautiful meditation which I find does work in engendering feelings of loving kindness towards myself and others.

The relevance here is that I find it really hard to find someone who I feel neutral about. When learning this meditation my teacher suggested bringing to mind someone who you knew of but who you didn’t really know. Perhaps someone who had served you in a shop or the postman. But it is hard to visualise a person without invoking the feelings that you have about that person, even if it was just a brief encounter. My postman is always cheery despite being barked at by my dog from the other side of the door virtually every morning, while the guy in the post office is a grumpy old devil despite the fact that I always smile at him.

I don’t know either of these people but I have made a judgement,of sorts, from scant knowledge.

My father, then a director of a multinational was, once a year, involved with the university milk round. He interviewed the brightest and best for the wide range of management training opportunities offered by his conglomerate. He is retired now and the multinational he worked for long since split into its many component parts so I feel safe in making this disclosure. There were many traits that would guarantee a students failure at interview even before they spoke.

For example, wearing slip on shoes meant that you were lazy. If you couldn’t be bothered to tie your own shoelaces then you were very unlikely to be inclined to put yourself out for the company. The same went for beards, wearers being clearly too lazy to shave. A coloured shirt with white collar, popular in the 80’s and making something of a comeback at the moment, was a clear indication of being flash, and therefore not to be trusted. And red ties? No real reason but these, and braces incidentally, each condemned the wearer to the fate of receiving the thanks-but-no-thanks letter a couple of days after the interview.

It used to horrify me that such banal physical things could, in my Dad’s mind, be indicators of moral failings and I was appalled that he would rush to judgement in that way. But my metta bhavana experience shows that I do it too, probably we all do…which is why I have a tattoo.

I don’t like tattoos. I never have. They are a sure-fire indicator that the wearer is ignorant, ill-educated and part of society’s underclass.  This is my gut reaction to seeing someone with a tatoo, my rush to judgement. My own tattoo, therefore, is a challenge to myself not to make instant decisions about others. To try to see beyond the first impression and to try to understand what has led people to make the decisions that they have and to lead the lives that they do.

So, the young man sitting opposite me on the train as I write this, wearing his bright white Nike track suit and talking too loudly on his phone is probably charming if you got to know him and kind to his Mum – probably!

Change the system not the women

16 07 2013

“For a woman to get half as much credit as a man she has to work twice as hard and be twice as smart. Fortunately this isn’t difficult.”

We’ll have all heard that saying, and probably most women had a smug smile or snigger of recognition when they first heard it.

Many successful women have even been heard to use it to imply that they must be much better than their male colleagues to be in a similar position of power and influence.

But put the quotation another way, that if a woman and a man are equally smart and work equally hard then the man will enjoy four times the success, it isn’t quite so funny.

And here is a problem with the hero entrepreneur, or the “shero”, a term that is gaining currency amongst this type of entrepreneur; it encourages us to focus on what women need to do and how they need to be to succeed in the current system when what we should be doing is focussing on structural inequalities. Focussing on women who have achieved great things fortifies the illusion that all women could succeed if only they tried harder, stayed later in the office, were more confident.

Last year I was on a discussion panel which followed a presentation of the book, “Beyond The Boys Club” by it’s author. I had agreed to sit on the panel as the meeting was to discuss the vexed question of increasing the numbers of women on corporate boards. I have to confess that I only read the book on the day of the event or I probably would have declined the invitation. That said, the panel debate was excellent but the book itself promulgates the very worst aspects of the current system. It perports to teaching women how to beat the men at their own game when we should be changing the game. The rules of this particular game, enforced by the boys club, led to the near total collapse of the western economy. We need new rules not just a different gender to play the same game.  Maybe we even need a different game altogether.

There is a parallel here with the very worthwhile aim of keeping women safe. It focusses on how to dress, where it is safe to go and places to avoid, times to be on the streets and times to be tucked up in bed.I would hope that the vast majority of people would want women to be unharmed but my point is that we need to focus on creating safe societies, making structural changes,  not just keeping women safe by restricting freedoms. Far better to teach men not to rape than to teach women how to avoid being raped.

We all want to believe that we are living in a fair world, one in which everyone is able to succeed solely on their own merits but we are not.

When women like Sheryl Sandberg stand up and talk about how women can achieve the kind of success she has had she enjoyed she is not addressing all women. She is talking to the very few women who can chose where, and for how long, they work each day. Most women, indeed most men, do not have this luxury. Her experience, as shared in talks and now in her book, may help with tricks and tips to succeed and may smooth the path of a very, very small number of women who wish to follow in her footsteps. But hers is a particular, priveledged journey that very few women, or men, are able to take.

By encouraging the, “if she can do it then I can do it” attitude we fail to address the deficiencies of the system.  Accepting that because one person can do something must somehow demonstrate that the system is OK is wrong.

We are not living in a fair world. Helping a few more women, or men, to struggle to the top of mountain is not the answer. Doing something to change the landscape is.

Learning by doing, by failing and by teaching

5 07 2013

They say that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

I sincerely hope that is not the case as my dog Lola is the same, equivalent, age as I am and I’m currently trying to teach her not to cry outside my bedroom door at 6:30 each morning. By training here I really mean yelling, “Go back to your bed!” but it seems to be working. And if Lola can still learn then so can we all.

1. We are all learning all of the time
We tend to think of life-long learning as being all about courses, classrooms and certificates when in fact we are all learning new things every day. For example, this morning while walking Lola I collected some seeds from the path. I brought them home and identified them and I now know the difference between sycamore and field maple seeds. And later today I’m going to make a batch of elderflower wine. Of course it will be several months before I know whether I am any good at it and I will probably never be an expert wine-maker but I will have learned something new today.

2. Learning by doing
We tend to think that we have to learn from others, maybe from books or in a classroom yet the most profound learning experiences can come from just giving things a go. I ran a fantastically successful internet retail business for some 10 years. We started to sell on-line in 1996 so for the first few years we were absolutely at the forefront of this new technology. We had to write our own software to build our own on-line store, create our own secure interface to take on-line payments, write our own affiliates software, create our own on-line mailing lists and more. None of the off the shelf or plug in systems like Paypal or WordPress existed. We had to learn as we went along. We’d try something and if it worked we’d do more of the same. If we tried something and it didn’t work we would try something else. It was incredibly exciting and an amazing learning experience.

3. Learning from mistakes
And at the end of the business, when things had started to go less well, the biggest lessons were learned.

Many years ago, in the early 1990′s, when I was involved in technology transfer I was struck by the contrast between the attitudes of UK and US venture capitalists. In the UK if an entrepreneur had a business failure on their c.v. there was virtually no chance of that person getting funding for a new venture. In the US investors were more likely to fund a start up business where the entrepreneur had been in business before, even if that business had failed. The thinking was that the entrepreneur would have learned from previous mistakes and would be much less likely to fail a second time.

We all make mistakes, particularly when we are trying to learn new things. Whoever learned to ride a bike without falling off at least once? The key is to learn from each fall so that you don’t fall again, or at least don’t fall so far!

And I’m reminded of Justin Rose in his speech on winning the US Open Golf a couple of weeks ago. He said that golf was a game where you loose week in and week out. You learn to win by loosing all the time!

4. Learning by teaching
The best way to learn is to teach.
Around the turn of the century I was doing a lot of yoga and wanted to learn more and to improve my practice. So I took a teacher training course. By learning more about the postures and philosophy in order to teach others I was teaching myself too. And standing up in front of a class explaining why things are done in the way in which they are done is the very best way of grounding the knowledge in yourself.

And I know more mathematics now than I did when I was a teenager, mainly by virtue of helping my son with his maths homework!

Even if formal teaching isn’t for you, share your knowledge. By talking to others about the things you know you will be helping them and embedding your learning yourself. It will improve your confidence too. You’ll surprise yourself with just how much you do know when you are prepared to share that learning, skill or experience with others.

Food as Currency

4 07 2013

How do the wealthy make sure that we know they are wealthy?

I am one of Thatcher’s children and when I first started work it was perfectly acceptable to brag about your salary and, since I was in sales, the size of your bonus. In those days I earned more than I earn now and IO could double my salary in bonus and it was OK for me to broadcast that then, though it makes me feel a little uncomfortable to write it now. Harry Enfield’s character loadsamoney lampooned this attitude but at the time it was not uncommon for people to behave like that.

Next came cars. It was acceptable to brag about the model, size and specification of the car and if you had one for work and a soft-top for the weekend, as I did, then all the better. To my shame I once took a job that I didn’t really want because it came with a brand new Astra GTE though, in my defence, I was only 24 at the time.

And then came clothes, well labels really. The style of the dress, the cut, the colour were less important than where you had bought it and who had designed it. Sunglasses, handbags, luggage and shoes went from simple accessories to branded essentials. An a-list celebrity may appear to avoiding the limelight but when the sunglasses are Gucci or Oakley a load statement is still being made. You don’t need to shout about your wealth when your shoes will do it for you.

But we are now in an age of austerity. It is no longer acceptable to wave wads of fivers around, driving a sports car is frowned on in an ecologically sensitive world and designer labels are becoming a bit brash rather than chic.

So how can the wealthy show us they are wealthy? They tell us what they are eating.

Let me explain. More and more people are uploading picture of their dinners to social media sites and/or telling everyone what they are eating and where they are eating it. For example, “just off to my beautiful kitchen to cook my famous Béarnaise sauce as I bought a fabulous piece of salmon from Waitrose this morning”. Decoded: I live in a big house. I have time to cook béarnaise sauce. I can afford salmon and I can afford to shop at Waitrose.

Try this one. “Had a wonderful meal at Crieff Castle last night. The sweets were to die for. The chef, Jason, is a genius” Translated: I can afford to eat at a fancy restaurant mid-week. I wasn’t eating off the cheap menu as I had a desert. I eat here so often that I call the chef by his first name.

Or during the day, ” Meeting Marge in the Festival Bistro. Shall I have the Asparagus soup or shall I skip the starter and save room for the fabulous bread and butter pudding.” Translated: I can afford to eat out at a fancy restaurant at lunchtime. My friends are rich too.

Is it clear now?

Telling us about food is the latest way that the wealthy have of parading their wealth without waving wads of cash in front of their iphone cameras.

Well, that’s my theory. I might be completely wrong, it has been known. It may well be that everyone but me is just hanging around the internet just waiting to see what everyone else has had for their tea. To assuage their curiosity, I have just had a round of toast with peanut butter and jam.

Thank you