Monthly Archive: May 2012

Culture clashes: no wonder we struggle to get along

On the tube this morning I sat opposite Suleman, a young moslem dressed head to toe in white who smiled, said hello and with whom I exchanged a few words. Nice guy, on first impressions.

Two stops later, a girl got on. Very short skirt. Stars and stripes t-shirt. Superficially, the polar opposite to him. Thoroughly western to his Middle Eastern; thoroughly modern to his traditionalist. She sat next to him and popped the top of her espresso, filling the carriage with the indescribably lovely aroma of coffee, unmistakeably an artificial stimulant.

They ignored each other, but they kind of didn’t. She tugged at her skirt to try and cover an extra quarter inch of leg and he began to recite the Koran, gently and quietly, but audibly. Two stops later she left the carriage and reboarded the train further down. He continued to recite for the next 20 minutes.

Either way, the clash of cultures was avoided.

Except interestingly, it wasn’t just the one you might think of.

As an average guy in a business suit I am exactly as acceptable as I am unacceptable to each of them. But he’s the one who made eye contact and said hello. She treated me, as all pretty girls in London do to strange men in public places, as if I didn’t exist. The clash of cultures is as much between she and I as it is between the two of them.

I get it. I see her point of view. She’s not looking for advances and men are prone to misread signals when a pretty girl smiles at them and asks where they’re off to today, the way Suleman did.

But the most memorable part of an otherwise superficially interesting experience was when I stood up to leave and smiled at Suleman again. wishing him a good day, and he thanked me for taking the time and making the effort to smile at him.

Neither of them expect respect. He’s always primed for suspicion, fear or intolerance of one or other sort. She’s always primed for guys who think they’re players and have at least a 50:50 chance of sweet-talking her out of her clothes.

Which is why just as it pleases him when you’re kind and polite and don’t pretend he isn’t there, it pleases her when you blatantly ignore her.

No wonder we’re all struggling to get along.

I usually feel like the least important person in whichever room I happen to be in

I usually feel like the least important person in whichever room I happen to be in.

While I am out pushing myself to create work that I feel strongly about, I often find myself apologising for the fact that it isn’t 50 times better than it is.

I love my novel and believe the one I’m writing now is even better, but if you asked me about it, I’d downplay it. Even if I didn’t want to. Even if I wanted to tell you how I feel about it all the way deep down inside, I’d probably say: “Oh, it’s just a silly thing I’m working on.”

I love this blog, but I rarely see one I don’t prefer to mine because it looks better, it’s got better graphics, it’s more focused, it’s funnier … whatever.

I don’t make these declarations to engender sympathy. Those who know me, know that to be a fact. I don’t think it’s a matter of low self-esteem that makes me feel the way I do.

I think, on the contrary, that I may have precisely the right amount of confidence a guy like me should have. It didn’t stop me publishing the book. It isn’t stopping me from writing this blog post. And it won’t stop me from walking into rooms full of people tomorrow morning and joining the conversation.

But I’m grateful that I’m not cursed with an over-abundance of confidence. It has a levelling effect. It requires me to see the other point of view and to admire the quality of other peoples’ work without sneering. And it requires me to place my own under a constant spotlight with an eye for urgent improvement.

And though it may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that I have anything to teach in light of all that I’ve written here, I wonder if maybe the best gift of all is to be fundamentally at peace knowing you’re not the greatest hero the human race has ever known.

The angry cat and the happiness engine

I’m really not getting along with next door’s cat. Or to be precise the cat from the flat across the hallway for which the roof of the building is a playground, and who apparently has decided that the open skylight in my bathroom is an open invitation to come in and party. Except that he doesn’t much dig partying with me.

And yet despite the fact that he just scared the crap out of me by clambering up and out onto the roof again while I was brushing my teeth (which means, eerily, he could have been hidden away, watching me, for hours), I will persist.

Because it is one of my proudest realisations that that is what I do. I’m sort of a self-appointed happiness engine and I’m determined to like you whether you damn well allow me to or not.

And that extends further than surly felines.

Among the list of potential sales leads I received recently, there were a number marked ‘difficult character’ and ‘very negative’, so those were the ones I called first. I figure if you’re not a happy camper, I’d like to try and do something about that for you. It’s the worst thing in the world when you get branded for a bad mood on a bad day, by someone who rubbed you up the wrong way. We all have our downs, right?

So like next door’s cat, and like the people labelled ‘impossible to deal with’ on my call lists, I will continue to pour on the love.  Someone’s got to do it.

And then there’s the other 99 percent

In a manner of speaking, I am the 99%. In financial terms, I certainly am, considering the ranks of the super-wealthy who make up the 1% everyone is complaining about. Considering the harbour in Monaco that made such a sensational backdrop to the qualifying session of this weekend’s Formula One Grand Prix earlier this afternoon.

But recently a Polish taxi driver explained to me his dream of working as waiter in a hotel in London because he’d have the opportunity to “work inside a building” and “have free coffee on his breaks”, and it hit me that even as woefully 99% as I am, I seem to have kept hitting the jackpot during my working career.

I can’t recall ever working anywhere where free coffee wasn’t part of the deal. Sometimes it was crappy coffee, but it was free anyway. In the office in Dubai where I spent a couple of years in the ’90s, there were even free cokes. Where I spend my days these days, we have cold mineral water and sparkling water permanently on tap.

Have I ever appreciated it? Have I hell. In fact, I’ve been incensed when the coffee machine isn’t working. That’s how much I tend to value this thing that my taxi driver considers an aspirational perk.

And I’m also not going to insult you by giving you an ’80s US sitcom ending and claim that from now on I shall value each cup of coffee as the reward it is, because who does that?

But it is nice to be reminded now and then that I actually have got it pretty good.

The more I do, the more I slip behind …

If I had to pinpoint the one thing in my life that causes the most stress, it’s the often near-idiotic number of tasks I have on my hands at any one  time. It’s not that they keep me busy that causes me to stress; It’s that I know that I am never going to be able to get to all of them and many of the ones I do get to, I’m going to do badly. And also, it’s that I really couldn’t care less about far too many of them.

I’m well aware that there is an opportunity cost for everything I do. The more time or money I spend on one thing, the less I can spend on another. There are only around 112 waking hours in any given week and I don’t have a bottomless wallet.

Like many of you, part of me wishes I could change that. A vast fortune to spend would mean I could get so much more done because I could mobilise teams of people. More hours in the day would mean I could get everything done that I would like to, and maybe sneak a couple more things onto the list.

But a very large part of me actually wishes no such thing.

I know what I‘m good at and I am potentially great at two of those things. And I know where I truly, truly suck like a flailing amateur.

And sometimes I feel like I’m making the choice to step off a path that could lead to real mastery in order to take care of a dozen things which upon reflection may be of genuine importance to somebody, just not to me.

There are those who wear their busyness like a badge as if it’s proof of their importance. I’m not one of them. As I see it, doing fewer things, but doing them very well has to be a better goal.

And if it frees up some time to go outside and see the sun now and then, that can’t hurt either.

I’m way better on twitter than I am at parties

Someone I know posted a spoiler alert on twitter this morning saying that if you don’t want to know the winner of South African Idol, “close twitter now as the name is all over the place”.

Except that it wasn’t. Not on my timeline anyway. Not one person that I follow had anything to say on the matter and like me, most of them probably didn’t know that the competition was going on, much less who any of the contestants might be.

Finally, I think, I may be part of the cool kids. In the wildly democratic world of twitter, I am able to do almost entirely what customisable websites such as cnn.com were claiming to be able to do as early as the late-1990s: to filter in only the information I want, and eject everything else from my timeline.

Until this morning, I didn’t even know the extent to which I was doing that.

I’ve been filtering it further of late and paying special attention to the followfriday hastag (#FF) to refresh the voices I allow into my head, sometimes for the content they share and sometimes because I trust their view about matters at hand. And I get a broad range of views on technology, politics, history, current affairs, marketing, money and a load of very funny, but totally unrepeatable jokes to boot.

As a consequence, my timeline may be the most personal thing about me. If I follow you it’s because I really want to hear what you have to say. There’s no lingering politeness on my timeline. I’m way better on twitter than I am at parties.

And while I mean no disrespect to the Idols contestants or to anyone who has been following the show, I consider it a triumph of personalised messaging that I know nothing whatsoever about it.

Your evolution vs. theirs: all that really matters is you

One of the biggest reasons relationships change is the uneven pace and direction of growth of the individuals involved. And one of the biggest sins I can think of is to limit your own growth to suit a current relationship.

It’s a rare thing when you meet up with an old friend after a long time, or go and visit an old place of work — even one you used to love — and find that you gel in the same way you did when you were together.

For me, it’s best when such an old friend or organisation has evolved faster than I have because I take a faintly masochistic delight in reminders of how much better I could be doing.

It’s weird however when you’re bored senseless at 40 by someone you almost hero worshipped at 20. It’s weirder still when they’re already boring you by 25.

Of course nobody is wrong here. We’re all challenged by different criteria and the fact that your love for Left Bank existentialism and beatnik literature doesn’t tally with your once role model’s passion for body building is part of what keeps us diverse. You judge your evolution against your own standards, but so does everyone else.

You’re not wrong to enjoy those reminders of your past and you’re not wrong to avoid them either.

But I think you’re wrong to try and hold on to them.

In a nostalgic sense we’re always sad when a relationship changes form. When we end a personal relationship or leave a company or finally see that last day of high school or university.

But if you need a lesson in the good it did you to walk away from those things, go back and pay any of those people and places a visit and see they make you feel now. The fuzzy feelings are nostalgia. The rest of it is growth. It’s no bad thing to be a little bored.

There are those who can help you out and there are those who actually will

You can slice the world up into groups of two using all sorts of criteria, but most of those are bullshit because they’re almost always heavily nuanced.

For instance, there is a difference between men and women, but most of those differences are unhelpful at best, irrelevant at worst.

There is a stark difference between rich and poor, but with the 256 shades of wealth between them, it’s hard to see how it’s useful to compare them.

And there is a difference between introverts and extroverts, but neither of those classifications has any bearing on your capacity for success on any conceivable level.

But as an aspiring entrepreneur and writer and general human being, there is one ‘them’ versus ‘them’ classification that constantly seems to remind me of its existence: those who can help you and those who actually will.

Let’s be clear, not everyone is in a position to help you with your quest for greatness, whatever that may be. But there are plenty that are, and when your paths cross, if you’re like me, you’re inclined to think it’s an extraordinary opportunity and hugely disappointed when the response to your juggling unicycle act of attention-seeking gets you nowhere.

There are lots of reasons for it of course. Some of them are selfish, some of them jealous and afraid, and some of them are just busy with their own lives or perhaps even already helping a bunch of other people. And though it pains me to say it, some of them just aren’t impressed enough by me to cancel their lives for a year in order to help me with mine.

Whether it is good or bad, isn’t the point. The point, as I see it, is that you can lose a lot of precious time with people like those. But among those who can is a subset of people, fewer in number, but substantially more exciting, who will actually go out of their way for you.

If you can do yourself one favour, I’d recommend it be this: learn to tell the difference.

Oh, and don’t forget it’s a two-way street. When you can, when it’s possible, be someone who will.

Keeping up when the baseline keeps shifting

Young people today don’t get it. I don’t even feel old saying that. They don’t. That is to say, they don’t get what I get. My parents felt the same way about me, no doubt, and I’m sure their parents felt that way about them.

I learned recently that something like 70% of English children below the age of 12 have no idea who Winston Churchill was. Maybe not 70% – I totally made that number up – but a lot of them. A far bigger percentage than those who did.

On hearing that, my first thought was that it is a failure of the educational system. Not only was he one of the greatest of all British leaders, he led at one of the most celebrated times in Britain’s history. If these kids can bring themselves to care about who Jessie J is, surely they could put in a little extra effort, right?

But actually, it’s just a factor of a shifting baseline. Churchill was last supremely relevant 67 years ago. He was a history-maker of very great significance, but so is Mark Zuckerberg, and he’s a leader of right now. Churchill was a leader of another world in another time that has absolutely no relevance to the context in which young people think today. Also, he was a politician and bearing in mind the pack of worldwide jerks who run everything so badly these days, their lack of interest could conceivably be an active one.

Pseudo-intellectuals like yours truly are prone to view such significant knowledge gaps as omens of the dumbing down of society, but I have to admit that sometimes I wonder if what’s happening is quite the opposite. It could be that actually, everyone’s getting smarter except me, and that as the baseline shifts, the challenge is for me to be careful not to get stuck in the past.

It’s the RIGHT NOW that needs attention

We’re a pretty future-focused bunch. Unless you’re a real pessimist, the chances are you’ve got at least one eye on a glowing future in which you’ll achieve all sorts of wonderful things in life and love and your career and everywhere else.

But as anyone in their 40s with a load of stop-start career choices, failed relationships and dicier-than-intended finances, who ate dinner alone last night and woke up alone this morning will tell you (yes, me, okay?), the future has no habit whatsoever of taking care of itself.

Now before you start doling out commiserations (not that you will anyway, the only people who ever leave nice comments for me on this blog are spammers, though I have to admit, many of them are really sweet: “I finesse you are genius on this luminous topic,” etc.), I’m not complaining. I’m not even all that unhappy about anything. I’m just observing.

I’ve posted before about focusing on the process, not the result, and I’m increasingly convinced that I’m right. Goal-setting is important, but too often that means dreaming, but not actually thinking. Not planning. Or not planning realistically anyway.

My problem has never been the future. I’ve always had that figured out, at least mentally. What I haven’t had figured out often enough is the right now. I’m good at it when I’m focused. I’m just not good at being focused.

They say: “do what you love and it doesn’t seem like work.” I say: bullshit. Do what you do and it doesn’t seem like work. Or eventually it doesn’t. Arm curls, cold calls, quitting smoking, getting up at 05h00 are hard now. They seem like work. But do them and you get good at them and as you get results, they get easier. Then they don’t seem like work.

You don’t have to be looking for fulfillment from every daily action. You do owe it to yourself to have a better daily road map for getting to that bright vision of the future though.