It’s raining, it’s pouring …

August 30, 2010

This summer has been the best one of all in the 4 years I have been living in the UK.  It’s been reasonably hot and we have had absolutely no rain.  Richmond Park and the Wimbledon Common have been as dry as the South African bushveld and I couldn’t care less.  I don’t want rain.  I know it’s important and we need it for plants and crops and to avoid water restrictions.  But I don’t care.  British weather depresses me and, after my usual navel-gazing, I’ve decided it is the rain and grey clouds that irritate me most.

Rain in the UK is unique.  It doesn’t come pelting down in one big torrent as it does back home.  It dribbles incessantly and unpredictably and feels like walking in a giant, cold steam bath.

This means I can never figure out if I need my umbrella or not or, Murphy’s Law, I forget it altogether.  In South Africa, I never even owned an umbrella. I now have a growing supply of cheap brollies, like my stash of Bic pens.  People often forget their umbrellas at my house, which is also convenient and has helped me build up a collection.  The thing with cheap umbrellas is they are so flimsy and they turn upside down at the slightest wind that then renders them useless, especially when your hands are tied up with shopping bags.

People get into a tizz when it rains and that irritates me too.  I think Londoners wake up, look outside at the weather and, when they see rain, they panic and think, ‘Code Blue Code Blue’. People rush rush rush on the pavements, looking only at their feet so they don’t step into a puddle.  They never look ahead and consider that they may gauge my eyes out with the spokes on their umbrellas.

People hate getting wet. I can picture them going ‘ew, ew, ew’ in their heads and I want to bellow at them, ‘For goodness sake, it’s only water and you won’t dissolve.’  Walking in the rain is stressful for me because I try to look at my feet and ahead of me at the same time.  If you wear glasses it’s even more complicated as they mist up or get full of droplets like a mini windscreen.

Rain also annoys me because people equate rain with cold.  They dress in their winter woolies and refuse to open train windows lest a rogue droplet hits them.  This means that trains steam and the windows sweat and each carriage turns into a giant germ filled petri dish.  When people hop on a bus or train, their first instinct is to shake their umbrellas like a wet dog.  On crowded public transport, we are forced to cram together so I end up touching everyone else’s wet umbrellas with my trousers and I get a soaked bum or patch on my leg. I always envy kids in their McLaren prams that are covered in plastic sheeting.  It must be like sitting inside a dry beach ball.

London seems to always be covered with a grey, waterlogged blanket of clouds and no ones knows when or for how long they will dribble.  I wish they would open out, empty themselves once and for all and then disappear.

I’m contemplating whether I should buy a special lamp that gives off the same type of light as on a clear summer’s day.  It helps people who suffer from S.A.D (Seasonal Adjustment Disorder).  I’m hoping it will help me get through another grey winter.  It costs £50 and that seems a lot but, when I think about it, it’s actually a small price to pay to make me H.A.P.P.Y for over 6 months.


A new perspective on our autumns and winters

August 28, 2010

I’m feeling more peaceful about the non-linear way in which my life is turning out.  When I fell off the career treadmill, I thought I was falling apart.  I struggled to see how the rigid goals I had for my life would come to fruition in a competitive job market in a risk-averse country like the UK while it’s the midst of a recession.  My inability to find a decent job made me feel like a piece of discarded trash.

It has finally dawned on me that the modern consumerist Western culture, which framed my outlook on my life, is actually unnatural.  We have created an artificial bubble – like a real life Truman Show – that leaves us numb, empty and restless if we march to its beat.  The world esteems a linear life – first childhood, school, university, then you choose a career, get married, get promoted and climb the corporate ladder, raise a family, retire and then die.  Who ever said that such a predictable, linear timeline is the right way to live anyway?  Who the hell told us that in the first place?

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of anything in nature that is linear. The planets’ movement around the sun, the life cycle of plants and animals, the seasons, the food cycle, night and day, the water cycle – all of these natural processes are circular.  I know God made man to be a little different from everything else but I can’t believe he made us so different that we should be separate to the natural rhythms of his world.  Maybe nature is a blueprint for how we should approach problems and avoid sleepwalking through our existence.

If you have a circular mindset, you begin to understand that every winter or dark patch is an opportunity for growth in a way that doesn’t make sense if you see life as an all-or-nothing straight line.

Parker J Palmer’s brilliant book, Let your Life Speak, says the seasons are a metaphor for the circular movements in our lives. The decline in autumn instinctively leaves me with a feeling of loss and doom. I always get depressed around October time when the leaves on the tree outside my window turn orange.  It means winter is next and the thought of a cold, grey London fills me with dread.   But autumn is actually full of paradoxes because this is the season where the plants scatter seeds that lie dormant until the spring.  If we allow it, the autumns in our lives can be periods of colourful beauty when new life and new possibilities are sown.

Most of us hate the autumns and winters in our lives – we want permanent summers.  We fear the cold and blackness of winter so we surround ourselves in all sorts of artificial light, busyness and constant stimulation to avoid facing any kind of darkness.  I feel great freedom in finally accepting that periods of darkness are part of the natural rhythm of my life.

South Africa doesn’t have distinct seasons.  I have visited Canada once in the summer and once in winter and I have seen that winter provides a clarity and beauty that no other season gives.  When snow falls, it’s beautiful.  It dulls the sound as if the ground is covered in cotton wool.  The dormancy and deep rest of winter periods are essential.  Life goes underground for rest and renewal.

The bottom line is this – our lives will be filled with winter, autumn, spring and summer periods whether we like it or not.  Don’t avoid the autumns and winters.  Walk into the winter and learn what it has to teach you, knowing that spring is next. Accept it – just dress warmly. Put on gloves, a scarf, a turtleneck sweater, a coat and decent shoes.  When I was in Canada, I realized that if you open the front door and get outside, away from the artificial heating and light, winters could also be quite magical in their own special way.

Snakes and ladders

August 24, 2010

Today one of my friend’s described life as a game of Snakes and Ladders.  You move along step-by-step and sometimes you hit a snake and sometimes a ladder.  Life is full of ups and downs.

Love it!

Ability is nothing without opportunity

August 20, 2010

I never expected it would be so difficult to integrate myself into British culture.  I thought that because I spoke English in South Africa and have Scottish roots, I would slot in as if I lived in the UK all my life.

Living and working in London is tougher than I ever imagined primarily because Londoners are generally cold and grey, like their weather.

The work environment is a monolithic, immovable beast that is addicted to bureaucracy and rules and is generally afraid of change.  As we know, Britain is one of the oldest and most established countries in the world and I think this mindset is engrained in its people.  They are naturally inclined towards a rigid, do-it-as-we’ve-always-done attitude.  Mind you, the accounting firm at which I worked embarked on a massive change to their internal computer system and people initially embraced the change with the excitement and glee of a three-year old on Christmas morning.  But that was because it promised free trips to the US, an opportunity to stay at 5 star hotels and do a bit of travelling on the side at the company’s expense.  Thanks to the recession, the freebies stopped and so did people’s can-do attitude towards the change.

I have to chuckle to myself at the interview process at companies in the UK.  Organisations remind me of a medieval castle with a moat surrounding it and the drawbridge raised.  During the interview process, you have to beg, plead and do all sorts of hoop jumping to get them to let you into their fortress. You are not an individual with potential – you are a CV of past experience and qualifications.  They focus too much on depth not breadth and, because the market is so competitive, they are not obliged to give people an opportunity to try new things and demonstrate their competence while on the job.

The funny thing is that I have never noticed such a bored and unfulfilled workplace as I have in the UK.  When you get through that drawbridge, you realize you could have done the job in your sleep.  People are specialized to the extent that they don’t feel connected to a finished product anymore.

When I joined a startup consultancy, one of my colleagues at an accounting firm told me I had guts and I must accept that the sales process in the UK is a harsh, grueling slog.  I scoffed at him and thought he was a killjoy.  Reflecting back on that moment, I realize that he was right.

Two of my favourite British writers, Christopher Hitchens and Marcus Buckingham, have achieved phenomenal success in America.  They moved there shortly after completing university in the UK.  I have read and listened to many of their interviews and found their perception of the UK to be the same as mine.  They are born and bred Brits and their illuminating insight made me sigh with relief that it is not just me.

Marcus Buckingham:

In England the streets are small, the cars are small, the dreams are small.  I could not have done in the UK what I have done here.

Christopher Hitchens:

In England you keep feeling like you have to pass through a series of tests and hoops.  In America, you can take the chance and say, ‘Here I am’ and ‘Try this’.  You don’t feel as if you have to go through these stages of evolution and mature in the cask like a fine old vintage that will go sour before it’s ripe.

Pavlov’s dog, hot air balloons and boring Powerpoint presentations

August 14, 2010

PowerPoint seems to be the language of the modern working world.  Most people are of the opinion that it’s the best way to engage people and drum any message through our skulls.  According to multiple sources on the internet, Powerpoint is used as a visual aid in over 30,000,000 presentations throughout the world every day.

I bet when Microsoft’s Bill Gates gave the first presentation using his PowerPoint tool, people were transfixed and listened to him with rapt attention and big goggly eyes.  Powerpoint is now overused and the bar for a truly engaging presentation is getting higher and higher.

When I worked at a Big 4 accounting firm, I endured many needless, longwinded presentations and Powerpoint was always guaranteed to feature in them.  My colleagues and I developed what I call ‘The Pavlov Dog’s Syndrome’ because when the Powerpoint slides came out, we would have an instant involuntary physical reaction where parts of our brain would shut down. Slow slide transitions and bullet points that swing in one by one were guaranteed to rock us to sleep as if we were babies in our mothers’ arms.  We developed this talent of dozing with our eyes open.

Powerpoint is often used as a disguise for badly prepared content or as a crutch for poor public speakers.  Most businesses prescribe fonts, colours and a generic layout for presentations so that all documentation is in line with the corporate image.  This means slides are mostly boring and there is no scope for originality and creativity. After 7 years at the same company, I became weary of the same colours and fonts and I realized that slides were recycled from one presentation to another like last year’s Christmas wrapping paper.

If anyone is relying on their slides to engage with the corporate world, they will have to be amazing.  At some point during the presentation, a topless waiter/waitress will have to spring out the centre of the slide and serve everyone cocktails.

Once a senior person in my department asked me to review some slides she had prepared for a very important business pitch.  I looked at the deck and was horrified at the shocking spelling, small fonts and clutter on every slide.  ‘Interesting’ was spelt ‘inter-esting’ in multiple places.  Random capital letters were Dotted around like Glitter on the page.  I thought, we are supposed to be professional and I bet this client is going to tear them to pieces.  I was about to resign so this prospect filled me with intense glee.

After the presentation, my colleague skipped into the office, bright-eyed and bushy tailed.  She reckoned the client was satisfied with her performance.  I was stunned.  Had they not read the slides?  Then it dawned on me that the only answer was that the client battled to maintain concentration because of the intensity of the subject and clutter on the slides.  Their thoughts must have drifted off like a giant hot air balloon that ascended to the heavens and drifted across a landscape of idle thoughts.  I suspect they woke up at the end and said it was good simply because it had to be, coming from a Big 4 accounting firm and all.


August 11, 2010

I heard this brilliant quote today:

Anyone who thinks they are too small to make an impact has never been in bed with a mosquito.

Waking my Muse

August 8, 2010

Lately I’ve developed a fascination with creativity.  I am intrigued by what it is that makes people produce such amazing works of art, fashion, literature, music and even innovative business ideas.  It think the reason I am so interested in this concept is because I feel like my creative juices have dried up after 8 years as an accountant and my soul feels like a parched desert (Gosh, I’ve got to stop whining about my situation.  I’m even tiring myself out.  Yawn.)

Many jobs, particularly in the UK, have become so bureaucratic, hierarchical and specialized and do not lend themselves to self-expression and the trial-and-error behaviour that is the prerequisite for innovation.  Many of our process driven jobs arose out of the mechanized industrial age where a worker was responsible for a part of the production line – that’s not exactly the foundation for inspiration. The pace of our consumerist, materialistic culture means we don’t really need to be creative anyway.  The world simply demands one narrow skill that pays us enough money to buy our modern conveniences.

Do you know that if you ask a class of 5 year olds to put up their hands if they think they are creative, most of them will fling them up shouting ‘I am!  I am!’  If you ask the same question of a group of adults, a few will shyly raise their hands.  What happens to us along the way that makes us lose confidence in our creative abilities?

We are made in God’s image and yet what we do reflects very little of who God is or the way he works.   Nature oozes God’s creativity and Jesus’ job was non-linear, flexible and spontaneous.  He was very creative in his ministry.  Water into wine, walking on water, talking in parables, feeding the 5,000 people – talk about thinking outside the box!

In his brilliant TED talk, Ken Robinson talks about how we could easily assume nothing could possibly grow in Death Valley in America because it is dry and desolate.  In 2004, after record rainfall, the desert was covered with beautiful little flowers.  We shouldn’t have written off Death Valley – all it needed was the right conditions in order to flourish.  We need the right conditions in order for our creativity to flourish too.   I’m going to turn this bleak job market into my rainfall, my inspiration.

One of the most talented modern writers, Elizabeth Gilbert, says that creativity is a living force that thrums wildly through the world and expresses itself through human beings as talent.  We need to treat that talent with reverence and love.  Creativity is a process and it doesn’t care about results.  Our problem is we have become so results focused and we’ve forgotten that creativity is inherently process driven.  I’m going to enjoy the journey more and I’m going to be ok about making mistakes along the way.

Gilbert also says we are not the master of our Muse nor are we its servant – it is a dynamic collaboration.  One of the reasons for me doing this blog is to wake my Muse from its 8 year coma.  I have felt it lift its head, open its eyelids, yawn and I’ve heard a quiet whisper, ‘How long have I been asleep?’