A forty-day habit


I’m hanging out with the kid more, but I’m still instagramming it.

I’m two-thirds of the way through my #Flourish40 experiment. I’ve suffered systemic failures, and there hasn’t been a single clean sheet yet. So what on earth has gone right? Why am I doing this? Am I just being a, um, “douche”?*  

(*as suggested by a friend when I told him about #Flourish40. It’s never great being called a douche, especially when you’re nearly thirty-two, but it has made me develop a sort of douchey-litmus-test for what I’ve been doing and thinking, to keep my super douchey ideas and actions in check. A bit. So if you see an * in this post, you’ll see where I’m noting to myself that I might have strayed a little into douchedom. You may well argue that this paragraph alone warrants a *. And I am open to that.*)

Some stuff has gone right. Here are a few specific things I’ve learned in the last three and a bit weeks:

  • Final line from 'The Great Gatsby'

    Final line from ‘The Great Gatsby’

    The kid (and I) can do an awful lot of puzzles in an hour instead of watching Cbeebies.
  • A great online collaboration tool (such as Asana) cuts down on so much unnecessary email noise and clutter.
  • As does Twitter.
  • Reading books is better than I remembered.
  • Crochet is a seasonal pastime for me, and tis not the season.
  • After not calling people for about three years, I shouldn’t be surprised that not many friends [read: zero] are calling me back.
  • I’ve been double-checking and it is actually not possible to find the time to work and exercise and cook and sleep and play with the kid and kick back all in one day.
  • whiskeyWhiskey wins over wine.
  • Having a tidy desk makes me feel smug and productive.
  • Getting my inbox to zero is one thing.  Keeping it at zero is another thing entirely.
  • Black bean and chocolate cake is DELICIOUS.
  • Vegetarians get tired.
  • I can make a veggie burger, its bun and its ketchup from scratch. Hello, 100% homemade supper. Booooom.* [Where will this stop? Am I going to suddenly be raising chickens to make mayo? Experimenting with a little project versus getting obsessive.  Note to self. Watch yourself.]
  • Roller Derby is awesome to watch and tempting to join.

These of course are all specific to me and most likely of no help to anyone else. But there are a couple of things I’ve gleaned so far that I think do have wider relevance. Although maybe this is where the my-being-a-douche bit comes in.

The prospect of changing a habit is likely to be harder than actually changing it.

Take me and steak. I love steak. Rare steak. As in, any time it’s on the menu at any restaurant, I order it and I eat all of it. [Note, this is also something for me to cross-reference with my inability to budget]. So the prospect of not eating steak for six weeks? ANATHEMA. IM-FULL-STOP-POSSIBLE. Before the #Flourish40 kick-off, I had a week-long thought process that went a bit like this: Bud [husband] is considering going veggie for a bit? Okay. No, not okay. He’s been making artisanal salami for a living, for one thing. But also: what about me and steak? When can I eat steak? I can’t ever be veggie. What would I eat? A meal without meat does not constitute a meal. OXYMORON. Can’t do it. I really want a steak. Now. Maybe I have a problem? Still want steak. Maybe I should try to not eat steak? Steak. Steak.  But what if I set myself a short amount of time to not eat steak? Maybe it would be possible to not eat it. Like, it’s a game, for me. I like games. Perhaps as much as I like steak. I mean, I am competitive. And I’m perfectly happy being competitive against myself—it’s a win-win. Ahahahaa I am funny.* So here’s a game! Let’s play the I’m Not Going To Eat Steak (Or Any Other Meat) Game! For six weeks! F to the U to the N! That was my thinking. And I’ve totally not eaten steak. Or any other meat stuff. Weirdly, the hardest bit has been getting to that decision, getting to that place where I could actually say: I am not going to eat steak/meat for six weeks. Since then it’s felt a bit like a done deal. Decision made. Very little temptation. It’s been easy because something either is meat or it isn’t.  It’s clear cut.  I really thought it would be harder.

It is REALLY hard, as in distinctly-unnecessary-hard, to actually change about eleven habits at once.

I can play this game with other stuff too! I love telly and Twitter! A bit too much! Let’s play the I’m Not Going To Be On Screens Game! AWE-FULL-STOP-SOME. I’m good at getting over-excited by an idea and taking it to the point of delirium. I’m also good at either/or situations, as in I either eat steak or I do not. It’s when stuff is a little less clear cut that I run into difficulty. That, and having a lot of other F to the U to the N ideas that I am running simultaneously. I can allow myself to bring in valid sub-rules (as in “no screens pre-9am or post-6pm, except when I’m getting an early or late train or when Bud is out in the evening and it would be good to use that time to work, like right now) and basically game myself out of being a real-deal winner. There are people in the world who say that less is more. I am still not one of them.

It’s okay to set wildly ambitious goals and not achieve any of them.

I am competitive. I mentioned that. These days I’m also pretty good at being competitive about things that I have a strong likelihood of achieving, which reinforces my smugness, and my competitiveness. So it’s been good for me to aim to set myself a goal that I alone have the capability to achieve, but that I haven’t. And to watch myself as I go through that process of failing and how I manage that. And also not then getting too smug and competitive about what a good failure I’ve been. Because on the scale of one to dementing, that ranks in at about eleven.

I’ve found an elegant and persuasive quote to explain away my incessantly optimistic and overly ambitious nature. Thank you, Victor Frankl, for your lecture in 1972, where you speak following the tracks of Goethe:

“We have to be idealists in a way, because then we wind up as the true realists. If we take man as he is, we make him worse. But if we take man as he should be we make him capable of becoming what he can be.”

I love, love, love this. I highly recommend you watch the full (three minute) video here: 

Being successful at being a grown up involves learning how not to have a tantrum and how to keep on top of admin [my old adage], but it also involves how to budget your time and money [my new, less snappy adage].But budgeting in time for spontaneity is JUST WRONG.

That’s all I really have to say about that.

Attempting to change, to do stuff differently, works better when you have a bit of time to think about what you’re doing and to communicate your reflections.

This isn’t just an excuse to have lots of really long baths. Crucially, you need to find the time and space to put your thoughts out there, somewhere, to make sense of them and to develop your own narrative arc.* It helps makes things stick.narrative_arc

I think I might leave this post right here, at 4 and change…

My desk

8 books, 5 thoughts, 2 articles and 1 desk

Today marks International Women’s Day: an occasion that is both celebratory and frustrating. A bit like Black History Month, it’s a disquieting reminder in our societal calendar: we’re moving towards a place of genuine equality and lack of prejudice, but quite clearly are miles away from it still, so instead we just acknowledge it loudly within a defined period of time.

I go out and buy today’s Guardian. The front page includes a piece by a brilliant journalist, Polly Toynbee, on why it’s a bad time to be a British woman: rising childcare costs (yup, that resonates), cuts to childcare credits (that too), the hours we spend on unpaid caring, the attrition of public sector jobs, the pathetic number of women in boardrooms nationally (now just 14%), the pay gap…

It makes me empathise with other working mothers—I’m also trying to figure out if I can make enough money to pay for someone else to look after my child. It makes me hugely grateful to my husband for being so brilliant about cooking (well, he’s a chef), and keeping the house from the slum it would become if it was just me in charge. And for looking after our kid more during the week than I do. It makes me proud that the chair of Spark+Mettle is female, and it makes me feel good about being this part-time CEO of sorts.

Spanx founder Sara Blakely

And then I turn the page and see the founder of Spanx, Sara Blakely, splashed across page 3 of The Guardian, surrounded by her girdled troupe, under the headline It’s all about the bottom line: inventor of Spanx squeezes on to billionaires’ list. And it makes me feel conflicted: pleased to see an ambitious and successful businesswoman up in the ranks of men, frustrated that it’s such a big deal, bothered that she got there through underwear, questioning whether the whole concept of Spanx is empowering or disempowering. What does that say to the young women growing up today? You can get on Page 3 of The Sun by taking your underwear off, or on Page 3 of The Guardian by making it—and profiting handsomely from our (literal) out-of-proportion expectations of beauty?

For the last ten years my life has revolved around raising aspirations in young people.  And although Spark+Mettle is aimed at both young men and women, I’m proud that for the Star Track pilot over two thirds of our co-creators are female. Today I’m lucky that I have a little time to reflect on everything, and to try to piece together what exactly I would want to share with young women growing up in the UK (and perhaps beyond): not just to help them raise their aspirations, but also to empower them to realise their aspirations too.

I turn away from The Guardian, and to what is literally right in front of me.

My desk

As I write I have eight books on my cluttered desk, stuffed between my printer and the Yellow Pages. A novel by Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies, not yet begun. The Household Box, by Will Hobson is a brilliant, creative and beautifully-crafted assortment of games, insights and ideas to improve relationships and family life. Then there are a couple on happiness and flourishing, courtesy of Sonjya Lyubormirsky and Martin Seligman respectively. Also a copy of genre-fusing What is the What by my ex-boss and still-hero Dave Eggers. You’ll be able to see that there’s also a copy of the Oxford Book of English Verse—something my dad gave me for Christmas, and something I haven’t actually opened yet. And then there are two left: Caitlin Moran’s utterly brilliant How To Be A Woman, and Craig Dearden-Philips’ Your Chance To Change The World.

The books make me think about expectations of women today in Britain: the ones they have of themselves, and the ones that others have of them. I don’t think there is any one way to realise our aspirations as women today: the methods are as diverse as we are as individuals. But if I had to hammer home 5 points to a young woman, I think they might be these:

Be ambitious.

I’m leafing through Dearden-Philips’ Your Chance to Change the World. It was the tool that turned my idea for Spark+Mettle into an actual thing, an entity, an organisation. It was the ladder that I could put between little tiny me and my big, nebulous aim. And having those rungs were key. Especially here, in the UK. I encountered so many people who were negative. “You want to start up something, now? In this economic climate? When you have no experience of running anything?”

It made me long to be back in California, where if I’d mention a little idea or a little scheme people would positively enthuse about it: giving some good advice, some constructive feedback, and handing me a host of contacts. To be ambitious and female is much better tolerated in the USA. But to young women in the UK, let me emphasise:  it is not impossible, wrong, shameful, nor unfeminine to want to achieve great things in your working life.

In the book there’s a quote from Mark Twain which I love:

Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can somehow become great.

It’s also possible to do this now, here, in this economic climate, with all around us going to pot. It takes a lot of baked beans for supper and robs a lot of easy downtime with friends or family, but it can happen. Find people who give you faith in yourself, good advice and the occasional free lunch. They’re out there.And they are wonderful. Find them.

Yesterday I was at an event with the RSA. Matthew Taylor took the floor to start. I haven’t heard him speak before and I long to hear him speak again. He was talking about social enterprise, and how excited he was about it. He was talking about how often there’s an assumption that being caring and being ambitious are mutually exclusive. And he was talking about how social enterprise is an exciting intersection of these two key characteristics. Thinking about what he said now, through my #IWD lens, I recognise how dementingly gendered these characteristics are perceived as being. And if it’s possible to have both in a business, then it’s sure as hell possible to have both in a human.

Be funny. Or, at least, don’t always be earnest.

HowtobeaWomanCaitlin Moran is funny. She talks about body issues, abortion, motherhood and masturbation and she is funny. She talks about empowerment and emancipation and she is funny. In How To Be A Woman she proves to the world, via the bestseller list, that us women can make serious points about big issues and be funny all at the same time. That’s my sort of multitasking.

As women we can be taken seriously and we can be flippant, irreverent, light. Just as we can wear mini-skirts and not be sluts. And wear high heels and not be totty. Although we may well be tottering…

Women wear heels because they think they make their legs look thinner, ENDOV. They think that by effectively walking on tip-toes, they’re slimming their legs down from a size 14 to a size 10. But they aren’t, of course. There is a precedent for a big fat leg dwindling away into a point—and it’s on a pig.

I’m not much of a pig these days—at least when it comes to shoes. My feet put the loaf into loafer. But that’s not really the point. The point is: well, it’s sort of this. A friend’s mum always told her: “Darling, in life there are the fountains, and then there are the drains.” And by the way, that doesn’t mean you have to be a bubbly little conversationist to be someone to whom other are drawn. Crikey, no. Introverts can be fountains too.

Be a straight-talker.

But at the same time as all this light, multifaceted, spouty talk, we need to speak up and out too. Directly, immediately, reasonably. We can’t hide behind giggles, or whisper behind closed doors.

It comes down, in my opinion, to integrity. And integrity can be shown through humour, as well as through honest dialogue.

In The Household Box, Will Hobson suggests setting up a Suggestions Book: an idea that perfectly encapsulates my two wishes of being both funny and direct all at the same time (in a wonderfully, tongue-in-cheek passive-aggressive sort of way). And boy, how great is the UK at passive-aggressive, not-saying-what-I’m-really-meaning conversation? So this is the moment when I go all product-placement and wholeheartedly advocate for the Ronseal approach to conversation: do exactly what it says on the tin. If you can have a direct conversation with someone without their needing to check your footnotes, life will be a whole lot easier.

Be generous.

Not necessarily with money. Although that’s always nice. But absolutely with time, with ideas and—most important of all—with specific praise.

Generosity is a core tenet in Seligman’s Flourish. He suggests writing letters of gratitude, and then reading them out loud to the person to whom it’s written. You might not feel comfortable doing that, we are in the UK after all, not California, which is fine. But in this country where we say ‘sorry’ such an absurd amount, can’t we find ways to reduce how unnecessarily apologetic we are, and find opportunities to be generous instead?

In The How of HappinessLyubormirsky produces a list of happiness-inducing activities, many of which could be sub-categorised under ‘be generous’:

  • Express gratitude
  • Avoid social comparison
  • Practise acts of kindness
  • Nurture social relationships
  • Learn to forgive
  • Take care of your body

That last ones remind me that it’s important to be generous to yourself (and that’s not the same as being selfish). Go ahead, watch another episode of Community. It’s really funny, and funny stuff is good for your soul. How about that video with the crazy techno cat? Oooh, here it is:

Ahahahhaaa! What a treat! And that’s just on screens. If you don’t treat yourself: you’ll be no use to anyone, just a grumpy pig in heels.

Be creative

Whether it’s with memory (What is the What), or with genre (What is the What), or with language (What is the What), or with children’s minds (826 Valencia) or with the book form (McSweeney’s)… Dave Eggers is a source of creative inspiration. The thing is: he is brilliant. But at the same time (and I say this with the deepest admiration) he is nothing special. Or at least, he shouldn’t be anything special.  He just makes stuff, and he makes stuff happen. We can all do that. In fact, he now spends a large part of his life helping other people do that.

I’m a bit late to the “let’s get creative” party. It’s been a huge, but uncelebrated part of my life. Something I haven’t really ever acknowledged as being a fundamental component for a flourishing existence. But it is. I see it now, it is. It’s so simple. So obvious. So awesome.

And let me be clear: being creative doesn’t have to mean quilting eiderdowns or writing the next zeitgeisty novel (Eat Your Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius Out?). And it certainly does not mean Blue Sky, Out Of The Box Thinking. And it doesn’t mean doing something that feels forced or unnatural or pretentious or hipster. You don’t need to knit an army tank or upcycle your old kitchen.

To me, being creative means simply finding little slivers of time when you can have a sense of awe or wonder and seeing where that takes you. Or getting absorbed in an activity (however menial) to such an extent that your mind wanders free. For the godfather on this subject, check out the man-with-the-impossibly-Hungarian-name and his book on Flow, or watch him talk at TED here:

See? Nothing grand, no skyscraper-high visions or plans: just you back with your mind, checking out the world and your place in it, and getting a little buzz from just that.

I think that does so much for us: it sparks off new ideas, it dusts off old ones. It reenergises. I’d say it’s a mental espresso but then I’d sound like a git…

– – –

So there are my books and what they make me think. What you don’t see in the photo of my desk is the inbox piled high with unopened mail. You don’t see a ball of wax, a hair clip, a lone taxi receipt. Or the two bikes that I almost always hit my head on, hanging just to the right of the desk, above the little-used filing cabinet.

The desk and all its clutter is a pretty good representation of my life right now. Here I am, on International Women’s Day, carving a living out of working on my own at this desk. Balancing paid freelance work with getting Spark+Mettle off the ground with family life and the occasional moments of free time, typically spent in front of screens watching Community or Parks and Recreation. Failing, hourly, at a whole heap of things. Having little time and even less desire to do uxorial things such as tidying, cleaning, vacuuming, ironing. Ironing? Last did that in ’96.

What I do have some time—and a lot of desire—to do is to support young people, especially young women, figure out what they want from life and how they might go about getting it. If I can be any sort of ladder for them, between where they are and where they want to be, then I am a fortunate woman indeed.