The Mother Lode

Since stepping down as CEO of Spark+Mettle and starting down a new line, I’ve received a number of encouraging and congratulatory responses. It’s been lovely. Some say that I seem to manage well the balance between work and family and purpose; others that I have achieved good things and will achieve more. Lovely, as I say, but I can’t quite imbibe the compliments: I feel like a total fake.

Why? Because any success or achievements to date are just a thin vein in a large rock of all my many actions (some abject failures, some that are neither here or there, others that are perfectly alright but end up not being pressed into anything worth noticing). I am no geologist, and I am far too keen on, er, mining analogies till they are barren, so you may well not want to read on..,

Mineral veins in rocks—like quartz or copper—come about from a couple of different processes (open-space filling and crack-sealed growth, if you’re interested) and there needs to have been some sort of tectonic action to get it going too. In other words, anything to make a little vein of gold you need some serious pressure, heat and some shifting to appear, and there’s a whole lot more that’s down to luck and circumstance that would result in anything like a mother lode. If there is any little vein in my big ole rock, it’s tin if anything

That sounds about right, in terms of success in life. It’s thin, a tiny fraction of everything, formed out of pressure and changes that are often outside of our control. And if wasn’t for everything else, that hunk of unshiny rock comprising all that we do, that gold vein of success wouldn’t exist and it wouldn’t be worth a dime.

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Confessions from the dark to-do list

Spoiler: this is not an upbeat post.

I spend a lot of my life talking about resilience, grit and mettle. And recently I’ve been walking it. It’s been a silent few months on the blog. Here’s why.

  • In typical, optimistic, energised fashion, I took on way too much.
  • I just about kept on top of all the immediate, pressing, super urgent things. And the things that I really enjoyed doing.
  • To a large extent, I somehow managed to claw back some time to be with my family and my parents and to see more friends.
  • We spontaneously decided to buy a house, which prompted us to then try to sell our own.
  • My dark to-do list grew and grew, a large amorphous lump of anxiety that took hold in my gut.

And then shit blew up in my face.

A couple of months ago I managed, with a remarkable lack of skill, to extrapolate myself from being CEO of two different organisations at once. I resigned as CEO of Discoverables Ltd, home of our web-based app, and took up a much more suitable role on the board. The team flourished without me and suddenly things that had been creaking and slow-moving were well-oiled and steaming ahead. We all knew that the money runway was running out this summer, but they charged on with faith and enthusiasm and smart ideas.

One of the many things that had been lurking on my dark to-do list was a large bill to HMRC. Although I know full well that HMRC need to be paid each month when folks are on salaries, with the myriad of other responsibilities I had inveigled myself in, I hadn’t checked that it was happening. Salaries were going out, and that was the number one thing. When it was discovered, a couple of weeks ago, that we owed HMRC a hunk, we realised that the runway was basically up. And so, suddenly, this powerhouse of a team of four, got reduced to zero. All because of my oversight.

For an epic fail, I think I’ve done okay. I’ve had to face up to my fuck-up, hear hard truths. The bill is paid, no one is liable, two of the four employees walked straight into other jobs, and the others are being courted thanks to their vast swathe of skills and experience. The platform we’ve developed is ripe for being whitelabelled for other companies and organisations who want to use it. It’s the end of a chapter, not the story.

But, for me that’s not really good enough. I like doing well. I usually do well. I talk about the importance of failure, but rarely do I screw up quite so royally as I just have. I am generally candid about when things are going well, when I’m glossing, and when things suck. I’m not much of a glosser, I’m more of a warts-and-all. So I’m a little more used to exposing my not-so-great traits to others. But that’s often in the abstract.

And there has been a level of personal shame around this very real, tangible financial error that has been—and still is—pretty damn eviscerating. It’s all the more pronounced because finance is not my strong suit. Money has not ever been a driver—at least, not an overwhelming one. Although recently since having a kid (and with a big mortgage on the way), I’m a little less naive and wide-eyed about what I want and need.

But in my professional life, I’ve worked hard at being better at the finances than I am naturally inclined. I’ve had a pretty good track record in getting funding for the projects that I’ve run, budgeting for them well and making fairly robust forecasts. When it’s been close to the line for salaries in a month, something has always come through. I felt that it was right to keep most of the money worries away from the team. I may well have been wrong. Within my organisations, spending is careful and accounted for. In my own bank account, I am more whimsical. Across both, I confess, my receipts are crumpled.

So there’s the shame. And then there’s the guilt. People have lost their jobs. Because of me. I find that really hard to stomach. But deeper than that, there’s the guilt that I’ve known that I’m crap about some stuff, that I’m ostrich-like, that I’ve got this dark to-do list, that I haven’t done anything about it. I kinda knew something like this was going to happen. I let this happen.

No, I did do some things. I hired a book-keeper, but my priority was getting salaries paid and I failed to check in about HMRC. I stepped down as CEO because I knew I wasn’t doing a good enough job, but I did that too late and without much skill. My attempts to do things to mitigate against my weaknesses were themselves weak.

When things go wrong, there are two attitudes that really wind me up. The first is when no one takes responsibility for an error, mistake or misjudgement. It does my nut. Whether or not it’s entirely your fault, just own it and deal with it. The second is when people ‘fess up to something, and then feel like that is enough in of itself. It’s just as they say in AA: admitting something is the first of TWELVE STEPS.  Twelve.

So, I’ve taken responsibility and dealt with it. I’ve admitted my error: both the actual error and the reasons that led to it. But there’s a whole lot more to make sure that I don’t do something like this again.

There are simple, practical steps:

  • I’m taking on a local book-keeper rather than a remote one to go through things together in person. I’m on a mission to give her receipts so smooth each month, they look as though they’ve been ironed.
  • I’m hiring a professional organiser and declutterer to help me come up with ways to help me manage the paperwork overflow. For someone with a really clear vision, I’ve got a damn messy desk.

But then there are the bigger steps, bigger questions. Am I cut out for being in charge of finding money for lots of other people’s salaries? And if not, what the hell am I cut out for?Asides from thinking about the future, there are things to face up to right now. Number 4 on the AA 12 Steps is about making “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” Whoah. That’s the rummaging through the dark to-do list right there. Bringing it to light, and more besides. I’m scared to go there, but I need to get over myself, grow up and get cracking.

A postscript: a quick note on why I wrote this in the first place when it’s clearly not for pleasure. There are a few answers. Mostly because since I’ve told some people of my mistake and failure, I’ve discovered I’m not the only one. So I hope that this post might be solace to others who feel they’re alone with their own shitstorms or dark to-do lists or such. Hello, I’m right there with you. Let’s go get a whiskey.

Because there have been various generous accolades and opportunities for me recently, and it feels just downright disingenuous to smile and say thank you and like and retweet, when actually I’ve been outed as a total muppet.

Because it’s done me no good whatsoever not to air the dark to-do list to date, and I’m hoping that this will be beginnings of a better version of me. That’s the whole duck on water thing. This is me showing you how frantically my feet are paddling.

And finally because I’ve been learning a lot about leadership these last few months, and the sort I buy into is the sort that leads by example—and that when that example is bad, is transparent about it.

And FINALLY, finally, because if I ever appear to you that I have my shit together, I am probably about a duck that’s about to drown, so it would be great if you could buy me a drink and order me to tell you what’s really going on.

Bottoms up.

I was about to end on that bum note, when I headed off to Google to find an image to go along with this post. I’ve had this wedge of panic in my stomach for the last few weeks, and the thought of actually making this post live is making it spasm. So anyway, I googled “bill”. It’s given me enormous pleasure to see that the first three images returned are not of paper, but of Clinton, Maher and Cosby. I think I might have to print and stick these guys on the front of my new receipt folders. That would add untold pleasure to a chore.

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Systemic failure

Clean Sheet Week 1

O! for good intentions. This week—the first of my #Flourish40 experiment—I have mostly learned how wildly optimistic and overly-ambitious I am.  My Clean Sheethas turned into a Catalogue of Failure. My name is Eugenie and I am not living up to the hype.

Which, of course, in this perma-sunny world of flourishing, is a good thing.  The much-needed cloud to rain down on the parched earth of intention.  And this would be a good moment for me to bang on about the importance of failure when it comes to building character, but then I would sound like a private-school headmaster, who is keen on creating headlines by telling everyone that he likes his students to fail but whose students’ sense of failure is padded in so much security that it’s all just another rich kid game.  I don’t know failure like some people know failure.  I take risks with my daily routine the way some grown-ups take risks with other people’s hedge funds. Aren’t we brave.

Boo shucks to you, genteel failure. And as for you, optimism, how are you feeling these days? Lots of people are a bit wary of you. Are you sensing that? I’m telling you: you’re a lot less popular than you once were. Those in camp pessimism have more reason to be cheerful: the negative and the despairing have been shown to have a much more accurate view of their lot. But of course, that’s not going to dampen optimism’s spirits, much.

Nor mine. For I confess that I am a hopeless optimist. I am always optimistic about how little time it might take me to get from A to B. I am always optimistic about how much work I can do in a day. I am always optimistic about being right. I am thus often late, often stressed and—very occasionally—wrong.

The first time I realised that I might be wrong was when I was 25. I was scuba diving, twelve feet underwater and suddenly unable to get any oxygen out of my tank. I thought that the tank was faulty until my diving buddy showed me that the tube had become detached from the tank. And it took a good few breathless seconds to appreciate that it was my bad attaching that had made it come loose. Nothing like not being able to breathe to deliver a moment of sharp, cold truth.

Like many people I am a functioning body dysmorphic, I often layer what I actually see in the mirror with a fatter or thinner outline, depending on how I am feeling, or how many clouds are obscuring the sun, or how much I like what I’m wearing. I don’t know what the psychological term is for being mind-dysmorphic is, but clearly I am still that too. I suppose they might call it something like being caught up in a fallacious subjective loop. I’m going to coin that one. Anyway: a bit like in When Harry Met Sally (aka my touchstone for pretty much any relational dilemma) when Harry tells Sally she’s the worst sort of girl because she thinks she’s not needy or demanding but she doesn’t realise how needy and demanding she actually is (I forgive all anti-feminist moments in that film because it’s just brilliant), a bit like that, I like to think that I’ve got a handle on who I am, what I think, how I purport myself etc etc, but really I don’t.

I do know that I have an appalling memory. Much to my mum’s frustration I barely remember a thing about my childhood (which I merrily explain away by it being simply idyllic—without rollercoasters, literal or emotional—which still doesn’t satisfy her).  My memory is so bad I now can’t remember why I was writing about having a bad memory. Oh yes, I recall. Because at some point some time in the past I was sitting somewhere, or possibly standing, maybe even reclining, and I was talking to someone, or perhaps a group of people, and we were talking about people’s behaviour (judging by the topic of conversation I’m going to hedge my bets and suggest I was a student) and I was banging on about motives. Motives, I said (and of course I paraphrase), are the most important things when it comes to considering people’s behaviour. In fact, I continued while stomping my fist (if that’s possible), motives are often more important than actions.

It’s a bit hazy to me now why motive was so important to me back then, although it is clear to me quite how pompous and egocentric I must have been.  The point is, I now think I was wrong. Which is big of me, I know. I have grown. Now I think: it’s what you do that matters, because that’s what impacts other people. What you think or what you intend, that’s just all about how you make yourself feel better or worse about what you or don’t do.

The conclusion? I was wildly optimistic and over-ambitious last week. It’s a micro-version of how I am in life. And however preachy and good my motive and intentions, they mean diddly squat if they don’t convert into positive action. And if I talk about motives a lot I just sound like a tosser.

So this leaves me with a choice about how to go about this next week of #Flourish40. The pessimist, action-oriented option: I reduce the number of goals I set for myself and actually make good on a higher percentage of them than I have done so far. The optimist, intention-oriented option: I stick with all the original goals and promise myself that I’ll try a bit harder on the ones I was rubbish at.

I think I’ll check my emails, go for a run and decide later.

Procrastination: I know I am right when I say that I have always been absolutely brilliant at it.