When travelling I adore new experiences, so when my dear friend invited me to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, I leapt at the chance. I mean, how often do you get a chance to attend an AA meeting in Los Angeles in the winter sunshine, without actually having the need to do the homework to qualify? Curious, off I set with my sunscreen to the beach, the perfect place for any meetings.
About fifteen to twenty of us met about midday on a Sunday. To start, the lead of the chapter welcomes new members and reads out an introductory statement, re-iterating why we’re all here, that it’s non-for-profit, non-religious, apolitical, and we’re only here to help support members in their battle against addiction. Like reading a code of conduct - don’t be a penis, basically.
Three chosen people read out some select passages from the twelve-step book (or may have been from the As Bill Sees It book by the founder, Bill Wilson), stories of struggle against addiction, methods to fight it, and the impact that it has to oneself and families. Then the meat and potatoes of it: each person sitting in a circle relays anything on their mind. What’s stark and immediately interesting, is the hope within each story of sobriety: sometimes people have been on the wagon only a few weeks, sometime years, but each in turn is thankful for the life granted to them after giving up the booze. Each member has a story of what life now affords them.
TEach person only has five minutes to talk (not timed, so people often run over) and each one starts meekly, until confidence builds, and then their feelings bubble forth. Everyone is engaged. Each person introduces themselves, announces their an alcoholic, everyone greets them in reply, and then the stories begin. One that struck me in particular was a lady, let’s call her Michelle, that said, ‘I would hate it that I would wake up, I just wanted to die. Because each day I woke up I knew that I was going to drink again, and I didn’t want to. And I would hate myself for it.’ This tiny fragment is fascinating for me. I had always imagined that addicts of anything, smoking, chocolate et cetera always wanted to partake in their drug, that they were excited by it, looked forward to it. And here was a Michelle saying that she didn’t want to do it from the moment she woke up, but knew she would. They would steal and find a way of getting alcohol, and before they knew it by 10am they were sitting in a car park with several packs of beer, cracking open their first one. Frightening.
Michelle went on to be extremely thankful for the program, for having her sponsor to continually bounce off, and for saving enough money to fund new tyres on her car which she’d delayed for too long. As I said, it was uplifting, positive meeting. Each one scared of falling back into a pit of despair but managing through friendship, a sponsor, a God . . . having something to live for. Finding a purpose once again, perhaps. It was striking, sitting around in that circle of trust, that no one looked like an alcoholic, and perhaps no one really does. These were normal people you'd pass every day without ever thinking they struggled with an addiction, and I suppose you never really know what trials others are going through in their lives. A re-iteration once again to be kind to each other.
To find out more about the program, check out their American website https://www.aa.org/ or find your local chapter (there are many across the world). Take care of yourselves out there.
Like a sunrise, a new year brings renewed hope. In my case a new country to live in for the first part of the year, the United States of Ummerica. I’ll be bouncing around for a few months in California, Vancouver, Chicago and then finally New York, with side-trips to Washington DC and Philadelphia too. A busy two months, yet just four days in, I’m already experiencing a slice of Americana: I’ve watched my first ever Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune shows (they were on and I was in the room, that counts!); a package was delivered by a friendly UPS guy just like in the movies, never mind that he got the incorrect address; I accidentally turned on the garbage disposal in the sink and almost wet my pants at the noise; I’ve exercised down on the sandy beach and admired players shoot hoops like in White Men Can’t Jump; and I’ve watched a poor bastard too impoverished to afford his groceries of soda and milk, give up the soda at the check-out, then forlornly surrender the milk when he didn’t even have the requisite dollars even for that. The American Dream indeed.
Moving country does mess with the sleep cycles a little, and despite my insomnia abating in the last few months, it has reoccurred in Los Angeles two days in a row. I had recently been channelling my inner ‘anti-Rocky’ – instead of getting up from the canvas, I’ve been steadfastly embracing the horizontal, ignoring the belligerent brain demanding to discuss topics of no import. Knowing that 2.30am was not an ideal time to discuss anything, I was thankful my mind eventually acquiesced to my pleas after a few hours. It was with some surprise that my head cockily woke me up at 12.30am the next night for another chat. Dear Mind, that’s not quite what I intended . . .
In trying to be more active to help the insomnia, I’ve joined the gym out here and tried to get some more exercise. Visiting the outskirts of Los Angeles with friends, we scrambled down a meandering pathway to a very British beach - not a grain of sand in sight - near the Trump National Golf Course, and watched the massive Pacific melt away in a glorious afternoon sun. It’s a terrific place to view the world. I couldn’t help but think of home though: ten thousand miles away lay Australia, a nation fighting its own battles in some horrendous bushfires. I’ll be hoping for the best for my friends and their families over the coming weeks and months, that the smoke which dogs the skies will lift. Incredibly, this smoke has even reached New Zealand, fifteen hundred miles away. Out of the darkness, there will be light. Or at least we hope so, and that’s probably the key word: hope. Hope for a country, it’s people, for all people.
In a beautiful gesture that showed me the way forward during my time in America, I recall the bar set by my friend in Los Angeles back in that supermarket. She didn’t think or mull at seeing a guy in penury unable to afford his groceries, but immediately paid for the milk. There is hope still. It might not be the American Dream, but from little acts of kindness maybe we can all sleep better.
Note: There is a lot of information at the moment around the bushfires in Australia, but since pictures tell a thousand words, please have a look at the BBC link here. If you’re interested in donating funds to help those in need, HarpersBazaar have handily created the below links:
When I was in my teenage years, I’d often be romanticising about some girl that was far beyond my ability. One night, talking amongst the lads, I commented off-hand that I had an eye for spotting good-looking ladies, and a friend (a friend!) instantly responded, ‘it’s a shame they don’t have an eye for spotting you, isn’t it?’ As far as withering put-downs go, that’s up there!
I’m often asked about motivation: why and how do I do things? As far as my soul-searching goes, it doesn’t go back to a childhood moment of chastisement or “I’ll show them attitude”, of which I’ve had an incredible amount to draw on. Indeed, when looking at my teenage years, it is mostly full of embarrassment, yet this is just how the memory works: punctured by moments of heightened emotions, of happiness, sadness or cheeks of radish red. Don’t even get me started on having to ask the best-looking girl in my year out in French class, in French, as ordered by the teacher. Jesus-F*cking-Christ!
But regardless of these ghosts in the machine, I rarely ever think about them. My biggest competitor, motivator and critic are the same person: me. It is constant, incessant improvement. I feel healthier than I have in years, I’ve read a great deal too this year (thirty-five books), way more than any year previous, and there are always tiny elements of a book that inspire me utterly and keep that motivation going. So, at my most lazy, when I hug the couch, tea in hand and just thumb through a book, my body is taking respite but mind looking for a spark. One thing I have noticed though is that my mind and body are addicted to walking: I need to get out and about for an hour or two a day, becoming restless and unhappy without it. And once I’m walking, my mind is running: either listening to audiobooks or podcasts, music, TED Talks or speaking with friends. From these acorns big things grow (I’ve written about daily, weekly, fortnightly and monthly lists before!)
What next? A few changes in 2020, my surroundings to start with: I’ll be spending the next few months out in the United States. Although I’ve enjoyed it, perhaps less time reading will allow me to increase focus on health, writing and photography, relationships and my career. Will see what happens. For those that have this blog read over the years, I don’t believe in New Year’s Resolutions per say (if you want to do something, go to it, don’t wait!), but I do believe in being very grateful for everything life has afforded you. Despite constant lists of things I’m yet to do, I’m eternally grateful for the now.
Best wishes for 2020 x
It’s not often that my mind is blown, but the week started off with quantum mechanics and then I was in recovery mode for the week! but I’ll get to that in a second. During the normal working-week I’ve been gliding to the office on the dulcet tones of the classic children’s book Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham, some of the most effusive, happy descriptions of nature I’ve ever heard in my life. What a wonderful, wonderful book, and a lovely narration from libravox (and free too!). To get the cognitive juices flowing (because quantum mechanics isn’t enough), I’ve picked up Edward DeBono’s Lateral Thinking which is, as you can imagine, a different approach: in modern terms it’s generating as many ideas as possible, something in the corporate world they refer to as ‘ideation’ – idea generation. As opposed to vertical thinking where one reasons a good idea, and methodically and systematically improves on said idea, lateral thinking doesn’t mind going down blind alleys, as that wrong turn could generate a better outcome than purely singular thinking. I’m only halfway through but enjoying it.
With my reading time a little limited as work has ramped up on the last week to Christmas – holy monkeys, it’s Christmas! – I listened to the excellent TED Talk on quantum computing by Craig Costello, a researcher in cryptography for Microsoft. And then things got complicated. The fundamentals I think are this: codebreaking at the moment basically tries every combination possible to find the one successful to allow access. It’s a problem of concurrency i.e. we need to tackle one problem at a time. This is the example that I’ve come up with that helps me: if you knew that knocking on a door required anything between one and a million knocks to gain access, you’d start with knocking once. No answer. Knock twice. No Answer. Knock three times . . . you get the picture. You’d be there for some time, but you’d get the right answer eventually along with some sore knuckles and annoyed neighbours.
And then quantum mechanics ‘arrived’, and things don’t quite work at the same level as the rest of the physical universe – The Avengers were right! Well, to a degree, anyway. In the quantum realm, two objects can influence each other instantaneously despite being apart, which is called quantum entanglement. Then there’s the idea of quantum superposition, where a particle can exist in two places at the same time. As Craig Costello pointed out, protons can spin clockwise and anti-clockwise at the same time. To explain further, there is an excellent article from the New Scientist from 2015. But the basics is the idea of instantaneous and multiple existences.
Apart from being odd, why does this matter? Well, it means that instead of tackling one problem at a time, you can tackle all problems at the same time. Take the knocking on the door analogy again. If you knew that one combination of that one to a million knocks would let you in, at the quantum level you could just knock with million hands super-fast. So, when you relate this back to code-breaking, all the things that currently protect your email accounts, bank details, companies and governments, could receive a battering ram of hackers trying to access information. You know in movies where the bad guys access personal accounts and it slowly disintegrates down to zero as the money is wired to Zurich? Yeah, think that. In the words of Russel Crowe in Gladiator, ‘are you not entertained?!
It’s rare that I consent to watching television but I was drawn recently to a Bill Gates documentary on Netflix, Inside Bill’s Brain. Note – I did wonder whether streaming is actually television per say, but since ‘tele’ come from being far or distant in Greek, transmitting from afar, such as telegraph, streaming is television after all! So yes, I watched television. Don’t judge me!
There were three outstanding items from the documentary: the first was Bill’s sanitation project, taking normal everyday poop and turning it into drinkable water and combustible fuel; the second was solving the world’s energy crises via redesigning nuclear reactors using spent nuclear waste as the powering source; and the final item was simply on his reading fanaticism. I try to read, God know I wear my finger out, but there are books that just take time. Having just finished Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything in about two weeks (not reading constantly, you understand – am not that slow!), I generally went though a few chapters an hour. Bill Gates reads at an alarming 150 pages an hour, and imbibes every ounce of it. Bastard!
My pettiness aside (really, one hundred and fifty pages, come on!!) those two pet-projects of his could save hundreds of millions of lives per year – this without going into the eradication of polio which he and his wife, Melinda, have championed for years. In air-lifting/building a communal toilet to the most impoverished parts of the world and providing clean water as a by-product is simply astounding, ironically vastly improving the odds of almost 2 billion people that use a drinking water source contaminated with faeces, leading to dysentery, cholera, typhoid et cetera. Dysentery alone kills 140m people a year! Chuck in a few bars of soap as per a previous post on the Checklist Manifesto, and The Gates’ are single-handedly saving the human race (for which the planet may not thank him). Nuclear power on the other hand is a heavy topic, primarily because so many people have seen the repercussions of when it goes wrong. There are 450 in operation worldwide, but a single error such as Chernobyl or Fukishima results in unmitigated disaster. Interestingly there are none in Australia. What Bill saw was the necessity for a design re-vamp, which he and his team duly undertook. The result, if it works, is something that could change the entire perception of nuclear power worldwide. Speaking to a friend about it, he referred to is as a thorium reactor, and you can read more about it here in the Business Insider. I’m not a guru in business enough to know if Bill and Melinda Gates back turkeys often, but if Bill believes in it, and the eminent Warren Buffet backs Bill, then it’s worth keeping an eye on TerraPower.
It's heartening that after conquering the technological world, having more wealth than Croesus and being able to achieve anything Melinda and Bill want to do, they choose philanthropy. Giving something back.
You can read more about Bill Gates and his many projects at his blog gatesnotes.com.
In the last few weeks I’ve been ruminating a lot on what makes a leader, what inspires people to come to work, why they do what they do. More and more I see managers around me, not leaders. There is only one way to lead, and it’s as simple and elegant, yet probably the hardest at the same time: you lead by example.
In my current team I have constantly seen team members leave the country to spend time with their family abroad, taking their laptop with them and worked remotely. Everyone has complete trust in that person to do their job wherever they may be. Whilst my company aren’t doing anything ground-breaking in my point of view, I know there are many, many companies (I think the technical term is a “fu**tonne” of companies) that do not have that trust. I find this bewildering. Additionally, a friend recently commented that in the numerous companies she has worked for, not once has she been told to go home and rest or work from home when she had a cold. This seems utterly non-sensical! Every doctor in the known universe, and a vast majority in the unknown universe, prescribes two things for a cold: rest and lots of fluids. None of them prescribe work or spreading your germs around the office.
I understand that sometimes work just needs to be completed. An imminent deadline, perhaps. Barring that, the only way that a person can return to their full, productive capacity is by resting. If they come to work, not only are they not resting (unless resting is their job, like a sloth, which sounds terrific!) but the are likely to spread their cold to other team members, meaning that more people will get sick, resulting in further loss of productivity. All of a sudden you have an epidemic, with no one being able to work at their full capacity. It makes human and business sense to send your sick home to recover. So, as winter approaches in the northern hemisphere, make sure those with colds and flu don’t spread their germs at the office - that’s not what the season of giving is about! Press your manager to adopt some flexibility . . . you know, make them spend time with their families, that’s the punishment they deserve!
Ever find yourself struggling with anxiety or depression? Try beyondblue, they're a charity that provide numerous links and resources, including forums where you can post to anonymously to ask questions fr others that have been through similar ordeals or simply chat.
Have an awesome week, take care of yourself!
Quote to think on . . .
“Our roles as leaders is to create cultures where people give all they have, simply for the reason that they love where they the work” Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last.
Book I'm reading . . .
God is Not Great (How religion Poisons Everything) by Christopher Hitchens
It’s been a long time (about eleven hours) during Richard Banson’s Business Stripped Bare audiobook that we hit on the good stuff. There was a lot of tawdry bits about cassette singles in the 80’s being £1.84 and the tactics of BA against Virgin Airways, but finally in Chapter 7 hit on philanthropy, battling for a cause greater than yourself. To quote a Greek proverb, a society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they will never see. In this final chapter Branson talks of his real passions: battling climate change; meeting Melinda and Bill Gates; stopping AIDS; his friendship with Madiba, Nelson Mandela; and the start of The Elders, a group of extraordinary independent global leaders working together for peace and human rights. You can find out more about them here but to quote the ex-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan:
On the weekend I read the inspiring story of Anh Do, an Australian comedian that escaped from the atrocities of Vietnam along with most of his family thanks to the bravery of his parents. Throughout the book there is reference to a simply terrific quotation by his father, ‘there’s only two times in life, there’s now, and there’s too late.’ With climate change looking to disrupt our way of life, with politicians actively already disrupting it, perhaps V for Vendetta is becoming more appealing.
To credit Branson, he introduced me to this lovely tale from Loren C Eisely which is setting off fireworks of thoughts, making a difference no matter how small. Have an amazing week!
One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a girl picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean. Approaching the girl, he asked, “What are you doing?” The youth replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.” The man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!”
After listening politely, the girl bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, she said… “I made a difference for that one.”
I love retreating to the country, a little solace, verdance and sunshine, yet there’s a special place in hell for Australia’s flies. I can understand one of these bastard insects searching for moisture from beads of sweat, snatching a cool libation, yet delving into the ears, really? Why are they so obsessed with ears? Not just near the ears, that annoying buzz flitting around and making the hair on your neck rise to attention and your spine squiggle like an eel, but deep into the ear canal. Last evening, one flew head on straight in and out again (the same ear, not out the other side), creating a god-awful din as it went, effectively playing the drums as it thrashed around in there. Then there’s the corner of the eyes, flies capitalising on the tears of frustration, and then there’s the nose! Not just under the nose, at the philtrum, or landing on the tip of the nose, but into the nose, searching right up in the naval cavity for entertainment. What can possibly be so enticing that any insect would think, ‘that looks interesting, gonna get my feet wet up there! Ohhhh yesss, here I come!’ And if it isn’t the flies . . .
A few weeks ago, my friend that owns the property where I’m currently staying sent me a picture of a snake. Now, I don’t know much about snakes, other than Australia has a significant number of nasties. This one in particular was curled around itself and looked all kinds of dangerous. It was in fact a red-bellied black. Although extremely venomous, this metre-long beastie endemic to Australia isn’t aggressive unless provoked, which to me pretty much describes anything in the universe. The gorilla was perfectly placid until he ripped the arm’s off the man for hiding a banana. In this case, they managed to relocate the snake, pacifying it with a broom and a pillowcase . . . I don’t know, I wasn’t there, but I’m assured by my friend this was standard protocol. Last time I’d stayed at the house, I woke up one morning to see a huntsman crawl out of the bed I was sleeping in. Now, these don’t bite humans, often – well, they don’t bite me, because I’m about ten feet away usually – but are scarily large enough to put one into a coma of fright. Call me crazy, but I think I’ll take the flies.
November has become quite an important month for two significant events: Remembrance Day, also known as Armistice Day; and secondly for Movember, growing a silly moustache for a very important cause. But I’ve probably been asked more this year than ever within this multi-cultural, youthful society in which we live, what the hell both are about.
This year my mum, in getting back into knitting after making a shit-tonne (think that’s the technical term) of small owls to help raise funds for the local owl sanctuary that they also sponsor, has also knitted a few poppies to raise money for the British Legion. For those that aren’t familiar with Remembrance Day, it takes place on 11th November each year, with two minutes of silence at 11am. In the UK, all radio programs stop and play nothing but air for the duration. The date signifies the signing of the armistice for the First World War, guns finally ceasing at the eleventh day on the eleventh month on the eleventh hour in 1918. As for the poppy, these are the flowers growing in Flanders Fields, Belgium, where some of the bloodiest battles took place. The slogan in Australia is, ‘Lest We Forget’, and the poppy is worn to honour those that gave their lives so that we can live. Fortunately for me, both my Grandfather and Great-Grandfather fought in and survived the second world war and first world war respectively.
As for Movember, this is the third year I’ve taken part. If you’re new to Movember, it’s a leading men’s health charity, funding more than 1,250 men’s health projects around the world, challenging the status quo, shaking up men’s health research and transforming the way health services reach and support men. Some knock your socks off statistics - globally, every minute, a man dies by suicide. Our fathers, brothers, sons and friends. In Australia, 75% of suicides are men. That’s balmy! We simply don’t speak about our problems enough. If you’d like to contribute to a great cause, it’ll only take a mo-ment, please check out the donation page here. It’s not all about the mo-ney, but any funds you choose to donate for Movember go towards research in prostate cancer, testicular cancer, mental health and suicide prevention.
What I’m reading: I’ve just finished Simon Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last, and have picked up God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens and The Rum Diary by Hunter S Thompson. I’m flirting with Dickens’ David Copperfield but just can’t quite muster the enthusiasm for Dickens!
What I’m listening to: Virgin’s Richard Branson’s Business Laid Bare on audiobook at 150% speed (hark at me!) and some Lamb of God to spice up my morning when I’m tired.
No one needs to feel like a blancmange in suit. Or just a blancmange, really (useless and wobbly - ask the English rugby team, arf!). Two half-hour sessions at the gym a week have done me the world of good – regardless of outward improvement, I feel better. It’s hard to lead by example when you don’t feel like you can, and this mental and physical strengthening has helped bring out my psychological sunshine. This week, I was even feeling positive about a two-day workshop.
There are few times I have been optimistic at workshops: organisers fail to prepare adequately; ideal outcomes are ethereal; and we fumble through presentations hoping for the apocalypse. Or a tea break. Post session, everyone agrees that the core message could have been attained in two hours. Oh, and if you can kindly catch up on two-days of missed work in your spare time, that’d be brilliant. Yet as I approached this session focusing on Culture Uplift, I was extremely positive: the company hired professionals to run it and hand-chose it’s attendees. Additionally, the people that opened the address had power within the organisation to effect changes. They had invested, and so had I.
So . . . what the hell is culture, anyway? In an indigenous awareness session years ago, we were asked exactly that: music; art; stories; history; language; food; family; customs; religion all came up. I think it’s what binds us together as social animals, which may relate to that basic hormonal needs of serotonin (well-being and happiness) and oxytocin (feeling of love or social bonding). We fundamentally need to form a cohesive bond of implicit trust and togetherness. Without that within your workplace or personal life, you’re dead in the water.
The workshop included knowledge from Carolyn Taylor, a new name to me, and her tome Walk The Talk (now added to the reading list) and referenced one of my favourite speakers, Simon Sinek. In this case, it prompted me to steal back a book I bought as a gift, Together is Better. A small book of optimism and leadership, it’s an absolute cracker. I also purchased another of his, Leaders Eat Last, and am half-way through. The trick to these books is that they are so accessible: nothing in them is new, per say. We’ve just become so estranged to what good looks like, we think being led by profit mongering bastards is the norm. It can be better.
It’s an extremely difficult task to improve culture when you’ve just let go of thousands of people in huge batches of redundancies, although a might bloody harder doing it before you let them go one would imagine. But I admire the effort and purpose. As with the gym, leadership and cultural muscles take time to build, so it will be an interesting journey. I got sunshine in my pocket, people!
Writing and writing...