One thing I’ve noticed is that lots of people (including myself) have been radiating stress. This is probably caused by the squeeze of work before the year end.
Christmas is usually a busy moment, but tied along with increased workloads and tired souls, I’m noticing an extra level of fatigue. Either that or perhaps it’s just what I’m experiencing for myself anyway.
As both a human being experiencing these things and as a manager, it can be tricky to know what to do, or how to respond. I’ve certainly seen that the usual platitudes are not particularly helpful for people – they haven’t been for me. Usual responses can be easy one-liners such as that it would be a good idea to take more breaks, working less or to simply not stress out. I find these more frustrating than useful.
Whilst there is certainly an underlying truth in these sayings, they are often buried in with a working context where the message is anything but ‘work less’. It’s hard to take seriously a voice which tells us to take a break when it’s the same voice that is telling us to work harder. I’ve certainly experienced this many times in my career, and so it’s one I want to avoid preaching myself.
I think it’s important to accept the realities of our situation. When we take a role, we can find ourselves with rather stretching deadlines. Reminding ourselves that the deadline we face is not the be-all-end-all can be helpful, but it doesn’t necessarily solve the problem either. Even when we know life won’t end if we don’t do a task, it doesn’t stop it being something we feel like we either want to or should do anyway.
I think we can give ourselves grace to see that these periods are stretching us, and – dare I say it – allow ourselves to feel discontent about it too. We can allow ourselves to feel our feelings without turning into victimhood. After all, Experiencing unpleasant emotions during a time of stress is a perfectly normal reaction.
I’m looking to ride my emotions as well as I can. This week, I had a moment where I just felt very emotionally drained, to the point I needed to just take time to sit in silence during the day. I’m generally pretty on top of my emotions, so the feeling was a little scary if I’m being totally honest.
I’d like to say I’ve gotten pretty good at reading my own emotional signals, so I can react pretty well. But my heart goes out for those who haven’t really tuned into themselves, the blocking of these emotions is why we are seeing so much unhappiness and burn out. The answer to emotions is to experience them, not to ignore them.
So in this December rush, remember that it’s okay to feel. This is a moment where you might be more challenged than in other parts of the year.
Sometimes the best antidote for being stressed is accepting that we are stressed.
Last weekend I volunteered to help make food at an event. It was a pretty basic task. I had to restock the drinks bottles on the shelf, refill the snack bowls and make some pizzas in the oven.
I was surprised to find it was the most relaxed I’ve felt when making food in about a year. The basic task of cutting up pizza slices was bringing me more joy than similar tasks usually do.
The big difference was that I was taking my time. Since I was at the event for a few hours, there was no need to rush. I could work at a steady, enjoyable pace.
Normally when cooking, I try and optimise my timings. I start heating up the pan before cutting up all the vegetables because I can chop the garlic quickly and throw it in. After that I then quickly cut up some other veggies on the fly to throw in, whilst keeping an eye on the pan. Whilst it’s nice to be able to juggle difficult tasks, without realising it I have been doing this to the point that I’m putting myself under a needless time pressure.
Even today, I came home after doing some grocery shopping. Certain items go to the bathroom, which is upstairs next to my bedroom. I instinctively split out everything that needs to go upstairs so that I can take everything up in one trip. Whilst on paper this sounds efficient, in practice there’s usually too many items and I usually always forget something, so I’ll have to take the trip again anyway. I’ve been caught in a game of mental arithmetic to try and avoid multiple trips upstairs, even though there is absolutely no need to rush.
These may sound like mundane examples, but it’s a bit scary to notice how often I overplan things for the benefit of ‘saving time’. The irony is that by the time I’m done with all my time-saving hacks, I’m tired and end up crashing on the sofa for longer. Because of this, basic tasks like washing and cleaning feel more complicated because of the amount of additional steps I create for myself when doing them.
The worst bit is that this amount of planning takes the joy away from doing simple tasks. Rather than simply washing the dishes when I see them, I multi-task that with when I’m waiting for food to be cooked. I’m inadvertently training my brain to always have several things on the go. This takes away from the satisfaction of cleaning my kitchen, because I’m not taking the time to do the job properly.
Ironically, a lot of what I do within my workplace is to break down tasks into as simple tasks as possible. I want to avoid making tasks feel complicated, as I can see how much of a disempowering effect that can have. I think it’s what has driven a lot of my professional success.
Yet in my personal life, I am making my tasks far more complicated than they need to be. I’ve noticed that this makes me less likely to follow good habits, and I find it harder to relax afterwards. I’ve noticed recently that I end up doing things like watching something on TV whilst also scrolling on my phone at the same time, because a single source of stimulation is not enough.
This over-efficiency habit is not conducive for calmness and deeper presence. Whilst there are moments where it can be useful, such as reacting to a short term deadline, it’s not the best way to live in the longer term.
Another way of looking at it is living more in the moment. Living in the moment means choosing whether we react to the things that are in front of us. It means we are far more likely to do our laundry by getting straight into action – rather than getting stuck in the thought that the laundry needs to be done and put it off for later.
I invite you to look at your life. See where you might be making your life more complicated than it needs to be. Simplifying actions may actually be the real time-hack.
In the past four weeks I’ve been doing more public speaking then I’ve done in the last six months
On Monday I had another speaking engagement – my fourth this month. On Tuesday was the working group with our members (one of my main deliverables in my job). On Wednesday I gave the final push to a paper we’re launching at COP on the social aspects of circular economy. In practice, this meant mass reviewing 1000 revisions on track changes and comments to a semblance of a clean document.
Unsurprisingly by Thursday I was knackered. I remarked to one of my colleagues that this was one of the least productive days that I’ve had in months.
It was quite difficult to see that I had delivered far less than I had been in comparison to the week or even the days before. Suddenly very basic tasks that would probably actually only take me 30 minutes felt like an insurmountable task.
By the weekend, I felt quite drained and a bit guilty for not finalising everything I wanted.
It then occurred to me that last week I had to juggle travel, speaking, emails and project work. I even remembered remarking how I had basically done two days worth of work in an intense 3 hour period last Friday.
When I gave myself the grace to realise how much I had been pushing myself over the last two weeks, I could see that this was a natural cycle of energetic flow.
I’ve been noticing this phenomenon of post-stress work guilt. I’ve seen many colleagues and friends go through an intense period with high workloads and pressure. During these moments we often reflect that this is a short term thing, and that once the project is over we can finally relax. Unfortunately, when the quieter moment comes, we start to feel guilty that we are not doing enough. This means that our body doesn’t have time to recuperate the stressed energy that we used.
When we take a step back it can seem pretty obvious how self-defeating this is. If we are exerting ourselves beyond our normal limits, it’s completely natural that our capacity after the intense moments will be restricted. And yet rather than letting ourselves return to a rested state, we can instead push our way through more work out of a sense of loyalty or guilt. This leads to mediocre work, and a constant sense of tiredness.
I believe that we have learnt to be relentlessly consistent in our productivity. this sounds like a good thing to strive for, at least on paper. But the reality is that as humans, we aren’t built to work in this way.
In our contracted 40 hours work week, our metrics can tell us that we need a consistent level of productivity throughout these hours. Yet the reality is that we can have moments that are incredibly productive whilst in others moments that are anything but incredible.
There are two ways to tackle this. On the one hand we can look to be as consistent as possible by making sure that we have effective routines. And for many instances this can be very helpful, our ability to control our environment and the way that we live means that we can create the right conditions to succeed.
On the other hand, life is not perfectly consistent. We may have new challenges appear in front of us. We’ve often seen this during a time of intense project delivery, but we often forget about the additional strains that life outside the workplace can throw at us. Marital issues, illness or any other host of events can make us tap into our reserves.
The more that I am in tune with the rhythm of life, the more I feel in flow, no matter what I am feeling.
The biggest secret I have learned has been that the best way to deal with emotions is to not deal with them. By this I mean experiencing emotions without feeling the need to analyse or react to them. This is different to avoiding the emotions which just leaves them lingering under the surface.
So when we are looking at the question of productivity in our lives, it is helpful to reflect how we can be consistent in our routines, but also be flexible to the shifting enigma that is life.
The more that we can be comfortable with the idea that we do not have to be perfectly consistent the more that we will ultimately get done. The only thing that guilt does is serve to hold us back by making us feel bad about ourselves.
And my personal belief is that the only way to long term, consistent productivity is by being happy and motivated.
This week was a European tour for me. I started in Brussels, then went up to Amsterdam to speak at the Sustainable Packaging Summit. on Wednesday I came straight to London (with a small box of chocolates for my dad’s birthday) to speak with a group of Spanish cleantech startups. I’m now going back to Brussels this Sunday (and speaking at another event on Monday there!)
I’ve been posting quite a lot recently about the importance of getting out of our comfort zones if we want to get wider perspectives. This week was me putting this into action – spending time outside of the people I would usually speak to, and learning about things that I honestly had little knowledge about.
There’s a reason we tend to want to stay in spaces that are more comfortable – it’s a lot easier hanging around with work colleagues in Brussels talking about my niche policy interests. Getting out of this space is uncomfortable as I don’t really know what to expect.
From a professional perspective, it’s also quite nerve wracking. I went to speak on a stage at a conference all about packaging when I was probably one of the people who knew the least when it came to the technical aspects of the subject. I even had a comment of someone a tad confused as to why I was on the speaker line-up since what I do didn’t sound all that relevant.
Feeling discomfort in such spaces is completely normal, and indeed part of the process. When we want to do something different, it means opening ourselves up to new things. For me, this meant going into a space of experts of something I knew little about. It was also really humbling to realise how little I knew about the chemistry in the way packaging is made, as well as how complex it all was.
Nevertheless, there is a real value in being an outsider. What I shared on stage was a more broad outlook at European policy. I was invited for this reason – to give my own expertise, rather than opining similar things to the ones that the room already knew.
I think it worked. I had a few people telling me that they really appreciated my broader perspective, as well as someone asking if I would be interested in speaking at a similar conference in a few months time.
Being an outsider means that there is little space to hide. It allows us to be different and share something novel, but this also requires a deeper level of self-assuredness and confidence. But standing out for the right reasons is far more memorable than doing what everyone else is doing as an insider.
So for me, this meant really being sure of my own skills. I had to be a lot more connected with my intuition. It was about being bold and following what I thought was useful to share, rather than looking for an easier route to get agreement. As is the life of the outsider.
As an ethnic minority, the idea of being an outsider does really get reinforced, even if subtly. Just this month I’ve spelt wrong several times, including being put up on a website publicly. I’ve also had my name mispronounced when introduced too.
Frustratingly, I’ve seen much more difficult (but European) names from central or eastern Europe being spelt correctly, but my more ‘ethnic’ name being spelt wrong, despite it being right there for everyone to see.
Knowing how to respond is tricky – when I’ve raised it, people don’t really understand the problem. Everyone makes mistakes right? We’ve all seen a typo in our name after all. And yet, the level that it happens to me compared to those with ‘whiter’ names is probably two to three times more.
I’ve tried to ignore it, but that only leads to greater frustration. I chastise myself for not standing up for what I believe in. Yet raising it also brings discomfort in a place in spaces where one is meant to be ‘civil’.
My answer is to come from a loving space, but to raise it anyway. The more I can be understanding around an error, the easier it is for someone to receive my explanations that such mistakes have a negative effect. From my eyes, I am experiencing a lower level of dignity and respect due to my racial background. So it’s important for me to share this.
Alas, being an outsider is not an easy game. But it is also more rewarding, and often more fun. My ethnic diversity also gives me a rich set of perspectives and it is also what I draw upon when I speak. It gives something different. And in a world where we’re clamouring for solutions, it’s vital to get different viewpoints.
When we see ourselves free of needing to be part of any particular group, it allows ourselves to express far more openly. To me, that is the ultimate freedom.
And it’s no wonder that those who really master this are the most successful people in the world.
This week, I’ve been reflecting on the idea of ‘being right’. After all, so much of what we do is based upon finding the correct answer.
But what does being right really mean?
For a long time, I saw being right as synonymous with the best way to do things. In my mind, once we reflected upon something for long enough, there was more or less a single answer that was correct. So this meant that such an answer would obviously be the best thing to do. For example, when in a workplace this meant that logically it would be the best course of action to follow.
Looking back, I’d say I was pretty naive. The idea that people are genuinely rational is a fundamental lack of understanding that i had. But I don’t blame myself. After all, this was how I was taught the world work. You work hard, you’ll get good grades. Get good grades, get a good diploma. Get a good diploma, get a good job. Get a good job, get a promotion. And so forth.
As a young budding graduate starting my career, I thought the best way to pull ahead was simply being better at finding the logical truth behind things. And to my own credit, I got pretty good at it. Yet despite really honing my skills at being as analytically effective as I could, I was surprised at how limited my impact was. It didn’t seem like people were often all that interested in hearing how things could be improved.
After some soul searching, I looked at seeing whether there was a better way of seeing the world.
One thing that has really helped me was to realise how narrow my view of logic was. I realised that In my own head, I could set fixed parameters which highlighted what was ‘correct’. I hadn’t quite realised how much loaded information I was putting that simply was not objective at all.
Opening my mind has been a way in which I can see different ways of looking at things. It allows me to realise that there is an inherent flaw in the idea that anything can be objectively ‘right’. I’ve found myself more open to new ideas and changing my mind than I had to previously. Broadly this has been for the better.
But opening my mind does not mean throwing away critical thinking. Many in the liberal, left-leaning space can become so preoccupied with incorporating the views of others that they forget that they have their own minds too. For me, this meant that I was foregoing my natural instinct to placate others. In a workplace setting, this can look like getting the agreement of the majority of the room, at the behest of the actual expert on the subject who knows what they are talking about.
Practically, this meant that in a workplace I was often dimming my knowledge and intuition because I would caveat everything with ‘well I could be wrong’. Whilst humility can be nice, it also was a gateway drug for no longer following my own brilliance.
There is a beautiful sweet spot. One where we can see our own truth, and understand our own instincts. We do not constantly question them, or shy away when they are telling us something that is uncomfortable to realise (for instance, the instinct to speak up when you can see something wrong happening in a meeting or an injustice on the street).
But we must also recognise that our own intellect has its limits. No matter how much we attain information, there is no possible way we will know everything. If anything, the opposite happens – the more we learn, the more we realise how little we truly know. It’s no wonder that the greatest gurus, experts and leaders often make this point.
This is where the balanced approach comes in. To lead, we need to be able to have a position. If we are not willing to put a flag in the sand somewhere, we will never really say anything of substance. But we must also understand that setting out such a view has potentials for error. So coming to our own conclusions does not mean that our views may later shift.
We are all guilty of seeing ourselves as more right than others. On a superficial level we may be willing to concede certain informational points (such as what time someone said the next bus was). But what most people do not see is that many of our moral stances and values are grounded within the same assumptions of being right compared to others.
In other words, we generally implicitly assume our moral positioning and judgement of what is right or wrong is the correct one compared to others. So when people do things outside of our own framework, we end up judging them. Perhaps we label them as being too loud, too much of a know it all, too soft, or too lazy.
What I have found is that the more I am open to different ways of looking at things, the more I am influential. Most arguments are not about ‘winning’, they are often about being heard. The ability to set a position and be open to challenge on it is extremely powerful. This is the case even if we do not end up necessarily shifting our view.
Ironically, people are more likely to listen to what I have to say when I’m not trying so hard to push it on them.
The last few weeks I’ve kept my days clearer and my evenings quieter. X Some call this ‘slowing down’, though I find that term a bit confusing – because whilst I am doing less activities, my mental space doesn’t feel particularly less active. If anything, it feels like I think more, rather than less.
It’s been an interesting experience for sure. Having freer evenings has allowed me to lounge around and enjoy spending time alone. When I tried ‘doing less’ in the summer, I ended up getting fidgety and felt quite miserable because I didn’t know what to do with myself. I think I’m having a better crack at it now though.
More sedentary time was also needed – I’ve injured my abdomen and need some time to rest it. I’ve already re-opened the injury by going back to exercise too soon, so it’s better I don’t repeat the same mistake. I can also feel an accumulated fatigue within my body. It has been to the point where I’ve felt tired doing simple things like walking up the stairs. This is despite being in better physical shape than I have been in a long time.
What’s been surprising is how much more tired my body has felt when I’ve given it time to rest. My expectations would have been that giving myself a few days would give a natural recovery, and I would just feel better pretty quickly.
Instead, I’m finding that I’d probably been running on reserves for some time. Now that I’m finally giving my body space to rest it needs to properly go into recovery mode for a few weeks. So more aches and pains are resurfacing. Part of this is probably just being more sedentary, but I think it’s a necessary price to let the rest of my body heal.
Spending more time alone has given more space for thought. And this has felt like a blessing and a curse. It’s been nice to relieve myself of the high standards that I need to be constantly doing more, or always be available to other people. I can allow myself some creature comforts and not always push myself so hard. I think this is also helping my relationships improve, because as I value my time more, others value it more as well.
It’s also allowed myself more space to process my day sub-consciously, gleaning more intuitive knowledge from an event rather than just moving straight to the next thing.
At times, it’s also been very confronting. Some intuitive thoughts can be rather unpleasant. I’ve recently seen my neediness around social relationships and people. It’s not a fun thing to realise how a lot of my behaviour has been subconsciously driven by the buzz of meeting people, to the point that I have gotten addicted to it. Like any drug, spending time with people has overtaken other parts of my life. This has not been particularly helpful for my overall wellbeing.
It can be tricky to see the difference between genuine intuition or overthink. For example, am I having a genuine realisation about myself or am I just being self-critical?
It’s taken some real learning to discern the two. To me, intuition is something that comes to me without spending too much time thinking about it. My belief is that this is coming from the wider sub-conscious processing, which can take a day or two to come through.
Meanwhile, overthink is sitting with the analytical process of trying to explain ‘why’. Whilst our brains are fabulous for many things, they are not designed to handle subjective feelings and emotions. Such things are not a maths solution with a single answer, so using the brain in these spaces can be fraught with overanalysis and actually pretty unhelpful stories.
Let me give an example. When I sat with myself sometime last week, some pretty intense emotions came up. I felt a hard pressing sensation on my upper chest. The temptation on this was to ask ‘what’s wrong?’. Going down this path would start searching for a reason. In the past, I would come to some rather wild conclusions – at one point I just believed I wasn’t destined to be happy. Another time I came to the conclusion that it’s because I have it harder than other people.
Now, I let the emotion sit. In the short term, it’s more intense because I’m not distracting myself by trying to think ‘why’. But when I can bear the emotional intensity, it tends to pass faster and more healthily. I usually gain clarity a day or two later.
With perspective and time to properly feel what I was feeling, I could see that these were feelings that I wasn’t giving time to surface by being so busy. I could also gain a deeper wisdom of what I can do better, rather than ending up blaming the world in one way or another.
Because these moments aren’t pleasant, the temptation is to see them as negatives. During the summer, this meant that I ended up avoiding them, because I saw the feelings as bad rather than part of a process.
I haven’t quite found perfection – I still can jump to conclusions or want to push negative emotions away. This is one of the reasons I’ve really struggled to speak about the Israel-Palestine war these last weeks. It’s so emotionally intense and upsetting that I’ve found it really hard to say something on it. I realise this is my tendency to avoid such heavy emotions. I also realise that this is not particularly helpful, and my silence also plays a part.
So for what it’s worth, I find the situation incredibly distressing. I know that there are innocent people on both sides caught up on it. There are also people who prefer violence to peace on both sides too. I do not agree with this approach – I believe love and peace is the ultimate solution to our woes.
But I think it’s also important not to be naive, as I also see the seismic imbalance of a government-led destruction from one side of the other. Historic ties have meant that such atrocities are being ignored internationally.
States of war are as good as reason as any for us to realise the importance of self-reflection. Our tactics to avoid uncomfortable emotions don’t serve us in the long run.
The more comfortable we can get with discomfort, the less we have to fear. And a less fearful world will be a far more peaceful one.
I’ve spent more time lounging around in bed this week than I have done in months. And honestly, it’s been pretty great.
This experience has been in stark contrast to my recent months. My summer was meant to be a period of downtime. Yet I found it really challenging to really relax. It was as if there was an angst to go out and spend time with the world. Which then meant I was getting tired again.
The issue was my discomfort with being alone. It wasn’t quite an existential self-loathing, but I felt bored quickly. And after a while of feeling bored, I found myself searching for stimulation, which was usually outside the house. And so the cycle continued. I felt conflicted. I wanted to rest, but would find myself feeling worse when I gave myself time to rest. Whilst in the past this was because I might have been blocking out emotions that were rising to the surfaces, this time it was more about not actually enjoying the time alone.
I tried certain things like meditation. And they were beneficial for sure, particularly when I got into a state of unease. But what I found was that after I did the meditation, the boredom would return. Then the other unpleasant feelings would follow.
Last weekend I was ill. Even by my own standards, I was not letting my body rest. I got to the point where taking a walk to the shops felt like a physically exhausting endeavour. By Sunday I ended up having three naps. I took a day off sick on Monday too.
I took this as an opportunity to return to creature comforts. Nostalgic trips of playing old video games help – I re-completed the OG Pokemon and have been replaying Metal Gear Solid. Playing these games brought back a wave of positive feelings and emotional connection. It felt nice.I think I lost sight of the benefits of having comfort and safety.
Our so-called ‘comfort zones’ are often used in the sense of things that we have to break out of to grow. There is certainly an element of truth in that – if we are too comfortable we can stagnate. But I forgot that there is a reason why having a comfort zone is good too. It’s nice to feel calm and safe somewhere. This psychological safety is what brings us back to a place of homeostasis.
This weekend I’ve been spending more time daydreaming. The only plans I had this weekend got cancelled, so I can instead just relax and let my mind wander and think about nice things. I forgot how nice and relaxing it can be. It’s something I used to do a lot when I was younger, so it feels very familiar and comforting.
I think I lost this art because as the responsibilities grow, I would get caught up in a negative thought, which would then spiral. For example, It can be easy to let a thought about work turn into a stressful creation of planning what I need to do for the week ahead. I then started equating day dreaming to unhappy thoughts, so I stopped doing it.
But I’ve learnt to notice these thought patterns. Rather than trying to ‘outthink’ negative thinking (which does not work!), I just instead return to a nicer thought. Reliving a nice memory. An event, or the company of someone I enjoyed. It doesn’t take long until I’ve completely forgot about the negative thought.It’s a little funny to think about it, because I know a few years ago I would spend hours in the evening trying to think my way out of my negative thinking. But this just made the problem worse, which would lead to worse sleep and an even more negative cycle. If only I had known then what I know now!
When I returned to the positive train of thought, this then kicked off a creative process of what I wanted to do. When I thought of someone I hadn’t spoken to, I wandered how they were. It reminded me that I hadn’t spoke to them in a while so I could drop them a message saying I was thinking of them.
It feels nice for me to reconnect with them, and I also know that there’s few things more pleasant than receiving a message from someone you haven’t heard from in a while simply because they were thinking of you.
I also found myself thinking about what I might want to do. My brain started engaging in some travel plans for next year. I started looking up some initial ideas and asking for some advice. It was nice to think about what possibilities I could have. The planning felt fun and exciting, which was so starkly different compared to the recent travel I had done where it felt more like a chore.
Not only am I now enjoying my time alone, it also doesn’t need to feel like a serious thing I have to do. This isn’t a ‘need’ to go meditate or do yoga to feel better. I can just come to a relaxed space when I want. It no longer feels like another item on the ‘to-do’ list.
It also means that having a free weekend isn’t a daunting a prospect as it has been recently. If I have nothing to do this weekend, then I’ll just enjoy time with myself. I also know that this will mean I’m far more present when I am actually with people because I’ve properly rested too. I also have more space for spontaneous chats or just hanging out without a plan.
It may sound a little silly, but taking time out to day dream about nice things could be the missing piece to your mental wellbeing.
I’m writing this on a lazy Sunday, where I’ve been feeling anything but with the essence of joie de vivre.
I had an injury on my abdomen return on Friday. My Saturday was watching England get hammered by South Africa in the Cricket World Cup (and also lose to the same opponent in the Rugby World Cup, but I follow that less). Meanwhile, Chelsea managed to throw away a 2-0 lead against Arsenal in the last 15 minutes to draw 2-2.
But this week was around connecting with my joie de vivre about what I do.
A few weeks ago I realised how I had become a little disillusioned with the world of policymaking. Everything felt quite slow, and I questioned whether what I was doing was really worth it. Unsurprisingly, I’ve been putting less intentional energy in the work I do.
This wasn’t a conscious decision, rather a slow descent into apathy. There is a marked difference between how I showed up as a fresh intern ten or so years ago compared to how I’m showing up now. Now this isn’t an exercise in self-judgement. I’ve worked in rather complex and large policy areas. As much as it’s important to be professional, working on Brexit was a tiring and rather scarring experience. Even now, EU policy is riddled with words of ‘crisis’ (or my personal pet peeve, ‘polycrisis’). It’s easy to fall into despair, which seems to be the currency of choice going in the media right now.
But this mentality isn’t particularly helping me. I am robbing myself of my own ability to change things for the better if I carry around this apathy with me.It’s easy to fall into doom and gloom, and the solution seems to be to share this with others until we’re all in the same boat. I think secretly, we’re a world that is looking for inspiration and hope. But we can only find these things if we are open to them.
I went to an event with an accomplished, learned former politician speaking. He spoke with humility and grace. He answered questions genuinely, thanked people sincerely and set out a vision of what he thought would be helpful. Here was someone that I felt was doing what he thought was right to help without a sense of ego
When I looked up the history of this person, I could see a man who had been looking to do what was right for a consistently long period of time – I’m talking decades. I’m sure if I delved deep enough I would have found things I disagreed with. But that would detract from a genuine admiration I felt for this person.
In the past, I would have robbed myself from feeling inspired from such a speech. Firstly, because I wouldn’t have been in the room to listen in the first place. But secondly, because I probably wouldn’t have really been listening deeply. If I don’t acknowledge my genuine feelings of being lost or feeling apathetic, it is impossible for anyone to really talk to that fully. I would be too busy deflecting and questioning to receive the hope being transmitted. Even if that’s what I really wanted deep down.
Since I mentioned the painful side of sport earlier, I’ll also mention the inspiring side too. I’ve been absolutely captivated by Jude Bellingham, a 20 year old footballer. He grew up in Birmingham and is visibly an ethnic minority. Rather than take the easy route and stay in England, he went to Borussia Dortmund to really hone his craft. This summer, he was bought by Spanish giants Real Madrid. For me, there’s something really compelling about his story personally as a fellow ethnic minority that decided to move to the continent to ply my trade.
Logic would say that being a big money signing at such a young age should be a recipe for disaster. Madrid fans can be fickle, and if you don’t play well they can turn on you quickly. This was the history of the most recent British export, Gareth Bale.
Yet somehow this young man has made the price tag of 100 million euros paid for him look like a bargain. He has become a leading figure, averaging around a goal a game despite being a midfielder. I watched highlights of him dribbling and scoring against Napoli in the Champions League a month or two ago – he makes it look like he is playing against children. And on Wednesday he played for England where he played an incredible game, first winning a penalty then running half the pitch to set up a goal.
What this guy is doing should not really be possible. He is too young with too much pressure on him. Yet the way he conducts himself is with a deeper knowing that he can take control of a whole game, despite being surrounded with far more experienced people than him.
It might seem weird to spend so much time talking about a footballer. This isn’t a sports blog after all. But I am a multidimensional human beings, with all sorts of different influences. Perhaps the British side of me is coming out with this statement – It’s okay to be inspired. In fact, it’s good. My tendency is to play it down, or find ways to negate that feeling. But why not enjoy it? It’s one of the sweetest feelings we get, because it helps us dream about what is possible.
When we dream, we can re-kindle the joy that we may have lost along the way.
This week’s theme for me was about getting myself out there. Over the last few months,
I noticed that I haven’t been going out to meet the world as much as I could – particularly around and about in Brussels. Perhaps it was a hangover from the pandemic, but the convenience of online meetings has led me to become a little overreliant on online communication.
Don’t get me wrong – I think that the way we can now connect so seamlessly is a massive gift. But there is still a big place for seeing people in person, particularly for the first time.
So this week I attended a few networking evenings plus work events. I feel a bit silly now, but it became starkly evident that I had been missing out on great connections due to my passivity. From a policy perspective, there’s so much to be gained by attending events for new ideas, whilst at a networking discussion a short conversation can build a far deeper connection than an ongoing email exchange ever could.
I attended the launch of the InclusivEU initiative on Tuesday morning to increase diversity in Brussels. It was the first time I had been to a diversity-related event here. To be honest, I didn’t know whether anyone would show up – I didn’t think that there were networks of people who cared about it here.
So it was a really nice surprise to meet a group of people that genuinely cared about the subject. After the event ended I somewhat sheepishly mentioned to people that I had written a book about the subject (I kept a spare copy in my bag). It was really nice to see how supportive people were. Someone even asked for a picture of me posing with my book!
For the last 12 months I thought I wrote a book that was only a passing interest to people in this town. Honestly, It’s a bit embarrassing that I didn’t realise there was a whole network of people looking at this stuff!
The final ‘room’ I was in this weekend was in Utrecht. I attended a two-day body-house movement event. In fact, I’m writing this on the train back home right now. The weekend was around personal development, but far more around body and presence than other events I’ve been to.
In the heady world of policymaking, I never realised that we have access to a deeper level of presence. I’m not just talking about actually listening, I mean deep, deep presence. As a rough illustration, let’s say that the first level is being present whilst having distractions. This is when we have background noise or our phones. The second level is being present without external distraction such as speaking to someone without notifications on in the background. The third level is being present without external or internal distraction. This is where we are present to someone without being distracted by our own internal monologue.
What I learnt is that there is an even deeper level of presence. I only accessed it for short bursts (I found it extremely tiring to be in!) but what I experienced was being in a realm-bending level of presence. When I am in this state, it’s like the concept of time (and basic reality) no longer exists. Everything is slowed. Actions are exaggerated and heightened – almost explosive. I feel like matter is a blending movement of sensory energy and wave of movements. Suddenly small movements and gestures suddenly conveyed to me an incredible amount of information.
I’m not sure what I experienced really has words. It’s a bit frightening and exciting to know that it’s something I can access. Aside from sounding cool, the reason I find this a valuable thing to access is that I find my ability to understand and connect with people deepen the further I play with these sorts of experiences. So it’s one I’ve committed to playing with now I return to ‘normal life’.
Most of the remarkable things that happened to me this week were in spaces that were not ones I was obliged to attend. The easy thing would have been to not do any of them. Nobody would have complained or blamed me for doing so. After all, they came at some cost – I gave up another weekend away, and the amount of free time I’ve had for myself this week has felt quite minimal.
But I also know that if I want to make deeper connections, and more critically, heightened impact, I need to be in the rooms where it happens. The same goes for you.
If you want something new, go out and explore. It could be the most effective route to getting what you want.
2023 is the European Year of Skills. This is an initiative from the European Commission to address skill shortages within the EU.
Considering that it’s October and you probably never heard of this, I’m going to suggest that this initiative hasn’t been a roaring success.
The rationale is there – according to the Commission three quarters of companies in the EU say they have difficulties finding workers with the necessary skills.
This week, I attended the EU Industry Days – all things industrial policy. One of the topics that came up frequently was around skills, including a set-piece panel on it.
The message was clear – we need more people in these jobs.I must admit this conversation was the one that left me the most disillusioned. Whilst there were some interesting points, a key answer seemed to be about ‘improving the image’ of traditional industry to attract young people.
I was very struck at how there was little to no self-reflection on why people might not want to work at these places. Calling it an image problem is far easier than actually looking at why people may not be actually getting through the door.
Let’s start with the practicalities of the job market. It is insane.We have the most educated workforce we have ever had. In Europe, having at least a bachelor and speaking several languages is becoming increasingly the norm. It’s increasingly common for me to meet people with Master degrees, often with two.
At the same time, applying for jobs has become one mad system to gamify. Job ads expecting years of experience for entry level positions have become the norm. We need to overcome bizarre AI technology scanning our CVs – fear the wrath of not having enough of the right buzzwords and see your application dumped straight into the bin. This happens even for admin jobs such as receptionists!
Organisations themselves expect far more from people in a far shorter amount of time. Even in my relatively short time in the workforce, I’ve seen the expectations of new recruits absolutely spiral – now it’s about getting them to hit the ground running in as little time as possible. Meanwhile, the real term pay offering is far less – many jobs might only just cover rent in shared accommodation in cities.
What I found disheartening was also a lack of any real discussion about widening access to the talent pool. There was no mention of initiatives such as return to work schemes for women post-maternity, let alone tackling diversity issues.
Coming from a South Asian background, I am neither particularly attracted nor would I recommend a career in traditional manufacturing sectors. Whether this is the reality or just my perception, I’d expect to experience issues of exclusion and racism. Meanwhile, I have many queer friends who would not ‘conform’ to the workplace expectations, and despite being highly emotionally intelligent, competent people, they would be frozen out.
Young people are less willing to put up with the bullsh*t of organisational culture. I’m rather in awe of Gen Z workers being able to see so clearly through the pointlessness of office practices, 9-5 routines and sliming through office politics for 50 years. This is not an image problem. This is a case of outdated mindsets for the modern world.
When businesses cry for more adept, skilled workers, the policy response is usually to increase the pipeline by encouraging more people to pursue these routes through education.Whilst this is a positive step, it doesn’t tackle some of the underlying issues. The whole system is based upon getting people with years and years of education into roles as quickly as possible A generation ago such requirements for most jobs would not have existed.
Most jobs don’t need people to have deep technical skills, and yet we are wanting people with over five years of university level education in areas such as computer science and engineering to fulfill them. Yes, there are roles that require the deep technical expertise, but in my experience these are far less than is actually made out.
I’m not always the biggest fan of relying on supply/demand to fix problems, but I think it can help here. People who are unemployed are willing to make the effort to reskill if it means they can feed their kids or have a fulfilling career. But currently, the barriers are way too high due to the amount of time investment needed.
It makes really little sense to go back to university for several years without even knowing if this will get you a job in the end. From a systems perspective, it’s expecting people to spend years of their lives studying just to have a technical qualification that they will probably not actually use for 80% of their job.Whilst I cannot speak for more technical subjects, my Master in European Studies, whilst helpful, would not have actually been needed for my job – most things I could have learnt within a couple of months of working. And this is despite me being one of the rare examples of people who actually works in the field that I studied in.
Most IT skills which are now basic requirements (web calling, project management – even self learning how to use PowerBI via LinkedIn) was learnt from learning whilst on the job, rather than a formal educational programme.
What we need is a shift in mindset. One that believes in people, rather than one obsessing over qualifications. We’ve sleepwalked into a situation where getting a job requires far more years of education than is actually needed. Now, when faced with skill shortages, we want to increase the supply of overqualified people, rather than shift the system.
When given the right conditions, people can learn an incredible amount in a very short amount of time. I’ve seen that for myself, and through working as a coach.
So let’s build a streamlined system. Both the economy and people will appreciate it.