Society: it’s a collective noun

Eight years ago we stood shoulder to shoulder with Americans from all walks of lives on the Mall in Washington DC, keen to share in the sense of optimism brought about by the election of Barack Obama. It was cold and a snowfall overnight didn’t do much to entice us out of our cosy beds but out we went, this was our chance to be part of history. The year before I had jokingly promised my brother we would be there for the inauguration if Obama won, at the time my brother and his family were well into a three year placement in Virginia where he was on a secondment with the US Navy (yes just like NCIS, well almost, minus the crime solving and adding a lot more logistics!) at the time Obama was an unexpected contender little heard of on this side of the pond.

I’d hoped but never dreamt it would actually come true. But six months later we flew across the Atlantic and found ourselves on the outskirts of Washington honouring that promise. That morning, we left the house a bundle of excitement, unsure of what to expect. My three nieces all under 14 at the time were buzzing with questions, as adults we tried to keep up, my politics degree meant my knowledge of the US Constitution and government was tested all day long!

This was history in the making. I’ll never forget the sense of shared purpose as we gathered with Virginians  from all walks of life to board the special buses laid on to whizz us into DC for the inauguration. We crushed onto our bus from the suburbs and watched through the frosty windows as we sped down a Beltway normally choked with traffic now unusually clear, quite historic in its own right. There were celebratory banners hung from the overpasses and police cars with lights blazing protecting the route.

Icy air took our breath away as we left our bus and joined a throng trudging through the snow and ice towards the Mall, at this point we had no idea how we were getting home or when, we didn’t care. I confess to the odd wobble or two, generally me and big crowds do not get on, my first instinct is to run (away) or failing that duck and cover. The sheer number of people was breath-taking, but the sense of anticipation was palpable, I so wanted to be part of it so I gulped down my fears and carried on walking, eventually we found a spot for us and the girls, near a big screen, and marvelled at the mass of people gathered down that long, long, avenue. I don’t remember hearing a harsh word that day, that may be rose-tinted specs, but honestly I just remember us all being together, happy to be present in the moment. There were generations of families there together, holding hands, smiling, talking to strangers, sharing the experience.

That day, in a foreign country amongst strangers, I felt no fear or hatred, just an enormous outpouring of love & hope. I can’t claim to understand the relationships or back stories of the people who stood alongside us, but I saw more than one parent or child wipe away the other’s tears of joy. I watched grown children look after their elderly parents, it felt like they were determined to ensure they could witness, even at a distance, the democracy they had fought for all their lives.

It was spellbinding to hear the oath of office taken over the speakers and watching the crowds reaction. I was deeply moved. We sang, chanted and cried together regardless of nationality, race, religion with a sense of common ground, shared purpose.

It felt like a collective yearning and commitment to make things better. There were deep emotions that day on the Mall, the sort that you feel physically in your body, that stay with you reverberating around your heart and mind for days and years. Two days later walking around New York sightseeing I recall being stopped in my tracks by the memories. Even now recalling it stills my mind for a moment, were we really there? Foot sore but heart happy we finally headed for home late in the day. What a day…

This blog isn’t the place to have a debate about the record of the subsequent eight years of the Obama administration. This isn’t  a political blog, I can only write about my personal experiences of that day. As for the rest, I have my view and you’ll have yours, we’re both entitled to those. But what I took away from that experience was how important it is to remember that collectively, wherever we find ourselves, we can bring about positive change. As Jo Cox said in her maiden speech to the House of Commons: “We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”

Together we can challenge bigotry, protect the vulnerable and poor and build a better society for future generations, to be honest we could make a start by doing a hell of a lot better at building a better society for our own generation.  Eight years on I still believe that all the energy and empathy we witnessed on that day can be harnessed for good.

Eight years on we do well to remind ourselves that ‘yes we can’ is more than political rhetoric it is a call to action (expressed eloquently by President Obama in his final speech).

“I’m asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.” 

Now more than ever, it’s our job to build, strengthen and protect our societies and our communities whether they’re local, national or worldwide. It starts and ends with how we treat each other. Respect, trust, empathy and understanding are touchstones for ensuring we can live alongside one another in all of our glorious diversity. These aren’t things we can take for granted as the last year has surely shown us.  Sadly when we individually pass on that responsibility and leave it to someone else to ‘fix’ things we only have ourselves to blame. After all society is a collective noun isn’t it?

You are already missed President Obama. Thank you and Michelle for your service and your example to us all for how to live respectful, tolerant and loving lives.

Listening loudly, a lost art?

Listening loudly is one of my favourite concepts, it implies you are actively listening, paying attention and hearing what is being said. We all know someone who people just open their hearts to, they’re that person who you’ve told your story to without even realising it, that friend who everyone confides in.  Think about it, I’m pretty sure you can think of someone.

“Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.” –Karl A. Menniger

I think that’s why I enjoy the Listening Project on Radio 4 where people come with their friends and family to have conversations packed with fun, love and pain and they really listen to each other, sharing their stories, unfolding their relationships demonstrating the power of listening.

Sadly our conversations rarely include active listening, too often our day-to-day dialogue is at best a dance with two people waiting to speak, at worst a verbal sparring for speaking rights.  Instead of listening to the other person we concentrate on how to make our next point, get our perspective in, make a statement, we’re thinking ahead rarely listening to what is or isn’t being said, how it’s being said… Stephen Covey hit the nail on the head: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”  


Sociologist Les Back argues that our culture is one “that speaks rather than listens. From reality TV to political rallies, there is a clamour to be heard, to narrate, and to receive attention. It reduces ‘reality’ to revelation and voyeurism.” (The Art of Listening, Les Back: 2007)

Think back to last conversation you had, what was your intent? How was your tolerance for silence? Did you sit with it or did you try to fill the space? When was the last time you stopped yourself making a statement and instead asked an open question? What difference might that have made to the conversation you had?


Coaches, therapists, counsellors, researchers learn to listen loudly, actively making space for people to tell their stories, share their feelings and express their opinions.

But great listening skills aren’t just important for people working in ‘listening’ professions. We could all benefit from more awareness of how to listen well. Parents with children, families, friends, work colleagues… How much more engaged could we be and how much more understanding would we have if we stopped and really listened to what other people are saying?

Listening actively is more than about hearing the words someone is saying, it’s multi-layered and contextual – we need to understand their environment, hear what’s not being said and listen to the cadence and rhythm of their story.

Listening well is a simple act of human empathy but it’s not always easy…

 “Listening is a positive act, you have to put yourself out to do it” – David Hockney

Listening has played a huge role in my life. My career as a qualitative researcher exploring difficult social issues like poverty, disadvantage and discrimination taught me how to listen gently to people and encourage them to share their stories, however painful or distressing, without imposing my views or perspectives on their narrative. That was tough, learning to listen, not intervening or trying to ‘mend’ situations knowing that the power of the telling would be when we could weave those stories together into a compelling analysis and place it in front of people with the power to make a difference. It was uncomfortable to learn to sit with silence, not jumping in to relieve my discomfort. But frequently from that silence came the most profound revelations, feelings and insights.

It took me years to learn how to listen properly, ask questions which probed gently but didn’t lead and it’s a craft that needs constant attention. No two conversations are the same.

For most of my adult life I’ve also been involved in education & learning working with people to build their strengths and grow their capabilities. Listening plays a huge role here too whether in coaching, understanding what people need or in facilitation. What do people need to learn? How best can they build their skills and knowledge, what makes them uncomfortable, what challenges them, what gets them thinking in new and creative ways? You just can’t answer these questions without listening deeply. If you want to build a learning community you have to listen, broadcasting doesn’t work well for deep learning or for building relationships (see my earlier post here on building communities).

Social media and the growth of digital communication are often blamed for a decline in conversation and a rise in broadcasting. We’ve certainly seen a growth in abuse and the Brexit campaign led me along with others to question the quality, and kindness, that often seemed lacking in political, public and our personal dialogues. But it’s lazy to blame social media, after all they are what we make them. The conversations, broadcasting, support or abuse are largely created by us (give or take the robot spammers). Yet I’ve also seen many instances where online conversations offered positive empathy, support and succour.

Several years ago I found myself with the proverbial boot on the other foot. I was in pain, experiencing deep depression and I couldn’t talk to my closest friends or family. I needed to talk and more importantly I needed to be listened to. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate that need at the time, but my months in the counselling chair, and on the telephone to the support helpline I’d call occasionally when things got too much, taught me how supportive and life-changing the power of empathic, active listening could be. Those listening spaces gave me room to talk, and somewhere I could sit with my silence, reach my own conclusions and answers. And it helped, unquantifiably so. It wasn’t that my friends and family didn’t want to help, they really did, they were simply ill-equipped to listen they wanted to fix, find a solution and make things happen for me. I just needed to be heard and not judged.


And now I happily find myself working at Samaritans where 20,000+ volunteers provide a 24/7 listening service to people who need emotional support, in just the last twelve months they’ve answered 3,650, 986 individual calls. I’ll let that sink in.

If this doesn’t tell us that as a society our listening skills could be better I don’t know what does. I don’t just hope I know that if we all listened more, and talked less then we could make a difference. Listening is neglected art and one we could all do with refreshing and strengthening.

shushWhatever you’re going through, you can call Samaritans for free any time, from any phone on 116 123. And you might want to have a look at some of our resources for listening well like our listening wheel and SHUSH listening tips.

Blowing those cobwebs away…

For me the New Year always feels like it should begin at the end of January not the start. Chinese New Year falling in late January or early February always seems a much more sensible time for new beginnings.

There’s something a bit bloated and stultifying about the early days of January as we adjust to the harsh reality of having spent, eaten, socialised too much in the preceding weeks. Add to that the dark nights, grey days and no wonder we all walk around looking a bit ashen. Then as the month moves forward I really begin to think about the year ahead and the possibilities of the coming months. I want to be outside not hugging the radiator for warmth, as comforting as closeting yourself at home against the ravages of the winter weather is, it can be smothering. My brain gets a little too relaxed over the Christmas period, it takes a few weeks for the wheels to get working again!

I want to blow away the mental cobwebs and reconnect with the world outside of the front door by the end of January. So this weekend we drove to Scarborough and took a long walk on the seafront punctuated by some fish and chips. It’s part of our ongoing adventure in the North of England and we’re enjoying the luxury of discovering Yorkshire and all it has to offer.  It was wonderful, sunny and bracing with brilliant blue skies. OK so we got hailed on eventually but that just added to the charm and the feeling of reconnection with the world.

The capriciousness and uncontrollable nature of the sea is something to behold and the seaside in winter is best of all. Something about the relentless crashing of waves, the great beyond, looking at the neverending horizon makes me feel alive and connected. It’s strangely calming even with waves crashing against the shore and a strong wind  blowing. Luckily for us it was pretty calm until the hail hit!


So thanks to that little trip out I feel energised and ready to take on February.

And it seems I’m not alone, tonight as I was finishing this blog I came across this post from David Goddin (@changecontinuum) yesterday – Calling Time .

So what are you doing to blow your mental cobwebs away as February begins?



I’ve been travelling up and down to York for my new job over the last month and found myself thinking a lot about the concept of recalibration. Usually associated with mechanics and measurement, checking if an instrument is measuring to a fine degree of precision, I think recalibration is a great metaphor for a process of taking stock and making changes.

The biggest changes I’ve experienced in the past came about through forced recalibration – bereavement, illness, unexpected quirks of fate – all of those left me with no choice but to rethink my life. We do adapt, sometimes quickly, sometimes painfully to those changes but the trigger event is not one we would necessarily have chosen, and for me the changes weren’t thought through, I just had to live them.


About nine months ago I began a different process. A more purposive recalibration. I began to wonder whether I’d stopped as often as I should to reflect on if my life was providing me, and those close to me with what we needed. Was what had been important to us still as important, were there tweaks and changes we could make to how we live? Was the way I did things working, or was I just doing things that way because it was comfortable? I stopped and thought it’s time for a change.

I’m not sure at the outset I’d quite planned on the massive change it’s turned into (new job, new house, new city) but I definitely knew I’d found myself at that jumping off place I’ve written about before. And I’ve learnt that that initial plunge is just the beginning.

My recalibration, as I’ve started a new job and (almost) moved to a new town, has involved thinking hard about how the knowledge, skills and networks I’ve already developed fit into my new environment.

I’ve been imagetrying to force myself to test assumptions and constantly check to make sure I’m being open to what’s new and different. There’s quite a fine line between using your existing knowledge and the lessons you’ve learnt in one place, relationship or job and falling into the comfort of old assumptions, ways of working or thinking.

I’ve also been reading Redirect: changing the stories we live by – by social psychologist Timothy Wilson (read a précis here from @brainpicker) and it’s helped me to be alert to how much my own interpretation of my life affects how I respond and react to change.  It’s fascinating listening to how the little voice in my head hinders or helps me as I move in unfamiliar spaces.

It’s been hugely energising not to have an organisational memory to rely on, to be walking down unfamiliar streets, seeing different landmarks and meeting new people. The recalibration is far from over, I’m consciously checking I’m not limiting my understanding by measuring up new experiences against the old, and being open to my routines and conversations being different.

We all calibrate our lives on a daily basis adjusting to the worlds we move in as they flex and change, but sometimes I think what you really need to do is throw all the cogs up in the air and see how they fall. Exciting.

A huge thank you to every single person who’s offered kind words, encouragement, answered my daft questions at the office, or just been a supportive presence as I’ve thrown up the cogs –  it’s deeply appreciated.

Flawed, but willing to turn the ship around…

I’ve been lucky enough to have some down time over the last couple of weeks and in between packing up the house for our impending move to York I’ve had the chance to catch up on some reading. I’ve devoured a fair few novels but what really stopped me in my tracks were two books ostensibly both non-fiction and on leadership. Honestly, usually I pick up books on leadership and by the second or third chapter I need to take a break, there’s something dehumanising about a lot of leadership writing which doesn’t speak to me. Not so these two, both kept me rapt, eagerly turning the page for the next chapter, and importantly both have really made me reflect on my own leadership style and actions. They spoke to me with a persuasive, gentle authority, based on very personal experience and the expertise that comes from the practice of leadership, rather than the practice of theorising about leadership.

flawed but willing

The first was Flawed but Willing: Leading Large Organizations in the Age of Connection by Khurshed Dehnugara. I’ve followed Khurshed on Twitter (@relume1) for some time and have watched videos of him speak so I was really looking forward to reading his second book. It is something very special. In the vast shelves of leadership tomes it stands out as a raw, yet beautiful, evocation of the challenge of leadership in our fragile, socially, connected age. Khurshed has crafted a book which will really speak to you whether you work in a large or small organisation, in the commercial or not for profit sectors. It’s rare I find a leadership book un-put-downable but I read this in one sitting. It’s uniqueness comes from the emotion packed into each page, the stories that are told are not tub-thumping fists on table messages about leadership but gentle, uncertain whispers speaking about inner strength, resilience and a willingness not to have all the answers. The superman/woman myth of so many leadership books is firmly put to bed, in its place the reality of flawed but willing leaders in uncertain times who are learning to listen to others, their environment and their own inner voices to manage the challenges and seize the opportunities they are faced with.

Put simply, it is brilliant and quite unlike any other leadership book I’ve read for a long time, it offers no answers, or models, but instead a series of questions which encourage you, the reader, to stop and reflect on how you act, or react, on who or what you listen to and whether you could do things differently. The emotion weaved into the individual stories is far removed from clinical case studies you typically find and all the more powerful for it.

More than once I found myself completely wrapped up in those stories and carried back to moments in my own career when I’ve faced similar challenges or issues. When I finished it I felt touched and heartened by the message that it’s OK to be flawed but willing, that there is a way to navigate leadership which draws on love, valiance, gentleness, awareness and persistence to create something shared and human. you can read more about Khurshed and his organisation here.

Turn the ship aroundThe second book – Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders by David Marquet (@ldavidmarquet) was, on the surface, a whole different proposition. Marquet writes about his time serving in the US navy and specifically, about his first command as the captain of the Santa Fe a US nuclear submarine and the ‘cast of characters’ he inherited as his crew. He brings the crew and their stories alive by describing his own challenges as he sought to literally to turn the submarine around in reputation, performance and morale. I make a point of keeping my eye out for books from military authors not least because my brother is a long-serving naval officer. We’ve talked about the challenges of leading a crew of hundreds on a ship in the middle of the ocean so I spy books he might enjoy and invariably find myself reading them too. This one caught my eye a while ago when I saw this animation which neatly sums up the story David tells in his book:


What David describes is a form of leadership where you return intent and control to people in your organisations, where you subvert the traditional command & control model and find an alternative proposition which engages and empowers people at all levels. He’s talking about a new form of leader-leader leadership not the traditional military leader-follower or even servant leader models favoured by military organisations.  But he’s also not talking holocracy, after all this is a nuclear submarine, but he does argue that older uni-directional command chains can’t manage the complexity of our modern world and workplaces, submarine or not.  Even in that challenging environment with such high stakes he describes how simple changes can produce dramatic results. Most simple of all was a single change from the crew asking for ‘permission to…’ to presenting what they ‘intend to…’ do.

Here is where the two books converge both authors portray the importance of dialogue and context, of listening to each other and working collaboratively. David perfectly captures the futility of not listening and talking to each other when he describes the state of play when he first joined the Santa Fe where orders were given and carried out unwaveringly even if they were poorly judged, where crew unaccustomed to being asked their views, kept their views to themselves. Unlike the first book David does provide a series of steps (yes a model!) for how he achieved the shift aboard the Santa Fe, this simple act of  getting his teams to talk to one another about what they intended to do before carrying it out led to huge changes. I loved how he described the traditional hush of the submarine being gently, slowly replaced by a low-level hubbub of crew members explaining to each other what they were about to do  (he calls this deliberate action and sees it as something which underpins competence), providing valuable checks and balances on each other’s decisions, alternative perspectives and on occasion the few minutes needed to avert a serious mistake. This is ‘working out loud’ writ large. Importantly leaders need to have confidence to let go of their power and sit in whatever discomfort that may bring in the short-term because the end results of empowering others will be worth it. Like Khurshed, David writes that leaders need to let go of their power and control and learn to sit in the discomfort that may bring them in the short-term, to realise the long-term value of letting go. Read more about David here.

I’ll leave you to discover the rest of both books for yourself, I hope you do. Both books are worthy of your time and if you do read them then you’re treating yourself to two great examples of authentic storytelling. Both felt more like novels than non-fiction texts to me and made more of an impact for that reason. I was moved and inspired twice in one week, thanks to both authors who have set me up nicely to enter my new role with a heightened sense of self-awareness and some great ideas for things I can try to inject into my daily practice. If we all recognise we’re flawed we can open ourselves to coming together to turn our own ships around to face wherever they need to head next.

Praise you

“We’ve come a long, long way together, through the hard times and the good, I have to celebrate you baby, I have to praise you like I should.” FatBoy Slim ‘Praise You’

I didn’t intend to write this post just yet but then I realised last night that 18 years ago today I stepped through the doors of my current organisation with no idea that I’d still be here so many years down the road. I joined a month before the Blair government took power in 1997 and here we are just before another election day, just 18 years later. 18 years, I have decided is a mighty long time.

This also means I have been in this job for exactly the same amount of time I knew my Dad before he passed away. Which is a weird coincidence. Or to think of it another way, I’ve worked in one place for the same amount of time it took me to grow from a baby to a young woman. And although I’d worked in other places before I joined my current organisation, I really learnt my craft here and so much more. The last eighteen years has been like growing up too, whether in terms of confidence, skills or just learning how to be alongside people at work, it’s been one long learning curve.

We talk a lot about our volatile and uncertain world which is often depicted by a constant flow of workers and organisational change, structure after restructure. And true I’ve experienced some of this. Along the way some people stay, others move upstream, downstream or along the bank. No decision is less valid, we all have our paths to take. But to my grandparent’s generation this state of flux would be strange. Then it was normal to stay in a single organisation for most of your working life and to move around rarely. 

Times have changed. Long service awards have fallen by the wayside, yet I still remember my grandad receiving his long service carriage clock with such pride from the haulage company he’d worked with for many years. If we take media reports at face value, we’re all now working portfolio careers, or happily being self-employed flitting from one coffee house wi-fi spot to another. Somehow it’s become uncool to be a long serving employee. On occasion, I’ve caught myself colluding in this negativity, wrinkling my nose and shying away from putting a number on the years I have worked for my organisation.

Nowadays it can feel like long service is something to be frowned at, not celebrated. I’m not arguing that we should simply celebrate the number of years passed, but instead that we recognise the vast investment of time, emotion, skills and labour that that length of service represents both from the employee and their organisation. And also the knowledge that comes with that, not facts and figures but an understanding of the organisational currents, ebbs and flows.

A colleague joked last week that 18 years means I’ve served more time than most whole life tariff prisoners do but I don’t see it like that. For me, it’s been a place of adventure and exploration not a space of constriction. Just like a gnarly bit of root that juts out into the river as the flow gushes over and around it, my eighteen years in this particular flow have helped shape who I am, both at work and out of it. And I hope my presence has gently altered that flow over time too. I’ve changed and so has the organisation, we’ve moulded each other.

I’ve laughed and cried with colleagues and learnt huge amounts from the opportunities I’ve had to stretch my wings and experience new challenges and adventures. What I’ve learnt most of all is that being in one place doesn’t necessarily mean stagnation but that the longer you stay the more you have to challenge yourself not to slip into tired routines, old dialogues or set piece reactions. I’ve probably learnt more about myself in the last five years than I did in the preceding decade by pushing myself out of my comfort zone and into new places.

And now this particular learning curve is drawing to a close for me, I’ll be leaving my current job in the summer to start on a new journey, I hope I’ll carry all those lessons & experiences with me as I move into a new chapter. It’s an adventure which would never have been possible without the preceding years. 

So I think it’s time for a little praise for the long serving employee and the companies & organisations that provide opportunities for those people to grow and develop. Every person I have worked alongside over the last eighteen years has prepared me for this next step and for that, in the words of Fatboy Slim, I have to praise you like I should.


Postscript: my brother read this blog and Facebooked me from the prow of the RFA ship he is currently serving on. He reminded me that Grandad’s carriage clock now sits on his mantelpiece and that after 34 years with the RFA he still keeps fresh because of all the change and innovation that goes on around him. Big brothers they always have to go one better!!

My year of blogging tentatively…

The stats monkeys kindly prepared an automated 2014 annual report for my blog. Hopefully this review tool won’t cause WordPress the same headache Facebook’s year in review triggered. I’m in two minds about these auto generated reviews of the year generally. But it was good to see this one because it prompted me to reflect on blogging and what it’s meant to me this year. Last Christmas I took the plunge and decided to give blogging a serious go and whilst I haven’t blogged prolifically I am pleased with how it’s gone so far, it’s a work in progress like most things in my life! I’ve really enjoyed having the space to work out my thoughts and importantly to engage with those who’ve been kind enough to read and comment on a range of topics including learning & development, ethics and social research.

It’s been fascinating to reflect on how my relationship with blogging has evolved during the year. I definitely suffered from stage fright at the beginning, over thinking how people might react to posts, there were lots of drafts left hanging as I prevaricated! Slowly I found my feet and part of that was realising that when I wrote it should be about things that are important to me, I can’t blog to order it seems to cause the metaphorical ink in my pen dry up when I try. I think my better posts this year have been inspired by things I feel passionate about or am genuinely intrigued by and that’s how it should be, like in life. There were points towards the end of the year when I couldn’t post because life got in the way and I was surprised to find I missed the thinking process, the musing, and crafting words to express germs of ideas. So I’m looking forward to writing more again in the New Year, but I’m also conscious that I don’t want blogging to become another item on my To Do list, whenever it started to feel like a chore it lost it’s sheen for me and I found myself unable to write. I admire bloggers who post weekly (some daily) but it doesn’t work for me (perhaps that should be yet!?). For me blogging is another way to engage, take part in conversations and play with ideas with a wider range of folks than I see on a daily basis, it’s about learning & experimenting & some deeper thinking…

I’ve really learnt about the power of blogging this year for forging ideas, relationships and connections. It’s a form that can be incredibly powerful for giving a wide range of people a voice and a platform. Blogging & reading others blogs has opened my mind to new ideas and novel ways of approaching old issues. For me it’s become an important way to make sense of my professional practice and to expose myself to different ways of thinking. No one was more surprised or delighted than me to find that this initial post led to a deluge of people wanting to be part of a book of blogs on social media research.


It was a roller coaster ride but that community of bloggers, some established, some novices, created something very special, published in October a mere four months later the book stands as an example of how blogging can push the boundaries.

Here’s an excerpt from that report on my year of blogging tentatively:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,100 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 52 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report  I hope to share a cable car with you sometime soon!

Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read or comment and encourage me in my baby blogging steps, it’s meant the world to me. And a huge thank you to all the bloggers who’ve kept me intrigued, puzzled and curious this year with your posts. I’m looking forward to continuing the conversations here, on Twitter and in person.

Wishing you a very Happy New Year, see you in 2015. 🎉🎊

In the margins


Image from 

Some people write in their books; others view this as desecration. The practice of adding handwritten notes, or marginalia, to books has been going on for centuries. (The Evolution of Marginalia: Kiri L. Wagstaff)

Our love affair with the e-book is showing no signs of abating but like many people I’m still attached to real books and have shelves (and boxes) full of books I can’t bear to part with. Books have been a huge part of my life, I’ve always been an avid reader and novels have often been a refuge for me, a place to lose myself for an hour or two or three.

When e-books came along I swore I’d never convert but one Kindle app and three years down the road almost every novel I read now is read on Kindle, and for me it’s joy to walk around with an endless library on tap. But I still find it difficult to read anything other than novels, newspapers and magazines online. If I have to work with a text, rather than just read it for pleasure, wherever possible I work with a real book.  In a similar way, I still find it difficult to adapt to digital note taking, I have tried and failed to ‘get’ Evernote. I still carry around a leather notebook that jostles for space with my iPad in my bag. For me there’s something about the physical act of writing, turning pages, and taking notes that helps my concentration and ability to absorb ideas and concepts. It is how I learnt to learn and so far has been quite impervious to change. And one other thing hasn’t changed, I still wouldn’t dream of writing notes in the book itself.

I listened to R3 programme on marginalia earlier in the year, the practice has been going on for centuries and is a well established focus for historical research. Most e-readers now allow you to mark up and make comments digitally, and whilst some people are worried about how these digital marginalia can be preserved for future generations, software developers are busy adding functionality to our e-readers to enable us to share our mark ups, comments and reflections.

I find this whole topic fascinating and challenging. As someone who’s always been fanatical about not marking books (I used to have a whole selection of bookmarks to prevent page folding) the concept that another reader’s written annotations could add value rather than detract from a text was a bit of an anathema to me. I admit I find other people’s scribbling distracting, it leads my eye and without great attention I’m pulled into the previous reader’s slipstream taking their ideas, questions and interpretations rather than forming my own. 

But the programme challenged me to think again. As have various posts and articles I’ve read about the topic. One researcher, Cathy Marshall explored the value students drew from using second-hand annotated text books. Unlike me these students were drawn to  marked up copies in libraries for the handed down wisdom of former readers. When I’ve discussed this with other people, they’ve often felt the same, for them annotations add something new to the reading exprience.

This got me thinking, aren’t annotations on texts similar to shared wikis and collaborative blogging?  They’re really not that different to digital curation and the collective sense making we co-create in digital spaces which I’m all for.  So I’m intrigued by why I’m so uncomfortable with making or seeing annotations in the margins of my books?

The best answer I can give is that it’s an emotional response for me, a reverence bred in childhood where books were something special to be cherished. But I’m beginning to see how annotation can also be read as a form of respect.  I’m beginning to think maybe I’m being short sighted, a creature of habit stuck in old ways, and that perhaps I should take a more collaborative approach and start marking up. If you’re interested, these posts all discuss the value of historical and digital marginalia. 

Despite all of this I still find myself loathe to pick up that pen and highlighter! 

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts. How do you feel about people writing on books? Does it make your blood boil or fill you with curiosity to see what marks have been left for you the future reader?

Just like starting over…

So this weekend I’m packing my husband into a car and waving him off hundreds of miles up the country to spend a year at University. He’ll be back for holidays and some weekends but essentially after many, many years of living together we will be living apart for the next year. This isn’t the place to write about how proud of him I am (though I am hugely) but I do want to share how this process is forcing us us both to look afresh at how and in what ways we take each other for granted. We’re seeing how over the years our behaviours have moulded into a set of well worn practices and adjustments. Over time in a relationship our actions (& inactions) become unspoken, implicit, and the familiarity of our reliance on one another often forms a ring of care around us which is loving and comfortable.

Yet at the same time familiarity can breed contempt, or less harshly, we take each other for granted. So whilst it’s going to be a huge change for both of us I’m also eager to see where it will take us. I have a feeling it’s going to be good for us. It’s making us reflect on the things we do for each other and the emotional support we give one another. Rather than staying in that comfortable safe pattern we’ll be able to explore new experiences, our relationship will have a new rhythm to shake it up. And I’m betting we’ll learn to appreciate each other all over again and for different things.

Our life together is so precious together,
We have grown – we have grown,
Although our love is still special,
Let’s take our chance and fly away somewhere alone,

It’s been so long since we took the time,
No-one’s to blame,
I know time flies so quikly,
But when I see you darling,
It’s like we both are falling in love again,
It’ll be just like starting over – starting over

And it’s got me wondering about what we miss out on by not shaking the tree occasionally.

At work, as at home, it’s easy to slip into our comfy slippers and relax into well worn roles. Who in your team is doing what they’ve always done because they’ve always done it? I bet there’s someone who is always there with a kind word and thoughtful touch, do you and the team take that emotional support for granted?

What might happen if you shook things up and found new roles and challenges for everyone? What latent talents, enthusiasms might be hidden by the comfort of routine, what new beats might the team move to if you suggested you listen to something new for a change, or try a different approach. We all like to think we’re moving and shaking with the best of them but I reckon most of us default to the norm more often than is healthy. As a manager, as a colleague, I think part of my role is to shake that tree and make sure that no one is being left under a shady spot without enough light to help them bloom.

So just like we’re doing at home I’m going to spend some time thinking about the teams I work with, do some checking in with them and make sure people aren’t taking each other for granted or making assumptions about who does what and why. It could be just like starting over..

Treading through treacle, summer in the city…

Hot town, summer in the city,
Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty,
Been down, isn’t it a pity
Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city
All around, people looking half dead
Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head…

(The Lovin’ Spoonful)

It’s been so hot this summer walking around London, the office, the tube have all felt at times like treading through treacle. The air is heavy and our senses seem less sharp, our pace is slower, we can feel oppressed by the weight of that heat.

It reminded me of moments at work when projects slow down and movement is barely tangible. A way forward can feel elusive or lost. Trying to wade through that treacle becomes dispiriting, de-motivating and strength-sapping just like the trudging around town in the heat.

And then from nowhere, the smell of electricity in the air, a breeze picking up strength, a buzz, a crack of lightning and suddenly the landscape changes. Rain in torrents, parched earth (minds?) drink greedily and in a flash everything changes. Fresh life and air reawakening our senses and restoring our energy, things come back into focus, the heat haze lifts.

So maybe when we’re treading through that treacle the trick is to step back, move away, take some time out – go sit in the park under the bandstand, enjoy a cool drink, talk about something else and wait for the buzz and crackle, it will come…


Image from ‘100 days of summer‘ series by Charles LeBrigand