Tumbling Dice

The world is a complex place and most significant decisions aren’t truly either/or, it’s usually a lot more nuanced than that.  However that makes it complex to explain, hard to report on.  The media prefer the simplicity of a straight choice and we tend to get caught up in these arbitrary black or white choices.

We are faced with many choices daily. For many of these there are no facts to determine the best course of action, or they are of little consequence.  For such choices it’s good to simply trust your ‘gut’ instinct.  This is your sub-conscious reaction and may be based on all sorts of reasoning that happens outside of our rational consciousness.

It can be hard to tap into these instincts sometimes.  If we find ourselves stuck my family has created a useful process for tuning into our ‘gut’. We simply flip a coin, roll dice, or draw straws.  It isn’t the result of the coin toss that is interesting but the reaction to it.  If you find yourself asking for the best of three you know what your instinct is saying to you.

The danger comes when you roll the dice and are bound by the result, regardless of your gut feel.  That would indeed be stupid.

Women think I’m tasty, but they’re always tryin’ to waste me
And make me burn the candle right down,
But baby, baby, I don’t need no jewels in my crown.
‘Cause all you women is low down gamblers,
Cheatin’ like I don’t know how,
But baby, baby, there’s fever in the funk house now.
This low down bitchin’ got my poor feet a itchin’,
You know you know the duece is still wild.
Baby, I can’t stay, you got to roll me
And call me the tumblin’ dice.

The Rolling Stones

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Different People

pencilsAs a HR professional and coach I spend a lot of time encouraging diversity.  Diversity in terms of race, creed, nationality for sure – but most importantly diversity of thought.

It is patently obvious that none of us knows as much as all of us. Having a pool of knowledge, ideas and interests that is as a broad as possible can surely only be a good thing.

Yet there are increasing calls to protect our historic culture and values by keeping ‘different’ people out.  This goes much deeper than mere (ill informed) protectionism around jobs and wealth.

Most people judge their worth by comparing themselves to others.  If others are judged to have achieved less  (on whatever criterion is most damning) they are clearly inferior.  They must be lazy, stupid, untrustworthy etc.  We see this in in society at large – increasingly the poor are seen as undeserving.  If my riches are down to my effort your poverty must be due to you being feckless.  It has to be your fault as it cannot possibly be mere luck or family ties (or old school ties) that made me successful.  Penniless immigrants washed up on the shores of Europe are not only poor but foreign and must be kept out at all costs. Never mind that they have the resourcefulness,courage and strength to undertake a massive, highly dangerous journey.

This then creates a real problem when we find someone has achieved more – that surely makes us lazy, stupid, feckless… Of course that can’t be right.  They are obviously undeserving of their success – they stole it, got lucky, had rich parents…  But above all else they are different and must be made to conform or be driven out of the tribe.  After all someone ‘better’ than me is a constant reminder of my shortcomings.

We are social animals.  In our evolutionary past remaining part of the tribe was a matter of life and death.  We have evolved to be conformists, to fit in and follow the strong leaders rather than risk being exposed as ‘different’ and face expulsion.

Many (in)famous experiments have shown how we conform even when we ‘know’ our actions are questionable.  Otherwise bright students gave obviously wrong answers to very simple questions when following the lead of the planted stooges.  Subjects gave what they believed to be potentially lethal electric shocks to others when instructed to do so by ‘authority’ figures.

And so those who feel they have achieved less than they desire attack those who threaten their cosy mediocrity by having the talent, skill, persistence and creativity to achieve success.  They also deride those who have achieved less, those who choose not to or can’t afford to wear the ‘right’ brands and those who are poor as they are an unwelcome reminder of what might have been. Others in the tribe soon join in – maybe too weak to start the the pogrom they are still eager to conform and join the mob.  Some may feel uneasy but make sure that they are seen to throwing their support behind the attacks for fear of being next.

In this connected world of social media these attacks and exclusions are no longer physical, hiding behind a smartphone they are easier to commit by the weak but are no less wounding for the victims.

It takes real strength to dare to stand out by being different.  It takes strength to champion high achievers and see them as aspirational role models rather than threats.  To discover what can be learnt from them instead of silencing them for fear of having your own accomplishments diminished shows a real desire to be the best you can be – not simply the top dog in a weak pack.

It takes equal strength and compassion to stand up for those who have less than us, to support and nurture them.  Help them to be the best they can be. It takes real humanity.

Despite the fact that our differences make us collectively stronger it takes real courage to stand up to the mob and declare support for difference.  When we understand that the mob attacks from a position of fear and weakness they become much less intimidating.

Ask yourself if you have gone along with the status quo and stood silently on the sidelines, supported the mob or even joined in the attack.  How good do you feel about that?

Baby when you hold me
I can feel so wrong
You’re trying to console me
Your chance has long gone
So baby won’t you take my hand?
So we can do what the others can
We are alive tonight, we are alive tonight

I am going home forever and ever more
No I was never born and there’s no such thing as home
We used to stand so strong
That’s why the others have gone

Different person, different argument
In my shadow, no more compliments
One more person breaking the rules again
I’m still waiting for someone else to join in

Stand where the others stand
We’re alive tonight
Land where the others land
We’re alive tonight

Biffy Clyro – Different People

Don’t quote me on that

images  “You’re a HR Director and an Executive Coach. You’ve done all that NLP stuff. So why are you such an a…hole at times?”

Maybe this (wholly justified) tirade from my lovely wife needs some explaining…

You see I didn’t mean any harm, I just didn’t think.  We had been for a brisk walk around our very small town and were nearly home when a small car, moving very slowly stopped ahead of us.  An elderly lady got out and peered up the drive of the large house she had pulled up in front of.  She looked quite puzzled.

“Excuse me, are you local?” she asked looking at my wife.  “We are looking for the Garden Centre.  We thought this might be it.  Do you know the way?”

She was outside what is,to my eyes, obviously a residence – Ok a large 17th century stone manor house, but still.  She’d also just driven past the massive garden centre and all of it’s huge signs, vast car park and large greenhouses.

“Yes we are local.” I said. “This is someone’s home, the Garden Centre is back the way you came about half a mile.  Straight across the roundabout and on right.” She looked worried. “You really cannot miss it.  It has huge signs and a big entrance to the car park.  If you do miss it there is a little lane a few hundred yards further on where you could turn round.”  I felt I was being especially helpful.

“Ah.” She said, very nervously “Straight over the roundabout?”

“Well it would help if you kind of wiggled round it.”  I said, smiling at my witty comment.

She looked very confused “Errr. What?”

“Straight over.  It isn’t hard.”

“Hmm, but well it goes round.  I mean …”

I pressed my advantage.  Confused by a roundabout, missing dirty great big buildings, thinking a house was a Garden centre.  What a fool.  I’d show her my superior intelligence.

“Yes, if you keep going you can go round and round, it is a roundabout.”

Finally my wife stepped in.  Physically placing herself between our puzzled visitor and myself. “If you just turn round, go back the way you came, take the first exit on the roundabout signposted Fairford, the Garden Centre is then 200 yards on your right and has a big wide entrance.”

We walked on in heavy silence and as we rounded a corner my wife rounded on me. I then received the tirade that started this piece.  I’d talked over my wife and upset a complete stranger.  I was feeling pretty bad, yet worse was to come.  I was pondering why I was such an a…hole ( a total lack of empathy on my part? being so self absorbed I failed to notice or react to any of the signals being given that I was causing distress) when we heard the little car cough into life, a crunching of gears, the whine of an over revved engine and finally the ‘Crump’ of a small car reversing into a stone pillar.

Congratulations.  Two old friends decided to go out for a drive in the countryside, maybe stop for lunch at the Garden Centre.  And I bloody terrified them.  They were clearly nervous, lost and confused.  And I decided to choose that moment to demonstrate my ‘superior’ wit.

I suggested going to help but rightly my wife pointed out that that might just finish them off.  In any event ‘that nice girl’ from up the street had just gone by and had stopped.

Madness.

It’s clear I have work to do.  The good news is that we can all learn.  But Don’t quote me on that.

Its all Eggs Bacon Beans and a Fried Slice.

Did you see the one, yeah yeah,
The one they wrote in the paper just the other day,
Well, well would you believe it,
Well what I said, they took it all the wrong way.

Now you’ve gotta be careful, ’bout what you say,
Cos they’ve got a bad habit
Were you reading in between the lines?
Or is that what I said?, now I just can’t remember

Madness – Don’t Quote me on that

Dog new tricks

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

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But you can.  Easily. Without  even meaning to sometimes.  I have the very literal proof.  My geriatric labrador, jake, is, mainly, a well behaved creature.  For thirteen and a half years he has had the same food every day.  He rarely gets fed treats from the table or has doggy treats outside of his meals.   Therefore, unlike many pets, he was  never overweight and rarely showed too much interest in our food (well – for a labrador).

Sadly he has been off his food recently.  So we have been trying to tempt him with all sorts of tidbits.  Suddenly he get’s toast crusts, plates of vegetables, scrambled eggs, cheese – anything to stop his falling weight.  And within the space of a few weeks he now ‘begs’ at the table at every meal.  He pesters for scraps whatever it is we are eating.  And of course we indulge him because, well to be honest we all know where this has to end.

I did wonder what would happen if the vet suddenly found the miracle cure for arthritis, liver disease, and ageing in dogs.  How long would it take to re-establish the ‘no scrounging’ behaviour?  I suspect that given the amount of reinforcement he has had recently (weetabix, followed by toast crusts and milky tea for breakfast today instead of dried dog food for example) it might be quite a task.

Reflecting on this there are a number of lessons:

  • Old dogs readily learn – so what’s my excuse?
  • It’s easy to create new patterns of behaviour – so be very careful with the behaviours you reinforce, or even just tolerate.
  • And, of course, there’s no harm in indulging an old dog.  life really is too short.

I wish I had not woke up today
Everyone mistakes the things you say
Take the simple truth and
Twist it all around
Make it sound important
Make it seem profound

Dog New Tricks – Garbage

Warning Sign

This week the main road through our small town has been closed for resurfacing. For a couple of weeks before large electronic signs were in place telling everyone that this would happen and diversions were put in place.

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We are lucky enough to live in the countryside so many of the alternative routes are very narrow and with a lot of quarrying locally we also have a lot of heavy trucks.  The diversions were therefore very long  but well signed with the traffic supposedly being diverted over 10 miles away from the actual closure.

Fortunately we live right at the end of the works and so could exit (in one direction only) from our cul- de-sac.  I’ve had to make numerous trips and I’ve been amazed at the number of drivers ignoring all the signs then getting angry when being turned back.  On my return home I usually have a little convoy follow me past all the closure and diversion signs and into my street past four signs showing that it is a no through road, only to be disappointed when it turns out that I didn’t know a secret route – merely my way home.  My record is three cars, a van and an agricultural feed lorry, that took quite a while to untangle themselves on the residential roads.

How often in our lives do we ignore all the warning signs and continue on, hoping that all the evidence is wrong, that something will turn up or that because others are on the same path they must know something we don’t?

Taking a different route, even if clearly signed, can be hard.  But reversing out of a dead end is harder still.

 

Just another warning sign that failed to show.
Looking for reason why, I knew we’d never know.
And every time it leads us here, we’re high and dry.
Show me these years of hope won’t die.

I never knew a warning sign could hide and fade.
Looking for a new road out and I’ve got a life to save.
But now I don’t feel you here by my side.
Show me these years of hope won’t die.

Scars on 45

Lost in the Supermarket

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Today Tesco posted a 6% fall in profits, with like for like sales down 1.4%.  This is the second year running that they have declined.  They are not the only major UK supermarket to be struggling. According to the BBC “Recent industry figures showed the UK’s “big four” supermarkets – Tesco, Morrisons, Asda and Sainsbury’s – all lost market share in the first 11 weeks of this year to rival discount stores, as well as upmarket rivals Waitrose and Marks & Spencer.”

Ever keen to look for an external cause the finger has been pointed at the continental upstarts that have dared to open in the UK  in recent years.  Disparagingly referred to as “discounter’s”, these retailers, most notably Aldi, Lidl and Netto offer a no frills experience that undercuts our established incumbents.

In an edition of Question Time (the BBC’s political panel show) this subject came up and the left wing representative used the opportunity to make the point that the current economic problems had created an underclass so deprived that they have no choice but to turn to these discounters.

I don’t doubt that many people have found money a little tight and this may have tempted them to try the discounters but the success of these challengers is not entirely due to poverty.

When on holiday in Europe we often take a villa and do some self catering.  If we find an Aldi we consider ourselves lucky.  The range is good, prices keen and quality excellent.  Yet I hadn’t tried an Aldi in the UK.  I related shopping at Aldi here with ‘being poor’ and no one wants to be poor, or seen to be poor.  Indeed the view that  you have to be part of a deprived underclass to shop at the discounters was prevalent.  However my daughter’s dance lessons cause us to drive past an Aldi almost every day.  And I don’t mind admitting that saving a few pounds is also important.  Hesitantly at first, apologetically even, my wife went in and bought a few things.  No one in the family complained, there were even compliments about some of the produce.  She returned and tried more.  Now I often shop there, in fact I popped in last night.

Increasingly I find that once I admit to shopping at Aldi others ‘fess up too.  We cheerfully compare prices and smugly feel better about ourselves.  The economy may have helped but there seems to be a growing number of people who can feel comfortable without the security of the ‘big 4’ supermarkets and the brands they sell. Admittedly Aldi is a brand itself, appealing to value conscious consumers who don’t care about or can’t afford to care about labels.  Mine isn’t the only Mercedes in the car park either.

The problem facing the ‘Big 4’ is not just that discounters are cheaper than them, there is no longer any stigma attached to using them.   Furthermore the ‘Big 4’ got big by appealing to a broad range of shoppers.  In the internet world of endless choice that translates as blandness.  If you want a bargain go to a discounter and if you want the best go to Waitrose.  Tesco and others sit uncomfortably in the middle with no real identity.  The CEO of Tesco, Philip Clarke,  stumbled over this point when challenged by John Humphrey’s on this morning’s Today show:

‘Fill in this blank,’ said Humphrys. ‘I go to Waitrose for quality, I go to Aldi for value. I go to Tesco for… ?’ At which point Clarke made some comment about Parma Ham.  Having said that no one could beat discounters on price he then outlined a ‘strategy’ which was to cut some prices and carry out some store makeovers.

We’ve read a lot about the way the big Supermarkets use their purchasing power to beat suppliers into offering unsustainable prices and pay low wages on zero hours contracts.  Surely this means that no one could beat their prices?  Well it isn’t hard to understand.  The discounters are all about value, amongst other things they don’t take credit cards (which charge a commission), the tills are designed to be very fast (to reduce the number of staff) and the displays are simply adequate as is the service.  But the real difference is that in Europe work on a much smaller margin than is normal in the UK.  That’s right, they make less profit.  In % terms less than half than that of the UK based behemoths.  In the UK they can make more profit and still undercut the competition.

Ever wondered why so many European utility companies rushed to buy up our national assets in the form of energy and water companies?  Again they are used to making much smaller margins on the continent than is normal here.  They didn’t have to cut prices as no one rocked the boat and led on price.  A nice cosy, profitable few years followed.  Hopefully we’ll start to see a real challenger brand in this space too.

The big question is what happens when the economy improves?  Will we all revert back to our comfortable known supermarkets and brands?   I think that as a family we’ll continue shopping in Aldi and so will many others because the produce is good.  Not for everything, but for a lot.  The reality is that once you break free of the tyranny of big supermarkets you won’t want to go back, you can even start to look at other labels you can drop once you become comfortable with your own unbranded identity.

I’m all lost in the supermarket
I can no longer shop happily
I came in here for that special offer
A guaranteed personality

Lost in the Supermarket – The Clash
 

 

Atmosphere

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Today the British Prime Minister dismissed the current concerns about smog over the UK saying :

“I didn’t go for my morning run this morning. I chose to do some work instead. You can feel it.  But it’s a naturally occurring weather phenomenon. It sounds extraordinary, Saharan dust, but that is what it is.”

Well that’s not entirely true is it?  The truth is that we have our own pollution created largely from burning of fuels which has built up due to a stable high pressure weather system.  This weather pattern then drew in polluted air from the continent.  To this toxic, but largely invisible (and so unnoticed) mix was added sand blown into the atmosphere by strong winds across the Sahara.  Only the last part of this is in any way natural.

We are told that as the weather shifts to the usual westerly direction the air will come from the Atlantic and be much cleaner, blowing the pollution away. Presumably to Europe, thus creating an export we should not be proud of.

Annually 29,000 die prematurely in the UK from air pollution. Globally the figure is 7 million according to the WHO. That’s more than Aids, smoking, road accidents and diabetes combined, and makes it the world’s single biggest environmental health risk. Whilst the combination of factors have created a highly visible ‘perfect storm’ in the UK the fact is that air quality falls below European standards regularly.  Yet there seems to be no action taken, indeed there have been criticisms of ‘over reaction’ levelled at climatologists.  When we are told not to exercise outside and children are kept indoors at school breaks I think it should make headline news.

With my coaching clients I often use Stephen Covey’s concept of circles of concern/influence, to which I add control.  Surely this is a matter over which, regardless of my concern I have little influence and no control.  On that analysis I would better spend my time on those things that I can control or influence.  Whether it is correctly attributable to Burke or not, it feels like the right time to use the quote

“All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.”

I can influence by raising awareness and I can personally reduce my own trail of pollution.  With that in mind my wife went off to work on her trusty bike this morning – risking her own health to save adding to the toxic brew we call an atmosphere.

What can you do to make a difference, however small?

 

Walk in silence,
Don’t walk away, in silence.
See the danger,
Always danger,
Endless talking,
Life rebuilding,
Don’t walk away.

Atmosphere – Joy Division