One thought at 50

A good day (pic by @wadds)

I turn 50 today. I’m pretty relaxed about it, but it does feel like something of a milestone. I had thought I might do a ’50 thoughts at 50′ post but, let’s face it, I’d struggle to get to 50 and I doubt you’d want to read them.

In musing it, though, I realised there’s only one thing that really matters to me these days. It’s the people around me.

I’ve had an amazing summer, largely because I’ve been reminded of what an incredible group of people I’m privileged to have as family and to call my friends. From late-June and Sarah and Stephen’s beautiful wedding – a celebration of love and friendship as joyous as any I can remember – through a family holiday with my mum, brother, wife and children, an amazing weekend at home celebrating my birthday, and numerous dinners, drinks, and days out with friends who couldn’t make it here.

I feel blessed, but I’d hesitate to say I feel lucky. I’m not a big believer in luck. I believe that most things that happen in life – good or bad – are the result of choices you make (good and bad) and the effort you apply.

Personal relationships are the same. We have a choice regarding those connections we make, and the effort we put into nurturing and sustaining them. Some have deep roots and can withstand a good amount of rough weather; others are younger and require careful cultivation. Some relationships aren’t meant to last, burning intensely for a while before dying out, while others will happily smoulder away for years with the odd poking of the embers (get your mind out of the gutter…). But it’s up to all of us to choose well and make each of them count.

I can’t claim to have always been the best at managing relationships, and I’ve made a few poor choices. But whether personal or professional (and often a mixture of the two) it’s the relationships I have that make my life rewarding. It’s a network that’s evolved, been constantly added to, pruned every now and then, regularly fed and watered (figuratively and literally). And it’s worth it, because it provides me with so many essential things: support, companionship, advice, fun, inspiration, opportunity and love.

There’s one rather important person who I’d love to have been around to celebrate with, and that’s Dad. I miss him, we all do, but he influences me every day, and makes me a better person. Quite often, if I’m stuck with something – in particular in relation to personal relationships – asking myself the question, “what would Dad do?” sets me on the right path.

Dad’s values – fairness, compassion, hard work, respect, kindness, humour – are the ones that, I believe, build the depth of relationships which provide the best force field in life you could wish for.

I’m so grateful for mine. You know who you are, and thanks x

Three ways to become a better writer

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Never fear the rubbish first draft.

I work in the communications industry. An ability to write well is a fundamental skill.

But in every aspect of life we’re communicating with each other far more through the written word than ever before. Email, messaging, blog posts, tweets…even a compelling caption on an Instagram post can bring context and greater meaning to an image.

Becoming a better writer will make you a better communicator, both personally and professionally. It’s definitely something that can be learnt and constantly improved upon, but like any skill it takes work.

There are three things that will help you become a better writer: study, practice and coaching.

Study: First step to becoming a better writer is to become a better reader. Most experts in their field – from cooking to music to sports – will be voracious consumers of the subject. Read for enjoyment, sure, but read to learn about writing too. Think about how sentences and passages are constructed; about phraseology and storytelling. For those of us in business communications, reading publications like The Economist and Wired will show you what exemplary writing looks, sounds and feels like.

Practice: Just write! I came across a great book about writing recently, despite it being first published in 1980: Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott (the story behind the title – which is on the Amazon page – is a great writing lesson in itself). Another piece of advice that I really liked was about writing rubbish first drafts. The fact is, most first drafts of anything are crap. Once you accept this, it makes it far easier to get the first draft done, knowing that it’ll probably be discarded. But there’ll be stuff in there that will find its way into a much better second draft. Just get that first one down.

Another tool I’ve found really useful for writing practice is Penzu. It’s essentially an online diary, or a very simple (and private) blogging platform. It’s a completely ‘safe place’ to draft copy, try out ideas, and get through the rubbish first draft. Of course, you could always create a blog and write drafts that you never publish, but I find there’s something really easy and natural about using Penzu.

Coaching: Again, nobody becomes an expert in a skill without coaching. Seek out a mentor, someone whose writing you admire, and see if they’d be willing to review some of your own work. Listen to their advice, and ask them to comment, not edit (I’ll happily admit that this is something that I’ve had to work to improve in coaching people in my own team, offering advice and direction on copy rather than simply editing it).

Personally, I love writing, but not everyone will ultimately find writing a pleasure. That’s OK. After all, not everyone enjoys cooking, but just as there’s real value in being able to produce a well-seasoned omelette, being able to write clearly and accurately will help you in every aspect of your life.

There’s plenty of advice and inspiration out there. Both Wadds and Marcel have been doing some nice work recently on blogging for beginners (my description, not theirs) which contains some really useful tips. Well worth a read. Another booked I absolutely loved is Jonathan Gotschall’s The Storytelling Animal. Check it out.

And good luck!

 

 

Some reflections

I wrote a few blog posts after my Dad died in January (intro, first, second, third). I’ve just looked back at them, and the last was written just eight days after he passed away. Though I now know that time gets very, very twisted during such an emotionally traumatic time, it still strikes me as a sligtly odd thing to have done so soon after he died. Completely cathartic though. And I’m glad I did. But it might have been a bit indulgent. This post probably is, too.

It’s been a few months since Dad passed away, and I’ll admit that, at times, it’s been far from easy. But – and it’s an extraordinary thing to say when you’ve lost a parent – I feel today as though I’ve come through things in a more positive place. I’m (hopefully) a better person for the things I’ve learned. And that only makes me feel more love for Dad because in his death (and, let’s face it, we’re all going to get there) he helped that to happen. That’s an amazing parting gift.

The photo below (excuse the quality) was from last month, a family gathering in London. It wasn’t until I was looking at the picture later that day that I noticed the gap, right next to my daughter, where Dad might have been. That’s not a sad thing, by the way (though it did make me cry at the time); he’d have been delighted that we were geting together and having fun. That’s the first positive: we’ve made more effort to get together as a family in the past few months, and it’s a lovely thing. In fact my Mum and my daughter are currently away on a fantastic trip together. And again, that’s something that probably wouldn’t have happened had Dad still been with us.

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Here are a few things I’ve either learned (or been reminded of) since Dad died:

1. Family and friends. Blood might be thicker, but water keeps us alive.

Of course, since Dad died, the support I’ve received from (and hopefully give to) family members has been critical. But Mum and Dad had friends who had known them for decades – many more than 50 years – who they spent more time with than family and with whom they created amazing memories. It’s easy to focus all the attention on immediate family when someone dies, but close friends need support as well, because they feel the loss as keenly as any of us. And helping them, helps you too.

I’ve always felt blessed to have some very good friends. Over the past months I’ve discovered how incredible many of them are. And not just those I’ve had for years. Some of the most supportive, helpful friends have been those I’ve met more recently, often through work, and often because of their own similar experience. It would be too long a list of people to write here, but I hope they know who they are. All I do know is that, when they need me, I’ll be there for them too.

But I won’t wait for them to ask, because…

2. “Is there anything I can do?” is a bloody useless question.

It’s entirely well-meaning, of course, and bless people for it, but when you’re in the midst of grieving for a parent, you have absolutely no idea what anyone else might be able to do to help. But I get it, and I’m sure I’d have asked the same thing, because most people have no idea what they might possibly be able to do to help, either. So it’s a bit of a Catch-22.

A couple of people didn’t ask, though. They just arranged things and asked me if I might fancy joining them. I did, and it helped. Enormously. The key thing, though, is not to make it a group activity. This isn’t about cheering you up with a bunch of mates, it’s about an opportunity to spend time with someone who cares, and who will happily spend an evening listening to you talk about your Dad, and to let you cry without awkwardness or judgement, or simply to help you escape for a few hours.

I’ve got a feeling it’s something maybe women had worked out a while ago, but it’s less natural for us fellas. And not all your male friends will feel comfortable doing it (though most probably will to be fair). But it’s invaluable, as we’re (thankfully) talking more and more openly about in relation to mental health, depression and suicide.

3. Perspective

Excuse my language but, fuck me, I’ve gained some perspective on what’s important to me. In short:

  • Spend as much time as possible with people who enrich your life (inside and outside work) and doing things which fulfil you. Time is the most precious commodity we’ve got. Try not to waste it.
  • Look for the positive. Don’t be a moaner. Search out solutions. Take responsibility for your own happiness. Be prepared to make changes.
  • If given the chance, help someone else out. You’ll derive as much benefit as they do. Probably more. That can be as small a thing as giving someone directions in the street (I love giving people directions in the street).
  • Invest in experiences, not stuff. We need less than we think. But when you do buy stuff, buy things you’ll want to keep forever.
  • Exercise. And do so outside whenever possible.
  • Drink less, but of better quality.
  • Get more sleep.
  • When given a choice, do the right thing.
  • You always have a choice.

To everyone who’s helped me over the past few months, thank you.

Mark xx

 

Lessons from Dad #3: Little things make a big difference

An old friend told me a lovely story about my Dad a few months ago. I’d completely forgotten about it – indeed, at the time it probably didn’t even register with me – but to my friend is was a small gesture that he appreciated enormously, and held as a mark of what made Dad so special.

I would have been in my early-20s – my friend the same – and I was selling my cherished Fiat Strada 105 TC. Now, the Fiat Strada wasn’t a particularly well-loved car, but the 105 TC was a different story. Or at least its engine was: a fantastic 1.6 litre, double overhead camshaft, 4-cylinder gem. The body, obviously, being a 1980s Fiat, would eventually rust into dust, but that motor…

Anyway, eventually I decided to sell the car, and my friend said he’d be keen to buy it. No problem, he knew the car, knew me, easy deal. For whatever reason, when he came to pick it up I wasn’t there to hand over the keys, but Dad was.

The point of this story is that, when my Dad realised that the car’s fuel tank was only a quarter full, he insisted on going to the local petrol station to fill it up for the new owner.

I mean, who does that?! It was a small gesture of goodwill that has stuck with my friend for more than 25 years.

Little things make a big difference.

It was only doing things for other people though. Dad was born in 1940, and grew up during and after the Second World War in ‘Austerity Britain’. He comes from a generation that looks after things, that makes things last, that fixes rather than replaces (and more on that in a future post).

Dad knew that small bits of regular maintenance would pay dividends in the future. He’d always clean the lawnmower and garden tools immediately after using them, not leaving mud and grass to dry and solidify which would make the job 10 times harder the next time he wanted to use them, and extend their life. He’d also regularly check the levels and pressures on the family’s cars, which he was also diligent about cleaning, and gently point out that I might have been less than attentive myself (“I put a touch of air in your cars tyres…seemed a little soft to me”).

It doesn’t take much effort to make a small gesture that has a big impact. That’s been so evident to me in the days following his recent death. Numerous text messages, emails, calls, and social media comments offering condolence, support, help. A few seconds to write and send, but they’ve meant so much.

I read something recently somewhere on social media which I think fits. A post which highlighted that many works of fiction are based on the premise that people travel back in time and make a tiny change that has a big impact in the future (think Back to the Future I, II, and III…), but few people believe that doing something tiny today will have a huge effect down the line.

Seems worth a try though.

 

 (This is the part of a series of lessons I’ve learnt from my Dad. Find the backstory here, and other lessons can be found here.)

Lessons from Dad #2: A smile goes a long way

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I’m not going to claim that Dad had a permanent grin on his face, or was a bundle of laughs all day every day. He could be incredibly serious, a bit stern, sometimes grumpy and had even been known to get a bit angry (though not very frequently). But a smile was never far away and, either consciously or subconsciously, he knew the power of a smile in easing social interaction, whether in business or elsewhere.

I guess it’s to do with putting people at ease. Walk into a room of strangers with a smile on your face, and people will immediately warm to you, and gravitate towards you. Friendliness, openness and appearing approachable are incredibly useful in forming relationships and building networks. A smile costs nothing, and the return can be huge. If nothing else, smiling will make you feel better in yourself (as will, in my view, whistling and skipping, though the latter is difficult to pull off in public).

This is scientific fact: the act of smiling makes you feel happier. How’s that for a life hack?

It’s difficult to find a photo of Dad where he’s not smiling. That may sound a silly thing to say – after all, it’s traditional to smile in a photo – but with Dad, he had an approach to being photographed which always resulted in him having a big, cheerful grin on his face. If he knew he was being photographed, just before the shutter was pressed, he’d give a little laugh. Nobody had told a joke and there may not have been anything specific to be laughing about, but he knew that in doing so he’d be photographed with a sunny smile.

The photo above is a great example. It was taken Mum and Dad’s Golden Wedding celebration at the Jockey Club in Newmarket. And though he may have used his little chuckle technique, given he’s chatting to his great friend Gwyneth and his two grandchildren (my daughter and son), I can guarantee he was as happy as he looks.

There was definitely a touch of vanity about it (in all aspects of life, Dad was concerned about appearances) but it did the job, and never felt false to me. In fact, in the article linked to above, I’ve just found this bit:

“…if you really want to get the biggest facial feedback benefit, find something to laugh about. That will likely generate a true smile. This is also a great tip for becoming more photogenic…”

He was a canny bloke.

Give it a go. Whatever you’re up to today, hand out a few smiles. Good stuff will happen, I promise.

 

 (This is the part of a series of lessons I’ve learnt from my Dad. Find the backstory here, and more lessons can be found here.)

Lessons from Dad #1: Get your affairs in order

My Dad was organised. I mean, really organised. Almost – dare I say it – to a compulsive degree. A neat and tidy man in himself – how he dressed, trimmed his beard, combed his hair – this neatness was reflected throughout his life. Any papers on his desk would be arranged in a sharp grid of perfectly aligned piles; any loose change would be stacked in strict descending order of coin size; files labelled and neatly settled in a filing cabinet; and the shed and garage would be as ordered as an operating theatre. Indeed, having worked in the healthcare sector for his whole career, perhaps the order and organisation he applied to his whole life was influenced by the discipline needed in hospitals? Hospitals like the one in Nottingham where he started his working life, and met Mum.

It turns out he was as organised in death as he was in life. And it’s an absolute blessing.

When Dad died, he and Mum were in Shropshire for a few days’ holiday. I went up there immediately to be with Mum, as did some friends of theirs, and started handling the inevitable administration. I took Mum back home a couple of days later, and within 10 minutes of getting home she opened one of the above-mentioned filing cabinets, pulled this out and handed it to me. “Dad filled this out a few weeks ago. Should make things a bit easier”.

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I’ll be honest, it made me cry. It was such a perfect representation of everything he was. Always considerate of others, helpful, organised, prepared. I flicked through it to see his familiar handwriting listing every detail of mum and dad’s life admin: bank accounts, credit cards, direct debits, insurance (house/contents/car/life), utilities, solicitors, financial advisor…the lot. It was both wonderful and crushingly sad.

It’s a lesson for me in thinking about those you leave behind when you die. Why make a difficult time even more horrendous for loved ones? In organising your affairs, in detailing everything that they’ll need to know about and access once you’ve gone, you’re allowing people to grieve for your loss, and move forward positively, rather than start a stressful period of navigating endless administration and bureaucracy.

As my Mum said in a text message yesterday: “After 52 years of being a little frustrated at Dad’s fussy ways of keeping everything in order, I am so grateful to him now.”

The only thing we’ve found that Dad failed to tell us has been the code to unlock his iPhone. But, as my brother pointed out yesterday, as “he used it more often as a torch than a phone” that’s probably not the biggest issue!

You can buy a copy of the book above here. Making a will is also really important. There’s a basic guide from the Government here, and plenty of low-cost online services to help you make a legally-binding will. And if you’re over 55 years old, Cancer Research UK even offers a free will writing service. Find out more here.

I know none of us wants to think about dying but, believe me, having your affairs in neat and tidy order makes a real difference to the loved ones you leave.

Don’t delay. And thanks, Dad.

Mark x

 (This is the part of a series of lessons I’ve learnt from my Dad. Find the backstory here, and more lessons can be found here.)

Lessons from Dad: Prologue

FamilyThis is my Dad, John. That’s me on his lap, my Mum and my brother.

Dad died, unexpectedly and very suddenly, last Wednesday, the 10th January. We’re not sure exactly why, as yet, but will have the coroner’s report soon so I’ll keep you updated. (We now know that it was a pulmonary embolism and deep vein thrombosis, causing a sudden and severe cardiac arrest. He wouldn’t have known much about it.)

He was a lovely man. I described him the other day as an extraordinary man in the most ordinary ways. He lived by the most basic human values in every aspect of his life: consideration for others, kindness, compassion, respect, good humour. These aren’t always the qualities that are most celebrated, but to me they’re the most important. And judging by the genuinely overwhelming number of messages we’ve received over the past few days, clearly many other people – family, friends, and colleagues – valued those qualities too.

As one good friend put in a message, “I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about your dad”. And it’s true, neither have I (well, apart from the immediate family of course, including myself, but that’s allowed).

I think Dad and I had a fairly typical father/son relationship. Neither of us doubted we loved each other, though we were very British in not expressing that too often, and for my part I was always completely confident that, should I need it in any form, his support (and mum’s) would be immediate and unconditional. He never put me or my brother under any pressure to achieve, he just supported us in whatever choices we made. Advice and guidance was always delivered softly, and with compassion. That’s about as good as it gets.

He taught me so much, but almost everything I’ve learnt from him was delivered by example, not by instruction. I want to write some of those lessons down. It’ll be a lovely way to remember him and to recall, share and store some stories. It’s a bit self-indulgent, but I hope others take something away from them too. The first one is up here, and it might be the most important one of the lot. It certainly feels like it right now. The rest will be gathered under the category, Lessons from Dad.

Take care of yourselves, and stay close to those you love.

Mark x