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.

IMG_20180714_125756

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

Dad 50th

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”.

Book

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

Curiosity might have killed the cat…

…but for the previous eight lives she’d have had a lovely time finding out about all sorts of interesting stuff.

It’s funny how sometimes a word keeps popping into your consciousness. For me, right now, that word is: “curiosity” (definition: a strong desire to know or learn something).

I interview quite a lot of people, and many of them are relatively junior. Quite often, when I ask what questions interviewees have for me, they’ll want to know what qualities I look for in employees. Curiosity has become almost always the first one I mention.

Funnily enough, my mate Wadds was also mulling the qualities he looks for when interviewing people and came up with this list. I chucked my new watchword into the mix, and was rapidly seconded by the splendid Matt Muir with this beautiful example of straight-tweeting:

desktop

I couldn’t agree more.

For people working in a creative agency (as I do) curiosity is not only essential in doing a good job, it’s critical in enjoying the one you do (which, let’s face it, are two things that should nicely align). I want people who are curious about what their clients do, what the clients’ objectives are – both organisationally and individually – what’s going on in their clients’ industries, what their clients’ customers are interested in. Asking questions often leads to opportunities I’ve found. “What do you need to achieve this year?” is a good place to start.

Curiosity is a hugely valuable human quality, both inside and outside the workplace. I’ve recently finished reading Ruby Wax’s book, “Sane New World” (which is excellent if you’re interested in your own and others’ mental health) and there it was again – the penultimate chapter, “Curiosity”. I liked these bits:

If you are curious about someone else, and show it, it is the most flattering thing you can do for them; they will give you anything; the keys to their car, their business, they’ll probably even marry you.

In business, if you learn to listen and be curious about another person and pay attention to how he feels, negotiations would be a breeze. Huge amounts of money, time and energy are wasted by people talking at each other rather than with each other. There should be training simply to learn to be curious rather than endless MBA programs. People are what sells, nothing else. You like and trust the person, you’ll do business with them and if you are genuinely curious, people won’t be able to resist you.

So, why not build a bit more curiosity into your day. What’s the worst that could happen? Unless you’re a cat.

 

 

Tagged , , ,

Why your doctor should be a bot…

…and why you should be happy about it.

I think once every two years is a good cadence for publishing blog posts, don’t you?

This post has been prompted by a couple of things. The first is the book I’ve just finished reading (more on that in a bit). The second is an issue raging in the UK at the moment about the pressure on the National Health Service (NHS) and, more specifically, the difficulties faced by everyday doctors, or General Practitioners (GPs) as they’re commonly known. That issue involves GPs being put under pressure to work longer hours, telling sick patients not to come to the surgery, and the potential of the UK hiring hundreds of GPs from overseas.

Most people with experience of it would probably agree that a trip to the doctor in the UK can be a painful experience (whatever your symptoms). Though that’s in no way to denigrate the skills and dedication of the vast majority of GPs. It’s also not to criticize them to suggest that they could, and perhaps should, be replaced by bots (and here’s a good piece to get yourself across the reasons why bots will be huge over the coming months and years). Put simply, a trip to the doctor is an algorithmic process, and can therefore be solved by, well, an algorithm. A patient presents a set of symptoms, these are examined against the GPs education and experience, a diagnosis is made and a suitable treatment prescribed. There’s nothing in there that a decent bit of artificial intelligence (AI) linked to a load of data couldn’t do more quickly and accurately than a human being.

Sceptical? Here are a couple of scenarios. The first one I’m sure many can relate to. The second a view of the brave new bot-driven world.

Both scenarios start the same way: you wake up on a Monday morning feeling pretty dreadful. Sore throat, fever, aches…certainly in no shape to get into work, and definitely in need of decent proper medical advice and treatment.

In scenario one, you have a choice to make. Do you start ringing your local surgery trying to book an appointment, or do you drag yourself down there and hope to get a walk-in? Either way, if you’re lucky, a while later you find yourself sitting for longer than expected in a waiting room packed with other sick people until you’re invited to see the doctor. You’re in front of the doctor for less than 10 minutes. She’s stressed, possibly feeling under the weather herself, and has a short time to listen to your symptoms, glance over your medical record, make a diagnosis, and prescribe you a treatment that will hopefully suit your physiological make-up. A couple of hours after you left home (again, if you’re lucky), following a trip to the pharmacy, you’re back at home, almost certainly feeling worse than when you left.

In scenario two, you grab your phone, fire up the NHS chatbot, log in, and start inputting your symptoms. The bot asks increasingly specific questions based on your responses (and has all the time in the world to do so), compares your symptoms against those of millions of others worldwide, and narrows down to an accurate diagnosis. Then, based on your entire health record, your sequenced genomic profile, perhaps the genomic records or your parents (which you’ve granted it permission to access), and millions of similar genomic profiles, it prescribes a course of treatment. It sends the prescription to your mobile phone for you to nip out and pick up at the local automated pharmacy, or perhaps even get delivered directly to your door. Probably by a drone.

This scenario is obviously quicker, more comfortable for you, and almost certainly results in a more accurate diagnosis and, therefore, effective treatment.

This is something that should happen within the next few years. In fact, for a student starting medical school this year – and maybe even one who’s a couple of years in – the prospects on graduation might be pretty bleak. Or at least, in my view, should point to taking a slightly different direction.

The scenario above is focused on the overloaded GP: the first port of call for anyone who’s feeling unwell, at least if it’s not serious enough to warrant a trip to accident & emergency (A&E). And I reckon the bot solution would probably address the symptoms and sickness of about 80% of people that visit their GP on a daily basis. This obviously takes a huge burden off GPs, but intelligent bots should also result in more people being steered towards a specialist medical practitioner more quickly. So if I was a medical student today, I’d be thinking about what I’m going to specialise in, rather than becoming the generalist.

bookNow, back to that book. This post, in broad terms, reflects the theme explored in a startlingly thought-provoking way in Homo Deus, by Yuval Noah Harari. In short, Homo Deus looks at where our current technological trajectory might take humankind. But it’s not solely forward-looking. In fact, most of the book deals with the historic references that point to how humans deal with advances in society, science and technology. It’s an amazing book. Advances in technology have a history of replacing the utility and value of animals (the internal combustion engine and horses is an obvious example), and there’s a lot of evidence that technology is starting to replace the value and utility of humans. You won’t like some of what’s in it, you almost certainly won’t agree with everything, but it’s a brilliantly constructed argument, and beautifully written. Recommended.

 

Tagged , ,

Cynicism

I read Caitlin Moran’s ‘How To Build A Girl‘ recently. As a father with a 12 year old daughter, I thought it might help prepare me for the years to come. I think it did that t an extent, though I’m not sure it’s made me feel any less worried!

But it’s a good read, not least because it’s set at the exact time I was in the same stage of life as the central character, Johanna.

However, the passage that has stayed with me is about cynicism. It’s brilliant and I agree with every word. Here it is:

“…when cynicism becomes the default language, playfulness and invention become impossible. Cynicism scours through a culture like bleach, wiping out millions of small, seedling ideas. Cynicism means your automatic answer becomes ‘No’. Cynicism means you presume everything will end in disappointment. And this is, ultimately, why anyone becomes cynical. Because they are scared of disappointment. Because they are scared someone will take advantage of them. Because they are fearful their innocence will be used against them – that when they run around gleefully trying to cram the whole world in their mouth, someone will try to poison them.

“Cynicism is, ultimately, fear. Cynicism makes contact with your skin, and a think black carapace begins to grow – like insect armour. This armour will protect your heart, from disappointment – but it leaves you almost unable to walk. You cannot dance, in this armour. Cynicism keeps you pinned to the spot, in the same posture, forever.”

Fantastic stuff. Show me a cynic who ever created something amazing.

Tagged , , ,

Pintagram: a new social social

 

Image

First up, pronunciation: not ‘pin’, but ‘pint’. Pintagram.

As anyone who follows me on Instagram will know, I take a fair few pics of London. I never get tired of it (even if, I’m sure, many of my followers do). It’s a ridiculously obvious thing to say, but London’s an incredible city in a million different ways, and quite a few of them make half-decent snaps.

There’s nothing I like more than a wander around London on a nice morning or evening, taking in and capturing the city. And with the evenings getting longer and the weather improving (hopefully) there’s even more time to indulge.

Another thing I quite like is a decent pint or glass of wine in one of London’s many splendid pubs. So why not, I thought, combine the two?

Welcome to Pintagram, a new social social. A gentle meander around London’s streets, grabbing a few pics along the way on a route defined by a handful of pit-stops at some nice boozers.

I haven’t sorted a date for the first one, or indeed a route, but if you think you’d be up for it then leave a comment below along with some method of getting in touch (email, Twitter handle, etc) and I’ll keep you informed.

Tagged , , , ,

The success equation

Apropos of absolutely nothing, I was thinking while on my bike the other day (I do a lot of thinking on the bike) about an equation for success. On the ride I distilled it down to:

Ability + Opportunity = Success

But I’ve since realised that there’s something else needed. After all, plenty of people with both the ability and opportunity have failed to succeed. I think it’s either perseverance or perhaps commitment. And given the former’s more difficult to spell, I’m going with the latter:

Ability + Opportunity + Commitment = Success

It’s difficult if not impossible for an individual to control all these things. In fact you might argue that the individual can only really control their commitment to something: ability being largely genetic and opportunity environmental.

From a societal perspective, we should be concerned about giving more people with ability the opportunities to succeed. The commitment, of course, is down to them.

Tagged , , ,