Posts Tagged ‘Life’

There has been a short gap between the last post (Day Twenty-six) and this, the final instalment in this month’s exercise, and that time has been filled with some introspection and some “off-air” discussion.

What to conclude?

1.  I have not had any revelations about any of the events I have drawn on. Nevertheless, doing this writing has helped me see some patterns. These patterns, which belong to that “thing” I call my identity, make up a map of my self. I can also say that while my understanding of my map has not undergone transformation, my understanding of how this mapping works is slightly modified. I see that my recollection (or anticipation) of my “life-story” takes on meaning only in its relationship with other things, other people, in short, with “the world out there”.

2. I found the task of writing as opposed to speaking did help me organise my thoughts, and perhaps led to a more eloquent expression of the various moments, feelings and episodes that made up the Life History. What’s more, writing is thinking, but a way of thinking that I found was quite firm and definite.  However, I was also aware the whole time that because the written word carries on and remains longer than our speech or just our thoughts, I was editing carefully. I was also aware of the possibility (and with over 1,000 hits on the blog this month, there is also some evidence) of an audience. This is important because it (the tension) illustrated for me something key about reflection.

3. Writing every day became, eventually, compelling.

4. Kolb’s learning cycle falls very far short of providing anything helpful in Personal Development. But, too, there is something missing in the otherwise much more helpful Atkins & Murphy model of reflection that I wanted to explore as part of this month’s experiment. What is lacking has something to do with the need to step “in” and “out” at each stage in the model.

5. Not sure whether reflection follows models of reflection, or models of reflection follow reflection.

6. Introspection is necessary, but not sufficient for reflection. Reflection also requires dialogue with the world, where the boundaries are. But for that you have to be brave and reach out to find those boundaries.

That’s it for now. Thanks for reading.


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In revealing to myself something about my own personal ideology, the topic of the last few posts in this sequence, I am now supposed to move to speak about my political position.

Should be quick, then.

As for Politics, with a big “P”, I only started voting in my forties. I could say that some of this was down to my living in another country, where I couldn’t vote, but I really doubt that I would have register to vote even if I had lived here.  I think my position on voting, on participating in the democratic process as it is here in the UK, has changed since my early adulthood. I do now think it important to take part. Where I live, also quite futile, since my village is in the Henley constituency, where no-one wins the election unless they are sporting a blue rosette. So I go with my history, and vote Green.

Other than being a vicarious but genuine supporter of democracy (which notable not for the principle of the right to vote someone into power, but for the principle of the right to vote them out), there is nothing about Politics that really moves me.

When it comes to politics with a small “p”, on the other hand, I think there is a chance of a much more interesting topic, but again not one I have ever wanted to do anything about (other than watch and gossip).

Perhaps I’m missing something. Honestly, I’m wracking my brains to say more… but….

Tomorrow’s entry is the final one in the agenda, or the formation of the narrative segments. It’s “Overall Life Theme” (fanfare).  All that will remain after that is whatever space I want to give myself for final thoughts and reflections, both on what I have written or written about, and about the writing of it.

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When you start to think and write about something called “Personal Ideology”, there must be a need to question the assumptions behind the words. An Ideology is, according to dictionary.com, “the body of doctrine, myth, belief etc., that guides an individual, class, or large group.” It apparently dates to end of the 18th Century and was coined by Antoine Louis Claude Destutt, comte de Tracy. But you knew that…

Personal conjures an image of something that belongs to me, is mine and not anyone else’s. Private, in fact.

But it’s not so easy to reconcile these two ideas. None of us makes up our own guide to life from scratch, without reference or in isolation from everyone else’s personal ideology. Surely, regardless of where we end up, all our guiding principles, values and beliefs are inculcated in us (knowingly and unknowingly) by the world we come into and which we tend to become conscious of only with reflection. It just feels like it’s private because that’s just how we encounter the world, as agents in it.

So, first off, I my guiding principle is that whatever belief system I have, it is there because of all the inputs I have had from and with other people and theirs are the result of all the belief systems and values that define them.  Whether these things are expressed as the result of a rational thought process or the poorly articulated attempt to express something that is more basic than language, that is something I have started to reflect on more recently.

I know that this step in this reflection (and we’re getting to the home straight now, with only nine postings left) starts by asking me to relate my fundamental beliefs (or values, which are the bedrock of beliefs) around the existence of a god or deity, or force in the universe. But actually I have a question  – “why do so many people have a belief in a deity?”

This is not to criticise them (or you), but to wonder why. What is it about us and our ability to abstract our thought that has created in us the need for myth, for religion, for belief? Even the counter-argument to theism that has grown in eloquence and force over the last 200 years at least, seems not to dent in otherwise intelligent, thinking people the wish to believe in something more than the blink-of-an-eye that each of our lives constitutes in universal terms. It’s not a blink of an eye to us, of course. The idea of a life-span, fully lived, is apparently enough for some people, but not for most – so perhaps there is something in what makes us humans that demands we reconcile the self-knowledge of mortality with the self-belief in the worth of living, and that we do so by calling in an exterior agent.

But isn’t the existence or not of a deity (what Heinz von Foerster would describe as) an “undecidable question”?  That is, all our stories of origin must remain conjecture.

My own guiding belief is that, for us, this is it. I experienced oblivion before I was born and I will experience oblivion after I die, and the two states of nothingness are exactly the same. I should be bloody grateful for the chance to spend a lifetime wondering about it all in-between. I like the expression ‘a system is the best explanation for itself” and I feel no need for a teleological explanation of why we are here. I think the “how” of us being here is pretty fascinating and important if we are to see what we can do for our children and other generations, but not the “why”. There’s no why.

And yet, I am really interested in understanding this fascination for belief, and I won’t deny that something of who I am is a result of a very long history of these ideas. I’ll try to reflect on my own history with all that tomorrow.

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The thread of the life-span exercise (or so my book says), having considered my past and my present, now considers my future. “What might be the script of plan for what is to happen next in your life?” (McAdams).

Recently the topic of the link between past, future and present has appeared and re-appeared in my reading. Paul Ricoeur’s book “Time and Narrative” (the clue is in the title) makes a strong connection between our sense of lived time (as opposed to cosmic time – which I take to be the undifferentiated and unknowable time of Jung’s pleroma) and our need for ’emplotment’ via a narrative which is constantly open to revision, and which is how we construct our identities. The present only has meaning because we experience a historical time and anticipate a future time.

The problem is that we just don’t think about it.

We experience ourselves in the present, but not of the present. Without our thinking about it (which is the point of raising “reflection” as a new skill) our pasts  and our futures are incorporated in our presents  and are “deeply grounded in habitual, unreflected, and mostly unproblematic patterns of action by means of which we orient our efforts in the greater part of our daily lives” (Emirbayer & Mische 1998).

So my future script is written in the present, and my present is the summation and the continuation of my past, and my past (for all that I tell and retell the story as if I wrote it) is all the people I have met (and some I haven’t) and all the facets and traditions and purposes and (the list goes on) of the culture I grew up in, and from where my family came from. Does this make sense?

My future script could be analysed in detail. Some hopes for the next 5 years – to complete the PhD, settle in to a rich vein of teaching and research at Henley and understand and enjoy what that means, find ways to challenge the thinking of people coming on the MBA at Henley, find a community of practice that suits me. There’s a work cluster there. Pay off the mortgage, clear away as much other debt as possible, support, love and be loved by close family, see my children continue to blossom as independent adults, reach out to several key friends who I have neglected and reaffirm those friendships. These cluster around home life. Continue and complete the novel that my father started work on but never completed, look for other creative outlets for myself, continue (struggling) with Yoga. There’s a hint of another cluster, “me” things.  

But, according to Erikson’s life cycle, the crisis in this time should revolve around “generativity” versus “stagnation”. I hope I’m cooked enough to avoid the inward-facing misery of stagnation in my late forties and early fifties, so I see generativity as the time in one’s life when it becomes correct (having done all “that stuff” that one is supposed to have done earlier in life and got it out of the way) to have concern for what will come after you. It’s the beginning of the completion of the cycle of life, an early nod to death, and yet coincides with the time in one’s life when you are probably best equipped to live and, for me, a time when I suddenly have some important projects I would like to see through. I’ll admit to being sentimental about people in distress, but I’ll also admit that so far in my life I haven’t ever done anything constructive about it. Perhaps this is important for me in my future script. I would like to think so, and if George were still around, he would be the one I would model for this.

Before all of that, I’ll have to put together a 15 minute presentation about undertaking this exercise at the PhD Experience conference in Hull next month!

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I’m on to my fourth and final “significant” person today. Tomorrow is a rest day, or more exactly a reflection day, since I want to revisit the opening intention of this month’s experiment, and also re-examine the model for reflection that caught my eye.

The final character is my father, Desmond. As I have already mentioned in prior postings, Desmond died when I was still relatively young, so I have to say that I do not know him. In fact, it would be fair to say that he has not played an active part in my life. Not unless you accept that an absence, just as much as a presence,  can make a difference.

It’s an interesting thought that the “non” state of a thing or a person can and does have impact all the time in our lives. The email not sent, the phone call not answered, the secret not told – all these things can become a difference which alters us in some way.

So it is with the person not there. Alongside my siblings, we grew up with our mother (she also brought us up, of course, but I mean that she grew, too).  I think we all turned out OK, mostly well equipped to deal with the world, and I am very lucky to have had such a loving, caring and patient parent who worked hard, remained steady and sacrificed a lot in the process. My hanging the “signficant person” medal round my father’s neck is neither a compliment to him nor a put-down to her.

But then why him? It is because without his being something there (no artefacts and very few memories, even), it somehow became necessary to struggle with the whole idea of him not there. In that tug-of-war there were no pointers, milestones or denouement. During the period of my own development through school, early employment, marriage and fatherhood, mid-career employment, unsettling and then resettling of identity in a new environment with a new spouse, the phantom character of my father has played many parts. I have had periods of anger, of sorrow and of regret, and also of defiance.  I felt sorry for him – he missed out on my growing up and on seeing grandchildren. And I was able to put the phantom to rest and honour him for having made me.

Yet I found (still find) I was eager for scraps of information about him, about his story, and this actually proved to be very rewarding (healing?). Some of that narrative I’ve written about, and in fact taking some of his story and placing it in context with the circumstances of his own upbringing have been useful for me.  Another fragment came the other evening when I had supper with my brother in London. He mentioned that he had himself had a meal with a very old family friend, John, someone who had known my father well in the 1960s when they both had connections with one of London’s top private casinos (my father liked the good life!).  John told my brother of a time when he had met Desmond in a pub in the Edgware Road, a place where both men were regulars and known to the landlord. My father had come along with no cash to pay for the drinks. On realising this, he proceeded to remove his starched, white collar from the shirt he was wearing, write out a personal cheque to the landlord on it, and pass it across the bar to be cashed. “It was typical of the man”, said John.

So, here we are again, speaking of and in narratives to better understand ourselves. And this PhD space, although never superficially about it, turns out to be another aspect of story-telling.



It’s not lost on me that all four of the people I’ve named are male.

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I’m just over halfway through this month’s series of postings, and I found myself flagging today. Not sure why. According to many of the UK’s newspapers, today is “Blue Monday”, the most depressed day of the year, (how can they tell?) but I’m certainly not feeling down.  I’m on my third, of four, people who have held some significance in making me who I am.  I was finding it hard to come up with the third (the fourth, I already had). I have a few great friends, lifelong friends, and there have been times when they have come into their own in their support and encouragement, and even occasionally enlightenment, but I’m going to cast back to my schooling and select one of the teachers.

It’s feels a little predictable to single out a former teacher in such a category, but I’m going to persist because at the time he was my teacher, I don’t think I had any idea of the influence he was having in the formation of me. His name was Ron Southey and he taught French at Sir Roger Manwoods Grammar School in Sandwich, Kent.  He had quite a fierce reputation in the school, but not as a tyrant (but enough to make those in the lower years more than a tad nervous on their first day in his third year class).

I suppose at the time it would have been a miracle for us to have admired him as well as respect him. Such foresight does not exist in the young. He certainly commanded obedience, though never by show of power or hysteria. He was meticulous, proper and… patient. Not only that, he knew how you were doing, and how you were struggling, and he sought to give you the right hint and the right encouragement (if you wanted it) so that you could understand. His lessons were ordered, they started and ended on time, and you were always fully engaged in them (even when, on the very rare occasion, you could bait him into talking about something else). 

It wasn’t until after I had finished at that school (French ‘O’ level just about secured) and went on to visit other classroom environments that I saw that he deserved a lot of respect for playing the long game with us. I think he would plant ideas in his teaching that he knew would only come to mature in us (if they matured at all) much later. What’s more, he was one of the very few educators I have met who took an interest in what was happening to you outside his classroom.  What else? He had, I recall, a playful interest in his subject (though it must have been hard work repeating the same curriculum year after year).

As I write this, a quick Google search has come up with a Manwoods website with one of those impossibly long black and white assembled school photos, from 1961, and there he is, even then looking unlike the other masters (many of whom, with horror, I recognise). I didn’t start going to that school until about 15 years after this photo was taken, so I’m looking at a time when people stuck at their jobs, or vocations, for life.

Aside from not being afriad to play the long game in a world (of training and education) where the demand is to be instant, what I can thank Ron Southey for is the determination to be human and retain a sense of humour even in a formal learning space. Especially in a formal learning space!

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Been back at Henley today to run a Personal Development workshop for a corporate intake, and it’s taken it out me, so I am struggling to get the Day Ten posting out. Still, determined not to miss a day, and a walk with the dog in the dark this evening in the strong southerly blow has helped. That mild winter wind, gusting up from the Atlantic (even to Oxfordshire) and bringing the promise of rain, takes me back to times in my own adolescence in Deal, a seaside town in Kent, walking at night along its windy streets leading to the seafront with the same wind blowing and the noise of the waves on the shingle, where the wind in the wires of the fishing boats and yachts drawn up there all get amplified.

But the adolescent memory is tomorrow’s writing task. From my Day Five list, I need to write here about a childhood memory instead, though I am curious how ‘child’ ends and ‘adolescent’ begins, and according to whom?  A memory that stands out is one that I was hesitant at first place here. It’s a well reviewed memory, very personal (and anyone who has lost a parent at a the same age will know how personal) and one that I’ve since worked through for myself the primary meaning of the event and my reaction to it. I’ve decided to include it in part because it really does feel like a defining moment in terms of identity, in part because it has ultimately helped me illustrate to myself the model of reflection I mentioned in Day Two’s posting, and in part just because the narrative remains (apparently) still crystal clear today.

I was 10. My parents had separated when I was 3 and my mother had raised us on her own in a very loving environment in Deal. My father and her divorced, he moved to London from Dublin and as we (me, my older brother and sister) got older we would spend the odd weekend with him on trips to London. As the youngest, I probably wasn’t sent up to London very often, but I seem to remember being placed on a train to London, on my own, to be met at the other end. This, I guess would be unthinkable these days, and back then there were no mobile phones!  One sunny morning, a Sunday, my mother went out to meet some friends for a drink at a pub on the seafront, leaving us alone to watch TV.  After she had been gone for a while, there was a knock at the front door. I think my brother answered. It was a policeman and a policewoman, and they were looking for my mother. I was quite excited, we had never had the police at our door before. We told her where she had gone and they said they would pop up to find her. It was quite warm outside, but I don’t think it was summer.

About 15 minutes later my mother came back, looking very pale. At first she didn’t say anything to us, just staying very quiet in the kitchen, where she had already started making our lunch before she had left. We asked her what the police had wanted, but she refused to tell us at first. I think she wanted us to eat. Maybe she thought we would be too upset after she had given us the news, or maybe she just needed the activity and the space to gather her own thoughts. Eventually, she came in to where I was sitting with my brother, crouched down, and told us what the police had come to tell her, that Daddy had died, in London. I’m sure there was more, and I’m sure we must have asked questions, and I’m sure she will have tried to answer them, keeping any details that were not our business away from us, but I can’t be sure. I do recall not crying.  Not then. I actually did not have a strong connection with him, and he was a rather distant figure for me, though he had been promising to spend more time with me as well as with my siblings. He was, I’m told, a very charming man.

This is, even now, a defining point for me in my understanding of who I am. Its significance at the time was limited, but has become much more pronounced and inter-woven in my adult life, and I for many years I can see how it echoed around me and how it controlled, or at least influenced, many of my choices.



I see a lot of the managers on the MBA programme show reluctance or resistance to playing their thoughts or feelings about themselves in public.  I do like to push back on that, a bit, but I can understand it, too because we do need to maintain an appropriate distance between others and those parts of ourselves that we haven’t quite sorted out yet.

  The paradox is that the only way you can prove that reflective practice really does work is by doing it, but you mustn’t force anyone to do it, for the reluctant reflector that would only prove their point. Nevertheless at some point you have to take the plunge if you want to get on with the rest of your life!

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Yesterday’s self-imposed task was to relate a high point. Actually, when I re-read the Day Five post, I see I said THE high point. Was that internal-external work harmony really my all-time high? In context with this activity on this blog, I’m going to stick to my guns and say yes. The process of doing my PhD is a mind-game, and I’m only troubled at the moment because I still haven’t found my balance, or equilibrium, between the internal and the external.

Today it’s time to bare all about a low point, a nadir. A, or the? Not sure. Narrative always seems to want to call for “the” lesson/point, rather than simply one of many exemplars. Aside from the reluctance to be very public with life’s darker moments, there’s anyway a finality in the act of naming the lowest point (or highest, for that matter) which it might not deserve.  I was thinking back through the PhD gloomy moments as well as those low points in my life and it occurred to me that what they all had in common was a lack, an absence. Going back to Erikson’s life cycle, the first crisis is between trust and mistrust and therefore the earliest enduring value to emerge is “hope”. What if the nadir moments are all moment in my past where there has been an absence of hope, to some degree?

This is not a heavy example (I have those, too), but in 1987 I went to Hungary and took up a post in a language school. I had enough about me to settle in and enough ideas to get me through my first three or four teaching assignments. Then I was assigned to run a 12 week course for beginners, whose lessons needed to be planned out really carefully. I was about one-third of the way through their course and as I was preparing in my apartment on my own for the following morning’s class I realised with horror that I had used all my lesson ideas and had no idea how to prepare the plan for them. None. My reserves of ideas and experience just dried up. It got really late. I was in a panic. The more the time went by that night, the more desperate I became and the quicker the clock ticked.  The details of the eventual resolution of the impasse don’t matter, except to say that it involved interaction with sympathetic others who restored… hope.


Short reflections:

I wonder why pathologies, exceptions and absences are so much richer conduits for reflection than triumphs and business-as-usuals? 

I was thinking about possible ways to research and gain data.  I’ve been focusing on one-to-one interviews, which elevates the individual as agent, as author of their own story. Does this reinforce our own ideas of management and leadership?

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One of these buildings is bent

One of these buildings is bent

In order to extract more than the usual amount of tourist pleasure from my trip to New York, I found via Google an organisation which sets up architectural walking tours of Manhattan.  As luck would have it, there was one being run (well, walked) on the Sunday of my visit and since its starting point was at Columbus Circle, just two blocks from my hotel, I decided to tag along.

The online instructions simply said to meet outside a shop selling shirts in the Time Warner building. When I got there, a small group of rather elderly locals had already arrived. Rather worryingly, the tour leader was nowhere to be seen and turned up 10 minutes late, having got off at the wrong Subway station. He introduced himself, excused not being an architect (so no questions about the buildings, then) and took our $15.

The theme of the tour was ‘Keeping off Manhattan’s streets’ and was supposed to be an introduction to midtown (where most of the tall buildings are) Manhattan’s post-modern era city planning for public spaces in private buildings. These spaces at the sides or within city blocks have been treated in different ways over time. From the benevolent and graceful art deco public concourses of the Rockerfeller Center, through the perfunctory and bleak open alleys of the modernist buildings to the more thoughtful though often characterless public routes through and around the post-modern architecture, we were taken on a brisk exploration of through-routes. Rather too brisk for some of the older folk, who seemed to disappear one-by-one as we went round the route that the tour leader had chosen. In fact, it was a bit like a spooky horror movie where characters disappear when you’re not looking. The first victim was the poor old lady in an electric wheelchair, who didn’t make it down the steps to the Subway station outside the Time Warner building.

Actually, the topic is an interesting one and you could indeed see how different generations, for different reasons, have created or denied through-ways and amenities beyond the regular, zoned sidewalks. However, and sadly, the group’s interest had waned somewhat by the time we made a pit-stop for coffee in the concourse of the Rockefeller Center. It became increasingly clear that our host was not super-confident in his background knowledge (preferring often to defer to the architects in the group, of whom there were several, and personal anecdotes of New York in the 1960s), nor was he over chatty or seeking to engage his audience. This felt very much like the New York attitude, so no-one seemed to take offence (or even offense). But by the time we reached Times Square and had (briskly) walked through the Marriott hotel’s simply horrible mezzanine lobby, I too gave up and became another victim of the phantom person-snatcher who had by that point taken nearly half the original group.

I did learn something, but it rather felt like I was learning it on my own. Thankfully, as director of a programme where, sooner or later, everyone comes to the realisation that all learning emerges from the relationship between you and the thing you are encountering, this felt fine, too.

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5th Avenue yesterday

5th Avenue yesterday

There’s a lot to be learnt from the United States, but you have to be open to understanding what makes it tick.  I’ve just returned from a late night walk around Midtown Manhattan, the section of the city with the sky-scrapers, the opulent shops and abundance of US flags are the clearest hint to the European observer that the big difference here is a collective, individual self-belief; the sense that there are few boundaries that hard work, optimism and the conviction that the pursuit of wealth is (mostly) really OK. 

But  – there is to be a ‘but’ –  it’s as easy here as it is in any other large city to see social problems and evidence of failure on a collective level, such as the homeless in the doorways of the churches on 5th Avenue.  Americans, even New Yorkers, tend to be polite and honest; and maybe the pride being shown, for the first time in a number of years, in the office of President is going to help.  I hope so. The vibrancy here is quite infectious.

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