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Posts Tagged ‘postaday2011’

We spend a lot of our adult lives engaged with projects that singly we call work and that cumulatively we call career. Most of us, I guess, do this as a part of an organisation and at some more or less clear level within a hierarchy. Hierarchies require leaders and most of us would, I think, like to be able to look up to our bosses. Usually we find that we can’t.

My own experience is that the majority of those people in the organisations I have worked for have not made much of an impression. Those in my experience have sometimes been pleasant people who have just made little impact on anything at all (including on me). Some I found have gone some way to leaving behind a bigger mess than the one they had so many grand intentions on changing for the better when they were put in charge, and have shown regard only for themselves or their “legacy”. I don’t know why this is so. Perhaps you reach a certain level of title or responsibility you simply remain there, being moved forever along by the impetus of rejection from your old organisation, which though happy to see the back of you would damage its own reputation were it to reveal all your shortcomings.

Exceptions to this pattern of poor senior management exist, of course. I’ve even met a few. I think Bruce Kent at CND was an exceptional person, and he inspired confidence in those around him. I wanted to make the second of my four significant people the man who was Dean of the Budapest-based business school (IMC) where I worked for in the 1990s, Peter Bartha.

The School had been going through a series of crises. Not only was it never sure that there would be sponsorship and funding for the following year’s work (although, when it came to it, there always was), the original set of exchange and co-operation agreements with the Canadian and US business schools which had got the Hungarian institution going were coming to their natural end. The original Dean returned to her original post in Calgary and there then was a succession of odd-ball, temporary Deans, each one more inconsequential and inappropriate than the last.

Peter was born in Hungary but left when he was 18, in the 1950s. He ended up in Toronto, where he had a career in journalism and then a career in business/management and (latterly) in academia. When he applied for the Deanship, the faculty and senior staff at IMC were given some time to interview him and the other shortlisted candidates. Where the others were vague and mining us for information, Peter was informed, and where they were anxious to sell themselves, Peter was listening. In fact, he interviewed us, but in a way that left you feeling you had something valuable to say.

Peter showed me my potential. He had high expectations of you, but they were always . He could write well, and he could speak well (without notes), and he was as at ease guiding IMC’s Founder, George Soros, toward his own vision of how to grow the school as he was making the students feel that he knew them all by name (I believe he did). He could focus on a topic with incredible intensity, and he would find the fault in your argument with unnerving speed, and he had a genuine interest in your world. In short, he made you want to be doing not just a good job, but your best. It was Peter who encouraged me to enrol on the Henley MBA and to accept the inevitable knocks and challenges along the way with grace. For that alone, I am grateful.

He wasn’t always the easiest person to be around, or to be working for. He had an ego, and sometimes a quick temper, but he also had the good grace to admit candidly when he had been in the wrong (not that often).  He combined energy with a strategic eye for the world around him, and always knew when to apply the human touch.

So few of those people at the top of organisations I have worked for have been inspirational characters, so I allow Peter’s voice to be the one that reminds me quietly from time to time whenever the occasion call for it.

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In the next four posts, my plan is to describe four people who have had an impact on me, have played some part in my narrative, and who have helped make me the person I am. I’m very comfortable with the idea of defining who we are by our interaction with others (there was a TV ad campaign in 2008 for a UK mobile phone provider Orange which depended on the same idea for its premise), and I think it is a very helpful activity to see who, when push comes to shove, are those people who have inspired you or formed you directly. Because I think this category needs to be populated by people you have a direct connection with, it will rule out some inspirational characters who by definition will have remained oblivious of their effect on who I think I am over the years. That list would include John Peel, Albert Camus,

So the first (real) person on my list is George. George is, or was (since he died very suddenly of a heart attack in 2004) a corporate lawyer for an oil company in Houston, Texas.  I “met” him online, via eBay, in about 2001.  I was at that time dabbling the sale of pieces of exquisite hand-painted porcelain made by the famous Herend porcelain manufactory. It was mostly a hobby, albeit one with a modest return, and a way of fuelling my fascination for the unique way that Herend was surviving with a 19th century production process in the 20th century. Many of the people buying my stuff were in the US, and some became repeat customers.  Then, as now, I revelled in the use of the written word to communicate more than the basic transactional information, and after two or three successful sales to George in Texas, we began to enquire into each other’s worlds.

Our emails grew longer and more frequent, and it was clear to me that not only did George know quite a lot about collecting fine porcelain (though I prided myself on finding snippets of information he did not know, and he delighted in finding these out), he had (even on the page) a “glass half full” outlook and an infectious enthusiasm for

I think the fact that we both had an interest in Herend, that of the amateur enthusiast, spurred him on to suggest that it might be a bit of a lark to go into “business” together on eBay to supply eager collectors in the US (where Herend was often difficult and always expensive to obtain). “Hey, Pal,” he would say, “how about it?”. So, that’s what we did.  We created a small “fund”, which I used for scouring the second-hand shops in Budapest for likely pieces. I would take my purchases and scan them, then launch as lots on eBay. Every couple of weeks, I would send them carefully wrapped in paper and bubble-wrap via DHL to George,  and  he would then supervise the collection of payment and distribution. We did all of this without ever meeting, simply on the strength of the rapport we had created via our long email chats, and the occasional phone call.  I don’t think there was anything we didn’t talk about. I don’t know how you perfect the art of active listening on the Web, but George managed it.

George, it turned out, had a big heart. So big, in fact, that he invited me and my family over to stay with him and his family in Texas. Fortune smiled on the idea, and we actually were able to make the trip. When we arrived, I quickly realised that I was meeting my Mentor. George was level-headed, clever and trusting. He was also the centre of many things in his community, and seeing someone in this position was new for me. Above all, above all, he had a good heart. He made you want to repay that by having an equally good heart. He was usually one step ahead of you in generosity, though, and we were more than once the recipient of that goodwill (hand-made Christmas puddings sent out of the blue by courier to our house one Christmas comes to mind).

When he heard that my marriage was in difficulty, George got on the phone immediately. He asked me how I was, but he was also clear about the situation with me, and he is one of perhaps three or four people who helped me get through it. It was typical of the man (remember this phrase, because it’s going to crop up in a day or two in another context) that he offered to fly over to England to cheer me up, and he bought two pitch-side tickets at Stamford Bridge to watch a soccer game with me.

George died about two weeks before that trip would have taken place. I don’t think I have ever felt such loss so keenly. He was an ally lost, and I wish that I had got to know him better because he was one of those very, very rare people that inspires us to become… better. At his memorial service, I am told that in excess of 600 people turned up. That doesn’t surprise me in the least.

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Reflection

I’ve thought about George on many single occasions since he died, but aside from what I wrote to his widow soon after that day, I don’t think I have ever written any of this down. I wasn’t hard to do, and in George’s case, my concern is that I don’t do him justice, or that I don’t do what he meant justice. What it says about me, I’m not yet sure.

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I’ve been watching the full version of President Obama’s speech in Tucson on YouTube. Two things struck me.

One was that, in order to understand it properly, it is not enough to dissect the rhetoric or the orator’s performance (both of which are no doubt being studied by students of that kind of thing already) but the fact that those elements only come into their own because of the wider and grander discourse of the occasion. There’s something in the “air” in the auditorium, a sense or emotion that wishes something important to be said and to be said with feeling. It’s more like this particular speech is sucked out of the speaker. There is frequent applause and almost as frequently the ovation is made standing.

The other thing which I noted was how Obama used narrative as a device to make his connections between the act, the players and the audience (and not just those in the hall). Elements of the bigger discourse (is this the American narrative?) with its reaffirmation of certain values or beliefs, which I guess were used to hearing, these were certainly there. But then he did more than mention or just pay tribute to each one of the six fatally wounded victims, he created a story around them. And because the wish for this, or need for this, it’s almost impossible not to connect and not to be moved during the speech, and the quotation (repeated three times, each time with more feeling) from the President in the title of this post kind of summarises the micro and the macro contexts of the speech.

I mention this only really because I thought it significant in light of the narrative intent of this month’s postings here. I’d be interested in hearing people’s opinions.

As for today, I wanted to reflect and review the previous eight entries, which collectively make up a section of this self-research, to see whether anything of a pattern is discernible, either in detail of content or in study of the process of writing them at all. What I find is something which came to be today – that one personal theme which might connect my choosing these particular episodes over the last eight days occurred to me when I found a small black and white photograph of myself to illustrate the kibbutz posting. It was taken in my last week there, can’t remember the exact context, but I think I was planning to apply for a visa for somewhere.  As I looked at it I found myself thinking of that person I was and how poorly qualified he was. Qualified in the sense of formal qualifications, that is. Is this my “thread”? And does this, in part, at least drive me to occupy this space working for a PhD?

Another thought is that generally it was not always possible to be sure of the voracity of the story details, which the mind tends to supply you with when you reflect on your own. The more I thought through a particular episode the more I seemed to want to fill in (or manufacture?) gaps. I found that I was often less certain of the peripheral details than I had thought I would be. Was one of the police officers who came to our door in Deal that day really a policewoman? I’m not sure. Does it matter? Probably not. Not as much as noting in myself that my mind wants to fill in the details.

Finally, I took a look again at the Atkins and Murphy model for reflection. When I referred to it with one of the MBA groups in a workshop this week, someone in the group spotted that what made this model different to, say, Kolb was the requirement to describe emotions and feelings, not just facts. I’m not sure I have been doing this, nor am I sure it’s an easy thing to do, though I think this may be the key to developing this reflective practice as an ongoing aid to learning.

So a short pause on the narrative trail today. Tomorrow I’ll return to the McAdams list of things to do, and select for discussion and description of four “significant people” who have had an impact on my life.

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Today was another day-long workshop, this time with the full-time MBA group at Henley. It was a very interesting session to run, though I was feeling quite drained by the end. They were really ready to spend some time out from what must feel like a constant onslaught of “stuff” (and nonsense?) of subjects for which they are about to enter an intense period of assessment. I was somewhat surprised that most of the learning teams had, now four months in, not spent any time deliberately reflecting, sharing and discussing how the team-work was going.  My session gave them permission to do so, and I was also determined to keep the message going regarding the purpose of PD on their programme. Overall, one of the most entertaining and rewarding sessions for me so far.

I’m now on the eighth and final task in these personal/biographical key events. It’s the wild card, the “other”, the one they couldn’t predict when they wrote the questionnaire.  Again, as with some of these other daily postings, I have ‘ummed and aahed’ about what to pick. Something related to Henley (such a big part of my identity, even before I got the job there)? Or something to help explain my area of interest in research, which is people’s ways of making sense of themselves through their stories?   Or, since we’re in the territory of history, something from the family vault?

I’m going to go for one that I don’t think I’ve written about on the Blog before, but it was an experience that had a profound effect for me. A release, in fact. Before I left Hungary, in a period of some introspection during which I mixed professional interest in systems thinking with personal curiosity, I was taken along to take part in a Family Constellation workshop (which ran over two days). Constellation Therapy is the work of a German psychotherapist named Bert Hellinger. Hellinger’s experience of the rise of Hitler in Germany, conscription, capture and escape as a German soldier, entry to and ordination in the Catholic Church, travel to and around Africa, interest in group dynamics and African social traditions, return to Europe and departure from the Church, marriage and then study of psychoanalysis in Vienna, followed by travel to the States and study of Transactional Analysis all led him to develop a (controversial) alternative therapy for individuals to address present and recurring problems in their lives. According to the UK Hellinger web site

“Hellinger discovered that the fates of those earlier in our families influence those who come later. Bert Hellinger noticed the presence and observed the actions of the family conscience which guards the integrity of the family system. What Hellinger has articulated are hidden orders supporting the flow of systemic energy in the service of bonding. In families, this energy is love; when these orders are ignored, love is harmed and family members, usually children, come under systemic pressure to balance the harm. Bert Hellinger’s systemic therapy provides a way of restoring balance to the system and alignment with what is.”

That’s the blurb. The programme I attended, run in Hungarian, was attended by about 20 people, mostly strangers to each other. We all sat in a large room in a circles and the first person volunteered to state what they felt their problem was. Then they were asked by the therapist to give information (facts only) about certain family members. The therapist then asked them to choose people from the circle to represent some or all of the the family group, going back two or three generations (the numbers varied depending on the story being told) and also one person to stand in for them. The next step was then for the person to guide the various characters into the empty space in the middle, to whichever spot felt right, and to face them wherever felt most appropriate. They also did this for their own character. The effect was clear, the person was creating a physical representation of their own family dynamic.  Once this is done, the person sat back down and we waited. The ‘characters’ were then free to reposition themselves according to whatever emotion, idea or impulse they felt appropriate, and to keep moving until they felt they were in the “right” position. This sounds odd, and it did look odd (it was even odder being selected a couple times to “be” someone’s grandfather or brother in their constellation. But, amazing things happened. Every time. First, people did react, and did reposition themselves, and they did report feeling certain emotions (including joy and fear), and certain attractions. The therapist watched the unfolding moves, and would sometimes ask a further question (sometimes people were sent out to phone for family info, since we were in Hungary and were often dealing with traumatic family stories of love and loss from the Second World War, and many families had secrets), and would sometimes introduce new characters. The process was designed to realign the constellation, to surface the business of the past stuck in the present (sounds strange, but this is how it looked) and achieve healing. Eventually, the subject of the constellation replaces the person who is playing them, and this was often when emotion was highest in the room (people cried – a lot), and the sequence usually ended with the person acknowledging their debt for living to their parents, grandparents etc and affirmed verbally their intention to now be responsible for living their own lives (“our parents always have a task for us?”). Over the weekend, then, I sat through (occasionally stood in) about 20 such scenarios, including my own.  For me, I was able to resolve a major mystery surrounding the fate of my grandfather in Ireland (a man I never knew, but someone who lived an extraordinary and tragic life) as well as understanding more about my own father and his reasons for his loyalties. I identify this workshop as the moment at which I could begin to work 100% on my life as my own project.

The whole experience was pretty powerful, with people’s entangled energy dissipating, sometimes instantly and sometimes over the next days and weeks.  It never felt religious, or even spiritual (I don’t believe that the dead haunt us, though their past actions are part of our present), but on the other hand I am at a loss to explain how a bunch of strangers could experience the flow of energy and sometimes accurately the secrets hidden in family stories of others.

Tomorrow I will try to see what pattern there is, if any, in these eight short stories.

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I’m trying hard to understand the “agency” vs “structure” division of opinion. It’s not easy because those opinions usually privilege one view over the other. And the consequences can seep. For example, I’m (half)reading an American textbook on Social Psychology because I was interested to see how it treated Social Identity Theory (only 2 sides of a 672 page book). A summary definition of SIT is given:

“a theory suggesting that individuals seek to enhance their own self esteem by identifying with specific social groups”.

Self esteem in this definition is neither just an emergent property nor a but a caused and (presumably) desirous end-state. We treat other end-state values, such as “happiness”, the same way in our culture. Why do we so often try to explain people’s behaviour in terms of their “seeking” something? The individual acts with a will, whether by own volition or forced to do so by circumstance, in their environment, and their actions are

Something about this view, which is dominant in our discourse of learning, doesn’t feel quite right for me. If only I knew why, then I’d probably not need to do a PhD!

Today I need to write about an important adult memory. Actually I’ve just returned from the potential creation of one this evening. I was treated to a drink and a meal with my brother at his club in London. His club! In London! Complete with wood-panelling, leather armchairs and lavish carpeting. It was a grown-up experience, which I of course enjoyed with a child-like mirth and idle dreams of enjoying membership there myself after my second novel is published.

However, the memory from adult life that I wanted to mention apropos the question of “who am I?” in terms of the PhD  happened to me in the summer of 2004 when I packed my two kids into the car and drove from Budapest to France for a holiday. We had done that trip several times before, to see and stay with my mother, who lives in a beautiful part of central France, but this time was different because my relationship with my wife had broken down and we were setting off on separate lives.  I planned, organised and led the trip. I decided the details and set the boundaries and I made the choices that had previously either been jointly reached or, more honestly, had been my wife’s. The kids were aged then 14 and 12, and I had also planned for us to spend a few days in Paris, with a whole day at Disney, so they were content with the idea, and I’m glad to say they remained mostly content with the relaxed agenda of the trip and the soporific quality of the summer air at my mother’s place. The day in Paris turned out to be about as perfect a day as possible, mid-June, got there early and stayed until the end of the parade, with the girls fully tired by the close.  All that driving (18 hours non-stop in both directions) was a challenge, but it was mine to own.

The trip re-awoke in me the intense pleasure of making sole decisions. The PhD may contain elements of dialogue and of supervision, as well as of mass communication to whatever community one wishes to belong to, but it’s also a hard lonely slog, so any evidence that one can muster that points to one’s ability to hack it has to be helpful.

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Reflection:

When you wish to know what a smile is, how you go about finding that out will surely determine what you find. A smile is physical, so is the measure of it the muscle movements, nerve impulses, synaptic firings in the brain, releases of enzymes and so on? It’s also an emotional experience, so is it a psychological construct, its purpose and characteristics to be understood by observation and experiment? On the other hand, a smile clearly serves a social function (perhaps a iniversal one) so should it be understood in its social context?

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Task six, of eight, in this sequence of reflections is to identify “an important adolescent memory”. I mused yesterday on the division between child and adolescent. In the society I grew up, both terms were quite familiar ones and I would not have had any trouble saying what was which, but it is interesting to find that our current understanding of both is actually quite recent (from the 1880s onwards). Children existed, of course, but were not objects of much separate study or understanding, and there was no intermediate phase or stage before adult.

Erikson has this stage from age 13 to 20, which still feels about right for me in social terms, and has the crisis that of identity (who am I?) versus role confusion (what does society expect me to be?). The word adolescent has its root in the Latin for “grow up”, though I think the growing up is only in relation to childhood, not adulthood. In hindsight it makes sense as a transition phase within childhood, though you’d never have convinced the teenager me of that.

I first was made aware of the role of the word adolescent in the song lyrics of a punk band called X-Ray Spex, whose music was already a year or so old by the time I made the transition from ‘child’ (though we always remain someone’s child) to adolescent. It’s interesting the role in identity that music played, so to speak, in my adolescence, which for me (and, for Erikson) is where I became fully aware of “others” and the sense of myself as being “other” from my family. Funny, but Erikson coined the term “Identity Crisis” (or perhaps it was coined for him by the context of his ideas) and X-Ray Spex had another song with the lyrics ‘Identity is the crisis, can’t you see?” The personal selection of which music and lyrics, which bands, which style, which television and radio programmes and which helps create some kind of stability as one declares war on the old certainties of family and stands fascinated, uselessly denying the oncoming but still not here tasks of adult life.

I had thought this would be an easy section to write, but it is not. There is no shortage of moments illustrative of the times, but not easily identifiable as key turning points. Perhaps is because some of them were simply reactions to the status quo of home, tome town and schooling? Others frame my cumbersome and clumsy attempts to explore romantic relationships. Some consistent threads run through this time – a lasting, close and non-romantic friendship with a girl called Meg is one (friendships for me have always been few, but very, very firm). Further experimentation with literacy and creativity would be another important theme because I was always looking for an outlet for expression, and an audience). But the adolescent memory that comes to mind as being a key moment is the day I walked out of the grammar school on my last day as a fifth former, having decided myself not to return. Staying on would have been the default option, and I’ve noticed at several points in my life that I have often chosen to not to give something up but to give up doing it in one place and look for continuation of it somewhere else. It was such a sweet feeling to think that I no longer belonged to that place, and its rule-book and its overwhelming tradition…  But I also knew, I suppose, that it wasn’t the smart move. The smart thing (in the long run) would have been to stay there, buckle down and ride the results in order to have a wider choice of what to do next. I think my early exercises of the adult right to make the dumb decision paid off in the short run, but permitted me to alter course too easily in the remainder of my adolescence and early adult life.  It certainly made getting anywhere later on much harder work.

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Reflection:

Narratives are met by the reader, who is given the chance by the fact of the meeting to form comparison with their own, and this in turn allows for the drawing of the boundary between the two. And the boundary delineates their own world and makes it clearer (after reflection on it) for them. So narratives need to be shared. This is necessary for the writer of the original, as without comparison to others, how can they reveal what they take for granted?

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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.

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Reflections

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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The task this time is to write an early memory. My earliest, in fact. I’ve been thinking about this all day and came to the conclusion that when we are asked to recount our earliest memory, adults do tend to have an answer already (i.e. we have it prefab ready to roll out when required) and that the answer is an impressionistic, brief clip which might not stand up to rigorous interrogation for peripheral details or supporting evidence. My snippet was already referred to in Day Three’s posting; memory of seeing jellyfish washed up on a sandy/rocky beach in Ireland. But I have no way of knowing how accurate, or even genuine, that memory is.  Do I  now remember that this is my memory? In other words, I’m remembering the remembering, not genuinely going back to the original and creating a copy of it for the present.

Yet I hold on to it very strongly and value it greatly as part of “me”. Why? Because it’s Ireland, and ties me in to a fascinating story paternal history? Or because it would have stood out among comparison with peers when retold by me at a much younger age? Back to the theme; defining ourselves by sameness and belonging, or by  differentiation and separateness?

The earliest memory for which you can also provide witness statements, DNA results, fingerprints and signed confessions? That’s another story (pun intended).  Funnily enough, today in a sale bin at Foyles in London I came across a book called “Remembering our Childhood” (2009), by Karl Sabbagh, which confirmed for me that adults are not able to retain early childhood memories (or, rather, the capacity to form them does not mature until we are somewhere between 5 and 7, and not much from then or before then is ever retrievable – beyond a few fragments of visual cues from around 3 or 4, with some but limited narrative structure.   Sabbagh’s non-scientific survey for his book found that many people’s earliest memories were firmly anchored for them at ages 1 to 3, which contain no narrative.  [Aside: this probably should help it become clearer for us what narrative is]

With the caveat that one may draw plausible details from imagination just as easily as one may draw on facts, I do recall my first day at Primary School, where I must have been about 5.  My first day could not have been the first day of school because I remember being led into a class that was playing, and being introduced to a boy, who was assigned being my “new friend”, and the only scenario that would fit is if we had arrived in the town after the start of the school year. My new friend was Denis, and Denis remained my best friend until I left Secondary School. He was playing with a toy called stickle-bricks (coloured pieces of plastic with many small rounded spikes – like tiny hedgehogs).  I remember the name of the teacher, Sister John (why do some nuns take male saint names?), and what it felt like to have the sun stream in through the enormous windows in the classroom as the afternoon went on. There is narrative there, and it’s easy to want to stick more on, but I’m not 100% sure that the additional blocks of detail belong.

The main reflection-in this is about the role, and reliability, of memory in the reflection process. Reliable witness? The jury is still out.

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I’m watching a bit of a documentary on Channel 4 by and about Derren Brown. He’s visiting his parents and his old school and revisiting elements of himself (in an old swimming pool…). We don’t spend our lives continually looking back, or going back, to places and people in our childhoods, but as soon as we do it’s amazing how forceful and fast (in every sense) the impact in our self-understanding.

Back to the plot, the third life event to write about is “A turning point”, or “an event, or episode where you experienced, either at the time or at a later point, a significant change in your understanding of yourself. In retrospect, you see this as a pivotal point in your life.”

My (second) wife uses the word “cooked” to describe people when they achieve a level of maturity in life. I don’t think she means just “no longer childish”, but also “being adult”, although what that means is another interesting discussion.  I like to think of cooked in terms of the development, over time and in time, of the ability to put aside (subsume?) one’s child-like or juvenile first reaction to a situation in favour of (it’s about choices you make) one that freely and without need for outside validation encompasses the appropriate virtue for that situation.

By middle age, a lot more women are cooked than men, apparently.

The moment of birth of my first child was the cooking moment for me, the one where there was a clear fold in time where what had gone before would not be like what was going to come ahead. I both knew it at the time, and didn’t know, and it is not about who or how my eldest turned out to be.  

She was born in a Budapest hospital we had chosen because fathers were allowed to be present at the birth, in winter in Budapest in 1989, just as the European order was changing. The Berlin Wall was history (making it and being it) and the Romanians were about to come to bloody blows with their lunatic dictator, but at 3.50 p.m. I was given a responsibility to hold and for a moment a bubble formed around me that I don’t think anything short of a meteorite strike on the maternity ward could have burst. 

What changed about myself? If I pursue an earlier thread, on similarity and difference, in my relation with the world around me I had become similar (part of the group “parent”) and I had become different (no-one else had a baby quite like mine). In both ways I had another layer of “identifiability”. Then when I think about it a second time I consider some the contexts that framed the tableau in the hospital – gender, ethnicity, linguistics, economics… and so on.

And when I think about it, now, a third time, I find that there was an emergent virtue, love, which chimes with Erikson’s early adult stage. I had something to care for and, and others now had identities which depended on me.

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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.

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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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