Saturday, 3 December 2016

Shock and "Or..."

Day 4 (Sunday 4th December 2016)

4th ever closure of Disney World in its 45 year history
occurred from 5.00pm on Thursday 6th through to the end of Friday 7th October, 
due to the threat posed by Hurricane Matthew. The other 3 closures 
were also due to hurricanes - twice in 1999 and once in 2004.

Today's piece is written by my friend, David Christensen who was a fellow student, in the same college as me, at Cambridge - many people were surprised that we socialised together and enjoyed each other's company - he was (is) seriously clever and does not tolerate fools. David attained a First in Maths and Computer Science and, long before most of us were aware of the power of technology and the use of algorithms to solve complex global and business problems, David was leading the field. He is internationally recognised for the work he has done, over a number of years, to develop stochastic modelling tools that enable effective financial modelling within the insurance industry. David was a driving force in the team that established Igloo as the leading product across the sector - it is used by more than 700 insurance organisations around the world - actuaries are in awe of him. David works for Willis Towers Watson, where he is the Technology Leader, specialising in technical research and development in insurance capital modelling, within the Property & Causality team.

There is much more to David than just being good at maths and coding, he is well-read and well-travelled (even by bike in Cambridgeshire). Possessing an excellent palate, he (and his inspirational wife Sarah) have enjoyed sampling superb wines and fine food in locations across the globe. They stand out (and not just because they are both tall). In addition, they are both crack shots - David has been the County Champion for Clay Pigeon Shooting for Cambridgeshire and is one of the best competitive shooters in the country. I hope his post hits the mark for you.


Shock and "Or..."

Thank you to Kate Griffiths-Lambeth for inviting me to contribute an Advent blog under the theme of Heights, Hollows and Hearts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the events of the year, I intend to write about opposites (Heights and Hollows) and how emotions and beliefs (Hearts) can form barriers between them. I also hope to suggest some small steps we can all take to attempt to add some level of control to the out-of-control juggernaut that is political and social interaction in 2016.

I don't make any claims to originality in what I say here, although the exact expression and examples are my own. Recent events have caused quite a few people to say similar things. This doesn't make the message any less worth spreading, so I hope my attempt to get people thinking about it via Kate's blog can do some good. While I will be discussing political events, I am trying my hardest to distance this piece from political opinion; it is the preservation and development of social niceties that concerns me more than the political outcomes.

This picture does NOT indicate the writer's attitude
but it makes a point about some people's stance within our society

The Context

2016 has featured two elections (so far!) with important results that many were stunned by. 

In an age of ever-faster communication and increasing coverage by traditional and social media, how can so many people have been so surprised? I'm not talking about the failure of polls (although that is a fascinating subject), but about the shock and disbelief that many (winners and losers) felt after the results. Amongst my friends there was a chorus of "how could it have happened?" and "how on earth could anyone think voting the other way was sensible?" and a saddening quantity of "are they all idiots?".

Filtered Truth

I believe that the increased ease of communication and sheer quantity of information available to everyone via technology has had two interesting effects. Firstly, because information is easier to get hold of, you need to talk to fewer people to get it. For example, it may be easy to discover online that say 73.8% of your near neighbours have opinion X as opposed to Y. If you also hold opinion X, it is easy to stop there, because 73.8% is nearly everyone, right? 

Nothing in this process has done anything other than confirm your belief. If you'd had to go out and ask people, you'd have encountered about a quarter of people disagreeing with you, and some of those would probably have gone beyond a straight X/Y statement, and you would have been exposed to some Y opinions.

Tailored Truth

Furthermore, when you look further afield, you are most likely, these days, to do it via either social or conventional media. Let's start with conventional media: sadly, most newspapers and TV channels these days are highly stuck in their ways. You're not going to confuse a Fox News report with a BBC one very often! Since peoples' views also tend to be static, they will tend to find a channel/paper they agree with, and then stick with it; it's a rare individual who chooses to immerse themselves in things they disagree with - I like to think I have an above average interest in engaging with opposing views (or "argumentative" as some say J) but I still read the same daily newspaper my parents introduced me to in the 1970s.

Since you're likely to be stuck with your political leanings, you might want to measure them.

Luckily there is a website,, that allows you to answer a few simple questions to place yourself not only on the left/right political scale, but also the libertarian/authoritarian scale. You might be surprised where you end up - I was. For comparison, they will place on you a graph with the main parties or candidates in recent elections. For example, the UK 2015 election on the left, or (perhaps more alarmingly) governments in the EU as of 2012

Social Media

Social media has picked up on this desire to be surrounded by literally agreeable content, and subjects you to two forms of confirmation of your opinions.
  • Apps such as Facebook that allow you to share discussion with "friends" mean that you will mainly see and hear your friends. It's not like overhearing the next table in the pub or someone talking too loudly on the train. If there is someone in your feed saying things you disagree with, you can block them or unfriend them and they effortlessly go away.

  • Like all the worst narcissists, the tendency is to surround yourself with mirrors and yes-(wo)men.
  • Social media is a major news source these days; Pew Research published data in May that 62% of US Adults get news from social media, more than twice as many as read newspapers . And guess what? Social media companies want you to keep coming back to their sites (so you can click on adverts), so they try to make sure that you only see news you like. You effectively have your own confirmatory newspaper - perhaps it should be called the Narcissist News?

The problem with being presented with news you agree with is that it makes you less critical of its contents. Known as "confirmation bias", this is the natural human tendency to believe things which agree with our original thought and disbelieve things which challenge it. We all do it, to a greater or lesser extent (I haven't found any evidence to the contrary).

The Problem

Despite surrounding ourselves with a hall of virtual mirrors, the reality is that things are not homogeneous. In early June, I drove a route which took me through both Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire/Yorkshire. I doubt that many people in either location were aware of quite how polar opposites they were on the subject of the EU referendum. The scary bit is not the difference of opinion, but the lack of understanding of the existence of dissent (particularly amongst those supported the status quo). The problem that I see is that the vote - even more than the US election - hasn't really changed anything. There are still two camps who don't talk to each other much, and, when they do, I generally see an argument that gets people nowhere.

How not to argue

Typically, post-vote arguments go like this:

Person APerson B
I believe X
You're wrong
No, look, here's a logical argument as to why X is right
I don't care, I believe Y
But here's a logical argument as to why Y is wrong
I still believe Y
I think you're stupid/ignorant
You're just trying to prove you're morally or intellectually superior.

This argument often occurs between (I'm using these terms very loosely) a rationalist (A) and an emotionalist (B), and not always representing the same sides of the argument. I think this is because obvious when two rationalists argue the points around the votes, they realise that the issues are way too complex for a short argument and it fizzles out. Two emotionalists have probably either unfriended each other, got into a fight, or realised there is nothing but pain in continuing. But when you get rationalists and emotionalists arguing the point, it seems to run and run with many variations on the same basic theme. I do wonder whether there is a meta-problem here; arguments about different beliefs are least productive amongst rationalists and emotionalists because they don't even notice that rationalism and emotionalism are themselves different beliefs.

Anyone who does not understand their opponent is condemned to repeat themselves endlessly (or disengage to go and talk to someone they agree with).

Ask a Professor

To quote Randall B Smith, Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St Thomas in Houston (full article here), talking about his frustrations with today's students:
The more students dismiss the resources of critical reason, the less faith they have in reasoned judgments. The less faith they have in reasoned judgments, the more likely they are to assume every decision they find offensive is based on ill will or gross stupidity, and the more indignant they are likely to be in their condemnations. The louder and more intractable the disputes between parties, the more those with less stomach for the fight will withdraw into postmodernism's "ironic detachment": the shrug of the shoulders and the ubiquitous "whatever."
However, I think this lack of critical reasoning ability is only part of the problem. Increasingly I think that people under-use "why?" as a question. In the hypothetical exchange, above, what A should be doing is not presenting an argument as to why A thinks Y is wrong; A should be considering why B thinks Y is right. A is not trying to change his own belief system (although I would argue he should always be challenging it), he is trying to change B's. You don't win an argument by establishing an abstract truth (that's science !), you win an argument by changing a belief.

Why did they say that?

What we all need to do is to understand why people think differently from us. It's not that person B was born believing Y. Something made them think that. It may be as simple as their "sources of truth" are different to yours - which may be on any number of levels: the effect of hundreds of smart students from the EU adding to a varied discourse at Cambridge University will present a very different "truth" about immigration to thousands of farm labourers from Eastern Europe disrupting the labour market in Lincolnshire. But neither of these groups is very likely to see the impact on the other, even if they could be persuaded that it is the overall sum that matters rather than the individual impacts. It may be from which newspapers you read; if your paper tells you three things which you know from experience are true, then you are also likely to believe the fourth thing is says that you don't have experience of. It may be as simple as parental influence. These latter two raise the question of why did their news source or parents believe something...

"Yeah, but we won"

The way many of the post-vote arguments end is with "yeah, but we won". Whilst this may be true, it is meaningless on two levels. People decry Twitter for 140 character tweets being too short for real information. But a referendum is 1 bit: yes/no, in/out. It is the minimum amount of information it is possible to convey. Even the question for the EU referendum was less than 2/3rds of a tweet. So whilst one side "won", it will be years before we know what they have "won". 

Secondly, it's not like winning £1M in a lottery, where the winner gets it and the losers don't. We all get the result of the vote. Bar those fleeing the country in horror, we have to stay and live with it. And with each other.

What to do about it

If we are to peacefully coexist in this post-vote world (and I do worry that peace, both domestic and international, might be at risk), then we need to understand each other more. We need to try to de-polarize our belief systems and information sources. We need to welcome a challenge to how we see the world. We need to understand why others think what they do. We need to share understanding rather than trying to destroy conflicting views. We need to win over hearts as well as minds, and concede that we, too, may be swayed, whoever we are. When we encounter a nasty surprise, we need to move on from the shock, and consider the possibilities of "or..."

Since this is an Advent blog, I'll conclude by saying that if we can all make just a little progress in these areas, then we may be on our way to a Happy Christmas!

David Christensen

Links for further reading if you haven't had enough already
A Call for Intellectual Humility
Confirmation Bias
Don't mistake an assumption for a fact and (same site) The genetic fallacy: When is it okay to criticize a source?
British Newspapers - you are what you read (not least for the amusing video links)
Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Late on Friday night David contacted me and suggested I simply scrub his post and put up the words to rock band Rush's "Second Nature" from the album "Hold Your Fire" as, despite being released in 1987, the lyrics seem to encapsulate much of what David has said above.

"Second Nature"
A memo to a higher office
Open letter to the powers that be
To a god, a king, a head of state
A captain of industry
To the movers and the shakers...
Can't everybody see?

It ought to be second nature
I mean, the places where we live
Let's talk about this sensibly
We're not insensitive
I know progress has no patience
But something's got to give

I know you're different
You know I'm the same
We're both too busy
To be taking the blame
I'd like some changes
But you don't have the time
We can't go on thinking
It's a victimless crime
No one is blameless
But we're all without shame
We fight the fire while we're feeding the flames

Folks have got to make choices
And choices got to have voices
Folks are basically decent
Conventional wisdom would say
But we read about the exceptions
In the papers every day

It ought to be second nature
At least, that's what I feel
Now I lay me down in Dreamland
I know perfect's not for real
I thought we might get closer
But I'm ready to make a deal

Today is different, and tomorrow the same
It's hard to take the world the way that it came
Too many rapids keep us sweeping along
Too many captains keep on steering us wrong
It's hard to take the heat
It's hard to lay blame
To fight the fire while we're feeding the flames

Friday, 2 December 2016

(Your love keeps lifting me) Higher and Higher

(Your love keeps lifting me) Higher and Higher  

Day 3 (Saturday 3rd December 2016)

3-time winner of the Tour de France, British cyclist Chris Froome,
crossed the finish line arm-in-arm with his Team Sky mates on 24th
July 2016. Froome won in 2013, 2015 and 2016 and is the first man to 
successfully defened his title for over 20 years. He is just the 8th rider
to win at least 3 Tours de France, joining Belgium's Phillipe Thys,
Louison Bobet of France and American Greg LeMond on 3. The record
of 5 Tour wins is held jointly by Jacques Anquetil & Bernard Hinault of
France, Belgium's Eddy Merckz and Miguel Indurain of Spain.
Today's blog is joy to read - it is always a pleasure to find that people's lives are full of love and learning. In this very open and personal piece, Gary Cookson tells us how his life has changed, having rediscovered love and now appreciating the fact that he is both loved and loveable. In some ways his blog can be read as a love letter. It is certainly an honest reflection on his year. If you remember from last year's series, Gary told us (on Boxing Day) what it was like to job-hunt and how, by not trying too hard, he landed a suitable role. Gary, in this year's post, touches on the lingering pain he still feels after 12 years in a housing trust he loved and was proud to have helped, having it change for the worse around him and having to leave. Since February he has been the Director of HR at Trafford College. Gary has high standards and is driven, both in and outside work (he is a triathlete, trainer, tutor, dedicated father and spouse) - he does not shirk from seeking to improve both himself and the environment in which he operates. In this post he touches on the complex issue of having a satisfactory work/life balance.

Gary is a natural networker and active on social media - he tweeted that he was writing this post back in November, without giving anything away. His Twitter handle is @Gary_Cookson. He is also a prolific blogger - you can read his posts on his blog, HR Triathlete or catch many of them on LinkedIn.

Gary has shared with us his own photos that record magical moments from his year.



I got married this year. I'd been married before and the secret joy of marrying again is realising that you made so many mistakes first time round, without even knowing, and by marrying again you get the chance to put right what once went wrong (to steal a Quantum Leap quote). I hadn't realised that, having had my heart torn into tiny shreds some years ago, I had it in me to love again and most importantly to be loved.

In the immediate years after my painful divorce I focused my attention of my children, only having two at the time. I didn't think my heart had capacity to love anyone else and as a human being I became very shallow and self centred as a result, not valuing friendships or relationships.

And then I met Katie, and in time we had our own child, and its obvious that ones' heart DOES have capacity to love more no matter what you think, that it just GROWS.  And as Katie wants us to have another child in the future (no.4 for me if so) I'll probably test that theory further in the years to come.

The wedding was fantastic, taking place on St.George's Beach near Paphos, Cyprus at the end of a week long holiday that I thought I couldn't better but in fact only had to wait a fortnight to do so.

On that day, 26 August, my heart became whole again and I felt loved, and full of love.  I have not experienced a more perfect day and I don't want to.  I found my heart again on St.Georges' Beach, and part of it will always be there.


Two weeks after our wedding we went on honeymoon - a cruise round the Norwegian Fjords.  This was something from our bucket-list and the four days we spent in Norway itself saw me reach heights of beauty I didn't even think possible.  Norway is my new favourite place and I'd live there in a heartbeat (if I could afford it).

Honeymoons are invariably special events and I truly believe I may never experience those heights again, though I'll try. I certainly don't plan on having another honeymoon, partly because I want it to be some kind of pinnacle in my life.

Bergen was spectacular, ascending the funicular Floibanen to Mt.Floyen and looking down on what seemed like the whole of Norway. But we hadn't seen anything yet.  Standing at the bottom of the Trollveggen the following day in Andalsnes made me realise how the heights of Norway were something I could spend my entire life scaling.  And even then we hadn't got to the best bit - walking up the mountain to the Briksdal Glacier in Olden exposed me to a level of peace and beauty, a new height altogether, that I didn't think I'd ever experience.  Standing in front of the glacier, I have never felt so calm and had all my senses heightened so much.
I'd love to go back, to try to experience those heights again.

So this year for me, on a personal level, has been all about hearts and heights.


My hollows have been entirely professional this year.  Something has been missing.  I don't know what.  I feel as if, professionally, I'm searching for something and until I find it, I'll be hollow.

I started the year leaving the organisation I'd spent 12 years turning into an amazing workplace, and then 1 year watching it change around me and all my work be undone.  I used this story in my Ignite-Max poem at #CIPDNAP16 and tried to express how hollow the whole experience had made me, but also how it had helped me realise how I can rebuild and start again, something I've been doing in my new role since I started in the early part of the year.

But even now, the hollow feeling persists.  Something's not quite right, professionally, and the sharp contrasts with how high I've flown in my personal life haven't helped by exposing an area that isn't as perfect for me, so I've clearly got work to do.

The feeling actually makes me angry at times, irritable and short-tempered, which isn’t the person I want to be.

I guess I'm searching for something to fill the hollowness inside me.  But I don't know what it is that will fill it or even if I'll feel less hollow when I find it.

All I do know is that, if and when I figure it all out - watch out.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

A Story of Hope - the Fourth H Word

A Story of Hope - the Fourth H Word

Day 2 (Friday 2nd December 2016)

2 choices were given to eligible voters in the UK Referendum
that took place on Thursday 23rd June 2016.

England voted strongly for Brexit, by 53.4% to 46.6%, 

as did Wales, with Leave getting 52.5% of the vote and Remain 47.5%. 

Scotland and Northern Ireland both backed staying in the EU. 

Scotland backed Remain by 62% to 38%, while 55.8% in 

Northern Ireland voted Remain and 44.2% Leave.

Today's piece is full of emotion and depth.  It is contributed by Michele Armstrong, the MD of Acorn Principle Plus, which she established in 2003. Michele is a mindfulness specialist and Head of Coaching for Mindful Talent, which established a working partnership with Acorn earlier this year. Michelle is passionate about coaching and the need for ethics and standards. She was appointed Head of the Association for Coaching Scotland in 2004. She demonstrates an impressive drive for personal growth and learning - she studied for a BA in Community Education at The University of Edinburgh, in the early 1990s, and since then has attained an MSc in Neuroscience of Leadership from Middlesex University and a further MSc in Mindfulness (graduating this year) from the University of Aberdeen. Michele is based in Edinburgh. Prior to founding her own business, Michelle was an Executive Coach for the Buccleugh Estates. As a child I spent every summer in Scotland and the stretch of the river Nith on which I fished (and in which I occasionally swam) was next to some of the Buccleuch lands - amazing countryside and passionate people working to ensure sustainable economic development for the individuals who worked on, and the communities living near and engaging with, the natural resources. Hard not to be well-grounded after the experience of being with people working to ensure the continuity of beautiful, sustainable environments. You can follow Michelle on Twitter, her handle is @micheleatacorn

As you will see from her following words, Michelle has a large heart and considerable resilience. When not helping and supporting others, Michelle is a keen amateur gardener. She likes seeing things grow. It is a pleasure having her as the second contributor of this year's Advent Blog series. 


In considering the theme of #Advent Blogs 2016 – Heights, Hearts & Hollows, my mind was filled with so many thoughts I wanted to share under each of these topics. I spent a few days sitting with my mind full of ideas, then started to get all my thoughts out onto paper by journaling freely, until the story began to emerge. At times words would pour out in a flood and confuse my senses; at other times I would stare at a blank page in the way I imagine Ted Hughes might have done as he waited for his Thought Fox to appear.

The following poem by Rumi (and other poems I find inspiring) let me view my experiences from a different position; a place from which I could look back on the hollows (instead of from within) and upwards and onwards to new heights – enjoying the promise of things to come.

The Guesthouse

This being human is a guest house

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond. ~ Rumi

The story I share with you now represents a manicured version of the words, thoughts and feelings that have been showing up at my guesthouse since the untimely death of my daughter almost three years ago. Yes, the ‘crowd of sorrows’ have been here, along with anger, disbelief and pain, as well as many thoughts I regarded as dark and shameful. And I don’t mind admitting that I was far from able to ‘meet them at the door laughing’. 

However, it is the ‘unexpected visitors’ I want to write about today, because this is a story of hope – the fourth H word.

From Hollows to Hope

My time spent in the ‘hollows’, although intense, was temporary, and arguably served some kind of purpose. At times, I felt like I was locked in a dark prison cell, in solitary confinement, alone and with no way out. 

My daughter’s death felt meaningless, unfair and isolating, and although I desperately tried to make sense of it, none came. I was seeking solutions to something there were no real answers to.

After a while, I became aware that there were no locks or chains holding me in the hollows; I was choosing to stay there, wallowing. I experienced fleeting moments of fresh awareness and glimpses of light; they told me there was hope.

With hope, I felt the darkness grow softer. The heaviness felt lighter. I felt I’d made space for new visitors to the guesthouse. Hope is slow to come, but it comes.

Anger still came and went, each time pointing the finger at something or someone different:
  • myself (shoulda, woulda, coulda)
  • ‘them’ (why doesn’t anyone prepare us for death – they know it’s going to happen)
  • The government (well, why not!?)

Hope was a constant visitor, making it possible for me to ‘be here now’, to exist in this moment. To sit with sadness and let it be, to acknowledge the shame and doubt before letting them go; and to allow memories that, although sad, would bring joy to visit me too. I learned that I didn’t need to hold onto my guests because each one will come and go if I accept that ‘this too shall pass’.

Hope transforms Hearts

From somewhere in my memory I remembered the lotus flower that begins life in the murky depths of a muddy pool where there seems little hope of new growth or any sign of life. In some traditions, the bud of the lotus symbolises potential. Wrapped within the bud are all the tiny leaves that will one day grow out of the mud and rise above the dirty water to share their beauty with the world. The open flower symbolises an open heart.

At the time I’d been studying several courses that challenged me to view the world and my experience of it through various lenses. I particularly liked (and learned from) the ULab course (based on Otto Scharmer’s ‘Theory U’) and studies in mindfulness. Both had taken me along a path where I was learning to let go of my limited understanding of things, to listen at a deeper level, to be still and to hear what my heart was telling me. Now that I was experiencing life from a completely different perspective, and nothing seemed to make sense any more, I let go of the theory and grasped onto what was real and meaningful, and still felt tangible enough to hold onto through my grief. I was learning to open my heart, to know what it is to feel without being able to hide from the feelings and to allow myself to lean into my vulnerability.

I came to realise that I was not alone; in fact, the opposite was true. I am surrounded by love from family and friends and I am connected, on many levels, to the people who share this world with me. 

I’ve realised that this human connection gives rise to spiritual growth, and opens the door to many new visitors to my guesthouse, and to old friends who I’d almost forgotten. Hope was the catalyst in reintroducing me to the presence of love, faith, kindness and compassion. As each of these grew stronger, the ‘crowd of sorrows’ grew smaller. 

My heart continues to ache, and there’s a space in my life that I still have to navigate around. However, I’m learning to welcome vulnerability, sorrow and sadness, and I am grateful for their visits. 

With them comes a sense of the joys and the good times that, for now, are locked in the memories that accompany the group on their visits. 

One of my favourite poets, Kahlil Gibran, talks about our relationship with our children in his book, The Prophet. He said:

“Your children are not your children.They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.They come through you but not from you,And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

…You may house their bodies but not their souls,For their souls’ dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams." 

Writing about death he said, 
“And when you have reached the mountain top, then
           you shall begin to climb”.

Reaching the Heights

Back at the start of the story, I said my current perspective enabled me to look ‘upwards and onwards to new heights – enjoying the promise of things to come’. This is true. In the last few months, I’ve turned a corner and am building a new way of life that embraces this new, open-heartedness that has emerged out of the muddy hollows. When my daughter died, her two small children came to live with my husband and I, and our life was thrown into a completely new orbit as ‘kinship carers’. Amidst the grief, my husband and I rose to the challenge and slowly redefined what life means to us.

Life’s transitions and changes can be hard at the best of times; at the worst of times I felt like I wasn’t going to make it. And yet, here I am to tell the tale.

Gibran went on to say, in his writings about death,

“You would know the secret of death.
But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?”

I discovered that hope transforms the heart. I learned that we are not alone on this planet – ever – even when it feels like we are. We are all connected and if we can learn to open our hearts to feel that connection, and to be led by our hearts to build stronger connections through kindness and compassion, then we will genuinely experience the heart of life and begin to climb.

“In the depth of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond;
And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring”
- Kahlil Gibran, 1995