Monday, 26 December 2011

All in all a decent year

At the beginning of 2011 I set myself three big challenges. All were in train as I went in to 2011 but I knew I had to stretch myself a bit to achieve all three. In fact I was a bit nervous that I had overreached and I wondered if I would be able to pull it off.

Fortunately, with a lot of help from a lot of people I managed to tick off all three, and in the last few days of the year pick up a bonus point too. So, all in all it was a decent year.

First on my list was the African Gifted Foundation. This is the charity that I set up to seek out and educate exceptionally gifted African children, particularly in the arena of mathematics and computer science. It is a big ambition and one that I will be devoting a lot of time and money to over the next decade and more. After much planning  and preparation we finally ran our first ever African Gifted Academy in January 2011. We took 25 incredible young people from across Africa to a two week session held at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda. We flew in tutors from Cass Business School, from Bletchley Park and from the Space Academy to teach the young people about financial markets, codes and ciphers and space science. We invited Harold Wanyama, the East African Chess Champion, to run a chess masterclass and play all 25 students in a simultaneous match (all of which he won - just!).

Second was the opening of Hammersmith Academy, the new secondary school that opened its doors in September 2011. I came up with the idea for Hammersmith Academy in 2005 and led its creation over six years and I am incredibly proud to be its chairman. Hammersmith Academy is the UK's first secondary school with creative and digital media and IT specialisms. It is an amazing school and houses TV and radio studios and technology to die for! We paraded in the Lord Mayors Show in 2011 and a couple of weeks ago I spoke to the 240 students at our end of term assembly after our first ever term. Magical.

Third was the launch of my new venture, Nodddle.  After taking a break in 2010 I got back in to the start up game towards the end of the year as part of Callcredit, the private equity backed credit reference agency. Starting from a blank sheet of paper, we decided to shake up the consumer credit report industry by announcing free-for-life access to your credit report. We researched consumer needs, looked at what the competition were up to, came up with a knock out proposition, created a new consumer brand, build the technology, gained support for the investment, ran a 6 month trial and finally in the week before Xmas launched Noddle in the market in partnership with the UK's largest price comparison site, Moneysupermarket.

Oh, and days before Xmas, Garlik the company that I founded back in 2005 was acquired by Experian. Sitting alone in a small, serviced office with two desks, a flipchart and some coloured pens I created a brand new type of company, with a brand new brand, using brand new technology, attracted and recruited an excellent team, raised the venture investment, rode the venture through its ups and downs over five year, taking it to the point where we were recognised as a World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer. To have it sold to a great home is an excellent result and I hope the guys there will build it in to the international consumer business that it deserves to be.

So, in 2011 I launched an African charity, launched a secondary school, launched a new business and exited my last one. I am not always good at patting myself on the back, but I think on this occasion I am going to give myself  a "Good effort, lad".

Now bring on 2012 !

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Lord Mayor's Show

On Saturday 12th November I had an excellent time marching proudly along at the front of the Hammersmith Academy float at the Lord Mayor's Show, with our sponsors the Mercers' Company and the Information Technologists' Company.

I say "float" because it was a float, in that it floated. An inspired idea by Master Mercer led to the creation of an inflatable balloon version of our school, held down by a number of sturdy Liverymen, selected for their natural ability to hold down inflatable floating schools. Along with thirty two students armed with rattles, plus teachers in gowns and Liverymen in robes, we made a very lively party.

We assembled early in Mercers' Hall and were treated to a sumptuous breakfast of sausages, bacon and egg washed down with lashings and lashings of tea, coffee and orange juice. Suitably fortified, we set off for our assembly point in to the snow blizzards and wild storms...okay I admit it, in to the rather pleasant, sunny November morning and prepare to wait around for an hour or so.

The Lord Mayor's Show has a history stretching back hundreds of years. For 785 years Lord Mayors have paraded from the City of London to Westminster to swear loyalty to the Crown, supported by the City's Livery companies. Today a wide range of floats join in, representing all aspects of City of London life. Tens of thousands of people line the route waving and cheering, politely of course as this is the Lord Mayor's Show after all. Someone described it to me as "[Notting Hill] Carnival for the middle class" although to be fair there were cheering onlookers from all walks of life.

Once we started parading, I realised that we were supposed to wave like royalty. I hadn't considered my waving strategy but quickly worked one out. Wave and smile, wave and smile. I discovered that you can make someone's day by selecting a random onlooker, looking in to their eyes and directing a wave and a huge smile STRAIGHT AT HER!

As we passed Mansion House, where the Lord Mayor himself raised his hat to greet us, I was accosted by Clare Balding of the BBC for a short interview about Hammersmith Academy. With me was an exceptional young lad, Frank. Before the interview, fearing that he might be a bit nervous I jokingly asked him "have you every been on TV before?". "Oh yes" he replied in a relaxed, almost off-hand manner, as if to say "of course I have, you funny old man, do you think you are the only person who appears on telly?"

In our 30 seconds of interview time, (at 50 mins 27 secs) I tried to get across how much I am fascinated by the combination of literally hundreds of years of City tradition with the most modern, exciting, high tech school in the country. Liverymen have been founding schools for over 500 years. We have founded this new one and it just blows my mind to know that in 500 years time our school, Hammersmith Academy will be back at the Lord Mayors Show celebrating its anniversary. Liverymen, selected for their natural ability, will probably be supporting a hovering hologram of the school using thought-projecting helmets, but the students will still have rattles and make lots of noise.

That's what I love about the City. When we say "a hundred years time" we mean a hundred years time. When we create schools, we build them to last. For us its not just a fad or the latest wheeze. It's our purpose. It's what we do.

It took about half an hour to get to our lunch stop. We parked our float and ran off, leaving the Liverymen tied to the balloon before there could be any suggestions of the rest of us taking our turn! Besides, I'm too light and would have blown away if there was a slight gust of wind. That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.

Next to us was a military float. Their float didn't float. Because they had things that looked like tanks. They were probably armoured personel carriers but they looks like tanks to me.

Small boys eyed the tanks. Soldiers eyed the small boys. There was some uneasy shuffling on both sides. Then all of a sudden, excitable boys were being lifted on to tanks by proud soldiers whilst us adults looked on as if to say "errr, did someone allow for this in the health and safety manual and, errr, how do I get to climb on the tank too without looking like an idiot?"

We marched back, proud, tired, still waving, still looking people in the eye and finally came to the end of a marvellous day out. One young lad said to me "Are we nearly back?" Yes, I said, don't worry we've nearly finished. "Ohhh", he said "I don't want it to end."

Well, let me tell you. Economic crises will come and go. Government's will rise and fall. Wars will be fought. Men will land on Mars. History will sweep by. But the City of London will stand firm. The Lord Mayor's Show will parade. Hammersmith Academy will endure. Don't worry, lad. This is the City of London. It doesn't end.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The cleaning lady at Number 10

This morning I attended a round table discussion at No 10 Downing Street with a bunch of other mostly middle-aged-men-in-suits (us men-in-suits are like a tribe all of our own. Gang culture for the middle class, over 40’s).

I won’t bore you with our conversation but for those who haven’t visited No 10, the pantomime is always interesting.

Even if you have been to No 10 before, and I’ve been a couple of times on social occasions, it is quite fun to be invited. Over breakfast I did a lot of “Oh, is that the time? I must dash. Got to get to No 10 for a meeting”. “What are you doing this morning? School? Work? Me? Oh, nothing really. Just popping in to No 10 for a meeting.” My teenage son remained resolutely unimpressed. My wife almost hissed.

Getting in the front door involves navigating security. They seem to allocate very large policemen to the gates of No 10. I’m 6 foot (okay, okay, 5 foot, 11 and a half) but this chap towered over me. I wore my best City chalk stripe suit and proper tie “that looks a bit like an old school tie but isn’t actually an old school tie” tie so that he wouldn’t mistake me for a rioter and spray me with a water cannon. They are very polite, even when your name is spelt incorrectly on the list and they can’t find you. But eventually, after navigating the tough looking security lads in the hut, who try to appear all chatty and informal but you get the feel would relish the opportunity to see a bit of action, you get to walk towards the famous Big Black Door.

The Big Black Door always opens just as you get there. I had rather wanted to knock but I guess the doorman is peaking through the keyhole as you walk towards it (or perhaps a thousand hidden cameras, a drone or two and a satellite are peering down at you, watching every footstep). The uniformed doorman asks your name. I assumed he was being friendly as he didn’t take a note of it or check any lists, but it has just occurred to me that perhaps there are a bunch of faceless young men in suits listening to your answer ready to “take you down” if your name is not expected.

All phones are left in reception, so no live tweeting from the meeting itself. Except for the PM’s special advisor who laid an array of smartphones on the table in front of him, presumably to taunt those of us who were having blackberry withdrawal symptoms ten minutes in to the discussion.

There is a complex science to seating people at these meetings. Charming young chaps shimmy around with place cards, getting the positioning just right. Minister in the centre (but where is the centre?). A note taker here, an advisor there. A gaggle of Government types at one end, quietly wielding immense power. And us invited guests carefully placed around the table. I don’t know what the seating criteria are but I ended up being placed directly opposite the Minister. I tried to stretch my legs out under the table to play footsie but couldn’t quite reach.

There is a particular way of speaking at this type of meting. It was quite similar to when I was doing something for the Secretary General of one of the UN Agencies in Geneva. We are being Very Senior People. If you are being Very Senior People it is important to speeeaaakkkk veeeerrry slooooowly and in a rather deep voice. Speak slightly more quietly than you would normally so that people need to strain a bit to hear. You must look slightly bore. You can’t be excited to be there. You must endorse something. It doesn’t matter hugely what is it, but emphasise that you “ECHO WHAT THE MINISTER SAID AND FULLY ENDORSE ....the choice of biscuits”. Then as you are Very Senior People, you must calm things down by issuing a fatherly word of caution. Whist you encourage youthful enthusiasm you (smiling, but slightly tired eyes) just want us to think about the implications of spilling hot water whilst making tea. Remember also that Very Senior People never commit to anything. That is a skill honed over many years and many tricky meetings.

Lifestyle Partner: would you like your dinner now?

Very Senior People: I FULLY ENDORSE the concept of dinner and I applaud your decision to push down that path. Over the years I have been served with many dinners and I would just caution the risk of dropping food on your own lap. But I am certainly optimistic about the dinner situation moving forwards and its positive impact on the global economy.

Lifestyle Partner: oh for goodness sake, why don’t you go and boil your head

Possibly the highlight of the meeting involved the No10 cleaner. I suspect there is more than one No10 cleaner but it is nice to think that there may be just one lady who pops in “of a Wednesday morning” to dust and vacuum.
As the meeting progressed we heard a vacumming noise in the next room. We tried to ignore it and it would rise and fall as she moved around the room. Then the Minister spoke and was in full flow as the huge door was flung open and Mrs Moppet the cleaner burst in to the room waving a very noisy vacuum cleaner. Very Senior People are not used to this sort of thing. We wouldn’t accept it in our own home/office let alone at No10. The whole room went quiet for a fraction of a second. She looked horrified. We looked horrified. We looked at the Minister. He laughed. We all laughed as if it was the funniest thing that had ever happened to us in our whole life. Phew. Panic over.

The meeting ends. You shuffle around waiting to be led out (don’t go wandering off – faceless young men waiting round corners will probably “take you down”). Don’t forget your phone at the front door. Stride out of the gate, hoping that tourist take photos of you thinking that you are Somebody.

Then, pop, you are outside the No 10 bubble and back in the real world. From Very Senior People to civilian in the blink of an eye. You fish out your oyster card and jump on the tube, watching people watching you and wondering whether they are thinking “he looks like he’s just been to a meeting at No 10”. Sorry to burst your bubble. They aren’t!

Sunday, 16 October 2011

On Being Mixed Race and Quantum Physics

The BBC is currently showing a major series on Mixed Race Britain, fronted by George Alagiah.

I have a particular interested in this give that I am "mixed race". I am also a physicist (or at least I read physics at University) (by which I mean I occasionally turned up to lectures that had the word "physics" in the title - much to the surprise of the lecturers). As a mixed race physicist, I naturally find myself asking what being mixed race has in common with quantum physics.

The conclusion that I come to is that the aspect of quantum physics that best helps to explain the experience of being mixed race is wave/particle duality. It's obvious when you think about it.

To provide a one line explanation of wave/particle duality (that will be immediately debunked by anyone reading this who has any knowledge of quantum physics, and such clever people I am sure will provide a much clearly and correct explanation rather than just saying "that's not right")...the principle states that matter (stuff)  and light-waves behave like both waves and particles, depending on whether they are being watched. Or to put it another way, look at the behaviour of something like an electron. Does it behave like a particle? YES. Does it behave like a wave? YES. What? Did you just answer yes to both questions? YES. That's confusing. YES. Does it depend on how it is being observed? YES. Do you answer all questions in capital letters? YES.

As I mentioned, I am mixed race. White mother, black father. Mixed Tom.

Growing up in the UK (mostly) in the 60's and 70's was interesting. In those days, we knew how to "do" racism properly. Who doesn't remember having 20 kids standing around you in a circle chanting that inspiring song

"Hey Tom
Wogs the matter?
Feeling a bit Browned off?
Didn't have your Coon-flakes?
Nigger mind
Go Black to bed
You'll feel all White in the morning"

So, as I entered my teens, I was very clear that being "mixed race" in London meant being black. I began to shape my confused teenage identity in this context.

Then, when I was in my mid-teens, my Dad took me to live in Nigeria, West Africa and I discovered something rather confusing to a sensitive teenager wrestling with issues of identity. I changed colour. Who doesn't remember being followed up the road by groups of small, smiling children chanting

"Oyibo pepe
You go yellow more more"

(rough transation: White man, pepper. If you eat pepper, you will turn that funny yellow colour that white people become in the sun)

Followed by shrieks of laughter as the whiteman in question (me in this case, in case you have got confused) turned around and chased them away. I lived as an Oyibo for about eight years before returning to the UK and switching back to being black again.

Even today, when I travel to Uganda, in East Africa, for my African Gifted Foundation, I am generally referred to as a Muzungu  i.e. white man in Swahili. My Ugandan sister is known in her village as the woman with the muzungu brother.

Tom, are you black? YES. Okay, are you white? YES. What? Did you just answer yes to both questions? YES. That's confusing. YES. Does it depend on how you are being observed? YES. Do you answer all questions in capital letters? YES.

Wave/particle duality explains being mixed race perfectly. It's really very clear. I don't know why George Alagiah needs a whole BBC series to explain it. Understand quantum physics and wave/particle duality and you will understand me completely. It's that simple.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

First day of school

Six years ago I decided to create a new school, designed for the 21st Century.

A school that delivers an outstanding education for everyone, that specialises in creative and digital media and information technology and delights in using the best technology in the world to inspire young people to create their own futures and to succeed.

An early and very special conversation with Michael Marchant in a coffee shop in North London turned the idea from a dream to reality.

I teamed up with some great people and sponsors, the Mercers and the Information Technologists Company. I travelled around the world learning from some of the most innovative schools out there, from High Tech High in California, to Kunskapsskolan in Sweden and Thomas Telford School in the UK.

We found an amazingly supportive local authority, Hammersmith and Fulham, that welcomed us with open arms and found a site for us to build the school. We teamed up with Barnsley Hewett and Mallinson, one of the best educational architects in the UK, Wates Construction, an outstanding building firm and a world class group of educational and building advisers. We formed a close relationship with the incredible St Paul's Girls School, one of the best schools in the UK.

We worked closely with the Department of Education, enjoying several Ministers and officials but with a couple of individuals who shared our vision and showed exceptional commitment to helping us create something very special.

We assembled a hand-picked team of teachers with a level of enthusiasm and energy that I have rarely seen, led by a headteacher who emerged from a gruelling selection process that started with nearly 100 candidates.

When we went out to the local community inviting parents to send their young children to a school that didn't exist yet the response was overwhelming. Over 650 applications for our 120 places.

And on 8th September, 2011, six years later, I stood and watched the first ever group of students, resplendent in their Hammersmith Academy uniforms file in to our school, their school, shaking hands one by one with the Headteacher, as a group of waving mothers and one very proud founder and Chairman shed a few tears.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Plan B

Do you have a Plan B? I'm not talking Plan B. I mean Plan B.

There is a view that if you have a plan B, it implies that you are not really committed to Plan A. I don't subscribe to this view. I always have a Plan B and usually Plan C, D and E too.

I think this is particularly important if you are a start up guy. If you are running a large corporate merrily executing your plan A then you can pretty much see the warning signs well in advance. You have months to gradually adjust your course, lobby your colleagues, change your messages so by the time you get to the crunch point your plan B merges seamlessly with your plan A. In fact it looks like plan B was plan A all along.

But if you are a start up guy, major shifts happen literally overnight. A key supplier that accounts for 60% of your business pulls the plug. Your VC backer tells you they are fully committed one day and sells their stake in you the next. Your critical tech guy is poached by someone who will pay her in actual real money.

If you don't have a plan B in your pocket and you are caught flat footed it can be Game Over. So, you execute plan A flat out. But the very second something goes wrong and you have to shift your strategy, you do it. You don't go in to a lengthy strategic review. You reach in to your pocket, pull out plan B and start executing that instead.

I am quite comfortable with doing this. I think it comes from my "tai chi" mindset that I apply intuitively to most things I do. Yin and Yang. Always looking for balance. Always ready to shift weight from one leg to the other to make sure I am properly balanced before I strike.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

How good was your start in life?

Many years ago when I was a lazy good-for-nothing teenager whose top priority was seeking out the next bottle of beer and the odd cheeky cigarette, my father, in a fit of annoyance or possibly just stating an indisputable fact, said "if I had your start in life the sky would have been the limit".

It is a comment that has stuck with me over the years and may have made me feel guilty about wasting the start in life that I had been given (hah - his cunning plan worked!). It was a fair comment to be honest, and when I consider the start in life he had I have to admit that I don't think I would have achieved a tenth of what he did. On the other hand, I think I've done okay so far given the cards I was dealt and where I decided to play them.

Thirty years later, I find myself considering the start in life that my own children have had and how it compares to other young people today from more and less priviliged backgrounds and to my generation. Naturally, being a scientist by training I immediately had the desire to capture my thoughts in a formula, so that I could assign everyone a meaningless score and rank us all on a rather silly index.

Thus was born the Start In Life Index, whereby everyone has their own SILI Score that shows clearly where you are starting out from and how far ahead or behind the pace you are verses your peers.

The function underpinning my SILI Score is straightforward enough. It goes like this

SILI Score = f{IG, IC, NP1, NP2, EU, ES, CC1, CC2, PA}

The SILI score ranges from zero to 100. It is UK specific, geared towards young people just embarking on their careers post-education and it has all the validity of any other index that you might find in the average lifestyle magazine measuring your "snoggability" or your suitability as a cat owner.

If you score upwards of 90 then you have no possible excuse for not becoming a multi-millionaire banker, top City lawyer, head of the United Nations or a senior Government Minister. Achieve anything less and you have frittered away your amazing start in life. If you score 30 or less, then you are doing an incredible job just fighting your way past the closed, massed middle-class ranks who will, as a matter of course, be occupying all the middle ranking jobs.

So, let's get down to businesss.

The SILI Score is divided in to five categories

Inherent Features - things about you that you can't change. So deal with it.
Network - they say who you know matters. Well guess what, they are right!
Education - or as someone once said "education, education, education"
Cultural Capital - read a good book recently? Good. But don't forget to turn on the radio
Personal Attributes - Got that glint in your eye and fire in your belly? Hmmm...have you considered seeing a specialist?

Simply go through each category below, answering the question and allotting the appropriate number of points and hey presto, your SILI Score will emerge. For what it's worth mine was a modest 38 out of a possible 100.

Inherent Features
Gender - male 10 points
Gender - female 6 points
Colour - white 10 points
Colour - brown/other 6 points
Colour - black 2 points

Network/Who you know
Parents - have lots of millionaire/well connected mates 10 points
Parents - have a few millionaire/well connected mates 4 points
Personal - 20+ of your friends are in/starting professional jobs 6 points
Personal - 5+ of your close friends have millionaire/well connected parents 4 points

University - Oxbridge 10 points
University - Other Russell Group 4 points
University - any UK 2 points
Secondary - Eton 10 points
Secondary - Other top public school 6 points
Secondary - Independent/good grammar 4 points

Cultural Capital
Sports - skiing 4 points
Sports - rugby 2 points
Sports - cricket 2 points
Sports - golf 2 points
Social - galleries & museums 4 points
Social - classical music 2 points
Social - regular foreign holidays 2 points
Social - familiarity with Radio 4 2 points

Personal Attributes
Strong communication in Queens English 4 points
Persistence 4 points
Ambition 4 points
Speaks one of French, German, Spanish, Mandarin 4 points
Can walk in, look anyone in the eye and shake hands confidently 4 points

As you will see by skimming through the choice of proxies and scores, this whole index says more about how I think British society works than anything else. It says interesting (I think) and probably controversial things about my beliefs such as

  • in the UK, your gender and colour are still strong factors in the early stages of your career and its not as simple as being white or black. I'm afraid it is a bit easier being mixed in Briton today than being black (I wonder if this is controversial or obvious? I guess I am about to find out!)
  • your parents network of contacts carries as much weight as your own
  • Oxbridge still stands out and grades are pretty irrelevant. A second class degree from Oxbridge in any subject easily trumps a first from any other University, except in very specific disciplines
  • At secondary school level Eton is way above the rest, whether they like it or not, but once you get beyond a handful of other schools (Westminster, both St Pauls', Harrow perhaps) no-one else really counts
  • your kid can play all the football they like. It doesn't count. Rugby, skiing, cricket is where you build lifelong friendships that will matter ten years later. If you play golf, it's because Father does and you're playing at his club, so you're sorted, mate.
  • you can go and visit museums and so on, but if you don't have Radio 4, The Archers and The Shipping Forecast wafting around your house in the background, the cultural capital that matters isn't going to sink in to your bones
  • it's not enough to be a confident talker. You are going to have to work on your accent. The more you sound "Home Counties middle class" the better set you will be
So, there you have it. The SILI Score is a foolproof way of measuring how good your or anyone else's start in life is. It's not silly at all. Oh no, not at all. Not at all. And if only I'd started out with a score in the high 80's I might have made something of myself.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Are jeans smart casual?

Here's a question for you. Do black denim trousers count as smart casual?

I think they do. Some of my colleagues think they don't.

Today I am wearing proper black shoes, black socks, black underwear, a light blue button up shirt with cufflinks, no tie, a beige jacket and black DENIM trousers. I think I look smart and casual. I feel smart and casual. Therefore I AM smart and casual.

But apparently I am wearing jeans. Therefore I am not dressed for real work. Never mind that I am negotiating multimillion pound deals, structuring complex projects, trying to hire brilliant people. I can't be serious because I'm wearing jeans.

I heard a phrase recently "casual dress, casual attitude". It was delivered as if it was fact, and was received with approving nods. I listened with disbelief. Some of the laziest, most political, work-shy, hang-your-suit-jacket-on-the-back-of-your-chair-so-it-looks-like-you-are-still-at-work people I know have been hard core suit and tie merchants. No smart casual for them. Strictly proper business attire. Some of the most creative, driven, passionate, innovative, won't go home, work through the night people I know have been the scruffiest people you'll meet.

I fall somewhere in between. I am a smart casual guy. I will force myself in to a suit and tie if I have to, for a Board meeting for example or for a client meeting if I know that its a strictly suit wearing culture. But that's about it. Around any office I work in I'm smart casual at best.

But what is smart casual? Well, here's a pretty good definition. Yep, that'll do it for me. And in the definition I choose, black denim trousers count as smart casual. So, I'll keep wearing them until one of my courageous colleagues decides that they have nothing better to do than to try to educate me in how to dress in a way that stops me from having such a casual attitude. Then I'll switch to wearing a dress instead.

Casual dress, casual attitude, indeed!

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Referring to yourself in the third person

Is it weird to speak about oneself in the third person? Tom doesn't think so. But clearly his colleagues do.

It is that time of the month when Board reports have to be produced and Tom always writes his own reports as he assumes that every word is carefully poured over and analysed. So he thinks carefully about the message and chooses every word deliberately.

This month, Tom wanted to make a particularly clear point about what he thought we should do next. But he also wanted to make it clear that it was his view and not necessarily his colleagues view. He thought about saying "I think this..." but he decided that it would not look professional in a Board report to say "I think this, I think that...". He thought abut saying "The view is this..." but decided that merely invited the question "who holds that view?"

So he plumped for "Tom believes that we should do xyz.... Tom feels that we should.....". Satisfied with his handiwork, Tom sent off his beautifully crafted Board report and went off to bed.

Imagine his surprise when the Big Boss turned to him in the meetings and said "so, Tom, look me in the eye and confess, who actually writes your Board reports?"

"I do" Tom replied indignantly causing much unwarranted hilarity amongst his colleagues. Tom couldn't tell whether they were laughing because they didn't believe him or because they thought it was weird to refer to oneself in the third person, or just because they were taking cruel delight in his discomfort.

But Tom did write the report. He did refer to himself in the third person. And he doesn't think there is anything weird about that at all. Gollum does it all the time and Tom is a hard core Lord of the Rings fan. What's good enough for Smeagol is good enough for Tom. Isn't it my precious? Yes, yes it is, my dears. Oh yes. Not weird at all.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Welcome to Noddle

About eight months ago I joined Callcredit, the credit reference agency, in a new role to revolutionise their consumer offering by launching a fresh, innovative new venture under the Callcredit umbrella.

It has been a fascinating journey so far, starting with consumer research and market analysis, developing propositions, more consumer research and testing, brand development, technology build, convincing money men to put up the considerable funding required, briefing opinion formers, regulators and the media and finally after lots and lots of effort we have got there.

Tomorrow (Thursday) we are announcing our new service, Noddle that will have a big impact on our market and will tilt the balance firmly in favour of the consumer. I am a huge believer that individuals should gain more and more access to their own personal data, wherever it is held, and should be able to leverage that information to their own advantage. You will see me getting more active and vocal about that.

If you are wondering why Noddle, it's because we went down the path of exploring how you as a consumer can use your credit report in a positive way to your advantage. Be smart. Use your head. Use your noddle.

(If you think it should be "use your noodle" you are probably a southern softy. Up North, my colleagues tell me, the correct phrase is Use Your Noddle).

I am really proud and excited. Those of you who have started new ventures know that there is nothing like the moment when you create something new, step out into the world and say "here we are".

Well, here we are.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

I'm good at failing

This week I have been doing presentations across the company telling my colleagues about the new venture that I am about to launch. Seven presentations to hundreds of people in three locations over three days. It was tiring but very useful, both to give me a chance to practice my "pitch" and also to work out answers to all the tricky questions.

One question that made me smile was along the lines of "Tom, this is all very exciting but what happens if it all falls flat on its face?"

The simple answer was, of course, that I will be polishing my CV (headhunters stand by...) but I think the real question was "how would you cope with catastrophic failure?"

The answer to that is simple too. I will cry with pain, agony and fury and then I will bounce back.

As a start-up guy you know that you will face failure. And I'm not talking about marginal under performance. I'm talking about big fat, lying in the mud face down failure. The question is, can you drag yourself up, with the smart boys sitting safely on a fence on the other side of the road pointing at you and laughing? Can you drag yourself up, look the world straight in the eye with confidence, wipe the mud off your shirt, notice that the mud tastes good and set up a new business selling mud pies?

Well, I have a good technique. When I fall flat on my face, I cry like a baby. Then I get up, brush the dirt off my shoulder and move on to the next challenge. That doesn't mean I put those failures out of my mind, but I learn from them and they stop me from ever getting complacent.

Some people try to put failures out of their mind and write them out of their history. I have met executives and entrepreneurs who, to listen to them you would think nothing had ever gone wrong in their entire life. But not me. My big fat failures are part of my story and I enjoy them now (not so much at the time). When I experience failure these days I can look back on these episodes and think to myself "I bounced back from that one, I can bounce back from this one."

So, here are some of my choice failures. Point and laugh, people, point and laugh. And next time you fail at something and think the whole town's laughing at you, say "Well, at least I don't look as stupid as that Ilube bloke."

No Snogging for you, lad

Wind back about 40 years. I'm in primary school coming back on the train from a school trip. In those days some trains had corridors with compartments that could seat six. Somehow I had ended up in the compartment with some of the "cool kids". I knew them all of course but I wasn't really one of them. Two boys and three girls. At some point the question of "snogging" came up.

After some discussion it was decided that we should pair up and commence kissing, until a teacher came. Two pairs immediately formed, but the third girl, who happened to be the prettiest girl in the class decided that I was unsnoggable. I sat quietly whilst my snoggability was debated. Who would. Who wouldn't. Finally it was decided that I just didn't make the cut so after a short selection exercise I was sent off to creep up and down the carriage, leaving the giggling gaggle behind, looking for the chosen one and tell him that he had to hotfoot to my carriage to be snogged by the prettiest girl in the class. He was very pleased and thanked me profusely.

But the happy ending to that story is....oh hold on. There isn't one. That's it. Fail. Cry. Bounce back. Move on. (Therapists - is this why groups of giggling girls make me break out in a cold sweat?).

#fail !

McJob Hunting

About 30 years ago I started job hunting. It was a difficult time to look for jobs, much like today actually. Recession. Lots of new graduates. A hundred applicants for each job. But I was a hard core job hunter. A one man personal recruitment agency. I applied to hundreds of companies. I laughed at rejections. I once applied five times to the same company until the European HR Director personally called me and said "Tom, you do not fit our profile so however many times you apply we will not offer you a job." I thanked her kindly, waited a couple of weeks and applied again :)

Anyway at one point, I spotted an opportunity for management trainees at McDonalds. I thought "surely I can't fail at this one". I applied and got an interview! Hurray. The interview seemed to go well but the next step was a "field trial". I was sent off to work for two days in a branch of McDonalds. I served large fries, flipped burgers, swept the street out front, told people that I had never met before to "have a nice day" and wore a funny shirt. But despite all this, a couple of days later I got a letter thanking me for my time, explaining that competition was very high and on this occasion McDonalds would not be taking my application forwards.

How can that be? Am I really the only black man in the world who can't get a job at McDonalds? Damn. If I had succeeded surely I could be a branch manager by now? Oh, well. Fail. Cry. Bounce back. Move on.

#fail !

Dialling for Dollars

In my time as a start-up guy I have pitched for investment over and over again. I would guess that I must have pitched to several hundred people. But as I keep telling people, you only need one to say yes. Getting turned down is par for the course here. I would think nothing of pitching 50-100 times to get to one "yes" and when I hear guys starting out complaining that they have done five presentations already and no-one has written a cheque I feel sorry for them.

That doesn't mean all rejections feel the same. Sometimes you really want to get a certain investor on board, you put your heart and soul in to it and you still get a big fat NO.

My worst experience of this was with a West Coast VC. I had been tracking these guys for years, not being too pushy. Building the relationship. Biding my time. Then the opportunity came up. I was in email dialogue with one of the partners, telling him that I was working on something pretty exciting. He said "hey, Tom, next time you are in the Valley swing by and pitch". I'm in!!! I seize the moment and say "How about tomorrow afternoon?". He's a bit taken aback but say okay.

So I dash to Heathrow. Grab a flight to San Francisco. Work on my presentation through the flight. Hire a car. Drive down Route 101. Get to the big boys office. Put my Game Face on. Turned my Swagga up to level 11 and walked in.

Five minutes in to my pitch. the big boys say "Hey, Tom. Let's stop you there. This is of no interest to us. Thanks for stopping by. See Yah".

Wow! I've had some knock backs. But that was a tough one. On this occasion I did actually go and sit on a bench in sunny San Fran, put my head in my hands and shed a tear. But then I heaved myself up. Shook it off. Came back to the UK and threw myself into pitching, pitching, pitching until I had raised the money I wanted to drive my business forwards.

Because that's how we roll. Fail. Cry. Bounce back. Move on.

#fail !

Alls well that ends well

I'm a planner. I come up with schemes, plans, strategies. Plan A. Plan B, Plan C. So failure never takes me completely by surprise. Even when it hits me hard, I have probably considered the possibility and run through the scenario in my mind.

Exception on one occasion.

Tunisia. Nearly 20 years ago. Hot, hot African Sahara sun. Lovely girlfriend. Diamond ring. Honourable intentions. Everything as I planned.

Me: Marry me?

She: Errr, no thanks.

Me: Oh. Ah. Okay. I didn't expect that.

#fail !

Fail. Cry. Bounce back. But in this case, not "move on". Just to show that all my failures don't end in disaster, I am happy to report that Me and She eventually got married (I can be quite persistent) and nearly 20 years later are still happily married with lovely kids and a great life. I do tend to bring this up from time to time though and She does tend to roll her eyes and heave a tired sigh.

So, people, fail. Fail fast. Fail hard. Cry. Bounce back. Move on and go on to do great things and live a happy life.

Or balance yourself carefully on the fence, point, laugh at us risk takers and be very,very careful that you don't really try anything because that way you can be certain that you will never really fail at anything.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Mid-life crisis

As I prepare for my mid-life crisis, I have been doing some research to try to understand what goes on with men of my age so that I know where to direct my energies.

After all if I have to buy a sports car and drive around with my top off winking at ladies I am going to need to develop my abs (whatever they are) and shine the top of my head. Also I need to choose a car.

I don't know whether a mid-life crisis is compulsory or optional. I have been assuming that it is compulsory and the only optionality is timing. Which is just as well as I am very busy at the moment and would struggle to fit typical mid-life crisis activities in to my busy schedule.

In any case, what are these mid-life crisis activities? I understand that sports cars are an important ingredient, but I don't really know much about cars and I hate wasting money so do I really have to buy one, or perhaps I can rent one?

Also what about the girlfriends? That is not an area of expertise for me. In my experience (admittedly limited to my teenage years) they tend to giggle at your long neck, glasses and bow legs and are best avoided.

I suppose I could do something dangerous. Wrestle with an alligator? Swim with sharks? Throw myself out or a plane? I'm scared of heights. To be honest I'm a bit of a scaredy cat and wouldn't these things be a bit, well...dangerous?

Run a marathon? Too much effort. 400km bike ride? Might fall off and hurt myself. Learn a new language? I tried that once. Japanese. Spent ages and only learnt how to say "toothpaste" and "ministry of education".

To be honest, I think the whole thing is just too much effort. I don't think I'll bother with one of these mid-life crisis things that makes you take on all sorts of impossible challenges just to prove that your life isn't over and done with and you've still got something to offer the world before you are consigned to the wastebin. I will stick to launching major new companies, creating multimillion pound schools and founding pan-African educational charities. Oh...

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Preparing for take off

I love launching new companies. It's exciting and scary at the same time.

And now I am weeks away from launching another major new venture. It's got to the stage when everyone's heart starts to beat a bit faster and your palms becomes a bit clammy as you realise that the months of effort and planning are about to be exposed to the world.

We have been working on this new venture for nearly nine months.

We started by reviewing the market and conducting extensive consumer research. We made no assumptions about what direction the venture would take. We wanted to be driven by what consumers were telling us and the opportunities in the marketplace.

A proposition started to emerge and we kept testing it with consumers, in small, qualitative research groups. We tuned the proposition, focusing on what we were being told and we started to narrow down our target market.

We decided we needed a new consumer brand and went through a fun process of creating the brand. Three great brands emerged. We tested them with our target market and were left with two options. It was a tough decision but we made our choice and have ended up with a brand that will stand out in our market.

Meanwhile, we were going through cycle after cycle of business planning, presenting to the money men, refining the model, cutting out cost, reducing risk until we felt we had a model that works.

We put together a small, expert development team alongside one of the best user experience designers in London and they worked flat out to bring the proposition to life.

Now we are nearly ready. There is still a ton of stuff to be done .We have To Do Lists as long as your arm. But we've picked our date and we will be ready to go.

We will work and work and work and then it will go quiet. The calm before the storm.

And then we'll launch.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

How far would you go to meet Wills & Kate?

How far would you go to see Prince William and Kate Middleton?

I know how far I would go. 230 miles exactly according to Google Maps.

I know this because a few weeks ago I was invited to the opening of a school in Darwen. Being very busy I wasn't sure I would be able to go but when I was told that William and Kate would be opening the school I polished my shoes and the top of my head and set off to see them. This was, after all, their final pre-wedding engagement and therefore the closest I would get to the Royal Wedding.

Given that I am willing to jump on a train and travel 230 miles to look at William and Kate at very close quarters I have concluded that I am a die-hard Royalist or possibly a Loyalist. I thought I might be a Cavalier but having searched the web to check what it means I'm not so sure any more.

In fact I am collecting Royals. So far I have ticked off Prince William, Prince Edward, Prince Andrew and Princess Anne. I need to get Prince Charles and the Queen to get a full set. Then I get a special Royalist Stalker prize.

Friday, 1 April 2011

My favourite film

Recently I was involved in a "get to know each other" exercise with a new team. We each had to fill in a form answering some questions and then we had to guess which set of answers belonged to which person.

After the event I reflected on my answers and wonder what impression the other folk made of me based on my answers. What do you think?


Ballroom Blitz by Sweet. I'm a glam rock child of early 70's London. I knew all the words to this song.


That's pretty obvious. Mr Bojangles by Sammy Davis Jr.


I don't really have hobbies. I read, watch a few films, watch lots of rugby but my main hobby is Tai Chi.


Sausage and mash. I wish I didn't have to keep going out to posh meals. I also accept pie and mash.


Has to be the one and only Bladerunner. "I've...seen...things". What a scene. What a film.


So many places. So many choices. But I went with San Francisco. I just like the city and get a bit excited whenever I have a reason to visit.


Well, I used to have a bright white suit that I used to wear with a purple shirt and purple shoes. I also had a purple suit that I wore with a white shirt and white shoes. Both combinations with afro and dark glasses of course. Thankfully pre-digital camera days so I don't think there are any photos out there. But this was in the 70's so I think I was actually very cool at the time.

So I have to go with the time I went out wearing brown corduroy trousers and a brown corduroy jacket. Top to toe cords. It wasn't my finest fashion moment.


1) Wierd

2) Passionate

3) Loyal

(I asked my wife and son what three words best described me and they both said "wierd" without even thinking about it!)


a) I once played James Bond in a film

b) I once played rugby on national TV

c) I met Prince William and Katherine

I think its fair to say that after reading these answers you pretty much know everything there is to know about me!

Thursday, 17 March 2011

School report: Could do better.

I attended Parents Evening at my son's school last week. Like many fathers of young teenage boys, one approaches these things with a degree of caution. And sure enough, teacher after teacher leant back in their chair with the words "Ahhhhh, so you are his Dad. Right, let's see..."

The general conculsion was that he is a "teenage boy".

When I got home, I sat the lad down and droned on for an hour in a fatherly way about the need to focus, work hard etc. Then I decided to impress him by showing him my school report from when I was exactly the same age.

That's where it all started to go wrong.

Or possibly that's where it all started to go right.

It turns out I was also a "teenage boy". In fact when I read parts my report my wife could hardly tell which was mine and which was my son's.

So, to give hope to all you teenage boys out there (not that you actually bother reading at all at this stage) here is the report of a 13 year old boy who went on to get several degrees, build several companies, become a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, present alongside Bill Gates, be invited to attend Davos and do one or two decent things (I think) in education. So, parents, have hope. If your son's report looks anything like mine, all is not lost.

English: 66% Thomas works well with enthusiasm and intelligence. He is always willing to take place in class discussions

(where is my classic story about the potato? A masterpiece.)

Maths: 56% Tom works very hard when the work interests him. If he concentrated on the harder parts he could do better.

(I loved maths and loved the maths teacher. Made me feel special. Best teacher of my life. Wish I could remember her name)

Science: 31% Tom is a very capable lad but he is a great source of distraction to others and resents rebuke very strongly and spends a lot of lesson time sulking. A pity

(How ironic. I was actually always fascinated by science and went on on to get a degree in Applied Physics. But I really didn't get on with that science master. It was war every day.)

History: 61% Shows interest. Good project work.

Geography: 67% Work standard generally but not always good.

French: Grade A. A vast improvement since last year. 4th in group

(The result, I'm afraid, of a pretty French teacher replacing the old bloke we had the year before. Sorry. I was a teenage boy.)

Physical Education: Grade B. Unfortunately a change in Tom's attitude has retarded his progress. He continues to be an outstanding all round sportsman.

(Readers, please note: "Outstanding all round sportsman" :) But did he just say "retarded"? Can you write that in school reports??)

Music: Grade C. A capable but moody individual. Effort very variable

Drama: Thomas is very good in this subject, particularly where there is any movement involved.

(I am very proud of having been "Young Johnny Jones" in the school play. Although I didn't like it when they made me "black up". I refused to go on stage.)

Art: Grade A-. Has talent in this subject

(Hold on, capable in music, very good in drama, talent in art. Why did I end up as a computer geek?)

Metal work: Grade B. Has shown keeness and above average ability in this subject

(Do they still do metal work? We made some dangerous implements in that class, some of which were put to work in the playground...)

Form Teacher Summary: Thomas works well and in general has improved. But if he causes distraction to other in the class his work will suffer in the end. He must learn to concentrate a little harder and put maximum effort into his work.

(Improved! Gosh, I must have been really bad the year before)

Section Head Summary: Good work standard but I am concerned about his immature behaviour which is distracting others from working in some subjects. CHANGE YOUR ATTITUDE IN SCIENCE!

So there you have it, warts and all. And calm down about the science - I did change my attitude! To be honest, most of the work was trivially easy so I felt my main duty at school was to make the lives of anyone who sat near me as entertaining as possible. I hope life worked out for the poor souls who sat next to me (sorry guys, wherever you are !)

Mind you, this is all an improvement on my report aged 7 from primary school which included the legendary phrase "Can be rather slyly naughty". Moi? Never!

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

A little haiku

Shaken from slumber

Screams fury at her children.

Cold blanket brings sleep

Friday, 11 March 2011

Do you have a mentor?

Mentoring is on my mind at the moment. I have just been invited to be guest speaker at an awards event for a national mentoring scheme, and I sometimes get asked whether I will be a mentor myself. I am also trying to help organise a mentoring programme for students at the new Academy that I chair.

I have never really had a mentor as such, not in a formal sense, and I feel I suffered from lack of a mentor at times, particularly early in my career. But I think in a way I have always had informal mentors. Individuals who I have looked up to, listened to, watched and learnt from. A nudge here. An eyebrow raised there. It all adds up to a mentoring relationship.

Personally I am not a great formal mentor. The formalised process of meeting regularly to listen and dispense advice doesn't fit with me personally and I really admire people who are able to give of themselves in this way. I would feel under such pressure in that situation to say something profound and meaningful that the responsibility would be too much. Or I would say something that sounds like common sense to me, the mentee takes it as if it was a blinding insight and then I would feel like a fake who is only inches away from being found out.

But I think I am quite a good informal mentor, if you can call it that. I am always happy to have one-off, ad hoc meetings with people, over a cup of coffee, to listen and share my experience. I try not to say what the other person "should" do (I hate "should's"). I try to give him or her another perspective to add to the various perspectives that they have already. I invite them to use whatever they find useful and cast aside the rest. If they use none of what I've said but my input helps them get clear that the choice they were going to make anyway is definitely the right one for them, then that's fine with me too.

I think the worst kind of mentor is the one who is very directional. You "should" do this. You "must" go that way. Or the mentor who pretends to be impartial and open but is actually quite manipulative and guides the mentee in the direction that they "should" go, deriving feelings of satisfaction out of their subtle skills. I have certainly encountered (and suffered at the hands of) that type of person before I woke up to what was going on.

The advice I tend to give to young people when approaching someone about being a mentor is not to start by going straight for the jugular. Finding a good mentor is like Big Game Hunting. The person you are approaching is busy (probably) and gets asked a lot to be a mentor (probably) and generally graciously declines (probably).

So you have a sales job to do - AIDA - awareness, interest, desire, action. Does your targer mentor know you exist? If you pop up from nowhere with an email and say "hi, I am no-one you have ever heard of but please mentor me" then you will be lucky if you even get a response. Target-mentor has to know you exist first.

Then, what is is about you that Target would be interested in? What have you done that's relevant to their life? Have you done anything useful for the Target, or do you just want to take from them? I operate on the 3:1 rule. I must do three useful things for you before asking you to do one useful thing for me. Is Target interested in you?

Only then start to create some desire in Target for the idea that he might want to assist you. Has Target watched your development? Does Target feel part of your journey? Are you at a stage where you could do with a bit of help and Target feels like they want to help because they have a stake in your success?

Now you can move to action. Only ever ask Target for a quick coffee, never to "be my mentor". Target hates commitment. Target likes to help. So ask for 30 mins for a coffee so that you can bounce a fe thoughts off them and get some input. Don't ask for a long term mentoring relationship. If you have a good first coffee (and by the way, in that meeting, do you do something, anything useful for Target or did you jsut take from them?) then Target might say "if you fancy catching up again at some stage, let me know". When Target says that, don't whip your diary out and schedule six more two hour sessions. Casually say "sure that would be great, I'll get in touch". Then leave it two weeks (don't be a stalker and email the same evening!) and suggest a date for a coffee in 3 months time.

Remember, you are never too old or senior to have a mentor. But the same rules apply. It is a drain on the mentor to mentor you, and they want flexibility so you take your time and build a relationship.

In fact all that talk of mentors makes me feel like I want one! Right, time to identify a Target and go hunting. I wonder if they'll spot me coming.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Is Rastamouse the new Gollywog?

Have you heard of Rastamouse? Neither had I. Until I heard that a friend of mine had called in to a phone-in radio show to complain about this cartoon character and many others had written to the BBC asking for it to be taken off air. Not to mention the middle class mums on networking sites debating the dangers or otherwise of the dreaded Rastamouse.

Rastamouse is a cool, black mouse dude, dripping with stereotypes, who apparently is very popular with the under fives on CBBC. He is a laid back rastafarian mouse detective who speaks in patios, loves his "cheese" (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) and has a bunch of cool black stereotypical mouse friends. Where's the harm in that and why are people gettng so hot under the collar about dear old cool, black stereotypical rastamouse (after all are we black people not all cool, laid back stereotypical fellows? In fact some of my best friends are cool, black and stereotypical. I'm not racist).

I think what is happening is that black people of a certain age (i.e. my age) are wincing at the playground experience that must surely follow from the widespread popularity of Rastamouse. Whenever you get a new, cool black character on TV (or a white character pretending to be a black character) then as sure as night follows day you will get white kids in playgrounds renaming their black friends accordingly.

In my day it was the friendly old Gollywog. A lovely black character. I even had a gollywog of my very own. I had a gollywog and a wheelbarrow although at the time I used to say I had a "wheelwog and a gollybarrow". I collected gollywog badges with pride. I am still strangely fond of gollywogs, apart from the fact that I have been called Golly, Gollywog, Woggy so many times now that I've kind of gone off the character a bit. Then of course you've got good old Chalky, or Kunta Kinte (who hasn't been called Kunta Kinte eh? You've got to laungh), or the various Lenny Henry characters over the years.

So now a new generation of young black people get to be called Rastamouse until they come to hate the nice little mouse and lodge it away in their subconscious ready to dredge up in a blog post in years to come. And the good folk at the BBC who thought him up (what on earth were they thinking? Did someone say "hmmm, playgrounds are a bit light on racial banter these days. Anyone got any ideas?") don't even realise that they are continuing a long tradition of causing unintended pain to little me as my best friend starts shouting across the playground "hey, little Tommy, hey Wa'gwan Rastamouse? Want some cheese mon? Hahahahah" and everyone, including me, burst into laughter (because you've got to laugh haven't you? It's only a little racial
banter. No big deal. Why is everyone so sensitive about it. I mean, for goodness sake, come on)

Mind you black kids today shouldn't complain. In my day we had proper, high grade Class A racial banter in the playground. Who doesn't remember having 20 kids standing around you in a circle chanting that inspiring song

"Hey Tom

Wogs the matter?

Feeling a bit Browned off?

Didn't have your Coon-flakes?

Nigger mind

Go Black to bed

You'll feel all White in the morning"

Ah, those were the days. The good old Seventies. You've got to laugh. Hahahaha. Wa'gwan, Rastamouse.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Under Pressure

I love the Queen/David Bowie song "Under Pressure" ("dum dum dum diddle dum dum, dum dum dum diddle dum dum" you know the song). There is something about Bowie's strained voice that feels like he is right on the edge of breaking point. That "tears behind the eyes" feeling when stress builds and builds and there is just too much pressure.

Dealing with stress is something that is difficult to learn by yourself and we don't teach it in schools. But perhaps we should, because it is often in schools that young people get their first taste of high stress and that build up of pressure that can overwhelm you. This is particularly the case for those who are doing really well. They generate internal pressure on themselves, they carry the heavy burden of ambitious parents expectations and they feel the eyes of the school and their hard pressed, results hungry teachers on them.

How many A*s will they get? What University will they get in to? Even on the sports side, will they get signed for that all important netball team/rugby club/olympic squad? Why are they only Grade 8 piano? How big is their scholarship? And all they hear from friends, family, teachers is "ooohh you are soooo lucky. I wish I was you. It must be so easy. You've got no problems."

So they smile with glistening eyes, but internally they fret. Their tummy in knots when exam time comes because they might get an awful A instead of an excellent A*. Or only get into a top Russell Group University, one of the best in the world as it happens, instead of getting that all important Oxbridge offer and listen to aunts and uncles say "well done for getting a place at University" but what they hear is "Hah, you didn't get Oxbridge, you failure, you might as well give up now". They say "So and so is much cleverer than me, He/she will do so well" but their friends hear it as false modesty. What they are really saying is "Please give me a break and let me get on with stuff. I'll do the best I can, but please take your expectations off me and let me breath!"

So how do you deal with stress like this? I don't know to be honest otherwise I would have written a self help book, sold millions of copies and be living on my very own private island (probably worrying that it was not as big as the island next door, or that it might sink), but with 30 years of hindsight there are a few things that occur to me.

Think about medium term goals, not about short term tactics. So, don't get hung up on the very next step in front of you, whether that is going to this sixth form or that University. These are important, yes, but they are tactical steps. You should focus on the medium term goal. Create a picture in your mind of you in 5 or 6 year time. Where are you? What are you doing? Are you excited about being there? Are you proud of being there? Then work back from there and shape the five or ten different paths you could have taken to get there. They are all equally valid. You might have a preferred route (or someone might have a prefered route mapped out for you) but that is just one of many. Don't get hung up about it. By all means go for it flat out with everything you've got but if it doesn't come off, don't sweat it. You have lots more routes to get to your medium term goal. Keep the goal in mind, adjust the tactical steps as you go.

Remember you will have at least three careers, perhaps more in your lifetime. So you are thinking "do I want to be a Doctor or a Writer? I really love them both. I can't decide. It's so stressful". I bring glad tidings - The answer is that you will be both. And two more things as well. You don't need to make an either/or decision. You just need to decide which order you are going to enjoy your life in. There is no decision that you can possibly make now that defines your life forever more, so relax, enjoy, follow what feels right and when it stops feeling right do something else instead.

Learn how to fail. Your problem is that you've never really failed at anything, so you don't know how to. You always get As, the worst you get is a B. You always get into places you apply for. When was the last time you really went for something and landed flat on your face? So, you haven't learnt how to fail. You are scared of failure. How does it feel? How do people look at you? How will you look at yourself? But life is going to throw failure after failure at you and it all depends on how you bounce back. Get busy failing now while it's safe to do so, while you've got the support around you. It will help you in the future. Set yourself some real stretch goals and go for them. Gosh, you failed! Who cares? Has the world stopped spinning? Does your mother still love you? See it's not scary at all. Don't be afraid of failure - I do it all the time. It's no big deal. I am very bounce-back-able.

Better out than in. Never ever, ever, ever, ever (...) ever bottle up your stress and do that stupid stiff upper lip thing. Find a friend. Cry. Shout. Scream. Write. Blog. Sing sad songs. Paint. Get it out. Express it. You must not bottle it up. Did I say ever, ever enough? Have you got the message? Good.

What's the big idea? Somewhere in you is the Big Idea. You don't tell people because it sounds like you are boasting or just dreaming. But you are going to save the lives of 10,000 children. You are going to be Prime Minister. You are going to cure Aids. It is true. I have seen it. So, when you are stressing yourself out over some trivial issue about University A or University B, or one micro-grade vs another then remember these are tiny issues compared to what you are here on earth to do. You have a Big Idea. It is very big. Every and all paths that you take now will take you towards your big idea. It is impossible to be blown off course by some trivial decision that some small minded person makes today. We call such things "small matters". We dismiss them with the words "huh, these are small matters. I am here to do something bigger than you can know, than you can understand". We deal with these small matters and move on.

Alternatively if none of this works you can try the therapy offered by my son when he was younger. When someone in the house was being a bit stressed, he would follow them around, at a safe distance, chanting in a low voice "stressy stressy moo moo, stressy stressy moo moo". If all else fails, get yourself a small boy to follow you around chanting under his breath and see if that helps.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

The Curse of BCC:

Nothing is more likely to breed suspicion amongst colleagues than the regular use of BCC: or blind copy on emails. It is a curse on organisations and I blame Microsoft (and the others) for ever inventing the feature in the first place.

The most obvious problem that I have fallen foul of time and time again is when you receive an email by BCC: but don't realise, so you just Reply All: Oh yes, been there, done that, got the t-shirt. However at least you are not the one who will be embarrassed. The Blind Copier cops the blame and looks like a shifty so and so for sending a BCC: in the first place.

The real problem is that if someone is a regular Blind Copier and you are the recipient of these, then you must assume that any emails they send to you are probably being blind copied to someone else. Both scenarios leave you in an awkward place.

If you have been BCC:d on something, then do you know about it or don't you? When you meet the people who were sent the email, can you engage in the conversation about the issue in the email or do you have to play dumb? What if they somehow know that you know, but you don't let on that you know? Then you look sneakier than ever, through no fault of your own.

Equally when you receive an email from a Blind Copier you are left wondering who was BCC:d on your email. When you meet your colleages, were they BCC:d and they are just not letting on or do they really not know?

And what about the Blind Copier? Did they BCC: you because you need to know this information? If so, why is it so important that other people don't know that you know? Or are they just showing you how tough they are being about some issue, a sort of cheeky wink at a friend as they pile in to do battle, leaving you grinning complicitly on the sidelines.

Oh the permutations are endless. But any way you look at it, BCC:ing is a bad idea. If you have something to tell people, tell them. If you don't, don't. Creating these wheels within wheels risks a climate of suspicion that doesn't do anyone any favours.

I never use BCC: myself. I get lost in the complexity of who I've told things and what I've told them at the best of times, let alone whether I've told them something secretly, so I stick to plain, open emails. If I want something kept confidential, I say "Please keep confidential". In fact I generally try to write any email on the assumption that I wouldn't die of embarrasement if its contents were posted on the office noticeboard.

And I think I will revert back to my hardline BCC: response strategy. If anyone BCC:s me I will immediately Reply All: so that everyone knows that I know and I don't have to pretend about what I've been told. If that causes the Blind Copier some embarrassement, well my guess is that it will only be the once. I doubt they will BCC: me again. If they do, I will simply post the email here for all of you to read :)