Inside your comfort zone

Regular readers of this blog series will know that I go to a school reunion in York every May. Yes – I left school 46 years ago, but I’ve been ever-present at the past ten reunions, and probably more than that.

We do the same things each year (if it ain’t broke etc) and this May was no exception – same pubs, same visits to the school on Friday and Saturday, same Saturday night gathering at our regular Italian restaurant with 20 of us enjoying each other’s company.

But, I hear you say, what about doing something different; ringing the changes? We’re told that getting outside our comfort zones, taking risks, meeting new people, stretches us and enriches our lives.

That may be true, but I believe it’s also important to recognise that doing something predictable and familiar, including relaxing with people with whom we feel comfortable, has its own merits. With good friends we’re free to be ourselves; to have some meaningful conversation (particularly important for men) alongside the school-boy banter. Every year I learn new things about people I’ve known since England last won the World Cup (1966 if your memory needs a jog), I get new insights from comments that are made in passing, from differing views shared. I was also delighted to have a good chat with my former geography teacher – a man who had a massive influence on my early academic exploits. For me, the reunion would not be the same without him.

Of course despite the familiar formula, this year’s reunion was different from previous gatherings in a number of ways. From the more trivial – for my B&B breakfasts, I chose Eggs Benedict (look it up) and kippers, rather than my traditional order for a full English – to more serious subjects. The recent and unexpected death of one of our old school teachers meant we found ourselves reflecting on our own mortality (although our year group reunion members seem to be pretty healthy).

So, feel free to spend time in your comfort zone – it’s a great way to recharge your batteries, reflect on what you value in life, and the odd surprise is bound to crop up when you’re least expecting it.

And the significance of the platform planter in the photo? I discovered it while changing trains in Peterborough and in so doing I learnt about a new-to-me charity – the Bee Friendly Trust https://beefriendlytrust.org. You should never stop learning, even 46 years after leaving school.

A little story from another school reunion https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2018/08/27/the-joy-of-planning-and-the-unexpected

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My Green and Grey side hustle

I’d spent 20 years advising entrepreneurs (including those of the social variety) in the East of England on setting up and running businesses. Five years previously I’d helped create what might loosely be described as a social enterprise – the Repair Shed in Hemel Hempstead.

What had I learned and where could that knowledge take me?

I learnt that I don’t like the buck stopping with me when it comes to decision-making (I like to sleep soundly at night!) It confirmed what I’d known for a while – that there’s a big difference between working on a business and working in it (you do more toilet-cleaning than deal-making). Having business start-up ideas is not enough – however good they may be, you need the energy and determination to turn them into action – it’s hard work! And maybe two heads are better (or at least more fun) than one.

Most recently I learned about the concept of the ‘side hustle’ – a new name rather than a new idea – but one that’s significant enough to command the attention of the Henley Business School that researched the growth of the phenomenon in summer 2018. Essentially a side hustle is a business venture to supplement income from regular job. Its growth has been largely born out of flexible working practices and growing insecurity in the jobs market. At its best, a side hustle is the creative low-risk development of a potentially good business idea, at its worst it’s self-indulgence at someone else’s (ie your employer) expense. Some also see it as a sign that the jobs market is in a poor state with low pay and part-time becoming the norm. For me it was something else – an opportunity to try to turn a hobby into a small business (nothing new there) alongside a new part-time job, working with someone else.

Green & Grey is the enterprise I’m developing in Royston near Cambridge with a new-found partner-in-wood; we’re exploring creative ways to cut waste – mainly by making items for homes and gardens using reclaimed materials.  After meeting at a community breakfast (full English breakfasts are a shared passion) David and I discovered another common interest – making products from pallet wood. It got us thinking…  David likes creating (he’s the arty one) and my background is in marketing, so it seemed like a good combination. We agreed to make and market our products and, as important in my opinion, tell the story behind the enterprise, to see what would happen.

Four weeks after our very soft launch, our online presence is largely our WordPress web pages and Facebook (see links below). We recently met up in a local pub – no trouble finding time for a pint in our otherwise busy weeks – to review our progress and plan our next move. These are some of our reflections:

  • We’re happy with the brand-building, but not the sales. We’ve had a commission to make kids jousting equipment for a summer pageant, but we think we need to be more direct on the sales front
  • We’re expecting that one-off commissions will make up an important part of our work, but for now we plan to push summer items (for the garden) that can be made to order quickly
  • We’ll focus us online promotion through local social media platforms, highlighting our own local connections and our personal and professional values
  • With summer and craft markets in mind, we’ll be researching the market for smaller items that we can make and transport relatively easily
  • Above all, we’re agreed that we won’t compromise on the quality of our work and will price our products accordingly

The conversation goes on – between the two of us, but also with our followers. You can keep in touch by liking our Facebook page and we’ll be updating our journey (we’re all on a journey apparently) through future blog posts. Watch this space and tell your friends – because there is no planet B.

Further information: on Green & Grey  www.facebook.com/GreenAndGreyRecreations  and   https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/green-and-grey-store

On side hustles https://assets.henley.ac.uk/defaultUploads/PDFs/news/Journalists-Regatta-Henley_Business_School_whitepaper_DIGITAL.pdf

My love affair with singing

I’d love to be able to say that my mum and dad met through singing in a choir together. The latter is true – they both sang with the Liverpool Welsh Choral Union (where my Mum would apparently swoon over principal conductor Sir Malcolm Sargent) but they knew each other before that.

A lasting memory is of my mum’s enthusiasm for Wednesday nights when us kids were put to bed by my dad and she went off to choir rehearsal. ‘Me time’ was how she described it and she always said that having one night a week to sing in the choir saved her sanity as a mother with four children!

‘Getting away from the kids’ was just one of a range of benefits given by choir members at Royston Choral Society when asked why they liked to sing in the choir (apart from enjoying music and singing). Other reasons given were ‘unwinding after a busy day’, ‘mixing with like-minded people in a friendly environment’, ‘de-stressing’ and ‘the drink in the pub afterwards’. I personally think the buzz when all the parts of the choir come together in harmony is pretty unbeatable.

My love of singing probably has a lot to do with my upbringing. Not only did my parents sing, but my three elder sisters used to perform in the folk clubs on Merseyside. We were also fed a diet of Jacqui and Bridie and The Spinners alongside Flanders and Swan. My own association with folk clubs is more for listening than performing; fortnightly I enjoy incredibly talented acts at the Royston Folk Club – there’s something about live music…

I sang in the school choir up to the age of 18 (we had a top tenor at our school so we ended up doing pretty advanced stuff, including St Matthew Passion) which makes it all the more surprising that I didn’t join the Royston Choral Society until 2000 – more than 25 years after leaving school.

I actually took it up during two decades when I was living with mental ill health. It’s well known that singing can lift the spirits, but it was more complicated than that. I had a fixture in my week – a bit like my mum’s ‘me-time’ – and I was surrounded by people who didn’t know what was going on in my head, so I had to act ‘normally’ – no sympathy, but plenty of support.

That original therapeutic reason for singing in a choir is, I’m happy to say, no longer necessary (or maybe it’s singing that’s keeping the ‘black dog’ at bay?) but I’ve stayed with the choir and, apart from one sabbatical term off, I’ve been a member for close to 20 years. I reckon that’s something to sing about!

For other blog posts in the ‘My love affair with…’ series, go to https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/my-love-affair-with

My love affair with running

Last Saturday I ran my 100th parkrun. No big deal in itself – there are parkrunners who have gone well beyond the 250 mark and many who are much older than me – but I celebrated with a beer all the same. I’m not competitive, but my aim each Saturday I run is to be in the top third of all runners, in the top five for my age group, and to finish under 26 minutes. I’m pleased to report that last Saturday I achieved all three.

The magic that is the parkrun family and all it stands for (thank you Wimpole parkrun where I’ve run 65 of the 100) is just one of the reasons for my love of running. When I joined parkrun I was told ‘it’s not about the running, it’s about community’ – that says it all.

Next month is the sixth anniversary of my relationship with parkrun, but that’s just the last 6 years of almost exactly twenty years of on and off road-running. Just to be clear, my relationship with running has been solid for the past two decades (I’ve fairly consistently kept up four runs a week, excluding holidays) it’s the running surface that’s been on-and-off.

Like many, I started running for my health – in my case it was living with mental ill health and, while running wasn’t the ‘magic bullet’, it did get me out of bed when other prospects in those dark days were far less inviting. I was introduced to running by someone far better than I – he paid the price for his obsession and has since turned to successful race walking, which puts less demands on his knees.

There are objective reasons why running is ‘a good thing’ – uplifting our spirits when we’re feeling low and keeping our bodies working better (knees notwithstanding) for longer. It’s low-cost (only the price of a pair of decent trainers) and convenient – I can run any time of day or night on any day of the year – and I do! It takes you places you might never go and starts conversations with friends and fellow runners that would otherwise remain unspoken. On one particular run, many years ago, five of us talked about everything from God to guinea pigs in the space of ten miles!

When running alone I use my time for thinking freely, or doing the opposite. I often take out a problem I’m wrestling with and, by the time I get home, it either doesn’t seem so bad or I’ve sorted out something completely different. Some great ideas come when I run (well, I think they’re good, but many don’t seem so when I’ve warmed down). Then there’s my mindful running; identifying the sounds I can hear around me; focusing on how I’m feeling as the run develops (a bodyscan); or just concentrating on the metre ahead of me – striding with purpose, oblivious to pretty much everything else around me – the secret of some of my best parkrun times.

Of course, it’s easy to get sentimental about something you love. It probably won’t sound sincere from me, so I urge you to read Running Free by fellrunner Richard Askwith. The book’s sub-title is A runner’s journey back to nature and, to quote the publicity blurb: Not convinced running had to be all about pounding pavements, buying fancy kit and racking up extreme challenges, [Richard Askwith] looked for ways to liberate himself. His solution: running through muddy fields and up rocky fells, running with his dog at dawn, running because he’s being (voluntarily) chased by a pack of bloodhounds, running to get hopelessly, enjoyably lost, running fast for the sheer thrill of it…. Running Free is about getting back to the basics of why we love to run”

https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Richard-Askwith/Running-Free–A-Runners-Journey-Back-to-Nature/16498647 (order online through Hive and you support local bookshops)

For my other ‘love affairs’ in this series, go to https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/my-love-affair-with

The will of the people

In an earlier blog post I shared the observation that a street demonstration is a manifestation of a failed democratic process.

To me it certainly felt like something of a ‘last resort’ at the Peoples Vote march in London, where folk of all ages united in a cheerful, peaceful and, I thought, powerful expression of ‘the will of the people by an estimated one million marchers.

When all has been said (but not done) to bring the Brexit debate to a resolution that might unite rather than divide UK voters, I turn to pithy and humorous messages that typify most mass demonstrations for light relief and insight. As a lifelong lover of language, such placards and banners can capture and communicate in a short sharp way that no amount of bluster from MPs and commentators even can. Maybe the leave-remain debate should be decided by a showdown – placards at dawn?

What follows is a small selection of the placards at the Peoples Vote march. They’re broadly grouped under four headings – hasty handmade; pointing the finger; playing on words; using humour…

One placard – the first I saw – encapsulates all four elements (see right)…

The majority of placards were handmade – but it was the crude, handwritten and simplest ones had, for me, an added effectiveness – produced by real people speaking from the heart…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There were prime targets for the strong feelings of the demonstrators; Theresa May and the members of the so-called European Research Group were, for obvious reasons, first in the firing line…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other placards went for a play on words – Brexit and breakfast, May the Prime Minister and May the month etc – some more contrived than others…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, there were ones of note for their subtle and not-so-subtle use of words to make people laugh. Humour is, of course, subjective but these are a couple of the other messages that made me giggle…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks to fellow marchers (including my family) for sending me home thinking that maybe we’re not all, as Private Frazer from Dad’s Army would put it – doomed. Thinks – maybe Dad’s Army could have done a better job with sorting out the Brexit shambles. Captain Mainwaring for PM anyone?

For a flavour of the march https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=52&v=81eLXg21VSA

More signs of protest – from the NHS March in London in March 2017  https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2017/03/11/nine-healthy-signs-nhs

Thinking big

My dear old mum used to say that if all the money put into probation and prisons was invested in nurseries, after a generation prisons wouldn’t be needed. I was reminded of this when learning recently about a social enterprise that I think is simply brilliant.

70% of toddlers and infants aged up to four years in Brazil have no access to nurseries. A 27-year old entrepreneur has set out to change this by organising ‘community mothers’ to provide home-based daycare centres.  Like all the best social enterprises, Elisa Mansur’s initiative MOPI (The Movement for Education) is a simple idea that works at so many levels:

  • It trains community mothers of all ages in best-practice childhood education through play
  • It creates employment for those traditionally disadvantaged in the Brazilian jobs market
  • It provides accessible and affordable nursery places to free-up family members for additional purposeful activity
  • Above all, it gives the next generation the enriched start in life they deserve and need for a fulfilling future and for the wider benefit of society

Whenever I see what I think is a simply brilliant idea, I can’t resist imagining it being replicated in the UK. The need for accessible and affordable quality nursery spaces is real, as is the undeniable benefit of providing training and employment for people who might run them. But I’m afraid I can only see the heavy hand of bureaucracy spouting all sorts about safeguarding, quality assurance, and limited resources. But, given the reward of success, it doesn’t stop me speculating.

And my mother might well have been right about the long-term impact of investing in nurseries, but we’ll never know of course; politicians think they can only think-and-do short term – operating with five-year horizons. But we can dream, can’t we?

Here’s a short film about Elisa Mansur’s vision http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20190307-the-27-year-old-protecting-brazils-hidden-job-economy

What makes a great performer?

At one of the community breakfasts I attend on a regular basis (the promise of a Full English cooked by someone else can get me out early even on a wet and windy morning…) I was talking hospitals with someone who knows operating theatres from the inside. I commented on the use of the word ‘theatre’ in this context. “But it’s correct” she said “You should see that way some of the surgeons perform!”  The brief chat got me thinking…

A surgeon doesn’t have a very big audience – the most important member is usually unconscious and colleagues should be doing their various jobs rather than sitting back and admiring the performer’s handy-work – however skillful s/he may be.

At a folk concert on the other hand the performer is very much in the spotlight and is there to entertain and (not unfairly) will be judged. At a concert the night before our breakfast-time conversation there was, I thought, a considerable gulf between the support act and the ‘headliner’. When I go to hear someone sing/play music, I don’t want to sit worrying on their behalf – that something is about to go wrong – I want to relax and enjoy the experience (particularly when I’ve paid to be there!)

The main act that I was there to see – a solo artist – did not disappoint. He’d been playing and singing on his own and in bands for decades and, apart from the ravages of time that affected his waistline and (a little I thought) his vocal dexterity, his performance was masterful. He was in charge, he controlled the tempo of the set and the audience reaction with it. He also managed to appear vulnerable but you never doubted that if there were any mistakes they’d go unnoticed by most of the adoring and forgiving supporters.

And I think that vulnerability is important alongside the confidence and the expression of sheer talent – I don’t want my performers to be like well-drilled machines; I want humanity and feeling.

Which reminds me of a talk I attended many years ago. It was given by the head of a very large public sector body – responsible for a budget of many millions and the livelihoods of many millions of people. He was also the managing director of a successful family business so he wasn’t just a professional bureaucrat. It was only because I was on the second row that I could see his hand was shaking as he gave his well-rehearsed and fluent presentation. Great, I thought, despite all that status he’s as human as the rest of us!

Do you know about the Impostor Syndrome? https://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_cox_what_is_imposter_syndrome_and_how_can_you_combat_it?language=en