August 2019: I am currently in the process of writing this book. I have published a draft of the initial chapters here for the purpose of sharing with anyone who might be able to support me in getting it published. Some of the chapters are have since been fleshed out in Scrivener but I hope it gives anyone reading an idea of what Be Your Own Story: A Guide to Being Fully Alive at Work is all about!

Back cover

As an undergraduate studying English Literature I fell in love with women on the edge: Bronte’s Cathy Earnshaw, Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf.  “The Trick is to Keep Breathing”? Yes, it is Janice.  I devoured the thinking of Jacques Derrida and Lacan, Roland Barthes, Toril Moi and Helene Cixous.  My dissertation was titled “A Psychoanalytic Perspective on the Work of Toni Morrison”.  

Naturally, I then became an accountant. 

Vicky Ferrier spent nearly two decades in big corporates, becoming an award-winning financial communications specialist who once even graced the front-page of the Financial Times. During this time she nearly died giving birth to her first child, unravelled (discretely) following her mother’s overdose and held her hand as she died from cancer. But, it took many years before she had the courage to follow her talent and re-connect to the aspiring post-structuralist, existentialist, feminist girl she’d been a quarter of a century earlier. A girl who was nowhere to be found in the highly functioning, red-soled, swishy-blo-dried story of herself she presented to the world.

Passionate about creating business cultures where people are at the heart of the value-creation narrative, not numbers, today she helps people in business become their own stories and re-connect to the animating force that inspired them to go into, or create, their business in the first place.

This a book about doing work that matters. It’s about creating and leading, vital, human, inspiring businesses. It’s a guide to being fully alive at work.

Front matter

Alive

Son, she said
Have I got a little story for you
What you thought was your daddy
Was nothin' but a 

While you were sittin'
Home alone at age thirteen
Your real daddy was dyin'
Sorry you didn't see him
But I'm glad we talked

Oh I, oh, I'm still alive
Hey, hey, I, oh, I'm still alive
Hey I, oh, I'm still alive, yeah oh

While she walks slowly
Across a young man's room
She said I'm ready, for you
I can't remember anything
To this very day
'Cept the look, the look
Oh, you know where

Now I can't see, I just stare
I, I, I'm still alive
Yeah, yeah I, oh, I'm still alive
Yeah, yeah I, oh, I'm still alive
Yeah, yeah I, oh, I'm still alive, yeah

Is something wrong?
She said
Of course there is
You're still alive
She said
Oh do I deserve to be?
Is that the question? 
And if so, if so
Who answers?
Who answers?

 

Pearl Jam, Alive. Songwriters: Stone C. Gossard / Eddie Jerome Vedder

Alive lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Universal Music Publishing Group

In 1990, guitarist Stone Gossard was with the rock band Mother Love Bone, who were at the forefront of Seattle’s burgeoning music scene. He wrote the music for a song he called Dollar Short, which the band’s front man, Andrew Wood sang. After Wood died of a heroine overdose, Gossard and his bandmate Jeff Ament started playing with guitarist Mike McCready in the hope of starting a new band. Jack Irons, a friend of Gossard's who played drums in The Red Hot Chili Peppers, was approached about joining, but he had another commitment. Thinking he might be a good fit as the singer, Irons gave Eddie Vedder the demo tape.

Vedder, who was working as a security guard for a petroleum company in San Diego, wrote lyrics to Dollar Short, about a boy who finds out the man he calls father is in fact, his stepfather; his real father is dead. He later revealed that the song was "a work of fiction based on reality," and the chorus of "I'm still alive" was what he considered his curse: his own struggle to deal with the strained relationship with his stepfather and the fact that his real father was dead.

In an episode of VH1's Storytellers, Vedder explained that the interpretation of the song had changed, as fans would react to the chorus by jumping around and celebrating: “They heard "I'm still alive" as a positive thing, an affirmation of life” said Vedder. "When they changed the meaning of those words, they lifted the curse”.

This is a guide to being fully alive at work. That might mean lifting the curse by changing the meaning of the words.


 

 

Be Your Own Story: a manifesto

You are your own stories and therefore free to imagine what it feels like to be human without domination over others, without reckless arrogance, without fear of others unlike you, without rotating, rehearsing and reinventing the hatreds you learned in the sandbox. Toni Morrison

More than ever, the world needs people in business to be their own stories.

Our society rewards bankers who steal, businessmen who lie, sportsmen who cheat and politicians who steal, lie and cheat. We face a crisis of leadership and it’s man-made.

Feeling powerless, it is natural to look outside of ourselves; to political leaders, someone, anyone, that will take the lead to sort out this mess. But, when good people, powerful people, fail to generate the political capital to make a difference, it’s time to recognise that we must connect to ourselves, to our own power.  We are the ones we have been waiting for.

We are failing to equip people to lead the kind of change the world needs.  Some, too gentle for the gladiatorial sport that is business today, are ground down by the seeming stupidity and ignorance of those who don’t seem to understand that their actions are unsustainable. Unable to continue on their leadership path, they invest their energy in their families, communities and pursuits worthy and deserving of their vitality and talents.

Others battle through the labyrinth, slaying many dragons along the way, only to discover that despite their seniority, their voice will never drown out those “intellectually incoherent” voices intent on maintaining the paradigm of short-termism and shareholder value that is about value extraction not value creation.

It’s hard to make a difference and sustaining ourselves in such a world is challenging.  For those of us who wish to create a different world, to do things differently, to lead from the heart, we must expect to be lonely: it’s lonely to get to the future first.  How, therefore do we develop the resilience required to make an impact?

In her book Perseverance, organisational consultant Margaret Wheatley, suggests that patience and compassion are the only ways.  We must avoid the trap of judging those who steal, lie, cheat and extract. Rather, we must re-define our task and challenge ourselves to become gentle guides to the world as we see it, not fierce advocates for our view of reality. We must not flee, but become warriors for the human spirit.

I suggest, we cultivate the patience and compassion required to persevere in our leadership task by first connecting to ourselves. To our own genius - our wisdom and intelligence, to what makes us feel alive, to what brings our meaning to life.  This is our “battery” – the source of our energy and our optimism. That which will power the effort required to keep showing up for work that matters, and to lead for change, one day at a time.

This is a call to ask you not to wait until a “cement shaking” experience jolts you out of comfort and complacency. It is a call to consider that security is not the point of our existence.  It is a call to ask that you to be fully alive: to find the courage to choose to live and lead consciously, intentionally and by your highest calling, now.

To be your own story, starting today.

"Be your own story” is inspired by the commencement address given by Nobel prize winning author Toni Morrison to the graduates of Wellesley College, Massachusetts (an “uncompromisingly intellectual” women’s college). My university dissertation was titled” “A Psychoanalytic Perspective on the Work of Toni Morrison”.

Naturally, I then became an accountant.

Chapter 1: Vicky Ferrier: what the f**k?

Everyone has a talent. What is rare, is the courage to follow the talent to the dark place where it leads. Erica Jong

It’s 2003. I’m seven months pregnant with my first child and my IT project manager husband is made redundant.

I was working in London for a global consumer goods company at the time, loving my job doing really interesting work in M&A and strategy, travelling all over the world.  Upon returning to work from maternity leave, we decided that I’d be the breadwinner whilst he'd be an at-home dad (a rare thing at the time), and fulfil his dream of studying History of Art at university.  With hindsight I feel grateful for these circumstances: they prevented me from experiencing working mum guilt or having to make choices regarding part time or flexible work - I just ploughed on with a career I loved. 

I became more senior, my husband returned to his career in IT when our youngest started school and the trade-offs started to became less palatable. The hours got longer and I hated the short-term focus of the work – it felt like there was no time to breathe or think. The corporate world began to feel confining and I knew I wasn’t contributing fully.  But doing something more purposeful, more aligned with who I am, was just a pipe-dream; maybe something I’d do in my 50s.  Anyway I only had one way to measure success and that was by how high I could climb the ladder (which I measured, along with remuneration progression and expectation, on an Excel spreadsheet). 

In 2011 I reached a career milestone when I left London to return to Scotland to head up the Investor Relations and Communications function of a company which had been newly-promoted into the FTSE100.  Two pivotal things happened that year: firstly I found the 7 Habits workbook I’d completed in 2002.  Doing Franklin Covey's “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” had a big impact on me: it inspired me to consider more consciously how I wanted to live my life.  Reading that workbook years later gave me a real jolt – how little of the principles I’d truly assimilated into my life.  The dreams I’d written of were about who I was relative to others – wife / daughter / friend / potential mother.  I was nowhere to be found.

Then my mum was diagnosed with terminal cancer and with her in London, me in Scotland and work very full-on, I felt like I was failing her and my dad by not being there.  Circumstances transpired to allow me to leave that company with a package, which was very stressful, but a friend’s advice “see things as happening for you and not to you” became my mantra.  I spent time with my mum before she died and had some space to start thinking about who I was and what I was all about. 

In 2013 I joined a UK retailer as finance director, working for an ex-colleague from the global consumer goods company, and this was when I started to be more assertive about staking a claim for me in my career: I negotiated 11 weeks holiday a year and worked two days a week from home, three in the office a few hundred miles away, allowing me more flexibility to manage family life. I also intended to invest more time in myself and potential re-training, although I was vague about what that might be. 

That year, I led the department's thinking on our purpose and designed a three-day leadership programme for the top fifty, bringing in two experts in transformational change.  I loved everything about doing this. I'd found my thing -  creating the conditions for people to connect to what makes them feel truly alive at work. The three of us started kicking around some ideas for a business together.  Shortly after, my boss moved on, my new boss wasn’t a fan, the function was restructured and I knew the universe was asking me: “if not now, when?!” 

So, I invested in re-training and became certified with Nancy Kline in Time to Think, a technique based on “listening to ignite the human mind”.  I’m an NLP practitioner (and a H-for-humanistic NLP practitioner) and I’m certified to deliver a tool that takes a company’s values and measures the level of “cultural entropy” in an organisation.  I found David Drake's Narrative Coaching, and pulled all of my experience together into an approach to helping people in business consider the fundamentals of what makes them come alive in their work.  I call this Be Your Own Story.

Ok, this story is bullshit. It's what I call the "CV version”. What's the real story?

It’s 2003. I’m in intensive care as a result of complications after the birth of my first child.

At thirty-five weeks I was hospitalised with pre-eclampsia. At thirty-seven weeks I was induced.  Warrior that I was, I rejected pain-relief. Forceps. Just a little episiotomy. Wow. Who knew I would make a boy-baby?  Placenta. Piece of cake. That's not right. I feel like someone's taking an axe to me. Mmmm. Doors flying just like on ER. Mmmmmm. You look like George Clooney.  Are you George Clooney?

Later we were told I had lived thanks to the quick actions of a doctor who had seen an inverted uterus once in her native Pakistan.  I had also lived thanks to the fact that, having had no pain relief, my screaming caught the attention of the medical staff. Luckily, I was also very fit, having ran the Berlin marathon the year before.  The surgeon put my uterus back. Manually. The anaesthetist was cute, but no George Clooney.

Six-days: we shopped in Baby Gap.

Six-weeks: sobbing with exhaustion, we went to the GP (I took just one of the anti-depressants she prescribed, throwing the rest in the bin.) I called the cavalcade; my parents stayed for two weeks.

Seven-weeks: gave up breast-feeding, saving a fortune on Lansinoh and cabbages. The baby stopped looking like a vampire.

Ten-weeks: mastitis gone, I created an excel spreadsheet to assess the pluses and minuses of the assignments I'd been offered. Plant finance manager, global Beautycare or back into the UK business? 

Six-months: back where I belonged.  Leaning in, but now living life (and distributing advice) with the irritating zeal of someone who’d had a wake up call.

In 2007, a psychologist tasked with assessing me for a job described my empathy as “off the scale”.   As a result she had to do more to test my robustness, which she discovered was also very high.  Robust, yes, I was a fucking warrior, but empathic? That meant thoughtful, sensitive, compassionate didn't it?

Anyway, what did she know? I already knew myself deeply.  I was the product of a global company that relentlessly developed its people – I was an ENTP (borderline J), I knew my Herrmann Whole Brain profile, my Signature profile, my Gallup strengths, my PRISM colours. I followed habits one to seven, ran leadership programmes and new hire colleges and Learning & Development for the UK. I threw myself into the bi-annual appraisal process, gleefully harvesting every opportunity for personal growth.

In 2008 my husband phoned to tell me my mother had taken an overdose. 

That this was the catalyst for the wheels to properly come off my life was a surprise. That day I’d walked calmly out the office, caught a taxi to the hospital and tracked down my dad working in Ethiopia.  Landing in London the next morning, he scooped up my broken mother and I fled back to the Mayfair office where I was busy doing important work. 

That I might have unravelled at some point should not really have come as any surprise.  As an undergraduate studying English Literature I fell in love with women on the edge: Bronte’s Cathy Earnshaw, Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf.  “The Trick is to Keep Breathing”? Yes, it is Janice.  I devoured the thinking of Jacques Derrida and Lacan, Roland Barthes, Toril Moi and Helene Cixous.  My dissertation was titled “A Psychoanalytic Perspective on the Work of Toni Morrison”.  

Naturally, I then became an accountant. Just like my dad.

French psychoanalytic feminist theory wasn’t taught at the school I attended in the 1980s. “Forries” was no place for an aspiring post-structuralist existentialist feminist, as clearly that would have made her a snob and / or a lesbian.

I chose instead to be a truant.  School was tedious, often dangerous and I spent hours outside the classroom in corridors or washing dishes in the staff room for serious transgressions such as not paying attention or giggling with Sarah. The only class I enjoyed was maths because it was taken by a teacher who sang David Bowie songs.  And he’d played football with my dad – there was a photo of the team framed behind his desk. Bob was cool.

However, I went right off him the day I told him I’d been absent the previous week because my mother had been sectioned under the mental health act following a diagnosis of acute paranoid psychosis. His face told me that the subject of my mother’s unravellment was not one I should speak of again.

And so I didn’t.

Of course, I unraveled discretely, making sure almost no-one noticed. Nevertheless it was a very painful time for me; I began to question everything; I felt too much, and not enough; I felt painfully self-conscious; there was an endless conversation in my head; I felt anxious and had panic attacks. I stayed out late and drank too much.  My marriage was on a shaky nail. And as I unravelled, I worried that genetics meant there was only one way this would end for me.

I read Victoria Coren's book For Richer, For Poorer: A Love Affair With Poker, a very honest, funny and moving book charting her journey from playing poker as a teenager with her brother Giles, to making history by becoming the first woman ever to win a European Poker Tour main event in 2006.

However just a year earlier, she had lain on the bed of her Vegas hotel for a long time musing that “the thought of waking up tomorrow, and the next, makes me feel tired and sad”.  Having been diagnosed as clinically depressed, she was heartbroken following the end of a love affair. To top it all she’d just gambled (and lost) all three of her emergency envelopes of cash and her increased overdraft. She wonders if it is possible to rub herself out and start again. I was not alone.

Bat-shit bonkers as I felt on the inside, the story I presented to the world was a highly-functioning, red-soled, and swishy-blo-dried one.  In 2010, I was on the front page of The Financial Times, courtesy of an innovation related to how equity analysts' forecasted earnings contributed to a company's consensus earnings estimate. Handy timing too, as the article appeared the day I was interviewed to head up the Investor Relations and Communications function at a company which had been newly promoted into the FTSE100.

In 2012, I left the FTSE100 company, exhausted, but with a compromise agreement in hand, allowing me a bit of breathing space to spend time with my mum, who was terminally ill with cancer.  In 2013 I joined a UK retailer as finance director. In 2014 I left the UK retailer, exhausted, but with six-months gardening leave and, discerning a pattern, with an idea to work with two experts in transformational change to pursue my thing.

I hired a coach, Cynthia Morris of Original Impulse to "become creative" (aka someone who could design a logo).  It was Cynthia who said writing would be a key way I would bring my work to the world - I'd "forgotten" I'd studied English Literature at university.  Not forgotten of course, it was on my CV, but after years of writing jargon-riddled business gobbledegook, I'd become disconnected from what I'd loved about my undergraduate studies: writing for the sheer joy of it.

And so began the long, slow process of becoming my own story through re-connecting to that literature-loving, post-structuralist, existentialist, feminist girl.  I read and read and read and read….and then connecting the dots as I went, I read some more.  Returning to my undergraduate days, I read and made notes and wrote them all up, until I felt I’d sufficiently answered the question: “Vicky Ferrier: What the f**k?”.

 

 

Chapter 2: Work: what the f**k?

WTF? WTF? WTF?

Ask better questions. The f**k is your life. Answer it.

Cheryl Strayed - Tiny Beautiful Things

According to Gallup 85 per cent of people are not engaged or are actively disengaged at work.  Do you recognise the following: Short-termist thinking, politics, bureaucratic rules and processes, endless meetings, analysis paralysis, information hoarding and secrecy, problem-avoidance, lack of authenticity, silos and infighting, concentrated decision-making?  Businesses where these behaviours proliferate tend to be described as toxic or dysfunctional.  They are unlikely to create the conditions for relationships to flourish which is a pre-requisite for people to be engaged, and healthy, at work.

A 2018 survey by the UK mental health charity Mind found that poor mental health affects half of all employees in the UK  stress is now the major cause of long term absence from work.  

If your employer is not one of the 17 per cent offering mental health training to its people, hope that your doctor is not one of the 40 per cent of GPs who told Mind they were experiencing a mental health problem, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder.  Regardless, with 2,000 mental health staff leaving their post in the NHS every month you’ll face a lengthy wait for treatment: the system is seriously understaffed and struggling to cope with a surge in patients seeking help.

And whilst major life events - divorce, bereavement, moving house - as well as poverty, genetics, illness and childhood trauma  - all play a role, get this: the Mind survey found it is poor relationships with line managers, along with workload, that has the biggest negative impact on mental health at work. This is closely followed by poor relationships with colleagues.

In other words, relationships at work are making us ill. 

I believe there are two main reasons for this state of affairs: (1)  leadership behaviours driven by fearful egos craving certainty and security and (2) the stories we tell ourselves about our careers.

Richard Barrett is considered the world’s leading expert on human values, which he describes as “the basic operating system for human beings, the energetic driver for our aspirations and intentions. The source of all motivation and decision making”.  You could say that values are the answer to the question “what the f**k?”

How we relate to others is of paramount importance in our lives; being in relationship is very much at the heart of our motivations. It stands to reason therefore, if we understand values, individually and collectively, we have a good chance of having better relationships.  

In his book Everything I Have Learnt About Values, Barrett took the values of the 450,000 people who had completed the Barrett Values Centre Personal Values Assessment and created a values assessment as if they were a single person.  These were people who answered the survey in the context of the organisations they worked in, whether that was a huge corporation, a small business, a not-for-profit, or in the public sector, from all across the globe.

Five out of the top six values are about how we relate to other people - family, caring, respect, friendship and trust.  The other top value is humour/fun.  This is an individual value which helps us to connect with others through laughter.  Only when our relationship values are satisfied, do we focus on our individual values.

Next, in terms of priority, come four individual values: enthusiasm, commitment, creativity and continuous learning.

What needs are being met when we are expressing values such as family, caring, respect, friendship and trust?  Our need for love, belonging, safety and security. 

Barrett defines a need as a “real or imagined lack of something that is essential for maintaining the body’s physiological (biological) stability, or the ego’s emotional stability.”  The word motivation is derived from the Latin mover which means to move.  When we are meeting our needs, we are moving towards (or moving away from) a feeling.

At work, if we don’t master our needs, especially our emotional needs, we will try to compensate by, for example:

  • Managing, controlling or manipulating others

  • Feeling superior to others

  • Seeking status, money or fame

  • Competing to be the fastest, smartest or the best

These behaviours are about making ourselves feel worthy and when these play out in the behaviour of leaders, the organisation can become dysfunctional. In fact, in The Values Driven Organisation, Barret states the main reason for dysfunction (friction and frustration) is leaders’ inability to meet their emotional needs:

The anxieties and fears that our leaders, managers and supervisors have about meeting their unmet needs, particularly their unmet emotional needs, are the principal source of the dysfunction we find in our organisations.  They are also the principal source of the dysfunction we find in our own lives.

In dysfunctional organisations the values and behaviours that are prominent are potentially limiting, for example: control, caution, blame, internal competition, empire building, short-term focus and a long-hours culture.

In an organisation, culture is the values, beliefs and behaviours of the current leadership and the legacy of past leadership as reflected in the policies, systems, processes, structures and procedures of the organisations.  The degree of dysfunction is called cultural entropy.  When entropy is high the organisation will be focused on meeting only 

This is not a book about shareholder value (hurrah!), but I can say from first hand experience that the anxiety and fear that our leaders, managers and supervisors have about not meeting their financial targets is at the root of the problem.  Leaders become so focused on the numbers, they lose sight of what creates value in the first place: people.

So, most organisations are run by “mechanic” leaders. People are “headcount” and “talent” - treated as an asset, a cost, a resource to be maximised, an investment to be realised, a number to be reduced.  The principles of continuous improvement are applied to people, all waste is eliminated.  They see companies as hierarchies, matrixes and ‘org’ charts; as circuit diagrams that are clean, logical and fixed.  To them relationships are between one machine and another, not people.  Data and reports are the product of their mating.

INSEAD’s Gianpiero Petriglieri defines leadership “as having the courage, the commitment, ability and the trust to articulate, embody and help realise a story of possibility for a social group at a given time”.  That is leadership is about influencing others.  However, we're stuck in outdated paradigms of what leadership is and often confused it with authority.

This creates a number of challenges: most of us have a difficult relationship with authority and authority doesn't really work for challenges where the solutions are not known, because the solutions generally lie with those who are closest to the customer, not those in head office.  We need to tell a new story about leadership - one that's not about dominance and power, but about orchestration: the conductor is the only member of an orchestra that doesn't play a note. We need leaders to replace the fearful ones craving certainty and security - leaders who can create vital, human inspiring workplaces.  Places where people can be fully alive at work.


Chapter 3: You are a verb, not a noun.

If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it to other people. Virginia Woolf

According to the philosopher Alain de Botton the response you give to the question “what do you do”? is critical; it will determine whether we are warmly welcomed (or conclusively abandoned by the peanuts), at the party of life. “In so far as modern society ever promises us access to a community, it is one centred around the worship of professional success”, states Botton in Religion for Atheists

For the first few years after leaving the corporate world I answered the “what do you do?” question variously. More often than not it was met with a long, rambling response; I used to be [insert job title] then I was [insert more impressive job title] at [insert global company, a household name]. I then fumbled to put the words “coach”, “consultant” and “leadership development” into some kind of sentence. Sometimes, as an experimental truth-teller, I’d try my new found creative self out for size and say “writer” with an apologetic clearance of my throat.

The real answer was that I was burnt-out and, having been living away most of the week, totally disconnected from my family and my home. In retrospect, I wanted to try just being for a while, but, having only just weened myself off the Excel spreadsheet I’d used to plot my career (roles, promotions, anticipated remuneration) I had no place within me to hold the concept of “just being”. Busy, busy, busy, doing, doing, doing.

And I wasn’t ready to be abandoned by peanuts: “those that who have opted to spend their lives looking after children, writing poetry or nurturing orchards will be left in no doubt that they have run contrary to the dominant mores of the powerful and deserve to be marginalised accordingly” says Botton. Of course I was going to the wrong parties - I needed to go to ones where people would support me, champion my ideas and regenerate me with a “good for you!”.

It all starts at school. Educationalist Sir Ken Robinson (his TED talk Do Schools Kill Creativity has been watched 57 million times) puts it best when he says that the current system of education was designed, conceived and structured for a different age. It was conceived in the intellectual culture of the enlightenment and in the industrial circumstances of the industrial revolution. So education was driven by an economic imperative of the time, but running right through it was an intellectual model of the mind, an Enlightenment view of intelligence that states real intelligence is the capacity for a certain type of deductive reasoning and the knowledge of the Classics originally - what we think of as academic ability. So this set up a duality: there are two type of people: academic and non-academic; smart people and non-smart people; non-creative and creative.

Sir Ken’s view is that most people have not benefited from this model. Today the education system is modelled on the interests of industrialisation and in the image of it: schools are organised around factory lines, ringing bells, separate facilities, specialisation of subjects. We still educate children by batches, by age group (their date of manufacture). It’s a production line mentality, with standardised testing driving conformity. Drive for professional success, lest run the risk of being abandoned by the peanuts at the party of life, is an idea instilled in children from the moment they start school.

The truth about ourselves is reduced to our job title, because as psychoanalyst Adam Phillips puts it in his essay Against Self-Criticism: “we are too much for ourselves in our hunger and desires, in our griefs and our commitments and in our loves and our hates, because we are unable to include so much of what we feel in the picture we have of ourselves.”

If you want to be a grocer, or a general, or a politician, or a judge, you will invariably become it: that is your punishment. Oscar Wilde

There is a truth to Wilde’s, said Stephen Fry: “we are not nouns, we are verbs. I am not a thing – an actor, a writer – I am a person who does things – I write, I act – and I never know what I am going to do next. I think you can become imprisoned if you think of yourself as a noun.”

It’s about synthesising all of who we are - putting the accountant into the literature-loving, post-structuralist, existentialist, feminist and the literature-loving, post-structuralist, existentialist, feminist into the accountant. Headhunters and readers of your curriculum vitae will find this perplexing because they will not be able to out you in a box. The process of admitting the truth to ourselves about who we really are, all of it, might prove to be discomforting, but you will not fit into a box.

And work is changing. In her book THE SHIFT, Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at London Business school explores the impact the speed of change in the nature of work is having on our lives. On the one hand, the negatives Gratton presents are clear: technology driven fragmentation, isolation – a future where a new global underclass has emerged. But, on the other, a future might emerge which is more empathetic, more balanced, where billions collaborate to co-create solutions to the world’s problems and one in which “micro-entrepreneurs” thrive as they craft creative lives.

Micro-entrepreneurs have made their passion their work and in 2025 there will be hundreds of millions of them. These like-minded people, gather around an idea and it is they, not the large corporations that shape the direction of the market (and they will be twice as likely to be passionate about their work as those in corporations).

Gratton suggests the shifts in the nature of work presents an opportunity to write a “personal career script that can bring you fulfillment and meaning”. If we can harness our resources – intellectual, social and emotional – we will create a working life which “resonates with our values and is aligned to our beliefs”.

If we’re to create this life, and avoid living one of isolation, we’re going to need three groups; a small group of trusted people, who have some of the same expertise in common, who like and support you – what Gratton calls a posse; a group of people, very different from yourself, on the outer reaches of your network, who you’ll likely know only virtually – the big ideas crowd and finally the regenerative community are real people, with whom you meet frequently, have a laugh, share meals and stories, relax and be yourself.

The physical place we live in is going to be critical to creating this regenerative community. When where we live is not dictated by where we work, we will have greater choice about where we choose to find our regenerative community. Aside from being exciting, having open space and creative stimulation, what will be critical about this community, is that it allows you to be yourself, to express yourself openly and to cultivate your individuality. Funnily enough, worshipping professional success isn’t one of the features of such a community.

Oscar Wilde also said “be yourself, everyone else is taken”. In the process of becoming all of yourself you will write a new career script to express that person in what you do, such that your work life resonates with your deepest values. You will become your own story.

For people who want to be fully alive at work (and it’s difficult to be alive in a box), this is exciting.

Exercise

This exercise comes from Pamela Slim's book: Body of Work: Finding the Thread that Ties Your Story Together. which is very much worth reading. To start the process of writing a new career script, Slim says we must define our roots:

Your roots are the purpose, beliefs and convictions that provide the foundation for your body of work. They keep you strong and stable when you face challenges in your career and remind you why it is important to keep moving through adversity. They also provide depth and meaning to your creative process and remind you why it's important to chase the things you want to create....Money is not enough of a driver to make it through the challenging times.

To identify your roots she suggests answering these six questions:

1. What do you value?

Values are an expression of what's important to us. You can answer that question in the context of work or home, or in a hobby, but you can also chunk up to "life". They are often hidden in a strength - generally we develop a strength because a strength is quite often an expression of what's important to us. When we make decisions that are aligned with our values we feel grounded and in harmony. When our values are transgressed we feel angry. Values are what's called a synthesesia - when we talk or think about our values we should feel something.

2. What do you believe?

A simple way to answer the question "what do you know to be true?". Beliefs are like values, only they're unique to you - your upbringing, childhood, culture etc. There is a saying "values unite, beliefs divide".

3. What do you believe in?

Which experiences have shaped your beliefs and values? What has made you secure in your values and beliefs?

4. Whom do you care deeply about serving?

Of all the people you could impact with your wok, who really gets you? Who do you really want to work with? Who you really needs what you have t offer?

5. Which problems in the world do you want to solve?

Which are the challenges that get you really fired up? What impact do you want to have in the world? What specific knowledge do you have that you think you could make a difference in the world?

6. What drives you to act?

What gets done even when the to-do list is very long? What has motivated you to do great things in the past? What motivated you to finish? What thoughts, conditions or techniques caused you to take action?

Slim then goes on to offer a way to think about the unique "ingredients" that we can then add to these threads. Ingredients are the skills, strengths, experiences, identity and knowledge that we have gained throughout the course of our lives. They are what make us uniquely capable and interesting. It's what's beyond our job titles and job descriptions.

Roles: what roles have you fulfilled?

Skills: which measurable skills do you have?

Strengths: which strengths come naturally to you?

Experience: what kinds of work situation (academic, corporate, nonprofit, entrepreneurial etc) have you been in? What kinds of life experiences have you had (study abroad, travel, wealthy parents, abusive relations, illness etc)

Values: what values are at the core of who you are?

Scars: which life situations have brought you to your knees What did you learn from those situations?

Note which ingredients are "unwanted" - how do you consider these? How do the lesson from these strengthen or reinforce your roots? How will I release the shame inherent within the unwanted ingredient?

As you look at these ingredients what excites you? What are you most proud of? Which ones might you want to build on and learn more about?

Chapter 4: Blue Mondays (Tuesdays, Wednesdays...)

It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making seminars with other oysters. Stephen King

 

I believe bringing anything forth from within, something that really matters, your own story, is painful.  It doesn’t matter if that’s art, poetry, a business or a sense of identity that's in question following the birth of a child.  If, like me, you've spent many years living a "CV version" of life, being your own story can be very vulnerability-inducing.  As Brene Brown says in Rising Strong “vulnerability is the birthplace for many of the fulfilling experiences we long for”. However,  I’ve yet to see a CV template with a section to put the vulnerability-inducing shit.

There were many dark nights as I sought to shed my "CV" self, but I found that having the courage to face into my fears was the key to moving through them.  Brene Brown says “you can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability” – that is so true. The kind of courage you need though isn’t the bold and brave kind – she calls it “ordinary courage” – it’s about speaking from the heart and listening to your own heart; indeed the word courage used to mean "to speak one's mind by telling all one's heart." 

A female entrepreneur friend gave a talk to women on a leadership development programme. Her talk was well received, but many of the audience remarked upon as being unique for its candour. We reflected on how so few women are really honest about the icky bits of living your purpose, of manifesting something from within, of putting yourself out there - being your own story.  She had created something magical: a business that impacts lives for a previously voiceless tribe.   This required "ordinary courage" AKA a process (sometimes gruelling) of self-discovery that most of us simply can’t face. Until of course, everything is so to shit anyway, that the only way is through.

Those that do make it through, often have a source of power that used to be hidden away; once recalling the memories only made them sad, ashamed or disappointed in themselves. Now they create a deep sense of knowing, of clarity, direction and resilience. In fact, the shittier they are, the better: “nothing I will face in putting myself out there is as bad as what used to be hidden in the basement of my soul”. Or to put it in the words of Stephen King, pearl-making seminars are a waste of time, it's the dab of grit that makes the pearl (Pearl Jamming is totally different and those seminars would be definitely worth attending).

Wounds are a source of power. When they are brought into the light and cleaned up, they create a vibrant palette with which to paint a life only the crazy ones, misfits, rebels, troublemakers and bat-shit crazy survivors of failed blue chip careers are crazy enough to dream of.  You are the answer. So why fanny about with other oysters talking about how to make a pearl?

The inherent assumption at these seminars is that the natural order of things is balance, fulfillment and happiness and we should fear the dab of grit, lest we should unravel all the way to the bottom. The belief is that the bottom is a place we unwillingly fall into. However, I would like to promote the idea that the turbulence, chaos and disequilibrium of the bottom is a necessary state to become your own story. To avoid the bottom, is to avoid connecting with your power.

There is no order in the world around us, we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead. Kurt Vonnegut - Breakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday 1973

American writer and student of organisational behaviour, Margaret (Meg) Wheatley has been working for almost 40 years “seeking to understand ways of perceiving and working that gives us the capacity to deal well and sanely with this troubling time”.

In her book Leadership and the New Science, Wheatley draws from the science of chemical reactions and the laws of thermodynamics to explore how systems in all of life change and grow through being both self-referenced and connected to their environments. Organisations are living systems, not machines, that possess the innate ability to re-organise themselves over time to deal with new information and changes in the environment – this is called self-organisation.

Paradoxically, disorder and disequilibrium are necessary conditions for growth: organisations that are too rigid to react appropriately to changes in the environment will decline. Ones that have more fluid structures, such that information can flow freely, develop a greater freedom from their environment, and are consequently more successful.

Similarly, Psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration describes a theory of personality development, in which disintegration is a vital developmental process. A key component of Dabrowski’s theory, is that of the “personality ideal”, that is a vision of the sort of person we wish to become. In making life choices, failing to choose the path that realises our idealised self, results in feelings of guilt, disappointment, self-doubt, failure and shame, leading to internal conflicts, anxiety and stress. These internal conflicts gradually subside as the idealised personality is slowly realised through the ongoing choices one makes.

My own bottoms were driven by fear. Fear of failure, yes, but fear of uncertainty mostly. As I became more fearful, I strived to control all aspects of my life: my days became very regimented (if I caught the 0806 train everyday I would maintain order), my diet was rigid, my thick, strong hair professionally blo-dried into line weekly. I argued the toss about everything because I needed to be right, and if I was right I was maintaining control.

Meg Wheatley writes that “change always involves a dark night when everything falls apart”, but when chaos erupts it not only disintegrates the current structure, it creates the conditions for a new order to emerge.

Project "What the F**k" involved many, many dark days and nights, but order slowly emerged as I read and read and wrote up my notes. Reading the writing of a woman I came across when I googled “why can I not handle uncertainty” proved to be pivotal.  American Pema Chodron was a schoolteacher (born Deirdre Blomfield-Brown) in California and Mexico, before encountering Tibetan Buddhist, Chime Rinpoche (notable students include David Bowie). Ordained as a nun in 1974, Chodron is a prolific author, whose central teaching is around the notion of attachment and the cycle of habitual negative or self-destructive actions and thoughts it can drive.

Chodron suggests that feelings like disappointment and fear are messengers that tell us with “terrifying clarity” where we’re stuck. And “rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we should acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look.”

“We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together and they fall apart again. It’s just like that”

This appreciation of life is uncommon in the West: we don’t want to listen to the messages inherent within the experience of falling apart (again) and feeling like a piece of shit.  Instead we seek out doctors who prescribe anti-depressants to women who approach motherhood with the same mindset and expectations they approach their careers (lean in hard and ace it).  We remain in jobs that cause us stress and make us ill, but we say “just ten more years then the kids will be through uni, then I can do something I love”.  We work for fearful, man-child bosses who will never, ever, ever celebrate our genius. 

So, if feeling fully alive at work is your goal, expect it to involve some shitty bits, expect that you'll fall apart (and come together again) and know that it'll take a while. Self expression is a creative act: there’s no playbook, no pithy listicle you can read or guru’s advice you can follow. As Ira Glass, the host of the American radio show American Life said: you’ve just gotta fight your way through.

*Which of course I already “knew”: I’d written an essay on the topic at university in 1991 titled “Things Fall Apart; the Centre Cannot Hold”, which is a line from WB Yeats’ poem The Second Coming.

Whilst Yeats wrote his poem in 1919 in the wake of the 1st World War, the Russian Revolution and the political unrest in his native Ireland, countless writers have since applied Yeats’ lines more generally to confusion and disarray. Writer Joan Didion is synonymous with a line from The Second Coming. Her 1967 essay The Hippie Generation: Slouching Towards Bethlehem documents what she called the “social haemorrhaging” occurring in the area of San Francisco, Haight-Ashbury, where the hippie culture was emerging. Professor of Law, Psychology and Psychiatry and the Behavioural Sciences at the University of California, Elyn Saks titled her 2007 memoir on living with schizophrenia The Centre Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness.

The “centre cannot hold” because a new order is seeking to emerge. Which is exactly what happened when the centre did not hold for Joy Division. Ian Curtis R.I.P.

Exercise

This is taken from Mark Wolynn’s book It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are And How To End The Cycle.

  1. Focus on a problem that’s most pressing right now

  2. What is the deepest issue you want to heal?

  3. What do you want to see shift?

    (don’t edit yourself)

  4. Write down what feels important to you - write it down as it comes to you, just keep writing.

  5. If the feeling, symptom or condition you have never goes away, what are you afraid could happen to you?