Friday, March 28, 2014

Who Dares Wins?

Today's musings are on the theme of risk, and as I was thinking of a title for the post, the motto of the SAS came to mind: "Who dares wins". Or maybe that should be who risks wins? The very language suggests that the SAS have a mindset where war is a game to be played. A game in which risk-takers (like the SAS) win, and everyone else is on the losing side. I would certainly prefer the SAS to be on my side if I found myself in a war!

For someone known to be a big fan of board games (local Settlers of Catan champion no less - frankly to the surprise of my family), you may be surprised to know that I've never actually played the game Risk. We even own a two player version that we've never quite got around to playing! But this seems to reinforce the stereotype that war is a game, and implicitly that maybe life is as well.

I wonder how competitive you are? Do you take more risks when playing boardgames than you would in real life? How about Monopoly? It's easy to stake plenty of money on an investment when it's only monopoly money.. different when we face tough financial decisions in "real life" though.

As I've been musing on the subject this week, I've been wondering whether it would help us live our lives better if we were more playful when it came to risk. Now I'm not advocating taking unnecessary risks with our health, our families, or our work - but I do think that there are plenty of times in our lives when we are faced with the choice of playing safe or taking a positive risk.

In my line of business I spend a lot of time assessing risk, often flood risk. This can be complicated, as flood risk can have many different sources (I won't bore you by listing them). Many of my clients would like me to say that there is NO risk of flooding, however this is never true. There is always a risk of flooding, however small, as you can never completely manage risk away. There can always be a bigger storm, or some unexpected circumstance which could lead to flooding. Whether or not risk remains is a moot point, the question is really whether the risk is something one can comfortably live with.

Risk takes on a whole new meaning when you have kids. Risks that you normally live with - plug sockets, cups of tea, crockery in cupboards, flights of stairs - all of a sudden these become life threatening issues, as our children don't have the same frame of reference or understanding to comfortably live alongside these risks. We introduce additional mitigation measures - plug socket covers, stair gates, cupboard locks, placing everything increasingly high up - to minimise the likelihood of the risk. But you can never eliminate the risk completely - that cup of tea gets put down within reach, that socket gets left open.. we still have to be on high alert as parents until our children understand some of the consequences of the risks around them.

Sadly, in many ways we live in an increasingly risk-averse and litigious society. Whether implicitly or explicitly, our culture seems to value conformity over diversity - evidenced by the incessant testing, measuring and standardisation imposed on the school system, seemingly to force as many of our children to conform to an arbitrary and increasingly meaningless standard. The truth is that we are all "fearfully and wonderfully made", unique in our potential and diverse in the passions, gifts and temperament we each possess.

There's a famous verse in Saint Paul's letter to the Romans, in the New Testament, in which we are encouraged not to "conform to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind" (Romans 12:2). In a society obsessed with standardisation, the best way to stand out is to embrace who you've been made to be - all the uniqueness and "you-ness" found in the deepest part of your being.

How often have we played safe, held ourselves back, suppressed our passions because we haven't wanted to risk disapproval of friends, family, or colleagues? Perhaps we've entered careers which we know will give us a steady income, but in which we feel we are secretly an imposter, or in which we wear some kind of professional mask to hide who we really are.

And yet, is NOT being the full expression of who you were made to be worth the risk? Is it worth the risk of settling for less, knowing you have more to give, living with regrets that you played it too safe in the big decisions?

There's a strong link between how passionate you feel about something and the risks you're willing to take. After I had been going out with Kate for a little while, the love I felt for her emboldened me to take the huge risk of asking her to marry me.. and I've been delighted ever since that she said yes. I can imagine the regret I would have lived with if I'd never been brave enough to pop the question. Strangely, I was more nervous buying the engagement ring a few weeks before than actually asking the big question itself! Go figure!

I'm a big fan of TED talks, as I love ideas and I love learning new things. As with anything, some are better than others, but I watched one this week (by Richard St John) about passion which was great. He'd interviewed dozens of teenagers, and something like 80% had said their number one goal was to make money.. which in his mind was tragic, as the people that tend to be most successful are the ones who follow their passion - who essentially risk being who they're made to be rather than playing it safe and settling for less. He encourages people to follow the "zing" and not the "ka-ching".. in other words follow your heart and not your paycheck.

Now I know that this is easier said than done, and maybe for many of us it's the ability to pursue our passion in our spare time that energises us to do what we need to do to provide for our families - we're all different (and in case any colleagues are reading, I do genuinely enjoy what I do for a living!). But the message is clear - in the long run it's worth taking those positive risks and embracing the passions that define you. For me, restarting this blog and intentionally spending more time writing, making and being creative has been a deliberate choice to risk putting some of me "out there".. but I have to say that it's been so energising and life-giving that I wish I'd done it sooner. I feel more "me" as a result, and am excited at where it might lead me.

When it comes down to it, I think we should all risk being a little more playful in some of the decisions we face. It's too risky to settle for being anything less than the person God made us (and to fully embrace who we really are we need to fully embrace the God that's made us - sometimes we need a heavenly mirror to see how we're really wired).

Instead, to embrace ourselves, our passions, who we really are, and step into the perfect plans God has for our lives - now that's a risk worth taking!

(This post was written as part of the Blog Buddies group. Here are some other thoughts on the subject by . If you want to join our blog buddies group contact

Poem: Spilt Milk

A sad walk this morning, from the station to the office.
Grief surrounds me like the morning’s mist
Grief at the injustice in the world (brought on by a sad book).
The people I pass seem gloomy too today, heads down.

Outside a café a drying channel of spilt milk, dripping into the gutter.
Far too many spilt lives dripping onto the streets too these days.
More cries of “spare change” spilling from desperate lips and cold hands.
In the alleyways, on steps, on street corners.

It’s closer than we like to think. 
Only yards from my office.
Another spilt life sleeping in a split sleeping bag.

Leaving my banana won’t clean up the spill,
but I leave it anyway, although my misty sadness remains.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Poem: The first day of Spring

Running home through gentle rain.
Drifting through the creamy light,
the last few minutes before sunset.

Twilight reflecting off rinsed tarmac.
Vivid pink blossoms on lollipop trees.
My muted footfall a signal switch,
as I awake sleeping streetlights.
Metallic pinks and yellows and whites.

Running away from the deskbound day,
the congested train, my crowded brain.
Cars passing me with splashing sighs,
tiny tyre waves breaking on an asphalt beach.

Cresting the hill,
leaving the orange embers of daylight behind.
Returning home,
to grins and giggles, purrs and pasta.

Spring has sprung.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Musings on.. peace

Perhaps you can relate to this. Your baby's been grizzly all day, now it's way past their bedtime, they're overtired, you're under-slept, and after yet another 20 minutes of 'shushing' you've carefully placed them back in their cot, crept out of their room and now you're listening at the door, hardly daring to breathe until you're sure that this time they really have gone to sleep.. A moment's silence, then another, and then.. Peace. You can finally breathe out, collapse in a chair, have a cup of tea..

Do you have to go somewhere to find peace? Maybe peace and quiet? Perhaps climbing a mountain, or finding a remote wilderness.. even just shutting the bathroom door and soaking in a bath?

Or is peace something you're waiting for? When the kids have (finally) gone to sleep, when you can get home from a busy day, or when a difficult situation is over?

Is peace something you encounter on your own - on a cloistered retreat, shut off from the world? Or is it something that occurs on a bigger scale - like countries making declarations of peace after war?

Perhaps peace is something you have to make - making peace with a situation, a person, God?

I've been musing on the subject of peace this week, and when I think of the questions above it seems to me peace is needed in many ways in our lives, communities and world.  In some ways, I think that peace is like carbon. If you can remember chemistry at school (one of my weaker subjects I have to be honest, although having a chemistry teacher called Mr Work probably didn't help!), carbon famously has three forms - allotropes - ranging from diamond: crystal clear and the toughest material on earth; to graphite - black, opaque and soft enough to enable us to use it in our pencils. Peace also takes different forms.

I'm sure that we're all longing for peace in many areas of our lives and in the world we live in. Not a day seems to go by when the news headlines aren't dominated by conflict - on a domestic, political or international scale. We desperately need peace in our relationships, within our families, in our workplaces, in our hearts.

But how do we find it? Is peace a destination, a place we go to, or is it something we have to make? Is it an exterior thing or an interior thing? Personal or corporate?

Maybe it's all of these things at different times - maybe these are all allotropes, and maybe we need all of them.

I know that we have have many demands on our lives, and that life can feel relentless at times - the treadmill of the everyday, the rat race, can grind us down and leave us agitated, depressed, even ill. Perhaps we feel like peace is something we can only find occasionally - perfect peace like a diamond that's precious because it's so rare.

But I wonder whether if we're only looking for diamonds, for perfect peace, we can miss the other more everyday forms of carbon-peace that are all around us. Like carbon, I think peace is there to be found in our daily lives - in fact especially there.

Often on my lunch break I will seek some reflective time in the cathedral near my office. It's usually quiet, muffling the sounds of the busy city outside, and I find it helpful to be able to gather my thoughts and escape the tyranny of my inbox for a few moments. Often I pray, and herein I think lies the secret to discovering this 'everyday' peace - not necessarily in a cathedral - but in the deep knowledge that you are unconditionally loved and accepted by God. Diamond peace, perfect peace may be hard to find, but God wants us to receive his everyday peace in the midst of our turbulent lives.

Amorphous carbon is a third allotrope of carbon, aside from graphite and diamond, and as the name suggests, it is the least 'formed' of the three. In fact, this form of carbon creates more compounds than any other element, and carbon compounds in general form the basis of all known life on our planet. In a similar way, maybe we can allow peace to become a part of all the different elements of our lives.

This ability of carbon to form amazing new materials leads me to a different slant on 'blessed are the peacemakers' - what are we making with the peace available to us? Some carbon compounds are known for their lightness - carbon fibre for example - and in a sense I wonder whether prayerfully allowing 'peace compounds' to form in our lives can bring a lightness to situations and circumstances which normally weigh us down.

I've probably raised more questions than answers in this post, but also think that it's good for our health to be considering how we can engage with God's peace in the midst of our daily grind.

So I'll end with a simple blessing: 

Peace be with you.

(This post was written as part of the Blog Buddies group. Here are some other thoughts on the subject by WendyIf you want to join our blog buddies group contact

Friday, March 14, 2014

When the going gets tough..

What's the hardest thing you've ever done? And what's your relationship with it? 

The phrase we're musing on this week is "The toughest thing you ever did could well be the best thing you ever did". This has got me thinking on my own achievements: which ones hold the most value to me, and why do I feel that way?

Compared to many people's incredibly tough lives around the world I am aware that life hasn't been too unkind to me on the whole, but we all face challenges whatever cards we are dealt. 

Reflecting back on my life, I can see that things I may have considered tough at the time when much younger I now take for granted - for instance speaking in front of others, singing and playing guitar at the same time, long runs - all of these have felt tough challenges at different times and for different reasons.

In my mind, there is clearly a link between facing (and overcoming) tough circumstances or situations and growing as a person. In some ways it can be a means of developing our inner strength in a similar way that resistance training can build our physical strength.

I'm resisting the urge here to regale to you all the amazing achievements that I have made, as this isn't meant to be that kind of post - and I'm in a more philosophical mood as I write anyway!

I do think we can often take ourselves and our abilities for granted. If you're anything like me then you can overplay the circumstances and situations that trouble you, and underplay your own powers of endurance, imagination and creativity. 

This brings to mind a quote from Dr Mike Stroud who as a doctor has been researching the ability of the human body to endure. He has famously accompanied Sir Ranulph Fiennes on some of his more extreme polar adventures - and more close to home was also attached to the same Dietetics and Nutrition department as my wife when we lived in Southampton! 

In his excellent book 'Survival of the fittest' he talks about the delay between starting exercise and our brains sending out the signals to activate the required energy systems in our bodies. Counter-intuitively, it can feel harder to do a short run than a long run, as we start by accumulating an oxygen debt, and by the time the brain gets round to sorting this out, we've accumulated lactic acid which needs clearing: 

"This takes some time, so the first couple of miles of any run can be rough. It leads to an odd phenomenon. Most people feel less fatigued after running five or six miles than they do when they have run one or two. Some inexperienced runners never realise this, and even quite reasonable athletes may believe that distance running is not for them. they have never run far enough to reach equilibrium and comfort and so have never found the capability that evolution bestowed on nearly all of us".

So thinking about tough things reaping rewards, sometimes we just need to go further to realise that we can actually do it. Enduring will be worth it - perhaps we will gain a new perspective, perhaps facing a tragedy will help us come alongside others in the future, other opportunities will arise as a result, and like resistance training it's all strengthening and shaping our character (perhaps knocking off rough edges!). We may even find that we feel less fatigued after enduring for longer!

I deliberately haven't gone into detail in this post about the difference that a healthy relationship with God can have on our perspective of tough times and on the manner in which we approach and endure them - that could be an entire blog post in itself! Suffice to say that I passionately believe in a loving God who plans the best for us no matter what happens, and helps us to make the best of what we consider to be broken situations, circumstances and lives. God can, and does, help us be the very best representation of who we can be and I do not believe we can reach our full potential without God's help - but that's a topic for another time.

Some years back I had reached the point in my career to undertake my professional review with a venerable engineering institution. I carefully prepared all my documents, submitted them in time, prepared presentations and with some trepidation travelled to London to be interviewed by two reviewers. I felt prepared, I felt I deserved to pass - but it didn't go well. In fact I felt utterly ripped to shreds and in due course I received a letter going into great detail about how I hadn't made the grade. 

Needless to say I was crushed, my colleagues cried foul and family and friends provided much needed support. I slowly picked myself up, took a long hard look in the mirror, tried to take the review comments on the chin, rewrote all my documentation and re-sat the next year.

Except this time, although the day itself went better, I still received a regretful letter identifying how short of the mark I still was! At this second setback I did seriously consider leaving the industry, but while I was picking the pieces of my professional confidence up off the floor a wise old colleague suggested an alternative path with a different institution -  and in hindsight one much more suited to my experience and skills. 

Happily the story ends well, and the more I look back on it the more grateful I am to have gone through the trial I did, since focusing on water and the environment rather than pure civil engineering has actually been much more fulfilling and has opened much more interesting doors for me since! One of my toughest things has proved to be one of the best.. and I'm sure many of you could relate similar stories.

I'll finish with a quote from Sir Ken Robinson's book 'The Element' (a book about finding your passions.. the place where you're in your element, so to speak) in the context of how we can underestimate the potential we have for growth and change: 

"For the most part, people seem to think that life is linear, that our capacities decline as we grow older, and that opportunities we have missed are gone for ever. Many people have not found their element because they don't understand their constant potential for renewal."

So when the going gets tough, as it often does, let's remember that it's often the first few miles that seem hardest, but that we can go much further than we initially think we can..

(This post was written as part of the Blog Buddies group. Here are related posts by Nicola and WendyIf you want to join our blog buddies group contact

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Musings on.. Rest

Life can feel full-on sometimes can't it? I know my life can! We can feel out of control with the demands of our work (or the pressures of looking for work), the demands of our family, the demands of others - our world is very demanding! We can also demand a lot of ourselves (anyone else set themselves ridiculously high expectations?)

I've just returned from a great family holiday, and as we've been travelling I've been musing on holidays, rest and busyness. If you're like me, it can take time to switch off from whatever mode you've been in before you take a break. Maybe it's work-mode, with the problems and issues of our business clamouring for our attention in the back of our heads. Maybe it's mum-mode or dad-mode, where we've been hard at work dressing, feeding, delivering, collecting, raising, cleaning, controlling our kids. Whatever mode we've been in, it's no easy thing to just flick a switch - much as we'd love to be able to switch off immediately from whatever has been holding our attention.

Something I've noticed in myself at times and observed in others is a tendency to just try and make it to the next break, to the next weekend - always anticipating the next time we can flick the switch to "off" and give ourselves a rest. Of course one of the problems this poses is that we can place too much pressure on our "off" time which can subsequently be a disappointment. We can also miss what's going on around us in the day to day (something I mentioned in my last post).

It seems to me that our culture always expects us to be living at 90mph, always sprinting to the next milepost, to the next goal. Of course it's no bad thing to achieve things, but we do seem as a culture to have an obsession with measuring things, of recording progress, of comparison.. perhaps all stemming from an underlying unease or dissatisfaction with who we are or where we are at the moment.

If you've ever been on a car journey with kids of almost any age you will be familiar with the (endless) back-seat loop of "are we there yet?". But even as grown ups we can be guilty of being destination-focussed, goal-focussed and missing out on the enjoyments of the journey to get there. Since we've had a sat nav I've found myself on certain journeys being obsessed with how many miles are left, and what our anticipated arrival time is. I find myself racing the sat nav, seeing how much I can reduce the arrival time, and taking great satisfaction in proving it's predictions wrong! (This is not something I endorse by the way, although it is a guilty pleasure of mine). If we're fixated on the next destination - the weekend perhaps, or our next holiday - then what's going on around us can become a nuisance, something we put up with, something we endure instead of enjoy.

If you've ever watched the swimming on TV you may have noticed that the competitors don't tend to take many breaths - they'll race the 50m or 100m with barely a gulp of air.. similarly with track sprints, breathing slows you down, it's all power, power, power. Life can feel like that at times when we're sprinting from destination to destination.

But if we're always sprinting then the lactic acid of life can also easily accumulate and force us to stop. I've seen too many colleagues, friends and family burn out over the years. So how do we avoid the lactic acid of life and live at a sustainable pace? How do we shift from being destination-focussed to enjoying the journey we're on?

Well, I think slowing down has a lot to do with it, and getting into a good rhythm. Some years ago I decided that I wanted to get into triathlon - but one problem was that I couldn't do front crawl very well. At all really. It was all about the breathing - I just couldn't seem to get this right. So I decided to take some swimming lessons (somewhat embarrasing being in my mid-twenties at the time, but sometimes you've just got to swallow your pride instead of the pool and get back to basics). Painstakingly I built my front crawl stroke up from scratch, doing drills to practice each element and then carefully, slowly, assembling the whole.

Even after I'd mastered breathing (or at least stopped swallowing most of the pool), it took some time to build up my swimming fitness - I had to slow my pace right down to be able to complete the mileage I needed for completing a triathlon (1500m for an Olympic distance race). For quite some months I thought I'd never be able to achieve it, but after finding a sustainable rhythm and building up my strength I did - and I'm proud to have completed, even enjoyed, numerous triathlons since.

My point is that we need to find time to breathe - to flick the off switch - more regularly. Short intense sprints are ok in the short term, but in the long run we need a more sustainable rhythm. There aren't any set answers to this I don't think - what the off switch means to everyone will be different, but it's important to find ways to recharge, to take deep breaths, in our daily lives in some way. This might be taking a walk, watching a film with your loved ones, turning off the tv and playing a game, choosing to leave work on time. Whatever this is, choosing to slow down will get you further in the long run.

Recently I've been re-watching a favourite documentary series of mine, "The Long Way Round", where two friends motorbike overland (as much as possible) from London to New York. In the first few episodes they are very destination focussed, meticulously planning their trip, training and then obsessing about the mileage they need to cover each day. But after a while they begin to immerse themselves in what's going on around them - forgetting about the destination and taking great pleasure in the places they're passing through, the people they're meeting and the experiences they're sharing.

We ate out at a favourite restaurant in Naples, Florida last weekend - Pincer's Crab Shack. They've got a great sign there which states "free beer tomorrow" - and of course tomorrow never comes. It's a privilege to be on the journey of life - many people's tomorrows re taken away from them prematurely. As I've been musing on rest, I want to encourage us to take our eyes off our sat-navs, take our foot off the accelerator, and make the most of the moments we find ourselves in. Holidays can be great, weekends can be great, so can work and the spaces in between - but life is for embracing not enduring.