Friday, April 25, 2014

"You can't make an omelette..

..without breaking a few eggs."

This phrase has been in my head this week as I have mused on the topic of eggs. I've been wondering about it's deeper meaning, and since I couldn't find it in my dusty copy of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (an essential tome for any reference shelf in my humble opinion), I had to resort instead to Wiktionary for a good definition: "in order to achieve something, it's inevitable and necessary that something should be destroyed". An unverified internet source also suggested that the phrase emerged out of the tumult of the French revolution, giving it a somewhat darker slant - guillotine humour.

I take great satisfaction in the very act of cracking of an egg into a frying pan, let alone the resulting enjoyment of egg on toast (if I'm honest I don't actually make many omelettes). I suppose you could also interpret the phrase along the lines that you can't enjoy your eggs without breaking their shells, since not many of us eat our eggs with the shells on (I say not many, because I am sure that there are people in this world who do actually eat eggs with the shells on).

Regular readers will know that I've been thinking a lot around creativity and innovation these past few months, and among the many interesting books I've been reading, Steven Johnson's "Where Good Ideas Come From" has some really interesting thoughts on creative environments and (as the title suggests), where good ideas come from.

Increasingly, it seems that the best ideas come from collaboration and openness rather than (just) the solo effort of an individual. In fact, Johnson suggests that many of us need aspects of other people's ideas to complete our own, as they also need ours.

For creative people, our ideas, dreams and visions can often feel like precious eggs which we sit on for months and years waiting for them to hatch. Maybe some of these do hatch, but I bet that the vast majority remain incomplete and unhatched in some way. We can feel very protective of our idea-eggs, but perhaps this protective attitude isn't actually serving us in the way we think it is. Perhaps it's actually slowing us down - reducing us to waddling speed, earthbound like Emperor penguins desperately protecting their eggs between their legs.

If what Johnson suggests is true, and it has a strong sense of "truthiness" to me, then if we really want our ideas, dreams and visions to fly then we need to crack open our eggs and set them free to connect with other people's ideas and dreams, to become something bigger than our own imaginings. Perhaps we need to crack our dream-eggs into the collective pan to make an omelette! By keeping our talents in their safe eggshells we run the risk of them never reaching their potential.. or to extend the egg metaphor further, to go off. If we think our ideas stink, maybe it's because we haven't given them enough air.

I believe that we're given our talents, passions and dreams for a reason, by a loving creator God. Without stepping into these, setting them free, letting them hatch, the danger is that we miss out on the adventure planned for us and settle for something less than we're able. Like the servant in the parable who buries his talent rather than putting it to work. Instead I want to be the one who makes the most of what he's given. This doesn't necessarily mean being the very best in our field, but it does mean becoming the best expression of who God has made me.. perhaps it's less about the magnitude of our talent and more about what we do with it.

I'm an adopted Midlander, and I love the industrial history of the Midlands - it really was the birthplace and heart of the industrial revolution, which changed the face of the planet. The BBC have recently been publishing a series of essays on the Midlands, and this week's (here) is about the so called "Midlands Enlightenment". Suffice to say it's a great historical example of people like Erasmus Darwin, Matthew Boulton, James Watt and other members of the Birmingham Lunar Society who cracked open their eggs, shared their ideas and came up with a metaphorical omelette of world-changing technology, thinking and action. We can learn much from these polymaths, not least the power of collaboration and connection with those both similar and different to ourselves.

In my day job, the company I work for has a phrase "Stronger Together", echoing the well known words of the Bible that "a cord of three strands is not easily broken". If you're anything like me, then it can be a vulnerable thing to share your precious dreams and visions with others - but if we want them to grow wings, if we want them to grow and develop in ways that are bigger than we can think, then we must embrace openness and set them free. In my experience, God has a great way of helping us step into our passions and use our talents in unexpected and adventurous ways, especially when we bravely put our ideas "out there" rather than keep them in their protective shells.

So this week, why not ask yourself whether you've been sitting on any eggs too long, and whether there's an omelette of some kind you need to contribute to.

One final thought, from my friend Dan (a keeper of quails). To make good eggs you need plenty of grit in your diet (his quails certainly do) - so whatever your area of talent, whatever shape your dreams take, whatever field your ideas reside, are you feeding yourself enough grit to make good eggs? In other words, where are you taking inspiration from? Are you getting enough diversity in your reading/watching/listening/praying to stretch, challenge and feed your dreams? Perhaps you need some extra grit, something to chew over, something to get you thinking again..?

Thanks again for reading, I'd love to hear your thoughts, and happy cooking this week!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Rooted to the spot?

I'm sure you've had an experience like this. Your mouth has gone dry, your heart's racing, your palms are sweating, you're in full "fight or flight" mode as the adrenaline is coursing through your body - you're facing something frightening but somehow you're rooted to the spot. Like a rabbit in the headlights you can't move and time seems to have slowed down like a scene from the Matrix.

One summer I found myself climbing across the famous Aonach Eagach ridge in Scotland with two best buddies from University and one of their dads. Now if you know me you'll know that I haven't really got a great head for heights - it's not the heights that particularly bother me but sheer drops! With this in mind you might be wondering what on earth I was doing traversing Aonach Eagach, which has sheer drops aplenty, and to be honest I was wondering that myself but didn't want to be a killjoy to my friends, who were skipping away like mountain goats.

Fortunately for me there was low cloud that day, and while this didn't take away the thousand foot drops either side, it at least meant that I couldn't see them, which sort of helped. Until the clouds parted that is, and I could suddenly see how big a drop was beside me. My heart rate soared and I clung for dear life to the ridge! 

With some steady nerves and calm encouragement I'm pleased to say I made it across the ridge (to everyone's surprise if I'm honest), but it remains one of my most vivid experiences of being rooted to the spot.

Strangely enough, after that introduction, this week's theme is actually trees (and not fear, as you might have been led to believe), and I'm hoping the connection will become clear as you read on.

One of my favourite types of tree is a Plane tree. Here in the UK you tend to find them in cities, lining Victorian boulevards and especially in city centres. I pass at least a dozen of them on the walk to my office each day. What I like about them is their mottled, almost camouflage multi-layered bark. They are well suited to urban situations as they can tolerate higher atmospheric pollution as well as root compaction - something almost guaranteed in our cities!

Trees are great, and public health studies show that we experience lower stress levels and the corresponding health benefits when we are amongst trees. A colleague of mine recently travelled to Doha, and when I spoke to them out there they were looking forward to being home and seeing trees again!

Different varieties of trees have different personalities, they're suited to different places - a willow tree wouldn't last long in a city centre like a Plane tree, since they need to be around water. Pines like acidic soil. In order to thrive and flourish, trees need to be planted in the right places with favourable conditions. The thing is, living in a dynamic environment, conditions have a habit of changing around us, and if we're rooted to the spot we can find ourselves over time in a position that's doing us no good, or in which it's harder for us to flourish.

I heard a Swedish climatologist speaking about potential changing climate scenarios for Sweden over the next hundred years. Sweden's a big place, and average temperatures vary from south to north by about three degrees C over around 500km. A possible future scenario for some parts of Sweden is that temperatures increase by three degrees over the next hundred years, which means that the average temperature line would begin move north by around 0.5m an hour. This is not very fast.. in fact a snail's top speed is (apparently) around 1m an hour, so this pace of change is not even at a snail's pace! However, if you're a tree that's very sensitive to temperature ranges, then within your lifetime you could find yourself in conditions that don't suit you at all.

Sometimes I think that we can be rooted to the spot in our opinions, our behaviours, our relationships - 'stuck in a moment that you can't get out of' to quote U2. We've planted ourselves somewhere, but over the years circumstances have changed around us, perhaps without us being fully aware of the changes! In terms of our 'fight or flight' response, there's an argument that says this developed specifically in response sudden and urgent dangers (like predators) - and that it's not trigged by gentle changes in our environment. The classic story of the frog being slowly boiled comes to mind.

So a question for us to think about this week is whether we might have become rooted to the spot anywhere in our lives. The good news is that unlike trees, we can change. We can re-plant ourselves somewhere else, in a different position or better place. Perhaps in this manner we're more like Tolkien's Ents instead!

I'm writing this during Easter week, and this Easter marks twenty years since I made the decision to plant myself in the best place of all, in relationship with a loving God. I've had my ups and downs in this time, but I passionately believe that my life has been immeasurably changed for the better as the result of a relationship-based faith in God. These past few months I've been reading and re-reading the book of Psalms, and I love the picture painted in the very first psalm about people living in relationship with God:

"They are like trees planted along the riverbank,
bearing fruit each season.
Their leaves never wither,
and they prosper in all they do"
(Ps 1:3, NLT)

Over the last twenty years I've been sinking my roots deeper into this relationship, and I want to encourage you to consider doing so as well. Maybe you feel rooted to the spot, stuck in one place in your relationship with God. How about this weekend you get out amongst the trees? It's good for your physical health, but perhaps if you take that time to listen to God's whisper to you amongst the rustling of the leaves if might do your spiritual health good too. 

As we celebrate Easter how about refreshing yourself with God's story - why not read one of the gospel accounts in the Bible? If you don't feel you know about God's story, let alone God himself then why not look out for an Alpha course near you? This is a simple course which enables you to ask questions and find out for yourself.

Let's not find ourselves rooted to the spot, and lets be willing to make changes in our lives when we realise that our environments have changed. And on this note, I'll bid you a Happy Easter and leave you with a quote from George Bernard Shaw:

"Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything"

Thursday, April 10, 2014

What are you building?

I don't know about you, but there are certain things that happened in my family growing up that have developed legendary status. Events, occasions, mishaps which we've told and re-told over the years, things which we continue to feel deeply about. One of these events happened before I was born, in the mid 1970s, but so strong have been its after effects that I feel like I was there. 

It's the story of when my oldest brother won a Lego building competition. 

Lego was a big part of our childhood. I credit it as the reason I've become a professional engineer. For at least a decade we had 'the heap' in our sitting room. The Heap was a pile of toys which just got pushed into the corner at the end of the day. I remember it mainly being Lego. Another legendary family story was when one day, out of the blue, there was a knock at the door and an older boy gave us his own huge box of Lego (they were emigrating, but we didn't know that, we thought it might be a semi usual occurrence, leading to a life of disappointment when every ring of the doorbell WASN'T a huge box of Lego).

Now, as I wasn't actually there, I'm sketchy on the exact details of the Lego competition win, but suffice to say that my brother's winning entry was displayed in the shop for a while, he probably even won a small amount of Lego (no doubt eventually assimilated into The Heap). The main thing was the kudos he earnt with my other siblings and his peers - kind of superhero status, tempered with grudging jealousy that my other brother and sister's entries weren't deemed prize-winning. We're a fairly competitive family anyway, so from then on, building things with Lego was a serious matter. As a side note, even though I've not ever won any Lego competitions myself, I do think I'm pretty handy when it comes to building Lego spaceships, something I hope I can pass on to my own kids! (We're still at the duplo stage though, which has more limited spaceship building potential).

In a recent post I talked about our 'daily Lego', our lives being the accumulations of individual moments and days lived well (or not), which leads onto this week's question: what are you building? Building things with Lego is a serious subject, but we've all been given lives with which to do something glorious.

I heard a good joke recently (well I thought it was anyway). It goes like this: five frogs are sitting on a log, four decide to jump in, how many frogs are left on the log? Of course, the answer we'd like to say is one, but in this case that's incorrect. The answer in the joke is five, because thinking and doing aren't the same thing. Now you may be groaning, but it's a good point I think - it's all very well having big dreams, and many of us have, but arguably what's the point of having the big dreams if they just stay there and we never build them into something real?

I'm not intending to induce a guilt trip here, and one of the most freeing pieces of advice I was ever given was by a friend and pastor shortly after starting work. As I was beating myself up that I didn't have the same time to do things that I did when was a student, he set me free, telling me not to expect to achieve all the things I felt God had planned for my life in the next five years! Whilst we have a lifetime to achieve our life's work (whatever that may be), at the same time it can be easy for our dreams to become bow-waves, always being pushed further forward into the future and some mythical perfect time. Or for us to start out, get knocked back, lose our confidence, wrap our dreams in tissue paper and put them back into the box under the bed. 

I had a friend at school who had lots of motivational sayings which helped him through his GCSEs and A-Levels, and one in particular has stuck with me ever since: 'inch by inch it's a cinch, yard by yard it's hard'. What I like about this is the honest truth that we need to break big things down into manageable chunks. This is fine with GCSE revision, but we often don't know how to do this when it comes to our big visions, dreams and plans. I certainly don't!

There's clearly no one answer to this. Your dreams are different to mine. All of us have many dreams which are varied and diverse, nearer or further away. Whatever they are, however far off they may seem, it's important for us to continue to take small steps towards them, to build momentum, however slow. Maybe this is just about giving ourselves time to learn skills, to think, to try things out, to put together the little pieces of Lego one at a time, which will slowly accrete into something bigger, more magnificent. 

Seemingly small things often open doors to new things I've found, but so often in our busyness or discouragement we often put off even the small things. I read a book recently where the author took a year off work (sort of forced, but nevertheless), and he commented that we often overestimate what we can do in a year (and maybe give up), but underestimate what we can do in ten years. The middle ground is often hard, but it's here where battles are often won. Our changing seasons of life present different challenges. The time of life I'm in involves small children, deep weariness and difficulties to do all the things I want to do, but it seems to me that the trick is to keep the pilot light going on our dreams and visions whatever the circumstances, and to keep building - however small, however seemingly insignificant. 

As a child the  joy of Lego was that there were no fixed rules and an endless variety of pieces. You could create what you wanted as long as you put the pieces together. And it just took as long as it took, with plenty of iterations and mistakes in between.. And unlike my brother's prize winning creation, most Lego creations weren't perfect, but they were built, and in many ways therein lay the value. A box of disassembled pieces and some plans of what you could build have potential, but that's all.

So what are you building? Embrace those dreams, dust off those plans, and let's focus on bringing them to life.. Small step by seemingly small step.. You never know where it might lead.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Spring Forward

Blackthorn blossom...
Spring has sprung, as they say, full of budding potential. On our allotment and in our garden there are plenty of green shoots. Leaves unfurling on fruit canes we planted from cuttings over the winter, recently sown seeds germinating in pots all over our house, and all around us many fruit trees are in blossom. Vivid pinks, bright whites, hinting at fruit to come later in the summer.

When we moved to the West Midlands a few years ago we were really struck by all the blossom around the place. It felt like there was so much more blossom in the Midlands than we were used to seeing on the sunny South Coast. Maybe there are more fruit trees here, who knows?

Blossom has a special place in Japanese culture, where it's a sacred thing. I read afascinating book the other year about a chap making his way across the Japanese islands by bicycle, chasing the cherry blossom as he went. If not quite to the same extent, I also appreciate the coming of spring that the blossom heralds. It's a sign that winter has thawed and warmer weather is on its way.
"I appreciate the coming of spring that the blossom heralds"
Spring also brings more light into our lives - we "Spring Forward" when our clocks change to Summer Time (although we lose an hour's sleep.. fine in general but having spent all year trying to get our kids into a good sleeping routine, this really sends their body clocks haywire!). After the short days of winter, and the cold weather, I can finally crack on with my to-do list in my workshop and on the allotment, now they've both thawed out (I really need to think about some heating in my workshop over the winter).

The other Christmas my wife Kate gave me an inspired present which was the complete set of Star Wars films on Blu-Ray (along with over 40 hours of documentaries etc). Needless to say, it was the perfect opportunity to introduce my daughter to the films, and I was delighted that she loved it so much! In 'The Empire Strikes Back' Han Solo gets frozen in carbonite and sent to Jabba the Hutt. When he's finally rescued (in 'Return of the Jedi') he has to be thawed out from his frozen and captive state.
"it can sometimes feel that parts of our lives are 'on ice'..."
As I've been thinking about Spring, I've wondered if it can sometimes feel that parts of our lives are "on ice". Maybe we've shelved some dreams until circumstances are better. Maybe, through no choice of our own, we've been forced to stop doing things we love through illness or other external factors. For whatever reason, parts of us may be in hibernation mode. Like Han Solo, we may be frozen and in need of thawing out.

I'm reminded again of Narnia, where the ice thawing and Spring returning are a sign that Aslan has returned to free the country from the tyranny of the White Witch. I was speaking to a Finnish colleague once, who said that where he lives there's often snow on the ground for six months of the year!

For those parts of us "on ice", now might be the right time to come out of hibernation. Maybe it's time to allow God to de-thaw some of our dreams or those aspects of our personality that we've hidden away through fear, hurt or circumstance. Maybe it's time to allow these things to blossom!

We love growing things on our allotment. We love the community aspect of it, and we really enjoy eating our home-grown produce - yes, it really does taste better! Personally I like the connection with the seasons that "working the land" brings, and one of the main things I've learnt is that most of the time you've just got to let things grow and keep the weeds down in the meantime. This can be surprisingly hard work, especially in the spring, since this is the time that the weeds seem to grow the fastest!
"Maybe it's time to allow God to de-thaw some of our dreams..."
Weeds seem to get everywhere, but this isn't a reason not to grow things in the first place. If you want to reap a harvest then you've got to plant seeds - it's inevitable that weeds will grow up, but you've just got to manage them, and the end result is worth it.

The reason I mention this is that we can often be discouraged when we step out into new things and allow them to blossom, but the main thing is to manage the inevitable weeds that crop up around us in whatever form, and let our skills, abilities, dreams and relationships grow until they bear fruit.

This can take a while believe me, but just because it's going to take a while doesn't mean we shouldn’t plant the seed in the first place. As the Chinese proverb says, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago - the second best time is now.

I think that my mind is like our allotment in some ways. There's some good stuff that's been planted in there over the years, but I need to be a good mind-gardener to weed out the unhelpful stuff that just keeps cropping up, and instead to nurture those things which I really want to see develop. Those things that really define who I am and who I've been made to be.
"As the Chinese proverb says, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago - the second best time is now"
It's great to have new ideas, to step out into new areas - I want to encourage us all to do that, but we need to allow ourselves time for these to develop. This is, I think, pretty counter-cultural in the midst of the now-now-now, instant gratification society we find ourselves in. But in many ways, it's often the things that take time that are the most rewarding in the long run - another whole subject in itself.

As I wrap up, why don't you prayerfully ask yourself if there's anything in your life that needs thawing out so it can blossom and bear fruit? Maybe you just need to do some weeding in your mind, to give all the good things in there more space? Maybe you just need to sit back and give yourself time to grow?

Whatever it is - I pray that this year you Spring Forward rather than fall back. And if you're serious about making space for your dreams to grow, you need to read my book Life Space...


Thanks for taking the time to read Spring Forward! If you've enjoyed it please share it with your friends on social media! Why not subscribe to The Potting Shed Podcast on iTunes for the audio version and much more (direct RSS feed is here).

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