Thursday, June 26, 2014

The problem of difference

Are you the odd one out?
Difference can be a thorny subject can't it? Often differences of opinion can lead to disagreement and conflict, from a personal level to an international level.

We are often completely "right" in our own mind, and can be surprised when not everyone sees the situation or issue in the same way as us!

Difference doesn't necessarily mean wrong. Life is generally more grey than black and white, which means that while we're in this world we need to learn to live in the tension of difference with those around us (and in ourselves).

How we handle difference is really important, and we can either handle it in a negative or a positive way.
"Difference doesn't necessarily mean wrong..."
On the negative side, difference can become a reason to exclude, to isolate, to ridicule. I'm sure many of us growing up experienced this either directly or indirectly - maybe we knew (or we were) the different kid, the black sheep, the one who saw the world differently to their peers.

Comparison can be really tough to deal with, whether it's put on us by others, or whether internally we (negatively) compare ourselves to others. The thing is, we're all unique people with unique combinations of skills. As the saying goes: "Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live it's whole life believing that it's stupid."

It can be hard to handle difference. A friend of mine has dyslexia, but when he was growing up in the late 70s and early 80s it wasn't something that was well understood in mainstream education. When sitting an exam, he'd been given instructions to write at the top of his exam paper that he was dyslexic (at least a hint that this would be taken sympathetically into account by the examiners). The problem is that the word dyslexia is hard to spell even if you don't suffer from it. He ended up writing 'I am bloody stupid' at the top of his paper. An example of a school not handling difference well - this was probably what he felt he'd been told he was (when in fact he is very bright and entrepreneurial).
"...our society seems to value conformity over diversity."
So how do we nurture difference? How do we handle it in a positive way? I heard an unverified story in the news recently that in North Korea a diktat went out that all men needed to copy their leader's haircut. We don't have this requirement here in the UK, but as the educationalist Ken Robinson says, our society seems to value conformity over diversity.

Are we afraid of difference?
There's a theory that the phobia of spiders and snakes is something inherent from back in the depths of history - fear of difference being a prehistoric defence mechanism.

The idea goes that we are naturally predicated to be wary of creatures that are so different to us - giant hairy spiders and poisonous snakes being very different in form to four limbed mammals like ourselves (the theory also suggests this is why we bond so well with cats and dogs, as they're more similar to us).

I don't know how well accepted this theory is in scientific circles, but it does illustrate the point that we can find it hard to relate to those different to us, and even to fear difference.

It's so easy to surround ourselves with people who are like us. At university I remember that folk tended to naturally gravitate towards their own "tribe", but there's a richness in diversity that we can miss out on if we only spend time with those who think and behave like us. As a start, recognising that we all think and learn in different ways can begin to help us relate to individuals who are very different to us.
"Instead of being afraid of difference, or of being different, perhaps we should embrace it."
Instead of being afraid of difference, or of being different, perhaps we should embrace it. I was in a meeting recently discussing how to capture good ideas in our company. Many of these are 'slow hunches', incremental improvements to processes or approaches to the everyday things.

The interesting question was raised: How do we capture the radical ideas, the crazy plans which don't fit the company strategy or business plan but are still worth exploring? I'm not sure there's an easy answer to this, but I have learnt in my line of work that there is rarely one right answer, and there many different ways of approaching a problem.

Two heads are definitely better than one, and I actively seek out the ideas of my team and my peers around the company to the problems we are tasked with solving. It's really helpful to compare notes with other people who might "see" the issue in a completely different way.

Don't conform...
'They laugh at me because I'm different, I laugh at them because they're all the same'. 

The other side of the difference coin is about "saminess", bland conformity. It can be easy to tone down our uniqueness in an attempt to fit in, but on the basis that we've each been given a unique remit by a loving God, our mission in life is to make the most of our specific gifts and celebrate these instead of downplaying them.

It's not just businesses who need to have a "Unique Selling Point" - every one of us has a specific role to play.

I've been inspired recently by John Henry Newman's writings on this subject.

 'I am created to do something or to be something for which no one else is created; I have a place in God’s counsels, in God’s world, which no one else has; whether I be rich or poor, despised or esteemed by man, God knows me and calls me by my name. God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.'

So this week, let's not worry about our differences, let's stop comparing ourselves to others, start embracing our uniqueness and enjoy living in the rich 'greyness' of the world around us. 

Stay different folks!


Thanks for taking the time to read The Problem of Difference. 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). Please nominate my podcast for an award during July 2015 - press the big red button here.

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My Random Musings

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Desert island dreaming

Dreaming of a desert island?
Every now and then I find myself wondering how I'd deal with hypothetical situations. For instance, after watching a gritty war film, I sometimes wonder if I'd be full of bravery or full of fear if I'd been on the front line. Probably the answer is a some mixture of the two. Fortunately I've not had to find out how I'd cope with that particular horror. In darker moments, I sometimes wonder if I'd ever cope with torture (not a cheery thought and another thing I'm grateful not to have experienced!).

Like my daydreams, there are times when we dream of ditching the drudgery of ordinary life and escaping to a remote desert island! Beautiful sandy beaches; palm trees; wall to wall sunshine; coconuts; no deadlines, managers or to-do lists - it can certainly feel like an attractive proposition, but maybe only if we have some degree of comfort as well - wifi for instance! 

Is what's behind this occasional (or regular?) dream the feeling that we need to escape from whatever we find ourselves facing in the day to day?
"There are times when we dream of ditching the drudgery of ordinary life and escaping to a remote desert island"
Last year I read Daniel Defoe's classic book Robinson Crusoe. I thought I was re-reading it, having read it as a child, but I quickly realised how unfamiliar I was with everything apart from the bare bones of the story. I won't regurgitate the whole plot here, suffice to say that life for Robinson Crusoe on his desert island was quite hard. He had to take real care not to get ill or break any bones (potentially fatal with no treatment), and that both loneliness and fear lived with him in generous doses. 

In the story he is on the island for many many years, having been marooned in his early 30s (my age), which has led me to question whether I'd have been as resourceful and hardy as he had if I found myself marooned on a desert island like him!

On this theme, I've just been reading an excellent book by Lewis Dartnell called The Knowledge, which is both an exploration and explanation of the likely skills and knowledge we'd need to recover civilisation following some kind of worldwide catastrophe. In the book, as well as reconnecting ourselves with agriculture and livestock (something Robinson Crusoe did well), there's chapters about the chemistry we'd need to create the materials we'd need to serve various useful purposes. 

Would you know how to make fire if you needed to?
There's information on the recovery of metallurgy, the principles of electricity and important theories to be aware of to shortcut our society back to somewhere approaching our level of scientific knowledge and technology. 

As someone who's both futuristic and strategic in outlook and temperament, as well as someone who loves information and learning this is the kind of book that ticks many boxes for me! 

Heaven forbid a cataclysm of that magnitude ever does occur, however the moral of 'The Knowledge', and perhaps even Robinson Crusoe is that it's important to remember where you've come from, and to keep connected to the bare basics of how to exist and survive - to understand the natural systems, processes and laws which underpin our planet.

The topic of what skills we'd need to survive on a desert island, or post-apocalyptic Hunger Games style future are a surprisingly regular topic of conversation in my family - so much so that my sister spotted a review of The Knowledge and immediately nominated me as the designated person for reading it and disseminating the relevant information amongst the family! 
"If we find ourselves thinking all the time about escaping, then perhaps this is a warning that our life has become too congested"
Across the world many people take this kind of thing very seriously, being collectively known as 'preppers'. These are probably good people to befriend, as they've already accumulated reserves of various essentials, and have probably fortified their house ready for martial law in the event of a breakdown of civilisation! 

As for me, my response is slightly less extreme. I content myself with growing food on our allotment, brewing various things, rudimentary woodwork and DIY around the place. Hopefully these skills would stand me in good stead if I ever did find myself on a desert island - along with my scavenging skills finding flotsam washed up on the beach and appropriating it into some useful function (taking inspiration from Kevin McCloud's excellent series Man Made Home).

If you're familiar with the TV series Lost then there's a good example of this (spoiler alert) as we discover that the survivors from the front of the plane have had the benefits of all the recovered luggage and wreckage of the plane, and manage to function reasonably well as a community, whilst those from the rear of the plane have no such resources and regress to a wilder and more aggressive existence.

Are you stocked up in case of global meltdown?
None of this can take away from us the desire at times to escape from our ordinary lives to the romance of a desert island. I'm sure that in many ways it's healthy to have the occasional pipe dream of escape to the Caribbean (sun lounger, cocktail and wifi included of course). 

However, if we find ourselves thinking all the time about escaping, then perhaps this is a warning that our life has become too congested, out of balance in some way. Maybe we need to take stock of our priorities, time and direction, and create more room for rest in our increasingly fast paced lives.

One thing that being marooned on a desert island would force you to do is to adjust your pace of living. No more convenience food, no shops - decisions about what you really need and the time required to achieve that take on a different meaning. Living on a desert island would also give you plenty of time to think - something that feels harder to do these days in our 24-7 sensory overload culture.

No matter how good our life is, our relationships, our work, our play, we will all experience dissatisfaction at times, and the call of the desert island will ebb and flow. As someone who believes that we're uniquely created by a loving God, the place to truly escape isn't a desert island but actually to escape from our own flawed and incomplete plans for our lives and into the fulfilling and life-giving plans that God has for us. This can feel easier said than done! 

Some years ago I listened to an interesting seminar on this topic by one of the Brothers from the Taize community in France. It was along the lines of 'how do I know what God's plans are for me?', and the pragmatic starting point was to at least start with what you think you'd like to really do, and let God take it from there.
"We will all experience dissatisfaction at times, and the call of the desert island will ebb and flow"
The trouble is that we often aren't sure even what we want, or what we're good at! Perhaps we need to spend a little less time dreaming about desert islands, and instead start to dream about where we'd really like our lives to end up, then cede that to God whilst making appropriate, meaningful and measurable steps towards it. Perhaps a helpful tool to frame this is from the technique of appreciative enquiry: Discover, Dream, Design, Destiny.. Essentially starting with a frank look at where you are, good and bad, then dreaming where you'd like to be, then designing a plan or imagining some steps to take you from where you are now in the direction you'd like to go, then keeping going!

If you're stuck with career choices, a classic book to read that might help is What Colour Is Your Parachute, which has loads of helpful questions and tools to help you consider or reconsider your career choice. Why not give over an afternoon or an evening to take a step back and touch base with your priorities again? Maybe you could plan a day's retreat somewhere - it's healthy to give ourselves thinking space from time to time, especially in an age when it can be hard to switch off.
"Perhaps we need to spend a little less time dreaming about desert islands, and instead start to dream about where we'd really like our lives to end up"
Whenever I think of escaping to a desert island, I usually end up thinking of the people and things I'd miss - my wife and kids for instance, which makes me grateful again for the good things and relationships around me. So this week, as and when you start plotting your escape to the Bahamas, smile and be grateful for the people and relationships you really value, and if you're really feeling the need to escape, then maybe take your dreaming one step further and start to plot your route into the fulfilling and life-giving plans God has for you.


Thanks for taking the time to read Desert Island Dreaming. 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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My Random Musings

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Steeping or stewing?

Elderflower champagne...
Summer is gradually upon us, and this last couple of weeks we've been attending to our various home brewing projects. The other day we bottled some sloe gin that had been steeping over the winter (sadly not all of it fitted in the bottle so we had to drink some there and then), and it should improve even further the longer we leave it. 

Not wanting to put the sloes to waste, we found a recipe for sloe port which basically involved putting the sloes and sugar into some red wine and leaving it to steep, shaking regularly, so that's now underway and should be ready to decant in a couple of months.

Just in the last few days we've started off a batch of rhubarb wine which is now happily fermenting in our kitchen, and yesterday lunchtime I started off a batch of elderflower champagne which is keeping the rhubarb wine company in a bucket. On our to-do list over the next couple of weeks is to get some more beer going, then maybe some nettle wine as a friend sent me a recipe for this today and it sounds fun.

All of these activities have got me thinking about what we let ferment in our own lives, and whether we're actively and positively 'steeping', or whether we're negatively or apathetically 'stewing' instead.
"these activities have got me thinking about what we let ferment in our own lives"
What do I mean by this? Drawing comparisons with our home brewing efforts, we take some natural ingredients, add some select catalysts, then create the right environment for the desired transformation to take place. 

Our giant pumpkins!
One of the things I like about our various concoctions are the stories behind the ingredients. The pumpkin beer I brewed last autumn used some of the giant pumpkins we'd grown on our allotment from seeds my sister sent me. 

The sloes for the sloe gin I collected on a two hour foraging trip around the adjacent fields with my daughter one September afternoon. 

The rhubarb wine uses rhubarb grown from our garden (roots provided by a colleague), and allotment (roots provided by a fellow plot holder). 

The elderflower champagne (and elderberry cordial I made last winter) used flowers (and berries) picked from elder trees near our house (fact of the day, if you pick elderflowers in the morning they smell like bananas, if in the afternoon or evening they smell of cat wee.. A fact we can attest to as I picked some yesterday afternoon!).

In the same way, we have natural talents and strengths we have been given to develop. If you don't think you have any, then I'd recommend the book 'Now Discover Your Strengths' to help you, you may be surprised! For me, I found the book so helpful - some of my identified strengths were obvious, but others were less so, or were things that I'd never found a way to articulate. Sometimes what we think of as weaknesses can actually be a talent when framed in a different way. 
"we have natural talents and strengths we have been given to develop"
However, it's all very well having a natural talent or aptitude for something, but if we truly want to make the most of what we've got, to be the best expression of who we've been made to be then we need to fortify these natural 'ingredients' with some select catalysts and place ourselves or our gifts in appropriate environments to create the required result. If you want some tips of how best to develop your talents, then check out 'The Talent Code', another excellent and encouraging book.

If you're like me, however, you may have picked up some bad habits or negative associations over the course of your life, which are in danger of spoiling things in some way. We're fostering a Guide Dog puppy for the next year or so, and we currently have an energetic ten week old puppy. One really interesting aspect of this initial training process is the need to create numerous positive associations and behaviours in the puppy that he'll need to be an effective Guide Dog in future. This includes a clear set of commands for certain behaviours, consistent across all Guide Dogs, and among others, associations to do with toilet training and food. In the same way, whether intended or not, we often pick up positive or negative associations, mindsets and behaviours over the course of our lives which if we're not careful can leave an unwanted sour taste.
"...usually it's better to do something about it sooner rather than later"
What can we do about this? Well usually it's better to do something about it sooner rather than later. Last year I attempted to make potato wine, which is supposed to be like a nice dry white wine, even a sherry. I used homegrown potatoes and all was going well (I thought) until it was time to switch containers after some months.. To say the mixture smelt disgusting is an understatement! In hindsight, I should have peeled the potatoes, as the washing clearly was not effective enough to get rid of all the soil, leading to contamination early on.. Which just got worse. Really I should have thrown the lot out much earlier and started again.

Sloe gin... worth the wait!
Continuing with the wine making analogy (and yes, I know I'm in danger of stretching the metahpor), sometimes all that needs doing is to switch the mixture into a new container, leaving the sediment behind. Maybe some of our 'stuff' is just sediment that has accumulated, and we just need to change our thinking, our habits into something fresher. Perhaps a new routine, or expressing things in a different way.
"Am I adding the right ingredients for the desired result?"
A question I'm asking myself at the moment is: what am I letting stew in my life? Am I adding the right ingredients for the desired result? For those of us who are Christ-followers, are we absorbing enough of God's word and presence? For those of us seeking to develop our natural talents, are we creating the right environments to do this, and giving ourselves enough time to mature?

Sometimes I think we can get all 'stewed up' over things we've done in the past, or things that have happened, or with worry about things that might happen. I don't want to downplay this issue, as I recognise that many people have experienced traumatic and tragic situations which require time to grieve, or professional assistance. 

However, without meaning to trivialise this in any way, I do think there are times when we actively need to stop things stewing any further and take out the 'teabag' in some way shape or form. This could be in the area of forgiveness - sometimes we need to start saying 'I forgive you' or 'I forgive myself', even if we don't feel it... Sometimes our feelings take time to catch up with our actions.

So as you head into this week, are you steeping or stewing? Either way, perhaps you need to take action, maybe add or remove some 'ingredients'! Have a great week, and as always I look forward to your comments, thoughts and observations.


Thanks for taking the time to read Steeping or Stewing. 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).

I'd love to hear from you, so feel free to comment below or email me at 

If you want to stay up to date please sign up to my mailing list, and do check out my book Life Space on Amazon.

My Random Musings

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Friday, June 06, 2014

Raise your voice and move your feet

It's 1297 and a ragtag Scottish army led by William Wallace is lined up against a superior English army led by King John in what will become the battle of Stirling Bridge. With a face painted blue, Wallace has delivered a rousing speech encouraging the Scots to fight for their freedom. Now the armoured English cavalry are beginning to charge and the Scots are quietly holding their ground until, just as the lances are upon them they lift up a series of pikes, raise their voices and move their feet as they engage their enemy and overcome the cavalry charge.

A different situation. You're walking in thick forest when you turn a corner and not far from you is a large, dark shape. Sensing your presence it turns towards you and you see that it's a large black bear. You slowly raise your hands above your head to make yourself seem larger, and you calmly start talking to the animal as you gradually move your feet and back away to safety. By all accounts, bears don't like to be surprised!

Between you and me, I've never encountered a bear in the woods. I wasn't present at the battle of Stirling Bridge (but I have seen Braveheart a few times, which is almost the same). But both of these are examples of times when, perhaps counterintuitively, it's appropriate to raise your voice and move your feet. In less extreme ways, I'm sure that most of us have had times when we've needed to take action, speak up and do something - rather than keeping quiet and staying still. I wonder what moves you to action?

Last summer, for my niece's birthday party, my brothers, dad, and various nephews and nieces descended on some woodland in the Midlands (no bears present) for an afternoon of outdoor laser tag. After instructions on the laser guns, and having been split into two teams we then had a number of 10-15minute games, each team trying to have the most collective hits on the other team's weapons. Now you may not know that I'm quite a competitive person, in fact my whole family are extremely competitive, and although none of us would readily admit it, we were all taking this quite seriously. So seriously in fact that almost every game was conducted in near silence as we all crept, hid and sniped each other.. The facilitator even said we were the quietest and most competitive group he'd known! (I'm guessing many groups run around in a frenzy.. Not our style). 

My hunch is that in modern warfare (and I'm no expert, as Ghost Recon on the Xbox as a student probably doesn't qualify me), if you scream and run at the enemy you'll probably end up dead. Clearly there are times for staying quiet, perhaps biding your time, but recently I've been wondering if I remain unmoved by situations in life when it would be better to take action. On the whole subject of poverty, even here in the UK, it can be easy to bury our head in the sand, pretend it's not around and remain unmoved. 

Sometimes we're rooted to the spot by our fears, but there's times, individually or as a community when we need to take action - to raise our voice and move our feet.

Many of us are familiar with the story of David and Goliath, an underdog shepherd boy who is the only one to volunteer to face the Philistine giant Goliath in single combat. After raising his voice to the King, he moves his feet towards his opponent and using his sling, topples the mighty warrior. It's a story we may think we know well, but I'd recommend you all seek out Malcolm Gladwell's insightful TED talk on the subject. He admits that perhaps he didn't know the story as well as he thought, and concludes (I'm not spoiling it I promise) with the thought that our giants aren't always what they seem.

Out giants, our opponents, our problems aren't always what they appear to be.. So pick your moment, maybe stand your ground until the right time, then raise your voice and move your feet.. You may be surprised at what happens!

Now as much as I want to encourage us to take action when we need to, I'm enough of a realist to recognise that things don't always magically work out every time we do. We can get knocked back, hurt, disappointed - situations can even get worse not better. Positive thinking by itself can't solve all our problems, and I don't want to paint the picture that life is just a series of instantaneous magical moments - it's important that we play the long game as well as the short game, although I would say that in general it's usually better to do *something* than do nothing. As my Granny Mary used to say 'the sooner you face up to your problems dear, the sooner they go away'!

For me, this is where a different angle on 'raising our voice' comes in. I don't know about you, but I'm a praying person, and I think it's really important to get the balance between action and prayer in our lives. Prayer may not immediately change your circumstances (although it can and does), but through the act of prayer, in articulating our needs to loving God, we can be changed in the midst of our circumstances.

On my train journeys home this week I've started to watch the excellent videos on different aspects to prayer recently produced by the Prayer Course. It's a free course, aimed at individuals and groups who want to learn how to pray better - and each 15minute video that I've watched so far has been really good quality and insightful - I can't recommend it highly enough, so go watch one now! Over the last month, having read Mark Batterson's 'The Circle Maker', I've been keeping a prayer journal. It's been great to craft some prayers for my own life and family, and also to keep track of people and situations I am praying for. I have to say that I have genuinely been seeing more answers to prayer, and whether this is just because I'm more aware of what I've been praying I don't know, but it's encouraging nonetheless. It's good to be specific in our prayers, and I'd recommend starting a prayer journal as a great discipline in this area.

As I finish, I'm reminded of the story of Joshua and the Isrealites taking the city of Jericho. A bit like William Wallace's Scots, they were up against superior opposition - in this case not the English armoured cavalry but Jericho's solid walls. At God's command they took an unorthodox approach and circled the city in silence for six days. On the seventh day they circled it seven times and then together raised their voices.. And sure enought the walls collapsed and the city was won. I like this story as it's a good mixture of feet moving and voice raising, and a reminder that some things in life we need to circle a few times before things change. This week, what are you circling? And how are you moving your feet and raising your voice? Let me know.