Category Archives: Ambition

Averageness

Sitting in the brightly lit university classroom, the statement hit like a scud missile. Coming from a man for whom I had quickly developed respect and affection, it caused considerable turmoil in my head.

“The really good marketers” – it came in the midst of a class on Entrepreneurial Marketing – “are those who move to London and learn their craft there before coming back home.”

I’m still not sure why it caused me to react the way that I did. At the time I was determined to move to London in any case. But I did not feel comfortable with this belittling of Belfast. It became a topic of conversation with my best friend, Cliona, who was also on the Masters with me. We rejected the notion. I stayed in Belfast. Cliona moved to Dublin.

Today we both know what Professor Carson – Dave – meant. It was not that London or Dublin are inherently better than Belfast. Put simply, the message was that to succeed in London or Dublin you cannot be average. They do not celebrate the average.

I have both a hatred of the average and a fear of being average. Another friend used to laugh when I would cringe and scoff at Sunday evening television for being “middle-class, Suburban blah.” It is saccharine filled drivel, full of lowest common denominator compromises. I remain uncomprehending as to why anyone would chose to sit down and watch Heartbeat. Some of the people I love most in life are huge fans, but I still cannot understand why.

Susan Jacoby delivers a fulsome critique of the evils of television in “The Age of American Unreason.” The specifics of her argument I have forgotten. But I do remember her blaming the dumbing down of America on the rise of television. Whilst I probably agree with Jacoby on the evils of television, my issue with Sunday night television is its averageness. My fear is that despite my refusal to watch Sunday night television, I am trapped by my own averageness.

Two months ago I resolved that my future would be based on my ambitions. Having drifted through my 20s on the backs of other people’s dreams and goals, I finally had a sense of what I actually wanted to achieve in life. It had a focus and specificity which the dreaming of my past lacked.

Two days ago, having failed to write anything in a month, I sat and stared at a blank screen. Becoming ever more frustrated with my inability to write, I eventually began a 900 word diatribe on my averageness.

My hatred of averageness and banality has some strange consequences. I cannot, for example, bear to listen to most presenters on local commercial radio; in particular Paul Kennedy and Pete Snodden are banned from my radio. So, when listening to music in the car, I am usually tuned to BBC Radio 1, whereupon my brain wonders, what is it about Nick Grimshaw or Sara Cox or Greg James that enabled them to become Radio 1 presenters? The simple answer is they are not average, nor did they settle for average.

Was it as simple as them moving to London? I cannot believe it so, but I can believe that by being in London or having the ambition of being in London then they were willing to go beyond average.

“The Last Empire” is a collection of essays from Gore Vidal. In one he recounts the tale of how a reviewer of his work was upset that he did not know how dumbed-down Americans were. “How dare I mention people that they had never heard of?” he quotes the reviewer as asking.

In that simple question Vidal’s reviewer showed his acceptance of the average. He showed his willingness to celebrate the mediocre, a position in which we all seem to now find ourselves. Recognising this in myself means that I have to do something about it. It means not being trapped by averageness but working to not be average. It means dedication, practice and focus. It means not being average.

To have a future that is different from the present requires us to make a change. Successful people are often filled with self-doubts. Their success comes from not allowing those self-doubts to define them. They don’t settle for average.

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Filed under Ambition, Future, Personal

Reflections, not resolutions

It was news to me that my writing is too descriptive and, in the phrase of a good friend, “solid”, until I was 29. It may have been a deeply buried yet fleeting realisation on earlier occasions, but such thoughts were dismissed as the fault of others for not appreciating my writing.

This causes a problem because I want to be a writer. More specifically, I want to be a foreign correspondent. Writing skill and style is of rather critical importance to foreign correspondents. Journalists who lack the ability to write well are rarely successful.

Some writers have undeniable natural talents. Others have learnt their craft by writing, rewriting and rewriting lots more. People who want to be writers are told to read. But it is not enough to read the words on the page. The author’s chosen words and phrases must be dissected, critiqued, understood and, ultimately, absorbed by the reader.

This is all by way of saying that I do not do resolutions. Seventeen days into a New Year is not the time to be making New Year’s Resolutions, nor do I have faith in them. Maybe I have no faith in me. In any case, I do not do resolutions. But, two months into my 30s, I am ready to look ahead to when I will be 40.

Reflection  is natural at endings and beginnings. Entering my 30s in late 2012 meant that both November and December were especially reflective. With the melancholy of knowing that I no longer have some choices that I had at 20, but the excitement of better knowing who I am and what I am good at, I am ready to make some decisions. They are not a reaction to short-term impulse, like so many New Year’s Resolutions. Rather, they are rooted in reflection, and an ambition that was always there, but that was allowed to drift.

People who are confident in their decisions often say they have no regrets. They are happy with where they are in life. While I am not filled with regrets, there are undoubtedly opportunities not pursued, places not visited, and choices I wish I had made differently. Not wishing to be someone other than who I am, I do wonder about who that other me would be, and where I would be.

So, to writing. Instead of pursuing journalism after school, I decided that the temperament required to be a journalist was different from the one that I possess. I even justified my decision when a taxi driver regaled me with tales of drunken journos and broken marriages.

Kate Adie and Allan Little have a lot to answer for. From Our Own Correspondent has prompted me to pursue, at age 30, a career as a foreign correspondent. Listening to the programme on BBC Radio 4 has renewed my ambition. It has sparked a specific goal. Call it a resolution if you must. By 40 I will have featured, from some far-flung corner of the globe, on From Our Own Correspondent with a dispatch detailing life as the BBC’s Correspondent in said far-flung corner.

As the programme name suggests, only BBC Correspondents appear on the programme. So I shall need a journalism qualification, for which I will need several thousand pounds, and I shall need someone at the BBC to give me a job. For that to happen I will need to write well.

As I currently read Henry James’ “Portrait of a Lady,” I am constantly struck by how none of my teachers took me aside and said to me, “Short sentences. No waffling.”

But reflection brings clarity, and clarity prompts action. So to develop as a writer I will write at least 500 words a day, with at least one published article on my blog every seven days.

Having thought of the what, the where looms large. Amid the self-destructive seizures to which Belfast is submitting itself once again, I question the fact that I still live there. Richard Florida wrote “I want to make sure that every day I see someone that looks and acts different than me.”  Belfast is too limiting, too insular, too toxic to be that kind of place.

Yet it remains home. For reasons both illogical and logical, I stayed. The chances to leave passed by while my eyes looked elsewhere. Other opportunities presented themselves, most notably in having an incomparable mentor and friend as my boss. But remaining in Belfast feels like being strangled in slow-motion. The grip of despair tightens month after month.

So the goal is Istanbul or Buenos Aires or Tokyo, maybe with a stop-off in London on the a way. The real goal is to live in a place that inspires, that contains real diversity and that has a cosmopolitan vigour. It is reflected in wanting to be a foreign correspondent and the chance that no assignment will last for longer than a few years.

It is reflected in my ambition to return to languages. There is an embarrassment at having failed to master a foreign language. Some might say I have yet to master English, but that does not negate my dream of learning a language or two, or three.

Spanish and Arabic are most appealing for the former’s sensuality and the latter’s mysticism. Both would be helpful for a career as a foreign correspondent. Both would be useful for personal adventures to South America and the Levant.

Combined, they amount to my dream that, long before I am forty, I will fondly remember my decade and a half in Belfast, but will do so from the banks of the Golden Horn or the galleries of San Telmo. And I will do so as a fluent speaker of Spanish and a competent speaker of Arabic, maybe even on the way to mastering Turkish.

Istanbul holds special fondness. It is where I became engaged, and it is the place where Kevin, my partner, and I hope to return for an extended period of time. It will not happen in 2013, nor in 2014, but we will live in Istanbul.

There remains, behind all of this ambition, the question of how? Only about 20% of people who set resolutions will succeed. Goals are one thing, taking steps towards them is another. Plenty of people, including teenaged me, are fans of motivational quotes. We all know the ones that urge us to “Dream Big”; something that encourages naïve teenage optimism, but that fails to connect inspiration with action.

I am ashamed to admit that I only recently realised that inspirational quotes on their own are as empty as a student’s fridge. Believing that big dreams and big ambitions would equal big success, I was convinced that success would be natural. It was a low and only a passing consideration that success requires focused, specific  and dedicated work.

Four things fed my natural procrastination: the lack of specific and personal goals; not knowing what exactly I was really good at; a fear of failure that was fed by my need for perfection and my need to analyse; and the fact that distractions are plentiful, whether invented by Steve Jobs or Johannes Gutenburg.

But my future happiness rests upon me making some changes. It will take more than words. My ambitions are now clear and specific. They now require a plan. They require me to reflect on what I have done at the end of every day, every week and every month to help make them a reality.

The path has been set. I cannot allow myself to be derailed. I need to finish what I start, no matter how big or small. I need to take individual and specific steps to make me happier and more successful. That means individual and specific steps to learn Spanish and Arabic. It means a specific and planned timetable to move somewhere more invigorating. It means a specific plan to save the money for a qualification in journalism, and it means developing my skills as a writer.

Fulfilling my ambitions will require me to be selfish with my time. I must be more disciplined and decisive, and develop routines to help. I must accept that I need to do more and analyse less. I will need to hold up a mirror to my excuse-making and time-wasting. I need to finish what I start, and these 1400 words are the start of something new.

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Filed under Ambition, Belfast, Future, Northern Ireland, Personal

Jean, tear down that wall – a shared society in Northern Ireland is not enough…

It has been a while since I put fingers to keyboard. My inspiration returned after the NI Community Relations Council’s annual conference.

Let me start by saying that one of my dreams is for a prosperous, stable, confident, creative, mature, diverse and successful society in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland must be a place where peoples’ backgrounds have no bearing on how others perceive them, on what job they fulfil, or on where they live, go to school, or spend their leisure time. This can be achieved when people in Northern Ireland not only wish but work for this to happen.

I’m tired of hearing about a shared society in Northern Ireland. I want more than a shared society. I want us to be more ambitious. I want a visionary, creative and successful society. So I’m not going to settle for a shared society. Nowhere else in the Western world would settle for a shared society. Equally, I understand where the desire for a shared society comes from. I just don’t want to settle for it or for mediocrity.

As part of the conference we were asked a series of questions, and the audiences’ responses were partially analysed afterwards. Soft questions, predictable answers and woolly analysis assured my frustration.

One question asked about the role and voice of young people in the peace process. A more critical question in my mind would be to ask young people what they think of the peace process. Cue blank stares wondering why this ‘old’ guy with greying hair is asking them about dinosaurs. Young people do not have a place in the peace process because the peace process is over. It was over years ago and no matter how many circular conversations are had amongst people of a certain age, it now needs to be put to rest. We need to move beyond thinking about the peace process to thinking about how we make Northern Ireland a successful, creative society based on our visions of the future. It must not be about cementing the divisions of the past. Someone once said to me that anyone over 35 feels like they missed out on ‘normality’ because of the Troubles and they need their turn to try and fix ‘it’ for younger generations. You can’t fix something by clinging to a flawed vision though.

Another question asked whether or not a deadline should be set for taking down the peace walls – 20-odd foot walls dotted around Belfast to keep Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods separated and built at the request of communities. Initially surprised that the majority of people said no, I quickly realised that self-interest did not have to be declared through anonymous answers. Then to Jean, who offered her analysis of why she had voted no. Jean was adamant that no deadline should be set because her community of 700 Protestant people in Suffolk was surrounded by tens of thousands of Catholics in west Belfast and needed the peace wall to ensure they felt safe in their homes. In one line Jean blew apart the shared society.

Jean assured us that most of us had never lived in an interface area (the term used for the dividing lines between Catholic and Protestant areas) and that we could not know what it was like for people who do. Jean assured us that there was a lot of positive community dialogue between the Suffolk and Lenadoon communities. Jean assured us that one day she wanted to see the peace wall come down but not until the Suffolk community was ready. I predict that if a shared society remains the height of our ambition in Northern Ireland, that peace wall between Suffolk and Lenadoon will never come down.

Later, I was asked on Twitter if, on the basis of having no time for the shared society concept, I wanted “a divided, sectarian, racist society” instead. Having tweeted that the Millenial generation in Northern Ireland wants an “ambitious, prosperous, creative society” more, my response was something along the lines of “Oh please.” Of course I want a shared society, just not as it has been defined as the ultimate goal for Northern Ireland.

My earlier frustrations from the day were reinforced at the second Kennedy Memorial Lecture in Belfast, delivered by Professor Robert Dallek. Within seconds of hearing some of JFK’s famous quotes, it struck me that Jack Kennedy would never have settled for a shared society. It would have been much too small for him. He asked Americans what they were going to do for their country. He challenged them to see that the path they were on was not going to deliver what they wanted.

A “shared society”, as the peak of our ambition, feeds the status quo. It fails to challenge the notion that there are only two communities in Northern Ireland. It fails to acknowledge that a shared society is held together by a plaster and that the spoils have to be shared around in equal measure. It fails to acknowledge that outside of this tiny region, no one cares about our divisions and if we want to attract investment and talent to Northern Ireland then we have to grow up and become a shared society in the way that ‘normal’ societies have.

In his opening remarks, Tony Kennedy of the Community Relations Council referenced Richard Florida and his work on successful places being those places that respect diversity. To my mind, Tony should have gone the step further in Florida’s thesis that the hallmarks of a successful city are tolerance of strangers and intolerance of mediocrity. A successful society is premised on the idea that to move beyond our divisions, we need a bigger vision for the future. It argues that a different Northern Ireland will only come when we combine our talents, ideas and creativity and recognise that a shared society just is not enough. And Jean, tear down that wall.

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Filed under Ambition, Belfast, Future, Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Politics, Society

Transformation required, not just acceptance…

There are the obvious recriminations swirling about after the US Midterm elections, which saw the Republicans win back the House of Representatives and come very close to winning the Senate. As of writing, Republicans had won 239 House seats, and are leading in 5 more, which will give them a gain of 65 seats on where they were yesterday. Democrats had won 183 and are leading in another 8. In the Senate, Democrats have won 51 to the Republicans’ 46, with Washington and Colorado too tight to call and Alaska looking like it is staying in the nominal Republican camp by virtue of Lisa Murkowski’s probable victory.

The numbers are one thing. The reality of what happens next is an entirely different thing. Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin write a simple but stunning truth in their Politico piece that “Obama now faces a stark, and immediate, choice between a novel effort to rebuild the 2008 coalition and an acceptance of the divisive political scene that he sought to move beyond.” Back in 2008, President Obama was elected on the promise of change and “Yes, We Can!” Of course the expectations were too high and of course he was never going to be able to meet them. That the Democrats were going to do badly in these elections may have been a foregone conclusion after their successes in 2006 and 2008. Yet, for this, they have compounded built-in losses by failing to capitalise on the coalition that they had built in 2008.

Ezra Klein wrote yesterday that in political terms, the 111th Congress was one of the most active in US history (which is, of course, part of the problem that the Tea Party has with it). “[I]f you see the point of politics as actually getting things done, the last two years, for Democrats, have been a stunning, historic success. Whatever else you can say about the 111th Congress, it got things done.” He went on to list health care reform, financial regulation, the stimulus package, and other less well-known pieces of legislation. US voters have been crying out for health care reform for decades; the economy crashed in 2008 partly because of the lack of financial regulation; and the stimulus did play a role in shoring up particular sectors of the economy. Yet, for all this success, the coalition that Obama and the Democrats built to such success in 2008 crumbled around their ears.

Perhaps scarily of all are these two maps – one of the counties that Democrats won in Senate races in 2010 and the other of the counties that Obama won in 2008. Fully accepting of the fact that it is not a direct comparison and that there are different dynamics in Senate vs Presidential races, they are at least instructive of what Democrats have failed to do.

 

US Senate 2010 County Leaders - New York Times

US Presidential 2008 County Leaders - New York Times

My reading of those maps – as unscientific as it is – indicates that Democratic support has plunged in Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. There are also strong signs from House races that Virginia has tilted back strongly to being a red state, as well as problems for the Democrats in Colorado, New Mexico and Michigan. Every one of those states (with the possible exception of Wisconsin) is a classic swing state…

So, does Obama take the path of least resistance to compromise and seek to work with the Republican House, or does he dig deep and push through resistance to battle for Democratic ambitions? In reality, the best bet is something that he promised in 2008 but didn’t tell us how he was going to do it. It is actually one of the main reasons he won so convincingly back in ’08 and it was actually the basis of his ability to build that infamous coalition of young and old, poor and rich, black and white, Democrat, Republican and Independent. It’s the hope thing – but delivery of hope not just talk of hope.

The promise of hope being able to deliver change was what captured the imagination of so many American voters in 2008, especially young people and others who had felt disenfranchised by the existing political reality. Obama and the Democrats promised that those people would be engaged and would become a part of the approach to governing. The expectations of this group soared to unreasonable proportions, but returning to this approach it is Obama’s best bet of getting anything done. The world is in a period of huge economic transformation as we move from the industrial era to the information era and people are frightened because their reality has been upended. A visionary political leader with Obama’s talents needs to capitalise on this transformation to rewire the political, social and economic system – it is not something that can be done easily, nor without resistance. It is what Obama’s talk of hope and “Yes, We Can!” hinted at two years ago. It is also what the Democrats efforts in Congress over the last two years have been about. But they have failed to communicate to the very people who are going to be building the 21st economy that the effort will require a huge attitude change and it will require them to be engaged in the political process, not outside of it.

Transforming the reality of a situation is not easy work, and there will be constant hurdles, obstacles and set backs. To give up that effort after losing the House of Representatives would be an abandonment of Obama’s beginnings as a community organiser. It’s not about accepting the divisive political scene that went before, but about recalibrating your efforts to deal with the changes as they come along. It’s about being entrepreneurial in your approaches and about demonstrating to people that set backs will come and go, but how you deal with the set backs is what really defines whether or not your efforts will be transformative in the long run.

 

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“I have zero concept of how I’m assessed in the world.”

Caitlin Moran is spread over The Times as though she is that newspaper’s version of a Page 3 girl: the thinking man’s temptress. But at least she’s funny. And much, much more articulate than most Page 3 girls. Her interview with Lady Gaga in today’s Times is gut wrenchingly hilarious, if only for the introduction where she uses 500 words to tell us about missing a flight –

“It’s not so much that I am now almost certainly going to be fired. Since I found out how much the model Sophie Anderton used to earn as a high class call girl, my commitment to continuing as a writer at The Times has been touch and go anyway, to be honest.”

Later in the interview, part of which is conducted in a sex club in Berlin, Lady Gaga tells Moran that she has “zero concept of how I’m assessed in the world.” My left eyebrow travelled upwards slightly upon reading this statement. But not quite as far upwards as when I read, “Perhaps uniquely among all the journalists in the world, I can now factually confirm that Lady Gaga does not have a penis. That rumour can, conclusively die.” My neighbours thought I was having a fit in the back garden by this point.

However, I don’t mean to get caught in a discussion, or otherwise, of Lady Gaga’s lack of appendage. More, I got to wondering about how some of us mere mortals get caught in being so worried about what the world thinks of us that we are paralysed by our own fears, when someone of Lady Gaga’s worldwide fame couldn’t give a blinkers. Perhaps it is what marks her and other (actual, as opposed to reality TV) celebrities out for their success. And not just celebrities in the movie/music/politics worlds. I mean even ‘celebrities’ within their own sectors and industry – business, journalism, academia, teaching, nursing. Or, more simply, successful people.

Myself included, I know far too many people who stop themselves from doing something because they’re afraid of what someone with whom they have no connection, or at the most a passing sense of acknowledgment, think of them or what they’re doing or what they’re wearing. I’ve wanted to write for a long time. I’ve managed to write one or two short pieces that I’ve always liked, but that I’ve shared with a total of two people. My sense of worry of how my writing will be judged has been worth more than my desire to do something that I think I might be good at. In virtually every other sphere of my life I (mostly) fight the urge to worry about others’ thoughts and opinions on my actions, my dress sense, my dancing, my likes and dislikes. In my professional career, I am paid to challenge convention, yet on one of my biggest ambitions and desires, I’ve been held back for too long by what my head thought others would think.

Nor am I the only one. I can look to the example of many of my peers and see the same sense of paralysis. These thoughts were also prompted by the delightful example of Johnny B. Truant. Sometimes this paralysis is all consuming, preventing the forming of basic social relationships and sometimes it is more subtle and, as in my own case of writing, or one or two others that I can think of, it stops us from doing something that we at least feel we would be good at because the perceived thoughts of others amount to more than our own sense of self-worth. The kicker in all of this – those perceived thoughts are just that. In all honestly no one really cares about us, at least no one beyond our tightest circle of friends and our family. And everyone else? Well they are simply too concerned with what we think of them to be worried about what they think of us.   

My point, thanks to Caitlin Moran and Lady Gaga, is that no one ever got to the pinnacle of anything by worrying about what others thought of them. So, I’m taking a leaf out of the Lady’s book – if you don’t like what I write, that’s your problem. Just don’t read it. More importantly, the central point of this posting is simply a plea to stop worrying about what that guy/girl who you sometimes see at the coffee shop or in the library or in the bar thinks of what you’re doing. He/she probably doesn’t even notice.

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